In my time at university – over the past three or four years – I’ve come across some of the dynamics of growing religious awareness or identity, predominantly spreading in Muslim youth circles in the form of ‘dawah giving’. Dawah is basically inviting people outside of Islam to learn about Islam and not to convert people as is commonly believed (as Islamically understood, God’s power alone causes the heart of the individual to accept the faith [Qur’an 28:56]). However, with the way dawah is carried out by prominent groups and figures nowadays, I’d forgive a person for believing the latter – something I will discuss later in this post.
One of the interesting things about active Muslim groups giving dawah in the UK is that they mostly consist of young people. It seems that the university environment has brought about a vibe of activism among Muslim youth through Islamic Societies (ISOCs) – part of the bigger Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) – and events such as ‘Discover Islam Week’ and ‘Charity Week’ to give a few examples of campus activity. But such dynamics aren’t just confined to campuses. It would be difficult not to have noticed the rise in outward shows of religious identity among young people post-9/11, for example just the fact that you can see so many girls wearing the headscarf today, which in itself is a huge change from the way things were a couple of decades ago. It seems our generation has moved away from the Islamic practice of many of our elders; those who either kept within their own cultural and social circles because of their disconnection from ‘British society’, or else the Islam of those who have not much of it left because of their zeal to enter into the ‘modern day’ and assimilate into the majority culture – whatever that means.
The Islamic Dawah circle
The dawah circle is easier to analyse in an area with a small Muslim population which is becoming more active in terms of community involvement. For this reason, my analysis here – although writing on a general basis – is alluding more to the cities in the northern part of England where the Muslim communities are of this nature. Examples of activities within them include Islamic public talks for both Muslims and non-Muslims, stalls for dawah on the high street, charity dinners, street bucket collections, school visits to mosques, inter-faith dialogue meetings, and even ‘counter-terrorism’ workshops. Religious institutions work successfully outside of formal power in secular societies (Dawson 1998). What we find is that pluralism enables the growth of religions other than the one historically associated with the state (in the case of the UK that would be Christianity). The growing religious activity has led to the development of dawah-giving and charity-fundraising – a pair which has gone hand-in-hand among Christian social circles as well. What has arisen amongst all this – which has indeed made the dawah-giving and charity-fundraising possible – is an institutional set-up within the city.
It would be logical to say that an institutional set-up has naturally come about because of the need of a level of efficiency and ease of networking in the Muslim community. This is logical and somewhat true, however, what we also find is that the institutional set-up is an instrument of the dominating organisation in the city specifically to push forward its approach; indeed, the organisation is a catalyst to the development of this set-up and would not have helped develop it if it weren’t for its own purpose. You could say that my point here sounds negative towards such an organisation; however what needs to be understood here is that no dawah organisation can call itself ‘neutral’, for what does neutral even mean? Does it mean that the Islamic dawah organisation accepts all beliefs? It can’t do that, neither would it seek to. Even with its charity involvement, a dawah organisation cannot be neutral when at the same time presenting a finalised and narrowed set of descriptions regarding the religious belief (its own understandings of that religious belief) it pushes across. The only form in which an Islamic organisation would not be of such a nature is if it is presenting and at the same time accumulating knowledge without any kind of discrimination related to dispositions or sects. In terms of the type of dominant organisations this post discusses, I would not call their approach or workings as being owned by a sect as such; however it is the result of a specific disposition which I will come to later. Before that, however, I’d like to look at the nature of the organisation and its growth within the city and beyond.
The Business Model of Dawah-Giving
Although the religious organisation would deny working like a business, the similarities are apparent and interesting. Many social scientists say that the working of religion in society follows rational choice perspectives (Sherkat & Ellison 1999). Although I won’t get into the details here, rational choice perspectives are based on the idea that religious institutions are like markets that
‘involve exchanges for general supernatural compensators, promises of future rewards and supernatural explanations for life events and meaning…Like other commodities, religious goods are produced, chosen, and consumed.’ (Sherkat & Ellison 1999, p.378)
While I don’t agree with everything in this theory, I think it still provides some useful analysis for Islamic organisations. In the economic market, the goal of any business is for expansion. Without any regulation, a business can monopolise. What we find in a small Muslim population is that the dawah organisation can do this quite successfully, as has been the situation in cities up north. What could have begun as a small community initiative may quickly become a prominent organisation with government support if the organisation takes a hold of specific funding opportunities such as the anti-terrorism campaign the government has focused on in recent years. With this campaign, an organisation can claim that its role is to promote supposedly the ‘right message’ of Islam and not one that would encourage extremism – and with such a goal it can claim legitimacy.
Within a small city, a dawah organisation can monopolise quite easily if it is the first initiative in that location. Any competing organisations will be met with antagonism and disapproval spread via word-of-mouth, especially if they promote specific Muslim speakers who do not subscribe to the approach of the former. It is not in the interest of the dominant organisation that another hosts events in the city – especially if it has a different approach – and so as soon as the dominant organisation finds out about an outside event, just as a business would, it works to undercut the competition by hosting its own with more glamorised speakers and a heavier advertising campaign.
Further to the business model, dominant organisations have also become scrupulous in their event planning. Through extensive networking it has been possible for them to create a presence in universities, using the ISOCs of these universities to advertise their events. For example, if they have an event coming up, a week or so beforehand the organisation could arrange for their volunteers to hand out leaflets outside of Friday congregations in the university mosques (in the time of the week when numbers are the highest) and have their volunteers deliver the Friday sermon, thereby having the opportunity to announce their event. The connection between the North East ISOCs and dawah organisations has become quite extensive as the dawah organisations now make use of the opportunities given to university societies, as well as their contact lists. Just this year, a dawah organisation was allowed a presence on ISOC freshers’ stalls in the North East which are meant to invite students to become members of the ISOC (the ISOC itself being a society for Muslim students to meet and get involved in events outside of the university drinking culture etc.). The dawah organisation’s main focus, however, was to use its dawah techniques in order to gain converts among the non-Muslim students. Why is this kind of activity an issue?
The Nature of Contemporary Dawah
The monopolising business model of dawah-giving discussed above is not at all relevant to every Islamic institution in the UK, but is specific to a certain type. This certain type is of a disposition which will be discussed in this section and the next.
The nature of dawah that I’ve seen dominating the sphere of a great many ‘Muslim apologists’ or ‘da’ees’ (givers of dawah) today is largely to do with what they themselves call Salafism. The Salaf are the first three generations of believers after the Prophet (salallahu alaiyhi wasallam) brought the message of Islam, and a Salafi is the one who claims to follow their way. By this definition (because all Muslims are trying to follow the predecessors), Salafis may make the claim that “all Muslims are Salafis” (Farahat 2012, p.46) in order to create a legitimate identity for themselves (Farhat 2012) – however this can be taken as an inclusive statement or an exclusive one i.e. you either follow a specifically defined ‘way of the Salaf’ or you’re outside of Islam.
Omar Farahat (in his article listed at the end of this piece) writes;
‘The very early tendency in Islamic societies to narrate and conserve prophetic traditions, which, in the second century of Islam, matured into a science of narration and authentication of the prophetic sayings and actions, is Salafi in this broadest of senses.’ (Farahat 2012, p.46)
The desire to go back to the original message, without any kind of divergence or complications has meant that the science of narration has supposedly been perfected by the Salafi to present a black and white picture, a straightforward colouring of what is right and wrong, and how everything should be interpreted and understood. From this analysis I would not call the Salafis a sect as such, but a disposition because their behaviour is based on a general approach/way of thinking as opposed to a fixed and concrete ideology. However, if we were to go deeper into specific groups of Salafis, then perhaps one could talk about sects, but this is not an area I have personally delved into to be able to write about it. Anyway, no matter how much they claim to be following the predecessors, Farahat writes that an important difference is that the earlier tradition of Muslims saw conflicts and debates between the learned as opposed to the black and white, literalist attitude of the Salafis.
Contrary to popular understandings, a Salafi favourite to quote, Ibn Taymiyya, based his legal-ethical positions on ‘complex and theological and epistemological theories that modern-day Salafis are largely uninterested in and most likely incapable of dealing with’ (Farahat 2012, p.46). Further to this, Farahat gives examples of scholars of the past using sophisticated explanations and study which looked into the human condition and metaphysics to come to conclusions such as a ruling on the permissibility/impermissibility of listening to music for example, presenting extensive writing on such matters as opposed to the ad hoc passing of verdicts which occur now in a manner unheard of among previous Islamic knowledge circles.
The extensive research and knowledge building, in-depth discussion and understandings of epistemology which are missing today means that dawah has also taken on countless flawed approaches by organisations at the fore-front of passing the message of Islam onto both Muslims and non-Muslims. Further to the business strategy of expansion discussed above, dawah has been simplified and packaged in order to efficiently pass it onto non-Muslims. These organisations are part of a wider body of ‘da’ees’ who have established their own techniques on how to present Islam in the West (see; Shaykh Mahmud, 2013). The ‘dawah 101’ style workshops many contemporary Islamic organisations are putting their volunteers robotically into look to create a basic format from which to present Islam to a non-Muslim with a method similar to the way in which you would teach a child how to work out simple maths equations. Their arguments include straw-man explanations such as; if something like a chair has a creator, then humans must have a creator too.
Some of the Issues with this Disposition
Since much of the intellectual thought and lack of faith in religion in the contemporary world has been dominated by scientific rationale, dawah by such organisations has of course used science to try to legitimise itself in the face of opposition, specifically using science to verify the Qur’an (Shaykh Mahmud, 2013). I won’t go into the details on the problems with such a method (please check out the brilliant paper listed below; ‘An Analysis of Hamza Tzortzis’ paper on the Qur’an and so-called Scientific Miracles’), however the flaws of dawah based on scientific rationale should be quite obvious if we realise that the Qur’an was not sent as a verification of scientific discoveries in order to prove its Truth. Also, when individuals are taking to the stage in order to call scientific theories shirk or saying that certain Qur’anic verses describe the scientific processes (Shaykh Mahmud, 2013), not only are they revealing their own misunderstandings of ayat, but also showing naivety in relation to science itself. This kind of naivety is common-place among speakers who do not have sufficient knowledge regarding the intellectual fields they are refuting (indeed they have no qualification in those fields at all) (Shaykh Mahmud 2013).
Along with this, the dominant Salafi disposition also rejects certain scholars because they have delved into knowledge areas that ‘may lead an individual astray’. For example, a Salafi criticism of one of the most important scholars of Islamic history, Imam Al Ghazali, is that some of his work is based on ‘philosophy’ (another term Salafis apply simplistic definitions to) and so must be rejected. However, if the Salafis who hold such an opinion of Al Ghazali were to carry out more research they would find that the term ‘philosophy’ in the time of Al Ghazali was used for different fields of knowledge; Maths and the Natural Sciences were also under the category of ‘philosophy’. Imam Al Ghazali incredibly mastered the fields of his time; he wrote a book named Maqasid al falasifa (Aims of Philosophers) which gave a clear understanding of the philosophies, and then a second book named Tahafut al-Falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers) which was a critique of them. With the knowledge he accumulated from these fields and his intensive study of Islam he wrote his famous Ihya ulum al-din (Revival of Religious Sciences) which is evidence of his phenomenal understanding of the human condition and how Islam can remedy the flaws of the individual.
The problem with dominating dawah organisations who forward their literalist and simplistic understandings of Islam and the world around them is that they also present their message in a narrowed way to non-Muslims. The idea of there being a set way of presenting Islam to someone i.e. first you talk about Tawhid – the oneness of God (which is in actual fact a simplified understanding of Tawhid), and then you talk about this, and then you talk about that, is problematic. People throughout their lives have different questions for which they seek answers, and those answers can’t be given in a ten minute briefing which runs through an ‘all-you-need-to-know-manual’ of Islam, complete with memorised clichés of cut down definitions and explanations. Along with the issue of presenting Islam this way, the business-like approach of the Islamic organisation looks to get more members on board as well as showing its own legitimacy and control by ‘converting’ as many non-Muslims as it can. Often events held by the organisation and the ones it takes over on campuses become public demonstrations of how many people the organisation has converted in the week. In this way dawah (which doesn’t mean to convert people) becomes a simplified pitch to get definite results (conversions).
Alternatives can only come about if the foundation of such organisations is questioned and denied as being the common-sense – indeed the only – approach to Islam they posit themselves as being. Their disposition is one of narrowed knowledge, and the business-like opportunistic techniques used to spread their message show their destructive nature as monopolising forces which refuse to allow any other approach. Along with this, such organisations demonise opposing voices or differing opinions by accusing them of being innovations (bid’ah) which are outside of Islam, and reject forms of knowledge seen as too complex for their own simplistic method. However, an alternative can come from scholars (such as the likes of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Abdal Hakim Murad [Shaykh Mahmud, 2013]) using their lifetimes to study intensely the rich history of Islamic knowledge built up through the lineages of the learned that modern generations unfortunately don’t know much about. Studies into the human condition, metaphysics, linguistics, poetry, social sciences, historical and political analysis of the Islamic legacy – all of these are examples of areas into which we must delve, and delve deeply, in order to know about the nuances of Islam. We must want to expand our knowledge and better ourselves instead of settling for simplistic quick-fixes. When we take such steps we can work to challenge the monopolising presences claiming to represent us and have other voices speak.
Dawson, L. (1998), ‘Anti-Modernism, Modernism, and Postmodernism: Struggling with the Cultural Significance of New Religious Movements’, Sociology of Religion, Vol. 59, No. 2, pp.131-156
Farahat O. (2012), ‘Being Salafi: Modernity’s Neglected Children’ in The Arab Revolutions: Hopes, Challenges and Transitions, Arches Quarterly, Vol.6 No.10, pp.45-51
Qur’an 28:56 (Surah:Ayah), ‘Indeed, [O Muhammad], you do not guide whom you like, but Allah guides whom He wills. And He is most knowing of the [rightly] guided.’ (http://quran.com/28/56)
Shaykh Mahmud (2013), ‘An Analysis of Hamza Tzortzis’ paper on the Qur’an and so-called Scientific Miracles’, MuslimAnswers.net (http://muslimanswers.net/2013/09/20/an-analysis-of-hamza-tzortzis-paper-on-the-quran-and-so-called-scientific-miracles/)
Sherkat, D. & Ellison, C. (1999), ‘Recent Developments and Current Controversies in the Sociology of Religion’, Annual Reviews Sociology, Vol. 25, pp.363-394