Thoughts for the Contemporary Mufti

There are personalities who issue fatwas on politicised matters of faith seeking to position themselves as moderate to non-Muslim liberals, or offer everything as technicalities to present a veneer of intellectualism. Desperate to demonstrate their usefulness, these muftis engage in a one-way competition attempting to outshine others, either by supposing hypothetical problems or framing problems as having a significant impact on society when in reality they only affect a handful of people.

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Distinguishing Elders from the elderly

One topic that tends to provoke a one-dimensional response is the role of elderly members of Muslim communities in religious institutions. Very rarely do we find in the shari’ah an either/or approach, however, with a religious community driven by its laity, most issues are propped up as either/or topics, seldom is there room for a meaningful discussion or a nuanced approach. Behind closed doors many people show an ability to discuss the issue in a nuanced and mature fashion but in public they adopt a pretentious approach. Any point that effectively attempts to temper the role or influence of the elderly is quickly greeted with a self-righteous performance, “but Allah said we must respect the elderly!” as if suggesting an intelligent way in which to deal uprightly with the needs and whims of the older generation simply implies disrespect or downright contempt. Much of this is probably down to ethno-cultural norms. The esteem afforded to the elderly by the shari’ah is either misunderstood or misapplied as some form of near-deification. In addition, a lack of explicit guidance in how the shari’ah would have us deal with the elderly in a communal setting has meant that successive generations are impeded in religious and social progress.

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A Three Point Plan and Four-Step Solution

A true believer is fundamentally one who engenders Abrahamic monotheism and aspires to the highest form of moral conduct reflected in the shari’ah, and given the complexities life tends to throw up believers occasionally find themselves seeking an understanding of the divine will to various issues. As times change and contexts will perpetually vary, this necessitates that there shall always be a need for judicious responses to queries of a religious nature, as well as those who have the learning to provide them. Regrettably, in some circles these solutions have become merely a matter of intellectual experimentation, and those who offer an inventive reason to divert from praiseworthy norms are celebrated as the truest of sages, heroes that shall defend the aspirations of the people. While orthodox scholars regard finding solutions stimulating challenges, they also remain cognisant of the fact that the aspirations of the people must be tempered by the idea of godliness. As God put it, “And if you obey most of those upon the earth, they will mislead you from the way of God.” (Q 6:116)

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Social media, faith, and the Ruwaybidhah

Social media has proved to be a burgeoning phenomenon, the owners of Facebook are billionaires and its servers probably store more data on humanity than anywhere else. But the new virtual assembly social media facilitates does not produce a significant jama’ah (community) but a superficial and deceptive sense of community. Many assert it remains a way of staying ‘connected’ with other Muslims but it actually characterises disengagement between believers.

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‘Normative Islam' in Public Discourse

We are increasingly privy to those who speak on our behalf in public – and this is why it must be addressed. It is not our place to sanction the right of people to have their personal opinions, but to speak as if one is learned on normative Islam or represents the Sunni orthodoxy we and our families ascribe to when even the most basic prerequisite such as knowledge of the Arabic language are amiss is either deep ignorance or simple hubris.

In the public realm, experience and acting responsibly are key issues, a lack of both drives individuals to act flippantly and speak out of turn. Upon the Prophet’s distribution of war spoils on the Day of Hunain some from the Ansar said: “May Allah pardon the Messenger of God; he apportions for the Quraish but leaves us out, whilst we are the ones who fought!” So after having gathered the Ansar in a tent the Prophet asked about what was said. “The fuqaha (learned and informed) of the Ansar replied: As for our heads (ru’us), Messenger of God, they said nothing. But there are people from us with ‘new teeth’ who said…" (Muslim) The term new teeth in Arabic denotes the young or those who lack experience and subsequent maturity. It is pertinent to note that it was the fuqaha of the Ansar who spoke, who clarified that the heads of the Ansar effectively knew when to remain quiet.

Now I hold it the right of every citizen to hold his or her opinions, and regard the demonisation of naïve or uninformed views unnecessary. But where lay Muslims address wider British society and use language that denotes their beliefs as being a normative view of God’s will for the modern world is not only wrong but also misplaced. The commonly put “our religion” or the “Islamic view” isn’t characteristic in the slightest, and the painting of Islamic theology and law in abstract binary terms – a body that sits on more than a millennium of nuanced judicious thought, evolving societal insights, and profound shar’i reasoning – demonstrates the outcome of a pervasive culture of sloganeering, a void of religious tarbiyyah (cultivation) and entrenched shar’i illiteracy.

An example of the audacity it has nurtured is the rudimentary renunciation of democracy or painting it as differing from the “Islamic system”. Such sentiment reveals a deeply flawed understanding of Islamic political philosophy, from what this nebulous Islamic system is to an actual understanding of democracy and its theories. As a note to Muslims it’s very simple: beyond a few notions that tend to be agreed on by nearly all political theorists, there is academic debate as to the exact nature of democracies and how they work. But the general sentiment of the sahabah is clear: a conspiracy to install an authoritarian regime after his tenure led Umar b. al-Khattab to rebuke autocracy and uphold the notion of governance by consent – a democratic mandate with the impartial rule of law (for which Umar was famed). Umar’s reaction was telling, “I shall inform the people that there are those who plan to usurp their political affairs!” Such was the understanding of all prophetic apostles; in his al-Tabaqat al-Kubra, Ibn Sa’d related the statement of Salman al-Farsi concerning governance which also intimated the difference between monarchic rule and democratic leaders. Now given that much of this political philosophy is intertwined with theology and Islamic law, scholars initiated discussions from theological paradigms, contributing to a theory of democracy, and holding it to be divine will that instituted democracy to replace the despotism and tyranny of Pagan Arab rule. Rather than merely affirming a theory of democracy there has been on-going development within Islamic juristic thought. So to assume that Islamic theology rejects democracy is clearly untrue and in complete contradiction to actual endeavours.

Now most Muslims aren’t to blame for being in the dark – seldom are they versed in political theory, theology, Islamic law or even the Arabic language; but those who hasten to stand in the media (or other outlets) are culpable for speaking to the country in a way that suggests millions of Muslims agree with them, or that they have arbitrarily acquired some scholastic authority to do so – it simply won’t do. An even greater harm is when misguided opinions legitimate the misinterpretations government repeatedly articulates to wider society. ‘British values’ are habitually used by the Prime Minister to juxtapose decency against a vague set of ‘Islamic values’ that he seems to have adopted from those given airtime or on YouTube rather than intelligent Islamic scholars. So after many of the Muslim performances we are growing accustomed to, it looks quite justified when the PM positions Islam as being anti-democratic, that somehow we would go for authoritarianism and tyranny. Or that we don’t believe in the rule of law – as if we prefer being governed by arbitrary decisions of individuals; and that we are intolerant of others – as if we believe God commands us to forcibly convert the rest of humanity. With their personal views superficially posited as normative Islam, these media (or populist) spokespersons fail to consider the implications of wider societal perceptions for what they put forward.

The confusion that often besets sincere Muslims is that they are offered reference points steeped in pre-modern political paradigms with Islamic concepts addressed in a rudimentary fashion. The paucity of learned and astute thinkers in the western world developing political theory to reflect modernity doesn’t mean it is not happening – what is frequently lost in polarised public debates is the failure to recognise that western Muslims are currently at a stage of maturation and evolution. Whilst there are some who fervently cling to their partially understood medieval concepts, their own confusion in attempting to make sense of their belief quickly becomes apparent. In an ironic bid to distance themselves from the more controversial aspects of their beliefs, they hasten away from the classical understandings they usually advance.

This is not to say that religious orthodoxy must be diluted – far from it, but that our expression of modern religious conservatism must consider factors relevant to a post-industrial western society and the history of a millennium that has shaped it.

Another issue that we must address is that as British Muslims who are born and raised in the UK we look, like others in society, to the past to make sense of where we are heading – to inform our aspirations and desires for a future that sees Muslims as an integral part of plural Britain. But for a post-immigrant community looking to a past that is removed from the historicity of the UK it can actually serve to confuse its place in Britain rather than enrich it. Muslim identity can either be one which is formed on the backdrop of an immigrant experience where an ethno-culture that has been influenced by Islam is brought into a western cultural context, or alternatively, by projecting Abrahamic monotheism on to wider western culture directly. For those committed to faith and revelation the latter will probably take precedence, and just as Christianity, which originated from the East, has over time has become a western religion, we might view it as a natural progression that the same happens with Islam. This is not to say that religious orthodoxy must be diluted – far from it, but that our expression of modern religious conservatism must consider factors relevant to a post-industrial western society and the history of a millennium that has shaped it.

To speak on behalf of God without a scholastic basis is the most profound offence and sure to result in ignominy: "yet still there are some people who, without knowledge, argue about God, who follow every devilish rebel fated to lead astray those who take his side." (Q 22:34) It is to erroneously present God as having offered humanity half-baked and contradictory ideas. “Do not follow blindly what you do not know to be true; ears, eyes and heart: you will be questioned about all these." (Q 17:36) For those who narcissistically believe they have a scholastic basis, all without even a basic command of the Arabic language or even a simple juristic understanding of worship (ibadah) speaks volumes. To contest the current neo-conservative campaign against British Muslims will require those with a thorough insight into theology, law and jurisprudence – all of which are consistently misrepresented by the government and right-wing media – together with cultural capital and political acumen.

Our interaction with the wider public is meant to serve as a means to getting them on board and not an opportunity to posture and sloganeer for Muslim brownie points and pats on the back from insular co-religionists. Understanding how these realms interact is of utmost importance to leadership in general, at least in a way that facilitates innovative contributions to society that are reflective of an intelligent Islam in western modernity. Sincerity is always valued, but we must learn something from prophetic warnings.

...then the people will take the unlearned as their leaders, who, when asked shall offer responses without knowledge: they are misguided and misguide others.
al-Bukhari and Muslim

Does Islam Need Defenders?

In an era when corporate capitalism has ordered our lives into a monotonous routine, defending Islam offers the type of excitement that can make us feel, if only nominally, what it might have been like to walk with the righteous of the past. However, what kind of defence Islam requires has been privy to all sorts of speculation, much of it the result of attempting to determine what kind of attack Islam is actually under – and seldom are the various factions accurate. For some, it is the ubiquitous haze of muscular liberalism, for others it is a particular attack against certain groups who feel they fly the flag of normative Islam. Much of all of this is up for debate. Yet what has been missing is a learned and reasoned voice, that weighs up all angles, rather than impose a partial understanding of every occurrence where many fail to read the nuances of a situation, or simply recognise the complex nature of how things have come to be.

For those unable to offer some an educated insight, they school us that it is a simple showdown between good and evil: ‘The Christians and Jews shall never be contented with you until you adhere to their religion.’ (Q 2:120) Indeed He has, yet contradictorily, or at least unfaithfully to their reading of that verse, the same proponents lobby non-Muslim politicians looking for common ground. The same and rather bizarre approach is adopted elsewhere. Those who propose democracy to be polytheism and Parliament to be the abode of disbelief where ‘man legislates in place of God’, would have us sign petitions so that they may lobby man to legislate in place of God and have Muslim detainees returned to the UK.

The desperate defenders of our faith have taken up their positions; they’re everywhere working their righteousness, all from various points of the (quasi) religious spectrum. From those who feel the UK needs an entirely pointless injection of caliphate-ism, (pointless in that they don’t actually desire a caliphate anywhere in Europe – they simply enjoy arguing about the concept in the abstract sense), to others who ridiculously imply that the Most High, His final Prophet, and all those before him wanted nothing more than liberal secularism to be the philosophy of every nation on earth (something I will deal with elsewhere). Whilst we might note the intention of some to be good, it is always problematic to advocate on behalf of something of which you have little knowledge. With those who have spoken on Islamic law or theology, it is apparent that they have appropriated widespread populist notions without any actual insight into such matters. Consequently, the public narrative on Islam becomes further entrenched in negative stereotypes, the rhetoric of the politicians now substantiated: “See they do want to make an Islamic state in Britain with stonings, beheadings and floggings.”

The ignorance of scripture and the evident disconnect from scholars whose erudite readings subsequently manifest as codified fiqh, usul, and aqidah means that ‘defenders’ exhibit all means of promulgating their unlearned, and frankly, detrimental conceptualisations of legal and political philosophy, not to mention unorthodox theology. The ranting style that is becoming commonplace on national television not only undermines the political objectives of the faithful, but also contravenes the method of political and social interaction established by prophetic tradition. In a hadith compiled by al-Bukhari it is narrated that some of the enemies of the Prophet wished him ill distorting words to have ‘death be to you’ sound like a greeting of peace. He responded uprightly and dignified with a simple retort: “And to you (be the same).” However, his wife A’ishah responded with a riposte: “Death be to you all, the curses of God and His anger!” The Prophet counselled her, “Calm down A’ishah, be gracious! Be careful of (seeming) rancorous and wicked.” In another narration, the Prophet informed her: “God is gracious and loves affability, and through affability things are achieved that are not by callousness.” Now the point here isn’t to adopt sycophancy, but in the realm of politics and public opinion, defenders are to exhibit a degree of judicious statesmanship and religious learning that might serve as some utility rather than enunciate self-patting rants that further entrench an already misinformed public.

Good and evil cannot be equal. Repel with what is better and your enemy will become as close as an old and valued friend.
Qur'an 41:34

We are called to be helpers to God, that is to His cause, not because He is in any need of such help, but to provide believers the opportunity to prove their worth and commitment to the Most High. Interestingly, this call is made analogous with the call of Christ to his apostles, where God puts it: ‘You who believe, be God’s helpers. As Jesus, son of Mary, said to the disciples: “Who will be my helpers in God’s cause?” They said: “We shall be God’s helpers.”’ (Q 61:14) The Messiah’s call, among other things, is a call to speak on behalf of truth in a way that reflects its lofty station. For those incapable – a way of measuring competence might be to evaluate what the tangible outcomes of one’s defence has actually been – they should implement, before anything else, the prophetic statement narrated by Abu Hurairah and recorded by al-Bukhari and Muslim: “Whosoever believes in Allah and the last day, let him speak good or remain silent.” In fact, given the way most media outlets refuse a balanced discussion on Islamic issues and the worrying trend of belligerent ‘defenders’ inaccurately representing revelation, perhaps a self-imposed moratorium would be best so that the religiously illiterate not legitimise media misrepresentations of Islam and British Muslims.