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Dr. Mona Siddiqui is a professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, as well as an Assistant Principal for Religion and Society. Her research interests include Islamic jurisprudence, ethics and Christian-Muslim relations. Among her many publications, she has published books exploring gratitude, hospitality, and faith. Dr. Siddiqui is a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, holds six honorary doctorates, and is a frequent commentator on BBC Radio. Mona joins the podcast to discuss the importance of hospitality as a facet of spiritual life, the impact of the pandemic on our ability to practice hospitality, and her advice for cultivating gratitude and hope.
Transcripts of our episodes are made available as soon as possible. They are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.
Tom: Mona, welcome to the Templeton Ideas podcast.
Mona: Lovely to be here and thank you for inviting me.
Tom: Great. Well, I’ve got a lot of questions I want to ask you today and I want to start with some of your earliest memories.
I read in your book, My Way, that your family moved to the UK when you were about four years old. Is that right?
Mona: That’s correct. Yes.
Tom: And you came from, was it Pakistan?
Mona: Yes. Correct. Karachi.
Tom: Yep. I want you to tell me a little bit about the first friend that you ever had in the UK. What was that? What was that like?
Mona: So this is a very fond memory I still have of a young. British/ English boy at a school in Cambridge. And although I’ve forgotten so much of my early life, this memory stays with me because I didn’t speak a word of English. And of course he didn’t speak any Urdu, which was my maternal language. And we just walked around the playground and we sort of understood each other in silence.
And he was just a support for me when I had no friends. And just being with somebody who smiled and looked after you was… gave me a sense of belonging even at that age, and that memory has stayed with me. And in fact, over the years, I’ve written and reflected a lot on what friendship means and the limits and barriers of friendship, as well as a deep relationship of a friendship.
Tom: It’s great to have a memory like that of somebody. I think my earliest childhood friend, Beth Koprowski, I grew up in Chicago. One of my earliest memories was of she and I running around with underwear on her head, pretending we were astronauts with those face masks on. And I thought, I mean, those are kids just do friendship really well in a way that I think we could probably try to emulate.
Mona: And it’s strange how so many things are filtered out and yet some things stay. I’m sure there were lots of other lovely things that happened, but that one has stayed with me.
Tom: Can you tell me a little bit about how your upbringing in the UK differed from, say, your mom’s upbringing or mom and dad’s upbringing?
Mona: Looking back, my parents have both passed away now, but looking back to their lives, they probably had rather unusual upbringings, even by their own cultural standards.
So my father… was raised by his aunt and she recognized his academic potential and said, I’m going to take you to the city. You’re going to go overseas. You’re going to make something of your life, which he did. And I’m very grateful that he did. And my mother wanted to have a formal education. She was a very well-read person, but then she married and, you know, she became a mom.
And I think they raised us with all the potential that they also had in their lives. So we’re going to project potential on our children. And I still remember the day when my mom said — I have an older sister and a younger sister — She said, I want you to be a doctor. I want you to be an academic and I want you to be a lawyer.
We had no idea what any of that meant, but it just sounded good. And we fulfilled her dream.
So I think there was a sense of… Education was your salvation. And in a world that offered all kinds of other paths, this was something that no one would be able to take away from you.
And I think in some ways that was probably the basis of so much around which our lives focus on the one hand, we were fairly conservative, but we had a lot of intellectual freedoms, which I think made us slightly different to a lot of our peers.
Tom: How does your academic study of Islam shape your personal faith? Where do you see the connections and give and take?
Mona: I think the main thing I would say because my primary research area was in jurisprudence, is how little certainty there is in the sense that so much of the way you live and practice is about the jurists and the theologians always giving you options.
And that sense of diversity of opinion is really what still marks my life. That it’s not about telling people, this is the only way you should be. There are different ways of being good. There are different ways of being faithful. And we tend to think of faith as marked by ritual and observance, which is not unimportant, but we don’t tend to focus as much on ethics and we talk a lot about the good life, but what does it mean to practice and to actually be a person who tries to lead a good life?
For most of us, that’s a big hurdle. Like, I can talk about it, but how do I actually live a good life? So that kind of diversity of opinion has really shaped the way I’ve done my own academic studies, which is, I’m not saying that this is the Islamic intellectual history, where basically they never said anything. I’m saying they said lots of things. And today we have reduced, in the West I think, we tend to reduce Islam to a few basics, whereas if you just turn a few pages back and look at the history, the jurists were debating everything. They debated how the oneness of God meant the oneness of God. Round to that, down to that very basic thing, that basic fundamental pillar.
So debate, diversity of thinking. And the kind of pushing of intellectual boundaries is really what I’m interested in.
Tom: You’ve written that hospitality is fundamental to spiritual life, maybe to life in general. Tell me what you mean by hospitality and make the case for why it is so central and important?
Mona: I think my first experience was, I was in Egypt, and I was a very young undergraduate doing ten weeks in Cairo at a language institute.
And my friend who had accompanied me, she had a rather wealthy uncle who lived in Egypt, who basically met her at the airport and whisked her off for a few days. And I was kind of left there knowing that I was going to be in some grotty flat for the next 10 weeks, but while I was waiting outside my flat, waiting for the administrator to come and give me the keys, there was a young Egyptian woman who looked at me and she took a piece of cardboard that was kind of, you know, there in the dust, patted it down and put it on the steps for me, beckoning to me to sit down there.
And I thought that was such a lovely gesture. It was like all she could do in her own poverty, but make a clean space for me. There I was, a complete stranger in that neighborhood. Nobody knew me. But she’d kind of welcomed me as a guest. And later on that day, two young children kept coming up to my flat and I couldn’t understand their Arabic. Later on I found out that what they were asking, they were the children of the same woman, is, you are a guest in our neighborhood, do you need anything? And I felt so ungracious because I thought they were just pestering me and I wanted to be left alone. And I think that kind of always being with people who are slightly different to you has made me realize that most of the time people want the same things in life. And when you are hospitable in your personality with people, that has a transformative effect. So I don’t see hospitality just as things that you do for one another. It’s also the way you are, the way you smile, the way you greet someone, the way you remain true to yourself without thinking, “I have to change because I have to impress someone or that person will see me differently if I say this”. And I think we don’t think about these things because we’re in an environment where competition and getting to the top and sometimes trampling over others seems to be the kind of zeitgeist of the day.
Tom: How does hospitality tie into some of the other human virtues?
Mona: So for me, hospitality is really about how do you welcome someone, not necessarily politically, but just in terms of any kind of human relationship. But it’s also about gratitude. And these are not uncontested virtues. But I think just knowing that I can do something for someone, but I should also be grateful that I’m in a position to do something for someone, rather than that person now owes me a favor, is a really, I think it’s a powerful way of being humble.
Humility is not something that's taught, and I think it should be, because I think it's not seen as a virtue in our world.
And humility doesn’t mean you do yourself down, humility doesn’t mean any of the things that people think is about self-deprecation.
Humility is really about understanding that there is a certain way of being that recognizes where you are, who you are, in relation to everyone else. And that if you are a, if you have faith in God, then you can’t really, you shouldn’t think about living your life without humility.
Tom: Tell me a little bit about how you see and understand hospitality through the eyes of Islam. What are some particular sort of insights or, or sort of fundamentals through that particular faith tradition of yours?
Mona: So I think the fundamental thing that I learned was how absolutely basic hospitality was to the desert environment. That if you did not give somebody traveling or passing through food and water, that person would die.
And so if we zoom over to today, yes, people don’t come knocking on our doors for food and water, but people do come in and out of our lives in different ways. So who you let into your life, who you are friends with, who you eat with, all that says something about you. And I think that basic sense of how do you help someone in need or how do you offer something of yourself, even if someone isn’t asking, is I think really an important way of thinking about how society can focus on concepts such as compassion, kindness…without necessarily thinking that they have to give everything of themselves. Because I don’t see hospitality as unlimited. And I think that one of the other things I found was that while Muslim texts talk a lot about hospitality to the guest and hospitality to the traveler, the concept of stranger is almost nonexistent.
Which was interesting for me because… Anyone who left home was a traveler, they were not strangers, and people traveled all the time. So this sense that we, we are talking about sedentary societies is actually not true. And that has an analogy today, when we think about migration, as if something that has, you know, caused disruption in our sedentary world.
Actually, sedentary societies, I think, are… It’s quite modern. So I tried to piece that together as to if it was so important in that part of the world, the hot desert climate, how can you translate that today?
Tom: What are some of the greatest acts of hospitality that you’ve been the beneficiary of looking back over your life?
Mona: I would say that my whole career has been one of feeling welcomed. Yes, I am sure that I didn’t get certain things because of who I am or I didn’t achieve certain things or whatever. But I try not to dwell on those things because where does that take you in life other than doubt and insecurity? And I think sometimes we downplay how important the person is, especially in the academic world, where there’s a sort of competitiveness around academic achievement.
Tom: I read an account in one of your books that when your father fell gravely ill and you visited him in the hospital, there was a person, I can’t remember who, in the hospital who showed you just unexpected, unexpected hospitality. Tell me that story.
Mona: That was such an… emotional time. My father was working away in a hospital so he was about two hours drive from where we were at home. And I was at home with my mom and it was about 10 o’clock at night, shortly before Christmas as well, and his colleague who he was working with phoned us and said, your father’s had a stroke and you need to come to the hospital if you can.
I didn’t drive at the time and so we asked a family friend to drive us and, uh, yeah, there he was in hospital and I thought. For a few minutes I thought our whole life has now turned upside down. My mum was praying and that evening we were in the hospital and one of his friends who was also, who was Bangladeshi Muslim. He came to us and said, and I said to him, look, can you tell us about somewhere we could stay? We might have to stay here for a few days. And he said, no, no, you’re going to stay with us. And I’d never met this guy before. And for the next week, until just after Christmas, we stayed with them. And each day, my mum and I would come to the hospital, sit with my father, and in the evening, we would go home to his house, to a beautifully decorated table with lovely food. And we would sit and talk to them till the next morning. And I remember when we left, I sent him a card. He actually had tears in his eyes. We were just, you know, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that kind of hospitality from a complete stranger who realized we were very vulnerable, who gave us literally shelter and food for this whole week.
We didn’t stay in touch for very long though. Um, my father came home and we just got busy. But yeah, I think that was, I don’t know what we would have done had he not done that.
Tom: The right thing at the right moment.
Mona: The right thing at the right time. Absolutely.
Tom: After the break, we talk about the impact of the pandemic on our ability to practice hospitality, as well as Mona’s experience raising children, and her advice for cultivating gratitude and hope.
Abby: You’re listening to the Templeton Ideas Podcast from the John Templeton Foundation. If you’re enjoying this episode, check out templeton.org/news for more awe-inspiring perspectives from scholars, journalists, and colleagues. You can sign up there to get our newsletter in your inbox or follow us wherever you are on social media. Now, let’s get back to our conversation.
Tom: The COVID pandemic the last several years has shaken up a lot of things, I think I think in particular has made hospitality very difficult to practice. We’ve gotten out of our habit. Sometimes hospitality at certain moments has been flat out impossible. Other times maybe awkward, but now I feel like in 2023, now it just feels a little bit more unfamiliar. We got out of the habits. How do we get back on track?
Mona: Do you know? I think. Because hospitality is time consuming, a lot of us don’t make time for it. And we think, oh, we’ll invite those friends around next week or the week after, or we’ve got something on. But I think COVID actually made me realize how much I missed hosting. I cook quite a lot and I like hosting, so I have made a concerted effort that life goes by so quickly, and unless you make time to invite people or to be guests at other people’s house, the best of those moments will just pass you by, and your whole life is just work, work, work. And I think, you know, whether you want to continue inviting people into your back garden or whatever, I think when I look back at some of my own, I would say, um, I think it was a fault on my part that I invited fewer people at home when I was kind of in my early stages of my career.
Because I always thought things like, oh, dietary and we don’t drink at home. And I always thought, well, my guests, maybe they might want alcohol. It’s much easier to meet them in a restaurant, much easier to meet them in a cafe. I think that was wrong on my part. I should have done more of the inviting at home.
Because I go back to hospitality has to make you feel a slightly unsettled as well, in order for you to grow. And guests also have to make, you also have to make your guests appreciate that certain differences between cultures and lives. They’re nothing to be judgmental about. They’re just differences.
One of the things that is interesting, I think, both in Christian and Islamic writings is that don’t feel that you have to bend over backwards for your guests. You shouldn’t, in fact, that that’s not, has hospitality, that’s ostentation. So the, the guests should be able to come and see how little food you have or the messiness of having little kids. That’s good, because in a way you are making them see, this is the reality of our lives. As opposed to we’ve put everything on for a show. Like the kids are asleep now we can eat. No, let the kids eat with you. When my own kids were little my husband and I would take it in , I would usually look after the child first, especially when they’re under two or three and then I would say now you look after the you know, and I’ll eat. And it just made life easy for everyone. But we did the same when we invited people.
Children really flourish in having other people visit them. They love that interaction because they’ve got no show. They’re just who they are. But I can see it is a challenge, especially when you’re both working and you’re tired. But you know, this is the thing with hospitality. If it’s about show, it’s not hospitality.
Tom: Um, next guest I have at my house, I’ll say dinner’s on the stove, serve yourself, come in the dining room.
Mona: And there’s nothing wrong with that. Absolutely. You know, you don’t have to get your finest cutlery out and all the rest of it and the wine glasses have to be pristine and all. You know, people actually like a little bit of, not necessarily messiness, but a little bit of disorder because it makes them feel, yeah, this is home.
Tom: How has your faith changed and developed as a result of having children and interacting with them as they were growing up?
Mona: That’s a good question, and I think the main thing is I wanted, you know, we all learn from the relationship we have with our own parents, and we say when we have children, this is something I won’t do, or this is something I will do.
So many things we hold on to because we think it’s faith, it’s actually just a cultural upbringing, that’s all it is. When you drill down to what is actually faith telling me, I think that I realized very early on that, in order to keep my children close to me, even when they become adults, I would need to be somebody who talked to them about faith, they practice faith, but ultimately let them decide, let them be who they want to be.
And a lot of parents say that, but it’s hard, especially if you want your children to hold on to certain things. But I think. Now, I feel that part of faith is also having this conviction and belief that fine, if your children want to do certain things that you’re not particularly happy with, that is also part of faith, that sense of letting go and just having faith that all will turn out well.
And that’s, that is a huge conviction to have, I think, that all will turn out well. Because after all, there must be some sense to what they’re doing, what they want to do.
Tom: Yeah, one of the things I think that surprised me with having kids was how soon they became their own person and how clear it was to me that they were not me.
Tom: They’re not little me’s. They are themselves at a very early age. And that they’re on their own trajectory, and I can participate in their lives, but it’s their life and the way that they see things.And it was, it was a, I think a real shocking moment to just kind of recognize, I don’t know, I guess my, maybe my ego is so big that like somehow they would be inside of myself, but instead their little sphere and my sphere, there’s a distance between them.
Tom: And I wasn’t prepared for that. I don’t know if it would have helped to prepare, but definitely, yeah, the kids are their own people.
Mona: They’re their own people. And they become even more their own people the older they get.
Tom: Things for me to look forward to. You have written, “Our moral life relies on us replacing cultures of fear and resentment with cultures of hope and gratitude.” That sounds fantastic. But I want to know, where do we begin? How do we start?
Mona: Yeah, and people do ask me this quite a lot, Tom, you know, well, where do you start on this? But everything starts with yourself. And everything starts locally. So this isn’t about having some grand political narrative about how you change a nation, state, etc.
It’s, you know, it takes a lot for someone to feel a sense of belonging. It doesn’t take much for them not to feel a sense of belonging. You know, it’s just a word somebody could say, or somebody could be with you in a certain way and you feel, they don’t really accept me.
But I think that you’re going to meet all kinds of people in life, and some will not accept you, and that’s fine. But a lot of people focus only on the negatives in society. And I think most people are intrinsically good. They may not necessarily show you good, but I think most of us, A) want the same thing.
And if you reach out to people, people will try and help. So there’s a sense of our political rhetoric has become divisive. And it’s easy for that to become more and more polarized because people feed off that. And it’s, it makes good media, and it makes good, you know, interesting journalistic stories. But in our own lives, I think we, the way we are with our friends, our family, our colleagues, or strangers, says something about the society in which we’re in.
Mona: And so, rather than resenting and constantly adding to the polarization of society, what can we do, which just… dials down the temper a little bit, which actually makes people feel that a debate or a discussion can be completely at opposite ends, but still make you feel I was heard I was listened to well,
Tom: We’ve covered a lot of ground today I want to kind of wrap up about some of the where we started. Thinking back upon your life when you were in primary and secondary school, what what were your dreams and imagination for yourself of where you’d be at this point in your life?
What did that person look like? And if she were to meet you now what might her reaction?
Mona: Well, I wanted to be a spy I have to say…Well, I did have an opportunity, but I didn’t go down that road. The children were too young and I thought, no, this is not a world I can enter. But I think to be honest, because I’ve had quite a, a nice kind of public profile. I’ve been able to live out a lot of the things I wanted to through my work I even when I started as a junior lecturer I knew that public engagement was important for me not because I knew what I wanted to say, but I just thought there’s there is a public receptivity to considered debate. Which is that most people obviously are not reading monographs and journal articles, but they want something more considered than the newspaper column and I think that hasn’t gone away. And where do you have that other than in educational institutions?
So no, I’ve been quite happy actually with the way I’ve chosen or been allowed to choose certain things. And the choices I can make now. I feel really, really grateful.
Tom: That’s great. Well, Mona, thanks for taking the time to talk to me today.
Mona: Oh it’s been wonderful. Thank you.
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