A blessed gathering recently took place in Leicester, England, and it was the final maqra’ (reading) of the entire Sahih al-Bukhari under the supervision of Shaykh Ahmad Ali Surty, who Shaykh Akram Nadwi says has the shortest isnad (chain of transmission) of the book to Imam Bukhari in the entire world. The final session was passionately hosted by Shaykh Haytham al-Haddad and Shaykh Akram, and the masjid was entirely full by the conclusion of the event. Hearts felt joy and weighed down by the significance of the proceedings, and eyes wept as the reading came to a close, followed by poignant reminders and the ijazat (authorisations). The two aspects worthy of deeper reflection here are the enigmatic attraction of the Sahih to the people of this community, and its ability to be a uniting force for so many people often perceived as wholly competing and at odds.
In Shaykh Haytham’s final address he made the point that it was the Word of God and the words of the Final Prophet ﷺ that had united so many of us from different backgrounds for this occasion. You would not get this sort of turn-out and atmosphere for a reading of Ghazali’s Ihya’ or Ibn ‘Abdal-Wahhab’s Kitab al-Tawhid. The truth of these sentiments was clear from the array of final speeches: a representative of the Naqshbandi Order of Ghulam Habib; Shaykh Shabbir of the scholarly tradition of Darul Uloom, Bury, England and Mazahir al-Ulum, Saharanpur, India; Shaykh Muhammad Ayyub Surty of the tradition of Shaykh Hakim Akhtar of Pakistan; Shaykh Haytham of the tradition of Muhammad Ibn ‘Abdal-Wahhab of Najd in Arabia; and certainly not least our dear Shaykh Akram of the Nadwatul-Ulama, Lucknow, India and the Centre for Islamic Studies, Oxford.
This unifying potential of the Sahih reminded me of one of the observations of Jonathan Brown in his seminal, no-holds barred PhD entitled The Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim, in which he notes how the two latter books could be “one of the few threads joining” the “Hanbali/uber-Sunnis” and “Shafi’i/Ash’aris,” after relating how the debates between these two camps in Baghdad between 469-470/1076-8 would proceed “to the streets” and “mobs supporting the two groups ruthlessly hurled bricks at one another.” In our time, in North America and England, we often see these groups represented as ‘salafis’ and ‘sufis’, respectively – although I don’t subscribe to the attitude that these are so fundamentally exclusive as represented by the more rigid strains of each grouping. Now, although I haven’t read of violence erupting between the latter two, I’ve witnessed the passionate disavowal of each extreme wing against their other equally extreme grouping; and how their polemics are sometimes shaped around straw-men arguments or just outright group bigotry based on little profound scholarship.
Of course, one can make an argument out of almost anything, from who washes the dishes at home to who is the greatest scholar, and the Sahih al-Bukhari is no exception, if one wanted to go down that line. One could take exception to Bukhari’s legal rulings displayed in the work, or his open opposition to Abu Hanifa in parts (referred to as “a certain person” (ba’d al-nas)), or one could even start to critically discuss some of the versions of narrations he chose. However, the overall excellence and authority of the work has been accepted by the community, and it is that reality that is the unifying factor. In other words, we can see represented in the Sahih our overwhelming unity in matters of faith, law and spirituality; and that such a deep realisation should be enough for us to love our brothers and to truly see them as being of ourselves, in spite of some opaque differences on occasions.
It is natural that many of our subsidiary differences will remain, and we are each entitled to teach our conclusions of such matters, but I’m reminded of the manners of that disagreement as I sat with Shaykh Akram and Shaykh Haytham over lunch, and how all the shuyukh showed love for each other. During the course of lunch there were discussions about law and how to tackle matters of overriding priority for Muslims in the west and everyone sat and talked with love, concern and sound principles. No one felt the snide urge to ask what did Ibn Taymiyya’s focus on the haqiqi meaning of God’s attributes really mean: was it anthropomorphism or not? Likewise, no one felt the need to ask about the probity of all the actions of worship established by Sufic orders. Only an honest and wise head can truly appreciate the absolutes, priorities, and ambiguities of these many controversies. In fact, one would be fairly giving credit in saying that such concern to emphasise the similarities between various groups was what characterised Ustadh Hasan Ali’s lecture entitled “So, Who’s Right?”
After the event, a group of us sat with Shaykhs Akram and Shabbir, and I basked in the love they showed to one another and others in the informal gathering. The reality of brotherly interaction is found on occasions such as this, when one is away from the glamour of the speaker’s rostrum, for here one finds the actual person behind the celebrity. This reminded me of the same familial and warm behaviour I witnessed in the “speakers’ lounge” at the United Muslims’ Convention 2010 from Shuyukh John Ederer, Riyad Nadwi, Zahir Mahmood, Shafi Chowdhury, Sharul Hussain, Yusuf Ahmed az-Zahaby and Taji Mustapha to one another. Upon recently being asked by the inimitable extrovert Ustadh Uwais Nadwi about a recent article of mine, I told him that I was basically just trying to show some love for Shaykh Akram and Ustadh Ibrahim Amin, and he aptly summed-up how we should be: “Alhamdulillah (all praise be to Allah), precisely what the movement’s all about: spreading the love and hugging haters.”
I’ve highlighted these various people and events to give a glimpse of a possible opening that is developing in England towards a general Muslim cooperative that can strengthen the place of Muslims in the west, at a time when even the idea of building a place of Islamic worship brings forth some of the most xenophobic outbursts in opposition (John Legend and Russell Simmons notwithstanding). Indeed, one is only reminded of how the Jews were treated as outcasts in these lands until recent history and how the Muslims are starting to be treated in the same vile way (a point made by John Esposito on CNN recently)- and we know where that led. It is quite amazing that isolationist and out-of-touch would-be mystics and puritans are deaf to these shameful patterns of our Greco-Roman character, which history sadly testifies to. Nevertheless, we pray that the growing trends that I’ve identified will come to dominate a mature collective Muslim psyche, which further emphasises the intellectual and social immaturity of much of the past and present attempts at articulating exclusivist and even hermitical visions of scholarship and community, whose general debilitative quality has been unappreciated by leaders and followers as they marvel in the type of blindness that is characteristic of sect-like behaviour.
The foundation of a negative-sect-free future is the revival of profound scholarship, which eschews the temptation to simply remain trapped in the superficiality of various hues (from the unscholarly to the blind adherence to a select group of the qualified). The path of learning towards a true Islamic literacy opens one onto vast vistas of other colours aside from only black and white. Thus it is refreshing to see people like Shaykh Akram, as one example, of qualified scholars who are not afraid to articulate an honest and deep scholarly discourse that simultaneously raises the standards and authentically opens the doors to the wide brotherhood of Islam. I’ve here given credit to some of the people I see currently working towards such larger goals in England, but we still have a great deal of work to do. To God we pray for such inner sight, wisdom, piety and company of rightly-guided leaders in all spheres, and we thank Him for His immeasurable blessings. Amin.