Archive for December, 2011

Some Islamic scholarly views about the Arab Spring

December 19, 2011

Bismillah.  This to share some important views from religious scholars over the last 6 months, but still relevant due to the ongoing Arab spring.

My father attended an international conference of Islamic scholars in Mecca before Ramadan, in the summer of this year.  The Arab spring was obviously discussed.  Some people of knowledge, who unfortunately can become trapped too close to corrupt governments, were trying to make out that the Arab spring was prohibited (haram), un-Islamic rebellion and revolt.  As is well-known, at the height of the Egyptian revolution earlier this year, very senior religious authorities in both Egypt and Saudi Arabia condemned the protesters as “rebels against legitimate Muslim rule,” and lost credibility in the eyes of many as a result.

So, at the conference, up stepped Sheikh Muhammad Hassan Dadu of Mauritania, a highly-respected Hadith scholar, to give his view.  He said that the rulers of Arab and Muslim countries, in the past, have generally held power on the basis of one or more of the following three factors:

1. By the direct allegiance (bay’ah) of their people. [This is the ideal manifestation of the Islamic principle of Shura (mutual consultation in social and public matters), which has given an entire chapter of the Qur’an its name.  The theory of Shura has much in common with that of democracy: of course, both have had many different interpretations and manifestations throughout history.  Muhammad Asad saw in the Prophet’s Medina and the rule of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs a very early form of the “social contract” discussed centuries later by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. The anti-democracy rhetoric of some extreme Islamist groups is therefore extremely problematic from an Islamic viewpoint, not least since some of them enjoy freely expressing this rhetoric in Western democracies. – U.H.]

2. By the support of the powerful elite (ahl al-hall wa l-‘aqd).  [These are ideally supposed to represent the will of the people.  Elected representatives in democracies can therefore be seen as a type of this classical Islamic formulation. – U.H.]

3. By force. [Traditional Sunni Islam tended to reluctantly accept the rule of the mighty, fearing greater harms from unsuccessful attempts to change the status quo. – U.H.]

Sheikh Dadu then observed that current rulers of Arab and Muslim countries tend to rule by no. 3, i.e. force.  He added that therefore their only legitimacy was their strength, and thus that if a more powerful counter-force was to arise, such as popular protest or a more powerful army, whether internal or external, they would have no legitimate basis for holding on to power.  He was of course describing accurately the course of much of Islamic political history: numerous caliphs and sultans seized power by force, and lost it by force.  If dictators are unable to hold on to power by force, they simply cannot complain about it.  (The dream-like picture of 14 centuries of perfect caliphate that can somehow be restored overnight by elitist military coups or terrorism is entirely false, not to mention fanciful.)

Update: on 16th December 2011, I attended the Friday Prayers at the Muslim World League in Goodge St., London.  These happened to be led by Sheikh Sa’d al-Burayk of Saudi Arabia. (Two decades ago, I had often listened to his recorded recitation of Surah al-A’raf to help consolidate my memorisation of it: he had a strikingly strong voice and recitation style.)  Al-Burayk’s topic was the Oneness and Majesty of God, and he kept repeating the Qur’anic phrase: ar-Rahmanu ‘ala l-arsh-istawa (The Most Merciful Settled Above The Throne).  He mentioned some of the planets of the solar system by name, our galaxy, the seven heavens, and the lesser and greater thrones: God is beyond all of that, so His Majesty is far greater than even the majesty of the universe.

He condemned those who mix their monotheistic prayers with prayers to ‘Ali, Husain, ‘Abdul Qadir al-Jilani etc. for help.  Although (thankfully) he did not use sectarian labels, this is well-known to be a classic salafi way of referring to shi’as and sufis.  He asked twice, “How did shirk (polytheism/idolatry) enter the Muslim nation?”  This raises the question as to whether or not he regards those “others” as Muslims.  He seemed to be softer than some of the really hard-line salafis who openly excommunicate all shi’as and sufis, and perhaps closer to someone like the late Sheikh Muhammad al-Ghazali (rahimahullah) who famously argued passionately that if people are indeed falling into polytheism/idolatry, they should be advised, educated and enlightened: not condemned to Hell, cursed and excommunicated.

At the end of the sermon, Sheikh Burayk prayed, and urged the congregation of thousands to pray, for the people of Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen.  He also prayed specifically for “the oppressed people of Syria” and described emotively how they were pure monotheists, relying only on Allah to lift their oppression.  This was a bit strange in the context of his earlier words since, of course, Shi’ism and Sufism are fairly strong in Syria. He also prayed twice to God to “protect the land of the Haramayn,” i.e. Saudi Arabia.

Thus, here we had a fairly senior Saudi sheikh supporting most of the Arab spring in his prayers in London, although a glaring omission was Bahrain: I fear that this is partly due to political and/or sectarian reasons.

We should hope and pray that Muslim nations, including their political and religious leaders, are guided closer to truth and justice.  On top of hoping and praying, of course, we must try to (continue to) help that process and participate in it as much as possible.

On Trade Union Jihad

December 19, 2011

Bismillah.  As a member of the UCU trade union, I took part in the UK public-sector strike on 30th November 2011.  Some thoughts from a faith-based perspective:

Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad (Tim Winter) once observed that the formation of trade unions was consistent with the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) about justice, including fair treatment of workers, e.g. the hadith, “Pay the wages of the labourer before his/her sweat dries.”    The right to form trade unions is explicitly mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, most if not all of which is consistent with Islamic principles.

There is also the long, wonderful story in the Islamic hadith texts (Bukhari & Muslim, cf. Riyad al-Salihin) about the three men stuck in a cave who pray to God on the basis of previous excellent actions.  One of the three men invested a worker’s uncollected wages and when the latter returned to collect these months or years later, his ex-employer pointed to a large amount of precious livestock, since the investment had been blessed with success.  The ex-employee refused to accept this at first, thinking that his ex-employer was mocking him!

On the other hand, one might argue that strike action is a breach of contract, and therefore un-Islamic.  Some employers and Tories might agree with this.

In a world of ideal workplace relations, there would be no need for trade unions and strike action, just as in an ideal world where all people behaved angelically, there would be no need for law or its enforcement.  But since workers are often treated unjustly, a fair means of protecting their rights is an Islamic imperative, and a trade union is a good place to start.

I had a long chat with John Redwood MP, one of Maggie Thatcher’s influential advisors, around end-2007 or early 2008, when he gave a lecture at our university as a Visiting Professor.  (His lecture praised Lord Nelson as  a great British hero, and highlighted Tesco as a great British trading company.  Whether one agrees with him or not, he was thoroughly reasonable to talk to.)  I asked him about Maggie’s war on the trade unions, that I’d followed as a child via the daily BBC 9 O’Clock News during the miners’ strike.  He replied that he wasn’t opposed to trade unions, but that he believed in freedom and was therefore opposed to “closed shop” unions, where all workers in a particular situation are obliged to join the union and do not have the choice to opt out.

This sounds logical enough, but I’ve come across a problem through experience: union members at our workplace took strike action a couple of times in the noughties, risking our jobs and careers, but each time the employers gave in and agreed higher pay rises with the unions.  Thus, all our colleagues, including non-union members, benefited financially from the strike action without the associated risk.  (I asked a union rep about this at the time: he said that the union would be writing to non-union colleagues, inviting them to donate the entire pay rise to charity.  A worthy sentiment, but somehow I can’t see that happening across the board – it appears to be an impractical suggestion in real life.)

So, a closed-shop would appear to go against the principle of freedom (which Sheikh Gamal al-Banna, brother of the famous Hasan al-Banna, describes as one of the universal objectives or maqasid of Islamic law).  But a closed-shop would also appear to be the only way in many situations of having a trade union at all.  Note that UDHR 23(4) guarantees the right to join trade unions, whilst 20(2) prevents compulsory joining of any association.  The Wikipedia entry on Trade Unions, at the time of writing this, has a useful section on closed shops, union shops, etc.

Whatever the situation, Muslims should be able to debate these issues based on real fiqh (understanding of faith in context), recognising that there are often competing factors on many sides of an argument, all involving benefits (masalih) and harms (mafasid).  There is often no simple answer, no clear-cut sacred text (nass), no single political position that all Muslims are obliged to adopt, when it comes to life’s complicated issues.  Any serious study of the classical Islamic jurisprudence of human relations (mu’amalat) proves this.

Trade-unionists in Muslim countries have been struggling for decades to defend workers’ rights, and have been particularly active in the Arab Spring.  Many workers and trade-unionists have been unjustly sacked, harassed, imprisoned, tortured and even killed in the course of their struggles for justice.  It is no exaggeration to say that such people fighting injustice are engaged in a sacred Jihad, and those who lose their lives in the process are martyrs (shuhada’).

There are a number of excellent campaigning groups and tools that help in this kind of Jihad.  Amnesty International and similar organisations do great work, although of course people are free to disagree with aspects of their work or specific cases.  LabourStart is another good place, and is also on Facebook.  The IUF is more sector-specific, and at the time of writing, its top story is related to a Muslim country:

“Urgent Action: Nestlé Pakistan attempts to blackmail workers challenging precarious jobs regime into renouncing their rights

Supporting such work is pre-eminently from the Way of the Prophet (Sunnah): far, far more important than endless, hair-splitting about obscure issues of theology, jurisprudence and dress.

Thus, all these organisations try to work on behalf of those whom they see as oppressed, of whatever faith.  Some Muslims wish to create “Islamic” groups to deal with such issues.  Although well-intentioned, it may often be unwise and less effective in practice, especially in an increasingly-globalised world.  It may well be better to pool resources and co-operate across faith divides in practical struggles for justice.  The Prophet (peace be upon him) famously praised the Hilf al-Fudul, a treaty to help the oppressed that was agreed in pagan, pre-Islamic Arabia.  This has also been the approach, to their credit, of groups like YM/ISB (from the 80’s) and, more recently, the City Circle.

It should also be remembered that perservering with negotiation, compromise and reconciliation should also be seen as a type of Jihad (Surah al-Anfal, the pro-Jihad 8th chapter of the Qur’an, mentions spoils of war as well as reconciliation in its opening verse.)

Please support such moral Jihads whenever possible: may Allah bless our endeavours!

New research on UK converts to Islam

December 18, 2011



17th December 2011


A four year study has just been completed that has examined the experiences of the growing number of Britons who are choosing to convert to Islam. Estimations suggest that as many as 100,000 Britons have converted to Islam in recent years. Some of the key findings of the study which was conducted by Dr. Leon Moosavi in the Sociology Department of Lancaster University are as follows:

• Britons from all backgrounds are choosing to follow Islam. There appears to be a tendency for younger people and women to convert to Islam. Some of these Muslim converts retain an Islamic identity for many years whereas others abandon the faith after a brief period.
• People are converting to Islam for a host of reasons, including because of a decreasing relevance of Christianity in Britain and in order to find a sense of community in a lonely ‘broken Britain’. 9/11 and 7/7 has also had an impact in triggering more questions about Islam for many non-Muslims, some of whom decide to convert to Islam after investigating Islam. Many of those who convert to Islam claim it is because Islam offers a suitable alternative to Western capitalism, the need for which is more pronounced during the current worldwide economic crisis. Some of those who convert to Islam do so after being targeted by Islamic preachers who seek to convert them. Others convert to Islam for the sake of legitimising their intimate relationship with a lifelong Muslim.

• Muslim converts can find it difficult to attain acceptance in the Muslim community. Many lifelong Muslims are suspicious of Muslim converts and exclude them from mosques, events and other events. Black Muslim converts in particular face rejection in the Muslim community indicating some racist attitudes in the Muslim community. Muslim converts often have to go to great lengths to prove their sincerity and worth to lifelong Muslims. The War on Terror climate has generated increased suspicion towards Muslim converts who are often suspected as government spies.

• Muslim converts are often disowned by their family and friends after converting to Islam. Their conversion to Islam is often ridiculed and treated with contempt by non-Muslims. This is indicative of a widespread attitude of Islamophobia towards Muslims in Britain. However, unlike previous studies which describe Islamophobia as blatant and rampant, this study has found that Islamophobia often operates more subtly and discreetly.

• Muslim converts often have to contend with stereotypes that their conversion to Islam is related to their sympathy with Al Qaeda or extremist views. While some Muslim converts do chose an extremist path, the majority are comfortable in identifying as British Muslims, and are often fiercely patriotic. They often describe themselves as ‘bridge builders’ who seek to act as ambassadors in bringing harmony between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Dr. Leon Moosavi, who conducted the four year study, said: “In a time when numerous questions are being asked about the role of religion in 21st century Britain and the place of Islam in the Western world, the growing number of non-Muslim Britons who are opting for Islam reminds us of the permanent status of Islam in Europe. The challenges faced by these converts also demonstrate persistent Islamophobia and racism in British society amongst both non-Muslims and Muslims”.

For more information, please contact Dr. Leon Moosavi on l(dot)moosavi(at)lancaster(dot)ac(dot)uk