Imam Shakeel Begg vs the BBC



May the peace and blessings of Allah (swt) be upon sayyidina Muhammad and upon his noble Ahlul Bayt. Whosoever Allah guides none can misguide and whosoever Allah leads astray there is none that can guide them. All good is in holding fast to the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of his last and final Messenger (saw) and whosoever abandons these has chosen the path to perdition.


The Prophet (saw) once declared the scholars to be the inheritors of the prophets. Upon his passing it was eminent companions such as Abdullah ibn Abbas – the famous Qur’anic exegete – Ali and Abdullah ibn Masud (may Allah be pleased with them all) who assumed the responsibility of disseminating the authentic understandings of the Qur’an and Sunnah as they had received them from their beloved teacher. Those who in turn acquired this knowledge at the feet of these noble companions passed them down to their students and so it continued through the generations until this day. The responsibilities laid upon the ulema are numerous, of which one is the duty to publicly confront attempts by the authorities to foist heterodox interpretations of the noble Qur’an and Sunnah upon the community. It matters not whether the authority in question is Muslim – such as it was in the celebrated case of Imam Ahmad (may Allah have mercy upon him) or as it currently is in parts of Syria and Iraq – or non-Muslim as is the case here in Britain.

In stark contrast to the fortitude exhibited by the aforementioned Imam sadly most (by no means all) British ulema have exhibited an acute pusillanimity in their discharge of this sacred duty and so it is left to the laity, individuals such as myself, with limited religious schooling to speak out in defence of Islam. With regards to what follows it might be pertinent to note here that I am not of the Salafi denomination myself.

With respect to the recent judgement passed down by Justice Haddon-Cave in the case of the libel action brought by the esteemed imam of Lewisham Islamic Centre, Shakeel Begg against the BBC, I wish to make the following observations:

  1. What constitutes “Islamic extremism” is a question which must be examined through the prism of normative Islamic belief. In this I am in agreement with the court’s determination: ‘The analysis  of  what  is  “extreme” and  what  are  “extremist  Islamic  positions”  is, therefore, necessarily to be judged initially through the prism of Islam.’
  2. Questions of Islamic law and theology and specifically of what constitutes extremism in these spheres are the remit of Muslim scholars and it is for them to adjudicate upon.
  3. The judgement in several places refers to “mainstream Islam” and it is to this very same current of thought that I appeal throughout the course of this communique. While individual scholars can err the concept of ijma, or consensus, limits the adverse effects of such shortcomings by invalidating opinions the consensus deems batil [false].
  4. With respect to Dr Matthew Wilkinson, the BBC’s appointed expert and whose opinions justice Haddon-Cave has clearly favoured, he is not qualified to issue Islamic legal opinions. Furthermore his Qur’anic interpretations and doctrinal pronouncements, as reported in the judgement, violate centuries of established scholarly consensus. I note that neither of his alma maters (Trinity College, Cambridge and Kings College, University of London), are recognised Islamic seminaries capable of imparting the breadth and detail of knowledge that is a prerequisite for issuing doctrinal or juridical opinions and I am unaware of any scholar who has issued him with an ijaza (permission) to do the same.
  5. To expect Muslims to concede to the opinion of a non-Muslim judge on the Qur’an is as unreasonable as demanding members of the Jewish community accept the interpretations of non-Jewish judges on the Torah or their ruling on matters of Halakhic law.
  6. Regarding Salafism Dr Wilkinson notes: “Salafists are inclined to ignore the contextual understandings of Islam as developed by the four Canonical Schools of Islamic Law and sometimes ‘cherry-pick’ verses of the Qur’an and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad to form religious-legal judgments without the necessary contextual reasoning (asbab an-nuzul).”

Firstly it should be noted that the Qur’anic verses and Ahadith that form the basis of many Islamic legal rulings do indeed each have a particular asbab an-nuzul (‘cause of revelation’). However, it is a fact known by any student of usul ul-fiqh (the foundations of jurisprudence) that the rulings that emanate from these texts are aam (‘general’) in their applicability unless there is an evidence to restrict them. Were this not the case then the vast majority of Islamic jurisprudence would be rendered defunct. Secondly it is worth noting the appeal to the four Canonical Schools of Islamic law (the four madhaib) that are relied upon by mainstream Islam. In the core topics at the heart of this case there is very little, if any, disagreement between the interpretations of Salafi scholars and those of the four schools.

Justice Haddon-Cave adopted the following definition of “moderate Islam”: “those  ideas,  doctrines  and  worldviews  consensually  agreed  by  Sunni and Shia’ Islamic   Law   Muslim   scholars,   mainstream  Salafi scholars   and   Muslims, generally to constitute the essential doctrines, teachings and spirit of Islam, according to Qur’an and Sunna, applied  in  such  a  way  as  to  be  suitable  for  the  context  of  contemporary Britain”

While it is true that traditional Islamic scholarship does indeed take into account the exigencies of time and place when formulating legal verdicts it is similarly true that there exists a core set of “ideas, doctrines and worldviews” which remain timeless and immutable. In mainstream Islam one of the defining distinctions between the Prophethood of Muhammad (saw) and of those who preceded him is that his message is universal and applicable up until the dawn of the final hour. It is germane to note the increasing efforts in recent years to fashion a “British Islam”, one which supposedly reconciles Qur’anic precepts with modern secular-liberal values. Such attempts (fronted by state sponsored so-called “Muslim reformists”) are not only futile but also highly counterproductive; they give rise to an increased sense of alienation and resentment amongst the mainstream Muslim community.

7. In his judgement the Justice Haddon-Cave catalogued a list of supposedly extremist views (or indicia thereof) :

  • A Manichean view of the world which divides people into Muslim and Kuffar. The dogma of  extra Ecclesiam nulla salus common to both the Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches could also be regarded as engendering a ‘Manichean view of the world’. The orthodox Jewish division of people into Jews and Goyim is very much analogous to the Islamic concept of Muslim and Kafir. One must question then why it is only Muslims who are subject to charges of extremism for espousing such a view?

Also referenced are the twin terms Dar ul-Kufr and Dar ul-Islam, terms which figure prominently in any classical treatise on Islamic political thought.  Regarding the distinction between belief and disbelief, between believers and disbelievers and the interminable conflict between the two then this constitutes one of the Qur’an’s defining motifs.

“Nay, We fling (send down) the truth (this Qur’an) against the falsehood (disbelief), so it destroys it, and behold, it (falsehood) is vanished.” [TMQ 21:18]

“They desire to put out the Light of Allah with their mouths, but Allah rejects and He insists that His Light prevails even if the Kuffar detest it. It is He Who has sent His Messenger with the Guidance and the Deen of Truth to make it prevail over all other ways, even if the Mushrikoon detest it.” [TMQ 61:8-9]

“When ye travel through the earth, there is no blame on you if ye shorten your prayers, for fear the Unbelievers May attack you: For the Unbelievers are unto you open enemies.” [TMQ 4:101]

“O Prophet! strive hard against the unbelievers and the Hypocrites, and be firm against them.Their abode is Hell,- an evil refuge indeed.” [TMQ 9:73]

  • The Shariah often confers an exclusive import upon many Arabic words which excludes many of their ordinary lexical definitions. One example would be salah, which in the lexicon of classical Arabic is synonymous with du’a (supplication) but in the Shariah terminology exclusively refers to a formal five-daily act of worship. Whilst jihad can linguistically refer to any struggle and some scholars have indeed referred to the purification of the heart as a form of jihad, within the nomenclature of the Shariah the word jihad refers exclusively to qital (warfare) – be it offensive or defensive.
  • While a discussion on the topic of jihad, its rules and regulations is far beyond the scope of this article the idea that it is fard kifayah (communal obligation) except when one is personally under attack is simply not correct. The word kifayah or “sufficiency” itself gives lie to such a restrictive interpretation as in cases where there is clearly a deficiency in respect of manpower or resources the obligation widens to those capable of assisting. It was for this reason that thousands of volunteers travelled (with the approval and support of Western governments) to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight the Soviet occupation. Furthermore to negate the applicability of the term to such insurgencies is something the overwhelming majority of mainstream Islamic scholars would reject.
  • Point 125 states that “In mainstream Islam, however, ‘People of the Book’, i.e. Christians and Jews, are not classed as kuffar”. This is simply incorrect unless one expels from the mainstream over a millennium of Islamic scholarship. To cite one example, the 13th century (CE) Syrian savant known popularly as Imam Nawawi and counted amongst the highest authorities in Islamic law and hadith [prophetic traditions] by all Sunni denominations, states the following: “And the one who does not declare kafir the ones who profess a deen [religion] other than Islam, such as the Christians, or doubts in the takfeer [declaring kafir] of such people, or authenticates [or praises] their religion, he is a kafir even if he displays Islam alongside this or [claims & shows he] believes in it.” The Qur’an itself refers to the disbelief of those who espouse particular doctrines e.g. the Trinity or the divinity of Jesus (peace be upon him).

Furthermore the Prophet (saw) stated in an authentic hadith:

“By the One in Whose hand is the soul of Muhammad, there is no-one of this Ummah, Jew or Christian, who hears of me then dies without believing in that with which I have been sent, but he will be one of the people of Hell.” [Sahih Muslim]

  • Point 126 of the judgement refers to “the extreme  Salafist Islamism  doctrine  that  the  precepts  of  the  Muslim  faith  negate and supersede all other natural ties, such as those of family, kinship and nation.  This  is  redolent  of  the  extreme  Salafist Islamist  outlook  which  cites  absolute,  irreconcilable differences between belief (iman) and unbelief (kufr)”

Far from being an “extreme Salafist Islamist doctrine” it is in fact one expounded explicitly in the Qur’an:

“O you who believe! Take not for Auliya’ (supporters and helpers) your fathers and your brothers if they prefer disbelief to Belief. And whoever of you does so, then he is one of the Zalimun (wrong-doers, etc.). Say: If your fathers, your sons, your brothers, your wives, your kindred, the wealth that you have gained, the commerce in which you fear a decline, and the dwellings in which you delight are dearer to you than Allah and His Messenger, and striving hard and fighting in His Cause , then wait until Allah brings about His Decision (torment).” [TMQ 9:23-24]

The irreconcilability of iman and kufr has already been dealt with but it is perhaps apposite to cite the famous surah Kaafiroon (disbelievers) of the Qur’an:

‘Say (O Muhammad () to these Mushrikun and Kafirun): “O Al-Kafirun (disbelievers in Allah, in His Oneness, in His Angels, in His Books, in His Messengers, in the Day of Resurrection, and in Al-Qadar, etc.)!

I worship not that which you worship,

Nor will you worship that which I worship.

And I shall not worship that which you are worshipping.

Nor will you worship that which I worship.

To you be your religion, and to me my religion (Islamic Monotheism).’ [TMQ 109:1-6]

  • Point 127 lists a ninth example of supposed extremist behaviour: “the  citing  with  approval  the  fatwa (legal  opinions)  of  Islamic  scholars  who  espouse extremist view ( e.g. the Salafi-Wahabi scholar, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz), or referring with approbation to notorious violent, extremist, Islamic ideologues (e.g. Sayyid Qutb and Abdullah Azzam).”  

The juridical opinions of the late Salafi scholar Abdul Aziz bin Baz are regarded by the entire Salafi community as authoritative. While certain of his verdicts might be disputed by Muslim scholars of other denominations (and sometimes even by those within the Salafi sect) the charge of extremism has never been levelled at him by any credible scholar. To adopt such a position renders tens of thousands of peaceable British Muslims “extremists”.

With respect to the personalities of Sayyid Qutb and Abdullah Azzam then their actions and statements deserve to be viewed in the context of the socio-political milieu they operated in. This is a courtesy that is granted to almost all other historical figures in the evaluation of their legacies. In the 17th century Oliver Cromwell suppressed Irish dissent with merciless brutality, decimating the towns of Drogheda and Wexford in the process. Yet despite this his statue adorns the lawn outside the House of Commons. In more recent times Churchill’s visceral racism (“I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion”), his callous indifference to the starvation of three million during the Bengal famine, his views on the use of poison gas on “uncivilised tribes” and his attitude towards non-Europeans in general would today stand condemned as those of a white supremacist extremist. Yet in 2002 a nationwide poll selected him as the greatest Briton of all time. One wonders whether the 447,423 individuals who voted for him will also be designated extremists? The first prime minister of Israel, Menachem Begin was a wanted violent terrorist during the  British mandate in Palestine – will those who refer to him with approbation similarly be categorised as extremists?

To limit this communique to a mere critique of one judgement would, however, be to miss the bigger picture, namely that it comes against the backdrop of a mounting assault on the values, precepts and mores of millions of law-abiding Muslims. The incessant, suffocating scrutiny and obloquy faced today by religiously conservative Muslims is redolent of the treatment not so long ago meted out to another minority community.  Yes, Islam – as understood and practised by the mainstream – does not equate to liberalism. For sure there are aspects of Islamic theology and jurisprudence which might not sit so well with the majority but to treat its adherents as pariahs, and increasingly as outlaws, is to sow the seeds of communal unrest. To effectively proscribe the beliefs of normative mainstream Islam is to set Britain upon the same course adopted by the German state 80 years ago.

Islam – again as understood by the mainstream – rejects the use of indiscriminate or targeted violence against civilians. It is for this reason that Imam Shakeel Begg and other prominent British ulema have vociferously denounced the actions of groups such as ISIS. But while doing so they reserve their right to condemn the depredatory nature of Western foreign policy vis-à-vis the Middle East. To subject failings of government policy to strident censure and criticism is the inalienable right of every British citizen, Muslim or otherwise, not an indicator of extremism.

Most British Muslims wish for nothing more than to abide peaceably in their adopted country, to avail themselves of the opportunities for education, employment and commerce it affords. They are represented in all walks of life and their positive contributions to British civil society have been considerable. While I am happy to recognise that difficulties do exist in reconciling the demands of Islamic orthodoxy to the constraints of a secular, largely post-religious society most Muslims have successfully managed to carve out a space for themselves that permits them to be at peace with both. The treatment of Imam Shakeel Begg by the BBC, part of a wider campaign of vilification and demagoguery directed at religiously conservative British Muslim personalities, serves only to further the cause of those intent on provoking a showdown between Muslims and wider society.  It is this behaviour that might rightly be characterised as extremist and I urge those in positions of power and influence to vocally reject it.

May the peace and blessings of Allah (swt) be upon sayyidina Muhammad. Ameen.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Farhad says:

    Shakeel Begg he is the best Imaam I ever speak and met in my life.
    He doesn’t have any extremist thoughts at all.

  2. anon says:

    Where is the review on Shiraz maher’s book? Or Tom hollands?

    1. Hi. The first is imminent. Almost done (>3000 words) Will be up by Thursday, inshallah. The later…I started…stopped…started again…now I am sooooooo busy. 😦

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