Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad is perhaps the most significant British Muslim leader around. It is too bad that so few people know about him. Now that he has launched the Cambridge Muslim College, which is designed to train “local” specialists in Islamic knowledge who are able to “celebrate their identity” as British and Muslim, he should be given his due and treated like a national asset.
The Cambridge Muslim College is an important initiative for three reasons. First, as a Quilliam report recently showed, most of the imams in British mosques are foreign-born, and disconnected from the people they represent.
Second, the situation with the imams is dire, such that until last year the UK was considering importing imams from Pakistan. Not a good idea.
The third reason has to do with Islam’s crisis of authority. Islam, like Judaism, is a juridical religion. It has a longstanding legal component to it. When average Muslims start taking the religious law into their own hands it usually results in the politicisation, or bastardisation, of the religion – everything from ideological movements to regressive puritanical cults spring up. That is when untutored demagogues like Bin Laden and Bakri Muhammad strike.
Murad has long argued that in order to represent Islam, one must be steeped in the long history of Islamic law, which always pays attention to social nuance. Bringing that ethos to his college will go a long way in creating a better, more British, culture among Muslims. It will produce leaders that Muslims won’t be embarrassed about and who probably won’t give much fodder to the tabloids. They will probably shout less.
I have never spoken or communicated with Murad. I read his writings in the mid-90s when he began posting his articles on the internet – compiled here by Masud Ahmed Khan, a Guardian contributor. In those early essays Murad critiqued Wahhabism and the poison of extremism. Murad’s basic argument, embedded inside a lot of hyperbolic prose, was that fanaticism had a deleterious effect on one’s spirit and that it distanced a Muslim from God.
This message, stripped down, was an extremely effective way of talking to young Muslims because they were in a very confused place. On one hand they wanted to be seen as good, pious, God-fearing types; but on the other, the only people who were around to talk in the language of piety were those who sought to manipulate the kids for political or ideological benefit. By telling young Muslims that extremism was tantamount to impiety, all while showing them Islam’s long history of spiritual learning, Murad gave youth, especially boys, an extremely effective mechanism for resisting those who tried to turn them into fanatics. I would be curious to hear what Muslims who became all-out Islamists, like Shiraz Maher, thought of Murad. My guess is that they either ignored him or were taught to demonise him. What is clear, however, is that without Murad there would have been more Mahers.
Murad remained true to his message after 9/11. “Terrorists are not Muslims,” he wrote shortly after the attacks. His condemnation of the hijackers was immediate and loud – and he was perhaps alone among the Islamic intellegentsia in arguing that the hijackers be excommunicated. It was a tricky position for him to hold because moderate leaders usually avoided throwing Muslims out of Islam (arguing instead that every Muslim can be saved). Murad definitely took a hit among some Muslim circles for taking such a hard line. They disparagingly began calling him a neocon.
More recently, it is Murad’s name that occurs at the very top of an open letter by British Muslims which strongly condemns anti-semitism.
Despite having taken such open and courageous positions, Murad’s work has remained ignored by most media, an oversight which has prevented his work from gaining a foothold in mainland Europe and the US. Instead, quite absurdly, young Muslims are encouraged to emulate non-Muslims and rightwing hacks.
I am not arguing that Murad is infallible or that he should be venerated like a living saint. He has held some curious positions. His view of Islamic history is romantic. He puts too much emphasis on evangelism. His social conservatism would not fit very well with the left. His reading of modernist Muslim thinking is unfairly dismissive. Some of his followers have needless tension with some Salafis.
However, on the important religious questions – Muslim extremism and politicisation of Islam – Murad has been right more consistently than any other Muslim leader in the western hemisphere. He identified the increasing extremism among western Muslim youth and diagnosed its causes before most. He has condemned conspiracy mongering, arguing that “wild denunciations of Great Satans or global Crusader Conspiracies are … not only dangerous, but are also discourteous”. Most important, he has argued for “de-ideologising” Islam, a position that puts him directly at odds with those who want to make Islam a political project bankrolled by extra-national syndicates.
When, long ago, I graduated from college, I stopped keeping up with Murad regularly, but I think now I will check in from time to time to see how his college is doing. The school seems to be off to a good start. It takes no government money. It is non-denominational. In addition to Islam, it offers coursework in the history of science and Western intellectual thought. To lay a foundation for the future it is offering 10 full scholarships. It is, in every way, a welcome part of the future of religion in Britain.
Ali Eteraz is a frequent contributor to altmuslim and the author of the forthcoming book Children of Dust. This article previously appeared in Comment is Free, The Guardian.