Category Archives: History

Abdullah Quilliam and Sufism

Today I received a rarity in the post that was published exactly a hundred years ago: a translated selection of the Ottoman Mevlevi Sufi poet Sheikh Haroun Abdullah’s (c.1556-c.1641) poems by Abdullah Quilliam. Quilliam had it privately published in 1916 under the pseudonym Henri M. Léon that he adopted on his return to England, c. 1909-10. [1] It was dedicated to his daughter, May Habeeba Quilliam, who had died at the age of eleven in May 1908 from diphtheria. [2] The volume was a matter of nostalgia for Quilliam as the translations had been undertaken on those occasions when he had been in Istanbul between 1903 and 1908:

in attendance upon His Imperial Majesty Ghazi Sultan Abdul-Hamid Khan, at the Palace of Yildiz, and form, to me, a souvenir of the many kindnesses I experienced at the hands of my then Imperial Patron, for whom I shall always cherish feelings of affection, gratitude, sympathy and respect. [3]

The introduction which introduces the reader to Sufism in general, the Mevlevi Order, and to Sheikh Haroun’s life and works was composed the following year in 1909, ‘after the [Young Turks] Revolution’, ‘during the time I was living in retirement at Bostandjik’ (which is on the Asian side of modern-day Istanbul). [4] The introduction is crisply written and is, like the book as a whole, evidence of Quilliam’s knowledge of and attachment to Sufism. Here is an example of Quilliam’s felicitous writing on the subject:

The annihilation of self, the entire consecration of the mind and body to the service of Allah, the contemplation of the Divine, and the disregard of the earthly, such is the tariq, the path, by which the Dervish seeks to consummate his union with the One. Everything speaks to him of the Beloved, the Unity. But the mere perception of the Immanence of the Divine, is only the first step in the Way. The End of the Path is only to be attained when the conscious union with the Divine is obtained. The veil which material Nature has placed between the self-knowing part, the Ruh [Soul], and Allah ta’ala must be pierced. The mind must be emptied of all images, of all worldly thoughts, fears, longings, or aspirations, and brought to a realization of the Presence. Then and only then does the nafs [Spirit] find itself alone with Allah. [5]

Was this interest in Sufism more than merely a scholarly one for Quilliam? Was he a member of a Sufi Order? We simply do not know presently. However, two possibilities suggest themselves. Quilliam’s patron, Abdul Hamid, was himself a Shadhili and a devoted follower of Sheikh Muhammad Zafir al-Madani (1828–1903), who taught the Way at the Yildiz Hamidiye Mosque. Abdul Hamid built Ertuğrul Tekke Mosque for his sheikh and the Shadhili Order in Yildiz district, just below his palace, which was completed in 1887. When I visited the tekke in 2008, I was shown the intricately carved lectern and architectural backdrop that Abdul Hamid, trained inter alia as a master carpenter, had carved for his sheikh. Besides the Shadhilis, another possible tariqa that might have been attractive to Quilliam was the Mevlevi Order itself as his dedicated interest in Sheikh Haroun Abdullah indicates. Further research is definitely needed into whether or not Quilliam might have joined a tariqa at any point during his time in Istanbul, the Ottoman territories or Morocco.

Let me end by presenting Quilliam’s felicitous translation of Sheikh Haroun’s ghazal in praise of the Prophet:

So long as the heart doth pulsate and beat,
So long as the sun bestows light and heat,
So long as the blood thro’ our veins doth flow,
So long as the mind in knowledge doth grow,
So long as the tongue retains power of speech,
So long as wise men true wisdom do teach,
The praise of God’s Prophet, Ahmed the Blest,
Shall flow from our lips and spring from our breast,
‘Twas Rasul-Allah from darkness of night
Did lead us to Truth, did give to us light,
Did point out the path, which follow’d with zest,
Leadeth to Islam and gives Peace and Rest,
Praise be to Allah! ‘Twas He who did send,
Ahmed Muhammad, our Prophet, our Friend. [6]

Notes

[1] Henri M. Léon, Sheikh Haroun Abullah: A Turkish Poet and His Poetry (Blackburn: Geo. Toulmin & Sons for La Société Internationale de Philologie, Science et Beaux-Arts, London, 1916), 108pp; Ron Geaves, Islam in Victorian Britain: The Life and Times of Abdullah Quilliam (Markfield: Kube Publishing, 2010), p.259.

[2] Léon, Sheikh Haroun Abdullah, p.5; Geaves, Islam, pp.112, 259.

[3] Léon, p.11.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p.15, with some corrections to the Arabic transliteration. The translations of Arabic terms that are placed in square brackets are taken from Quilliam’s own glossary at the end of the book to preserve his own understanding of these terms.

[6] Ibid., p.81.

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British Muslim Archives: A rare profile of and interview with Martin Lings (Al-Hajj Abu Bakr Siraj al-Din) from 1963

This was published in Muslimnews International, vol. 1, no. 8, Jan 1963, pp.18–19.

Martin Lings interview Jan1963_Page_1

Martin Lings interview Jan1963_Page_2

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Abdullah Quilliam’s obituary of Yahya Parkinson (1874-1918)

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Yahya Parkinson (1874-1918), Scottish Muslim poet, essayist, and critic, was born in Kilwinning, Ayrshire, Scotland, of Irish descent. Born John Parkinson, he adopted the name Yehya-en-Nasr after privately converting to Islam in c.1901 after a correspondence with Abdullah Quilliam in Liverpool. Although relatively isolated in Scotland, Parkinson maintained contact with Quilliam’s Liverpool Muslim Institute between 1901 and 1908 which helped to establish his literary reputation by publishing his early work, after which he developed connections with literary and learned Muslim circles in British India (in Lahore, Calcutta and Rangoon), as well others closer to home in London and Woking, Surrey. His published books and pamphlets included Lays of Love and War (Ardrossan, 1904), Muslim Chivalry (Rangoon, 1909), Essays on Muslim Philosophy (Rangoon, 1909), Outward Bound (Rangoon, 1909) and Al-Ghazali (Woking, c.1913). He was a regular contributor of poetry and prose to a number of journals including The Islamic World (Liverpool), The Crescent (Liverpool), Journal of the Moslem Institute (Calcutta), Crescent (Lahore), The Review of Religions (Qadian, Punjab) and The Islamic Review (Woking). Parkinson worked for nearly all of his adult life as a wool-spinner at the Busby Spinning Company with a two-year sojourn in Burma as a deputy editor of a Rangoon newspaper in 1908-10; ill-health forced him to return to Scotland. With the Liverpool Muslim Institute having collapsed during his time abroad, Parkinson became Vice-President of the British Muslim Society (later renamed as the Muslim Society of Great Britain) run from Woking and headed by Lord Headley. He died in December 1918 after a short bout of pneumonia.

While he achieved some fame within local and some international Muslim literary circles, Parkinson has been largely forgotten until a recent revival of interest in his work among historians including Timothy Winter (Cambridge), Yaqub Zaki (Scotland) and Brent D. Singleton (California). Singleton recently republished a number of Parkinson’s poems in an anthology of poems by Muslim converts during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, The Convert’s Passion (2009), and a number of them have also been set to music by Abdal Hakim Murad in Muslim Songs of the British Isles (2005).

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Quilliam as Prof. H.M. Leon

 

 

Abdullah Quilliam often wrote under a pen-name in the pages of The Crescent so as to be able to write about prominent members of the Liverpool Muslim Institute, and not least himself, in the third person. After he returned to England from Istanbul in 1909, Quilliam adopted a pseudonym of Prof. H.M. Léon (scholars like Ron Geaves and Jamie Gilham offer a number of hypotheses as to why), and subsequently built a second career in England as a French-born man of letters and polymath. Quilliam’s dual identity was an open secret among the convert community but it was not revealed at his request to wider society. The main vehicle for Prof. Léon’s scholarship in London was the The Philomath, the official organ and journal of proceedings of the Société Internationale de Philologie, Sciences et Beaux-Arts, which Quilliam had founded while still in Liverpool.

Reproduced below is the obituary of and tribute to Parkinson by Rev. E.H. Vicars, almost certainly Quilliam writing under yet another pen-name.

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The issue of The Philomath that features Parkinson’s obituary

The Late John Yehya-en_Nasr Parkinson, F.S.P. – Rev. E.H. Vicars, B.A., F.S.P.

The Société has recently lost a valuable member, through the death of Mr. John Yehya-en-Nasr Parkinson, M.B.A.S., F.S.G., F.S.P. The deceased gentleman being not only a gentleman of scientific achievements, but also a poet of no mean merit.

Mr Parkinson, albeit of Hibernian descent, first saw the light of day on the 17th February, 1874, in the historical little town of Kilwinning, Ayrshire, Scotland. Left motherless when but an infant of scarce seven months old, he was brought up by his grandparents. John was a studious boy and was regarded as the most diligent and intelligent of the pupils in the school which he attended. In 1887, when but 13 years old, he left school and entered a large factory, but continued his studies in the evening, particularly in Scottish history, geography, and astronomy. Three years later, namely, in 1890, his grandparents died, and thus at the early age of 16 he was left to face the world alone. He so ardently pursued his studies in astronomy and mathematics that he was in 1896 elected a member of the British [18] Astronomical Society, and in 1900 contributed some interesting articles to the Ardrossan and Salcoats Journal. He subsequently became a regular contributor to that newspaper. Up to that time young Parkinson had been a member of the United Presbyterian Church, but, hearing of the Islamic movement in Liverpool, in 1901 he opened up correspondence with the Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles (Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam Bey), and ultimately became a convert to Islam, adopting on his entrance into that Faith, the Islamic name of “Yehya-en-Nasr”. Numerous effusions from his pen, from that time, appeared in the columns of The Crescent and the Islamic World (both published in Liverpool) and in other Muslim periodicals. The same year a volume of his poems, entitled “Songs of Love and War”, was published and met with a favourable reception. It was about this period that Mr. Parkinson became a member of the Liverpool branch of the Société, and it was in association therewith that I first had the pleasure of making his personal acquaintance. Theologically we differed widely, but as sectarian matters and political questions are utterly tabooed in La Société, we were able to meet on neutral ground and discuss these great and fascinating problems which the science of astronomy presents to the scientist, and it was always a pleasure to me to hold converse with Mr. Parkinson thereon. He delivered, in 1903, three lectures on astronomical subjects before the Liverpool Branch of the Société, and it speaks volumes for the catholicity of the institution, that the gentlemen who presided thereat on these three occasions were each of different faiths – the Sheikh-ul-Islam being the chairman at the first; Baron S. Benas, J.P. (a distinguished local Sephardic Jew) at the second; and a Christian clergyman (to wit, myself) at the third of the series. It may be interesting to mention that the titles of these three lectures were respectively, in the order in which they were given, “The Solar Orb and Its attendant Planets”; “The Earth’s Satellite”; and “Is Mars Inhabited?”

Mr. Parkinson in 1902 became a member of the Ancient Order of the Zuzimites, and subsequently was appointed a junior officer of the Grand Tabernacle of that organisation, remaining a member thereof until his decease. In 1906 he [19] penned a long epic poem which he styled the Osmanli Nameh, wherein, in imitation of the style of Firdawsi’s immortal work the Shah Nameh, he set forth the glories of the Ottoman Sultans from Osman, the founder of the dynasty, down to Sultan Abdul-Hamid Khan. A copy of this work, in manuscript, tastefully bound, was presented to the last-named Turkish monarch by the Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles, and the poet was honoured by being decorated with the medaille of the 4th class of the Order of the Medjidie, the ceremony of investiture being performed in the lecture hall of the Liverpool Muslim Institute by the Sheikh, in the presence of a large number of Mr. Parkinson’s friends and admirers, utterly irrespective of creed or nationality.

In 1909 Mr. Parkinson accepted an appointment in connection with the editorship of a journal in Burma. He was in India for about two years, and then returned to England, finding that it was impossible for him to work with some of those who had control of such journalistic undertaking.

On his return to England he resumed the previous position he had held at Kilwinning, and remained therein until the date of his decease in December last.

To the end he retained his love and admiration for the Osmanli race, and his faith in the religion which he had adopted. His sojourn in India, however, had not added to his confidence in some of the natives thereof.

By the death of John Yehya-en-Nasir Parkinson, I feel that I have lost a valued friend; the Societe, a worthy man; Science, an ardent student; and the State, a good citizen.

Source: The Philomath (London), vol. 23, no. 264, Jan-Mar 1919, pp.17-19.

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Telling the Story of How British Muslims Are Part of the Nation’s History

Currently British Muslims are marginal to the story of the nation. Yahya Birt argues that this can only change for the better if Muslim communities support initiatives to recover and present their own history.

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Idries Shah (1924–1996), Sufi teacher and author, not yet in the ODNB.

There are many ways in which we reflect upon and produce new versions of the story of Britain. This is both to make sense of the present and to project our hopes and fears on to the future. It is unsurprising that British Muslims, around half of whom were born in the UK, are interested in exploring their own historical roots in Britain. As part of this exploration, the question naturally arises as to how well this strand of British history is reflected in our national cultural life. A partial answer lies in looking at how British Muslims are represented in one of the key cultural institutions concerned with British history – The Dictionary of National Biography.

With its first edition dating from the late nineteenth century, the Dictionary is the equal of institutions like the BBC and the National Trust in terms of telling our national story. Taken over by the University of Oxford in the late 1990s, a second edition of sixty volumes was published in 2004. Since 2005, it has been made available online through subscription and has nearly 60,000 biographies described in 70 million words, and counting. It is currently updated three times a year.

The broad criteria for inclusion in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), as it is now known, are threefold. First of all you have to be dead. Secondly you have to have left a mark on an aspect of national life for good or for ill. And finally, you don’t have to have been resident in the UK as such but rather to have met the second criterion.

But leaving this final criterion aside for a moment, a search reveals that twenty-seven British Muslims are featured in the ODNB. For argument’s sake, I’ve excluded non-resident Muslims who had an impact on British life, as well as those who, like Iqbal and Jinnah, only stayed in Britain for a relatively short period to complete their studies.

So – according to what I hope are defensible criteria for singling out British Muslims – the ODNB list in order of their death dates includes twenty-three men and three women in total: John Ward [called Issouf Reis, Captain Wardiyya] (c.1553–1623?), Mehemet von Königstreu (c.1660–1726), Joseph Pitts (1663–c.1735), Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (c.1701–1773), Thomas Pellow (b. 1703/4), Edward Wortley Montagu (1713–1776), Efendi Osman [formerly William Thomson] (b. before 1800, d. 1835), Deen Mahomed (1759–1851), Lord Stanley (1827–1903), “Munshi” Abdul Karim (1862/3–1909), Saiyid Ameer Ali (1849–1928), William Henry Quilliam [known as Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam; Haroon Mustapha Leon] (1856–1932), Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din (1870–1932), Lord Headley (1855–1935), Marmaduke Pickthall (1875–1936), Noor Inayat Khan (1914–1944), Abdullah Yusuf Ali (1872–1953), Harry St John Bridger Philby (1885–1960), Lady Evelyn Cobbold (1867–1963), Kalim Siddiqui (1933–1996), Attia Shahid Hosain (1913–1998), Martin Lings (1909–2005), Zaki Badawi (1922–2006), Aleksandr Valterovich Litvinenko (1962–2006), Gai Eaton (1921–2010) and Michael Barry (1941–2011). To my mind the list is a decent start but it is far from exhaustive and it is too unrepresentative – with fifteen out of the twenty-seven being converts, three of whom experienced forced conversions (Pitts, Pellow and Osman).

A Facebook discussion I initiated recently about who else might be included in the ODNB showed me that the story we British Muslims tell about our history in Britain is still in many separate strands. These strands have yet to be woven into a single rope that we could lay claim to as a grand narrative we might comfortably identify with. However, the appetite to work together to shape such a unifying narrative is unmistakable.

Out of this preliminary conversation, a tentative long list of new candidates for the ODNB was formed. It was clear from this online exchange that a significant contribution to community life as opposed to national life could be separate matters. So would it be better for an Encyclopaedia of British Islam project to be initiated to help map what is currently terra incognita before a real impact could be made in reshaping the national story? And does a lasting contribution to Muslim community life constitute an aspect of national life that would meet the ODNB’s selection parameters or not? The experience of other communities in Britain certainly seems to indicate that a concerted effort in recovering their own histories with the assistance of academics is necessary before any serious headway can be made to identify their place within the national story. In other words, if we cannot identify its significance for ourselves then we cannot explain its significance to others.

In the long list, the additional proposed entries range from the sixteenth century up to 2016 and include yet more converts, but also pirates, poets, artists, aristocrats, businessmen, soldiers, actors, terrorists, orators, scholars, activists and Sufis. Sadly, at the time, no one suggested any additional women.

Some of the notables mentioned were John Nelson (fl. 16 cent.), one of the earliest recorded English converts to Islam, John [Yahya-en-Nasr] Parkinson (1874–1918), Scottish poet and essayist, Hedley Churchward (d. 1929), artist and one of the earliest British Muslim converts to have performed the Hajj, Sir Abdullah Archibald Hamilton (1876–1939), 5th Baronet of Trebishun, Breconshire and 3rd Baronet of Marlborough House, Hampshire, Taherally Rehmanji Suterwalla (1914–1970), founder of the TRS food wholesaler and cash-and-carry chain, Khudadad Khan (1881–1971), the first Indian Army winner of the Victoria Cross, during the First World War (representative of several other winners of VCs and the St George’s Cross), William Burchell Bashyr Pickard (1889–1973), novelist and poet, Dino Shafeek (1930–1984), TV actor and star of Mind Your Language and It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum, Mohammad Sidique Khan (1974–2005), ringleader of the 7/7 bombers, Mohammed John Webster (1913–2008), orator and public speaker, the actor Saeed Jaffrey (1929–2015), and the British-Iraqi architect Dame Zaha Hadid (1950–2016).

Some of the scholars and activists included Mohammad Amir Ahmad Khan (1914-1973), Raja of Mahmudabad, founder of the All-India Muslim League and the First Director of the Regent’s Park Mosque, Mahmood Ahmed Mirpuri (1945–1988), imam and pioneering figure in the Jamiat Ahl-e-­Hadith UK, Khurram Murad (1932–1996), the second Director-General of the Islamic Foundation, Sayed Mutawalli ad-Darsh (1930–1997), Azhari sheikh, imam of the Regent’s Park Mosque, President of the Shariah Council, and Q-News columnist, Bashir Ahmad (1940–2009), first Muslim Member of the Scottish Parliament, businessman and community activist in Glasgow, Syed Aziz Pasha (1930–2011), founder of the Union of Muslim Organisations, Said Hassan Ismail (1930-2011), the prominent Welsh-Yemeni imam and scholar, Cardiff, Mohammad Naseem (1924–2014), GP and Chair of the Birmingham Central Mosque, and Hafiz Muhammad Ishaq Patel (1926–2016), the Amir of the Tablighi Jama‘at in the UK and Europe and founder of the Institution of Islamic Education in Dewsbury.

Some of the suggested Sufis, many of whom did much to spread Islam in Britain, were Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882–1927), founder of the Sufi Order of the West, Abdullah Ali al-Hakimi (c.1900–1954), Shadhili sheikh and founder of several mosque-zawiyas in interwar Britain, Shah Shahidullah Faridi [born John Gilbert Lennard] (1915–1978), Sabri Chishti sheikh, author and convert, Muhammad Abdul Wahab Siddiqi (1942–1994), Naqshbandi sheikh, Deputy Leader of the Muslim Parliament and founder of the Hijaz College in Nuneaton, Idries Shah (1922–1996), the Sufi author and teacher, Mehmet Nazim Adil (1922–2014), Grand Sheikh of the Naqshbandi Haqqani Sufi Order, and Muhammad Abdullah Khan (1923-2015), a prominent Naqshbandi sheikh of Birmingham.

Update

Prof. Ron Geaves and Dr Jamie Gilham have discovered that the entry in Islam: Our Choice, identified as belonging to  Sir Thomas Lauder Brunton (1844–1916), is incorrect. Although the name is similar, the birth and death dates are not, and his great-grandson has confirmed that the Baronet, medic and pharmacologist was not a Muslim. So its true provenance has yet to be ascertained. Therefore he has been removed from above list of British Muslim entries to be found in the ONDB.

We can all play a role, so please do comment below as to who else might be included and why, providing links to further resources about their lives.

This is a cross-post from Everyday Muslim.

Yahya Birt is undertaking a doctorate at the University of Leeds. If you have any materials or records relating to political activism in the British Muslim community between the 1960s and 1990s and wish to get involved then please contact him via prjjb AT leeds.ac.uk

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Telling or Censoring Our British Muslim Stories?

Self-Censorship

Can the moral panic about Islam in Britain today affect how we tell our own British Muslim histories? Yahya Birt reflects on his surprise about how much contemporary politics is casting a veil over even this relatively uncontentious area of Muslim cultural life.

In October 2014 I started a doctorate at the University of Leeds. I’m aiming to illuminate an important part of the complex history of post-war Muslim Britain – its political activism. We can understand Muslim community politics today better if we tell important parts of its history that date back to the sixties. I hope to find out more through a combination of archival research and interviews.

In June 2015 I began to contact people and organisations directly whom I had identified as holding important records. So far as British Muslim institutions are concerned, this is necessary because few organisational records have been professionally archived. Notable exceptions include the new East London Mosque archive and the records of the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking held at the Surrey History Centre.

One of my goals is to begin a discussion about how best to preserve these unarchived records with a view to finding workable solutions. There is some urgency because records are being lost. For instance, one important post-war Muslim women’s activist organisation neither holds its records nor a complete run of its magazine, which is tragic.

When I’ve approached people, their response has been overwhelmingly positive. One community statesman said he had been waiting to tell the story of his generation and pass on important records responsibly.

It was not surprising that another activist cautioned me about negotiating the contentious elements of this history. Differing accounts reflect the various perspectives of those who lived through those times. This is of course true of history in general and is hardly unique to our community. I can only strive to ensure that I portray each perspective fairly and accurately.

But what has really surprised me is that David Cameron is having an effect on my PhD. I didn’t expect the Prime Minister’s current drive against extremism to be affecting how British Muslims tell their own history quite so sharply. It is apparent in practices of silence and self-censorship.

The silence comes from the reluctance of some to talk about what they perceive as their radical pasts. This is particularly true of Muslim millennials – the generation that came to political prominence after 7/7. They regret what they see as a misspent youth, have no wish to advertise it now and prefer to pass over it in silence. This of course is their right. But it is revealing that the tolerance shown for youthful radicalism in British politics – either on the left or right – seems less likely to be forgiven or forgotten for Britain’s publicly active Muslims.

Self-censorship emerges for a similar reason, namely from the wish to preserve reputations to enable continued and effective public participation. Normally British Muslim organisations with long track records of community service hold commemorative events and may even mark a milestone anniversary with a publication about their history, contribution and achievements.

However, I was told recently that a community organisation dispensed with such a publication for fear that it might foster perceptions that it was “extremist”. This has become a live consideration in recent years for Muslim community organisations, most of which are charities, as the charity sector’s regulatory body, the Charity Commission, has new responsibilities and powers to tackle extremism.

It is shocking that the government’s counter-terrorism policy not only chills political dissent and free expression about contemporary issues but also how Muslim communities might preserve, record and pass on their own histories to future generations. It is very important that we consider the potential effects of silence and self-censorship and how we might find ways as a community to combat and overcome them in order that important aspects of our history are not lost forever.

Yahya Birt is undertaking a doctorate at the University of Leeds. If you have any materials or records relating to political activism in the British Muslim community between the 1960s and 1990s and wish to get involved then please contact him via prjjb AT leeds.ac.uk

This blog was originally published at the Everyday Muslim website here.

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by | August 21, 2015 · 9:55 pm

The Perversity of Tom Holland’s Argument that ISIS is authentically Islamic

The history writer Tom Holland has waded into the argument about how Islamic the Islamic State is, originally sparked by an article in the Atlantic. His argument is that their rhetoric is full of pious references to scripture and that they faithfully apply the rulings to be found in the classical jurisprudential (fiqh) texts. In other words, Da‘esh is very Islamic; in fact, Islamic in a way that is too embarrassing for Muslims to acknowledge. Instead, “apologists” apparently muddy the waters by denying that ISIS is authentically Islamic, an exercise that mirrors the futility of the Catholic Council of Trent trying Canute-like to hold back the tide of the Protestant Reformation.

There are at least four reasons why this line of argument is simply perverse and dangerous.

One argument is political. Holland simply takes ISIS’s claim to be Islamic at face value, and buys into their propaganda. In doing so, he thereby gives succour to the narrative that ultimately Islam is the problem, and that the West and Islam are irreconcilable and doomed to remain in conflict. He goes beyond the well-worn language of good Muslim versus bad Muslim of the “War on Terror” years, and is closer in spirit to neoconservative “clash of civilisations” rhetoric (and ironically to ISIS’s bipolar worldview).

Another argument is historical. Holland reanimates the tendentious notion that the history of Islam can be understood through the history of Christianity, almost in a deterministic way. Thus Salafis are Calvinists and Sunnis are Catholics, and neither can hold back the tide of reform, violent or otherwise. Of course this simply elides some important differences. To name two obvious ones, that Islam has no equivalent of the Magisterium, and notwithstanding the Ottomans that Reformation Europe was not subjected to such intense extra-continental foreign invasion and occupation as nearly all Islamdom was during the era of European colonialism. We can enable a more serious debate by recognizing the claim that Islam needs to replay the history of Christianity and of Europe is ideological, rather than dressing it up as serious history.

A further argument is hermeneutical, as Holland’s position does away with any notion of orthodoxy. All Muslims can read the sources and their interpretive literature and stand in equality to them: they can all interpret them and so we cannot privilege one reading over another. But this conflates mundane ability with authority. It ignores the fact that when Muslims read the text they do so as part of a socially-embodied community of believers that worries over its present condition. This community extends into the past by its attachment to authoritative readings, exemplars, institutions, sensibilities, aptitudes and symbols, and it looks forward in arguing over what might constitute the good in the future.

For Muslims, what constitutes the good lies somewhere in the dynamic interplay between Muslim scholarly opinions and Muslim public opinion in general. Each major grouping in Islam has a notion of regulative authority and possesses an orthodoxy that shapes but does not set in aspic the tone and terms of the debate over what constitutes tradition, authority, and the good. On the other hand Muslim publics challenge their respective religious authorities on the grounds of justice, relevance and adequacy, and in the final analysis it is the umma (the body-spiritual of the believers) that regulates what is orthodox through weight of opinion.

In other words, the umma cannot be dictated to from the fringes. And on this basis the fact that a murderous cult has captured territory in Iraq and Syria and claims the mantle of Islamic normalcy and even the caliphate is neither here nor there. Rather the point is that virtually everyone has rejected ISIS’s claim to be Islamic – even other deviant extremist groups such as al-Qaeda have done so. What Tom Holland is doing is denying the right of Muslims to police deviancy and extremism in the name of Islam and is misconstruing the regulative mechanism of orthodoxy itself – Muslim public opinion – as mere apologetics.

The more salient questions that Holland alludes to but obscures are how can Salafism regulate its extreme jihadist elements and how do Sunni Muslims regulate Salafism? This is really another kind of question, namely what kind of regulative health do Islamic orthodoxies currently enjoy? I don’t want to pretend that anything other than a long and detailed reply would do justice to such large questions, and I am only going to provide the briefest of answers here.

I would posit the argument that there is a very loose regulative hierarchy of orthodoxies in Islam (see the attached diagram from S.H. Nasr’s The Heart of Islam, p.111). The Spectrum of IslamDespite their differences, their respective notions of the tradition, authority and the good bear enough of a family resemblance of overlapping congruities to recognize each other as bearers of the same living tradition. This is recognized in a de facto way, in notions like that of the ahl al-qibla or the issuance of Hajj visas in a non-sectarian way (for the most part). There are even convocations, such as the Amman Message in 2004, which provides an example of a relatively rare formal statement of this minimal reciprocal recognition. This particular initiative used the Sunni language of legitimate jurisprudential differing to recognize eight schools as orthodox: the four Sunni, two Shi‘i (Ja‘fari and Zaydi), the ‘Ibadi and the Zahiri (the latter a circumlocution for Salafi).

But it is global and mundane social processes of acclimatization and living together rather than official proclamations alone that would prove more potent. Sunnis could accommodate Salafis if there was greater mutual amity and recognition in everyday interactions along with some reduction in the militancy of Salafi thought and action. More formally, for Salafis the trade-off would be Sunni acknowledgement of them as a discrete school of law, probably to be construed as an outgrowth of late Hanabalism, under which Ibn Taymiyya and his students became primary referents. The prospects for this seem distant but less unrealistic currently than does rapprochement between Salafis and their militants, engaged as they are in a war of anathematization. This hot war of words extends to the Salafi jihadis themselves and the fallout between al-Qaeda and ISIS in 2014; it is always your former allies at the moment of betrayal who are more hated than anyone else.

Having said all this, it must be recognized that the regulative health of Islamic orthodoxy is under pressure from far more than Sheikh Google or Wahhabis, as Holland argues. In no particular order, the disruptive effects of colonialism, the intellectual challenges of European modernity, the rise of Muslim nationalism, the nationalisation of the endowments (awqaf) system that debilitated independent higher Islamic education, the shift to print from scribal culture, the change to promulgated law from law as responsa, the emergence of Islamic movements that challenged the ulema’s role, and general intellectual stagnation, have all been factors in weakening orthodoxy. Shi‘i orthodoxies being both more centralised and less historically tied to imperial state structures have tended to survive the transition to modernity more successfully than Sunni orthodoxy has. Today, both Muslim publics and their scholarly elites are under the continuous pressures of internecine national rivalries and new “Great Game” proxy wars in Islamdom that stoke sectarian conflict more so than it does encourage living together or reconciliation. To my mind, however, any right-thinking Muslim regards the weakening of orthodoxy as a serious challenge and she would regard the giving up any regulative moral role for the umma in policing its militant fringes as suicidal.

The fourth and final argument is contextual. There is a kind of pious thinking on the part of some atheists and believers alike that is wilfully blind to factors like the failure of politics, and the recourse to terrorism and invasion. In a recent interview with Vice, Obama has broken with normal “War on Terror” rhetoric to acknowledge the “unintended” causal connection between the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq and that of ISIS, its bastard child. Yet it’s all about decontextualized ideas with Holland. Years into the War on Terror that’s an unsustainable position for a history writer to take. Seemingly the invasion and occupation of Iraq has less bearing for Holland than it does for Obama. Sustained asymmetric warfare over time creates brutal outfits like ISIS, who have made the propaganda of the vile deed an essential element of their credo. But of equal concern is that we have normalized a continuous state of emergency, a normalization that reduces the Muslim enemy to a subhuman status. There are continuous attempts to make legitimate their rendition, detention without charge or trial, torture, bombing, hunting by drones, and so forth. The massive projection of Western military force requires continuous war propaganda, one strand of which argues that our foe’s enmity towards us lies essentially with his Muslim identity and in nothing else.

By asking Muslims to own up to ISIS being authentically Islamic, Tom Holland is asking us to surrender Islam to ISIS. And that is wrongheaded, dangerous and perverse and serves no good outcome that I can see.

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Filed under Ghuluw, History, Religion, Umma, war-on-terror

New Book: British Secularism and Religion: Islam, Society and the State

It’s been a long time since I last posted anything here, and I aim to post more frequently. It’s not as if things of importance aren’t happening in the world.

For the time being, however, I wanted to flag up a new collection that I’ve co-edited with Dilwar Hussain and Ataullah Siddiqui. It’s the outcome of a seminar held in January 2009 on ‘British Muslims and the Secular State’, and is the first collection to my knowledge to focus on this issue. At its heart, it is an attempt to test the implications of two questions through a multi-party dialogue (or ‘multilogue’ for short), as we can see little practical utility in us British Muslims discussing this issue in splendid isolation.

The first question is to explore what religious grounds there are within Islam, and within Judaism and Christianity, to affirm secular liberal democracy.  The book as a whole concentrates upon political rather than philosophical secularism, which, in the twentieth century, many Muslim intellectuals directly equated with the promotion of atheism during the colonial and post-colonial periods. Today in twenty-first century Europe they equate it, and not without reason, with a political attack on Muslim communities and their institutions. Political secularism in a liberal democratic context, on the other hand, refers to (or, more realistically, ought to refer to) the relative separation between state and religion, to non-discrimination among religions and to the guarantees made with respect to the human rights of citizens, regardless of their creed, to which the philosopher Charles Taylor importantly adds the principles of political fraternity and the seeking of harmony.

Unsurprisingly all three discussants tackling this first issue — Abdullah Sahin, Nick Spencer and Norman Solomon — make a careful distinction between what they affirm and support as ‘secularity’, an accommodative arrangement that does not exclude religion from public life and that is committed to democratic inclusion, but are critical of a ‘secularism’ that systematically excludes religion from public life.

The second main proposition looks at the whole issue from another perspective: what reasons might the democratic secular state have to affirm a public role for religion in ways that are consonant with its underlying philosophy. Two respondents — Ted Cantle and Sunder Katwala — assess Tariq Modood’s proposition that the democratic secular state has five reasons to affirm a public role for religion: (i) the truth of religious claims made, subject to robust democratic processes, in policymaking, if not as a basis for a secular democratic state; (ii) the judicious control of violent religious fanaticism; (iii) the social and moral benefits of religious lifestyles upon society; (iv) the recognition of religious identity as a basis for participative citizenship at the levels of individual, minority group and national belonging; and (v) respect for religion as a cultural, historical or civilizational public good. Importantly Modood also points out that there is an important alternative to stricter forms of secularism, seen in France or the United States for instance, which is moderate or accommodative secularism, which is historically the hallmark of northwestern Europe, and particularly of Britain. There is an additional argument Modood makes which is that accommodative secularism better respects the mutual autonomy of politics and religion through ‘twin tolerations’, and so it should therefore be seen as central to liberal democracy. Maleiha Malik closes out the collection by looking at future prospects for the debate on secularism and religion in Britain.

Copies can be ordered from Amazon Marketplace or from Kube Publishing.

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Filed under Bookish Pursuits, History, Religion, UK Muslim Politics, UK Politics