LET ME START with this statistic: By 2050, it’s predicted Muslims will be as high as 18% of Britain’s total population, rather than the 4.5% that they currently are. With such numbers, this alone imposes on us the urgent task of evolving a socially and politically relevant, and theologically-authentic, set of leadership challenges that are only now beginning to be thought of and fleshed out by us. Given liquid modernity’s many boundless hurdles, given also the growing tide of Islamophobia, whatever that might precisely mean, and given the uphill nature of reconnecting an angst-filled and stressed humanity to the All-Compassionate Source of Peace, any Muslim leadership role — for the love of God, and for the love of what people each have the potential to become — has a mammoth task before it.
Despite there not being a clergy, Muslims do generate religious leaders and leadership. These tend to be scholars who head the growing religious seminaries and institutions, less by appointment from above and more via earning the trust and confidence of the community in which they operate. In this way, some achieve significant levels of influence and eminence in a community that still holds great stock in the message and directives that come from mosque pulpits and fatwa committees. (As for the social media da’i or influencer, all too often unknown to their real-time communities or absent from the service to such local communities, it’s not yet clear how much leadership traction they have beyond sensationalist rhetoric, stoking up controversy, or being passing fads.)
But the whole enterprise isn’t without its problems or downsides, of which I’d like to touch upon a few. My remarks are more descriptive than they are prescriptive. They are also offered in a spirit of concern about the crisis of confidence we’re seeing towards Muslim scholars and their leadership.
CAUSES FOR MISTRUST
Some of these causes have to do with Muslims scholars themselves, some with the changing reality of lay people and learning. On the whole, though, the creeping mistrust is due to a mixture of both.
The trust and confidence ordinary Muslims have always shown the ‘ulama class has to do with the fact that the scholars were expected to be faithful guardians of sacred knowledge and faithful teachers of the prophetic legacy. ‘The scholars are the inheritors of the prophets,’ one celebrated hadith states.1 If a scholar were to betray this legacy by introducing new forms of worship or liturgy into the ritual prayer, pilgrimage or fasting, for instance, such a scholar will meet the ire of the lay people who will mistrust him and shun his sermons. The scholar is trusted not to pervert time-honoured acts of worship underscored by a scholarly consensus.
As intellectual attacks on Islam increase, as universal literacy gets closer to the horizon, and as today’s educated, professional lay people are not as uninformed as lay people of pre-modern times, there’s a need for intelligent, articulate, Islamically-rooted teachings — particularly in terms of rational coherence, scientific literacy or liveable relevancy. When ‘ulama are unable to meet such a need, this continues to be one of the primary reasons for a crisis in confidence in Muslim scholarship — a crisis that has plagued this ummah for a century, and one that has turned many a young intelligent Muslim mind from the religion or religious observance.
Not to ignore the elephant in the room, one of the biggest drivers of this crisis is scholars who are, or who are perceived to be, under the thumbs of governments and tyrant regimes. How on earth are the lay people expected to trust scholars whose integrity is compromised, at best; and corrupted, at worst? In fact, there’s no swifter way for the scholars to bring discredit upon themselves than to biasedly declare – especially if no declaration is called for – that such and such political ruler or regime is pious or wicked, Islamic or un-Islamic. For a scholar to enter upon a ruler and flatter him, or heap upon him exaggerated platitudes, isn’t really the conduct of a godly Muslim; let alone a scholar. Ibn ‘Umar relates that he was once told: ‘We enter upon our rulers and say to them things contrary to what we say when we leave their presence.’ To this, Ibn ‘Umar replied: ‘In the time of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, we would consider this to be hypocrisy.’2 Such platitudes only serve to obscure the true state of affairs to the ruler, in respect to his duty to God and his responsibilities to the people.
Regime-written or state-sanctioned khutbahs is a similar concern. And while it doesn’t lead to the same level of crisis as the above, such a state-driven Islam further impresses upon the public the notion that scholars aren’t fit for purpose and that they ought to look elsewhere for untainted religious guidance. In this, as with the above, such government-tainted scholarship only drives people to the murky realm of internet-Islam and social-media savy extremism, fake-scholarship or DIY preachers. The religious anarchy unleashed because of this is probably the gravest crisis the ummah is now threatend by. The Prophet ﷺ warned: ‘God does not take away knowledge by wresting it from the hearts of men; but He takes away knowledge by taking away the scholars. Thus when no scholar remains, people take the ignorant as leaders who, when asked give fatwas without knowledge; they are misguided and misguiding.’3
THE PARADOX OF A PERSON’S OWN IGNORANCE
Another huge cause for the loss of trust in Muslims scholars boils down to what’s known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect — being ignorant of one’s own ignorance. Today, especially on social media, we see droves and droves of people who are observant, practising Muslims who believe they know what they’re talking about, when they actually do not. Such people might know a thing or two on an issue, but are ignorant of ten others; yet due to being too full of themselves, they are blind to this fact. Overestimating their own infantile Islamic learning, such people who have not formally studied the Islamic sciences, and have no Islamic qualification, take serious issue with scholars where no issue need be taken. They hear scholarly views that are different from what they think they know, and this becomes a justification to accuse the scholars of deviation or falsehood. Their lack of any serious learning blinds them to the rich diversity of views in Islamic scholarship, and the juristic or theological nuances at work.
The early nineteenth-century Yemeni scholar Imam al-Shawkani spoke of this fitnah when he described the three categories of people in regards to religious learning: There are the seasoned scholars who know their stuff pretty much inside out; then there are ordinary lay Muslims who just get on with life. Between the aforementioned are those in the middle, many who think they know, but they do not. He writes of the third case:
‘The middle category is the source of evil and is the root cause of fitnahs arising in the religion. They are those who aren’t seasoned in knowledge, such that they rise to the level of the first category. Nor do they forsake it [i.e. sacred knowledge] so as to be of the lowest category. They are those who, when they see one of those from the highest level say something which they are not acquainted with, and which contradicts their belief in which they fell short, they fire arrows of accusation at him and hurl all sorts of insults at him. They also corrupt the fitrah of the lowest level [the masses] from no longer accepting the truth, by veiling falsehood. By this, they establish religious fitnahs on a firm footing.’4
And this source of evil is very much what we see amplified thousands of times over today, on social media. The upshot of this fitnah, and the other reasons which feed into this crisis of confidence, surely bodes ill for our ummah, unless tawbah is made and serious steps are taken to mitigate or mend the widening rift. And Allah’s help is sought.
1. Abu Dawud, no.3641; al-Tirmidhi, no.2683. It has supporting chains that strengthen it, as stated by Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, to yield a final grading of hasan. See: Fath al-Bari (Egypt: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 1434H), 1:245.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.7178. The words: ‘In the time of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ’ is recorded in al-Tayalasi, Musnad, no.1900.
3. Al-Bukhari, no.34; Muslim, no.2673.
4. Al-Shawkani, al-Badr al-Tali‘ (Cairo: Dar al-Kitab al-Islami, n.d.), 1:473, citing the words of ‘Ali b. Qasim with much approval, saying: ‘This is the meaning of his words which I heard from him; and he has spoken the truth. For whoever ponders them will find it to be so.’
In one hadith that is so incredibly relevant to our times and our plight – which pinpoints the causes for why Muslims shall suffer collective humiliation and weakness, and what the cure for such socio-political degradation is – we read: ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, narrates; that he heard the Messenger of Allah ﷺ saying:
‘When you deal in ‘inah transactions, hold on to the tails of cows, are content with farming, and abandon jihad, Allah shall permit your humiliation and He will not lift it from you, until you return back to your religion.’1
Let’s unpack the hadith and break it down into bite size chunks, so to speak, in order to better deliberate over the lessons and implications embedded in it:
إِذَا تَبَايَعْتُمْ بِالْعِينَةِ – ‘WHEN YOU DEAL IN ‘INAH TRANSACTIONS’:
‘Inah is a form of a sale which, on the face of it seems completely legitimate as far as Islamic law is concerned, but in reality it is merely a cunning legal ‘trick’ (hiylah) to make money through usury/interest (riba). It is to sell something at a price to be paid at a later date (i.e. deferred payment), but to then buy it back at a lower price for cash on the spot. The upshot is that the initial buyer walks away with cash, but must pay back a higher amount at a later date.
So, as an example, Bilal needs to borrow £500 for one year from Zayd, but Zayd wants £600 back; which, of course, Bilal cannot agree to because that would be riba – interest! So Zayd suggests the following: Zayd sells Bilal a laptop for £600 to be paid for at the end of twelve months. That done, Zayd then buys the laptop back from Bilal, there and then, for £500 cash on the spot. The end result is that Bilal walks away with £500 cash; however, at the end of one year, he owes Zayd £600. Whilst the two transactions, taken separately, are each lawful and sound, combined together, they amount to Zayd lending Bilal £500, but Bilal having to pay Zayd back £600 a year later – the extra £100 being riba. Such a legal ‘trick’, with the aim of skirting around the Islamic rules concerning the prohibition of interest, is considered forbidden (haram) by most jurists.
Although the person may consider themselves shrewd or clever at having found a loophole in the law, or at having evaded the shari‘ah ban on riba; in reality, all they have achieved is combining a sinful act with trying to cheat or deceive God! How clever is that?! The attitude is worse than the actual deed. When such an action; or indeed, such an attitude, becomes widespread in society, it doesn’t take the religious imagination much to realise the possible consequences.
As a side point: Classical Muslim jurists recognised two types of hiylah – legal ‘tricks’ or ‘stratagems’. One used to circumvent a divine order or divine aim, the other for ta‘lim al-makhraj: providing an exit for one in difficulty, all the while keeping Allah’s commands and the purpose of the law uppermost in mind. For most legalists, the first is the forbidden type of hiylah; the second, the lawful type. Ibn al-Qayyim explains: ‘If the aim is good then the hiylah is also good, if it is bad then the hiylah is also bad. If the aim is obedience and worship then the hiylah is likewise: if the aim is disobedience or iniquity so is the hiylah.‘2 In other words, the legality of a hiylah is tied to the individual purpose it serves.
وَأَخَذْتُمْ أَذْنَابَ الْبَقَرِ – ‘HOLD ON TO THE TAILS OF COWS’
This is a figurative expression, referring to how – in pre-modern societies – a farmer who ploughed the land would walk behind the cow or ox, driving it on. Hence it is like holding on to the tail of a cow. And as we shall soon see below, this isn’t a censure or blame of farming or ploughing the land, per se. But it is a censure of becoming so preoccupied with one’s job or vocation, that it becomes of greater concern than works of faith and preparing for the afterlife.
وَرَضِيتُمْ بِالزَّرْعِ – ‘CONTENT WITH FARMING’
This is similar to the above, in that it is a rebuke of becoming so engrossed with farming and tilling the land, to the extent that this worldly matter is of greater concern, or greater priority, than Allah and the afterlife. This is particularly so when we prefer devoting our time and energy to our jobs or other worldly goals, over and above jihad – striving and sacrificing – for the sake of Allah. We read in the Qur’an: يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا مَا لَكُمْ إِذَا قِيلَ لَكُمْ انفِرُوا فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ اثَّاقَلْتُمْ إِلَى الْأَرْضِ – O you who believe! What is it with you that when you are asked to go forth in the cause of Allah you cling heavily to the earth [Q.9:38]; that is, you show a reluctance; an aversion, even, clutching instead to a life of ease, comfort and materialism. The Prophet ﷺ stated: ‘Whoever dies without partaking in a military expedition, or even desiring to do so, dies upon a branch of hypocrisy.’3
The verse continues by asking: أَرَضِيتُمْ بِالْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا مِنْ الْآخِرَةِ – Do you prefer the life of this world to the Hereafter? [Q.9:38]; i.e., as one scholar wrote in explanation to this part of the verse: ‘The reaction is like that of someone who is pleased with the world and strives his utmost in it, having no care for the Afterlife. It is like he doesn’t really believe in it.’4
The verse concludes: فَمَا مَتَاعُ الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا فِي الْآخِرَةِ إِلَّا قَلِيلٌ – But little is the comfort of this life as compared with the Hereafter. [Q.9:38] Unto that, the believer holds.
وَتَرَكْتُمْ الْجِهَادَ – ‘ABANDON JIHAD’
That is, forsaking the duty of jihad wherein lies the strength, honour and glory of the religion. Thus one does not wage jihad (or even desire to do so) for Allah’s sake: neither with one’s wealth, one’s physical self, or one’s tongue in defence of revealed truths – not a military jihad against the enemies of Al-Rahman, nor a spiritual jihad against one’s hawa, nafs or shaytan.5
سَلَّطَ اللَّهُ عَلَيْكُمْ ذُلًّ – ‘ALLAH SHALL PERMIT YOUR HUMILIATION.’
Which is to say that when people engage in acts of disobedience and ignominy, Allah will afflict them with humiliation, dishonour and disgrace, since: al-jaza’ min jins al-‘aml – ‘The recompense is proportional to the deed.’ Indeed, every time we disobey the command of the Prophet ﷺ, we expose ourselves to some share of humiliation. The Prophet ﷺ cautioned: ‘Humiliation and ignominy is for one who opposes my command.’6 This echoes the Holy Qur’an, which warns us in no uncertain terms: Let those who oppose his order beware lest an affliction befall them or lest there visits them a painful punishment. [Q.24:63]
So when people try to evade the prohibition of riba through legal trickery and, by extension, evade other commands or prohibitions of the religion; and when they are so absorbed in worldly pursuits, giving them precedence over religious obligations or working for the afterlife; and when they give up jihad for Allah’s sake, then Allah will allow lowliness and humiliation to be inflicted upon them at the hands of other nations – a sad reality that has already occurred.
In fact, whenever a believing community or nation begin to change themselves from putting their religious duties above all else, to making them play second fiddle to worldly goals and consumerist ambitions, then this is only unleashing the genie from the bottle, and a change in fortunes from good to bad is the only inevitable outcome. The Qur’an speaks to this reality, declaring: That is because Allah never changes the blessings He has bestowed on a people until they change that which is in themselves. [Q.8:53]
Likewise, whenever wrongdoing and disobedience to Allah become endemic in society, despite the presence of some saintly souls and godly worshippers in it, the Holy Qur’an tells us that this is inviting tyrants and wrongdoers to be given the reigns of political authority, as a consequence of the sinful behaviour of the masses: Thus We let some of the unjust have power over others because of their misdeeds. [Q.6:129]
In 28H (649CE), the first Muslim naval expedition was launched against Cyprus, which was under the Byzantine empire’s rule; now in the twilight of its years. The Muslim army quickly overran the small Byzantine garrison and its people were soon paying tribute to the Muslim victors. On seeing the ease with which this once powerful empire lay defeated, Abu’l-Darda began to cry. When asked why he wept on the day Allah had given victory to Islam and the Muslims, he said: ‘Woe to you, O Jubayr! How insignificant a people become to Allah when they neglect His commands. Here is a nation which was once mighty, powerful and had dominion. Then they neglected Allah’s commands, now look what has become of them.’7
And this ummah will never escape its humiliation or its fall from grace … hatta tarji‘u ila dinikum: until you return back to your religion.
حَتَّى تَرْجِعُوا إِلَى دِينِكُمْ – ‘UNTIL YOU RETURN BACK TO YOUR RELIGION.’
Lessons of history may, in many cases, require interpretation. In this case the lesson here is spelt out in simple words, for all to read: That this humiliation will continue to plague us until we return back to establishing our religion and fulfilling our religious duties – as Allah intended, in the way He intended. And no amount of secularising, liberalising or compromising on Islamic norms will change this servile reality. In fact, it will only make it worse.
What is required is nothing less than courage and a prophetic uprising in order toreturn back to the religion. This entails that we first and foremost honour Allah by revering His orders and prohibitions; work for the Hereafter and give it priority over earthly aims or acquisitions; and wisely and courageously engage the various types of jihad that Allah has obligated us with. In fact, the matter is more dire than most people realise. For the upshot of doing those things spoken of in the above hadith is so grave that the Prophet ﷺ: ‘likened it to apostatising and leaving the religion.’8 The Holy Qur’an says: Say: If your fathers, your sons, your brothers, your wives, your tribe, the wealth you have gained, the trade you fear may slacken, and the homes you love – if they are dearer to you than Allah and His Messenger and jihad in His cause, then wait until Allah brings about His command. Allah guides not the corrupt. [Q.9:24]
The truth of the matter is that when we become too comfy in the consumerist world; when we allow the dunya to distract us from our religious obligations, which includes the duty of jihad; and as we get more and more entangled in the monoculture’s deceptive mind control in a way that makes us servile and numbs our soul, then this is the destruction that is meant in the verse: And do not cast yourselves into destruction by your own hands. [Q.2:195] Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, may Allah be pleased with him, said: ‘This verse was revealed about us, a group of the Ansar. When Allah gave victory to His Prophet and made Islam dominant, we said: “Come, let us stay with our wealth and properties in order to improve it.” It was then that Allah, mighty and majestic is He, sent down the verse: Spend in the cause of Allah, and do not cast yourselves into destruction by your own hands. [Q. 2:195] To cast ourselves into destruction by our own hands meant we stayed with our wealth and properties, and neglected jihad.’9
Let’s close with this thought. Given the confusion and intra-Muslim squabbling over the best way out of our subjugation and socio-political malaise, it could be that there are only two questions which really need asking. Despite us Muslims having tried the various isms and ideologies which others have demanded we follow – nationalism, Marxism, capitalism, and now liberalism – are we as an ummah still humiliated? And does the above hadith offer us a clear-cut answer and method of how to reverse our fortunes? The answer to both questions is in the affirmative. That being so, isn’t it high time we buck the trend, put all of the political philosophising to bed, and earnestly pursue the ways of the Lord?
Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.
1. Ahmad, no.4987; Abu Dawud, no.3462. Ibn Taymiyyah declared its chains to be excellent (jayyid) in Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 29:30; al-Albani analysed the hadith and its many chains, giving it a grading of sahih, in Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), 1:1:42; no.11.
2. Ighathat al-Lahfan (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1999), 659.
3. Muslim, no.1910.
4. Al-Sa‘di, Taysir Karim al-Rahman (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2012), 374.
In her Christmas Day speech, some were half expecting the Queen to describe this year as annus horribilis, a horrible year, as she described 1992. Her speech, as it turned out, was a rather upbeat, religiously peppered message of thanks and hope (unless, that is, you were watching Channel 4’s ‘deepfake’ irreverent send up of it).
For me, 2020 started off on a note of sadness. In June of the previous year, my father passed away from cancer, rahimahullah, and my mother – having just completed her ‘iddah, or ‘mourning period’ – was struggling. The light of love and laughter that could always be seen in her was fading, and life without my father – her soul mate for almost sixty years – was starting to truly sink in. By January 2020, her sorrow precipitated the onset of acute kidney failure and on March 8th of this year, she too returned to Allah. From my earliest memories, till the end, the atmosphere in my parents’ home was, by God’s grace, always one of love, laughter, ease and adab. And all whom Allah allowed to bring into their orbit – family, friend or stranger – would find themselves being bathed in such love and kindness. Ours was a small family: two parents, two children. My older sister, a person who was known never to harbour a grudge or enmity against any soul, died in 2008; cancer was the culprit there as well. May Allah have mercy upon them, and unite them together in His paradise and presence. Amin!
By the end of January, while caring for my late mother, the Covid-19 virus had made its way from China to our shores. By March 8th, the day my mother died, there were almost three hundred cases of Coronavirus in the UK. On the third day after my mother’s funeral, following three busy days of relatives, friends and neighbours coming to offer their comfort and condolences, my family and I made a collective decision to voluntarily self isolate. By 23 March, the whole country was in lockdown. The humbling pandemic made face masks and social distancing the new normal, and has upended almost every aspect of the world in which we live. On plagues and pandemics, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; and if plague breaks out in a land where you are, do not leave it.’1 Of the many Muslim voices that tried to help ease any of the anxieties or agitations we believers may have harboured, Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad’s Perspective on the Pandemic was by far the most socially insightful and spiritually intelligent. When it came to persuasive and practical fiqhi advice on Covid related issues, the commendable, yet relatively unknown British Board of Scholars and Imams offered UK Muslims the sane and much sought-after guidance (including qualified fiqh responses to common concerns about taking Covid vaccines: read here).
A month after lockdown was announced here in Britain, Ramadan began for us Muslims across the world. And how different it was! With lockdown putting a halt to gatherings in mosques for the five daily prayers and the tarawih prayer in the Ramadan nights, as well as large iftar dinners with family and friends, these were unscripted times. Without the communal energy Ramadan supplies individual believers with, this was going to be a bit of a go-it-alone Ramadan. With Allah’s grace, most Muslims rose to the occasion and, with good counsel from our scholars reminding us of the immense virtues and religious benefits of ‘uzlah – spiritual ‘isolation’ or ‘solitude’ – many dug in deep to muster the spiritual concentration needed to be present with the Qur’an and be alone with the One. About solitude (not to be confused with loneliness), sayyiduna ‘Umar advised: ‘Take your share of ‘uzlah.’2 And when asked in what salvation could be found, the Prophet ﷺ replied by saying: ‘Control your tongue, stay in your home and weep over your sins.’3 Ramadan was also the time the Cambridge Muslim College began to garner the appreciation it deserves. Its Ramadan Live programme offered a veritable feast of spiritual instruction and inspiration on how best to live the religious life, deepen our degrees of fasting, and cultivate Divine love (you can watch their programme and talks here).
A day or two after Ramadan, George Floyd, an unarmed black American, was unjustly killed by a policeman using lethal force while arresting him – a tragic event that’s becoming a tale as old as time. This triggered protests and riots in America, and here in Britain too; and it again brought to the fore the question of whether our society is institutionally racist: whether discrimination on the basis of race or colour is systemically embedded in the criminal justice system, political power, education, housing, healthcare, and other such institutions or organisations in society. I wrote about this in On British Muslims & Racism: Do Black Lives Matter? There I concluded by saying that we ought to support Black Lives Matter as a cause, rather than a movement; striving to tackle racism and to improve racial equality in Britain. And that we Muslims should support any grassroots programme that is working for a more just and fairer Britain for all people, not just for our particular tribe, as per the teaching of the Holy Qur’an: Help one another in righteousness and piety, but do not help one another in sin and transgression. [Q.5:2]
As Muslims, it must be the Revelation which shapes our social outlook; and it must be the universal Quranic archetypes of good and bad, right and wrong, which animate our social justice activism. In fact, any Muslim activism which ignores how seeking Allah’s approval and assistance in social change is tied to certain moral imperatives, forfeits the right to be labelled ‘Muslims activism’, and is simply activism undertaken by Muslims. The Qur’an must be our prime driver. But BLM as a movement and the Critical Race Theory it is embedded in is, I submit, out of step with even the basic Quranic vision of society and its strategy of righting social wrongs (a statement I hope to explore and justify in a future post, God willing). That the BLM founders are self-professed ‘trained marxists’; that it seeks to tear down the family structure; or that it currently divides more than it unites; that criticism of it invokes the most vicious cancel culture or accusations of being a racist; that white people are now all deemed to be in the grip of ‘white privilege‘, which itself is just the tip of the iceberg of them being intrinsically and incurably racist – all of this should at least cause an eyebrow to be raised and the religious mind to be very concerned. Where is the righteousness or piety in any of this, such that it could be supported as a movement? And yet Black people in the UK are, according to the statistics and data, disproportionately aggrieved against because of their colour. What is the solution? What are the underlying drivers? What policies need to thoughtfully and wisely be rolled out by government or local authorities? I don’t know the answer to any of these. But I do know that one extremism cannot be corrected with another extreme; that’s for sure.
Of course there can be, and often is, a vast difference between a movement’s founders and ideologues, and the rank and file who function as foot soldiers. Many of your day-to-day BLM activists may not share, let alone even know, the core philosophy underpinning the movement. They may simply be angry, disillusioned people who feel that they must raise their voices in civic protest against the social injustices and racial inequalities that they see or witness, or feel are systemic in society. And only a fool or an out and out bigot would deny there aren’t any such injustices or inequalities. The Muslim scholarly tradition is, however, predicated upon conserving whatever is best in any given system, collective or society, and advocates addressing and rectifying imbalances and injustices, rather than desiring to topple and tear the whole structure down in the childish and forlorn hope that something better will arise out of the ashes! And Muslim activism – whether here as minorities in the West, or in Muslim majority countries – would do well to reflect this.
On the topic of racism or ethnic aggression, by September 2020, we had more proof of China’s racism and repression against its Uighur Muslim population. Satellite images revealed nearly four-hundred detention centres and political indoctrination camps in which over a million Uighurs have been detained, as part of a bid to ethnically cleanse Uighur social, cultural and religious identity from China. Little has been said by political leaders, Muslim or otherwise, one assumes, in large part, because China economically ingratiates itself to an ever growing number of countries and organisations; and one customarily doesn’t bite the hand that feeds it – nor, it seems, make any significant statement of political outrage, not even if it be just a little whimper.
Five years on, and Yemen 2020 is still the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. While charities have been working relentlessly to supply food, medicine and other essentials – a small, but highly effective charity called Forgotten Women being one of them; with aid workers on the ground – Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been bombing Yemen ceaselessly, creating and worsening this grotesque carnage of death, destruction, famine and human suffering; all in the name of their geo-political aims. British-made arms lucratively sold to the Saudis have played a major role in the carnage, famine and the quarter of a million people killed due to the fighting, famine or humanitarian crisis.
While we are on the subject of the UAE, it seems its hands can be drenched in the blood of tens of thousands of Yemenis; or it can have hostility towards its Muslim neighbours, but it is okay as of mid-September, 2020 for it to make peace with Israel? Politics, trade, arms deals and suspicion of the Iranians can, it seems, make strange bed fellows. That said, our du‘as are for the guidance, welfare and rectification of all the Muslim rulers and heads of state; and that, in these politically difficult times, we pray that they not be so spineless when it comes to the message of tawhid and the glory of God.
1. Al-Bukhari, no.5728.
2. Cited in al-Khattabi, al-‘Uzlah (Damascus: Dar Ibn Kathir, 1990), 70.
3. Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.2408, saying that the hadith is hasan sahih.
Given that the knowledge the ‘ulema and du‘at teach and convey is sacred, majestic and noble: That this is indeed a noble Qur’an [Q.57:77], then they too are expected to exemplify nobility and dignity in terms of character and how they carry themselves. The message is noble, its carriers must be noble too. It’s as short and simple as that!
No doubt, the loftier reason for scholars and callers to have beautiful character and noble conduct is for the love of Allah, and for the love of virtue itself because Allah loves and is pleased with it. Other reasons to embody virtue are significant, although lesser in degree. One reason has to do with status. If ‘ulema or du‘at behave in an unbecoming manner, it’s less about their status dropping in the public’s eyes, and more that it reflects badly on the actual knowledge itself. Sacred knowledge loses its gravitas; its haybah, when its carriers lose theirs. The nafs, egged on by shaytan’s whispers, will grab at any excuse to evade the authority of sacred knowledge; let alone demean or discredit it.
It ought to be said that while the post specifically addresses scholars and du‘at, the fact is that all Muslims here in the West have a duty of da‘wah. In Islam, people belong to either the ummat al-ijabah or ummat al-da‘wah. Which is to say, they are people who have either responded to the call; and are thus Muslims, or they are people to whom the call must be conveyed; and hence are currently non-Muslims. The Qur’an says: And who can be better in speech than one who calls others to God and does what is right, and says: ‘I am one of the Muslims.’ [Q.41:33] There’s no doubt that da‘wah entails conveying, clarifying, discussing, and sometimes even debating. But doing what is right has a greater impact on hearts than words alone. Debating the correctness of tawhid over shirk definitely has its place. But the conviction of tawhid lived out in a life of prayer, piety, charity, service and patience tends to have a decisive edge in softening souls and inviting intellects. Scholars insist: lisan al-hal abyan min lisan al-maqal – which, when rendered into common English idiom, might mean: ‘Actions speak louder than words.’ So da‘wah for most people should be guided by the following contention: ‘Use words in your preaching only if absolutely necessary.’1 In all of this, we should always keep in mind that it is in the nature of tawhid, of Abrahamic monotheism, to call upon its adherents to be healers and therapists; and this is even more so the case in this post-modern age deeply traumatised by its existential aimlessness and so desperately calling out to be healed. In Nietzsche’s words: ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’
In what follows, I’ll discuss some causes which lend themselves to the dignity and noble conduct that da‘wah ila’Llah – or ‘calling to God’ – demands. I’ll also address some of the mistaken attitudes and misconduct that currently taint the integrity of the da‘wah. And by da‘wah, I don’t mean just the kind we do as individuals to neighbours, work colleagues or friends. But also the numerous street da‘wah enterprises throughout the country; da‘wah in the park; and da‘wah in a lecture, dialogue, or debate setting: may Allah increase them all in goodness and tawfiq.
1 – Intrinsic to scholars, teachers and callers to Islam being noble and beautiful souls is the question of sincerity. We read this verse in the Holy Qur’an: Say: ‘This is my path. I call to Allah upon sure knowledge …’ [Q.12:108] Hence the scholar or caller calls to God, not to themselves; their social media profiles; their organisation; nor to making earning money their primary goal. All of this contradicts sincerity in calling to Allah. Al-Qushayri wrote: ‘Sincerity is to single-out the Real [God] as the sole object of devotion. Meaning that one desires by their obedience to draw closer to God, exalted is He, to the exclusion of all else, such as making a show [of one’s piety] for people; seeking their praise; taking pleasure in their compliments; or other such things besides drawing closer to God, exalted is He. It is right to say that sincerity is: Purifying the act from creation having any share in it.’2
2 – That being sincere is something easier said than done may be seen from these words of Sufyan al-Thawri – an early and notable scholar and renunciant of Islam: ‘Nothing was harder for me to ever remedy than my own nafs.’3 To claim the maqam al-da‘wah is, to say the least, problematic. To lay claim to the maqam al-sidq, of acting truly and sincerely for God alone, ought to, in the case of most of us, beggar some belief. For it would mean that we’ve eliminated our ego; that there is no more nafs. And that is quite a claim. If the nafs were to be truly absent, our own world would witness wonders. For human happiness will only flourish when the soul is free from ego and at rest in God.
3 – One verse of the Qur’an says: We did not send any Messenger, except with the language of his people, that he might make [the message] clear to them. [Q.14:4] To deliver the call or summons to God in a language people understand should go without saying. For how can the message help steer people out of the darkness and into the light, [Q.14:5] if it cannot be understood? But being understood, and thus relatable at some basic, yet meaningful level isn’t just about speaking the indigenous language. We could speak the right lingo, yet still come across as unrelatable due to adopting foreign dress codes and cultural outlooks that Islam does not insist upon, unnecessarily alienating us from the wider public. Geographic ignorance of a people’s ‘urf or ‘adah; their customs, norms or conventions, isn’t expected of believers who claim to be steered by the prophetic Sunnah.
4 – In a Britain where one in three people now believe there are Muslim-run ‘no-go areas’ across the country; where two-thirds of the public claim they know little or nothing about Islam (most saying that whatever little they do know is learnt via the media); where one in four people don’t believe in God (compared to one in ten, in 1998); and where over fifty percent of the nation say that they have no religious affiliation, being unrelatable isn’t an option. Our greatest vocation as Muslims, then, is to heal our country’s growing enmity towards Abrahamic monotheism, not exacerbate it. How is it there’s a sizeable presence of Muslims in Britain (about 5% of the population), yet atheism is relentlessly on the rise? It suggests that, current hostilities to religiousness aside, we Muslims need to be better fit for purpose. As Tennyson wrote: ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.’
5 – I cite the above statistics not to incite fear or panic, or some sense of defeatism, but as a sense of urgency in revisiting current trends of inviting to Abrahamic monotheism. As such, strategies that undermine wise and shari‘ah guided inculturation (not assimilation), or that erect religiously unwarranted alienation between the ummat al-ijabah and ummat al-da‘wah, must be swiftly remedied. This, as Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad says, ‘imposes the duty, painful for some, of shedding the ‘urf and ‘ada decorations of foreign lands.’4 A British Muslim who insists on wearing Arab or Asian garb, and cling to an Arab or Asian cultural outlook, is unlikely to endear monotheism to the wider public, who will see them as alien; unrelatable; unable to envisage how Islam might be for British people.
6 – If da‘wah is the prime reason to legitimise our presence here, then we’re duty-bound to urgently dispense with these unnecessary overseas ‘urf embellishments, in order not to be responsible for tanfir, for alienation or repelling others. The Prophet ﷺ said: bashshiru wa la tunaffiru, yassiru wa la tu‘assiru – ‘Give glad tidings and do not repel [people], make things easy and do not make things difficult.’5 So, except with the language of his people isn’t limited to speech. It also involves a certain degree of cultural affinity and familiarity with what makes the people what they are. Which is to say, the da‘i should know and be relatable to the mad‘u – to those whom the call is being made.
7 – While da’wah is a constant duty and concern upon every Muslim, it is currently the privilege of a growing minority who realise we are not here primarily to be consumers, to improve our material welfare, or to live cozy lives. For that reason we could even say that the history of Islam in Britain is much younger than the history of Muslims in Britain. For only with da’wah, with the deliberate adoption of summoning others to the All-Merciful Lord as the central principle, could we claim in any meaningful way that Islam arrived on these shores; to this royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle. Those who emigrated here with other intentions are urged to redress this matter within themselves.
8 – The Holy Qur’an says: Call to the path of your Lord with wisdom and kindly exhortation, and reason with them in the most courteous manner. [Q.16:125] Also: Had you been stern or harsh-hearted, they would have surely dispersed from around you. [Q.3:159] And about the prophets Moses and Aaron, peace be upon them, we read: ‘Go, both of you, to Pharaoh, for he had indeed transgressed all bounds. Speak to him gently, that perhaps he may take heed or fear [God].’ [Q.20:43-4] Overall, then, our da‘wah must be one of tabshir and taysir, of giving glad-tidings and making things easy. The ‘alim or da‘i, when they exhort anyone, it must be with wisdom and kindness. When they enjoin good, it must be with mildness and facilitating ease. And when they forbid wrong, it must be done with gentleness, clemency and compassion. Indeed, even when the scholar or da‘i strive to do justice, they must try, where appropriate, to do justice with a light touch. One famous hadith says: ‘Indeed God is gentle and loves gentleness. He gives to gentleness what He doesn’t give to harshness, and what He doesn’t give to other than it.’6
9 – It seems there’s a rising trend to skip over the stricter passages of the Qur’an, in terms of it being a warning, admonition and an ultimatum to not take the ungodly path to Hell. But how is such strict stuff tabshir? The answer is that it isn’t. It’s tahdhir – ‘warning!’ This Qur’an has been revealed to me that I may warn you with it and whomsoever it may reach. [Q.6:19] We must remember that along with describing our Prophet ﷺ as: a mercy to the worlds, [Q.21:107] the Qur’an says: O Prophet! We have indeed sent you as a witness and as a bearer of good news and a warner, and as a summoner to God by His permission, and as a light-giving lamp. [Q.33:45-6] The da‘i – along with wisdom, patience, mildness, familiarity and genuine concern – should follow in the prophetic footsteps, by being both bashir and nadhir: sometimes inviting, while at other times summoning; knowing just what medicine to best administer, and when.
10 – Having said the above, those with wiser heads, deeper spiritual insights, and greater experience teach us that the nature of post-religious Britain is such that its people do not normally respond well to tahdhir. Therefore, there must be a greater emphasis on tabshir, though not a total omission of tahdhir. Tahdhir must be used sparingly, like a pinch of salt sprinkled over food: too little and the tongue finds it unpalatable; too much and it’s likely to elicit an aversion. Some see in the next verse a validation for not frightening people in such times with divine threats, out of concern for not driving them away: Lurk not on every road to threaten and bar [people] who believe in Him from the path of God. [Q.7:86] This, while recalling the rule: al-‘ibrah bi ‘umum al-lafz la bi khusus al-sabab – ‘Consideration is given to the generality of the wording, not the specific cause for its revelation.’ Hence they say, that in general: al-waqt waqtu tabshir la waqtu tahdhir – ‘The times are times of glad-tidings, not times of warnings.’7
11 – The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Never did Allah send a prophet except that he was a shepherd.’ His Companions asked: ‘Even you?’ He replied: ‘Yes, I was a shepherd for a modest wage for [some of] the people of Makkah.’8 Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani commented: ‘The scholars say: The wisdom behind inspiring the prophets to be shepherds before prophethood is so that they would acquire the skills to humbly tend and care for the affairs of their [respective] nations. Since by mingling with the flock, it makes them acquire mildness and gentleness. For in patiently tending to them; herding them together after being scattered in [various] grazing fields; moving them from pasture to pasture; or guarding them from dangers, like from predatory beasts or thieves; and growing familiar with their different natures … By this, they learn how to bear patience with their ummah, recognise their differing natures and varying attitudes, heal their wounds, and comfort their weak.’9 The mild and patient qualities of shepherding must therefore be absolutely integral to the nature and character of the da‘i, if he or she wishes to mirror the work and ways of God’s prophets.
12 – Cultivating sincere and genuine concern for others is the intent of the famous Arabic proverb: لَيْسَت النَائِحَةُ الثَّكْلى كَالْمُسْتأجَرَة – ‘The bereaved weeper is not like the hired [mourner].’ In other words, the mother in whose lap her only child dies, isn’t like the criers for hire in terms of tears and grief. The tears of the former are real and come from a heart torn to bits. As for the latter, their grief or tears are an act, a put on, part of the job they get paid to do. Such must be the case for da‘wah too. We must ask Allah to nurture in our hearts true and genuine prophetic concern for peoples’ guidance and overall welfare. But without sincere inner concern, we’re in danger of turning da‘wah into a job, or an exercise for the ego, or an opportunity to unleash our darker pathologies and frustrations upon others. The idea that we can teach da‘wah tactics and techniques, without also imparting serious spiritual instruction or nurturing a classical ihsan-rooted Islam, is a forlorn blunder that continues to have huge tanfiri ramifications. The crier-for-hire da‘i needs to swiftly be made jurassic: become a thing of the past, extinct like the dinosaur.
13 – The da‘wah can have no place for angry, incandescent preachers who have no traits of shepherding, but who instead rant and rave, foam at the mouth, and aggressively talk at their audience, rather than talk to them. Such hysteria is simply not the prophetic voice and concern; it’s the ego’s. On those occasions where something other than mildness or gentleness was called for, then the sirah shows us that it was a measured sternness, or a composed anger, born of the ruh, the Spirit, not of the nafs. To vindicate such unsightly harshness, by pointing to the hadith which says about the Prophet ﷺ that: إِذَا خَطَبَ احْمَرَّتْ عَيْنَاهُ وَعَلاَ صَوْتُهُ وَاشْتَدَّ غَضَبُهُ كَأَنَّهُ مُنْذِرُ جَيْشٍ – ‘When he gave a sermon, his eyes would redden, his voice would grow louder, and he would be intensely passionate, as if he were warning of an [enemy] army,’10 is falsely equating ruh with nafs; beauty with ugliness; composed, yet passionate exhortation with frenzied and self-satisfied pontification. How much more could the prophetic character be so self-servingly distorted or assassinated?! Bottom line is that those whose waspish conduct or childish temper tantrums drive people from Islam are tanfiris; perhaps even accursed, since they undo the very work of the Prophets.
14 – If the da‘wah should not tolerate awful adab, then it should be even less tolerant of atrocious ‘aqidah. By this I mean the trend that slights the very idea of warnings of Hell or Divine Wrath; or makes it out that Hellfire is just a myth for Muslim simpletons; or that all good non-Muslims will go to jannah.11 For what now counts for most people, including an increasing number of ill-informed and insecure Muslims isn’t God or holiness. It’s that we simply be good people and agree to the secular decencies of our age. Such adulteration of the din might stave off the dangers of tanfir. But such theological ‘social distancing’ from the more rigorous, jalali aspects of the faith stand in such stark contrast to the message of the Qur’an, that it makes them unquestionably or utterly unIslamic. And while it’s human nature to want to be met with the approval of others, this is not a case where the means might be said to justify the ends. As for the believer, he or she wishes acceptance, not for their own sake, but so that the message of God’s Oneness and abounding mercy may be given heed. This is the true Abrahamic hope for the Ishmaelite nation: ‘So make the hearts of the people incline towards them.’ [Q.14:37]
15 – In our post-Christian, post-monotheistic Britain there are plenty of reasons why we should try and make the invitation to God as palatable as possible, without compromises that amount to adulteration. As the demands for Islam to reform along the line of current liberal orthodoxies intensify, so does the temptation to water down faith or gloss over its less palatable bits: Perhaps you may [feel to] leave out some of what is revealed to you, and your heart feels strained because they say: ‘Why has no treasure been sent down to him, or an angel not come with him?’ You are nothing except a warner, and God is Guardian over all things. [Q.11:12] So the frightened or anxious-to-please Muslim may ask themselves: ‘What if I omit this religious ruling or alter that part of Islam, wont the truth be more agreeable?’ Yet we are told the truth must be delivered as it was revealed, and to airbrush out a part of what is obligated would be to cave in to the ego’s panic. Instead, what is expected of us is to do what the Holy Qur’an asks, when it states: your duty is only to convey. [Q.3:20] Upon the believer, then, is to convey the message wisely, contextually, without being paralysed by fear, complexes or insecurities, and by prioritising the message of tawhid over all other concerns; and then simply leave the rest to Allah.
16 – As the Prophet ﷺ was sending the highly learned Mu‘adh b. Jabal to Yemen, as a da‘i to Allah, he reminded him of who his target audience was and what his priorities should be – calling to the Oneness of God: ‘Indeed you are going to a community from the People of the Book, so call them to testify that there is no God [deserving of worship] save Allah, and that I am the Messenger of Allah. If they accept that, then inform them that God has obligated upon them five prayers in a day and night. If they accept that, inform them that God has obligated them with charity [zakat], to be taken from their rich and distributed to their poor …’12 Priority in da‘wah must, therefore, start with what is most important, then then next in importance; and so on. Wisdom in da‘wah should start by being clear about two matters: Firstly, that we are not just Muslims in Britain, but Muslims of Britain. For the vast majority of us, Britain is our home. In fact, if polls are to be believed, seventy-seven percent of Muslims ‘very strongly’ identify with the UK, compared to fifty-one percent of the overall population. Muslims in Britain not only seem to want to belong, they feel that they actually do belong. And secondly …
17 – That today’s Britain, for all intents and purposes, is both post-monotheistic and post-religious. What then is the wisdom behind raging for the implementation of Islamic law in Britain while anti-Muslim sentiment across Britain and Europe are at alarming levels? Ibn Taymiyyah, while speaking of the Abyssinian Negus who – having secretly converted to Islam wasn’t able to openly declare his faith – said: ‘The Negus was unable to implement the laws of the Qur’an since his people would never have allowed him to do so … Yet the Negus and those like him found their way to Paradise (al-najashi wa amthaluhu sa‘ada fi’l-jannah) even though they were unable to observe the rules of Islam or could only abide by such rules as could be implemented in their given circumstances.’13 Policies that eclipse the call to tawhid, by uncalled for demands of Islamic law, aren’t just at odds with religion and reason, they are damaging and dangerous too.
18 – People with even a vague scriptural understanding of the God of Abraham have been easier to relate to (and perhaps even give da‘wah to). But today’s atheist, even though pre-modern Muslim societies or theology engaged them as the dahriyyah, are a different kettle of fish; and the post-modern world which atheists and secular humanists have had a dab hand in shaping is unlike anything that has ever come before. And while we have always had a theology of how we can best live as minorities under an ahl al-kitab polity, we need an empathetic theology for how to best be fit for purpose in an ahl al-kidhab, the People of Denial, atheist polity, and the new type of human it is creating. The basis for this must be the recognition that even atheists have the echo of Alastu suffused into the core of their being. So we read in the Qur’an that God made a covenant with all humans whilst in our pre-bodily, pre-earthly forms, saying: alastu bi rabbikum? – ‘Am I not your Lord?’ To which we all said: bala shahidna – ‘Yes indeed! We do bear witness.’ [Q.7:172] It is to retrieve and rekindle this dormant echo of Alastu that prophets were sent and scriptures revealed. Our task as healers, rooted as it must be in mahabbah: love for what each Adamic soul has the potential to become, must start with the work of retrieval.
19 – As strange as this might sound to some, what’s probably more important than calling our post-monotheistic milieu to Islam is to help reawaken their fitrah, so that people can leave their comfort zones, question the liberal assumptions of their age, and be authentic Truth-seekers. Much like Meursault’s tender indifference in Camus’ Outsider, or Antoine’s mood disorders in Sartre’s Nausea, the post-religious person is beset by existential angst, despair and loneliness born from wrongly believing that life is bereft of meaning; we are all here by a series of huge cosmic flukes; and that despite our freedom to choose, death is our ultimate end, thus life is pointless. Du Pasquier wrote: ‘Proclaimed as absurd, life on earth has effectively lost its meaning. Man is offered a multitude of material possibilities and advantages undreamt of by earlier generations, but since we’re now ignorant of what man is, and of what his deep aspirations might be, not one of these miracles can prevent him from foundering in his own despair.’14 Knowing the psychology and philosophies that have created such a profane age, and have so damaged the human perception, is of paramount importance. For: ‘The greatness of a prophet, as opposed to a mere logician, is that he understands the inner life of his adversaries, and constructs arguments that help them to recognise the nature of their own subjectivity.’15
20 – About the truth-seeking aim, Ibn Taymiyyah clarified the following: ‘As for those who lived after the age of Jesus, and only some of his accounts reached them; or Moses, with only certain aspects of his story reaching them, then the proof is established upon them only insofar as what has reached them of their [respective] messages. If they differed in interpretations of the Gospel or Torah, whosoever among them intended to seek the truth and diligently pursued it, isn’t subject to divine punishment; even if he erred in the truth, was ignorant of it, or misguided about it.’16 Thus what counts is qasd al-haqq; intending to seek the truth, even if one unwittingly misses the actual truth. Such is the vastness of the divine plenitude and compassion.
21 – As for the British Muslims feeling of belonging, Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad noted: ‘Yet the exact temper, and the doctrinal and fiqh framing, of this Muslim wish to integrate in Britain … has not been properly theologised … This empirical Muslim wisdom urgently requires a clearer scriptural and conceptual exposition than the community currently receives from academics, Islamist leaderships, or the race temples. There is a discourse of ‘minority fiqh’, mostly of very feeble intellectual rigour, but we miss its underpinnings in a theology, or, as it were, a ‘minority fikr’, something particularly needed in the context of a post-monotheistic society.’17 By ‘race temples’, he means those UK mosques that function as ‘enclosures for single ethnicities’ whose ‘mono-ethnic and introspective leaderships are generally unfamiliar with any novelty occurring outside their silos. Such communities did not come to Europe to converse but to work.’18
22 – Let’s begin to wrap-up with what may be obvious: In Britain, how should our da‘wah to God proceed? Of course, every individual and every situation will be different. But the common precepts of the da‘wah should focus on the falaki, cosmic arguments that appeal to the deepest, most shared human intuition which knows that differentiated entities and mutable things must be originated. That is to say, whatever comes into existence, after not existing, must have a cause for its existence. The Qur’an says: Among His [wondrous] signs are the night and the day, and the sun and the moon. Bow not down to the sun or the moon, but bow before God Who created them, if you would worship Him. [Q.41:37] When damaged hearts are invited to confront the question of why there is something rather than nothing; when helped to step back from the conditions of modern life so as to see that Man, in his state of nihilism, is distracted, dispersed and unfulfilled, and fails to find true inner peace that comes from fulfilling in this world the higher purpose for which he was created; and when softened by the evidence of Muslim good manners, integrity and forgiveness, such antagonists of faith ‘will give heed to these signs, will make the right choices, and will restore the memory of God to their hearts.’19
23 – So to conclude our excursion across Britain’s da‘wah landscape, and recalling Rumi’s words: ‘While the intellect still seeks a saddle for the hajj, love has already encircled the Ka‘bah,‘ this seems a good place to end: ‘The fiqh may struggle at first to create a complete system of engagement with an atheistic culture, but mahabba is operative already. And mahabba, together with a mature and sociologically-informed adaption of local ‘urf …, and an awareness of the Prophetic indispensability of a da‘wah orientation, must create a juridical culture that moves beyond the simple concession-based logic of ‘minority fiqh’, to generate a fully-authentic Islamic rule-making system which will allow us a style of life faithful to revelation and also viable as a mode of rich conviviality with a sad and stressed culture which enjoys an abundance of everything except the indispensable.’20
Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.
1. A. H. Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contention (Cambridge: The Quilliam Press, 2012), no.43; p.75.
2. Al-Risalat al-Qushayriyyah (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2017), 476.
3. Cited in Abu Nu‘aym al-Asbahani, Hilyat al-Awliya (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1996), 7:5.
4. Travelling Home: Essays on Islam in Europe (Cambridge: The Quilliam Press, 2020), 61.
5. Muslim, no.1732.
6. Muslim, no.2593.
7. See: Ibn Sumayt al-Husayni, al-Manhaj al-Sawi (Yemen: Dar al-‘Ilm wa’l-Da‘wah, 2005), 312.
8. Al-Bukhari, no.2262.
9. Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Egypt: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 6:25.
Q. As Muslims, what should our stance be on racism or racial discrimination, and should we be supporting social justice movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM)? And isn’t all of this support for BLM privileging justice for black people over others, especially when we Muslims realise the increasing Islamophobia and injustices being perpetrated against our fellow Muslim brothers and sisters around the globe?
A. At the outset, let me be clear about how I intend to engage these concerns. And that is by rooting them in mainstream teachings of Islam so as to address the issue of racism in a manner that might be meaningful in a British context, and recognised as being Islamic in a Muslim one. I have divided the response into five parts: [i] Islam & racism; [ii] modernity & racism; [iii] Britain & racism; [iv] Muslims & racism; and [v] BLM & racism.
I. ISLAM & RACISM
Although the following verse is not speaking of the modern social construct of racism per se, it is speaking to the pre-modern concept of groupings of people related by significant common descent; in terms of location, language, history and culture. Thus we read in the Holy Qur’an: O mankind! We have created you from a male and female, and then made you nations and tribes that you might know one another. Truly, the noblest of you in the sight of God is he who is the most pious. God is indeed Knowing, Aware. [Q.49:13]
The Prophet ﷺ brought skin colour into the mix in these words: ‘O mankind! Indeed your Lord is one, and indeed your father is one. Truly, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab over an Arab; nor white (ahmar, lit. ‘red’ or ‘reddish’) over black, nor black over white – except by piety. Have I not conveyed [the message]?’1
In fact, the Qur’an doesn’t only negatively condemn such discrimination, but it positively and actively celebrates diversity too: And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the differences of your languages and your colours. In this are signs for people of knowledge. [Q.30:22]
The above verses and prophetic statement, then, were a total restructuring of the moral or ethical landscape prevalent throughout Arabia at the time. True worth would no longer be determined by skin colour, lineage, or even by grandiose shows of courage or generosity. Rather, true worth would be measured by taqwa – ‘piety,’ ‘godliness’ and ‘mindfulness’ of God’s commands and prohibitions.
Once, when one of the Prophet’s wives hurled a racial slur (or ethnoreligious insult, as we might say today) at another co-wife in a state of annoyance, disparagingly called her ‘the daughter of a Jew’, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Indeed, your [fore]father [Moses] was a Prophet; your [great] uncle [Aaron] was a Prophet; and you are married to a Prophet. What can she boast to you about?’2 Again, when one companion insulted another person, by insulting his mother because she was a non-Arab, the Prophet ﷺ said to him: ‘You still have some pre-Islamic ignorance (jahiliyyah) in you.’3 Thus no Muslim has even the slightest right to resurrect the vile attitude of racism; xenophobia; tribal bigotry; or insulting people due to them being seen as the ‘Other’, when the Prophet ﷺ radically eliminated such attitudes from the believer’s worldview and relationships. Ibn Taymiyyah said: ‘There isn’t a single verse in God’s Book that praises someone or censures someone due to just their lineage. Instead, praise is due to faith and piety, while blame is because of disbelief, immorality or disobedience.’4
II. MODERNITY & RACISM
In the 1830s, Samuel Morton, an American craniologist, amassed and studied hundreds of human skulls so as to measure differences in brain size between people from various ethnic backgrounds. Morton believed he had used science to prove that white people were intellectually superior to other ‘races’. In his Crania Americana, Morton declared that not only did white people have larger brains and thus were intellectually superior to all other races, but also that black people had the smallest brains sizes and were hence inferior to all others. Morton and others used this conclusion as a ‘scientific’ justification to continue slavery in the United States and negatively stereotype black people. Many hold Morton to be the founding father of scientific racism. It’s here that, based upon this pseudo-science and on certain superficial differences in physiological traits, the categorisation of people into distinct ‘races’ begins in earnest. And while the institutional racism, racial prejudice, and white supremacy that was to follow were directed at all races in Morton’s descending hierarchy, providing adequate grounds to treat other races differently, in terms of rights and privileges, it would be black people (at the supposed bottom of the heap) that would bear the greatest and most sustained brunt of it.
Of course, modern science has long since shown that brain size isn’t necessarily related to intelligence. Instead, brain size is tied to things like environment, climate and body size, while intelligence is more related to how many neurons, or how efficient the connections between neurons, are in the brain. Indeed, modern science has also largely debunked the biological basis of race, showing that there is as much genetic diversity within such racial groups as there is between them. Science now regards race as a conventional attribution; a social construct, but not a scientifically rooted or valid classification. And while today we tend to favour the term ethnicity over the arbitrary construct of ‘race’ based upon skin colour and physiognomy, race remains, for some, a focus of individual and group identity, particularly members of socially disadvantaged groups, like blacks, where it oftentimes is a source of pride and joy. All this has led many anthropologists to argue that since there is no scientific basis for race, we should just chuck the whole idea in the bin. Others say that if we’re going to continue to insist on the social fiction of racial differences, let it be based on ethical considerations that enhance justice, fairness and familiarity between peoples, not hatred, discrimination and xenophobia. In fact, this latter way of looking at ethnic or racial divides is probably more in keeping with what Islam wants for humanity. After all, God made of us nations and tribes lita‘arafu – ‘that you might know one another.’
The above, then, amidst the activities of European empires and colonialism is where such modern ideas of racial discrimination and racism were birthed; ideas and realities which still reverberate frustratingly down to these present times. Just how many ordinary white Britons internalised the racist pseudo-science over the past one hundred and fifty years or so, not because they were particularly bad or evil people, but because they believed the ‘science’, is anyone’s guess. Add to that the usual xenophobia that often exists against the outsider, the modern feats and achievements of white Western Europe which feed into the idea of white exceptionalism or supremacy, and the political utility of whipping up blame against immigrants in times of national difficulty and economic downturn, make for well-entrenched myths and discrimination against people of colour.
III. BRITAIN & RACISM
Although the history of the United States is drenched in racism; with the issue of race still being the most painful, divisive one for its citizens, it is racism in Britain – my home, and where I was born and raised – that I’d like to confine my remarks and anecdotes to. And in Britain, just as in America, while peoples of diverse ethnic minorities have undeniably been, and continue to be, victims of racism, it is discrimination against black people that is by far the more endemic and systemic.
The recent anti-racist protests that are taking place across the country aren’t just to show anger about the death of yet another black man, George Floyd, at the hands of yet another American police officer. They are also protests against the systemic racism here in Britain too. Long before racism against blacks, Asians, and Eastern Europeans, Jews as a people, and also the Irish, suffered racism in Britain. Jewish people still do; and we Muslims are fast becoming the new Jews (or even the new Blacks).
Whilst structural or institutional racism is difficult to conclusively prove, the lived reality of people of colour, as well as statistics after statistics, or report after report, all point to similar conclusions: Britain has a race problem. It doesn’t just have a problem with casual racism (now called micro aggression; as experienced in schools, jobs or everyday life), or racism born from unconscious bias (snap decisions conditioned by cultural upbringing or personal experience); it has a problem of systemic racism too – racial discrimination and negative stereotyping within many of its key institutions: the police force and the criminal justice system deemed to be among the main culprits.
It is, of course, argued that although Britain does indeed have individual racists, and that acts of racism do tragically still occur here, but Britain itself; even if it may have been in the recent past, isn’t institutionally racist anymore. We have the Equalities Act of 2010, as one of the clearest proofs against any institutional racism.
Or the case has been put that, ever since the Macpherson Report of 1999, which came as a result of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, in 1993 – and the two words in it that stood out from the rest of the 350 page report, that London’s Metropolitan Police was ‘institutionally racist’ – Britain’s police forces have internalised the criticism and have come on leaps and bounds since then: individually and institutionally. So to describe Britain’s police forces as still being systemically racist is unjust and unfair; or so the argument goes.
Be that as it may; and while many positive changes of both mind and structure have been sincerely made, the stark, present-day statistics tell us another story. Modern Britain is a place where black people, in contrast to white ones are: 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched; 4 time more likely to be arrested; twice as likely to be temporarily excluded from school; and 3 times as likely to be permanently excluded from school; and twice as likely to die in police custody. From any unbiased standard, does this look anywhere like equality? And just as importantly, are we saying that institutional racism is totally absent from these numbers?5
For most of my life, I’ve lived on one council estate or another in East London. In my pre-teen years, I grew up on an estate in Chingford, where most of the people were white, with a few Afro-Caribbean families and a couple of Asian ones: my family being one of them. I, like many other non-whites of my generation, encountered my share of racist abuse; and for a short time, a little racist bullying too. On the whole, I got along with most kids on the estate and at its primary school, regardless of colour; and they got along with me.
For my entire teen years, I lived on another estate in Leytonstone, where this time most of the residents were black. It was the mid 1970s, and it was a time when many young black people were, I wouldn’t say suffering an identity crisis, but more that they were searching for an identity. For unlike their parents, they were neither Jamaican, Bajan [Barbadian], or Trinidadian, nor did they feel (or were made to feel) totally British. Instead, young black Britons were turning to their Blackness to make sense of their place in Britain, developing a sense of collective cultural identity in the process. I felt a greater affinity to that culture, than I did any other. Voices like Bob Marley, Burning Spear, the Wailing Souls and Black Uhuru spoke to our plight and our aspirations. But whilst their conscious lyrics of roots reggae was coming out of Jamaica, it was home-grown, British reggae artists that would tell our own specifically British story: artists like Steel Pulse, Black Roots, Mikey Dread or, particularly for me, Aswad (or early Aswad, from ’76-’82). Aswad sang of African Children (which I’d swap in my mind for ‘immigrant’ children) ‘living in a concrete situation;’ in ‘precast stone walls, concrete cubicles. Their rent increasing each and every other day; Structural repairs are assessed and yet not done; Lift out of action on the twenty-seventh floor; And when they work, they smell.’ All of us youths crammed into the estate’s small youth centre, smiled, nodded away approvingly, and perfectly identified with the message when we first heard such conscious lyrics booming out at us. Whilst Marley spoke of the daily ghetto struggles of growing up in the concrete jungle of Kingston 12; Trenchtown, for me, Aswad spoke of parallel struggles growing up in the concrete situation of Leytonstone E11. We all a feel it, yes we a feel it!
Back to racism. My one little anecdotal proof of black victimisation from the police comes from the time when I was living on Leytonstone’s Cathall Road Estate. Police raids were a fairly usual occurrence on our estate as well as in the youth centre; sometimes with actual justification. In the youth centre, the police (usually with their police dogs), would stomp in; turn off the music; stamp out any spliff that was lit up; and then we’d all be told to line up against the wall with our hands behind our heads. Every time this happened, without exception, when it came to searching me, they never did. They’d simply insist that I leave the centre, or go home, which I would. I’d then usually come back half an hour or an hour later, and resume playing pool, table-tennis or bar football; or just soak up the vibes (not the spliff). Once, after a raid had happened, I came back to the centre, only for one of my close Rasta friends to advise me that it would be best if I stay home for a few days. I asked why? He told me that some people who hang out at the centre, but who don’t really know me, nor live on the actual estate, are saying that it’s odd that I never get searched and that maybe I was a grass. It would be an understatement if I said that I was scared stiff. I took the advice, and stayed away from the centre for a week, till I got the nod that things were all okay. A month or so later, and yet another raid. But this time, for me it was a Godsend: they actually searched me! I felt relieved, vindicated, and took it as a badge of honour. My point being is that throughout the ’70s and ’80s, there were countless times when I saw specifically black people stigmatised and victimised by the police.
To be honest, by the mid 1980s, with the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism doing their thing against the far-right National Front; with Reggae and Two-Tone Ska bands and gigs more and more mixing blacks and whites; and with attitudes of the young positively changing, I thought (perhaps naively) that racism in Britain would liklely be a thing of the past by the mid ’90s. Optimism, of course, is entirely healthy, as long as it doesn’t become blind to realism.
IV. MUSLIMS & RACISM
Here I’d like to speak about something that some Muslims will find uncomfortable: which is that we Muslims need to admit the anti-black racism that infects our own communities. Sadly, racism against black people – including fellow black Muslims – is all too common among British Asian Muslims of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent. Whether it is being stared at by elderly Asians in the mosque and so made to feel self-conscious, to the way we of South Asian descent use the word kala, ‘black’, in a derogatory way; or whether it’s about marriage, or thinking all black Muslims must be converts and then dishing out patronising praise to them over basic acts like making wudhu – this un-Islamic nonsense; this jahiliyyah, simply has to stop.
We must speak to our elders about their anti-black racism. We need to respectfully discuss why so many of our mosques continue to make black Muslims feel unwelcome, or drive them away, and what can be done about it? Yet while our masjids are undeniably masjids; ‘Most mosques function as “race temples” created as enclosures for single ethnicities, and their mono-ethnic and introspective leadership are generally unfamiliar with any novelty occurring outside their silos.’6 Such ‘race temples’ are where Ethnic Islam rules the roost, even at the cost of shari‘ah race equality, sirah hospitality, or sunnah unity.
But racism isn’t just an issue with South Asian elders. It lurks in the hearts and minds of my generation too; and maybe that of my children’s? It’s less the stares or the ignorance about Black achievements, and more the negative stereotyping; post-colonial complexes; desperation to whiten-up; or outright racism when it comes to marriage. Here as an Asian Muslim parent, I’m happy for my daughter or son to marry – religiously speaking – some adamant fasiq or fasiqah – especially if they are of a lighter complexion: but I could never accept them marring a godly, well-mannered, responsible Black person! But we convince ourselves we are not racist: after all, I love the sahabi, Bilal. I weep when I read Bilal’s life story. My good friend, Bilal, is black. But the proof is in the pudding, and the truth is that we need to move beyond tokenism; beyond Bilal.
Those Muslims who make an issue of colour; whose racist or tribal mindsets lead them to look down upon a person of darker colour or treat them unequally, let them consider the son-in-law of the Prophet ﷺ, and fourth Caliph, sayyiduna ‘Ali b. Abi Talib. The classical biographers all state: kana ‘ali adam, shadid al-udmah – ‘Ali was black, jet black.7 Or take our master ‘Umar who is also described in the same terms.8 The colour, adam may refer to skin complexion which is dark brown, like a native American; or darker still, like in native Australian aborigines; or jet black, like many Africans. When the phrase, shadid al-udmah is added, ‘extremely dark’, then there’s no mistaking what is meant: a person who, for all intents and purposes, is black. Such a description seems quite usual for the Arabs among the sahabah. Black skin is also the colour of the lady with whom the whole Muhammadan saga begins: our lady Hagar (Hajarah); she was a black Egyptian. Or consider the Prophet Moses, peace be upon him. Our Prophet ﷺ once said: ‘As for Moses, he was tall and dark brown, as like the men of al-Zutt.’9 The Zutt were a well-known tribe of tall dark men from the Sudan.10 After knowing the above, if we are still going to look down at people merely due to their darker complexion, then what ghustakh; what mockery and disrespect will we be possibly drowning in?
Islam is neither racist nor colour blind. It wants us to understand that skin colour has no intrinsic worth, only piety does. Yet at the same time, it allows us to celebrate differences in a way that does not offend Heaven, and in a way that causes us to offer joyful thanks to the One Who is the Maker of all Colours.
So let’s have the conversations. Let’s have some serious introspection. Let’s listen to what Black Muslims have to say. Let’s desire to be healers, not dividers. Let’s educate ourselves about the reality of Black lives in general, and Black Muslim lives in particular. Olusoga’s Black & British and Akala’s Natives are good places to start. Sherman Jackson’s Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering is, with its theological insights, a must read. Above all, let’s work towards not just being non-racist, but anti-racist.
Change, thankfully, is in the air. For urban, millennial Muslims, and those of a generation younger still, these older ethnic divides are more and more of an irrelevance in their lives (though I’m not sure how much this applies to those raised in ethnic silos in Britain’s less urbanised cities). Such millennials have heard the stories of the intra-ethnic fighting; the anti-black racism; the token hospitality to black Muslims, but without ever giving them a voice; and the fruitless attempts to make the ‘race temples’ more inclusive, and how after decades, it’s a case of banging heads and brick walls. So owing to this, they are seeking to create more inclusive, culturally more meaningful spaces; away from all this toxic, ethnic Islam. Surely that’s where the rest of us should be heading too?
V. BLM & RACISM
The Qur’an says: Help one another in righteousness and piety, help not one another in sin or transgression. [Q.5:2] Between this verse and the hilf al-fudul pact the Prophet ﷺ upheld and endorsed even after prophethood, we have a solid religious basis for supporting any individual or group working for issues of social justice: be it for Muslims or non-Muslims; be it led by Muslims or non-Muslims.
The Black Lives Matter movement has proven itself to be a powerful and effective vehicle over the past five years to demand reform in terms of anti-Black racism; with their current focus on justice for George Floyd and his family. Thus, how can Muslims not support it? Of course, we cannot give any organisation carte blanche support. Religiously, we Muslims cannot give unconditional support to anybody save to God and His Prophet ﷺ. Given that BLM has a few stated aims that are inconsistent with Islam’s theology (‘freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking’ is one of them, for instance), our activism must be guided by sacred knowledge and illumined by revealed guidance. Our intention is not supporting BLM, as such. Instead, it’s a case of making a stand against injustice, in this case anti-Black racism: supporting those individuals or organisations that are likely to be the most effective in achieving this goal. (It should go without saying, that we can work for justice for more than one cause or more than one set of people at the same time). And this is what the above verse and the hilf al-fudul pact have in mind. And just like the BLM describes itself as ‘unapologetically Black’, perhaps some of us need to be a tad more unapologetically Muslim?
But let’s take our focus off such theological nuances for now, and tie a ribbon around the whole thing and say: Let us, at least in spirit and in principle, if not in body, fully support Black Lives Matter as a cause, more than as a movement, in seeking to resolve structural racism; get justice done for all the George Floyds and all the Stephen Lawrences; and to get people to reflect on their own attitudes to racism and the racial ‘Other’ – ensuring our knee isn’t on the necks of others. We should support the overall goals of any grassroots movement that is working for a fairer, more just and tolerant Britain for everyone: black or white. Of course, for that to happen, from a Black Muslim perspective, anti-Black racism as well as an ever-growing Islamophobia must be tackled. Currently in Britain, God forbid that you are ostensibly a Muslim and Black!
Racism affects all people of colour. But when it comes to black people, they face a unique anti-black prejudice as the ultimate Other, propagated both by white majorities and even other ethnic minorities. As a marginalised community South Asians, no doubt, have their own prejudices thrown their way. But they are not the same lived experiences as that of Black people. And while it can be easy to lump everyone together and perceive ourselves as having a shared trauma, statistics show that this equivalence is not really true.
In closing, I’d like to thank my youngest daughter, Atiyyah, for inspiring me to revisit and renew my ideas on anti-black racism; and my friend, Dr Abdul Haqq Baker for prompting me to write this piece, offering invaluable suggestions, and then reviewing it for me.
Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.
1. Ahmad, Musnad, no.22978. Ibn Taymiyyah declared its chain to be sahih in Iqtida’ al-Sirat al-Mustaqim (Riyadh: Dar Ishbiliyah, 1998), 1:412.
2. Al-Tirmidhi, no.3894, where he declared the hadith to be hasan sahih.
3. Al-Bukhari, nos.2545; 6050.
4. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 35:230.