As a Muslim family in Britain, the Queen was a part of our lives

The departed monarch has left a void in the lives of all of us, irrespective of our religious or ethnic background

A picture of Queen Elizabeth II is seen amongst flowers put down by well-wishers outside of Buckingham Palace in London on Saturday. AFP
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In the mid-1970s, I was the only child of colour and the only Muslim at the Church of England Primary School in Kent. Never was an assembly delivered without a story from the Bible, nor was lunch served without the Lord’s Prayer, and God Save the Queen was always sung at special school events.

Not a day passed without a mention of Queen Elizabeth. So much of this happened through everyday conversations – from the dinner ladies gossiping about who Charles would marry, and the school caretaker boasting about making an application for a job at Buckingham Palace, to female teachers discussing the Queen’s assortment of hats and gloves. As for me, I marvelled over her pearls.

At home, my parents would suddenly become sombre every time the Queen appeared on television; it was almost as though she was in our midst. She always made it to our dinner table with discussions about the British Raj, her role as the head of the Commonwealth, and my parents’ reminiscence of both their parents' encounter with a member of the Queen’s family in India before Partition. She even managed to join us for chai after dinner, with discussions of her high-profile visits abroad forming strong and deep relations with Commonwealth nations. During this period, she travelled to a number of Commonwealth countries. In 1977, for example, she visited 11 countries, including Australia, Barbados, Canada, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Tonga, strengthening international relationships with her hosts.

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The Queen reminded us of how our greatest freedoms were won through our collective efforts

My mother thought the Queen was beautiful and looked like Nargis, the Indian golden-era movie star. My mother would so often tell us to follow the example of the Queen, a woman with the weight of a nation’s responsibility, yet still being the mother of four children. The Queen understood family values and kinship, honouring elders and traditions; values that my mother – the Muslim matriarch – shared with her.

Growing up in Rochester, there was no mosque, so the few Muslim men living near us conducted Friday prayers in our living room. Later, my father co-founded a small mosque. Although the Victorian age saw the first mosque in Britain, the Queen was the first sovereign to visit one in the country – the Islamic Community Centre in Scunthorpe – during her Golden Jubilee tour in 2002. More than 3 million Muslims call the UK their home, whether they emigrated or were born here, but many originate from nations where the Queen was the head of state before independence.

At a time of heightened anti-Muslim sentiments around the world, following the horrific 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Queen, in her quiet and courageous manner, recognised the need to value people’s faith. She was the first to feature images of Muslims praying in a mosque and other faith communities in her Christmas 2006 and Commonwealth Day message: "The pressures of modern life sometimes seem to be weakening the links which have traditionally kept us together as families and communities."

Queen Elizabeth II with members of the Muslim community in Scunthorpe in 2002. PA Wire

Sadly, many Muslim women have borne the brunt of anti-Muslim hatred, especially those who are visibly Muslim; hijab-wearing women who have endured vicious verbal taunts and even physical attacks. Which is why it was comforting when, in 2012, the Queen delivered a speech at Lambeth Palace in which she said: “This gathering is a reminder of how much we owe the nine major religious traditions represented here. They are sources of a rich cultural heritage and have given rise to beautiful sacred objects and holy texts, as we have seen today. Religious groups have a proud track record of helping those in the greatest need, including the sick, the elderly, the lonely and the disadvantaged. They remind us of the responsibilities we have beyond ourselves.”

The Queen reminded us of how our greatest freedoms were won through our collective efforts; that at least 8 million Muslim soldiers and labourers fought on the allied side in both world wars combined. The Queen continued to acknowledge the achievements of Muslims by awarding honours to those who had demonstrated outstanding services to the community. Her recognition showed to many Muslims that our forefathers were honoured, and our collective past was our greatest treasure.

For 47 years, the Queen had been a part of our lives as a Muslim family living in Britain. She was ever present, our ceaseless constant and honourable guest. When my mother rang me on the evening she passed away, the rain fell in London like a monsoon in Bangladesh. I could hear the disbelief in my mother’s voice, a sense of loss and sorrow as though she had lost a family member. Our dinner and after-dinner chai guest was gone, but not her legacy.

As I remember the little girl who marvelled over the Queen’s exquisite pearls, it strikes me that we are all much more in awe of her pearls of wisdom, her peaceful and compassionate legacy and her determination never to falter in her duty to her nation and her people. In the end, she helped to build peace and friendships, profoundly touching the lives of millions around the world.

You wore your pearls so beautifully, Your Majesty. Your presence will be greatly missed. May you rest in peace.

Published: September 11, 2022, 12:04 PM
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