The London Evening Standard yesterday had a two-page feature on a forthcoming fatwa by the leader of the Minhaj-ul-Quran group, Dr Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, which unequivocally condemns suicide bombings. The feature is dominated by a picture of an al-Muhajiroun demonstration, but features a long article by Allegra Mostyn-Owen, a former wife of Boris Johnson who is now married to a much younger Muslim man who is associated with Qadri’s organisation; a shorter article is by Douglas Murray of the “Centre for Social Cohesion”, a London think-tank notorious for hostility to Muslims and Muslim organisations. Mostyn-Owen’s article includes an interview with Dr Qadri himself in which he makes some sweeping generalisations about Muslims outside his group; both articles grossly overestimate his influence. (More: Brian Whitaker @ Comment is Free, Salman @ Rumoured.)
To begin with, Qadri’s fatwa is not by any means the first to condemn the use of suicide bombings, and he is not even the first supposedly genuine Islamic scholar to issue one. The tactic has always been controversial; there have been some scholars who approve of it, but since suicide itself is against Islam and the tactic originated among non-Muslims (the Japanese in World War II followed by the Tamil Tigers), its adoption was never likely to be universally accepted. Specifically, the mainstream Saudi Wahhabi scholars publically condemned it years ago, including a denial that suicide bombers were martyrs, as did a mainstream Sunni scholar called Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti, who is Malaysian but who lives in Oxford. Contrary to Douglas Murray’s accusations that Muslim condemnations of violence always contain caveats and double-talk, none of them make exceptions for, say, Israeli civilians. Dr Akiti’s fatwa specifically states that soldiers on the way back to the army base, for example, are not to be treated as combatants. Shaikh Nuh Keller, in 2003, disapproved of Palestinian suicide bombings on the grounds that suicide was against Islam and that they involve the killing of women and children, and unlike in cases such as those in Lebanon where fighters had killed enemy soldiers along with themselves, the “victories” spoken of in Palestine were only “propaganda victories”.
A further problem is that Tahir ul-Qadri is not by any means a universally accepted figure in the Muslim community, either here or in Pakistan. His authority is not accepted by all Barelvis, which is what is meant by “Sunni” and “Sufi” throughout this article. His fatwa will be accepted by his followers, who are likely never to have supported suicide bombings anyway, and ignored by a whole lot of other people. Having spent time among the Barelvis in east London (Walthamstow to be precise), I can state for sure that he is bitterly opposed by some of the Barelvi imams in that part of London. A Deobandi imam I spoke to in south London several years ago called him “a complete jahil”, meaning an ignorant person, and “an outcast, even for the Barelvis”. Mostyn-Owen claims that he has “the status of a Sheikh-ul-Islam”, but this is not accepted by much of the community and never has been. In the past, only the highest class of scholars had this title, many of them household names centuries later, as well as the official chief scholars of the Ottoman empire. Among the Indo-Pakistani community, there are plenty of imams whose followers give them high-flown titles and extol their phenomenal scholarship, but there is no sign of that scholarship or spirituality flourishing in the parts of London they influence.
Some of Qadri’s comments in this interview reveal his divisive, sectarian nature. Regarding Deobandis, he says:
As Dr ul-Qadri sees it, no terrorists have emerged from a Sunni or Sufi background: instead, they have come from the Salafis (Wahhabis) or Deobandis. The Deobandis are a South Asian variant which is close to the Gulf-orientated Wahhabis.
“Every Salafi and Deobandi is not a terrorist but I have no hesitation in saying that everyone is a well-wisher of terrorists and this has not been appreciated by the Western governments,” he said.
This simply isn’t true. Deobandis are recognised by Sunnis elsewhere in the Muslim world as Sunnis, and scholars from the Gulf who are not Wahhabis have travelled to the Indian subcontinent to study in Deobandi institutions. The similarities between Deobandis and Brelvis, regardless of their very different appearance and style, are much greater than between the Deobandis and the Wahhabis of today, who reject the Deobandis because of their adherence to the Hanafi school of law and various Sufi traditions. The main divide between the Deobandis and Barelvis is a bitter dispute over what some of the early Deobandi imams may or may not have written in their books a century ago which led to the Barelvis’ leader issuing a fatwa saying that the Deobandi scholars concerned were apostates. This is what it is all based on, along with disputes over such matters as whether celebrating the mawlid (birthday) of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) is acceptable — something the Deobandis, particularly in the UK, have moved towards accepting as more moderate forms of it have become apparent, such as in the Hadrami tradition.
So, that the MQ group in London opposed the Abbey Mills mosque project is nothing surprising; Abbey Mills was a Deobandi project and Barelvis would have wanted it stopped for their own reasons even if they do not normally openly oppose them. The concern about “extremism” is just an excuse. It is not a sign of their commitment to peace, only of their hostility to Deobandis. The claim about Wahhabis being “well-wishers of terrorists” is also a lie. As already stated, the official Saudi scholars have always opposed terrorism, whether in Palestine or anywhere else. They are especially suspicious of groups seeking to wage jihad and ultimately to replace the Saudi regime. From talking to individual Deobandis personally I can state that his claim that they are all well-wishers is false as well. It’s true that many Deobandis supported the Taliban in the 1990s, but I would imagine that some Barelvis did as well. Certainly, they were active in the religious parties which governed Baluchistan and the NWFP under Musharraf. They are not nearly as pacifist as they make out when talking about “peace” to western newspapers.
Douglas Murray is also deluded about the importance and reach of Qadri’s fatwa. He claims that it “has the possibility of being respected by a far wider range of people than any of those individual non-scholarly Muslim voices who have also condemned terrorism without caveat”. Again, they are not all non-scholarly, but Qadri’s reach is to his own followers, and not many others. Many Indian and Pakistani Muslims will simply not take someone seriously as an upright Muslim, let alone a scholar, if their beard is trimmed to less than what they can grab with their fist, and this is the case with Qadri. He also claims that “the most violent interpretations of Islam have indeed trickled down to terrorists via learned scholars”, which is also mostly untrue. The justifications generally come from people with dubious scholarly credentials, are heavily based on skewed interpretations and extrapolations and are rejected by most actual scholars. Even if an individual who gives an extreme ruling, whether permissive or otherwise, is a scholar, Muslims are not allowed to accept it if it is known that most other scholars oppose him, and there are likely to be warnings not to take his word on that issue.
In short, this is a rather insignificant development which shows how ignorant the western press are about the make-up of the Muslim community and about Muslim scholarship. The fatwa will be taken up by people within the Minhaj-ul-Quran organisation and a few fellow-travellers, but most of those outside will have received similar rulings in the past anyway. As for those who do approve of this kind of thing, many of them either despise Dr Qadri and this will come as no surprise to them; others are likely never to have heard of him. It could be that it turns out to be an unusually comprehensive piece of work and may become a standard text on those grounds, but given how extensive Dr Akiti’s existing work on this matter is, I find that unlikely. It is a predictable stance by a sectarian figure, and its impact is likely to be very limited.
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