Last week, Fiyaz Mughal of Faith Matters blogged on Huffington post about the need for the British Muslim community to have a ‘Chief-Rabbi’ type figure, on the basis that Muslims are continually asked about who speaks on their behalf, coupled with the fact that there is a lack of an authoritative public voice who can ‘speak out’ on issues such as terrorism and Islamophobia. We are warned that until we have such a figure, charlatans will fill this void who are more interested in making a name for themselves, as opposed to working in the interests of the Muslim community.
Mughal’s idea is certainly an interesting one, although the assertion that a ‘Chief-Mufti’ would merely be a spokesperson for the Muslim community suggests that Mr Mughal hasn’t fully considered the role of an Islamic scholar in Muslim society. Indeed, I remember having a similar discussion with a close friend not too long ago on the issue of whether we’d be better off with a ‘Grand Mufti of Britain’. Whilst I think Mughal has raised an interesting point for discussion, his piece leaves the reader with many more questions than answers. Establishing the position of ‘Chief Imam’ or ‘Grand Mufti’ would be a very challenging task indeed.
To gain a brief snapshot into some of these difficulties, there was an interesting discussion on the topic that took place on Yahya Birt’s Facebook wall following this piece. The point was made that the concept of an overarching leader of Muslims isn’t a new one in Britain; Abdullah Quilliam was of course given the title of ‘Sheikh-ul-Islam’ of Britain. However whilst this sets a precedent for such a position, the small Muslim community at the time of Quilliam was very different to the very heterogeneous community we have today. In light of this, some made the point that Muslims in Britain are simply too divided to unite behind one figure. If someone were to take this position, he would have to be an individual ‘tolerable’ to the various sects within Islam. To circumvent this problem, others suggested that there should be a council of representatives from the various branches of Islam, where they can attempt to come to some sort of consensus on issues. Then of course there is the issue of jurisprudence; which school of Islamic Jurisprudence would this figure employ? Would he be from the majority Hanafi school of the UK, or would be perhaps follow the Maliki School (which ironically doesn’t really recognise a ‘Chief Mufti’ figure).
Personally I feel there are two key questions which must be answered, well before grappling with the discussions mentioned above. Firstly, who would appoint such a figure, and secondly how would they be identified? Which individuals would be given the responsibility of appointing the candidate? How would one ensure that these individuals were being objective, without there being any conflict of interest? Moreover, would the candidate require ‘approval’ from senior members of our secular ‘Government’ prior to appointment? Should it be an appointment based on the Muslim populous voting for the person they wish to be represented by?
In discussing how such an individual would be identified, the issue centres around how we recognise candidates who have the necessary level of scholarship to take on this role. What is it that makes somebody a scholar? Is it really a simple case of spending a few years at a foreign institution of some sort that produces aalims and muftis as a ‘batch-process’, or is it the lifelong journey an individual goes through, travelling various continents in pursuit of the tutelage of great scholars in theology and jurisprudence in order to add to one’s scholastic richness? Perhaps it’s a combination of both these points? Above all though, how would we ascertain whether the individual in question had really internalised their Shar’i studies to the extent that they were able to apply their skills in Islamic theology and legal reasoning in a British context, illustrating that they have the ability to articulate solutions to the many sociopolictal issues Muslims face living in Britain, in line of course with the principles of Islam?
Above all though, my greatest fear of such a position is that the appointed person would merely become a mouthpiece for the Government to the Muslim community. In the modern world, we see this to be the case; from Egypt to Saudi Arabia the Mufti is a figure who generally supports the Government, and aims to convince the masses on the positions of the Government through the use of theological jargon. If, as Yahya Birt suggests, the Mufti of Britain would in some respects be carrying on the legacy of Abdullah Quilliam, then one would hope that this figure would be as bold as Quilliam was, that he would be a learned individual and a true leader who would not be afraid to speak the truth, even if that goes against the views of the establishment.