I have just taken over as Head of the School of History, Archaeology and Religion. One of my new duties has been to take on the role of the Chair of the Islam-UK Centre’s Management Committee. I was not sure what this would involve, but I knew that I was excited to see ‘under the bonnet’ of one of the School’s most successful research ventures.
I think I should mention first of all that, in my admittedly limited experience, it always involves biscuits and can involve strawberries. The presence of fruit already makes it unlike most other committees that I have attended.
This is not the only difference, however. Settling myself down to my first meeting, after the introductions, I go an immediate sense that I was now part of something rather special. Surrounding me, were representatives of charities and community groups, civil servants, postgraduate students and academics.
At the heart of things was Sophie, the founder and director of the Centre, welcoming everyone (as she always has). I have known Sophie for more than sixteen years. I remember the founding of the Centre with Cat Stevens in attendance. Then, it was a matter of promise and ambition and a desire to do something different. Now, at least for me, there is a palpable sense of something rather wonderful having been achieved (but with considerable ambition to do more).
Sophie has built this, but it is the people that now surround her – Mansur, Riyaz, Mark, Michael, Abdul-Azim, and Matt – who are building on her achievements with her. I was also struck by the very relaxed atmosphere; ideas were exchanged, reports offered, strawberries eaten, and issues and plans were discussed. Academics did not ‘broadcast’ their activities. Instead, everyone in attendance talked about what they had been doing and how it might relate to the activities of the Centre. From the modern Mosque to the needs of Religious Studies teachers, from Muslims in the media via religious leadership to contemporary Islamic medical ethics, from recent developments in public policy, to community initiatives in Cardiff and elsewhere, the range of things discussed was dizzying.
I have chaired two meetings now and both of them have, in an entirely uncontrived way, captured what is essential about the mission of the Centre, at least as I understand it: to undertake excellent research that matters and is of use to Islamic communities in the UK and beyond. It will be my pleasure and privilege to serve as Chair of the Management Committee and I look forward to having a front seat (pun intended) in the onward journey of the Centre and everyone in it.
James Hegarty is Head of School and Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Religions at the School of History, Archaeology and Religion at Cardiff University.