By Andrew Booso,
I have an aversion to prefixing Islam with an adjective, such as Western or European. Like so many of my positions, this personal distaste is perhaps due to the words of Shaykh Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi in his From the Depth of the Heart in America, where he warned an American audience in 1977 against developing a ‘European or American Islam’. Shaykh Nadwi simply talked of Islam. I prefer to talk of Islam and then, for example, ’some Muslims from England’ or ’some Muslims from Egypt’. Thus the religion remains one, but the diversity of the people is acknowledged. Moreover, it seems somewhat exaggerated to talk of different ‘Islams’ on the basis of varied clothing or foods, or because of certain cultural practices (like marriage norms) or legal edicts that might all be sanctioned by valid legal reasoning from the agreed sources of Islam. Nevertheless, I am a Muslim who lives in the West, as do many others; therefore a discussion of our community is a worthwhile pursuit. Here are some issues for thought.
Can Muslims in the West be Independent?
Perhaps it is our upbringing in an English-speaking culture that has dominated world affairs for certainly the last two centuries that makes us feel that we can be a pioneering force – as our non-Muslim ancestors and contemporaries have been. Furthermore, the seemingly hapless lot of the Muslim world since the Turks were relieved of leadership might also be cause for justifiably thinking that the ‘East’ just isn’t up to the task; but we might be!
Shaykh Nadwi implored the Muslims of the West to not break their ‘connecting links’ with ‘the real fountainhead of Islam and the centres of Islam’. I, too, share his sentiment in this regard. Whenever I think of Islamic greatness, it is always accompanied with Islamic independence: the lifetime of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), the times of the Righteous Caliphs (may Allah be well pleased with them all), the Abbasids, the Umayyads, the Andalusians, Salahuddin Ayyubi, the Moghuls and last – but certainly not least – the Osmanlis (usually called the Ottomans). I cannot recall any Muslim minority without such independence that has ever forged a glorious history – even the Makkan stage of the Prophet’s life shares the glory of the Madinan phase. Instead, the fulfilment of a dynasty – as those mentioned previously – has been when they have been strengthened, and have been leaders.
Due to the ignorant actions of some fellow believers and the aggression – both verbal and physical – of certain quarters of non-Muslims, one cannot deny the pressure and defensiveness of the Muslim community as a whole in the West. Such scrutiny and psychological insecurity has an impact on the mental health and subsequent actions of the community at large. These factors are the most significant – especially if independence, even partial, from the Muslim world should occur – in making me deeply sceptical of a flourishing and leading Muslim community rising from the West as an example for the world.
Nadwi’s advice shows that Islam is a full experience that is tasted in freedom – which is all strenuously constrained in the West, at present; hence the need for it to be tasted from certain quarters of the East. Of course, the essence of such freedom is spiritual, and not wholly political. Ibn al-Qayyim, in his Invocation of God, quotes a statement of Ibn Taymiyya that exemplifies this latter point: ‘What can my enemies do to me? I have in my breast both my Heaven and my garden. If I travel they are with me, and they never leave me. Imprisonment for me is a religious retreat [khalwa]. To be slain for me is martyrdom [shahada] and to be exiled from my land is a spiritual journey [siyaha].’ One can, therefore, certainly envisage true Islamic personalities developing in the isolation of the West, but one must be cautious about expecting miraculous outcomes of this sort in terms of the majority of the community finding such inner freedom. Nevertheless, one should warn against Western romanticising of the current Muslim world, as though some utopian and pure homeland somehow exists over ‘there’ – for it currently does not; yet the source still remains Eastward, even if one must struggle to actually uncover it. Moreover, the ‘return home’ notion has died a death in all reality for most, so the West is where we will need to make our true home at this time.
From Where Should the Muslims of the West Take Leadership?
The classical stance on leadership proposes an Islamic society headed by an Islamic political leader [khalif]. If one reads the section on the Caliphate from Nuh Keller’s Reliance of the Traveller, one sees the classical jurists stipulated that the khalif must be an independent expert jurist of Islam [mujtahid]. Therefore one must see the prominence of orthodox knowledge for leadership in Islam. This is a lead that Muslims in the West must follow. Nonetheless, there are several impediments to it.
The first problem is the fact that the Muslims of the West are the brethren of a leaderless Muslim world, from which leadership should normally come forth. Consequently, every man and woman can aspire to take a leadership role, even if they are ignorant of the religion; and there is no official authority to take such impudence to task.
Secondly, the West is truly the proverbial ‘land of the blind’, hence the one-eyed man can assume a little kingdom of leadership, with numerous little kingdoms emerging. Thus we have a plethora of groupings in the West, claiming to be the way, and only their way. Despite the many excellent Western translators and students of knowledge who can directly communicate with an English audience, we have not developed independent scholarly voices. The only scholars of this sort in the English-speaking world are those who are truly products of the East, such as Taqi ‘Uthmani, M.M. Azami and Akram Nadwi. Moreover, the fact of such one-eyed kingships has been that these groupings have, on the whole, been narrowly polemical without profoundly embracing and propagating the teachings of the most advanced scholars of the East. If I consider the biggest scholars from the Muslim world in my own adulthood – including Abdal-Fattah Abu Ghuddah, Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, Yusuf Qaradawi, Taqi ‘Uthmani, Muhammad ibn Salih al-’Uthaymin, Shu’ayb Arna’ut, Nasir ad-Din al-Albani, Wahba Zuhayli and Ramadan Buti – one sees how little these giants are really relied-upon in the West. Instead one receives lip-service to many of these figures, while relying on seemingly lesser Eastern lights who are considered to be of the ‘group’, whichever one it is.
This second shortcoming is in need of urgent attention in the West. To begin with, one must ground one self in the essentials upon which no aspiring Sunni group differs. Then one must accept one’s initial lack of mastery of complexities, and acknowledge the depth of the dispute between some groupings of the ’salafis’ and ‘Sufis’, and between leading expert contemporaries. After such preliminaries, one can, in this regard, heed the illuminating advice to take the ‘good’ found in various groups, such as the Tablighis, the salafis and the Ikhwan, for example.
A further instance is highlighted by the fact that one can love and learn from works of hadith scholars on hadith and their classifications, despite the fact that one might decide to not take fiqh opinions from such scholars. In the West, after a strong grounding in foundations, one can view the disputes between the giants of Islamic scholarship – historical and current – and one need not always take one giant’s stances on everything. For instance, just because one loves and generally trusts a particular hadith master, it does not mean that one should not see where other historical masters or contemporaries might have disagreed with him or her in the same discipline. Of course, such a cautionary approach would mean holding off on making sweeping generalisations – whether complimentary or condemning – which are a particular favourite of some Muslims in the West who like to hold onto some narrow group leaning with the minimum of effort or qualification.
A third problem in the West is also another one inherited from the East: the decline of scholarship and the emergence of leadership of Islamic groups in the hands of those not trained sufficiently in the religion. One hears the lament of how the best minds – even from ‘Islamic groups’ – have been sent to become medical doctors, engineers and pharmacists, and they have been turned away from the Islamic sciences. Hence we are bereft of enough true scholars to successfully tackle the major issues of our age. Consequently, those unable to lead society were sent to religious seminaries, leading to the problem of religiously educated people who are incapable of leadership and leaders of Islamic groups who are unskilled in the religious sciences. Therefore one can expect the latter to make mistakes, despite sincerity, and one finds a marginalized – in the comprehensive sense of the term – religious scholarship. This situation can lead to excessive liberality or youthful ‘zeal’ turning to extreme rigidity.
This problem can be rectified – by the will of God – by channelling our immense Western wealth towards identifying the best minds and rightly assisting their studies. However, one can be the richest person in the world, but if the will is not there, then the resources will not be correctly channelled. Moreover, even where the will does exist, one sees people being funded to only go to certain places or institutions, in which they merely reinforce the narrow group leanings that they decided upon in their late teens or early twenties; and they then ‘return’ to the West as Arabic-enhanced polemicists only. Also, simply learning the religion in a seminary in the Muslim world is hardly a comprehensive Islamic experience.
These views are some musings on the current state of affairs. It is hard to see how a flourishing Muslim minority will flourish in the West without a correct prioritisation, and God knows best. A truthful evaluation of our current state might mean that we rise to many of our challenges. However, a denial or delusion about this reality is highly unlikely to yield positive action. Instead one only sees the same naivety, or burying the head in the sand or simply continually chasing one’s tail. Let us be clear: there is always cause for being positive, and hopeful, due to one’s faith in the All-Powerful God. Therefore let us honour our faith by using the blessings of intellect and resources that our Lord has generously bestowed upon us. Indeed, should independent expert scholars emerge in the West, then one can envisage an independence of sorts if it is born of a free disposition and full experience of Islam. Yet such an independence can never be allowed to develop into an isolationist elitism in which we sever or weaken the bonds of brotherhood with the whole worldwide community of believers. Indeed, the tragedy of stereotyping is that one will usually find people who shatter the basic theory; therefore even a Western scholarly brilliance – should it emerge – will always have to accept that a superior or equal voice, or voices, might emerge from the East, and it would be imperative to benefit from it, or them.
Nevertheless, there is still a crucial activity that Muslims of the West – especially those who are students of knowledge – can currently engage in, and that is with regards to reliably informing senior scholars in the East about conditions in the West, so that legal edicts are best formulated by such experts. We run the risk of legal rulings being inaccurate if such Western involvement is absent. The rejuvenation of the concept of the Fiqh council is a priority for Muslims in the West, and this is where we can make an immediate and powerful impact if the concept can be revitalised.
Finally, I apologise for such talk of ‘East’ and ‘West’, because there is something naturally distasteful about it when one considers the open brotherhood of Islam, which legislates against discrimination and division based on such petty differences as tribe, location or race – which is a deep European disease, I admit. Yet this essay seemed to necessitate such an identification due to the natural differences that do exist. However, I would like to end by emphasising that this was only intended as a way of helping the brethren of my region, and not as a means of creating any division. Ultimately, we strive for Islamic excellence everywhere, in the spirit of the most profound universal brotherhood of belief; and the religion is for both the East and the West; thus we accept the brilliance, scholarship and leadership of anyone who deserves it. May Allah help us and guide us. Amin.