Monawar Hussain isn’t your typical Eton tutor. And he certainly isn’t your typical Oxfordshire High Sheriff. But then, not much is typical about the Imam from East Oxford.

The Hussain family first came to Oxford in 1985, from Maidenhead – and before that Kashmir. His brother had bought a small petrol station on Between Towns Road, and that’s where Monawar worked while he was completing his education. When not tending the pumps he studied for a Business and Law course at the College of Further Education and began a degree at Oxford Poly (as it then was).

But his abiding interest was in spiritual matters and he was emboldened to study for a Theology degree at Westminster College. His dissertation focused on Islam and the West, specifically the links between the eleventh-century Persian mystic, Al Ghazali and the great Christian theologian, Thomas Aquinas.

Following graduation he enrolled at the Muslim College in Ealing, West London. There he trained four days a week for three years. In between driving up and down the A40 he started a business called Transworld Services International – importing bedding materials from South Korea – and he even managed to buy and run his own petrol station in the village of Clifton Hampden, nine miles south of Oxford.

Not only that but he and his wife, Robina, started a family. They now have no fewer than six daughters, aged between 28 and 9. How does he feel at home surrounded by so many females? He responds cheerily: ‘Outnumbered, yes, but not oppressed. Family is such a blessing.’

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Then came the moment that changed his life. In 2004 Eton College advertised for a tutor to cater to the pastoral needs of its Muslim students, and he was encouraged to apply. Much to his amazement he got the job. A few days later his smiling face was plastered all over the Sunday newspapers. It was the beginning of a brush with minor celebrity which has continued ever since.

The essential point is that Monawar straddles two realms: the world of Islam in the (mostly Pakistani) community of East Oxford, and the world of the public school ‘Establishment’ by virtue of his Eton connections. He has used this unusual versatility to great and good effect. Having led the campaign to build the central mosque in Manzil Way, he then went on to start The Oxford Foundation (TOF for short!) whose motto is ‘Empowering young people through education’.

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Monawar has ministered to the sick and dying in our hospitals. He has spearheaded a schools de-radicalisation programme. He has set up a project to capture the oral testimony of first generation Elders in East Oxford. He has done all sorts of work behind the scenes to counter prejudice – notably dealing with Oxford’s shameful grooming episode and the controversy surrounding the wearing of the Burqa. And every year at the Ashmolean he helps to organise what he calls a ‘One World Festival’ in which the dance, song, storytelling, poetry and art of myriad different cultures are celebrated. Above all, he has pioneered inter-faith and anti-extremist activity, bringing together leaders from every religious affiliation in a programme called ‘United for Peace’. He believes passionately in the importance of creating ‘shared spaces for prayer, song and silence’. The last time we met was at a Holocaust Memorial service in Keble College Chapel.

In 2009 he was asked to become a Deputy Lieutenant for the County. In 2017 he was awarded an MBE. He was appointed High Sheriff in 2021. His self-declared mission in that ancient office was to support what he called ‘ordinary superheroes’, the kind of people he ministered to and saw at work during the Covid crisis.

Monawar’s Sufi beliefs are based on love and respect for the dignity of every individual. It is inspiring that we have in our midst a man of peace who is able to explain the intricacies of Islam to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and to appreciate the different faith traditions of other groups. ‘We need to be literate,’ he says, ‘but not literal.’

What does he think of Oxford as a place to live? ‘Quite frankly I’m not sure I could live anywhere else,’ he smiles. ‘It’s such a rich and diverse and wonderful place to be. Perhaps a little bit further out into the countryside would be nice. I do miss the green fields of Clifton Hampden, I must admit. But Oxford is hard to beat. I love my weekly cream teas in The Rose, and I love all my meetings with people on the streets of East Oxford. There’s so much going on here. So much variety and vitality.’

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Feedback

Satyadasa David Waterston is a fellow tutor (in Buddhism) at Eton. He writes:

I’m so glad to read your piece on my good friend Monawar.

Did he ever tell you the tale of being mistaken as an Uber driver when he parked in Whitehall? A woman got in and gave him an address. I said if he were a real Sufi he would have driven her there. But he had an appointment at Downing Street. There he was greeted as ‘Ambassador’ by the man on the door.

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Sir Hugo Brunner, former Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire, writes:

David’s story can be added to. The occasion of Monawar’s visit to Whitehall was Remembrance Sunday, the year before last. He had been invited to represent the Muslim community of England and Wales at the event. Wearing his trademark red fez and red tie, he drove himself to London. When he got to a roadblock in Pall Mall, he was met by a police officer, to whom he showed his parking permit. “Where’s the passenger?” the officer asked. Monawar smiled and replied, “I am the passenger.” When he got to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, he was greeted with the words, “Welcome, your Excellency, the ambassadors are upstairs.” Both encounters delighted him.

Remembrance Sunday - Monawar Hussain