Dr. Zaki Badawi, who passed away today in London at the age of 84, spent his life struggling to bridge the gap between the West and the Muslim world, often surprising both sides with his efforts to forge commmonality between the two in the UK, where he spent much of the past fifty years. With a rich background in Muslim thought and Islamic law (he held degrees from Islamic and Western institutions and established and/or taught Islamic studies programs in Malaysia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and London), Badawi had the authority to shape Muslim life in the West with far-reaching initiatives that helped form the foundation for Muslim life in Europe. Badawi also spent much time reaching out to other faiths to build understanding, helping form the Three Faiths Forum and vice-chairing the World Congress of Faiths. Badawi was “the face and voice of Islamic dignity and tolerance in Britain,” said Britain’s Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks. “He was a man of conscience and courage, and I cherished his friendship.” On the day of his death, he was scheduled to appear at the launch of a new Christian-Muslim interfaith group devoted to conflict resolution. Badawi, who was knighted in 2003, often used his scholarship to show the flexibility that Islam could have in the West. He was an early critic of UK imams who did not teach in English, recommended after the July bombings in London that Muslim women shun their hijabs if they felt threatened, and broke ranks with those calling for the execution of author Salman Rushdie (famously declaring on TV that he would give Rushdie refuge if chased to his door). “For too long, we have had Muslim chemists or businessmen represent us in a religious function,” said Badawi. “Because they lack knowledge they are often rigid, whereas a scholar can be more flexible.” Badawi frowned on what he called “cultural baggage” and yearned for a day where a British Muslim identity would trump ethnic origins. “There is no theological problem in Islam taking on a great deal of western culture and values and incorporating them,” he once said. He also worked to intergrate Islamic law and finance into Western society, helping to establish a sharia council to reconcile legal conflicts, helping found the the first licensed Islamic financial institution in the UK, and lecturing Cranfield University MBA students in business ethics. Even when misunderstood, Badawi was always gracious. After being barred from entering the US last year (despite a valid visa), Badawi accepted a subsequent apology from the US government and moved on. “I am naturally a rebel. I have always refused to be deferential, even to heads of state,” explained Badawi when asked about those who did not understand his work. “Irreverence is part of my Islamic culture, of my training at Al-Azhar.”
Shahed Amanullah is editor-in-chief of altmuslim.com.