Freethinking is characterised by a reliance on reason and autonomy rather than authority or institution. It is an inquisitive and questioning state of mind, one that readily slips into scepticism and possibly even relativism.

‘You are a Shi’a?’ a security guard asked my husband in Karbala, Iraq. ‘I am a Muslim’, he replied. The guard seemed perplexed and did not engage in further conversation.

It is a wintery Sunday afternoon. I am sitting, along with a friend, in a semi-detached house in Southfields, suburban south-west London, the headquarters of the world-wide Ahmadiyya movement.

Converts to radical Islamist sects have become the public face of twenty-first-century British Islam. The shocking images of a bloodied and dazed Michael Olumide Adebolajo (Mujahid Abu Hamza) following the murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich in May 2013 are unlikely to fade quickly from the public consciousness.

At the Manouba University in Tunis, soon after the fall of the Ben Ali regime in 2011, a small number of female students attempted to attend classes wearing the niqab, which, under Tunisian legislation and in accordance with the dress code universities had to enforce, was illegal.

Named after the founder of a lineage claiming to inherit Muhammad’s religious authority, the Ismailis comprise three important groups, each with its own structure of leadership.

As a Shi‘a but specifically Twelver Shi‘a myself, writing about the beliefs and religious practices of the faith harkens back to my own childhood. My most vivid memories of childhood are about going to the mosque on Thursdays, where we recited the beautiful supplication of Du’a al-Kumayl as taught by Ali bin Abi Talib.

The Iranian revolution made me giddy. I was a theological student at the Nadwatul Ulama seminary in India at the time, and barely twenty-one. My optimism about the revolution met cold blasts of Sunni pessimism from the teachers and leadership of the madrasa who were deeply hostile to Ayatollah Khomeini’s ‘Shia’ – ‘not Islamic’ – revolution.

‘Taz’, a new channel on the Pakistani Geo TV network, is dedicated to twenty-four-hour news. There is a rapid-fire news bulletin every fifteen minutes: hence the name, Taz, or fast. But even after an endless stream of stories about sectarian violence, terrorist atrocities, suicide bombings, ‘target killings’, ‘load shedding’, political corruption and the defeats of the Pakistani cricket team with mundane regularity, there is still ample time left in the schedule.

It was shopping that first inclined me towards an interest in Islam, though it must be said that the lupine line of hassling touts that in the old days awaited the visitor immediately outside the old Tangier dock gates did their best to keep the secret well-springs of their faith well hidden.