The debate within British Islam

Published: November 7, 2010

A new wave of Islamic activism is being seen in Europe.

There is something happening within the UK, a debate of deep urgency. In the west, in a post9-11 climate, European and American Muslims have been thinking deeply about their faith. There has been a new generation of Muslim activists and intellectuals across the “theological spectrum.”

However, Muslims are not just passively acting in their countries within the mainstream; intellectual life, public debate and discussion are growing and budding within Muslim communities. In the US, the popular Muslim scholar, dubbed by The Guardian as the most influential Muslim scholar in the west, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, has opened his own seminary of Islamic studies, the Zaytuna Institute, which is now branching out into Zaytuna College. It is talked about as a liberal Islamic arts institution with a fusion of rigorous Islamic scholarship and modern intellectual tools.

On Tuesday 19th October, in an event titled the ‘’Road to Reform – Facing the Challenges of Modernity,’’ two leading Muslim intellectuals, arguably on the opposite side of the theological spectrum, came together to discuss the nature, validity, purpose and even the need for Islamic reform.

Within the UK, there is a drive towards a form of neo-orthodoxy, a repackaging of the classical and traditional discourse of Islam, which finds its best supporters in figures such as Sheikh Haitham al Haddad (one of the participants in the debate).  It’s an unashamed defence of traditional Islamic orthodoxy, in total opposition to European /American liberalism. The neo-orthodox project is tinged with reactionary tendencies, which is intolerant of critique.

But there are others who wish to go beyond simple repackaging and focus on the foundations of intellectual inquiry within Islam itself. This may involve questioning the foundations of fiqh, Quranic interpretation and theology, as laid out by classical authors, such as the four Imams. This expression of a reformist Islam finds its advocates who lean towards neutrality; I clearly favour Tariq Ramadan’s vision of a new conception of  Islamic law and philosophy in terms of its interpretation, elaborating on a new philosophy of pluralism . The neo-orthodox are conservative. They are well educated, go to top universities, are well read in Western philosophy, but still harbour deep suspicions and fears of anything remotely critical of Islamic traditions.

Moreover, the neo-orthodox give “intellectual credibility’’ to shockingly regressive opinions and ideas. By quoting selectively from the post-modernist and communitarian (read anti-liberal) philosophers, they undermine European liberalism, but do not extend the logic of this critique to their own theology of traditionalism. The neo-orthodox reasoning is peculiar and dishonest and uses post modernism and cultural relativism (pretty much any philosophy critical of universal truth does so) to undermine European liberalism.  But don’t you dare use it to undermine traditional Islamic thought!

The neo-orthodox scholars cleverly use historical analysis to show that ‘’liberalism is a European product,’’ but never apply this same rigorous use of historical analysis to add context to Islamic traditions. Indeed, there is a critical take on European history, but then a whitewashing of Muslim history, presenting it as a utopia. Curious, is it not? In this article, the author reaches a sensible conclusion:

Firstly it is a logical fallacy to take something specific and make it general.

But then why does the author commit this fallacy when dealing with the Islamic traditions, reaching the extraordinary conclusion of:

The classical position allows the Qur’an to speak for itself without reference to pre-existing assumptions;
The classical position is unbiased and represents the true meaning of the Qur’an

Hang on. Aren’t the works of classical scholars specific to their time and place? Are not the interpretations they drew from religious scripture influenced by their social and political circumstances? Were not the scholars of the past influenced by the prevalent social and political mores of their day?

This level of inconsistency in the work of the neo-orthodox is extraordinary and mind boggling.

Let’s take the issue of ijtihad.

Al Haddad presents the classical if not orthodox presentation of ijtihad:

Ijtihad is only possible when the difference on an issue is more evident, in that the opinions are voiced and argued by a considerable number of scholars. This means that scholars of later generations can research and prefer an existing opinion not invent a new one. Failure to adhere to this may lead to chaos and again implies that the truth was completely missing to the earlier generations. This of course causes no difficulty for a new matter that was not existent in the past; scholars will perform ijtihad and either agree on a ruling or differ leading to valid interpretations and positions.

Once again, the neo-orthodox are hesitant in re-evaluating or giving a critique of the Islamic tradition since for the neo-orthodox giving a critique of any authorative Muslim scholar of the past is tantamount to undermining the central truth of Islam.

Now the problem with this position is clear: assigning mere human beings infallibility just because of the antiquated value of their views is dangerous, since we prevent any form of moral, intellectual or social progress from taking place.

We are trapped in an historical bubble, glorifying the past at the expense of the future. What the neo-orthodox do in the process is to put past scholars of Islam on a pedestal (in an ahistorical bubble insulated from critique) and indeed, somehow come to the peculiar conclusion that human reason and human nature somehow devolves rather than evolve through the passage of time. Hence, we must refer back always to the traditional figures of Islam.

Alternatively, Ramadan’s conception of ijtihad lends itself to a more rigorous examination of the historical traditions of Islam (though Ramadan too suffers from his own problems particular to his new reformist scheme of Quranic interpretation):

Central to our debate is the concept of ijtihâd, which means the critical reading of the key Muslim textual sources – the Qur’an and the Prophetic traditions, known as the Sunna. Through ijtihâd we ought to be able to sustain a historically grounded approach to these sources while at the same time employing human creativity to respond to the particular problems of our age

For Ramadan, the critique of earlier Muslim scholars, philosophers and jurists is a valid and more importantly a religiously healthy activity. Ijtihad is not simply a response to unprecedented problems and events which are absent in the traditional Islamic corpus. Ijtihad becomes a guiding philosophy, and indeed an approach within itself rather than simply a dry legalistic tool in the case of al Haddad.

The issue of pluralism in religious interpretation is a crucial issue which needs to be thought deeply by both Ramadan and al Haddad in terms of how does it affect the singular universal narrative of Islam?

There is another problem between any debate between the reformists and neo-orthodox. That is the nature of critique. For the neo-orthodox, any critique aimed at the Muslim tradition just has to be ‘’Eurocentric’’, the result of a ‘’colonized mind’’. Al Haddad himself employs this tactic of smearing his opponents with these dreaded labels (which are a death blow for silencing liberal and reformist Muslims who question clerical authority):

Any person who is trying to change Islam from a western point of view, or he is living in the west or is changing Islam to fit into the western lifestyle […] don’t believe that he is trying to find solutions for Muslims’ problems. Don’t believe that he is trying to follow certain opinions carried out by certain scholars or by certain school of thoughts. No. He is colonised or he is defeated or he is an hypocrite person.

Hence, the neo-orthodox insulate their authority over the Islamic tradition by playing the old card of cultural politics. They accuse Muslim reformists of being culturally (and when things get ugly religiously) inauthentic since any one dares point out the glaring issues of human rights and freedom of religion in the corpus of traditional Islam has to be “westernised’’.

But in contrast, the reformists like Ramadan argue that it is because of our religious faith that we must question past authorities and tradition. For Ramadan and others questioning tradition can be productive As Ebrahim Moosa argues:

Critique of tradition is not to debunk tradition, but it is rather an introspection of what for one is a continuous questioning of one’s being” (Voices of Islam: Voices of Change).

And, from the same source, fundamentally we need to:

Engage with tradition critically to constantly interrogate tradition and strive to ask productive questions.

The neo-orthodox do not ask these questions but reformists like Ramadan do.

What is promising at least is that in the West there is a free public space for the reformists to stake out their position which unfortunately is much difficult to do in traditional Muslim societies where reformists are persecuted, socially intimidated, castrated or worse.

The neo-orthodoxy though conservative in their nature and thinking is at least open to the prospect of dialogue (for the intent of converting the ‘’Other’’ not understanding, which can be dogmatic and problematic). It does fill me with a certain sense of optimism for the future of British Islam that we can at least sit down at the table of dialogue without the threat of violence and intimidation. In one way the debate between Ramadan and al Haddad is a great sign of the maturity of British Islam to be able to have this sort of deep and penetrating discussion.

But make no mistake, it would be a crying shame if British Islam abandoned or ignored the sophisticated, pluralistic reformist project of Ramadan for the conservative, traditionalist project of al Haddad. It would be a truly awesome waste.


Ahmad Ali

A medical student and freelance writer who tweets @AhmadAliKhalid

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Ali

    So you wrote a paper and then decided to get it published as a blog… seriously… who is going to read this entire thing?Recommend

  • Mehreen

    agreed with above. Recommend

  • Shahbaz

    Much Redundant,,,,,,Recommend

  • Hina

    ^ LOL I was thinking the same thing!Recommend

  • http://na prasad

    Excellent analysis.

    And while this debate is good for Islam in the UK, I think a more stirring speech was made just a few minutes ago by Asma Jahangir – while it was not about Islam exclusively – she addressed the social, political and economic ills of our region in such a brave, forthright manner – there is no beating about the bush with this woman. I daresay her speech probably overshadowed Obama’s inspiring exchange with students in Mumbai. Recommend

  • Ahmad Ali

    Just making a correction:

    ”It does feel me with a certain sense ”

    It should read:

    ”It does fill me with a certain sense”.

    Apologies. Recommend

  • parvez

    You should thank your stars that the countries like the UK and USA have freedom of thought and religion that allow such discourse and propagation of religion.
    The likelihood of this being abused is strong and when that happens it will get ugly.Recommend

  • Elsa

    Re: “the neo-orthodox insulate their authority over the Islamic tradition by playing the old card of cultural politics.”

    It’s the old “red herring” trick. When you don’t want to look at something, throw in a red herring, and get people off the track.

    I would say, actually, that the whole debate is partly another kind of red herring – it leaves out the huge question the looking at and questioning the value of the old religious texts themselves – many of them not pro human-rights, etc. The West has largely questioned its traditional religious texts and come to a human rights perspective (male female equality, equality between races, equality between heterosexuals, gays and lesbians, etc).

    Islam has a long way to go. Again, it’s an easy red herring to call these Western values – they are human values.

    I’ve found it interesting to look at Muslims who do dare to look at the Islamic religious texts.

    Islam: Religion of Peace?:

  • dinalfitrah

    Ahmad Ali writes: “ would be a crying shame if British Islam abandoned or ignored the sophisticated, pluralistic reformist project of Ramadan for the conservative, traditionalist project of al Haddad. It would be a truly awesome waste.”

    Perish the thought! Ramadan nevertheless is used to getting himself into terrible fine messes these days particularly over his much trumpeted but poorly conceived idea of “pluralism”. Take, for example, his unabashed reliance on outworn and cheesy euphemisms like “Islam is a European religion” and you get a strong flavour of the enormous scale of this epic problem. Apart from the sheer stupidity of expecting French theologians like Ramadan to curry favour with our own ‘home’ constituency made up of mainly Indian/Bangladeshi/Pakistani Muslims, Ramadan’s own brand of indigestible continental soup (“pluralism” + double speak + platitudinal infinite regress) is mirrored in Ramadan’s descent into into the world of oblique grand statements like the equally oblique title of his latest book “The Quest for Meaning”, a ghost-like parody of post-structuralist drivel that was (very) briefly in circulation back in the early 1990’s.

    The debate currently taking place among British Muslims is not new. Similar debates have already occurred in Christendom, Judaism but that does not necessarily mean that British Muslims must repeat the same mistakes of the past. The idea of “reforming the flock” and “questioning authority and the clerics” is now like a very old hat and undeniably works a treat for those with pseudo-intellectual ambitions like Ramadan. In fact, “challenging the authorities” is all too easy and a convenient way of falsely claiming intellectual rights and misleading people. Unfortunately, pluralism is one of the great casualities of the 1990’s over-indulgence in post-modern verbiage. It’s meaning is now less known than it was back then.Recommend

  • Saj

    The problem arises when Islam is referred to ”traditional” or ”modern”, or ”old” or ”new”, if we truly believe that Islam is infact the truth, the perfect religion, then why does it need to be modified or altered as if we a try to branch out in another market and sell a product, so we need to rebrand it. In my opinion, Islam is not there to fit the rules and teaching of a certain political state, or society or the ”traditions” of a certain period of time in history, more so Islam’s and the prophets (peace be upon him) teachings are the basis for a perfect society, the problem is not in the texts or the ”tradional Islamic teachings” rather ourselves, why do we feel we have the need or the authority to attempt to change Islam to fit our needs, the Qur’anic text is from the time it was bestowed up untill the day of judgement, so if there was something that was relevant to a certain time period it would have stated it.

    And if by your view ”traditional Islam” simply means Islam from and earlier period, is faulted becsuse it was for a certain time, political state etc.. then does that mean the texts were interpreted for that time and place? And dare i say manipulated?

    I don’t believe that there’s any tradition or modern Islam, there’s culture and there’s Islam, what seems to be the problem is replacing the culture of old with the culture of new, there’s no issue with it’s time frame, or location, rather the current solcial situation.

    Why do we feel the need to continously re-assess Islamic teaching to fit our lifestyles, critique learned scholars of the past and present, we are ignorant (i include myself in this) in the teachings of Islam, yet we feel we have the right to challenge those who spent whole life-times studying Islam, you can have a Phd in politics but you wouldn’t attempt to crticise or correct a doctor attempting to heal a patient when you have no knowledge is the subject, anf if you would therein lie’s the problem!

    We need to stop trying to reasses, redress, or repackage Islam, and for what to fit our social position, political state, location and worse of all lifestyle, we shouldn’t change Islam to fit us, we need to change ourselves to fit Islam, its not in the need to modernising nor tranditionalising, simply de-cultralising!

    As for me, if ”traditional Islam” being Islam for a time closer to the time of the Prophet ”peace be upon him” then i favour traditional Islam, if not simply for the reason that it’s closer to the time of the prophet (peace be upon him), because id prefer anything that has a closer connection to the time of the prophet rather than the time of now, after all he is the perfect.Recommend

  • saj

    Has my post seriously just been deleted!?Recommend

  • faraz


    Well there are different interpretations of Quran and Hadees. Thats why we have so many sects and each sect is convinced that its interpretation is the right one. Traditional scholors gave fatwas against mathematics, clocks, printing press, chess, women education etc. It was fine in the medieval era but presently such interpretations are totally unacceptable to a rational mind. Quran and Sunnah has not delegated authority to any particular clergy to interpret Islam. And how is it possible that one school of thought is totally right or wrong in its interpretation of Islam. And who will decide what is right or what is wrong? Recommend

  • saj

    first i’ve heared about fatwa’s on mathmatics, clocks and printing press, especially since Islam has always had a focus on education, could you post any references, would like to read up on them.

    And if thats is so, it’s not an interpritation of the Qur’an it’s the involvement of culture, thats the issue there, the problem we have in this day and age, is the previous generations have misinterpreted culture for religion, and passed it down as so, ad when it come’s to the later generations because we a raised to believe thats it they are part of Islam, but when we discover that it’s cultural additions we forget thats thats what it actually is additions not their interpritation of the Qur’an and Sunnah, but their attempt to modify Islam to fit their own lifestyle.

    Kind of what ‘modernising Islam’ can seem to be seen as.

    What we need to do is go back to basics, like gettin our salat, zakat, and good character right, and not worry about trying to interpret it to fit present times and lifestyles.Recommend

  • Sara

    totally agree with you on the whole culture versus religion thing!
    i would love to see proof of the fatwas you were referring to, never heard of such stuff especially from well known scholars, not someone no one has ever heard of…Recommend

  • faraz

    @saj and Sara

    Imam Ghazali (one of the greatest Islamic Jurist, no ordinary scholar) in his book “Incoherence of Philosophers” has declared that mathematics is the work of devil, and Muslim philosophers Ibn Sina and Al-Farabi are heretics. Ibn Rushd (the greatest expert on Greek philosophy in medieval era) was banished from Cordova, his books were burnt and he was declared a heretic.

    The four great Imams made such extreme allegations against each other that i cant even mention in this blog. Obviously, there are major differences between Shia and Sunni school of thought; enough to declare each other as heretics. According to Imam Abu Hanifa, a person who doesnt offer Namaz should be imprisoned. Many Maliki and Shafi scholors believe that a person who doesnt offer Namaz should be killed. Modern day Alqaeda extremists often refer to Ibn Taimiyyah’s famous Mardin fatwa.

    Sheikh ul Islam, who was the foremost religious authority during Ottoman empire gave fatwas against clocks and printing press. He gave fatwas against modernization of army during the reign of Sultan Selim III,.For centuries clerics held that sun revolves around the earth. In 1993, Saudi Grand mufti Al Baaz declared that the earth is flat and whoever claims its round is an atheist. There are literally hundreds of strange fatwas. If you study all the different schools of thought, you’ll will be shocked with the wide range of differences of opionion.Recommend

  • a

    Hi AliRecommend