Explainers, not popes

The British right-wing press’s campaign of vilification against Islam continues today, with no less than three hostile articles by three of the usual suspects: Anne McElroy, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Amir Taheri. The last gets a two-page spread in which he is allowed to defame a large proportion, if not the entirety, of the scholarly body of Islam.

McElvoy’s piece consists of a bleat against the European Convention on Human Rights, a cut-rate European Bill of Rights many of whose provisions can be overridden in cases of “emergency”. This included the imprisonment of a number of Arab immigrants (some of whom harboured Islamist opinions and were accused by various middle-eastern dictatorships of being terrorists) on the grounds that our links to America constituted an emergency - as if those links were forced on us somehow. A piece by Greg Palast, concerning the Shayler affair, exposes the get-outs that work in the government’s favour.

The other problem is that McElvoy mentions people like Shaikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi in pretty much the same light as the real extremists like Abu Qatada and the loud-mouth Omar Bakri.

But there is a line that should not be crossed. Mr Qaradawi, to name but one example, actively glorifies not only suicide bombing against Israel but attacks on British troops in Iraq as a “holy duty”.

Well, al-Qaradawi is an Egyptian living in Qatar, no doubt addressing Iraqis and perhaps other Arab volunteers. He is not a British citizen and therefore not under the slightest obligation of loyalty to the British government or its army. Unless he has been known to come here recruiting British residents to fight British troops (and if he had, in whatever language, it would be well-known by now), that is really no reason why he should be barred from the country. As previously noted here and elsewhere, his attitudes regarding Muslims living in the west are starkly different to those regarding Palestine or Iraq, because the situation is worlds apart.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a Ugandan Asian of Ismaili affiliation, has a piece entitled Listen to Muslm women, Mr Blair, in which he suggests that al-Qaradawi be invited here to debate with a real radical - you’ll never guess who …

Meanwhile, another storm has broken over an invitation to yet another grey, traditional Islamic scholar, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who was due to come over from Egypt to tell British Muslims how they should pray and live. Opponents want him banned. I have a better idea. Let him come and debate with Amina Wadud, a true radical who led a prayer with a mixed congregation in New York this spring. This unbeatable woman will see him off.

Wadud’s prayer was not even held in a mosque - apparently it did not suit her to hold it in the “progressive mosque” in Toronto, where an earlier appearance by Wadud descended into a debate on race. Tarek Fatah called it “a telling indication of the profound divisions within the community” that Wadud was the only “African” in the room; the idea that the African Muslims of Toronto just were not interested did not seem to occur to him.

Amir Taheri’s piece, however, is by far the worst. It is entitled “We need show no tolerance for these false prophets of Islam - they speak for no one but themselves”. It’s accompanied by pictures of some Muhajiroun in London with their “Islam will dominate the world” banner, and another of Omar Bakri and Abu Hamza sharing a platform. Again, a widely-respected scholar is tarred with the same brush as the likes of Osama Bin Laden and petty rabble-rousers like OBM and his sidekick Anjum Choudhary. The slanders, of course, start from the title, which sticks Shaikh Yusuf in the same bracket as the infamous butchers al-Aswad al-Ansi and Musailima the Liar. Shame on him.

In the second paragraph, he accuses Ken Livingstone of “feting” al-Qaradawi “as if he were the Muslim Pope”, which nobody has ever claimed that he is. He is, rather, a scholar much respected by the Arab Muslim community in London, and by a minority of the Asians. His profile is perhaps exaggerated because the Arab community, unlike the Asians, live in wealthier parts of London including the city of Westminster, rather than in the suburbs and the so-called ghettoes. But he is influential through his works with the European Council for Fatwa and Research and is seen as one of the faces of the Egyptian scholarly community who is not politically compromised.

He claims that “we need a working, acceptable definition of what constitutes the difference between devout Muslim belief and unacceptable extremism”, oblivious, it seems, to the fact that that definition is already known. Rectitute in Islam is established by consensus, and where large bodies disagree, both answers are deemed acceptable, although it is acceptable that only one is correct. Both parties are rewarded for their effort (ijtihaad), while one is additionally rewarded for being correct. This has been established for centuries; it has been lost in the past century and a half due to the disruption caused by colonialism and oil money: the former causing an influx of European ideas, methods and customs, and the latter enabling the Wahhabite sect, hitherto confined to the Najd and wherever else its followers could raid, to propagate its ideas through cheap literature and inducements to certain Islamic publishing houses.

Later on, he presents to the world a shoddy misreading of a famous hadeeth (the salawaat are mine as the square brackets imply):

In one of the most celebrated sayings attributed to him, Mohammed, the Prophet of Islam [sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam] forecast that, after his death, his faith would splinter into 72 feuding sects. The figure 72 is a favourite in Islamic numerology. God has 72 angels guarding his throne (arsh). The warriors of Islam are rewarded by 72 “perpetual virgins” in paradise. The martyr-heroes of Karbala numbered 72. And so on.

There are more occurrences of figures of around 70: a text by Imam Bayhaqi entitled The Seventy-Seven Branches of Faith (a translation of an abridgement of which is available in English from the Quilliam Press) was inspired by a hadeeth that “Faith has sixty-odd or seventy-odd branches, the highest and best of which is to declare that there is no god but God, and the lowest of which is to remove something harmful from a road. Shyness, too, is a branch of Faith”. Another hadeeth tells us to make “seventy excuses” for our brothers, ie., not to rush to accuse them or think ill of them. I have heard that it was an Arabism for a large number; it may or may not mean 70 or 72 exactly (as with Imam Bayhaqi who managed to find 77).

I should add that the multiplicity of sects was a phenomenon much better known to earlier generations of Muslims than to our own; most Muslims today belong to a few well-known groupings: the Sunnis (the vast majority), the Shi’a, the Wahhabis, the Ibadis of Oman, the Zaydis of Yemen. In earlier times, the Shi’a and the Kharijites (the forerunners of the Ibadis) split into a huge profusion of sects, some of which left the fold of Islam and many of which were at murderous enmity with the rest of the Muslim community. A sect is not a school of thought, although the attitudes some schools of thought have towards each other today make them look like sects, the Deobandis and Bareilawis of India being a notorious example.

He then mentions the fact that Islam does not have a formal clergy as a means of demolishing the authority of the scholars in a particularly ugly way:

Moderate Muslim teaching is that Mohammed’s [sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam] intention was to cut out the middle man, leaving the believer in direct contact with God. All the mullahs, maulanas, and muftis, gentlemen who grow impressive beards and cover their heads with turbans or worse, are at best actors playing priests in a faith which does not include them in its script.

Turbans or worse? What’s so bad about turbans - I think they look very dignified if worn properly. The normal Islamic dress in vast swathes of the Muslim world included some variant on the turban. It does not originate in India, where non-Muslim men wear it today. They adopted it from the Muslims. And the scholars, whether they are called mullahs or “maulana”, have never claimed to be priests. The words of the Shaikh Shu’aib al-Arna’out regarding the founders of the four orthodox schools of thought are particularly relevant here:

They are explainers, not popes; but in each of their schools there afterwards followed a hundred or more scholars who refined and added to their work, men whose stature in Islamic knowledge was like mountains, any one of whom could put fifteen of the scholars available today in his pocket.

And this description - “explainers, not popes” - applies to any legitimate scholar of Islam. How is a scholar legitimate? By the chain of transmission each aspect of his religious learning has between him and its prophetic origin. This is most commonly found in the discipline of tasawwuf or Sufism, in which a chain of shaikhs is shown, from the most recent back to the Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, but it exists in every discipline. This is how the doctrine of the mainstream orthodox community has remained constant and cohesive: by means of consensus and the fact of every scholar having a licence (ijaaza) from an earlier scholar, forming a chain back to the Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam.

So Taheri’s subsequent smear on al-Qaradawi, that “he speaks, after all, for no one but himself”, but needs only to grow a beard and cover his head “to be able to pretend that he speaks on behalf of Islam”, has no basis to it. Al-Qaradawi’s authority comes from the famous al-Azhar Islamic university in Cairo, one of the most famous and well-respected in the entire Muslim world. But it is not a “Vatican of Islam” and while it has great authority, it is not the final word on any issue. Neither is Yusuf al-Qaradawi or any scholar, and they do not claim to be. He does not pretend to speak for Islam; he is one of many respected scholars whose word carries great weight. (Some of his opinions are controversial and some unreliable. But he is not rejected.)

Taheri later presumes to give his opinion on suicide bombings as if it were the correct one: that they are unacceptable. This is, of course, the opinion of a wide cross-section of the scholars of Islam, but not all of them. Given that the circumstances (a war situation, making sure that the weapon reaches the enemy) are different from the usual (someone despairing of his situation improving), it is not surprising that some scholars should offer a different viewpoint on the legality of this type of operation. Given that we are told that the scholars of Islam are just priests in a religion that has no need of them, why is a journalist’s word any more reliable?

And this is particularly so given his spectacular ignorance of what Islam tells us about other issues (or his indifference to it):

Islam recommends that men and women dress modestly. And even then this is a recommendation, not a religious stricture. And yet people like Al-Qaradawi and Bin Laden turn this into “a pillar of Islam” to the point that in London one sees baby girls in prams wearing the black hijab that al Qaeda has adopted as a symbol for its female supporters.

His statement about modesty being a “recommendation” is an outright lie: it is a demand. Its conditions are well-known. His comment about girls in black hijabs, a supposed symbol of al-Qa’ida, is also just plain false. You can, of course, find young girls wearing hijab, and a black hijab is not a symbol of al-Qa’ida. It is one of numerous colours available in commercially-produced junior hijabs such as the Amira range. Girls are introduced to hijab at a young age, so that when they start their periods (or turn 15, whichever is first), they do not have to suddenly start wearing hijab without warning. Sometimes girls want to start wearing hijab before the required time, because it makes them feel grown up. Looking like a “black widow” or Palestinian bomber is not on most young girls’ or their parents’ minds.

Some of his actual solutions appear to be things which are uncontroversial and in some cases already in place; others require some explanation. Leave Muslims alone “where they carry the religion in their hearts”, “and treat their beliefs with respect where they do not impinge on the freedoms of others”. Already being done. But where “Islam is used as a political prop”, and attempts are made to “overturn the values of the democratic society in which [Muslims] live”, this should be seen, and treated, as extremism. Again, it already is, which is why the media seek out the opinions of the likes of Omar Bakri. The opinions of the imam of Brent or Kingston mosque are unlikely to make good headlines.

He insists that people who dislike what the British have done (like invading Iraq and Afghanistan) should try and change it by peaceful means; with fewer than ten exceptions (and that’s assuming these bombs were a reaction to those wars), that’s what opponents of the war have indeed done. Taheri lectures us with a hadeeth, of dubious authenticity, that “love of one’s homeland is part of faith”, without mentioning other hadeeths about nationalism and similar bigotries (asabiyya) being incompatible with faith.

His final paragraph also consists of statements of the obvious:

The second point is that Muslims living in the west are in the same boat as their non-Muslim fellow citizens. There can be no religious apartheid in a modern democracy, we are all in it together. An din any case those responsible for the attacks in London didn’t care whom they killed. The first victim of 7/7 to be buried was a Muslim girl.

I have not personally heard any calls for “religious apartheid”, unless you mean for such provisions as faith schools, a provision which already exists for the other two major religions practised in the UK and which shows no sign of being a threat to democracy. And yes, the terrorists in this case killed randomly without apparent concern for whom they killed (to say nothing of the suffering they caused to their own people back in Leeds). Their actions were condemned by the entire Muslim community. Even by Omar Bakri. So what’s your point?

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