Blessed Are The Strangers tells the very British story of a ragtag bunch of white hippies, their journey to Islam via psychedelics and a quest for social change.
by Ibraheem Ali
Blessed are the Strangers is the previously untold story of the Muslim community in the UK city of Norwich and how it came to be . A documentary about a meeting of minds in the past that very much resonates in the present
It’s ironic how counterculture so often ends up becoming a generational hallmark of mainstream culture. We tend to remember those who began by standing at the fringes and this is especially true when we look at the art associated with different times and places. Coming from a Literary Studies background I can remember so many examples of this just in the novels, plays and poems that were part of my course.
Radical romantics, bohemian artists and vagabond travel writers almost all began as social pariahs and the air of mystery and intrigue that surrounds such people is probably why we remember them most vividly. The archetype of 20th century, western counterculture is perhaps that of the ‘hippies’, a movement which began in the mid-1960s and carried on through the 70s. They were considered successors to the Beat Generation, those outsider artists and writers of post-war America symbolised by figures such as Jack Kerouac.
Those who became the hippies were angry and disillusioned with the US political establishment. They defined themselves in opposition to the Vietnam War and by rejecting American consumerism in favour of a simpler, freer and more down-to-earth life. Unlike the Beats, hippies could easily be identified by their choice of clothing and certain practices that included open relationships and open drug habits. Men grew their hair long and often wore rimless full-moon glasses while women went for loose flowing dresses and wore flowers in their hair. Tie-dye clothing and sandals were a ubiquitous part of the hippy uniform for all.
The movement was popularised in large part through music and concert culture, the most iconic event being the infamous Woodstock festival in 1969. Though its roots were in the US, the movement and its ideals quickly found its way to the UK. As with their counterparts in the US, the British hippie scene was defined primarily by the rejection of the mainstream, which for many took the form of abandoning western traditions to explore and embrace eastern philosophies. Many hippies ascribed to forms of Buddhism or Hinduism and Beatle, George Harrison was famously an initiate of the Hari Krishna movement. The search for meaning, purpose and spiritual fulfilment were all major concerns for many hippies, concerns which led a small community in London to go against the grain, look beyond the spiritual fads of their contemporary culture and instead find their serenity in an entirely different faith: Islam.
Blessed are the Strangers is a documentary special that tells the story of this community of hippies turned Muslim. In the late 1960’s, a Scottish playwright named Ian Dallas made a life-altering journey to Morocco, where he embraced Islam and adopted the name AbdulQadir, after the renowned 11th century scholar and ascetic AbdulQadir Jelani. After returning to Britain, Dallas began his Da’wah (Invitation to Islam) and soon founded a small community of Anglo-Muslims based in London, all of whom would eventually move to Norfolk to set up the ambitious but short-lived British Muslim village in the 70s. Fast forward to London a decade later and a group of young converts of Afro-Caribbean descent, fed up with feeling marginalised amongst Muslims of other nationalities, established their own mosques and community hubs in Brixton and other neighbourhoods.
Blessed are the Strangers then tells the story of how these two groups from starkly different cultural origins eventually converged in a synthesis of shared faith which culminated in the Muslim community in the city of Norwich today.
The documentary explores the journeys of a number of the original converts from both the hippie and Afro-Caribbean communities. As the individual and collective stories are told, the film uncovers the many ways in which Islam attracted, inspired and transformed people’s lives. For some of the interviewees, their new faith brought clarity in an age of confusion, for some it offered discipline and order and for others it was a way of reconnecting with deeply buried roots.
Many of us Brits are most likely to associate Islam in the UK with South Asian migrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh so the incongruous idea of an entirely native community composed of first generation converts, former Hippies and West-Indian youth is quite remarkable. Blessed are the Strangers offers a really refreshing take on Muslim life in the West and sheds light on an aspect of British Muslim heritage seldom discussed. In this respect it essentially indigenises Islam and emphasises the ability of faith to bring people together in unexpected ways. It is also a celebration of the power of spiritual camaraderie to overcome all notions of otherness.