An interview with Momodou Taal

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Intro: Momodou Taal is a young British Muslim with Gambian roots who has been living in Cairo for three years, studying Islam and Arabic at the Al-Azhar Mosque Programme. He is a popular voice on social media and represents a young, fresh and contemporary practising of Islam. We talked about the connections between contemporary Muslim youth culture and the traditional teachings of our Deen.

Islamische Zeitung: Dear Momodou, what are you studying at Al-Azhar, and what do you intend to do with it in the future?

Momodou Taal: I attend the Azhar Mosque programme. It is a Shari’a program, so you learn Fiqh, Usul, Hadith and Arabic. In addition to that, I am memorising the Qur’an. I think it all goes back to a fundamental focus that I have. How do we make Islam relevant to young people in the West? My mission, or what I want to focus on, are young people. There is a trend in the United Kingdom which I am sure exists in Germany as well, that religion does not really make any sense for young people any more. For many it just seems so detached from reality. I try to find ways to make the subjects of my studies relevant to them again.

Islamische Zeitung: Following you on social media, one quickly realises that you are very connected with a lot of young people. It seems as if your message is “Okay, I study the Deen, but I’m just one of the young people of our time”…

Momodou Taal: Exactly! I went through the same journey as most people did. I grew up without much of a connection to my religion. At the age of 16 that changed and I, like many other young people, came into contact with a group, known for their literalist interpretation of Islam. For a while I followed their teachings, but quickly realised that it is not the right path for me. I could not accept that things that were so natural and a part of my culture were antithetical to my religion such as; listening to music, having friendships and interactions with the opposite gender. It simply did not correlate to how my reality looked like. The beauty of Islam is that it takes into consideration your lived experience and context.

But I am taking these things easy, most of us get to know this group in one way or another and to distance yourself from them after a while is a sign of progress. Youkeep learning. However, their rigidness established me in my five daily prayers and going to the mosque regularly. For a teenager who had not prayed before and had been living a completely different life that is a big change for the better. So I’m grateful for all the experiences I had.

But I realised that the only way I could be true to the Prophet, peace and blessings upon on him, is to be true to myself. Music has always been an important part of me, and experimenting with fashion has always been something I love to do. For me, these things just mean being part of this culture. So when this group would always utter anti-Western propaganda and accuse us of “imitating the Kuffar”, I just found it so detached from reality and simply wrong.

Islamische Zeitung: Was this transition away from this group to the way you live now difficult for you?

Momodou Taal: To be honest, I did not find it very difficult, the current situation is much more complicated. If you are with this group, it basically becomes inevitable that there will be a burnout. You see that you can’t go on like that any longer: So either I practice “this Islam”, and I only know of this Islam, and keep lying to myself, or I leave it altogether. But if you have faith in your heart you want to find a way to practice and and be at peace with yourself and the world.

Fortunately, I met people who are a bit more relaxed, and I do not mean that they are “liberal”, but simply have a relaxed outlook on life. They watch Netflix, go to the movies, live their lives here and naturally practice their Islam. I met these new friends at school and they taught me so much and showed me that Islam means so much more than what I had known so far.

But it is difficult in the sense that young people feel more and more disconnected from the Din and find it too complicated. My friends and other likeminded people are rather a minority. There is a growing number of people who like what they and I do,and how we navigate through life as Western Muslims, but most are still very much influenced by their ethnic roots. They understand Islam merely as restrictive.

Islamische Zeitung: Your group of friends is very mixed. Would you say that while it is important for young Muslims in the West to respect and keep their parents’ original cultures, it is also vital that they develop their own culture and thus transcend ethnic boundaries?

Momodou Taal: One hundred percent. Most of us have immigrant parents from Asia, Africa, etc. But what unites us and usually creates more connectedness than the cultures of our parents is the local culture in which we all grew up. Yes I amoriginally from Gambia, but my Pakistani friends and I are listening to the same music, eating the same food from all over the world and are speaking the same slang. Therefore, while it is important that we do not lose touch with our roots, it is equally important that we cultivate our youth culture, which combines several different traditions.

Islamische Zeitung: When we think of the first generations of immigrants and the older scholars, we often hear that young Muslims say “they just don’t get us”, so they distance themselves from the Deen…

Momodou Taal: Yes! In the UK we have the problem that people from abroad are brought here to be the imams or scholars of our communities. But they have no clue about our reality here and simply no understanding of this culture. If you ask a Pakistani or Saudi scholar if you’re allowed to go to a concert, they will just say it’s “haram” because of it being about music. But they have never even been to a concert so that they could relate to what you are even talking about.

Then there are scholars who went to the Madrassa here, but have never experienced the world outside of this school. They simply copy what they have learned from these kinds of teachers, without ever having made a connection to the society that surrounds them and which they live in.

Islamische Zeitung: Do you think we need young scholars who grew up here and have the same experiences as the rest of the young people they are supposed to teach, so that they can build a bridge between Western culture and Islam that young Muslims can identify with?

Momodou Taal: This is an enormously important task. In our Islamic teaching there is the concept of ‘Urf. It is about the culture and context of the society in which one finds oneself. And the well-being of the people. And these aspects play an important role in the process of decision-making concerning fatwas. I am really against having imams and shaykhs who are not really familiar with the context of the society in which they live. I wonder how effective they can be at all.

Islamische Zeitung: How important is it for you to sit with and learn from Shaykhs? There is a trend to acquire knowledge of the Deen merely through Google and books. How important are real teachers?

Momodou Taal: They are indeed very important. But the question I often hear is, “how do I find the right teachers?” I am not in the position to tell others who to study with. But it should be someone you trust and have a connection with. I myself am lucky enough to have such teachers, and there are many. A personal connection to real teachers is of course preferable to the mere study of books. One should try to find good teachers.

Islamische Zeitung: You mentioned ‘Urf’, and sometimes your postings refer to the Maliki school. Do you believe that the teachings of Imam Malik can be a door opener to understanding the Deen in the West, as it puts emphasis on ‘Urf?

Momodou Taal: This question can be answered in two ways. First of all, I would say it is important to realise that the Maliki school was practised in Al-Andalus, Spain. So we have an idea of how Islam was practised in Western Europe and Imam Malik’s school is an important part of the history of Islam in Europe.

On the other hand, the one who has questions about the Din is usually on the Madhabof the one he asks. This is a simple reality, and for most people choosing a Madhab is not very important at the beginning.

Islamische Zeitung: You recently started a podcast with your friends who are also young British Muslims. Can you tell us something about it? What do you intend with the podcast?

Momodou Taal: The podcast is called “The Baraka Boys Podcast”. The name was given to our WhatsApp group, which we created for a Moroccan group trip. My friend Khaled Siddique shot a music video called “Ya Habibi” which is a kind of 21stcentury Qasida Burda, and we were in it as the Baraka Boys. I am so glad that I am part of a group of people who do not judge others and who have creative minds that come up with the craziest ideas.

We thought there must be others who think alike. So we decided to record our conversations and ideas and send the podcast out into the world, hoping to meet like-minded people or help others. And the responses have been incredible! So many young people have come forward and told us we were talking about things that they had been wanting to be talked about for such a long time. They say finally young Muslims are talking about relevant topics that resonate with their lives. The positive reactions were much more than the negative ones. So we intend to continue with it.

 

Islamische Zeitung: On social media you often ask questions about relationships. The topic seems to attract a lot of attention.

 

Momodou Taal: I like to ask questions that many have in mind, but do not dare to ask. Marriage and weddings are always an issue for us men. We talk about it all the time. But we also have many female friends, that’s normal for us. There are so many who have learned such a strict form of Islam that they cannot handle the opposite sex at all. I think it’s important that we can build friendships with the opposite sex and listen to their stories, see things from their perspective, and share our experiences. This way we gain a deeper understanding of each other and can build relationships that go beyond sexuality.

It is so strange that we are dealing with the opposite sex in our everyday lives, but when it comes to Muslim events, there has to be this strict separation and one should neither look at nor talk to each other. It’s so fake. What are we teaching people? We are living in a hypersexualised world anyway. If we then practice excessive gender segregation, the Muslim man will never be able to look at a woman as something other than a sexual object. But if we have normal and cordial relationships with each other, without going beyond the limits of our Deen, then we can build healthy relationships and a better understanding of each other.

 

Islamische Zeitung: Do you have any advice for young Western Muslims struggling with their identity and their place in the world?

 

Momodou Taal: I can only talk about my own experience. First of all I would say that faith is a personal journey. You have to ask yourself why you are Muslim. I am Muslim because it makes the most sense to me. I think that Islam offers real answers to the questions of our time.

The most important thing is to always have an open mind as you go through the world. I can not emphasize it enough, it’s so important to stay open. Sometimes Facebook shows me what I posted a few years ago, and then I ask myself, “what was I thinking?!” Alhamdulillah, that’s a good thing! We are constantly changing and moving, our views are constantly changing.

Lastly, I advise everyone living here not to let others belittle them because they are “Western Muslims”. This culture is nothing to be ashamed of. Besides the negative things that we reject, there is so much that is beautiful and positive. And we should not lie to ourselves, we are a product of this society in which we live. HipHop, for example, is part of Western culture and we love this music, just as we love many other things.

We are living in a time of identity politics. And we, the third or fourth generation of Muslims in the West, are creating a whole new youth culture, and I love it! As a black man I sometimes wear Pakistani clothes and mix them with African elements and hipster influences. And none of it is fake, I am literally part of this new culture. We can be Muslim and Western. Islam is here and it is here to stay.

Islamische Zeitung: Dear Momodou Taal, thank you for the interview!

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Interview Momodou Taal & Tijana Šarac was published in  Islamische Zeitung.

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