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Ahmad Bamba: “The only weapons I will use to fight my enemies are pen and ink”

“Currently, there is a global battle under way for the soul of Islam. Why? What and where are the battle lines? Who will win? And how does this affect the West?” While much ink has been spilled on the topic of a supposed “clash of civilisations” between the West and the Muslim world, Ed Husain thinks that the key struggle of our time is within Islam itself. The battle lines in this struggle, as he describes it in his new book The House of Islam, are clearly demarcated. On the one side stand the radical Islamists, who adhere to the puritanical and exclusivist theology of Salafism or Wahhabism (the Saudi version of Salafism), and seek to establish a harsh version of God’s rule upon earth through jihad. On the other stand traditional, conservative Muslims, who, if they are Sunnis, adhere to the rationally-minded Ash’ari school of theology, take their knowledge of the sharia from one of the four traditional schools of law (and are perfectly comfortable with the existence of the other three), and practise a form of piety heavily influenced by Sufism, the spiritual or mystical dimension of Islam, just as most Muslims did in the age of the Ottoman and Mughal empires.

Those who know Husain’s autobiography The Islamist (2007) will know that he has stood at one time or another on both sides of this divide. As a teenager he joined the Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir, whose principal goal is to establish a global caliphate, before he saw the light and returned to the Sufi-inspired Islam of his Bengali parents. Together with Maajid Nawaz, another former Hizb-ut-Tahrir member (whose own memoir Radical is a complementary and equally engaging account of the radicalisation process), he founded the prominent UK-based anti-extremist organisation Quilliam, and has since consistently argued for a peaceful, open-minded form of Islam that is compatible with the West.

Of course, Husain’s neat depiction of the Islamic battle of ideas is something of an oversimplification. As the Russian scholar of Sufism Alexander Knysh has demonstrated, Sufis and Salafis do not neatly correspond to peace-loving mystics and militant jihadists. Husain himself dwells upon the Sufi affiliations of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, historically the most prominent Islamist organisation in the Arab world  and which has often been linked to jihadist violence. Yet, at a low-resolution level (to use a term now being popularised by Jordan Peterson), Husain’s dichotomy is a helpful one. The world would certainly be a much better place if those young Muslims who were attracted to IS or Hizb-ut-Tahrir instead found meaning and spiritual succour in the Qadiri, Naqshbandi or Chishti Sufi orders, or devoted themselves to the study of Hanafi or Shafi‘i jurisprudence or Ash’arite theology.
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