I get it: these are difficult times. The celebrity sheikhs whose knowledge we respect behave like common buffoons, while any semblance of good behaviour, manners or humility is relegated to the common man, working in secular spaces. It’s true. There’s a mufti whose learning I greatly respect, whose insight I admire, who speaks the truth regardless of sectarian demands, but the vulgarity of his speech and his twisted sense of humour often repulse me. There’s a scholar, too, whose great learning could be a piercing light for these times, but through his infantile argumentation with his combative opponents, he has turned me away from him completely. Alas, untamed pride is a terrible disease amongst these men of profound knowledge.
Against this backdrop, naturally you think yourself a voice in the wilderness, a word of truth. Naturally you believe that it falls to you to use your growing influence to speak up to defend true, authentic Islam in the face of the sell-out scholars and white-knight saviours you imagine harangue you everywhere. Naturally it falls to you to be the voice of reason protecting Islam from corruption in the West. Thus do you preach to your thirty-thousand followers; thus do you duel with your multitudinous detractors. “No wonder they hate you,” coo your admirers: “because you speak the truth without compromise.” Yes, they say, your unpopularity is proof that you speak the truth.
I say: don’t run before you can walk.
A question: can a person who has been walking a particular path for little more than a decade really presume to speak for all travellers of all paths for all of history?
By your own admission — raised in a highly educated, but very secular home — you were ignorant of the basics of Islamic belief and practice until your late teens. Like many others, you found your faith at university as an undergraduate, where you embraced the Islam of your contemporaries. Now 32, you are celebrated by many for your uncompromising, unwavering defence of authentic, orthodox, traditional Islam, in the face of the ceaseless assault of liberal, progressive Muslims who are determined to undermine fourteen hundred years of Islamic belief. Your fight is the battle against the extinction of authentic Islam, everywhere under attack. In a decade and a half, you have travelled far: from total ignorance of your faith, to foremost defender of all that it stands for.
Frequently you appeal to fourteen hundred years of Islamic history, and to billions of Muslims and their beliefs. The beliefs of Muslims today are juxtapositioned to that grand legacy, which you believe yourself uniquely positioned to defend. But how? You seem blithely unaware of the Islam of 2003 or 1998, let alone fourteen centuries back through time.
Here is something I find interesting: I frequently sit with a humble man who has dedicated his life to pursuing the knowledge of Islam. He was fifteen when he first read the whole of the Qur’an. It was the start of his lifelong pursuit of learning, which caused him to travel the world, sitting at the feet of scholars in many lands, memorising sacred texts by heart, obtaining permission to pass on the learning of ages to a new generation. Forty years walking this path have led to this: he does not appeal to the certainty of fourteen hundred years of history or the beliefs of billions of people.
History is there to be studied — and it should be — but it often stands witness against us. Certainly it stands witness against our strong convictions in authenticity. Many of us Muslims raised as Christians could easily pontificate on the early history of Christianity when the message of Jesus of Nasareth was transformed by the demands of an imperial state, but would proffer apologetics in the face of the civil wars, rising dynasties, conquests and sectarian influences that characterised the first century after the death of the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.
In time you may find the whitewashed, airbrushed history of Islam, popularised in romantic televisions dramas, less satisfying, no longer easy to digest. In time you may discover that the thing you call authentic Islam does not and has never really existed in the form that you describe it, and that what you are defending is really just the understanding of groups of scholars based on their understanding of their preferred scholars, based on circumstances, fomented by the cultures and politics of a particular time.
In the early years, I too held to certainties like you, and could be found preaching my particular kind of wisdom founded on religious propaganda, minuscule learning and a large dose of over-confident ignorance. To the new believer, everything is so clear and clearcut. Spend some time in the company of those that have travelled the road of learning for forty years or more, and gradually you discover that this faith of ours is not just like a rose that you pick from your garden. Instead, you have to pursue it patiently, struggling hard to find your way.
It may just be that some of the positions you attack in defence of your authenticity are perfectly valid. It may be that you one day discover than what you hold to as orthodoxy are merely understandings. It may just be that in your defence of whatever it is that you defend, you are not defending true Islam at all. It may just be that now is not the time to preach to the masses. It may just be that now is the time to start out on the long road, humbly acknowledging that you, like me, know nothing. We are brothers in faith. Let us set out on that road together.