Page last updated at 18:29 GMT, Tuesday, 24 January 2006

Obituary: Dr Zaki Badawi

By Dominic Casciani and Andrew Walker
BBC News

Royal adviser: Prince Charles became close to Dr Badawi
Dr Zaki Badawi was one of the UK's most respected Muslim leaders, who preached harmony between different faiths.

Many of his supporters regarded him as the unofficial "Grand Mufti of Britain", a leading voice who could command respect within his own faith, and among others.

Following his election in 1984, he had served as the chairman of the Council of Mosques and Imams of the United Kingdom. For the same period, he was the principal of the Muslim College in Britain, a seminary he founded to train imams and Muslim leaders in the West.

It was the first Muslim body in the United Kingdom to offer university-accredited qualifications for Islamic theological training, the equivalent of studying divinity to enter the Church of England.

Born in Egypt in 1922, Dr Badawi was educated at Al-Azhar University, the most prestigious of the major Islamic institutions.

His brand of wisdom, scholarship, far-sightedness and above all humour has ensured that Zaki played an extraordinarily important role in the life of this country and amongst the Muslim community
Prince of Wales

Continuing to study at the University of London, he obtained his Doctorate in modern Muslim thought. His teaching posts took him to universities in Malaysia, Singapore and Nigeria.

On his return to Britain, Dr Badawi was Director of the Islamic Cultural Centre, the Chief Imam of London Central Mosque in Regent's Park and also helped to establish the Sharia Council which gives guidance to Muslims on important issues of the day.

It was during his time as imam at Regent's Park that he began calling for imams to focus on using English in their sermons, and on doing more to reflect life in the UK, rather than life on another continent.

This, he argued, was crucial to help the immigrant Muslim communities fit in and find acceptance in their new home.

Dr Badawi's council aimed to reconcile any conflict between Islamic law and the British civil code.

As part of his work, Dr Badawi negotiated with the Bank of England and Treasury to establish the UK's first licensed Islamic financial institutions, such as mortgages compliant with Islamic law, which opposes the paying of interest.

Moves like these, he argued, were classic examples of allowing people of faith to follow their deeply-held beliefs while at the same time playing a full part in society.

Understanding across faiths

But some of Dr Badawi's most important work came in the field of inter-faith relations. The cleric, who had a dry wit, became close friends with many senior figures in British Christian and Jewish life, regularly holding meetings with them in mosques, churches and synagogues.

Interfaith: Standing together after London bombings
One of the key bodies to which Dr Badawi dedicated his time was the Maimonides Foundation, an organisation that sought to build understanding between Jews and Muslims, both in the UK and in the Middle East.

Mehri Niknam, director of the foundation, said he had been like a "wise father" in the counsel he offered to those determined to break down barriers.

Many years ago he became a key adviser to the Prince of Wales on Islamic issues. Those initial meetings led to a warm friendship, with Dr Badawi and the Prince often meeting to debate world events.

Dr Badawi also enjoyed contributing to the media, including television. This enthusiasm for speaking out ran contrary to many of his peers who were wary of speaking beyond the mosques where they gave sermons.

He was awarded an honorary knighthood in 2004, one of the few senior Muslims to be given such an award because of their work in faith issues, rather than other fields such as business or medicine.

Facing extremism

He called the events of 11 September 2001 "a violation of Islamic laws and ethics".

When a fatwa was placed upon Salman Rushdie for his Satanic Verses, Badawi took a different position to many British Muslims, saying spurn the book, but save the man.

He waged a scholarly war against forced marriages and female circumcision, citing their cultural rather than Islamic roots.

And he was outraged after being detained at JFK airport last August before being prevented from entering the US. A week later he was given an "unreserved apology" and assurances of a visa by the US Embassy in London. US authorities never explained why he was refused entry.

In the wake of the July 7 bombings of London, Dr Badawi returned to themes that he had first raised on arrival in the UK many years before, saying that Muslims needed to seize the opportunity to reclaim from extremists the presentation of their faith.

In one of his last interviews with the BBC in the autumn of 2004, he called for more local accountability and democracy in the mosques. He said this would help communities find figures who could give moral leadership.

Critically, he said the younger generation were best placed to present the true face of Islam to British society, given widespread concern about terrorism.

Some European-born Islamic thinkers are now pushing the liberal boundaries of what many Muslims usually regard as the authentic code of their faith. But Dr Badawi was more of a traditionalist at heart, rather than an out-and-out reformer.

He himself, though, tried to resist definition. While some non-Muslims considered him a liberal thinker, and some Muslims considered him too radical, he himself said he did not like words such as "moderate".

"It implies I am somehow less of a Muslim," he said. "I call myself mainstream."


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