Islamic Studies

Review of the Islamist [complete review]

Part One

There was a certain amount of clamor before the actual publication of Ed Husain’s Islamist (London: Penguin, 2007). Moreover, the fact that Penguin considered it worthy of printing and the Sunday Times, I believe, had run two weeks’ worth of extracts certainly made the publication more appealing. The author is a troubled soul, who has gone through cycles of self-discovery, self-criticism and then personal, resultant epiphanies. It is these trials and insights that the author wants to share with us as the wisdom of his life. His essential purpose is to tell the reader that he became, at the age of sixteen, an ‘Islamic fundamentalist’, an ‘Islamist’, a follower of ‘extremism’ and ‘political Islam’ – all of which are synonymous in Husain’s worldview. Then, he saw the error of his ways and became attached again to ‘moderate Islam’. Now he is here to share his story because he feels it is ‘clear’ that ‘Islamist groups pose a threat to this country that we – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – do not yet understand’, and his life shows the ‘appeal of extremist thought, how fanatics penetrate Muslim communities and the truth behind their agenda of subverting the West and moderate Islam’. I think he fails on many counts – and I shall try to analyse why – but he certainly gives us hints, wittingly and unwittingly, that we can take as positive lessons.

Religious extremism exists in the Muslim community, and there is a religious duty for all Muslims to do their best to tackle the problem in whatever way they can legally muster. It is honourable that Husain has spent so much of his time and energy concerned with this challenge, and we salute him for it. Nevertheless, tackling extremism does not mean placing the blame where it is not deserved, or making connections that do not exist. Moreover, the task does not only require honesty and intellectual integrity, but it demands responsibility. Sadly, Ed Husain is guilty of many of these flaws, despite the best of intentions. Consequently, his message is therefore only likely to appeal to the converted, and not those that he and we so dearly desire to moderate. This is likely to be because the people he wants to convince will see his glaring failings and will hence dismiss the good along with the bad.

Let us first identify the terms and definitions that Husain provides us with. It is clear that his work is aimed at religious extremism that is identified as being ‘Islamist’. He acknowledges that ‘Islamism’ is ‘disparate’, but we are still able to discern whom Husain identifies as the main heads; they are namely: Sayyid Abu’l-A’la Mawdudi, Sayyid Qutb and Taqi al-din Nabhani. Essentially, the ‘Islamism’ of these figureheads is ‘political Islam’, i.e. they want Islam is to be the main ‘signifier’ of the political order (as S. Sayyid defined the ‘Islamist’ in A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism). Husain, in the end, rejects such notions of ‘political Islam’; he says: ‘Religions are not for governments or states, they are for individuals. The state can assist individuals’ religious responsibilities, but governments cannot, should not, profess faith’: in other words, he is a secularist in the Western sense. In the course of trying to de-construct Nabhani, Husain seems to be saying that Nabhani took the idea of God legislating for people from Rousseau. He identifies the ‘Islamist’ groups as the Muslim Brotherhood [al-ikhwan al-Muslimun] (part of the wider, global ‘Islamic movement’) and Hizb ut-Tahrir of the Arab lands, and the Jamat-e-Islami of the Indian subcontinent (who are also seen as part of the Islamic movement). Then the British ‘Islamists’ are identified as those who are connected or inspired by these groups: the Young Muslim Organisation UK (YMO), Islamic Forum Europe (IFE), Dawatul Islam, Islamic Society of Britain (ISB), the Islamic Foundation in Leicester and the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) – all ‘movement’ affiliated groups – as well as of course the Hizb ut-Tahrir and some other groups. Furthermore, a close relationship is envisaged between the ‘Islamists’ and ‘Wahhabis’: who are seen to be identical in terms of ‘creed’, with both on the rise in England. In contrast to this ‘political Islam’, Husain leaves us the only option of Islam as predicated by adjectives such as ‘moderate’, ‘spiritual’ and ‘traditional’; and he lets us know the moderates: Hamza Yusuf Hanson, Nuh Keller, T.J. Winter – all close allies – the Haba’ib and the ‘Sufis’.

I would say that I don’t fit into either of his two camps: I’m not a follower of any of the people named on both sides; nevertheless, I’m familiar with them. In fact, my familiarity with the latter group brings me to my first point of analysis: Husain’s name-dropping of Hanson and Keller, in particular, seems to be opportunism based on assumptions that are false. Firstly, his definition and rejection of ‘political Islam’ does not hold up to analysis from Nuh Keller’s compendium Reliance of the Traveller, which received a confirmatory certificate from al-Azhar University, whom Husain calls ‘arguably the highest authority on Muslim scripture’. Nuh Keller adds a section entitled ‘The Caliphate [al-khilafah]’ to the original legal manual that he translated (which is called ‘Umdat as-salik). Keller explains his inclusion as follows:

This section has been added here by the translator because the caliphate is both obligatory in itself and the necessary precondition for hundreds of rulings (books k through o) established by Allah Most High to govern and guide Islamic community life.

Therefore Mawdudi, Qutb and Nabhani cannot be accused in this specific regard of believing and propagating anything but a standard, orthodox belief expounded and endorsed by the jurists throughout time. Moreover, one is convinced that Husain misrepresents Hamza Yusuf’s statement that there was ‘no such thing as an Islamic state’, because I remember that speech, and Yusuf was simply denying the English word ‘state’ as a way of understanding the khilafah, and it was certainly not a rejection of Islam being the ‘signifier’ of the political order.

This leads on to my second observation: despite endorsing continuous scholarship through 1400 years of uninterrupted transmission through the isnad system, as well as memorising almost half of the Qur’anic text, Husain shows a serious inadequacy of knowledge regarding theology and Sacred Law as expounded by the masters through the ages. One can start with the following claim from him: ‘It never occurred to me that if Islamic governance was of such importance, why did not one classical Muslim text have a chapter dedicated to this?’ Well, to begin with, Nuh Keller continues in the extract we started quoting directly from above:

What follows has been edited from al-Ahkam al-sultaniyya wa al-wilayat al-diniyya by Imam Abul Hasan Mawardi, together with three principal commentaries on Imam Nawawi’s Minhaj al-talibin, extracts from which are indicated by parentheses and the initial of the commentator, Ibn Hajar Haytami (H:), Muhammad Shirbini Khatib (K:), or ‘Abd al-Hamid Sharwani (S:).

Now Husain is aware of Mawardi’s work because he accuses Nabhani of plagiarising the text – Husain incorrectly transliterates Mawardi’s name as al-Mawaridi. Again, let us take Nuh Keller as a yardstick when it comes to defining ‘classic’. He subtitles his Reliance with ‘A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law’, so if Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, the author of the original, is considered ‘classic’, then Ibn Juzayy, a great Maliki, can count as ‘classic’ because he was born just prior to Ahmad ibn Naqib in 693; and his famous al-Qawanin al-fiqhiyyah has an entire chapter on ‘Imamate [al-imamah]’, in which he lists the traditional conditions [ash-shurut] necessary for the role. In fact, all of this leads one to the conclusion that even the terminology of ‘Islamist’, ‘Islamism’ and ‘political Islam’ can be dismissed as false. The Islamic scripture calls for Islam to determine the private and public dealings of man, i.e. it is opposed to secularism, for there is no belief in Islam of the Biblical notion: ‘Render…to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ (Matthew 22:21). Instead, God says in the Qur’an: But no, by your Lord, they will not believe [completely] until they make you [O Prophet!] judge what is in dispute between them, and find within themselves no dislike for that which you decide, and submit fully [Qur’an 4:65]. Imam Nawawi includes this ayah of the Qur’an in his Riyad as-Salihin, in the seventeenth chapter entitled ‘On the Obligation of Submission to the Decree of Allah’. As Keller’s Reliance, for example, or any other ‘traditional’ manual of law shows, the Sacred Law of Islam covers all human dealings.

Part Two

The second occasion where his lack of legal and theological studies appears is when he is trying to be scholarly about the use of the word ‘kafir’ (plu. kuffar or kafirun/kafirin), which Nuh Keller translates as ‘unbeliever’ in the Reliance. Husain writes, in this regard, that ‘Islamists’ call non-Muslims, including Christian and Jews, kuffar, which he sees as a reinvention of the term by ‘Islamists’, because in his opinion it was only ‘used in the Koran in the context of the brutal persecution of the early Muslims at the hands of pagan idolaters’. Moreover, he argues that Jews and Christians are to only be called ‘People of the Book’. Here he exhibits a woeful knowledge of classical theology. As explained by a student of Nuh Keller in the course of his lessons on Laqani’s Jawharat at-tawhid and Gibril Haddad (as seen on the livingIslam Website), there are only, in the words of Haddad, ‘two creedal categories of human beings’ in the Sacred Law: ‘Muslim’ and ‘kafir’. Furthermore, it is explained that the Muslim category includes the ‘righteous’ and the ‘unrighteous’, as well as the ‘heretics’ and the ‘orthodox’; yet the kafir category includes the People of the Book (ahl al-kitab) (Jews and Christians), polytheists (mushrikun), hypocrites (munafiqun), Zoroastrians and atheists (mulhidun). God himself, in the Qur’an, refers to the ‘People of the Book’ as ‘disbelieving’ (kafaru):

Neither the disbelievers among the People of the Book nor the polytheists [kafaru min ahl al-kitab wa la’l-mushrikin] would like it that there should be sent down to you any good thing from your Lord. But Allah chooses for His mercy whom He wills, and Allah is of tremendous favor. [2:105]

O People of the Book! Why do you deny [takfurun] the signs of Allah, when you yourselves bear witness [to their truth]? [3:70]

Those who disbelieve among the People of the Book [kafaru min ahl al-kitab] and the polytheists will not desist until a clear proof comes to them…Surely those who disbelieve among the People of the Book [kafaru min ahl al-kitab] and the polytheists will be forever in the fire of hell. They are the worst of created beings. [98:1 and 98:6]

All of these translations have been provided from the Majestic Qur’an, which was edited by T.J. Winter. Furthermore, Nuh Keller (in the Shadhili Tariqa, with an explicit quote from Imam Nawawi, who Husain calls ‘a thirteenth-century scholar-saint’), Muhammad ‘Ali Sabuni (in his Safwat at-tafasir, in commentary of Qur’an 2:105), and Imam Ghazali (in Faisal at-Tafriqa (as translated by R.J. McCarthy in Deliverance from Error). Husain refers to him as ‘the great medieval Imam Ghazali’) – they all confirm the use of the word kafir, and its derivatives from the verb, as a reference for the ‘People of the Book’.

The latter example leads onto another instance of Husain’s seeming ignorance of the theology of these same people that he names as moderates. For example, we are treated to Husain highlighting how extreme Nabhani is because he ‘went as far as declaring renowned Muslim philosophers such as al-Farabi, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Ibn Sina (Avicenna) to be kuffar.’ Maybe Husain is unaware that both T.J. Winter (in his introduction to his translation of Ghazali entitled Disciplining the Soul) and Nuh Keller (in an article entitled ‘Kalam and Islam: Traditional Theology and the Future of Islam’ (Islamica, Summer 2005)) have reported that Imam Ghazali also declared those philosophers who preceded him from this group (which excludes Ibn Rushd, because he was after Imam Ghazali) to be disbelievers, without these two translators making any objection to their hero’s words. On this matter, Keller writes: “Imam Ghazali…held it obligatory to consider Ibn Sina a non-Muslim (kafir), because of three issues that Ibn Sina allegedly supported: one, ‘he believed that the world is beginninglessly eternal, while Muslims believe that Allah created it after it was nothing’; two, ‘he believed that Allah knows what is created and destroyed only in a general way, not in its details, while Muslims believe that Allah knows everything’; and three, ‘he held that there is no bodily resurrection, while Muslims emphatically affirm in it’”.

My third criticism of the work is that Husain’s essential message that the Islamic movement ‘Islamists’ are somehow part of a message of jihad that is responsible for radicalising youth to the extent that 7/7 is possible is a scaremonger tactic. He has not invented such a position. Over the last couple of years there has been a trend in the British media to create the impression that movement people are secret extremists who act well in public, but in secret are bloodthirsty warriors who can’t wait to have the chance to kill some kafirs. This trend can be seen in Melanie Phillips’ Londonistan (from my briefest of perusals), the Spectator’s Martin Bright and BBC Panorama’s John Ware. The favourite targets for such journalists have been the MCB and those associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamat-e-Islami, such as the Islamic Foundation and the expanded East London Mosque (now called the London Muslim Centre (LMC)). These groups have been at the forefront of fruitful and friendly interfaith dialogue, trying to create an integrated and positive Muslim contribution to British society for many long years, as well as always being absolutely categorical in their condemnation of any acts of terrorism, such as 9/11 or 7/7. It is very unjust to place them within the same category as the HT of the mid-1990’s and others who are justly called ‘extremist’.

Husain’s problem in this regard is that he is making selective quotations without any reference to reality, as though works written by scholars that one admires are always to be taken as they are. This is despite the fact that he himself quotes a YMO member saying to him in the beginning of his conversion: ‘…we don’t think Mawdudi was perfect, he made mistakes. You can disagree with Mawdudi, and yet join the Islamic movement. Our aim is to change the Muslims, to make them live Islam as a complete code of life, not as a mere religion.’ Moreover, the movement must be distinguished from those people whose speeches and works are reminiscent of the Egyptian Jama’at wa’l-Takfir that Shaykh Qaradawi refutes in Islamic Awakening, as well as being differentiated from the HT of the mid-1990’s and its offshoots, for they are radically different. Such extremists as these are the real vigilantes and must be opposed by us; but to unjustly link others to them is a mistaken attempt at connections.

The reality is that such extremists have fallen through the safety net of such moderate groups. They must therefore be called back and attracted to a correct understanding of war and jihad. This will not be done by destroying these respectable Islamic movement groups who have proven their responsibility in rearing law-abiding Western, religious Muslim citizens. To work towards their official government condemnation and resultant exclusion from the discourse and policy-making process will leave a gap that will only exacerbate the risk of more youngsters falling into extremism because the safety-net has been destroyed. Furthermore, the Islamic movement is known for its tolerance of differences of opinion. Thus while Husain only sees Mawdudi and Qutb, he fails to see other scholars of the movement like the twentieth century Muhammad al-Ghazali, who endorses only ‘defensive’ jihad, unlike Qutb and Mawdudi – see the English translation of Muhammad al-Ghazali’s A Thematic Commentary on the Quran for details of his stance; and many people of the movement in the West are associated with that strand of thought, such as the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) people in the USA and England, like AbdulHamid AbuSulayman. Indeed, the stance of people like Muhammad al-Ghazali is very similar to the sentiments that Husain himself expresses, even if they might differ on the necessary conditions; Husain has written:

The Prophet [Allah bless him and give him peace] preferred treaties, peace, conciliation but, when all these failed, he was not afraid to fight. Muslims are not pacifists. As one of my teachers once said [and here he is, I believe, quoting from an old Hamza Yusuf lecture – AB], we take up the sword to take the sword out of madmen’s hands. Today, the sword is once again in the hands of the madmen.

So, is Husain asking us to ‘take up the sword’ again, now? In addition, I think it is grossly unjust to take the ‘offensive jihad’ stances of Mawdudi and Qutb (which are also replicated in Keller’s Reliance, Ibn Rushd’s Bidayat al-mujtahid and Quduri’s Mukhtasar) for a particular situation and then imply that they would somehow have endorsed ‘suicide bombings’ and similar acts of terrorism in the West.

A fourth failing is something that many ‘traditional Muslims’ in the West suffer from, and it is the ability to be tolerant and polite to everyone except ‘Islamists’ and ‘Wahhabis’. This tone is apparent from his harsh wording for these people: ‘publicity-craving East London’, ‘Saudi stooges’ and ‘masters at blaming…but never themselves.’ Also, we hear his contempt for activists: ‘misguided, deluded, and dated’. One cannot imagine Husain using such language for other sections of society, for then it is, as they say, ‘all love’. Nevertheless, the ‘traditionalists’ complain about Wahhabi oil-money, ‘Wahhabi/Islamist’ influences, ‘modernism’, but there is never any real criticism of the fact that the ‘traditional’ outlook has failed over the centuries, and that these reformist trends are the direct result of ‘traditionalist’ mistakes, apathy, inefficiency and backwardness – a theme explored by AbdulHamid AbuSulayman in his Crisis in the Muslim Mind, as well as the writings of Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi. Thus while others are blamed by Husain for brainwashing Asif Hanif and Omar Sharif Khan, the two ‘suicide bombers’ in Tel Aviv in April 2003, little mention or emphasis is given to their extended Sufi connections and training: Hanif with the Syrian Muhammad al-Ya’qubi (which Husain acknowledges, but passes over, in the Islamist) and Khan with Nuh Keller. Furthermore, the ‘Wahhabis’ are portrayed as British agents, but no mention of how the people that we could easily identify as ‘Sunnis’, i.e. ‘moderates’, in Egypt, Hijaz (in modern-day Saudi Arabia) and Balad ash-Sham (modern-day Palestine, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon), conspired with Western agencies to undermine the late-Ottomans – as explored by Fromkin in A Peace to End all Peace. In addition, while ‘Wahhabis’ and ‘Islamists’ are blamed for justifying ‘suicide bombings’ in war situations, ‘traditionalists’ don’t like to mention that Syrian Sufis like Ramadan Buti, and many, if not most, Syrian Sunni scholars are of the same opinion with regards to Palestine, despite some minor differences on details; moreover, the fact that the leading ‘Wahhabi’ scholars like Salih al-Uthaymin and al-Albani were opposed to ‘suicide bombings’ in any context is given very little exposure. Such double standards will not help us in our tackling extremism, because it discredits the critique and makes us look duplicitous. Also, being sanctimonious in a manner that one would never be to a non-Muslim is a victory for the nafs, or lower self. God has commanded Muslims to call to the truth in the best of manners. We know from basic experience that harshness is revolting, so why use such a tone with those that one wants to convince of the error of their ways.

Part Three

Husain’s story is one of impulsiveness and emotion. His conversions of absolute certainty, followed by doubts and then rejections, are sudden and based on the actions of people. With each emotional leap of faith he becomes the best disciple, able to fully memorise the slogans appropriate for the group he now aligns himself with. The last ‘spiritual’ stage is justified by Husain, the reader feels, simply because he now has ‘peace of mind’; and he therefore finds those who increase that feeling, and then parrots their arguments and critiques in exactly the same manner that he did with YMO before HT and then in HT before his crisis. Trusting intuition to a certain extent is, perhaps, justified when one has a history of getting things right; but when one’s history is otherwise, then one would be well advised to stop trusting one’s shaky intuition and to begin studying and thinking. There is, unfortunately, little profound exploration of ideas at any point in the book. Perhaps that is understandable for the young, ever-changing Husain, but even the final stage that we are presented with is one that lacks profundity. Whilst refuting ‘Islamists’ at this last evolution, we are not treated to penetrating analysis of the incoherence of real extreme views, but rather we are simply left with the standard slogans.

The lack of profound discussion of ideas and history is also understandable because Husain is an ordinary Muslim who is telling his story, and Penguin think it is one worth selling. It will be of interest to many, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Yet I doubt it helps tackle extremism due to its poor handling of ideas and history. While Husain wants to emotionally pull people with his own sloganeering, there are others who have their own emotional slogans which pull the other way: neither is correct; we must learn to handle ideas in a true sense, and to get people to learn to understand so that they are not emotional. The reliance upon emotions makes two extremes: one exhibited by Husain and the other by those who want to blow-up innocents.

Nevertheless, there is a major beneficial point of Husain’s book that requires emphasis: the fact that his love for the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) was brought to life by his accompanying the ‘Sufis’, who didn’t just use him as a ‘political leader’. The issue at hand is really the matter of the ‘message [ar-risalah]’ and the ‘messenger [ar-rasul]’ (Allah bless him and give him peace), and how we approach the two of them. I’m sure that many people have experienced, like Husain and me, the fact that many of those that we encounter in the Islamic movement or calling towards the ‘way of the early Muslims (as-salaf)’ (whom Husain calls ‘Wahhabis’, but I call ‘salafis’) do not seem to emphasise a moving love of the Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) as the ‘Sufis’ do. [Nevertheless, I heed the words of Zaid Shakir – a close ally of Hamza Yusuf and Nuh Keller – to me that some of the best Muslims he knew were ‘salafis’.] In English, it was a Sufi, ‘Abdal-Qadir as-Sufi (a.k.a. Ian Dallas, the first real teacher of Hamza Yusuf, and the real father of ‘traditional Islam’ in the West, despite being not credited as such), who arranged for the translation of the quintessential classic book of due manners and laws regarding the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace); namely, the Shifa of Qadi ‘Iyad. It is the Sufis in the West who emphasise the abundant sending of salutations upon the Prophet every day in the hundreds (Allah bless him and give him peace). This neglect is dire and must be rectified; and Husain’s book points to the need for all Muslims to work against this failure.

At the same time, while certain quarters might be guilty of neglecting the person of the Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace), one can justly accuse these same commended celebrators of the Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) for neglecting the message of the Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace). This is a flaw that the Islamist book is also guilty of doing. While the author appreciates that Hamza Yusuf and Nuh Keller ‘taught Islam in its entirety’, one isn’t left with that impression from Husain’s own journey of learning. His focus is almost always on the spiritual, and his knowledge of what is often called ‘outer knowledge’ (in contrast to ‘inner’, or esoteric, knowledge) is shown to be hollow – as discussed above in only a few instances (the list would be too lengthy if I went into all of his misrepresentations of theology and law). There appears to be a failure to heed the advice of Ahmad Sirhindi (the foremost spiritual authority in the spiritual order of Mahmud Effendi, who Husain had a moving experience with in Istanbul): ‘After one has acquired right beliefs and subjected oneself to the rules of the Shari’ah, one should, if God so wills, enter the path of the Sufis’ – as quoted in Muhammad Abdul Haq Ansari’s Sufism and Shari’ah: A Study of Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi’s Effort to Reform Sufism (a book which Naeem Abdul Wali – who Husain spent an enjoyable period of time with whilst in Istanbul – told me was an accurate account of Sirhindi’s thought, which is the method of his own spiritual order, as led by Mahmud Effendi).

The failure to follow Sirhindi’s instruction is that one can misunderstand spiritual intuitions that are bound to come to the heart as one meditates and engages in extensive remembrance of God. Sirhindi has elaborated on this in his Maktubat: satanic whisperings happen to Prophets and saints [awliya], but only the Prophets are always informed of this occurrence; the inspirations of the awliya’ can be either right or wrong; and the inspirations of the awliya’ are to always be judged according to the articulations of the orthodox theologians and jurists, i.e. Sufism is subordinate to these former two disciplines. Furthermore, we can turn to Imam Ghazali, as contained in the translation of book thirty-five of the Ihya’ (translated by David B. Burrell, and entitled Faith in Divine Unity & Trust in Divine Providence – a book that Burrell says he was encouraged to translate by T.J. Winter) for a warning against judging ‘truth’ alone by the ‘peace’ that one finds in one’s heart:

So we may conclude that trust in divine providence will not be complete without both strength of heart and strength of certainty together, for both of them contribute to achieving tranquillity and peace of heart. Indeed tranquillity of heart is one thing, and certainty quite another, for many who are certain are not thereby at peace…Furthermore, many can be at peace without possessing certainty, as it is with those participating in other religions or following different paths. Jews are at peace in their hearts being Jews, as are Christians as well, but they have no certainty at all. “For they follow conjecture and what their souls incline them to even though guidance has come to them from their Lord,” and that guidance would have been the ground of certainty, if they had not turned away from it.

Indeed, here I’m reminded of a saying from my university days of listening to Hamza Yusuf, when he quoted Ibn al-Qayyim as saying something like: ‘Truly there are Christians who love Allah, but they do not love what Allah loves’. One could even twist this in relation to those who neglect the message of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) as follows: ‘Truly, there are those Muslims who love the Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace), but they do not love what he loves (Allah bless him and give him peace)’.

Part Four

It is fair to conclude that the last development in Husain’s character, i.e. the ‘spiritual’ one, that we are treated to is an illusion, because he has recast the ‘masters’ in his own image, so to speak. This recasting is due, I believe, to him prematurely making judgements about what he does not truly understand. I’m left with the idea that he is really opposed to ‘classical Islam’, but does not realise it because ‘classical Islam’ is perhaps something that he is not aware of. Nevertheless, his great affection for the mystic-poet Rumi does not prevent him from criticising the latter for his ‘blemishes of his time, particularly in relation to gender equality’; hence showing that he is not averse to analysing such figures as he sees fit, without recourse to ‘learned’ exposition. Therefore one wonders whether a more grounded study of ‘classical Islam’ from the figures he currently endorses will lead to another ‘metamorphosis’ as he comes to realise the great similarities that ‘classical Islam’ shares with what he sees to be ‘Islamism’, even in its ‘moderate’ form. He could even start with Nuh Keller’s Reliance – who expounds his teachers’ understanding of ‘classical’ or ‘traditional Islam’ – where I’m sure Husain would find the book’s support for the following to be of particular interest:

* A father or father’s father guardian marrying off a virgin bride ‘without her consent’ where he may ‘compel’ her (m3.13-3.15), as long as there is a ‘suitable match’, which excludes ‘a non-Arab man for an Arab woman’ – in the latter case the lady can seek the annulment of the marriage contract if she wishes (m4).
* Offensive jihad (see o9.1), with the objective being to fight ‘Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians…until they become Muslim or else pay the non-Muslim poll tax’ (o9.8); and ‘the Caliph fights all other peoples until they become Muslim’ (o9.9).
* The Islamic state not retaliating against a Muslim for killing a non-Muslim (o1.2).
* It being ‘obligatory for Muslims to rise against’ a leader of the government if he ‘becomes a non-Muslim, alters the Sacred Law – (…imposing rules that contravene the provisions of the religion while believing in the validity of the rules he has imposed, this being unbelief (kufr)) – or imposes reprehensible innovations while in office’, ‘if possible’, and ‘install an upright leader in his place’ (see o25.3(a) for a full explanation).
* It being ‘obligatory to obey the commands and interdictions of the caliph…in everything that is lawful…even if he is unjust’ (o25.5).
* ‘Non-Muslim subjects of the Islamic State…are distinguished from Muslims in dress, wearing a wide cloth belt (zunnar)…[and] must keep to the side of the street’ (o11.5).

Would Husain now recommend that Tony Blair outlaw Nuh Keller or ban him from England, or declare ‘extreme’ those that follow and support Keller (including Hamza Yusuf and T.J. Winter), as well as labelling Keller as such himself? Indeed, the words that Keller loyally translated for educating Muslims in their law seem remarkably close to matters that Husain would readily attribute to ‘Islamists’ or ‘Wahhabis’ and ask that we stand and oppose them. I think these examples clearly show that words can be used to blacken someone’s name without giving context to them, as has happened to moderate people from the Islamic movement at the hands of Husain and others like Melanie Phillips, Martin Bright and John Ware; and as Stephen Schwartz has attempted to do with Hamza Yusuf in exactly the same way. It is good to see that the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, stood firm against the questions of David Goodhart in his interview in Prospects (April 2007), when he declared: ‘You should read our dossier on al-Qaradawi which rebuts most of the allegations made against him…he preaches about an engagement between Islam and the west. You’re not going to get him to condemn suicide bombings in Israel, because he thinks there’s a war going on, but he condemned 9/11, he condemned 7/7. He has been demonised, just as Tariq Ramadan has been.’ I remember Hamza Yusuf being interviewed by Mark Lawson, on BBC’s ‘Hardtalk’ a couple or a few years ago, and he said how despite his disagreeing with ‘suicide bombings’ he had met people that he considered to be ‘scholars’ who nevertheless argued in favour of them; interestingly, he called them ‘scholars’ and not ‘extremists’ – his words are a fair reflection of contemporary debate on the issue in the Muslim world about ‘suicide bombers’. We might not agree with everyone all the time in the orthodox groups, but we must be fair, and call them extreme where they are extreme, but also be discerning enough to understand when they are really quite moderate and of greater societal benefit, even if somewhat idiosyncratic in some other areas.

I therefore wonder if we might anticipate future work by Husain along the lines of Israel Shahak’s Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years, where rather than criticise ‘classical Judaism’ as understood by Rabbinical scholarship from that period as defined and analysed by Shahak, Husain might give his analysis of ‘classical Islam’ after having first studied it, gone through a crisis and emerged out of it into something new. I can only see him, based on his current trajectory, next falling into the ‘perennial philosophy’ of Seyyed Hossein Nasr (as well as the now departed Frithjof Schuon, Martin Lings, and the others associated with the group). This is because these people are into ‘traditional spirituality’, claim to focus on Islam, and give validity to the Jewish, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist religions along with Islam.

In conclusion, this well written account (perhaps attributable to the excellent editorial staff at Penguin) is an over-simplistic polemic, which doesn’t create new avenues of exploration for tackling extremism. It is not likely – and God knows best – to get us closer to resolving the real problem of extremism. Certainly it points to the grave problems of the ‘Umar Bakri-inspired HT of the mid-1990’s, which also explains the problems with his breakaway group, al-Muhajiroon, and their later offshoots. Nevertheless, his bitter attempt to denigrate the Islamic movement, and associating them with the worst of extreme elements, is where his shortcomings are most bare, and regrettable. Another positive is his emphasis on the lack of focus on the Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) in the Islamic movement; but, conversely, he exhibits the lack of emphasis on the message of Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) amongst some of the people who see themselves as Sufis. As noted earlier, the book can be easily dismissed because it is not groundbreaking, although I’m sure the popular media will find it of interest and relevance, as well as those who think the way Husain does. Yet Muslims who seek knowledge will find it hollow (despite Husain’s good use of name-dropping), and thus easily dispensable. The most authoritative, scholarly critique of extremism thus far is Shaykh Yusuf Qaradawi’s Islamic Awakening Between Rejection and Extremism. This latter work by a great contemporary scholar is profound from the perspective of his handling of the ideas and history connected with his subject, as well as adopting a paternalistic and fraternal tone that is more likely to endear one to those who have succumbed to extremism. Pompous and unjust slogans and simplifications are likely to just make such people turn away from us: a sorry defeat to our aims.

* Ust. Andrew Booso is a graduate of the London School of Economics

About the author

Andrew Booso

Andrew Booso

Andrew Booso is originally from London, England and is a graduate of law from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He has taken religious instruction from Shaykh Iqbal Azami and Shaykh Muhammad Akram Nadwi, as well as numerous students of knowledge. He is currently on the Advisory Board of the England-based Spring Foundation, which is a scholarship charity for students of the Islamic sciences.


  • I have read the book and felt that the book lacked substance. It felt more like a travel companion with no depth. A sudden outburts of anger and resentment. I am a Bangladeshi in origin and what infuriated me other than exposing the internal problems of an extended family is that there is no mention of the fact that he is of Bangladeshi origin. He would refer his origin to East Pakistan instead as if its degrading to say otherwise. Also he makes one believe that his wife is a convert. And instead of boldly and bravely stating his wifes name which is Fatima, he refers to her as… please read the book. Also Why Ed. Hussain? Why not Mo. Hussain? I mean those who live in Tower Hamlets where he gre up knows who he is. If he wanted to remain anonymous then he could have used a better pseudo name.

  • Just a quick reminder: You would better give due respect to Mawlana Jalal ad-din Rumi, who is not a mystic-poet only.
    Likewise, Ahmad Sirhindi is more than being a spiritual guide of a sufi order in Fatih, Istanbul.

    A good review, though.

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