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Tackling life’s big questions head on

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Academics can be perceived as working in isolation, within specialist areas of expertise, but the reality is far from that and leads many to have a very public and engaged existence.

For Mona Siddiqui, religion is: “never just a thing apart from your life –  it’s about ethics, and it influences the choices you make.”

Making life-changing choices is something the University’s Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies knows all about.

Mona Siddiqui stood in a studio with multiple lights surrounding her and her arms crossed looking to camera.

As a child she remembers having three wishes. The first was “to be the favourite child of one of my grandparents – because my mum was her parents’ favourite, I suppose.” The second was “to have a lifelong childhood friend” and the third wish was “to be a spy”. Due to her parents’ move from Karachi to the UK while she was still very young, and a childhood which involved several moves, including to Cambridge and West Yorkshire, her first two wishes were never granted. But her third wish to become a spy, came close.

“I was approached early on, but turned it down, because, exciting as it might have been, my children were very small at the time,” she smiles.

Instead, Professor Siddiqui became an academic with a wide-ranging career that has allowed her to greatly enrich – and shift – public understanding of Islamic and wider ethical issues in the UK.

No borders

Her research focus is in Islamic law and Christian-Muslim relations. She is interested in the way so much of religious faith, literature and philosophy transcends national and geographic boundaries and has historically always been connected between cultures.

But Mona has also maintained an international public profile alongside her scholarly career.

She is chair of the BBC’s Religious Advisory Committee in Scotland, a regular panelist on Radio 4’s The Moral Maze, and is the only academic to be a regular contributor to BBC’s Thought for the Day for both BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio Scotland for almost 25 years; which has given her a huge platform with a weekly audience of over six million people.

A highlight of her career to date, was being a guest on Desert Island Discs in 2012, which she describes as “an enormous privilege.” Her favourite record? Perhaps surprisingly, UB40’s Red, Red Wine.

Mona Siddiqui sits at a studio desk surrounded by equipment and holding a pair of headphones.

Mona was recently elected Vice President International at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and in September this year, she will take up an additional role as Visiting Professor in Studies on Contemporary Society, at the Helsinki Collegium of Advanced Studies, splitting her life between Edinburgh and Helsinki. “It’s time to do other things,” she says.

A balancing act

Her primary research is in how classical jurists debated Islamic law, but this wouldn’t contain her to an academic ivory tower. A few years ago, ‘out of the blue’ as she puts it, the Home Office asked her to chair an inquiry into the role of shari`a councils within the UK.

“The word ‘shari’a’ is often the elephant in the room,” says Mona. “Every now and again, the news highlights some aspect of shari`a, and people immediately associate it with the worst excesses of corporal punishment. It’s unfortunate because it’s so reductive.”

“The complexity of shari`a is unfortunately not widely understood, because it’s an interpretive process,” Mona continues. “Shari`a really encompasses everything – it’s to do with the way you live your life, with how you eat, how you pray, how you enter a marriage, how you give to charity. It’s not a closed system but has always been open to interpretation and context. Shari’a means ‘the way’, literally the source of life.”

“When it comes to penal law, the purpose of Shari’a, as it has been understood from the 8th and 9th centuries onwards, is to make the burden of proof in law so difficult, in order to prohibit the practice of any corporal punishment,” Mona explains. “For example, what the Taliban regularly threaten or apply in Afghanistan is what they regard as `true shari`a’ but that’s their interpretation. When regimes want to appear more authoritarian and impose their rule – that’s when they implement the barbaric punishments we read about.”

Mona Siddiqui holds up a case containing her OBE medal.

Professor Siddiqui and the Home Office Review members found there are no shari`a councils in Scotland, and that of shari’a cases discussed and advised upon in England and Wales the vast majority of the rulings were in connection with Islamic divorces. Shari’a councils have no legal status in the UK, they are voluntary associations and not courts. The main problem the inquiry found was for couples who had entered into a Muslim marriage but didn’t register their shari`a marriage in a civil ceremony. This meant their marriage was not legally valid and therefore both parties to such a marriage were, legally, only cohabitants.

“This can create problems, especially for women when it comes to divorce,” explains Mona. “If, for example, the husband doesn’t want to divorce the wife according to Islamic law, she cannot seek a civil divorce because the marriage hasn’t been registered and therefore, is not recognised. Although women can seek a separation, they may find they have to make concessions which can disadvantage them.”

Affecting change

The Review persuaded the Home Office to provide funding to the independent Register Our Marriage campaign, which was endorsed by the Council of Europe in 2019. The campaign aims to both raise awareness of the lack of protection for unregistered marriages and to reform the 1949 Marriage Act to require the civil registering of all religious marriages.

The practice of arranged Islamic marriages in the UK, is now becoming increasingly rare according to Mona’s research. “Attitudes to marriage have changed considerably,” she explains. “However I do think it is true that you are only as liberal as the person you want your child to marry,” she smiles. “That can be a real test for some people – it’s human nature to want continuity and passing on certain aspects of culture and heritage  –  yet we live in a culture where freedom is almost the ultimate value.”

What would Mona wish for her three grown-up sons?

“I think it’s really important that your child is with someone who truly cares for them, a person who also has a sense of a higher purpose beyond simply their own desires – and that takes a certain depth of character. It doesn’t matter how you enter a marriage – it’s what you do within a marriage that counts.”

As for her own second wish – the wish for a childhood friend?

“So much of the history of our lives is the history of our friendships. The culture in which my children live is this heightened culture of friendship – it’s almost a parallel life. When I was growing up, I never thought of friendship in this way, but I do think having one person outside your immediate family that you can completely connect with emotionally and intellectually is very rare – if you are lucky to have that, it’s a great gift.”

When Mona’s family first arrived in the UK she was four and a half and didn’t speak English, but remembers a little boy befriending her at school in Cambridge: “As we walked around the playground, I would speak to him in Urdu and he would reply in English – we didn’t understand each other’s language but we understood each other. If you have good friends keep hold of them. It’s really hard to find people that you can connect with, share a joke, and the important things in life – and it gets harder as you get older.”

Mona Siddiqui stands in front of Old College building at dusk.

Sometimes, however, strangers can offer support in unexpected ways. After a BBC Thought for the Day discussion on homosexuality in 2016, Mona received many grateful emails from people struggling with being Muslim and gay. At the same time the crime writer Val McDermid tweeted to her thousands of followers: ‘If one person justifies the existence of @BBCRadio4 Thought For The Day, it’s the brilliant balanced @monasiddiqui7’

“I think, sometimes, that tweet is the reason I still do Thought for the Day,” muses Mona. “There’s a moral imperative to stay engaged with how people think about those big issues.”

In terms of encouragement – and, perhaps – regarding that first wish of hers as a child, Mona recalls being told what her grandmother’s words were when, as an infant, she had such severe whooping cough she wasn’t expected to survive – but did.

‘This girl has survived which means she will do something with her life’, Mona’s grandmother had declared.

“I was in my teens when my mother told me that. My mother didn’t wear her heart on her sleeve – she wasn’t an overly sentimental woman – so it was a powerful thing to have said to you,” recalls Mona. “And it wasn’t my parents saying you WILL do something. It was an older person, a wise grandparent in Karachi whom I didn’t remember – as a result, perhaps, it seemed to ‘work’. Those words of my grandmother have always stayed with me.”