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Volume 55, Number 2March/April 2004

In This Issue

emel's Hope -- Written and photographed by Tor Eigeland
emel’s staff, from left: Sarah Joseph, editor; Ruh al-Alam, designer; Mahmud al-Rashid, publisher; Omair Barkatulla, senior designer; Rajul Islam Ali, art director.
emel’s staff, from left: Sarah Joseph, editor; Ruh al-Alam, designer; Mahmud al-Rashid, publisher; Omair Barkatulla, senior designer; Rajul Islam Ali, art director.

emelemel is unique for more than just a missing capital letter. It’s Britain’s first Muslim lifestyle magazine. Glossy, well-written, with punchy design and visuals, its appeal crosses over from Muslims to curious non-Muslims.

“The name comes from pronouncing the letters m and l, as in ‘Muslim life,’” says editor Sarah Joseph. The resulting sound also echoes the word amal—“hope” in Arabic. “The word has deep roots,” she says. “It means not only ‘hope’ in the simple sense but also ‘longings,’ ‘desires’ and ‘aspirations.’”

And those aspirations, says Joseph, are “to humanize, to be positive and to celebrate Muslim life. People link into that feeling, that passion.”

Drawing on a small staff and numerous free-lancers, all driven more by “that passion” than money, emel covers current affairs and lifestyle topics in a way that is neither hesitant nor limited to Muslim-only points of view. The March/April issue featured protests and controversies in France and elsewhere about wearing the hijab (the Muslim woman’s headscarf), an analysis of Muslim marriage practices, a look at Muslims on the London Metropolitan Police Force and a survey of African-American–Muslim hip-hop music. Lighter fare included how to make Lebanese food in a few hurried minutes, good recycling practices, a “Diary of a Young Mother” and more.

“We try to give a Muslim perspective,” says Mahmud al-Rashid, Joseph’s husband, who is a full-time trial lawyer as well as the magazine’s volunteer publisher and editor-in-chief.

“In everything Mahmud and I do, we try to eradicate the misconceptions that became increasingly prevalent after 9/11,” says Joseph, who in 1994 became the first female editor of Trends, a uk Muslim youth magazine, and who was also founding editor of The Common Good, a publication of the Muslim Council of Britain. Now 32, she is also a part-time doctoral student who lectures frequently and widely on interfaith issues, religious tolerance and women’s issues.

"Muslim people do normal things, live normal lives." —Sarah Joseph“You have to make sure that people know about Islam and Muslims in a positive way. Muslim people do normal things, live normal lives. And the fact that we’ve got three children makes it paramount to make a better world for them. There is all this talk of clash of civilizations, but we’ve all got to coexist here!”

Al-Rashid explains that, in emel, “we wanted to produce something that we wanted to read ourselves—something with a Muslim perspective on life, looking through western Muslim eyes, something that could reveal the high culture of Islam, not the usual stereotypes.”

emel caught the attention of the BBC in November and of CNN earlier this year. Now Joseph and al-Rashid are fielding requests from magazine distributors to produce editions of emel for markets in the United States, the Middle East, Australia, South Africa, Malaysia and Japan.

“We went into it with open hearts to produce the best we could,” says Joseph. “And then we were taken aback by how well it was received. Now our feeling is, ‘Hold on, we’ve got to get it out there.’”

With 1000 paid subscriptions to date, emel’s distribution is through mosques and two grassroots organizations that help get it into Muslim bookshops around the country. It was picked up also by the international book conglomerate Borders, from whose shelves emel has been selling out regularly. Joseph and al-Rashid are aiming for 20,000 subscriptions from among the UK’s Muslim population of 1.8 million. Advertising currently covers 30 percent of the magazine’s cost, and until advertising plus subscription income reaches 100 percent, the deficit is being made up personally by Joseph and al-Rashid.

“We have been very well received by advertisers and ad agencies, but most require three to six issues on the table before they sign an advertising contract,” says Joseph.

Using simple offices donated by a West London real-estate agency that operates downstairs, and doing its art work in a shared, but more spacious, ex-school building in Whitechapel, East London, emel has invested more in good people than in fancy quarters.

The startup last year was funded, modestly but enthusiastically, by friends and supporters. By talking to “a lot of good people, it wasn’t very hard to find the money,” says Joseph. Pledges totalling £20,000 (about $36,800) brought the first 100-page issue off the press in September.

Now emel has three full-time staffers, three part-timers and a host of volunteers, and none of them says anything about “nine to five.” Among them, only al-Rashid, who was born in Bangladesh, is not native English: The others have second- or third-generation family roots in Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and England itself.

“We need to make emel available to more people,” says Joseph. “There’s no point in having a great product if people don’t get to see it! Once we stabilize here in Britain, we hope to be able to expand to the other markets that want us.” And that is the great hope of emel.

Outlining an Emerging Culture

Mahmud al-RashidSarah JosephSarah Joseph and Mahmud al-Rashid come from backgrounds that could not be more different. Together, they have become one of the UK ’s most dynamic couples working for intercultural understanding.

Joseph comes from an old English Roman Catholic family that traces its roots to the Norman conquest. Her mother started Britain’s first modeling agency, and Joseph recalls being surrounded by “the most beautiful people” in the agency’s Bond Street offices. “But of course,” she says, “when you see what actually goes on behind the scenes, I wasn’t terribly impressed.”

As a teenager, her brother became a Muslim, and at age 17, she did too. “I discovered prejudices in myself that I wanted to deal with,” she says. At 19, she gave her first public presentation on Islam, and in the 12 years since, she has become a leading voice among uk Muslims.

Recalling his own upbringing, al-Rashid says, “When I was three years old in Bangladesh, we were so poor my mother couldn’t even afford a pair of sandals.” But his father found enough money to emigrate to England, where he saved, opened a restaurant and ultimately sent his son—as well as some of his five daughters—to university.

Now 39, al-Rashid is a busy trial and human rights lawyer. He has also helped lead youth and community organizations for more than 20 years, including the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the UK’s foremost Muslim representative body. Now he is also chairman of the Islamic Society of Britain.

He and Joseph, he says, are deeply interested in articulating, through emel, what he calls “the emerging culture” of British Islam.

“What I mean by that is crystallizing Islamic values into a western environment. The cultures of our parents’ generations were suitable for their own countries, but every culture has its geographical, environmental and linguistic limitations,” he says. “Just as British Christian culture is different from Greek Christian culture, so will British Islamic culture be different from Saudi or Pakistani culture. British Islamic culture must be indigenous and reflect western Islamic values. Only that way will Islam find a true home in Britain.”


Tor Eigeland Tor Eigeland (www.toreigeland.com) is a free-lance writer and photographer, now living in France, who has contributed to this magazine for more than three decades. Of the first two issues of emel, received while researching this story, he says, “I read them from cover to cover, something I normally never do.”

This article appeared on page 12, 14 of the March/April 2004 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 2004 images.