Abdal Hakim Murad - Authority within Islam
Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, born Timothy Winter, is currently the Shaykh Zayed Lecturer of Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University and Director of Studies in Theology at Wolfson College. He is a prolific writer and is engaged in several Muslim institutions and organisations.
He has written many historic treatises, translations (of Al Ghazali for example) and spiritual works. One of his latest books is Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions
Few people in the Islamic world bridge East and West, tradition and modernity the way Abdal Hakim Murad does. He studied and lectured at both Cambridge and Al-Azhar but he also sat at the feet of Sufi Shaykhs. He translated important classical works but he’s also a regular contributor in the British media. Yet what struck me the most, when I met him, was the way he combined vast knowledge and intellectual sharpness with straightforward humbleness.
Because of his experiences and expertise, I specifically wanted to talk to shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad about the evolutions of authority within the global ummah. As the old ‘centers of authority’ are either non-existent or lost the impact they once had, I hoped to learn from him which institutions or individuals are gradually becoming new points of reference. His eventual answer, however, wasn’t at all what I had expected...
It is often claimed Islam has no institutionalized authority but if we honestly look at history we can see that there have in fact always been certain ‘centers of authority’. The first khalifs, the Al-Azhar University, the scholars of Damascus, the Ottoman Sultan,… they have all been examples of concentrated authority. Today, however, it seems very difficult to find such centers or to assess the authority of the many different groups, institutions and individuals. Would you say then, that today’s situation is an anomaly in the history of Islam?
If you have a religion with ethics, that religion will want its ethics reflected in the laws and of course you can’t have a legal system and courts without having some structural authority. Yet in the early centuries, Islamic law – the sharia – was as decentered as it could possibly be. Each khadi was de facto independent and there was no statutory legislation.
In the nineteen century, however, the Ottomans had to reshape Islamic law into statutory law because in order to create a stable trading environment for their European partners they needed certain treaties and regulations . That led to the establishment of a code called the ‘Mecelle’. Nowadays many Muslims assume that Islamic law has always been statutory, but in fact it‘s a kind of ‘Westernization’. In the age before the state got involved with legislation it was something that grew from the ground up. Even more so, originally, the ulama represented the Muslims against the deprivations of the state. But once statutory law became the norm worldwide, it was impossible for the scholars to remain independent. Nowadays therefore, the ulama is often integrated into the state’s mechanisms. They have a hard job not becoming the state’s representatives, putting forward only those fatwa’s that the state approves. They’ve become a kind of ‘clerisy’ and are often seen as a part of a hypocritical bureaucracy. Hence the crisis of authority the ‘establishment ulama’ finds itself in.
Probably it leads to much corruption but I suppose corruption must also have existed in the days before the ulama was integrated into the state structures. Is that, theoretically speaking, really problematic? Is it, at its core, ‘un-islamic’? One could argue that it is just a different mode of organization.
The situation the traditional ulama sees us as being in at the moment is a kind of ‘emergency mode’. In traditional sharia terminology, such a time of emergency is called ‘nawazil’. That’s the category you apply when there is a huge political misfortune, such as the expulsion of the Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula by the Spanish Inquisition. All kind of new rulings come into place in such a period because if you followed the classical fiqh, you’d be killed. And since the models of many of our present societies are alien to the premises on which the traditional sharia rests, we are considered to be in such a nawazil period. The fall of the khalifat was another reason for considering the situation of emergency.
After a while, however, the unity of the community on the sensitive nawazil related issues becomes very doubtful. Certain people started to base their fatwa’s too much on their immediate political circumstances or their psychological state and stopped taking the consensus of hundreds of years of cautious scholars into consideration. As such, the angry man alone in a room with a scripture, in a sense, becomes more powerful than the scripture on its own. For the scripture in itself is quite tender, passive and vulnerable and can be twisted into serving any purpose – which is increasingly what we’re seeing.
If we look at the famous fatwa of Bin Laden against Jews and Crusaders, for instance, which authorizes every Muslim to kill any American combatant or non-combatant is phrased is baseless in terms of traditional Islamic argumentation, but all he had to do to spread his idea, was to throw his fatwa on the internet. This is something the traditional scholarship can’t really cope with because that scholarship is so non-hierarchical.
Would you say then, like some do, that Islam is in bit of a crisis or not?
The merit of the decentered model is to be seen in the fact that in spite of the talk of ‘the crisis of Islam’ or ‘what went wrong with Islam’ many mosques are still crowded until overflowing. Despite the decrepitude of the structures, the collapse of traditional Islamic education in many places, people still want Islam. I therefore don’t accept there is a crisis of Islam. Actually, I think Islam is the great religious success story of modernity. Ultimately you judge a religion and the validity of its truth claims on the basis of whether it is still appealing to people or not. And people keep converting to Islam.
The Islamic leadership, however, isn’t at all ready to assume a new position. Their discourse, theology or vision of history isn’t prepared for it. They are still in their nawazil mode of “what’s the latest headline and how do we panic next?” The cartoons, Israel, terror, … it’s all boiling, but the reality on the ground is that something is in fact working.
I have the feeling that many of the young people that find themselves right in the middle of the ‘boiling’ debates on identity, culture, religion and society don’t go to the traditional ulama, their mosques or the institutions of their community for advice. Instead they seem to turn to inspirational speakers like Tariq Ramadan, Amr Khaled, Hamza Yussuf, Zakir Naiq and many others who often draw big crowds. I'm not trying to assess their specific teachings or personalities here, but could it be said, in general, that such people are becoming somewhat new authoritative figures?
I don’t know. The penetration of their substantive ideas in the normative Muslim communities is very hard to map. It’s hard to see out there that there are mosques that ‘follow’ them or that there are organizations, websites or magazines that step in their line.
If you look at the younger generation in the UK, most of them still associate themselves with the traditional scholars of the subcontinent. They’re fiercely loyal. The number of Muslims who can detach themselves from their own religious upbringing and who are interested in something different with a more international character is probably very small – in the UK perhaps forty to fifty thousand all together. Some of them might attach themselves to certain charismatic speakers and those speakers can become big stars, so to speak, but there are also others who think the solution is a Salafi alternative - which has the advantages of being well funded and of having a strong presence on the internet. And the Salafis can of course do what they like because of the close ties the British government has with Saudi Arabia.
When I came to you, I had somehow hoped that to find out more about where the new centers of authority were really to be found in contemporary Islam. Yet I have the feeling that you think it’s all quite uncertain, that they are everywhere and nowhere at the moment.
Religion, as you know, is very hard to predict. So when anybody asks: “Where is it going?” I would have to answer: “God only knows.” The current situation would have been unguessable twenty years ago.
And where do you place yourself in all of it?
I’m simply an academic of Cambridge and I try my best to be involved in various projects on the local as well as the international level but it would surprise me that many Muslims in the UK have ever heard of me. I guess they know my brother a lot better since he’s a famous sports journalist.
Quite a modest answer, considering your standing among the international ulama. Your position might even surprise certain people since you’re an English convert who places himself within the Sufi tradition. Yet you’re not the first highly respected scholar I spoke to whose teachers have been Sufis so, by now, I came to the conclusion that Sufism isn’t at all such a ‘marginalized’ aspect of Islam as people often claim.
That’s true. If you look at the Ottoman Empire, for example, nobody ever was ‘against’ Sufism. This concept of Islam being anti-Sufi is there because of Saudi puritanism. But that’s a very recent evolution. And even Saudi Arabia is full of Sufis.
But it's above all important to remember that it’s not so much about Sufism itself. Sufism is just a name. The ultimate proof of the religion is the saints. They are the miraculous expressions of divine love. As such, the saint in Islam is the one who shows you the greatness of the prophet because his life meticulously conforms to the last detail of the sunna out of total love and surrender. The self is gone and only the prophetic form remains. The dignity, the ancient wisdom, the selflessness, the love for others… you see it in the prophet and you see it in the saint.
So the saints remind us that religion is about consciousness and remembrance now and in every moment. They remind us that it’s about constantly being in God.
When you see them, you discover what love is really all about. Our culture sings about love endlessly because it actually doesn’t have any of it. It became the basis of our society but it’s a kind of coitus interruptus: the slogan of ‘love is all you need’ is everywhere on the covers of magazines, in music and soap-opera’s but it’s not really there. People need it, they have the yearning, but nothing is giving it to them so they're sort of endlessly trying new things.
A saint is beyond that sort of narrow minded egocentrism and shows us what real divine love is about.
Could I conclude then that the true spiritual authorities in Islam, according to you, are in fact the saints?
Like I often say: “If you have not seen the saint, you have not seen the sunna.”
This text is an abridged version of a more in-depth conversation. The full text will be available in the Halal Monk book. Click here for more info.