Category Archives: Umma

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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Filed under History, Religion, Umma

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.


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

Dilemmas of Authenticity and Belonging

Yahya Birt

It is obvious enough that the debate about the place of Islam in Europe has probably never been so important or sharply contested. The numbers of those who think there can be no genuine or settled place for Europe’s second largest religion seem to be growing; and this sentiment now mobilises politics in many European states, the Swiss vote in 2009 against the building of minarets being a recent example of this politics of fear. The outcome of this vote seems to suggest that if Muslims are to retain a presence in Europe, it should be rendered unnoticeable or even invisible, and that the normal religious freedoms others enjoy are to be especially curtailed for Muslims. Populist politicians like Gert Wilders in the Netherlands can now gain sizeable constituencies by promising to end mosque construction or banning the Qur’an. France, having banned the headscarf from French public schools in 2004, is now debating in 2010 whether to ban face veils from the country altogether, as they are, it is argued, deemed to be incompatible with republican values. Similarly the debate over whether Turkey can be part of the European Union touches upon the very political definition of what Europe is. As the former president of France, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, argued in 2002, Turkey was not fit to be the member of a “Christian club” and, if accepted into Europe, Turkish membership would in any case “destroy the EU” if it went ahead.

Similarly Europe now lives with an ongoing terrorist threat from those whom al-Qaeda inspires to strike in the name of Muslims everywhere. Al-Qaeda operates with a cosmic idea of incessant violent struggle; catalytic acts of political violence, it is believed, will somehow galvanise and unite the Muslim world against the West to restore lost honour and power through indiscrimate carnage as seen in New York and Washington (2001), Madrid (2004), London (2005) and Glasgow (2007). And there have been a number of other foiled plots in the last decade, some dating to even before 9/11. Of course some have been radicalised recent migrants from the Muslim world, but others were European born and bred, and it is around trying to understand how these European Muslims became radicalised that some of the most intense debate about the place of Islam in Europe has raged.

However, I would suspect that even more divisive than the violent fringe have been the political and cultural clashes between liberal Europe and its often conservatively-minded Muslim minorities. Muslim identity politics in Europe can only become widely mobilised across different ethnic, sectarian and class divisions and be able to connect Muslim diasporas with political actors, state or non-state, in the Muslim world for two main reasons. The first cause is a military attack on a Muslim people by a non-Muslim power, where the Muslims are clearly not the aggressors, e.g. the conflict in Bosnia, 1992-95. The second cause is a cultural or political attack on a universal Islamic symbol; this attack is deemed to be a collective insult to Muslim dignity that besmirches the honour of their religion, e.g. the Danish Cartoons Crisis, 2005-8. Both causes relate to the victimization of Muslims, whose pain and suffering because of cultural contempt or political marginalisation plays not only into post-colonial angst and racialized politics in Europe today, but into deeply-felt frustration at the contemporary democratic deficit in the Muslim world and its inability to shape its own future and destiny. Yet what is also noticeable is the very fragility, or thinness, of this universal Muslim identity politics. As soon as any complexity is introduced, such as Muslim-on-Muslim conflict or the public ridicule of any non-universal Muslim taboo, then its appeal and scope is quickly curtailed.

 A similar observation might be made of anything that might be held to somehow undermine the idea of Europe: any universal appeal to a European identity politics must be equally thin to garner together such a diverse constituency of Europeans. At the heart of this European identity politics is cultural uncertainty: an aging continent feels threatened by younger non-European migrants, many of whom are Muslim by faith, and whom it is felt do not sufficiently share Europe’s values; and, as Asia rises and develops multiple modernities, the notion central to European identity that it gave birth a universal and singular modernity appears to be increasingly anachronistic.

So it might be surmised that identity politics is partly based on the anxiety created by the inability to engage with the loss of credible universal narratives. In the case of Islam, European colonialism decisively ended its narrative of imperial and religious manifest destiny in the nineteenth century, and, for the post-colonial Muslim diaspora in Europe, this tension is intensified by the fact of being a European minority of low, or at least ambiguous, social status. This status anxiety is more acute and prolonged that in the case of Europe’s, which has only really slowly developed in the latter half of the twentieth century with the challenges of decolonisation, the rise of America, the divisions of the Cold War, and now the slow shifting of the centre of the world economy to East Asia.

Within a context where many are seeking to diffuse mutually-antagonistic identity politics between Islam and Europe, I want to reflect on one small initiative with which I was recently involved. In 2009, the University of Cambridge won a competitive tender to host a series of seminars to reflect upon “Contextualising Islam in Britain” that was funded by the Department of Communities of Local Government. Inevitably a number of ironic ambiguities were involved in such an unusual endeavour. Why, for instance, would a secular government be interested in Muslim theological reflection as such except for more narrow policy imperatives? How much were the sorts of conclusions sought by government ones of a liberal or progressive bent that were desired and anticipated in advance? How much was the official motivation one that was driven to demonstrate an Islam that was compatible with liberalism, or at the very least could be convincingly shown to be fundamentally harmless and innocuous? How could a small panel of 26 Muslim academics, activists and religious scholars hope to avoid the charge from their own community of promoting their own version of an official British Islam without a proper mandate? And, added to that, what authority or relevance would its deliberations have?  Muslim conservatives might think it too liberal, “Islamists” might think it too politically quiescent, it would be ignored or dismissed by the radicals and wouldn’t most Muslims, holding to an informal and iterative notion of religious authority, baulk at the idea of an official national Islam? Wouldn’t theological reflection in and of itself be overly abstract and divorced from concrete policy issues, e.g. high unemployment, racial discrimination or relatively low educational attainment, that affect Muslim communities in Britain? And wasn’t there a stereotypical element in defining Muslims primarily or even solely in religious terms by assuming that the problems of Muslim communities were best addressed in theological terms?

All those involved were acutely aware of these sorts of dilemmas, which might be summarised as dilemmas of authenticity and belonging. Could such an exercise be theologically serious while not been overly presumptive in the claims to authority that it made? How could such an exercise be more creative and interesting than being a political exercise in reassurance or a plea for acceptance? It is for others to decide how far the “Contextualising Islam in Britain” project succeeded in avoiding these pitfalls; however, a few further reflections are in order.

One obvious irony was that there are few if any comparable platforms, due to internal politics or lack of resources or vision, for sustained reflection on pressing theological issues by such a wide theological diversity of British Muslims, except for official ones. The fact that British Muslim institutions, being perceived as biased in one way or another, would have struggled to collect together Sunnis and Shiites, Sufis and Salafis, liberals and conservatives, and Deobandis and Barelwis (the latter being British Islam’s most important sectarian Muslim division) under one roof. Although an atmosphere of distrust, incompatibility and intransigence was a distinct possibility, and many of 26 participants had not met or worked together before, in practice, a robust but healthy dynamic was established.

In my personal view, the overriding reasons as to why co-operation was easier to sustain than originally feared were threefold. Firstly, the politically parlous public reputation of Muslims sets up an overall context in which intra-faith co-operation becomes more desirable. Secondly, the seminar participants focused upon the theological challenges that faced them all, regardless of their denominational background, which were largely matters of public religion, or the role of Islam in public life, which, as a common circumstance, challenge and opportunity, cuts across other sorts of division. And, finally, there was also sufficient maturity and experience within the group to see such moments of sustained reflection in lives that are otherwise busy and overstretched as rare opportunities that were not to be wasted.

On the question of religious authority, the participants were seasoned enough to realise that as there are many points of religious authority within the Islamic tradition, and that restating Islamic norms is fundamentally an iterative exercise that is ongoing because of changing times and circumstances, the whole exercise was properly framed as opening out the debate and about asking some of the right questions. It was certainly not a series of definitive fatwas that were sought, and no-one claimed either the legal expertise or authority to do so.

On the politics around such an exercise, the participants were clear that a mere reiteration of the idea that Islam is harmless, i.e. that the vast majority of Muslims abjure the violent extremists who misuse the name of Islam, could not be a serious starting point of any sustained theological reflection. Instead, even within a secular Europe, significant parts of which are post-Christian, the idea of religion as a public good, and, within that, the role of Islam as Europe’s second religion, should be further explored and strengthened. There was wide support for Britain’s particular form of secularism, as accommodative of religious pluralism, religious freedoms and of religious institutions, and as providing the overall framework to articulate religion as a public good; however, it was recognised that there were more challenges in framing a positive role for the religious voice within Britain’s traditions of secular public reason and political culture.

The report, in my reading, did recognise that sustained Islamic reflection upon the role of religion in public life within the European context was still in its early stages. The reasons for this were recognised as many and complex but the primary need was to shift the emphasis of Muslim theological languages of public engagement from jurisprudence (fiqh) and legal theory (usul al-fiqh) to become more inclusive of mysticism (tasawwuf), theology (kalam) and philosophy (falsifa). In short, an ethical turn in Islamic public discourses is urgently needed not least because of the widespread misunderstanding of Islamic legalese as a tacit call for parallel legal systems within Europe, but also to reflect more easily an aspiration to serve the common or public good, and not just of the “Muslim good” as it were.

It was recognised that too much emphasis had been put by the Islamic legal tradition on the citizenship contract (ahd, i.e. the duties held by the citizen towards the state), rather than upon the fundamental convenant (mithaq) between humanity and God, that underwrites our inate moral responsibility to each other. It is under this sense of higher ethical purpose that the believer seeks to serve the common good of all through a spirit of service (khidma) and moral excellence (ihsan), rather than a thin legal relationship of citizenship rights. There has been an assumption in Islamic legal tradition that Muslim minority status is a passing and temporary circumstance, which is to be endured through various forms of moral protectionism and community survival. This is wholly at odds with the reality that millions of Muslims have voluntarily and happily chosen Europe as their permanent home to which they belong and wish to make a positive contribution to.  Without this as the basic starting point of any serious deliberation then there is little hope that any amount of reflection will move any of us beyond the politics of fear.

Originally published as “Dilemas de authenticidad y pertenencia“, Akfar/Ideas (No.25, April 2010).


Filed under Blog, Bookish Pursuits, Religion, UK Politics, Umma

An enquiry into the status of the Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles

What was the status of the Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles? Evidentially there is no definitive answer to this and my Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Islestentative conclusions are provisional as I do not have the immediate means to get to the bottom of what most would probably regard as an “historical footnote”.

The office has only had one incumbent: Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam (1856-1932). The Ottoman caliph, Sultan Abdul Hamid II, granted Quilliam the position in 1894 and Quilliam effectively had to relinquish the post when he left Britain in 1908 and could only return a few years later pseudononymously. (Yaqub Zaki dates Quilliam’s return as early as 1910. [1]) This probably means that we have to distinguish between how the Ottomans saw the role and how Quilliam himself viewed it.

The Ottoman View

Whatever has thus so far been retrieved from the Ottoman archives [2] concerning Quilliam tells us three things:

(i) The Ottoman bureaucracy valued Quilliam as a source of information about the reporting of Ottoman affairs in the British press.
(ii) Sultan Abdul Hamid II trusted Quilliam as a competent and impartial figure given the fact that the caliph sent him on a fact-finding mission to Macedonia to report back objectively given his detachment from the internal politics of the administration there.
(iii) The granting of the title Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles in 1894 (the addition “and Dominions” appears very late towards the end of the Liverpool period and may not have been an official caliphal designation) was seen in the context of supporting minority Muslim populations outside of Ottoman control. The key example of this was the earlier deal struck between the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs over Bosnia in 1878.

The Bosnian Parallel

This third and most important point justifies more elaboration. Bosnian Muslim elites in the nineteenth century were part and parcel of centralised Ottoman power and furnished it with significant military and administrative personnel. However these elites also resisted the tanzimat reforms that compromised their independence, e.g. the uprising against Mahmud II in 1831 by Kapetan Gradascevic. Between 1878-1909, the deal with the Hapsburgs left Ottoman-style institutions in Bosnia under Austro-Hungarian control, even though legally Bosnia was still part of the Ottoman state until 1908. After 1909, the Bosniaks (or “Bosnian Muslims”) achieved an autonomous millet-style status, with their links restored to the Sheikh-ul-Islam in Istanbul, even though between 1908 and 1918, Bosnia was legally part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Of course, the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924 rendered all such ties to whatever vestigal Ottoman structures remained completely moot. [3]

In any case, after 1878, the sovereign writ of the Sultan in Bosnia was an unexecuted right (nudum jus): imperial prerogatives became merely symbolic in a manner redolent of the later Abbasids when they no longer controlled the more distant provinces. Firstly the khutba in Bosnia would be read out in the caliph’s name and secondly Ottoman currency would remain in circulation there (like the late Abbasid claim to sikka, or to have their name stamped on the coinage of those distant provinces no longer under their control). Thus the Bosniaks were effectively to deal with the Hapsburgs alone. [4]

In the Ottoman state, religious administration came to be intertwined with the state, and within this a complex hierarchy of ulema developed, at the top of which stood the Sheikh-ul-Islam. Originally the mufti of Istanbul, the holder of this post came to be regarded as the most senior Sunni authority by the nineteenth century. However, under the Dual Monarchy, as religious and political authority was separate, the Bosniaks sought a creative institutional solution “in the views of Hanafi jurists regarding the position of Muslims under non-Muslim rule, the Osmanli hierarchy of ulema, practical demands and the interests of new rulers.” [5]

The main change was to keep religious institutions in place but under the formal control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; after 1909, the Bosniaks administered their religious, waqf and educational affairs autonomously. The Sharia courts were, however, largely separate from this arrangement and were considered part of the state judiciary.

The primary interest here lies in the post-Ottoman office of Ra’is-ul-Ulema, for this is more likely to reveal how the Ottomans might have considered the post of Shiekh-ul-Islam of the British Isles than would any quick association with the Sheikh-ul-Islam of the Ottoman caliphate in a spirit of Osmanli nostalgia. Why? The main supposition is a chronological one. The example of Bosnia from the previous decade might have been in the minds of the Ottomans when granting Quilliam his title. It was only later on after the war of 1912-1913 that a more uniform solution to the post-Ottoman status of Balkan Muslims (in Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and Romania) suggested itself in the form of national religious administrations headed by chief muftis whose role went beyond the giving of ifta’.

In early Ottoman times, Ra’is-ul-Ulema “was an honorific title (`unwan), not an office.” [6] Later the title was given to military judges in the European part of the caliphate, and over time it came to be divorced from the requirement for scholarly competence and therefore, in loosing prestige, came to be seen as a subordinate role to the Sheikh-ul-Islam. It also came to be associated with Bosnia during this period. After 1882 under the Hapsburgs, the rights and prerogatives of the office came to be fixed, and the Ra’is-ul-Ulema became the highest (and independent) post among the Bosniaks. Baş Mufti or Grand Mufti was now used interchangeably with Ra’is-ul-Ulema.

As was not the case with Albania at the time, the Bosniaks insisted upon the continued authorization of the post of Ra’is-ul-Ulema between 1882 and 1924 by the Sheikh-ul-Islam in Istanbul by a letter of appointment known as a manshur. A manshur, in this instance, is a formal legal document that confirms that a certain person is authorised as Ra’is and who is granted authority to issue similar letters of appointment to subordinate religious officials. These letters of appointment had been issued to the provincial muftis of Bosnia during the period of direct Ottoman control, who were then the highest religious officials in the region.

However, this manshur appears to have been a symbolic formality in the case of the Ra’is. After 1882, any candidate for the post once it had fallen vacant was selected and appointed by the Austrian monarch from a shortlist of three, drawn up by a special electoral body (curia) of Bosnian ulema. Only after the appointment of the Ra’is did the curia request that a manshur be issued by the Sheikh-ul-Islam in Istanbul confirming the new appointee. From 1930 until present times, a special body comprised of national Muslim dignitaries is now charged with issuing the letter of appointment to the Ra’is-ul-Ulema until a legal caliphate is re-established. A similar use of the manshur after a national appointment process for the head Mufti was also adopted by other Balkan Muslim minority groups after 1913.

Sheikh Abdullah QuilliamDoes any of this shed much light on the case of Quilliam’s investiture as Sheikh-ul-Islam in 1894? Well it does tell us that in the final years of the Ottoman caliphate, the Ottomans were prepared at least to expend whatever symbolic authority they still possessed to allow Muslim minorities in Europe to organise themselves better institutionally in ways that were inspired by a vision of Muslim minorities according to the jurisprudential principle al-muslim bi-dhimmati l-kafir, or essentially a millet in reverse. Perhaps Quilliam’s role was technically granted through a manshur, and so was thus allowed to read the khutba in the Caliph’s name, to organise and lead his community, to offer it religious guidance and so on as he best saw fit. Clearly the Ra’is-ul-Ulema inherited established religious institutions that had come out of the Ottoman period; Quilliam, however, even if his models of religious institionalisation and authority were Ottoman by inspiration, had to create such facts on the ground from scratch. Furthermore, there is a lack of official and primary evidence of any formal agreement (as has yet to come to light at any rate) between the Sultan and Queen Victoria to formalise the role of Sheikh-ul-Islam in a manner similar to the Ra’is-ul-Ulema. [7] The position of Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles had honorary and symbolic significance but no historical continuity to draw upon — unlike the Ra’is-ul-Ulema — and in the context of the Balkan experience generally, the honorary appointment of the Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles appears to have been a one-off in terms of the Ottoman practice of recognising Muslim minorities outside of its formal control during this period.

The View from Liverpool

Leaving aside the Ottoman view, there is also the separate question of what Quilliam made of the position of Sheikh-ul-Islam, and how he saw his mission and his role. As far as can be ascertained, the main points are as follows:

(i) Authorisation to read the khutba in the name of the caliph Sultan Abdul Hamid, and, as mentioned above, this was an honorary and symbolic act when agreed for lands under which the caliph no longer had jurisdiction, a practice dating back to the late Abbasids. The Liverpool Muslim Institute under Quilliam held services according to the Hanafi School, another indication of Ottoman allegiance, and made prayers for the Sultan as “Head of the Muslim Church” regularly during the English-language prayers held in the evenings. [8] Quilliam’s own description of the post to the Lord Mayor of Liverpool in 1903 reads: “I do not officially represent Turkey in Liverpool, but I do represent the Muslim Faith, and am the Sheikh of the Mussulmans in the British Isles. I do not receive one penny from the Turkish government.” (The Crescent, XXII, No. 565, 11th November 1903, 309.)
(ii) The role included the duty to issue fatwas. In the case of his 1896 ruling on the British invasion of the Sudan, Quilliam uses the terms “Fetva”, “proclamation” and “declaration” interchangeably. [9] Quilliam saw himself as competent to give fatwas: he was fluent in several languages, including Arabic and Persian, had studied Islam in Morocco for two years and in 1893 the Sultan of Morocco had “conferred on him an honorary `alimiyya (of Fez). The title came accompanied by a robe and a turban.” [10]
(iii) The role included the mission to preach Islam. Quilliam kept meticulous records of the number of converts and worked through several channels — like the temperance movement, which was strong in Liverpool, the Unitarians and other such avenues — to spread Islam in what was often a hostile environment. His real success in this regard was in Liverpool itself and less so outside of it.
(iv) The role included the duty to speak out on the current affairs of the day but from a sense of religious conviction, this much is clear from Quilliam’s commentary on his own “Fetva” of 1896, allowing for the essential proviso that he did not separate politics from the purview of religion. [11]
(v) The role was non-stipendiary. [12]
(vi) The role was an office that would be passed on to a successor. [13]

It seems evident enough then that Quilliam did see the honorary title of Sheikh-ul-Islam as a serious means by which to found Islam in Britain and to create a permanent office. This non-stipendiary office, as Quilliam saw it, included the duties of legal guidance, preaching and the mobilisation of the Muslim diaspora in support of the Ottoman caliph. In that sense the Ottomans not only bestowed Quilliam with symbolic legitimacy but with a model of religious institutionalisation in Britain and a pan-Islamism [14] defined by a last-ditch defence of the caliphate in its final years.


I’d like to thank the following for their helpful comments and assistance: Batool Al-Toma, Humeyra Ceylan, Prof. Ron Geaves, Muhammad Akram Khan-Cheema, Dr H. A. Hellyer, Daoud Rosser-Owen, Dr Muhammad Isa Waley and Dr T. J. Winter. Special thanks go to Dr Yaqub Zaki who most generously lent me a draft version of Chapter 23, “The Apostle of Merseyside”, from his forthcoming work, The Shadow of the Cresent: Islam in Britain, 1770-1918, which has been essential in casting some light on this obscure issue. All errors of fact or judgement are of course my own.


[1] Yaqub Zaki, The Shadow of the Crescent: Islam in Britain, 1770-1918, Ch. 23, forthcoming. Nineteen hundred and ten is four years earlier than the previous estimate of 1914, see my earlier blog entry here.

[2] Personal email communication from Dr T. J. Winter, 28th January 2008.

[3] Xavier Bougarel, “From Young Muslims to Party of Democratic Action: The Emergence of a Pan-Islamist Trend in Bosnia-Herzegovina”, Islamic Studies (Islamabad), 36/2, 3 (1997), 533-549; Fikret Karčić, The Bosniaks and the Challenges of Modernity: Late Ottoman and Hapsburg Times (Sarajevo: El-Kalem, 1991), 111.

[4] Fikret Karčić, The Bosniaks, 81.

[5] Fikret Karčić, “The Office of Ra’is al-`Ulama’ Among the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims)”, Intellectual Discourse, 5/2 (1997), 109-120, citation at 110.

[6] Fikret Karčić, “The Office”, 111.

[7] The website of the Association for British Muslims argues for this official recongition:

“The ABM is the oldest extant organisation of British Muslims. Founded originally in Liverpool in 1889 as The English Islamic Association by HE Shaykhu-l Islam Abdullah Quilliam Bey, Shaykhu-l Islam of the British Isles by appointment of the Caliph, HIM Sultan Abdul Hamid II, jannat makan, (which appointment was endorsed by the Queen-Empress, HM Queen Victoria, and also by HE the Emir of Morocco, HM the King of Afghanistan, and HIM the Qajar Shah of Iran). The organisation was revived in London’s Notting Hill in 1927 as The Western Islamic Association, with HE Khalid Sheldrake, sometime Emir of Kashgar, Eastern Turkestan, as Amir. It was reconstituted at the London Central Mosque and Islamic Cultural Centre in Regent’s Park in 1974 as The Association Of British Muslims with Imam Daoud Rosser-Owen as Amir, and again in 1978 as The Association For British Muslims with Imam Hajji Abdul Rasjid Skinner as Amir. [my italics]” Available online at:, accessed 4th February 2008.

Professor Henri Mustafa LeonIn a conversation in late January 2008, Sheikh Daoud Rosser-Owen mentioned that the late Professor Safa al-Khulusi (1917-1995) had been his source for this information. However, the reference is not a literary one: in the first edition of Islam: Our Choice (Woking, Surrey: Woking Muslim Mission & Literary Trust, 1961), the first unabridged edition, edited by Professor Khulusi, there is no separate entry for either Quilliam or under his pseudonym of Professor Haroun Mustafa Leon, and thus no light is shed on the matter at all. Quilliam did, however, write the entry on the life of Marmaduke Pickthall, and oddly a photograph of Prof. Leon (102) is included as part of the entry, unrecognisable here as the Sheikh-ul-Islam and looking appropriately, given his pseudonym, more like a well-decorated continental professor, complete with handlebar moustache. The second version of Islam: Our Choice (Karachi: Begum Aisha Bawany Waqf, 1961), abridged by Ebrahim Ahmad Bawany, does have an entry on Leon (18-21), but not on Quilliam, and there is certainly no mention of the Sheikh-ul-Islam, let alone Queen Victoria, but only the vague mention of receiving “many decorations from Sultan Abdul Hamid Khan , the late Shah, and the Emperor of Austria” (21).

Liverpool Muslim Institute (interior)[8] Yaqub Zaki, Shadow, Ch. 23, catalogues several architectural allusions and gifted features (from the Sultan himself) of the Liverpool Muslim Institute that emphasized the Ottoman connection, the source of Quilliam’s status as Sheikh-ul-Islam. Solid silver candelabras from the Sultan flanked the mihrab (Zaki, Shadow, citing The Crescent, XI (1898), 391); he also donated eight calligraphic roundels. There was also a gilt Osmanli crescent and star on the facade of the Institute, a motif repeated in the main lecture hall. Bunting, including the Ottoman flag, was put out annually for the mawlid al-Nabi, the two Eids and the Sultan’s birthday.

[9] Abdullah Quilliam, “The Union of Islam”, The Islamic World, IV, 39, July 1896, 84-90; “proclamation” (86), “declaration” (87) and “Fetva” (88) are used respectively to describe the same document.

[10] Yaqub Zaki, Shadow, Ch. 23.

[11] Quilliam, “Union”, 89:

“… and only one [Indian Muslim critic] … advised me ‘to leave politics alone and confine myself simply to preaching Islam.’ This is not and has never been a question of politics with me. It is purely and solely a question of religion. I decline to stand dumb and see Muslim set against Muslim in fratricidal strife, embroiled in a quarrel for which there is no cause, at the bidding of any Giaour [misbeliever] or nation of Giaours. The person who would cowardly hold his peace on such an occasion I regard as unworthy of the name of a man and a True-Believer. I believe in the complete union of Islam, and of all Muslim peoples; for this I pray, for this I work, and this I believe will yet be accomplished. In England we enjoy the blessed privilege of a free press, with liberty to express our thoughts in a reasonable way, and this advantageous position can be used for the purpose of promoting the entire re-union of Muslim peoples.”

As the work of Eric Germain indicates, Quilliam used Liverpool as the hub of a transnational network linking disaporic Indian Muslim communities with supporters in British India that promoted pan-Islamism and the Caliphate and heavily criticised British and European imperial action against the independent Muslim states, see Germain’s ‘Southern Hemisphere Diasporic Communities in the Building of International Muslim Public Opinion at the Turn of the Twentieth Century’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 27/1, 2007, 126-138.

[12] The Crescent, XXII, No. 565, 11th November 1903, 309, with thanks to Yaqub Zaki for forwarding this reference to me which comes in the context of an account of a public debate in Liverpool about the Macedonian question.

[13] Quilliam groomed one of his sons, Ahmed, as his successor, taking him to Istanbul on a number of occassions. He also had plans to build a grand jami` mosque in Liverpool which came to naught due to a lack of financial support from the caliph. In the first and grander version of the planned mosque, Yaqub Zaki notes the inclusion of a detached Turkish Ottoman-style türbe (tomb) for Quilliam: “…it is intended to have a tomb on the terraced courtyard in front of the projected Mosque for the last resting-place of the mortal remains of Shiekh W.H. Abdullah Quillliam, the first Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles, and founder of Islam in this country, a dome will be built in connection with the mosque.” (Yaqub, Shadow, Ch. 23, citing The Islamic World, III, no. 36, Apr. 1896, 367.) Zaki notes too that the proposed tomb was large enough to hold his progeny and indeed successors to the office of Sheikh-ul-Islam. One of the final notices (The Crescent, 13th May 1908, 313) informs us that Quilliam and his son were “summoned” to the Sultan’s private residence at Yildiz and could expect a warm welcome and further honours, even as “the Sultan’s first secretary”. This optimism would shortly prove to be unfounded.

[14] Liverpool, as the cosmopolitan imperial entrepôt, the gateway for trade with Eygpt and India, handling forty per cent of worldwide maritime trade, was an amenable milieu for pan-Islamism and as strange a phenomenon as an English Muslim community. See Diane Robinson-Dunne, “Lascar Sailors and English Converts: The Imperial Port and Islam in late 19th-Century England”, Seascapes, Littoral Cultures, and Trans-Oceanic Exchanges. 12-15 Feb. 2003. Library of Congress, Washington D.C., 29 Jan. 2008 <;. Quilliam echoes this view of Liverpool is his 1896 speech on “The Union of Islam”, 89-90, that:

“The True-Believers are scattered all over the world, in the ice-bound land of the white Czar, as well as under the burning sun at the Equator. In the Islands of the West Indies and in British Guiana, in the sandy desserts of Western Australia or the fertile valley of the Nile, the Negro, the Arab, the Indian, the warlike African, brave Turk, polite Persian, and the Moor all join in the Fatheha and turn their face Meccawards five times each twenty four hours. From Liverpool our steamers and trading vessels journey to each part of the world, and here within the walls of this Institution who knows but that the scattered cords may not be able to be gathered together and woven into a strong rope, Al-Hablul-mateen, of fraternal union.

“There’s a light about to glow,
There’s a fount about to flow,
There’s a midnight blackness changing into grey:
Men of thought and men of action clear the way.”

This is no idle dream on my part; it is a feasible project, which only requires unity of purpose and effort on the part of True Muslims to be made an accomplished effort. Here in Liverpool, brethren, let us do our part to bring about this glorious consumation of our hopes. ‘Tis true that it is not in mortals to command success, but all can work to deserve it (applause).”


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Abdullah Quilliam: Britain's First Islamist?

The choice of Abdullah Quilliam (1856-1932), ennobled as the Sheikh of Islam of the British Isles in 1894 by the Ottoman caliph and by the Emir of Afghanistan, as a symbolic flag-bearer for British Islam is less straightforward than it might appear. One recent appropriation of his legacy presents him as a kind of proto-Brownite patriot, a social entrepreneur working in the third sector (and of course he did great social works like setting up a school, an orphanage and many other institutions in building up his unique community in Liverpool at the end of the nineteenth century), larded with Brownite-style explicit invocations of Britishness. Seen by the new eponymous foundation as a “forebearer” for British Islam, (a retrieval that should not be “blurred” by the complications of the great postwar migrations from the Commonwealth,) Quilliam’s name is invoked “to help foster a genuine British Islam, native to these islands, free from the bitter politics of the Arab and Muslim world”.

But even a cursory glance at Quilliam’s life immediately reveals a more complicated personality than the simpler invocations of British Muslim patriotism will allow.

For instance, Quilliam’s community called the adhan out aloud, which would surely have fallen foul of the Bishop of Rochester, who is not a fan of the amplified call to prayer. We can hear the echoes of the Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali in the complaint of the Liverpool Review of 1891:

To hear the muezzin here it is most incongruous, unusual, silly and unwelcome, and the man who stands howling on the first floor of a balcony in such a fashion is certain to collect a ribald crowd, anxious to offer a copper or two to go into the next street, or even ready to respond to his invitation with something more than jeers. [1]

Quilliam lived during the high noon of European colonialism, and, in particular, of the British Empire. In 1900, eleven (mostly) European empires had 160 million Muslim subjects (or 80% of the umma); the British Empire itself had 100 million Muslims stretching from northern Ghana to Kelantan in SE Asia (so half of all Muslims were subjects of the Crown). By contrast, the independent Muslim states — the Ottoman Empire, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula, Morocco and Afghanistan — had a mere 41 million Muslims. [2] After 1870, the European denial of “progress” in Muslim terms (for “progress” could only truly be European in character) fed the growth of the Salafiyya movement, which advocated a return to the ways of the earliest generations of Islam. In some ways, Salafiyya was an analogue of nineteenth-century European classicism, and it tended, at this time, towards nationalism and was critical of what it saw as Ottoman despotism. This general pessimism towards the Ottoman Empire grew with the Balkan Crisis of the 1870s and the loss of Tunisia to the French and Egypt to the British in the 1880s, and much Muslim public opinion turned against it. The idea of the sultanate was still promoted in the independent Muslims states while stressing the religious dimensions of the role as amir al-mu’minin (in some ways close to the European idea of ‘defender of the faith’), while British royalty was also known to invoke caliphal authority at the same time. But generally, Muslim political elites began to detach the idea of sovereignty from the sultan (or empire), and to invest it in the nation-state, expressed in the constitutional movements of the early twentieth century.

Quilliam, based in the colonial metropole, was seen to be an anti-imperial agitator. He was unashamedly pro-Ottoman and a supporter of the Emirate of Afghanistan, a fact naturally reflected in the string of scholarly, religious and diplomatic titles and honours he had acquired by 1908:

His Excellency Abdullah Quilliam Bey Effendi, Faziletlu Hazratlaree, B.A., F.G.S., LL.D., Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles and Dominions, Turkish Consul and Persian Vice-Consul [3]

He opened the pages of his publications to George Rule, the Honourary Ottoman Consul in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and to Enver Bey, the Ottoman Consul in Liverpool. His interventions on foreign policy were generally regarded as “un-British” by the press of the day. He questioned the virtue of Muslim imperial subjects fighting on behalf of the Empire against their fellow brethren in the Sudan (see the original text below). He defended the Ottomans from criticisms he regarded as unbalanced or unfair over the Armenian uprisings in 1895. And as British foreign policy began to move away from support of the Ottomans at the beginning of the twentieth century, Quilliam was seen to be out of step.

After Quilliam left Britain in 1908 for Istanbul, it would have been impossible for him to return to Britain as Sheikh-ul-Islam particularly during the First World War (when the Turks sided with Germany). Yet there is some evidence that he did return under the pseudonym of H. Mustapha Leon or Henri M. Leon, some dating the return as early as December 1914 while others place it after the war in 1922. [4] Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, the famous translator of the Qur’an, before and after his conversion to Islam in 1917, was seen as “a security risk” in official circles. [5] Indeed, in this whole period, according to the leading historian of British Islam,

British Muslims were greatly affected by the First World War. Turkey’s involvement on the side of Germany caused immediate doubts about the loyalties of all classes of Muslims within the empire, which reinforced perceptions that Muslims were essentially “un-British”. [6]

How contemporary that predicament sounds! And it indicates that Quilliam’s experiences are more poignantly pertinent a hundred years later than hasty patriotic appropriations would crudely suggest.

From Liverpool, Quilliam worked alongside Joosub Moulvi Hamid Gool of Cape Town and Hassan Musa Khan of Perth to unite together the diasporic Indian Muslim communities in places as far afield as Australia and South Africa, on the basis of a strong rhetoric of international brotherhood mobilised in support of the Caliphate. His strongest support came from the NW part of the British Raj in Gujrat, the Punjab and the NW Frontier Province, and particularly from the Afghans. However, the elite of the Indian Muslim diaspora couched their pan-Islamism in Anglophilia, claiming their Britishness as they sought to claim their equal status and worth. (And it is the Anglophilia rather than the context or the substance that seems of utility to hasty appropriators.)

In the high tide of Empire, Quilliam wrote his subversive pan-Islamist tracts in favour of defensive jihad, ummatic solidarity and the support and defence of the beleaguered caliphate. At least in the mid-1890s, he seemed to be a staunch Islamist, to use the current terminology, and thus seems an unlikely candidate for the latest fashion in Britslam-makeovers.

Despite the context, Quilliam was certainly unabashed and unapologetic about his loyalties. Here, in the two texts from 1896, he calls upon Muslims not to fight on behalf of the British Empire against fellow Muslims, and argues that supporting the caliphate is the mark of the mu’min (believer) and the only guarantor of Muslim unity. Given the current climate, it seems more than likely that his writing of the period would have fallen foul of current anti-terrorism laws on incitement and propagandising. The Daily Mail might even have seen him as one of those “preachers of hate”!


Text One: Quilliam on Jihad

In the name of God, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful!

Peace be to all True-Believers to whom this shall come!

Know ye, O Muslims, that the British Government has decided to commence military and warlike operations against the Muslims of the Soudan, who have taken up arms to defend their country and their faith. And it is in contemplation to employ Muslim soldiers to fight against these Muslims of the Soudan.

For any True Believer to take up arms and fight against another Muslim is contrary to the Shariat, and against the law of God and his holy prophet.

I warn every True-Believer that if he gives the slightest assistance in this projected expedition against the Muslims of the Soudan, even to the extent of carrying a parcel, or giving a bite of bread to eat or a drink of water to any person taking part in the expedition against these Muslims that he thereby helps the Giaour against the Muslim, and his name will be unworthy to be continued upon the roll of the faithful.

Signed at the Mosque in Liverpool, England, this 10th day of Shawwal, 1313 (which Christians erroneously in their ignorance call the 24th day of March, 1896),

W.H. ABDULLAH QUILLIAM, Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles.

[Source: The Crescent, March 25th 1896, Vol. VII, No. 167, p. 617; original punctuation and spelling retained.]


Text Two: Quilliam on the Caliphate

[681] In the name of God, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful!

Peace be to all the faithful everywhere!

“O True-Believers, fear God with His true fear; and die not unless ye also be True-Believers. And cleave all of you unto the covenant of God, and depart not from it; and remember the favour of God towards you.” Sura 3, “The Family of Imran,” Ayat, 103

All praise be to God Who, in His unlimited goodness, has favoured us with the gift of the True religion of Islam, and Who has ordered the brethren to be united, and declared this to be His law in the before-quoted Ayat of the Holy and Imperishable Koran!

Among Muslims none should be known as Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Ajem, Afghans, Indians or English. They are all Muslims, and verily the True-Believers are brethren. Islam is erected on the Unity of God, the unity of His religion, and the unity of the Muslims. History demonstrates that the True-Believers were never defeated while they remained united, but only when disunion crept into their ranks.

At the present time, union is more than ever necessary among Muslims. The Christian powers are preparing a new crusade in order to shatter the Muslim powers, under the pretext that they desire to civilise the world.

This is nothing but hypocrisy, but armed as they are with the resources of Western civilisation it will be impossible to resist them unless the Muslims stand united in one solid phalanx.

O Muslims, do not be deceived by this hypocrisy. Unite yourselves as one man. Let us no longer be separated. The rendevous of Islam is under the shadow of the Khalifate. The Khebla of the True-Believer who desires happiness for himself and prosperity to Islam is the holy seat of the Khalifate.

It is with the deepest regret that we see [682] some persons seeking to disseminate disunion among Muslims by publications issued in Egypt, Paris and London. “Verily, they are in a manifest error.”

If their object – as they allege it – be the welfare of Islam, then let them reconsider their action and they will perceive that instead of bringing a blessing to Islam their actions will have a contrary effect, and only further disseminate disunion where it is – alas that it should be said – only too apparent.

We fraternally invite these brethren to return their allegiance, and call them to the sacred name of Islam to re-unite with the Faithful.

Muslims all! Arsh is under the standard of the Khalifate. Let us unite there, one and all, and at once!

Given at the Mosque at Liverpool, this 5th day of Dhulkada, 1313, which Christians in their error call the 20th day of April, 1896

W.H. ABDULLAH QUILLIAM, Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles.

[Source: The Crescent, Vol. VII, No. 171, April 22nd 1896, pp. 681-682, original punctuation and spelling retained, pagination indicated in square brackets in the text.]


Far from being “free” of the “bitter politics” of the Muslim world, Quilliam seemed fully engaged, working not only against the British Empire but also the tide of opinion in the Muslim world that had become anti-Ottoman, rallying the Muslims of the diaspora to a defiant defence of the caliphate. In a way, his mixture of local public service and global political concern makes Quilliam an oddly resonant figure for young British Muslims today — a marionette for our anachronistic fears and hopes.


[1] H. Ansari, The Infidel Within (London: Hurst, 2004), 83.
[2] R. Schulze, A Modern History of the Islamic World (London: I.B. Tauris, 2000), 25.
[3] E. Germain, ‘Southern Hemisphere Diasporic Communities in the Building of International Muslim Public Opinion at the Turn of the Twentieth Century’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 27/1, 2007, 126-138, citation at 130, n. 30.
[4] Germain, 134, notes an attestation to 1922, but there is the Islamic Review, January 1915, pp. 4-7, that records a speech by Prof. H. Mustafa Leon in London in December 1914, which was in fact the inaugural address to the newly-formd British Muslim Society, based in London. The speech is reproduced here online: Quilliam’s vision for the new Society sounds very similar to how he had envisaged the role of the Liverpool Muslim Institute in the previous decade: “The Society will, I trust, keep us in touch with each, though separated by miles of land; bind us together into one great brotherhood; help us along the Islamic pathway; and strengthen each and all of us to play our part in the battle of life and the defence and exposition of those eternal principles of human conduct and Islamic religion and doctrine for which we are fighting. It. will, I hope, also serve to keep us in touch with the other parts of our world-wide brotherhood. Union is strength. May it be a uniting link not only between every British Muslim but between us and the Muslims everywhere, consolidating and binding the whole into one unbroken and unbreakable chain, stretching through the Orient and Occident, Africa, and the South and North American States. We have now planted the banner of Islam in the heart of the British Empire, its silken folds are fluttering on the breeze, good and noble men and true and gentle women are rallying beneath it. Let us keep it flying on the winds unstained, untarnished, as spotless as when it was first unfurled on Arabia’s burning sands over fourteen hundreds years ago.”

[5] P. Clarke, Marmaduke Pickthall (London: Quartet, 1986), 31.
[6] H. Ansari, 89.


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Free Gillian Gibbons

Gillian Gibbons has been given a “lenient” fifteen-day sentence for allegedly insulting the Prophet by allowing her pupils to name a teddy bear Muhammad after asking them to vote for a name that they liked. The judge ignored any question of (lack of) intent or cultural misunderstanding despite strong support from her pupils, their parents and teaching staff at the primary school where she taught in Khartoum. This whole affair is setting the worst possible example: where is the tolerance, understanding, clemency or mercy? It displays harshness and pettiness in equal measure and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. It seems to be a political case through and through, as Soumaya Gannoushi argues, and has more to do with the Sudanese government looking to pin back what it sees as British interference in Darfur.

Gillian Gibbons should be freed immediately, cleared of all charges and be given an official apology from the Sudanese government.

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Liberal Rule, or How to discipline Muslims

The Transatlantic Task Force on Immigration and Integration composed of senior or retired European and American politics has issued a report this month, “Integrating Islam: A New Chapter in ‘Church-State’ Relations”. Reports come and go and often get ignored but what caught my eye about this particular briefing was an unusual clarity of expression and bluntness.

There was only one British representative on the panel, Sir Trevor Phillips, the new Chair of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, but Britain’s approach to this issue is completely disregarded in this report, and is not even deemed worthy of hostile consideration. Perhaps the Londonistan stereotype has rendered the British contribution moot. Instead the report is much more interested in setting up official and legal frameworks for (i) the disciplining of Muslim representation and (ii) the regulation of the community’s chief religious institutions:

Religious discrimination should never be allowed to give succor to extremist recruitment strategies. Dialogue can help tamp down extremism through “trickle-down” effects. Recruiters’ causes rely on an adversarial relationship with the state…. … Religious integration, on the contrary, would lead to the “banalization” of religious practice. In other words, religious practice becomes everyday and routine; instead of forcing Islam out of the public sphere, this approach allows Muslim religious expression to the same degree that other faiths are tolerated and protected. The goal of these consultations, therefore, is not political integration through religion. Rather, the objective is to normalize religious practice in the Member State and European contexts such that everyday matters of faith can no longer be sensationalized as “evidence” of the incompatibility of Islam and Western democracy. [1]

The three approaches promoted here are the French, German and Italian models, all of which are very much works still in progress as the final form of settlement has yet to be achieved. All these three new Mosque-State concordats are post-9/11 initiatives. All this is given an added urgency in the report by invoking the Eurabian motif of the Muslim demographic threat by citing a 2005 report commissioned by the European Parliament: the Muslim population of Europe could grow from 3% in 2005 to 20% in 2050. [2]

The first strand, the regulation of Muslim representational politics, is to be done through the concordatory model, based on the historical settlements between the Churches and the State and modern European nation-states, on the formula of official recognition in exchange for the delimitation of the role of religion to civil society and its confinement to prescribed institutional pastoral roles, e.g. in prisons, hospital and interfaith.

There is an unspoken assumption here that interfaith be made the instrument for the redirection of Muslim politics and that the other Abrahamic faiths, already officially recognised, be the nursemaids. Any true political integration must come through party politics and not through religious lobbies. In this model the state explicitly sets out the nature and parameters of the dialogue in the pursuit of the delimitation of Islamism rather than seeking to mediate between interests (presumably the British mistake). Whom to talk to and why must be strictly regulated. A useful feature of the report is how it so usefully defines “dialogue” as not involving mutual interaction but asymmetric discipline through five features: (i) the state sets the terms of debate; (ii) official Islam platforms must be separated from the political process; (iii) the accommodation of religious practices must seek their banalization, or separation from identity politics; (iv) the selection of Muslim participants must fit in with the state’s agenda, remain “diverse” and, just to double check, be law-abiding; and (v) consider that while local dialogues may focus on institution building and inter-community arbitration, and national dialogues may focus on national regulation and values, the two should be linked together. [3] French Islamists, the report judges, have responded well to “dialogue as discipline”. One note of realism in the report is the admission that the over-represenation of secular or cultural Muslims may vitiate the state’s ability to deal with politicised or overly religious Muslims who are the main targets of this “dialogue as discipline”.

The second strand, the regulation of chief religious institutions, gains additional salience as the means by which to contain Muslim identity politics and redirect Islamism into pastoral provision, mosque management and interfaith dialogue. The provision of local imam training, attached to tertiary education, comes near the top of the agenda, and is linked explicitly with the goals of combating extremism and fostering cultural (note, not political) integration. It plays to the stereotype of the shepherd who directs his flock.

In terms of governmentality theory this is all rather redolent of nineteenth century techniques of disciplinary rule used to create the law-abiding citizen. [4] Throughout there is the assumption that Muslim interlocutors are prone to law-breaking and need to be reminded of the basics of modern society. At the least the British approach contains some strong elements of the regulation of desire (talk of shared national values rather than of rule of law) and the notions of liberal self-discipline (self-regulation of institutions not concordats). If these are the only two choices on the European table, it might be preferable to be charmed into compliance rather than disciplined into it. [5] This just goes to show how far “the Muslim problem” has become removed from the ordinary decencies of normal political processes when there is so little trust, respect or understanding. For the Muslim at least, Europe does feel more nineteenth century than twenty first, more a postcolony than a democratic federation.


[1] Jonathan Laurence, Integrating Islam: A New Chapter in “Church-State” Relations (Transatlantic Task Force on Immigration and Integration, October 2007), p. available at

[2] Cited on p. 2 of the report. The original reference is Karoly Lorant, “The demographic challenge in Europe”, Brussels: Euorpean Parliament, 2005), available at

[3] Jonathan Lawrence, ibid.

[4] Nikolas Rose, Powers of Freedom: Reframing Political Thought (Cambridge: University Press, 1999), 23, 45-46. Foucault suggests a repetoire of governmentality or “the conduct of conduct” (techniques of governance that direct behaviour). These are developed in the nineteenth through to the twentieth centuries but remain in place as possibilities, should the need arise, as it has in this case. There are three possibilities of governmentality: (i) sovereignty: “a discontinuous exercise of power through display and spectacle, law as command, sanctions as negative and deductive”; (ii) discipline: “the continuous exercise of power through surveillance, individualisation and normalisation”; and (iii) governmentality: “maximizing the forces of the population collectively and individually”. These modes could either be applied to the individual body (“discipline”) or to the collectivity (“bio-politics”). In turn these show how the subject of these techniques is characterised: “the ‘thin’ moral subject of habits…, to the individuated normal subject of constitution, character and condition…to the collectively understood social subject of solidarity or of alienation and anomie…, through the citizen subject of rights and obligations in regimes of social welfare and social insurance to the autonomous ‘deep’ subject of choice and self-identity.”

[5] i.e. to be the subject at least of “governmentality” or “biopolitics” (Anglo-American deregulation) rather than of “discipline” (continental concordatory arrangements), which are more classically nineteenth-century. At least the former more associated with the post-1945 world, and might approximate to the treatment of citizens rather than of postcolonial subjects.

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Big Tent Islam in America

The impressions of a British Muslim about the Islamic Society of North America’s 2007 annual convention. Posted here, courtesy of Emel Magazine.


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Pledge of Mutual Respect and Cooperation Between Sunni Muslim Scholars, Organizations, and Students of Sacred Knowledge

Hold on to the ropeHold fast to the Rope of Allah, all together, and be not divided. (Qur’an, 3:103)

Surely, those who have made divisions in their religion and turned into factions, you have nothing to do with them. Their case rests with Allah; then He will inform them of what they used to do. (Qur’an, 6:159)

In light of the Divine Word, we recognize that the historical nature of Sunni Islam is a broad one that proceeds from a shared respect for the Qur’an and Sunnah, a shared dependence on the interpretations and derivations of the Companions (may Allah be pleased with them), and a shared respect for the writings of a vast array of scholars who have been identified by their support for and affiliation with the Sunni Muslims and have been accepted as the luminaries of Sunni Islam – as broadly defined.

Likewise, detailed discussions in matters of theology are the specific domain of trained specialists, and proceed on the basis of well-defined principles and methodologies, which are beyond the knowledge of the generality of Muslims.

Our forebears in faith, with all the dedication, brilliance and sincerity clearly manifested in their works, have debated and discussed abstruse and complex issues of creed and practice, and have failed in most instances to convince their opponents of the veracity and accuracy of their positions.

The average Muslim is only responsible for knowing the basics of creed as they relate to a simple belief in Allah, His Angels, Scriptures, the Prophets and Messengers, the Last Day, and the Divine Decree.

Recognizing that the specter of sectarianism threatens to further weaken and debilitate our struggling Muslim community at this critical time in human affairs, and recognizing that Allah, Exalted is He, has given the Muslim community in the West a unique historical opportunity to advance the cause of peace, cooperation, and goodwill amongst the people of the world, we the undersigned respectfully:

– Urge Muslims to categorically cease all attacks on individual Muslims and organizations whose varying positions can be substantiated based on the broad scholarly tradition of the Sunni Muslims. We especially urge the immediate cessation of all implicit or explicit charges of disbelief;

– Urge Muslim scholars and students of sacred knowledge to take the lead in working to end ad hominem attacks on other scholars and students; to cease unproductive, overly polemical writings and oral discourse; and to work to stimulate greater understanding and cooperation between Muslims, at both the level of the leadership and the general community;

– Urge Muslims in the West, especially our youth, to leave off unproductive and divisive discussions of involved theological issues that are the proper domain of trained specialists, and we especially discourage participation in those internet chat rooms, campus discussion groups, and other forums that only serve to create ill-will among many Muslims, while fostering a divisive, sectarian spirit;

– Urge all teachers to instruct their students, especially those attending intensive programs, to respect the diverse nature of our communities and to refrain from aggressive challenges to local scholars, especially those known for their learning and piety;

– Urge our brothers and sisters in faith to concentrate on enriching their lives by deepening their practice of Islam through properly learning the basics of the faith, adopting a consistent regimen of Qur’anic recitation, endeavoring to remember and invoke Allah in the morning and evening, learning the basics of jurisprudence, attempting to engage in voluntary fasting as much as possible, studying the Prophetic biography on a consistent basis, studying the etiquettes that guide our interactions with our fellow Muslims, and the performance of other beneficial religious acts, to the extent practical for their circumstances;

– Finally, we urge the Believers to attempt to undertake individual and collective actions that will help to counter the growing campaign of anti-Islamic misinformation and propaganda that attempts to portray our religion as a violence-prone relic of the past unsuitable for modern society, and by so doing justify indiscriminate wars against Muslim peoples, occupation of Muslim lands, and usurpation of their resources.

Saying this, we do not deny the reality of legitimate differences and approaches, nor the passionate advocacy of specific positions based on those differences. Such issues should be rightfully discussed observing established rules of debate. However, we urge the above measures to help prevent those differences from destroying the historical unity and integrity of the Muslim community, and creating irreparable divisions between our hearts. Further, we do not deny the urgency, especially in light of the situation in Iraq, of efforts to foster greater cooperation between diverse Muslim communities. Hence, this document should not be seen as negating any statements, or declarations designed to foster greater peace and harmony between diverse Muslim communities. However, we feel, as Sunni Muslims, a pressing need to first set our own affairs in order.

In conclusion, having called our brothers and sisters to act on these points, we, the undersigned, pledge to be the first to actively implement them in response to the Divine Word:

Do you enjoin righteousness on the people and refuse to follow it yourselves and all along you are reciting the scripture!? Will you not reflect? (Qur’an (2:44)

We ask Allah for the ability to do that which He loves. And Allah alone is the Grantor of Success.


Abdelrahman Helbawi
Abdul Karim Khalil
Abdullah Adhami
Abdurraheem Green
Abdur-Rahman ibn Yusuf Mangera
Abu Aaliyah Surkheel Sharif
Abu Eesa Niamatullah
Aisha Faleh AlThani
Asma Mirza
Cheikhna B. Bayyah
Dawood Yasin
Ebadur Rahman
Faraz Rabbani
Fuad Nahdi
Gul Mohammad
Haitham al-Haddad
Hamza Yusuf
Hasan al-Banna
Ibrahim Osi-Efa
Jihad Hashim Brown
M. Abdul Latif Finch
M. Afifi al-Akiti
Mehdi Kader
Mokhtar Maghroui
Muhammad Alshareef
Muhammad Ash-Shaybani
Muhammad ibn Adam
Omar Qureshi
S. Abdal-Hakim Jackson
Shamira Chothia Ahmed
Siddique Abdullah
Suhaib Webb
Tahir Anwar
Talal Al-Azem
Tanveer Hussain
Tawfique Chowdhury
Usama Canon
Usama Hasan
Walead Mosaad
Yahya Rhodus
Yasir Qadhi
Zaid Shakir


Filed under Religion, Umma

Sufis and Salafis of the West: Discord and the Hope of Unity

Last week the question of Muslim unity came up, as it often does, on the English-medium Muslim blogosphere. One of the prominent young American scholars, Imam Suhaib Webb, who is currently studying at the al-Azhar in Cairo, Sunni Islam’s most august centre of Islamic learning, commented that:

Over the last 15 yrs the West has become a waste land for the wars that have taken place between both [the Sufi and Salafi] schools. In their attempt to derive authenticity, each has staked a claim to traditionalism as defined by the parameters of their learning and understanding. The problem with both is that a monolith is eventually given birth to that allows each to, in the name of tradition and tolerance, destroy each other with words, pens and so forth. Initially, one must admit, that our salafi brethren were exceedingly rude and outrageous in their attacks upon the sufis and the asharis. Then, sometime in the late 90’s and definitely post 911 some of the Sufis were given a window of opportunity and, instead of seeking to mend fences with the (moderate) salafis they begin to launch attacks on them from every angle, questioning their ijazas, resorting to tabloid type journalism and excluding them from the discourse. There is a famous Usoli principle [in legal reasoning] that says, “An extreme will only give birth to its opposite.”

In an original posting (now deleted), Imam Suhaib declared that he had washed his hands of the traditionalist movement, provoked by a recent polemic from a Sufi scholar against Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi that Imam Suhaib thought overly judgemental and too personalised in tone. A few days later, Imam Suhaib posted a second blog saying that he would continue to work with both constructive Salafis and Sufis to further programmes of religious public education and other forms of community service. However he still wanted to distance himself from what he saw as excessive partisanship on both sides.

There has been much critical examination of Salafi partisanship by self-defined traditionalists in the West (and by reflective Salafis), which is unsurprising given the aggressive nature of the Salafi da`wa, particularly in the late eighties and early nineties. However, calling oneself to account (muhasaba) is supposed to be a Sufi trait. So perhaps Imam Suhaib’s concerns about excessive partisanship among some traditionalists in the West deserve serious consideration.

The phenomenon of rejoicing in groupthink, and claiming some automatic authenticity and superiority is common among camp-followers of any grouping and is hardly unique to traditionalists alone or even to Islam. The harm arises when this is systematically fostered by the leaders of such a movement. Yet the evidence for claiming that the leaders of traditionalism are guilty of this seems thin on the ground: in fact I’ve heard a number of them make explicit condemnations of cultishness or groupthink. How far that is taken on board is another matter of course.

There have been lapses into groupthink on traditionalist internet fora because some people are unable to handle the ikhtilaf of the ulema, and some want to defend their teachers to the hilt, taking it as a personal and not an academic dispute. Partisanship is common too because it so often derives from an excess of loyalty that is not tempered by other considerations. However learned internet sites like Sunnipath manifest loyalty to an interpretive tradition while embodying good manners and circumspection when speaking of others with whom one might have scholarly or even more serious differences in matters of religion.

Traditionalism: Definitions and Development in the West

The basic question — what is traditionalism truly? — is a perennial one. Traditionalism, used in its normative sense, refers to that approach which allows for the authentic perpetuation and embodiment of the Islamic tradition and that contains a collective system of ongoing self-correction and refinement. Historically, while traditionalism has been manifested by the recognised schools of law, theology and mysticism, it has always been clear that no one group of trained scholars among the ulema can claim to embody it absolutely without the correctives of other trained scholars should that prove necessary. Perhaps the tradition in this sense is larger even than the ulema themselves. The ulema are the inheritors of the prophets if they preserve and teach the knowledge of the prophets in each successive generation and attempt to apply the principles of that teaching when new circumstances arise that were unknown to previous generations. So in some sense, their immersion in the interpretive legacy disciplines the entire collectivity of the ulema too, as it provides the gold standard by which all scholarly interpretations are measured and checked by their learned peers and successors. In essence the mechanism of discipline is moral and intellectual peer review. It is no accident that there are similarities in the regulation of scholarly standards between the seminary (Islamic and later Christian) and the modern university, as the latter has its historical roots in the former as George Makdisi showed in The Rise of Colleges.

Some comparative religion might shed some further light on this formula of traditionalism somewhat. The concept of orthodox Judaism for instance only arose during the Jewish Enlightenment when reformers coined the term to describe the age-old Rabbinical tradition that later accepted the use of this terminology to describe itself. Its decentring caused it to be named in terms relative to other new tendencies, i.e. from Rabbinical Judaism to orthodox Judaism. Similarly the Muslim world has arguably been going through something like a Reformation since the eighteenth century (some historians argue that its genesis lies in the sixteenth century) and so traditional Islam was named when its centrality became contested. Today many now claim the right to interpret Islam besides the ulema.

Outside of its more general and normative sense, what is more often referred to in the West today as traditionalism is a particular and recent manifestation. Around the beginning of the nineties, a set of scholars in the West attempted to defend traditional Islam against the polemics of the political Islamic movements and the Salafis. For a young generation in Britain and North America, traditional Islam was in danger of losing serious ground. It was accused of being either backward, hidebound or even unorthodox and heretical. This group of scholars restored the conviction of many in this generation in the intellectual validity of traditional Islam and initiated them in the wellsprings of its scholastic and mystical traditions.

However the nineties are long gone, and the noughties have been a very different decade for the traditionalist movement in the West. There have, I believe, been two key factors here, and God knows best.

The first was 9/11. Since then, Salafism and political Islamic groups have been under continuous attack from Western politicians, commentators, academics and others for their linkages to terrorism and extremism. Leaving an assessment of this polemic aside for a moment, this critique had already been articulated in the nineties by many of the scholars serving the traditionalist movement, chiefly, as mentioned above, as a defence of their beleaguered position. There have been broadly three traditionalist responses to this changed political circumstance.

(1) Some emphasised unity in the face of the war on terror, modulating their public critique of these movements, and even moving towards some kind of public entente on occasion. They did not want to be complicit in compromising the fundamental civic and human rights of those Muslims who had been their erstwhile sectarian rivals in the nineties. However they did still largely insist on a misguided theological component to extremism while acknowledging the central role of the war on terror in exacerbating it after 9/11. The nub of their argument is that theological intolerance lends itself more readily to violence than does more tolerant theology, and for that reason alone the issue should be kept on the agenda for discussion whatever the political circumstances.

(2) Other traditionalists (not the majority I believe) saw political opportunity in aligning themselves with the war on terror and attacking Salafis and Islamists as their political star was falling. Their public rhetoric is quite similar to the more hawkish language of Western politicians after 9/11. Their schadenfreude was unsurprising (if inexcusable) given that Islamists and Salafis often used to denigrate traditionalists intellectually and presume to represent them in the name of “unity” while marginalising them politically.

(3) A significant number of traditionalists were keen to stay out of public engagement altogether for various reasons that are outlined below.

The upshot of 9/11 has been that latent political differences within the traditionalist movement have become more manifest. There are many reasons for these differences but the most important is that the traditionalist movement has made a virtue of avoiding centralised and formal mass organisation as it believes this to be spiritually deleterious. Thus, it embodies more an orientation in religious thinking that loosely links together various Sufi orders and scholarly networks through specific styles of religious education, spiritual guidance and collective devotion.

In practical terms how did these traditionalists manifest these internal tensions after 9/11? Many argued that traditionalists should stick to their core task of reviving traditional teachings in the West, a role that was defined in the nineties through deen-intensives, light-study courses, and sending Western Muslims to the great centres of the Muslim world to study and so on. Others saw an immediate need to spend time on public outreach, including interfaith, public speaking, media work, conferences, liaising and working with the authorities and so on. Many of the rank-and-file were uncomfortable with this shift and wanted to stick with what they knew, while others took it up as a necessary duty to preserve the public reputation of Muslim communities and to emphasize the need to make common cause against an extremism they saw as alien to Islam. Some of those who engaged have been politically opportunistic: after all, Islamist and Wahhabi bashing in public has become a viable career option, and not just for Muslims. This opportunism has partly been fed by a traditional deference towards political authority, which has always preferred symbolic political access and brokerage over more modern styles of democratic dissent.

The second reason why the traditionalist movement has changed in the noughties is that a large segment of young Muslims are looking for greater accommodation between their religious practice and liberal expectations within society at large. This is not merely a phenomenon to be found among traditionalists, rather such tensions can be found in nearly all, if not all, the groups and tendencies out there. But within the traditionalist movement a liberalising wing was and is manifested in three ways:

(1) Firstly the“liberal traditionalists” have put more emphasis upon the critique of political Islamic movements and Wahhabism than on adherence to the rigours of the Sharia in their personal lives. Among traditionalists, and indeed their scholars, there are significant differences over the validity of fiqh al-aqalliyat (a jurisprudence for Muslim minorities), the emphasis placed on the maqasid al-Sharia (the objectives of Islamic law), the desirability of adopting the madhhab al-taysir (the way of seeking ease in religion) and the emphasis made upon either the rukhsa (legal dispensation) or the azima (the strongest legal ruling on an issue within a legal school).

(2) Secondly many “liberal traditionalists” seek a personal ethics, a philosophy of Sufism, and have been uncomfortable with what they see as elements of cultishness in Sufi orders. It is a Sufism without spiritual guides (murshidin), spiritual initiation (bay`a) or the rigours of the mystical path (tazkiyat al-nafs). It is clear that a philosophy of Sufism may converge with individualised religion and a liberal sensibility, although this is not a given. In a different way, this philosophical Sufism shares some features in common with notions of tarbiya (moral rectification) found in Salafism and Islamism. It lacks the element of seeking to know the Divine (irfan) within tasawwuf. It is essentially the way of the jurists rather than that of the Sufis.

(3) Thirdly a critique of (Western) modernity, somewhat imbibed in intellectual quarters within the traditionalist movement and influenced either by perennialist, deconstructionist or conservative Christian analyses has often resolved itself into a personal philosophy. But it was held apart from the practical business of seeking to do well in the professions; in other words, this personal philosophy of anti-modernism did not harden into a practical form of isolationism. So for example, when the political crisis of 9/11 emerged, many traditionalists were aware that a concerted effort in public outreach to foster greater understanding was necessary. This outreach has involved taking up the liberal and secular language of the public sphere, in which the premises of the critique of Western modernity were, for all intents and purposes, largely submerged.

What binds traditionalism together today — with its liberalising or more conservative wings — is its commitment to the belief that the ulema retain a central role in interpreting religion authoritatively today. However, this commitment is now continually challenged by the tension between tradition and reason, empiricism and postmodernism in the West. Even our Abrahamic cousins, with longer experience, struggle with the dialectic that now faces Muslims of the West too.

Religious Authority in the Age of the Internet

The “competition for the mike”, as Sheikh Nuh Keller has pithily termed it, has been crucial in shaping religious authority among Muslims today. The mass media and the internet have changed the way in which religious teachings are disseminated and indeed how religious disputes are projected and replicated to a vast audience. This is not new but arose two hundred years ago when the ulema began to write treatises addressed to the literate constituency of the Muslim masses through the medium of print. Since then the ulema have cultivated constituencies of opinion through mass media, and thus the disagreements of the ulema have a large role in defining the disagreements of their media constituencies, although it should also be said that the Muslim masses do exert some influence of their own in terms of their looking for guidance for how to handle changed circumstances through their encountering new customs, thoughts and ideas. The ability to ask questions is the power to set the agenda, which is very often done through the mass media as well.

The tension arises because the ulema can reach a much larger number of people through the mass media rather than on an individual face-to-face basis, and they all see the benefits of doing that. The same is true for all the lay Islamic movements as well. What this means is that there is a religious public sphere out there in which scholarly (and indeed non-scholarly) disagreements now get projected. Where the internet replicates the book, e.g. through treatises, essays, legal rulings and so on, then that form of internet intervention is much more familiar to the Islamic scholarly tradition. But the point is that in the age of print there used to be an editorial process and a relatively high economic cost to getting published, but now through digital printing and the internet anyone can publish on paper or electronically. Samizdat publishing has become the norm and not the exception. (In this I speak with the experience of a culprit.)

If all sorts of opinions are shaped and formed in the blogosphere for instance then how far should the ulema intervene to ask people to behave with decorum or even to arbitrate and get involved? As the ulema project their views on the internet in various ways, being a participant and a referee at the same time is a difficult dual role to play within the interactive part of the internet. Disputes take place all the time on the net between scholars, students of knowledge and those who follow scholarship and those who don’t. Disputation has gone from street corner discussions in the early nineties to all being preserved in glorious binary digital code, archived and available for retrieval and requoting. Who would have thought that?

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), seen as one of the seers of the mass media, considered that “the medium is the massage” by which he meant that all technologies were extensions of human senses and capabilities. The nature of this extension had the ability to alter the way that human beings think and act. Yet he was not a determinist either for he argued that “there is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening” (The Medium is the Massage, New York, 1967, p. 25). Until recently the mass media was mostly linear and declarative, whereas arguably it is rapidly becoming individualised, interactive, demotic and non-linear. It engages all the senses and is working towards ever more complex simulacra of real life like Second Life. Science fiction writers, most famously William Gibson in Neuromancer (1984), have imagined the future rise of a seamless machine-human interface when our cortexes would be on-line. This implies that much future social interaction will be disembodied. We still don’t understand how this will change societies over the long term. This is still a new world to which both the ulema and the Muslim masses are adjusting and attempting to formulate an etiquette for. And once a tool is available, especially one of this revolutionary power and sheer utility, people will use it. Yet legal rulings apply to the use made of a tool and not to the tool itself. It is thus through McLuhan’s “contemplation” of the nature of the medium itself that we might stave off somewhat the “inevitability” that Sheikh Google will lead the unified madhhab of the future in an alternate virtual reality universe that might well become our own.

Two Approaches to Unity

Leaving aside the nature of the internet, which may indeed be a major conduit through which to promote unity (as well as disunity), what kind of overall approach ought to inform intra-faith reconciliation? Here I am referring specifically to Sufis and Salafis, although the principles invoked would seem to have wider application. There seems to have been two approaches to fostering Islamic unity, one that is tried and tested and another that seems less likely to work. And God knows best.

The less effective way is to define primary and secondary issues in legal and credal issues from one approach as constituting the centre ground. The attempt to define this as being at the centre of our tradition only results in creating a new movement. Q-News once captured this well with the ironic headline: “Unite, but follow me”.

The more effective way is to stand firm on primary issues and to educate the masses in the matter of the etiquette of differing on secondary issues. Sheikh Ali Goma’a, the current Mufti of Egypt, said that there are approximately 1.25 million matters that have been the subject of legal rulings, and about 100 of these are agreed upon by all Muslims, being matters that are known by necessity to be part of religion. Any approach at reconciliation would do well to be informed by the approach outlined by Imam al-Ghazali’s Faysal al-Tafriqa, which, as people will know, is available in English translation. It reminds us that people will not cease to differ over rulings so long as they differ over the details of the principles of interpretation, particularly in the priority given to various hermeneutic methods. The literal sense has priority and other methods are applied if there is some evidential or logical reasons why the literal sense does not stand on its own.

The Amman Initiative, started in 2005, embodies this second approach and has the backing of a very wide spectrum of senior ulema across the world representing eight legal traditions.

There is a potential tension between affirming one’s own stance on secondary issues and indeed following an interpretative methodology in law or theology and working together for the common good with others. It is noticeable that avoiding differences can lead some to a sheer eclecticism in legal matters: this can confuse people, lending cultural credibility to a soft relativism, or the postmodern conviction that all differences are the same, i.e. they are all “just” differences. This focus leads to the avoidance of difference and controversy for its own sake and lends itself it to anti-intellectualism rather than to investigating matters whilst learning to handle a wider scope of difference.

In other words, in seeking a middle ground between Sufis and Salafis, points of agreement could be defined, but that minimum should not then define the scope of people’s commitments on secondary issues. Rather the scope for a wide variety of positions should remain. From a Sufi perspective, the fear is that if finding a common ground between Sufis and Salafis means dropping Ibn Arabi altogether then where would that leave one? Rather, Ibn Taymiyan and Akbarian approaches ought to remain fully represented and embodied and should seek to engage in a creative and genuine exchange in any process of reconciliation. They can part company civilly without necessarily agreeing but at least understanding the nature of their differences better at an usuli level. An historic example of this is the exchange between Ibn Taymiya and Ibn Ata’ullah al-Iskandari.

For the sake of unity is it right to drop practices or beliefs, which after all make up part of the spiritual methodology of Sufism, or to foster an understanding and an acceptance that others differ and not make that an issue? It can’t be that we drop positions because either ourselves or others are unable to apply the rules of ikhtilaf. Affirming one’s position doesn’t entail letting go of the possibility that one might be wrong and that the other might be right.

To put it another way. Sufis can’t be expected to endorse a position that would seek to make them agree that tasawwuf is an optional add-on, a bad innovation, or, worse, even a heresy. Rather Sufis would like anti-Sufis to accept that placing tasawwuf at the heart of our religion is a valid interpretive possibility even if they disagree with it. It can’t be ruled out of court as an interpretive possibility. Tasawwuf has enjoyed an august and widespread history of practice and support throughout the centuries of the umma’s spiritual legacy and remains a vibrant path for millions of Muslims today. In the final analysis, Muslims believe that God will inform us about our differing in the next life.

Three major issues in Sufi-Salafi reconciliation will be (i) the reclassification of some acts as fiqhi differences rather than as matters of basic aqida, (ii) the recognition that there are primary and secondary issues in credal and legal matters and (iii) that the semantic approach adopted by some scholars of the East provides a means to diffuse differences between Asharis, Maturidis and Atharis over the description of God’s transcendence and immanence.

At the very least for Sufis and Salafis of the West (and elsewhere), a moratorium on polemical exchange, particularly over the internet, should be called for, matched by a process to get religious scholars on both sides to met regularly along the lines of the Amman Initiative. A minimal goal would be to take the heat out of differing so that it becomes that beneficial form of differing that increases knowledge and does not create rancour, hatred and division. It might also open up a way to work together towards common interests and goals that are shared in common. There is increasing recognition that there are structural challenges facing Muslim communities that are best met together. At the very least forging unity involves the recognition that Sufi polemics against the Salafis have taken on very different implications after 9/11 that should now be taken into account.

These reflections are designed to provoke a debate. May God accept this essay as an act of love for traditionalism, and written in the hope that we may aspire towards a greater unity of purpose but not towards a greater conformity of viewpoints. And God knows best. To that end I would welcome any constructive comment, corrections and criticisms on this essay to be posted up here. Most of all we need to define positive ways to go forward.


Filed under Internet, Media, Religion, UK Muslim Politics, Umma, war-on-terror