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Traditional Islam, Ideology, Immigrant Muslims, and Grievance Culture: A Review of Travelling Home: Essays on Islam in Europe by Abdal Hakim Murad

A review of this important contribution to European Islamic theological reflection

Published

Introduction

Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, dean of Cambridge Muslim College (CMC), also known as Dr Timothy Winter of the University of Cambridge, is a prominent Islamic scholar and Muslim public figure of the British Isles. For decades, he has been active on the Muslim speaking circuit and gained recognition for publishing learned translations of classical works, particularly from the Sharia discipline of Sufism through the masterworks of scholars like Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazzālī (d. 505/1111). His commitment to Sufism also led to his writing several critical essays in the 1990s and 2000s directed at Islamic groups that were either unsympathetic or actively hostile to the Sunni denomination to which he adheres, what I have referred to elsewhere as “Neo-traditionalism” and which he himself refers to as “Traditional Islam.” (I use the term “denomination” somewhat loosely to denote subgroupings within Sunni Islam, such as Salafism, Islamism, and Neo-traditionalism.)

With his founding of CMC in 2009, Shaykh Abdal Hakim (henceforth: Murad) appeared to set aside inter-denominational controversy in favour of broad-based institution building. And his contributions to Islamic education through the establishment of CMC are certainly not insignificant. The College arguably represents one of the most promising Islamic intellectual endeavours in Europe in recent years, and I hope and pray that it realises success that can be considered with pride centuries from now. I must emphasise, in this connection, that Murad has devoted much of his career to the intellectual development of the British Muslim community, one that is overwhelmingly made up of immigrants. 

In the interest of the reader understanding my perspective, I should also note that I have long known the shaykh personally and consider him a teacher of mine, although I have never formally enrolled in either of his Cambridge-based institutions. As I came to Islamic studies in the early 2000s, both under the tutelage of the ulama as well as “academically,” I began to read diligently his many essays on what had effectively become his website. They were erudite, at times bordering on the abstruse, but always illuminating in their own distinctive way. But one thing that I have come to recognise in them, more so than I did at the time, was their polemical nature. Murad was argumentative; and I would subsequently come to understand this as his response to the dynamics of inter-denominational competition among young British Muslims in the 1990s that had brought to the fore an often unedifying rivalry, in pursuit of market share, among the various groups in British Islamic activism. This activism has been illuminatingly explored by a number of social scientists in recent years, including Sadek Hamid, Khadijah Elshayyal, and Hira Amin, among others.

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Murad’s latest book, Travelling Home appears to be a reversion to his former style of writing “polemical essays” (p. 2) that are primarily aimed at an “internal” Muslim readership (p. 10). It comprises eleven chapters that are mostly reworked lectures and keynote addresses delivered between 2011 and 2019. Perhaps their relative infrequency in recent years, given his responsibilities at CMC, is what gave me the impression that he no longer wished to engage in what I consider to be “inter-denominational polemic,” though he himself rejects this characterisation. For better or for worse, this volume has disabused me of the notion that such polemics were behind him. Yet, this work is by no means simply a partisan screed and Murad does not direct his critiques solely at Salafis and Islamists. Neo-traditionalists are also criticised in the work, though in my reading, it is clear that this denomination represents the true Sunni mainstream for Murad, a viewpoint I consider questionable on theological grounds. Yet, this is no reason to stop reading one of the most thoughtful theologians of Islam in Europe, and indeed, the modern world. 

To be sure, Murad is approaching his subject matter with a decidedly different lens to that of the social scientists studying British Islamic activism mentioned earlier. These and other scholars who have written about the British Muslim community approach the subject from a “sociological” perspective which Murad contrasts repeatedly in his work with his more “theological” outlook. His suggestion, which more Muslims in the academy would do well to reflect on, is that such sociological perspectives, avowedly secular and materialist as they are, are out of step with the God-centred and more pastoral outlook of authentically Islamic scholarship. This does not mean that Murad entirely rejects empirical observation, of course. He makes use of statistics and similar sociological data when it helps illustrate empirical realities experienced by the community. In a sense, his arguable overemphasis of the deficiencies of social science are intended as a corrective to the severity of the imbalance in studies of the Muslim community that is the inevitable consequence of a secular academy becoming the home and training ground of most Muslim (but not usually “Islamic”) scholars studying their own communities in the West. 

Travelling Home is thus a wide-ranging work characteristically brimming with beneficial insights that recommend it well to Muslims who look with concern upon, among other things, the rise of the European right and their Islamophobic politics. For example, Chapter 4 on the Bosnian War, the Srebrenica massacre and their implications for Muslims in Europe makes for sobering but essential reading on a continent liable to forget that “the crime of Srebrenica was far worse than that of 9/11” (p. 93). By contrast, in Chapter 11 the reader can expect to reflect on how we might reconceptualise zakat in late capitalism given the evanescence of our “liquid modernity.” In this review, however, I will not simply be presenting a summary of Murad’s contentions from this book. Instead, I will home in on a handful of issues in which his ideas appear to fall short of what our dīn calls for at the present moment, at least in my estimation. This is not intended as a pointless counter-polemic, but rather, as the noted Harald Motzki (d. 1440/2019) once remarked, “Scholarship needs dispute in order to develop. It is necessary to make clear what is unconvincing and for what reason.” Consequently, Motzki exhorts that such criticism ought not to be taken personally, which is not something I fear from the author, but perhaps from some of those who share his viewpoint without sharing his erudition.

In brief correspondence with the author, Murad has reminded me that polemic was widely deployed by great scholars like Ghazzālī, a scholar regarding whom Murad is one of the world’s leading experts. The Persian polymath was well known for theological critiques of the falāsifa and other heterodox groups. This is important, Murad argues, because in Islam, the truth is important. These points are well-taken. However, Ghazzālī also exhibits considerable ecumenism in other instances, perhaps most notably in his Fayṣal al-Tafriqa. Arguably, with a Muslim community already consumed by internecine conflict, ours is a time in which we need to make a special effort to encourage inter-denominational tolerance. I would argue that this would involve including mainstream Salafis and Islamists alongside Neo-traditionalists within the broad Sunni umbrella within which many modern ulama would consider them to belong. This does not necessarily mean disregarding “truth.” 

As Sherman Jackson argues, Ghazzālī’s Fayṣal appears in part to be an effort to temper the “extremist” intolerance of the influential Ashʿarī theologian, ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Baghdādī, who readily engaged in takfīr of many non-Ashʿarī’s because of a misguided commitment to the truth. Indeed, Muslims today would do well to remember that all such groups, including the most heterodox and extreme, are usually seeking the truth and God’s pleasure as they see it. These are, of course, necessary but not sufficient conditions for right action, as Ghazzālī helpfully reminds us. While I cannot fully develop this argument in the present piece, I would like to suggest that alongside the truth, our efforts at engaging our Muslim interlocutors should be characterised by greater charity and compassion (raḥma), a value at the heart of Islam, and one which Murad speaks of eloquently in other parts of his work.

On Traditional Islam

Murad writes from within the “helpfully imprecise paradigm” that has come to be referred to by many Western Muslims as “Traditional Islam” (p. 3). Traditional Islam is loosely defined in relation to madhhabs, Sufism and kalām theology, but also asserts the significance of “formal teaching authorisation (ijāza)” through “continuous chains of narration” (sanad/isnād) going back to the Prophet (p. 138). This outlook exemplifies a well-trodden path of several Western Islamic scholars, perhaps most notably Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, although given Murad’s stance on the instrumentalisation of the ulama classes in many Muslim-majority states, he and Yusuf do not see eye to eye on how Traditional Islam should respond to this aspect of Muslim modernity. Having said that, Murad’s endeavour in this work is to demonstrate that Traditional Islam “can claim to represent a more intellectually and morally coherent response to the present emergency of Muslim integration than either secular scientism or Islamism” (p. 3). 

This sentence arguably identifies the main villains in his narrative, although he could be clearer. Anyone who knows Murad’s past writings will, however, recognise that aside from aggressive forms of secular ideologies, he sees the major threats to Traditional Islam as arising from within the Muslim community, most notably in the forms of Salafism and Islamism which he often disparagingly refers to as fundamentalism, all of which remain poorly defined in the present work and often appear to bleed into each other as a result. It is not without irony that Murad’s work thus appears to reinscribes the dangerous blurring of lines between peaceful Muslim activists and the kinds of nihilistic violence exemplified by groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, something that all Muslim public figures need to be careful to avoid in the context of the War on Terror whose undifferentiating dragnet is liable to criminalise any form of Muslim identity that is not approved by the state, including those forms that Murad so eloquently seeks to defend. While he clearly recognises that Salafism and Islamism do not necessarily entail violence (e.g. p. 230), he arguably contributes to a wider discursive context in which such nuances are easily lost.

Murad frequently distinguishes Traditional Islam from Salafism and Islamism by arguing that the latter two represent the ideologisation of Islam, whereas Traditional Islam is authentically rooted in the “time-honoured root-epistemology, the uṣūl” which are connected through “continuous narrative” over centuries. This contrast between a polemically vague fundamentalism and Traditional Islam is found throughout the present work as well as in the shaykh’s previous writings. Yet, specific examples of differences are often difficult to discern—those other Islamic denominations also have their learned ulama who engage a long tradition of scholarship that will invoke great masters of uṣūl, whether this is a reference to jurisprudence or dialectical theology. Plenty of ulama of an “Islamist” orientation, e.g. Muṣṭafā Zarqā (d. 1420/1999), ʿAbd al-Karīm Zaydān (d. 1435/2014), Muḥammad ʿImāra (d. 1441/2020), and Yūsuf al-Qaraḍāwī (b. 1345/1926), will reference the great past masters of these disciplines, be they Bazdawī (d. 482/1089), Ghazzālī, Rāzī (d. c. 606/1209), Ījī (d. 756/1355), Taftāzānī (d. 792/1390), Zarkashī (d. 794/1392), and so many others. 

The same can be said for Salafi scholars who engage the discipline of uṣūl, although they are rarer. This is because many Salafis are descendants of what academic Islamic studies happens to refer to as “traditionalism,” that is, the early Islamic tendency notable among the Ḥanbalīs and the Ahl al-Ḥadīth that viewed with great hostility any kind of theological speculation. But even among Salafis one finds scholars who invest great energy in continuing the scholarly tradition of uṣūl al-fiqh or jurisprudence as exemplified by the likes of Juwaynī (d. 478/1185), Ghazzālī, Shāṭibī (d. 790/1388), Ibn al-Subkī (d. 771/1370), Zarkashī, and many others. While Salafis often express considerable reservations regarding the dominance of Ashʿarī theology in the writings of these pre-modern scholars, it is not clear why Murad should reciprocate historical Salafi intolerance by taking them out of the Sunni umbrella, a quasi-sectarian stance that he appears to encourage (p. 89n).

It is also worth considering critically the claim that Traditional Islam is perhaps uniquely grounded in a respect for ijāzas and isnāds, unlike its ideological competitors. Murad does not make this claim himself, but it is widespread in Neo-traditionalist circles. The problem with this claim is two-fold. Firstly, there are plenty of Salafis and Islamists who also possess impressive collections of ijāzas and isnāds. Two Islamists Murad mentions with disapproval (p. 222), namely Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī (d. 1979/1399) and Qaraḍāwī are both known to have ijāzas and isnāds, and Salafis, with their special interest in hadith, also possess collections of ijāzas and isnāds including ones that go back to Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (d. 1206/1792), the highly problematic founder of what academics (usually non-pejoratively) refer to as “Wahhabism.” Indeed, as I have noted elsewhere, the possession of ijāzas and isnāds has not prevented individuals from engaging in the terroristic theology of Al-Qaeda. 

Secondly, Murad boldly states that Traditional Islam’s “highly-trained scholars […] do not become extremists” (p. 183). For this we find a counterpoint in the writings of the intellectual historian, Muhammad Qasim Zaman. In a number of works, most recently Islam in Pakistan: A History, Zaman illustrates instances in which the jihadism of the Taliban and likeminded groups in South Asia have often been tied to the ulama. These include Neo-traditionalist ulama, such as, for example, those of the Deobandi school. Deobandism’s Neo-traditionalist credentials can be exemplified by their strict commitment to the Ḥanafī school, their adherence to Māturīdī theology, and their cultivation of Sufism through the recognised ṭarīqas alongside their transmission of knowledge through isnāds and ijāzas. Yet Zaman illustrates in this and his earlier work the extent to which learned ulama from this and other tendencies maintained close ties with the Taliban, themselves staunch Ḥanafīs. Scholarship or Traditionalism do not appear to preclude “extremism” at least as the word is widely, and very problematically, deployed in the West. 

On ijāzas and isnāds

A second and perhaps more fundamental problem for Neo-traditionalists more generally, (though not Murad in this instance), is their insistence on the centrality of ijāzas and isnāds which sometimes seems grounded in an apparent misunderstanding of the actual purpose of these scholarly tools. These forms of knowledge transmission have been illuminatingly explored in a wonderful recent monograph by Garrett Davidson entitled Carrying on the Tradition: A Social and Intellectual History of Hadith Transmission across a Thousand Years. As Davidson notes (p. 109-111), there are in fact two types of ijāzas that are frequently conflated by modern scholars, namely: ijāzas for the purpose of narration of hadith (riwāya), and those that act as qualifications that permit one to teach (tadrīs) and/or give fatwas (iftāʾ). Most of the time, Neo-traditionalists appear to intend the latter more advanced type of ijāza as the relevant kind while suggesting that its upholding is the sine qua non of authentic Islam. But many of those who uphold the normativity of the ijāza appear unaware that there is no consensus regarding such a practice—developed in the later centuries of Islamic history–as being essential to the sound preservation of the dīn

A striking illustration of this perspective comes from a scholar who is particularly well-regarded in Neo-traditionalist circles, namely the prolific Egyptian polymath, Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī (d. 911/1505). Davidson (p. 110) cites Suyūṭī’s rather harsh judgement of those who insist on the necessity of the more advanced ijāza as follows:

An ijāza from a shaykh is not a condition for one to begin teaching and imparting one’s knowledge. Whoever knows that he is qualified to teach may do so, even if no one has issued him an ijāza. This is the way of the pious ancestors and righteous forbearers. This is true for every discipline and teaching and issuing fatwas, contrary to the opinion of some ignoramuses (aghbiyāʾ). 

Davidson does not translate the remainder of the passage which provides Suyūṭī’s explanation for the rise of the practice of issuing ijāzas which the latter otherwise expresses no objection to. Suyūṭī explains:

People simply established the practice of giving ijāzas because the qualifications (ahliyya) of an individual are for the most part unknown to beginner students who seek to learn from them since the abilities of [these novices] do not allow [them to evaluate the knowledge of their potential teachers]. Yet examining the qualifications of a scholar is a precondition for learning from them. The ijāza was thus created as a kind of certification of qualifications given by a scholar to the one granted an ijāza.

Aside from illustrating the sharply contested normativity of the ijāza as a prerequisite for assessing the reliability of a scholar, this passage also alerts us to the awareness of one of the most prolific scholars of Islamic history regarding the contingency of the structures developed by the later Islamic tradition which Neo-traditionalists often claim as timeless and indispensable. By contrast, Suyūṭī views ijāzas very much in the way that modern people view university qualifications with respect to secular knowledge—they are the standard means of demonstrating expertise in a field, but their absence does not automatically signal incompetence in every case. And in an age in which institutions of Islamic scholarship have witnessed a diminution in standards and quality control, the presence of such ostensible qualifications is not always the best measure of reliable scholarship. Rather than insisting on the normativity of such shibboleths, we perhaps ought to exercise the same circumspection as great master scholars like Suyūṭī and recognise the contingency of the ijāza system.

What does “ideology” really mean?

One of the other targets of Murad’s ire in his work is “ideology.” In his view, the traditional Muslim, when responding to the disasters wrought by the modern world upon the believer, “will categorically avoid ideology” (p. 122). This is because ideology, which Murad argues is “generally a disparaging term used to describe someone else’s political views which one regards as unsound,” is “purely materialistic” and borders on disbelief (kufr). His target, he alludes to without being explicit, is the twentieth century Islamist ideas of modern scholars associated with politically oriented movements from the Muslim world, most notably exemplified by organisations like Jamāʿat-i Islāmī and the Muslim Brotherhood and figures like Mawdūdī and Sayyid Quṭb (d. 1386/1966). His specific remarks are worth citing in full here:

Ideology, which attributes ultimate agency to the asbāb, is the essence of kufr, disbelief, and readily engenders totalitarian systems of thought, which seek to impose a single paradigm of human behaviour on society through the agencies of an ‘enlightened’ scientific state. This may be one reason why some twentieth-century Muslim reformists proposed that Islam itself is an ‘ideology’. (p. 123)

The footnote makes reference to a work on Mawdūdī for those unfamiliar with modern Islamic political theology. Murad obviously does not think particularly highly of his ideas. But regardless of what one thinks of Mawdūdī, one wonders what to make of such fierce albeit indirect polemics against an influential figure without engaging substantively with their thought. Indeed, I would argue that, such statements are out of step with Murad’s avowed commitment to uṣūlī principles. Such polemicising leads him to misrepresent his opponents by firstly defining ideology in a way that, on the one hand, his opponents would not recognise as accurate, and on the other, aligns ideology with kufr. Secondly, he points out that his opponents themselves use the term ideology, while disregarding the fact that their usage contrasts with the definition he provides. This could even be taken as suggesting that Murad holds such figures to uphold a view of Islam that is either itself kufrī or has close affinities with kufr. It should go without saying that this is not an intellectually reasonable approach to engaging the ideas of a figure like Mawdūdī. (In personal correspondence, Murad has pointed out to me that his allusions to Mawdūdī are very indirect, and that his main complaint is that the latter’s approach to Islam is reductive of its richness and diversity. My remarks should thus be seen as addressing what I consider to be one plausible reading of Murad, but not necessarily the reading he intended.)

A less hostile reading of Mawdūdī and other scholars of a similar orientation discloses a rather pedestrian reality: they used the term ideology as a synonym for words like Weltanschauung or worldview. To think that they would use the pejorative Marxist conception of the term Murad asserts as normative in modern discourse (p. 122f.) rather than the variety of positively connoted alternatives widely cited in the sort of postmodern literature the shaykh is so thoroughly familiar with does little to advance our understanding of either Islam or such modern movements. To take just one example of recognised non-pejorative conceptions of ideology, Terry Eagleton, in his classic Ideology: An Introduction, begins his book by citing sixteen definitions of ideology to illustrate just how contested the concept is. Of these fewer than half, by my reckoning, would count as necessarily pejorative in their meaning. Mawdūdī certainly did not use the word “ideology” to discredit his own ideas, and so attributing such a pejorative sense to his usage is not warranted.

In fairness, I should note that Murad is not the only Neo-traditionalist figure to disparage Islamists because of their use of this term. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf has also written critically of Islamist “ideology,” and his rationalisation of such a usage is similarly unconvincing. A more detailed treatment of Mawdūdī’s conception of ideology will have to be dealt with elsewhere, but suffice it to say that such quibbling over words is not particularly illuminating. It is for good reason that so many scholars of “Traditional” uṣūl, as cited unselfconsciously by one Salafi scholar who obviously does not recognise the Traditional-Salafi distinction upheld by Murad, highlight the hermeneutic principle that it is pointless to quibble over words (lā mushāḥḥata fī al-iṣṭilāḥ).

Who are these “fundamentalists”?

A challenge in reading Murad is his disinclination from identifying his interlocutors explicitly. This may be intended to avoid the impropriety of gratuitously naming and shaming individuals—an Islamic value that finds Prophetic precedent. But I would argue that the value often appears to be misapplied in this work. Rather than protecting the identity of individuals, it appears to result in tarring entire perspectives with the same brush. We have already seen Murad’s references to Islamism, Salafism, and fundamentalism, which while never adequately defined, are at least terms that are used by others, and thus their meaning can perhaps be approximated. But perhaps not. Who is the “zealot” (p. 165), for instance, who rejects the Four Schools, rejects the schools of theology, or Islamic spirituality, and how widespread is such “zealotry” among Europe’s Muslims? Aside from the relatively isolated cases, it is not clear to me that mainstream Salafis or Islamists are especially exercised by people’s adherence to schools of law. Here, for example, is the leading Saudi Salafi scholar of his time, Ibn Bāz (d. 1420/1999), stating that there is nothing wrong in a layman following a madhhab. There is, of course, the unusual and indeed influential case of al-Albānī (d. 1420/1999) who did indeed deny people the right to follow a madhhab, but he does not characterise Salafism as a whole. The same can be said, making the necessary adjustments, for theological schools and Islamic spirituality. 

Similarly problematic is the vague referent of a term of Murad’s own coinage, namely the tanfīrī, literally “the one who drives people away (from Islam),” regarding whom he says the following (p. 165):

The tanfīrī[‘s…] conclusion that God abandoned the Umma, and that the scholars acted criminally for many centuries, can only kindle a great furnace of anger and doubt in his soul. This is ‘failurism’: the idea that our dīn failed, and that only with the rise of the new fundamentalisms in these latter days has it reappeared on earth. God, hence, seems hardly to be trusted: the Umma for centuries was abandoned by Providence. Hence tanfīrī rage is not only against the consensus of Sunni scholarship, but implicitly against God Himself, for having committed so cruel a dereliction of the Muslim people. Orphaned from his civilisation, unable to trust Heaven, the zealot’s soul can only emit a primal scream of agony, fear and hate.

But one wonders who in Europe Murad is actually referring to here that condemns Muslims as having been abandoned to misguidance by God for centuries. Are they the Salafis or the Islamists that cause him so much anxiety earlier in the text? Are they the various forms of immigrant Islam he expresses so much disquiet about throughout this work? It does not seem likely that these are the people he is referring to, for one would be hard pressed to find any such European Muslim actually believing that God had abandoned His umma for so long. It is true that some of these sentiments can be read into the writings of influential Islamist writers who lived and died beyond Europe, like Sayyid Quṭb, but as scholars like Roxanne Euben and John Calvert have ably illustrated, even such a controversial figure within the ranks of Islamism has a far more complicated legacy than Murad is willing to acknowledge. The only people this kind of language would seem to apply to are extremist groups like al-Qa‘ida and ISIS who find no sympathy with the mainstream Islamists and Salafis who are to be found in Europe or, indeed, anywhere in the world. 

These are thus “polemical essays” also in the sense that they often sacrifice analytical precision at the altar of rhetorical expediency, and consequently appear to be wielded as a blunt instrument against an ill-defined other. Yet by remaining vague about his target, perhaps out of courtesy, I would argue that Murad might inadvertently suggest to his readers that such tendencies represent a palpable and sizeable threat within European Muslim communities. This is where polemics can become especially dangerous, given the securitisation of Muslims in the context of the War on Terror. While Murad does not make it explicit, the uninitiated reader may take from these kinds of passages which pepper the prose of this volume that such rootless extremism is a widespread tendency among Europe’s Muslims. The reality, by contrast, is that extremists of the ISIS variety are a vanishingly small if dangerous phenomenon that finds no haven or sympathy within the Muslim communities of Europe, and usually isolate themselves from these communities in order to pursue their illegal activities. 

The complexity of the Islamic tradition

Part of what Murad engages in this work is explaining the nature of “Traditional Islam.” But some of this, I would suggest, comes across as an exercise in presenting a mythical ideal that is polemically contrasted with the least charitable interpretation of the possible alternatives. An example may be taken from the remark that “the Prophetic teaching of amr bi’l-maʿrūf wa-nahy ʿan al-munkar, ‘commanding the good and forbidding the evil’, […] in the first instance must be verbal; indeed, unless one wields due political sovereignty it can be nothing else” (p. 169). In the present work, he elides the well-known and controversial fact that Ghazzālī argues for the permissibility of organising armed vigilantes to undertake the role of commanding the good and forbidding the evil without seeking the permission of the political authorities. As a Ghazzālī expert, Murad is naturally well aware of this idiosyncrasy of the premodern polymath’s thought. He has judiciously addressed the obvious inapplicability of this perspective in our own radically different era in an essay from 2003 (n. 10). While this is an excellent example of applying the appropriate charitable reading to the works of a scholar one views with favour, Murad also presents a striking example of the opposite.

With respect to the noted Salafi scholar, Ibn al-ʿUthaymīn (d. 1421/2001), Murad cites Thomas Bauer, the German author of a work entitled Die Kultur der Ambiguität: Eine andere Geschichte des Islam (soon to be published in English as A Culture of Ambiguity: An Alternative History of Islam), to claim that Ibn al-ʿUthaymīn, rather than accept that the Qur’an had variant readings, sought to “advocate for a single authorised version of the text” (p. 220). This is quite a shocking claim to be made of any scholar, let alone a scholar of Ibn al-ʿUthaymīn’s standing within Ḥanbalī/Salafi circles. One would expect Murad to scrutinise Bauer’s claim, but rather than examining whether the German scholar’s assertions are accurate, Murad readily accepts them. 

For his part, Bauer is comparing an advanced multi-volume work on the ten variant readings of the Qur’an by the ultimate medieval authority in Qur’anic studies, Ibn al-Jazarī (d. 833/1429), with an entry-level text of a few dozen pages on Qur’anic studies more generally of Ibn al-ʿUthaymīn. That the latter does not really explore the variant readings of the Qur’an in such a short beginners guide is not altogether as surprising as Bauer seems to think it is. Had he, or Murad for that matter, undertaken a simple Google search, he would have found clear evidence that Ibn al-ʿUthaymīn was perfectly aware of, and certainly not opposed to, the variant readings of the Qur’an. But the case is illustrative of how a scholar as erudite as Murad can be driven, apparently by inter-denominational antipathy, to be so credulous regarding the shocking ignorance of the most senior scholars of a competing Sunni denomination that he would not seek to verify what should immediately appear to be an outlandish claim on the part of a scholar unsympathetic towards the admitted rigorism of some Salafis.

On grievance culture (and being therapeutic)

A theme that runs through much of Murad’s book is, to put it ironically, deep-seated grievances about the “grievance culture” of the “dreary conference-centred ideology-religion” of “Movement Islam” (p. 63f., 205). This may be encapsulated in the following quote from the final page of a chapter ostensibly discussing the significance of spiritual rootedness for Western Muslims:

By contrast there are fundamentalisms, radical Islamisms, and lethal dreams of Islam not as dīn but as ideology. […] The catastrophes of modern Islamist dysfunction, on the basis of which our neighbours rush to judge us, are the consequence of the bastardising of our discourse by narratives of postcolonial grievance and by illicit and unstable intrusions of formalist interpretation far from the Breath of the Compassionate. (p. 267)

Much of this ire is directed at immigrant Muslims as suggested in the above reference to “postcolonial grievance.” And it is not only “Movement Islam” that is targeted, but also  forms of immigrant religiosity and scholarship that do not conform to the very distinctive conception of Traditional Islam that Murad holds to be normative (p. 134f.). It strikes me as problematic that notwithstanding his own significant contributions to the British Muslim immigrant community alongside his excoriation of the nativist Islamophobia of the far-right, Travelling Home will seem to some readers to be suffused with a kind of anti-immigrant grievance. 

Nor is it only the ersatz Islam that many an immigrant has brought that is the object of Murad’s derision. Their current sense of religious precarity among immigrants elicits little by way of sympathy from Murad in a few striking passages. To those Muslims concerned about preserving their religion in an increasingly inhospitable if not downright hostile Europe, Murad offers little reassurance in the following remarks: 

Most Muslims in France migrated in order to eat more tagine or to seek a EU passport, but this, in Sharia terms, did not usually comprise a good reason for hijra. [The Prophet said:] ‘Whoever’s migration is for some worldly thing, or to marry a woman, then his migration is accordingly for that.’ (p. 125)

Murad previously expressed this sentiment in a 2019 lecture and separately in a recent interview as well. Yet, this is probably balanced out in the author’s own view by his defence, throughout this work, of the “Ishmaelite” as a symbol of the Muslim refugee who is the object of Europe’s contempt. The motivation underlying this critique of the intentions of Muslim immigrants is clearly to encourage Muslims to recognise that they must be engaged in daʿwa in some form to justify their residing in non-Muslim lands.

But his portrayal of purely worldly reasons doubtless distorts the variety of factors behind Muslim immigration to Europe. It is not clear on what empirical basis Murad asserts that the reasons for immigration were worldly in an Islamically blameworthy sense. This is perhaps an instance where the empiricism of a sociological approach could prove useful. Unlike the considerable efforts he expends to seek to understand and, at times, perhaps even justify the causes for European nativist grievance against Muslim otherness (p. 207f.), one feels that the same charity is not always extended to once colonised peoples. He might consider framing the issue quite differently by asking why it is the case that Muslims have immigrated to Europe in such large numbers rather than the contrasting possibility: European immigrants residing in comparable numbers in Muslim lands? What has created the massive disparities, what Jason Hickel refers to as “The Divide” between the Global South and the West? 

Murad is well aware that this is no historical accident, and in a footnote (p. 209f.) is willing to extend recognition to the suffering of First Nation peoples, Aboriginals and African Americans who suffered under settler-colonialism and slavery. This may be taken to be Murad’s affirmation of certain kinds of “postcolonial grievance” as legitimate, although this seems to be exclusive to those who have suffered settler colonialism or forced migration as slaves. His own grievances appear directed at the postcolonial immigrant to the metropole. In relation to such immigrants, he is willing to cite right-wing denialists of Islamophobia like David Goodhart with approval when they discuss the “decent populism” (p. 208n) of indigenous white Britons concerned about their country being overrun, as it were, by immigrants.

Curiously, he is unable to extend the same charity, and indeed, the “positive discrimination” he advocates for African Americans or Aboriginal peoples to postcolonial immigrants who would likely not have sought to pursue the metropole if their own lands had not been plundered to the astonishing degree that historians have documented during the same period in which settler-colonialists were decimating indigenous North American and Australasian cultures. Doubtless, making hijra to a land where one is liable to lose one’s religion is prohibited in the Sharia, but leaving aside the many Muslims who would have made hijra due to compelling circumstances, might the reason for the other Muslims who did make hijra out of the Abode of Islam due to their ignorance of the dīn have been the destruction of the institutions of Islamic learning in their homelands as a consequence of colonialism? Might this not at least be a question worth exploring before one criticises the offspring of those rendered religiously impoverished through the colonial dismantling of indigenous institutions of learning in Muslim lands? Surely this too would merit theological reflection in a way that would help us recognise the complex burdens modern Muslim immigrants to the West carry. 

In response to concern regarding the potential loss of religion on the part of subsequent generations of immigrant Muslims, Murad could give the glad tidings (tabshīr) of God’s boundless mercy that Ghazzālī finds solace in rather than offering severe (tanfīrī) judgements of the kind just alluded to. When criticising Salafis, Murad is able to recognise the capaciousness of some Sunni conceptions of the saved. For example, he cites Abū Ḥanīfa’s reported view that Muslims residing in non-Muslim lands (arḍ al-shirk) who were ignorant of even those minimal elements of the religion that were essential to being Muslim, such as affirming the Qur’an and the Sharia, could still be considered Muslim and hence saved (p. 132n). This would seem an apposite reference when thinking about immigrant Muslims as well. 

The foregoing critique is not to say that Muslims in the modern world should not actively cultivate a culture of Islamic learning rather than spending all their time crying over the spilt milk of colonialism. But there seems to be little sense in cultivating a “counter-grievance culture” regarding immigrants concerned for their children’s loss of religion. Surely the appropriate response to such circumstances is what Murad exhorts Muslims to do when confronted by Islamophobes—act as therapists and push back with what is better (Chapter 7). 

Conclusion

Much more could be said about this book, both positive and critical. For example, Murad offers important reflections on the concept of Islamophobia (Chapter 2), and in particular, the debates around defining it that have been raging in Britain over the past year or so. I hope to consider these elsewhere in future. I also found his remarks on academic Islamic studies—my own professional home—quite edifying. As he notes in Chapter 9, the distance between academic studies of Islam and Muslim perspectives on their own tradition has happily narrowed considerably in recent years. Consequently, academia is more and more welcoming of committed Muslims given the increasing philosophical indefensibility of past exclusionary attitudes (p. 240). The era in which university academics were required to conform to the orthodoxy of secular materialism appears gratefully to be on the wane. 

In conclusion, however, I wish to reiterate that notwithstanding the foregoing critique of Murad’s learned work, Western Muslims can benefit from reading and engaging this book not in a reactionary manner, but in the spirit of the great master Imam al-Shāfiʿī (d. 204/820), as related by Ghazzālī: in pursuit of the truth for the sake of God while keeping at bay the lowly desires of the ego. I have tried my best to approach this text in that spirit, and I have doubtless failed in some instances to do justice to this complex and multi-layered work. I can only hope that others will read this important contribution to European Islamic theological reflection and use it as a springboard to cultivate a richer Islamic discourse on the continent.

Note: I am grateful that despite his understandable reservations about my critical reading of his work, Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad offered useful comments and corrections on an earlier draft of this article. Naturally, I am solely responsible for any errors it contains.

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Shaykh Usaama al-Azami is Departmental Lecturer in Contemporary Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford. He began pursuing Arabic studies formally in 2002. He subsequently enrolled at Oxford University, completing his BA in Arabic and Islamic Studies in 2008. From 2005 onwards, he attended regular classes at Al-Salam Institute with Shaykh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, from whom he narrates numerous classical works including the Hidaya of al-Marghinani and the Sahih of al-Bukhari. Over the years Shaykh Usaama has been able to study with, and/or obtain ijazat from a number of scholars. They include Shaykhs Ahmad ‘Ali Lajpuri, ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Kattani, Yunus Jaunpuri, Muhammad Rabi’, ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Turayri, ‘Abd-Allah al-Judai’ (without ijaza), Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, Muhammad Al Rashid, Nizam Ya’qubi, Jihad Brown (without ijaza), and Ziyad al-Tukla. From 2010-2015, Usaama was based at Princeton University’s Department of Near Eastern Studies, where he completed an MA and later a PhD on contemporary Islamic political thought.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Basil

    February 6, 2021 at 12:50 AM

    This was an excellent review. I have tremendous respect for the esteemed Shaykh and enjoy his writings and videos, but I wonder how someone as erudite as Sh Abdal Hakim Murad can be so dismissive of other Muslims with whom he might disagree on issues of “ideology” or politics, even as he encourages Prophetic compassion and patience when dealing with overtly anti-Muslim, right-wing Europeans. Time to put aside the destructive battles of the 90s.

  2. Mubashir

    February 21, 2021 at 10:55 AM

    As a supporter of “Traditional Islam” and an enthusiastic devourer of all things from Sh Abdul Hakim Murad, I nevertheless found this to be a brilliant review of this book and also a useful critique of some aspects of the “Traditional Islam” view of the other major tendencies within Islamic activism, (such as Salafism, Islamism and Modernism). They all have provided Muslims with beneficial insights into the nature, causes and reality of our current situation.
    I am optimistic that there is a convergence going on, a meeting of minds if you like, among many people who were initially caught in the crossfire of these tendencies a few decades ago.

  3. Ahmad

    February 22, 2021 at 3:05 AM

    Masha Allah great work keep it up

  4. Basil

    March 1, 2021 at 7:53 PM

    Well put, Mubashir. Too often, Muslims who view the faith and the challenges of our modern realities through the lens of a particular paradigm suffer from a type of “temporary blindness” (an inability to recognize the merits of another approach or emphasis). It need not always be a question of “either this or that”. For example, a prophetic approach grounded on compassion in dealing with uninformed critics of the faith and its followers (espoused by Sh Murad) can and ought to coexist with a parallel movement designed to secure the rights of Muslims in the West. There is no wisdom (neither Prophetic nor Ivory Tower) in failing to stand up for vulnerable Muslims who bear the often violent brunt of anti-Muslim sentiment. Muslim communities in the West have produced individuals with diverse predilections, talents, and motivations. InshaAllah they can all benefit the Ummah.

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