What have they got on Shaikh Riyadh?

The Times yesterday had a front-page “exposé” of the supposed “hardline take-over of British mosques” by what the writer called “a hardline Islamic sect whose leading preacher loathes Western values and has called on Muslims to ‘shed blood’ for Allah”. The sect is the Deobandi school and the preacher in question is the former imam of Birmingham Central Mosque, Shaikh Abu Yusuf Riyadh-ul-Haq. The front-page article takes side-swipes at Mahmood Chandia and Sheikh Ahmed Ali, both also graduates of the same college as Riyadh-ul-Haq, namely the Darul-Uloom in Bury.

Alongside a lengthy inside article about the shaikh, the Times interestingly reproduces no less than five entire speeches of his: Infinite Justice, Jewish Fundamentalism and the Muslims, The Globalised Suffering of the Muslims, On Our Responsibilities as Muslims and Imitating the Disbelievers. Having listened to the speech about Jewish fundamentalism myself, I can assure readers that the emphasis in the transcripts was not in the original. Capital letters on the internet usually mean shouting, and these parts of the speech were not shouted or otherwise emphasised. (More: Tasneem Project.)

Apart from the two quotes about “Jew York” and the quote about the Jews having “monopolised tyranny and oppression … and injustice”, which is patent nonsense although it was probably given in an emotional state while delivering a speech on the situation in Palestine, most of what is in these speeches is either inoffensive or is matched by similar tendencies in other religions or in other strands of Islam. The suspicion that Muslims will be the next targets of a holocaust in Europe is not unique to him or his circle, nor the perception that “Muslims in this country are being picked up one by one, control orders, imprisonment without trial, imprisonment on the flimsiest of excuses”. The quote about Muslims being picked apart as at a meal is similar to one made by Shaikh Hamza Yusuf several years ago in reference to the GATT (now WTO) talks that were going on or recently completed at the time.

The speech on imitating non-Muslims may sound offensive to some non-Muslim readers, and it’s true that it wouldn’t come from an imam from a country like Egypt where there has been political pressure to imitate the West. In many Muslim countries, men cannot grow beards for fear of police harassment or worse and cannot wear traditional Muslim clothing or pray the dawn prayer in the mosque for the same reason. This is not the case in Pakistan or even India, and it is not the case in the UK. As far as the practice of Islam is concerned, all these are (for the most part) free countries. So, it is not incomprehensible that an imam should object to Muslims who are able to follow their religion fully not doing so.

In London, there are communities of Jews who still dress the same way they did in Lithuania a century or more ago. They are not under any great criticism for doing so. While they sell carpets and fabrics to outsiders, they do not mix much with them otherwise. Similarly, they receive no great criticism for this. The same is true of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and various Christian sects in the USA. The section where the shaikh says, “you may hold sports events, you may hold trade shows in your countries, you may pump oil for them and continue to do so at giveaway prices, you may build skyscrapers to impress them, you may try to impress them by imitating their culture, by building opera houses in the desert for Arabs, but at the end of it their tabloids will still turn around and call you ragheads”, is certainly matched by sentiment in the Jewish community, and openly expressed at that. “Scratch a Gentile and you find an anti-Semite,” as some of them say.

I don’t have the time to address the issues raised by all of the speeches the Times republishes, but having listened to the speech on Jewish Fundamentalism, it is clear that it is being reproduced as proof of the imam’s prejudices; the accusations in it are intended to be dismissed as the rantings of a demagogue and not actually entertained. The fact is, either Hindus in the UK sent golden bricks to India to help “rebuild” the temple at Ayodhya, as the shaikh alleges, or they didn’t. Either the Israeli army has been circulating a book amongst its soldiers since 1973 that says that civilians may be killed when soldiers happen upon them in a raid and that “under no circumstances should an Arab be trusted, even if he makes an appearance of being civilised”, as the shaikh alleges, or it hasn’t. I have read elsewhere that Israel Shahak’s understandings of the Talmud, on which Shaikh Riyadh draws extensively in this speech, are faulty, but not everybody who drew upon them did so knowing this.

Shaikh Riyadh, along with other Deobandi scholars, have been very much active in combating more extreme ideologies and defending traditional Islam against both modernism and Wahhabism - in fact, they were doing so decades before Shaikh Nuh Keller or Hamza Yusuf came on the scene in the 1990s. I personally heard a version of the speech recorded as The Legacy of Abdullah bin Mas’ud, a defence of the mainstream Hanafi school of Islamic law. The Times’ writer Andrew Norfolk claims that Shaikh Ahmed Ali “hails the 9/11 attacks on America because they acted as a wake-up call to young Muslims”, but neglects to mention that, for example, he also delivered a speech on forced marriages, demonstrating that they are against Islam. Norfolk also alleges that “there is no room in this narrative for any criticism of those Muslims who murder fellow Muslims”; this is not true. There is a whole section on the subject in a lecture called The Seven Destructive Sins (probably about killing for personal rather than political reasons, but it’s there all the same - and nobody ever said we had to depend on Shaikh Riyadh for our entire religious guidance).

The Times also quotes one Khaled Ahmed as claiming that the “UK has been ruined by the puritanism of the Deobandis”, whose message “has become even more extreme than it is in Pakistan”. In the next paragraph, it is claimed that “the sect has wrested control from followers of the more moderate majority, the Barelwi movement”. Everyone who knows about the Deobandi-Barelwi situation knows that the Barelwis are just as given to sectarianism as the Deobandis, if not more so. Go to a Barelwi gathering in supposed celebration of the birthday of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu’ alaihi wa sallam) and you are likely to hear a lecture dedicated to justifying the gathering, using the same proofs which were given at many such gatherings previously. The Deobandis, for the most part, have no time for dwelling on their dispute with the Barelwis these days.

Of course, there is some room to criticise the Deobandis; they are harsh with people who do not live up to their idea of piety, which places a great emphasis on outer signs such as long beards and trousers above the ankles. I once read a book published by one of their organisations in South Africa which discussed the beard issue, and it referred to an objection to their position citing scholars in Egypt who do not grow beards even though they are scholars (Shaikh Nuh Keller used a similar argument in this letter), and answered it with comments about true and false scholars. The notion that growing a fist-length beard is not required in the school of thought followed by some of those scholars, or would lead to trouble with the police, did not seem to occur to the South African author, and many of the Deobandi common folk do not entertain it either.

However, despite the harm caused to the community by the Deobandi-Barelwi problem, the fact is that Deobandis are generally peaceable and law-abiding. As far as non-Muslims are concerned, their bark is worse than their bite, which may even have been the case with Faisal and Abu Hamza as well (the former said things about other Muslims which were far more extreme than his opinions on Jews and Hindus which the Times “exposed”). I would be very surprised if Shaikh Riyadh did succeed Shaikh Yusuf Motala as principal of Darul-Uloom in Bury; Shaikh Yusuf came from India, and the most distinguished Deobandi scholars come from there and Pakistan, not from England or South Africa. Even in this country, there are Deobandi figures more senior than Shaikh Riyadh, even if they are not as famous.

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