When Muslim Arabs first traveled to China nearly 1300 years ago, they were not in fact introducing an alien religion to an already long-established civilization. Rather, they called their Islam “the Way of the Pure”—a name and an ideal that did not conflict with the Confucian beliefs prevalent in China at that time—and their early mosques looked like Chinese temples and pagodas.
And Shaykh Ba, a West African scholar, said this about Islam:
The river is crystal clear.
Its water remains pure,
Sweet and unpolluted.
It reflects the color of the riverbed.
Thus it is that Islam in China is Chinese, just as in Africa it is African and in here in Britain, it is British.
When I began this project in earnest in early 2005, William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem” came to my mind time and time again, along with memories of singing it, as most British school-children did, at school assemblies in my early years.
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?
Upon looking carefully at the lyrics, I was sure that Blake was speaking about a spiritual Jerusalem: a place where people of all faiths could live in harmony. This is a vision I believe in.
Like most great visions, it is not something easily achieved, as events in London in July 2005 made all too clear. Yet such is the enthusiasm and sincerity of the Muslims I met during this project that I truly believe it is a possibility. Most were second- and third-generation British Muslims, many of them young, professional and artistic—people who did not have the fears and concerns of previous generations of Muslims in Britain, but were integrated into their country. Within them was a confidence that to be both British and Muslim was not a problem, and that, on the contrary, their lives could contribute to realizing the vision I shared with Blake:
Till we have built Jerusalem In England’s green and pleasant land.