Shaikh Abdul Hakim Murad was voted Britain's most influential Muslim by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Jordan Image Credit: Supplied

For a man who is apparently Britain’s most influential Muslim, Shaikh Abdul Hakim Murad has rather unorthodox views on the way Islam is presented in the Western media. “I don’t think Islam is ever covered,” he tells Weekend Review.

“I have never actually seen an article in a Western newspaper that covers the core aspects of Islamic religion that are of significance to Muslims themselves. The focus is exclusively on social, economic and political dimensions of the religion. I have done interviews with journalists who say they don’t want to talk about the religious dimensions of Islam. That’s just the nature of modern Britain, unfortunately — we are going through a very secular period.”

Is there an Islam fatigue in Britain? “I think it’s not just an Islam fatigue,” he says. “It’s that people have been told everything about Islam except what makes it significant to Muslims themselves, which is often why they are so mystified.”

I am sitting with Murad — also known as Dr Timothy Winter — in his office at the Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge University. Around us on both sides are shelved an ocean of books, including many on Islam and religion with titles such as Ibn Batuta and Islam and Taoism, some in distant foreign languages (Murad speaks Arabic, Persian and Turkish).

While he is speaking, I wonder whether this rather bookish, almost quintessential scholar of the Oxbridge type could really be Britain’s most influential Muslim, as voted by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre, based in Jordan. It has compiled a list of 500 most influential Muslims in the world.

Murad himself dismisses his lofty new title. “It’s a little bit of silliness, isn’t it?” he asks. “I don’t know how you could rank such people. I am sure if you would ask most Muslims in England they would certainly name other people. They wouldn’t have heard of me.

“My interests are rather abstract, philosophical and academic. Most Muslims in Britain are interested in more practical bread and butter issues. So I think it was probably a curious misunderstanding that led them to put my name on the list.”

A Muslim celebrity he may not be like the boxer Amir Khan or singer Yousuf Islam, but Murad is certainly a well-respected figure among Muslims, not only in Britain but also internationally, as a leading Islamic scholar. He holds a number of prestigious titles, including director of the Sunna Project, secretary of the Muslim Academic Trust and director of the Anglo-Muslim Fellowship for Eastern Europe.

Last year he helped set up the Cambridge Muslim College, which trains imams for mosques in the United Kingdom. Murad is also very active in the local community and is heading a new mosque-building project in Cambridge, set to replace the present one which is stretched to capacity, with worshippers being forced to pray on the street outside.

Born in 1960, Murad converted to Islam at the age of 19. Back then, many people in Britain did not know much about the religion. The reaction from others to his new faith was one of curiosity. “The main concern was that I might have joined a cult,” he says. “That I was being manipulated by some evil puppet master, which was a fear among middle-class parents at the time. It was an age when cults were spreading very fast in Western countries. But as soon as it became clear that’s not what I was interested in, I think their anxieties receded.”

Compared to Britain’s total Muslim population, estimated at 2.4 million, converts form a small percentage at an estimated 60,000 to 70,000.

However, one odd bit of fact about converts in this country is that they sometimes keep their Islamic faith a secret by not telling others, according to Murad.

He attributes this strange phenomenon partly to an English sense of reticence. “We call them submarines,” he explains. “People who are under the surface and are practising the religion, including praying and fasting. But their close friends and family don’t know.”

For instance, Murad knows one professor at Cambridge University who has been a Muslim for 30 years and comes to the mosque when he can but his colleagues at the university aren’t aware he is a Muslim. Then there is a Christian clergyman who converted to Islam but hasn’t told his wife because he is sure she wouldn’t understand and would divorce him and he would end up losing the children.

But while the case of some converts can at times be rather awkward, Murad himself has lived quite a colourful life as a Muslim. Since graduating from Cambridge University with a first-class honours in Arabic in 1983, he travelled to Egypt, where he studied Islam at the renowned Al Azhar University. He lived for three years in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, before returning to London to study Turkish and Persian. Murad is at present the Shaikh Zayed Lecturer in Islamic Studies at Cambridge University.

Muslims are sometimes criticised for apparently having developed a “victim mentality” — and some prominent Islamic thinkers have also kind of agreed with this. Does Murad concur?
“I don’t find that particularly among Muslim communities,” he says. “The kind of Muslim leaders who the media notice may well think that Muslims are being unfairly singled out. That the West didn’t come to their rescue in Bosnia, the West has been indifferent to their fate in Palestine, the West did something to Iraq that it would never have done to, say, Spain under General Franco. That it is behaving in a cavalier fashion in Afghanistan. That it supports unpopular autocratic regimes throughout the Muslim world — and therefore the West is generically hostile to Muslims and victimises them. I think that is a ridiculous oversimplification.

“There are some Muslims who resent the fact that so many of the victims of Western foreign policy have been Muslims. But I don’t think that is the prevailing view of most mosque-going Muslims in the UK. They are more interested in immediate bread and butter issues of getting jobs, educating their children and finding their way into society.”

Alongside his passionate defence of Britain’s Muslim community, Murad is known for speaking eloquently about those who have gone to the extreme within the religion. I ask him how he would argue, using religion, against these people who find themselves at the radical fringe?

“Well, one has to do it using the traditional instruments of Muslim debate, which are Quran and Hadith quotations with reference to the past consensus of the scholars of the religion,” he says. “That debate is easily won because the radicals very seldom have a very proper religious education.

“Bin Laden is an engineer, Zawahiri is a medic. The typical profile of the radical Islamist is not that he is an expert on Islam, rather it is that he is somebody with a Western technical type of education who is sufficiently incensed by Western policies that he is using an Islamic language misunderstood to justify what is essentially a temper tantrum.”

In Bombing Without Moonlight: The Origins of Suicidal Terrorism, Murad argues that an Islamist suicide bomber is very much a by-product of a Westernised mindset and is in fact an alien phenomenon to the religion of Islam when viewed from a historical context. In the book, he notes how many on both sides will furiously deny an “Islamism with Western roots”. Suicidal militancy is, he points out, entirely absent from the Islamic scriptures. But shouldn’t one be weary of labels such as “moderate” Islam because it gives the impression of some type of “Islam lite” that people should be following? In other words, it is as if there is something wrong with following the religion in its fullness.

“Yes, you may say we have two alternatives,” he says. “We have the alternative of being Muslim extremists or being extremely Muslim. And I don’t accept the category of moderate at all because it is far from clear. Because when it is used usually by Western pundits and politicians, what is intended is anything other than a form of Islam that politically doesn’t obstruct present Western policies. And I don’t think that is a helpful way of developing a meaningful sense of priorities within a religion. So I don’t use this category ‘moderate’ Muslims at all. I think the ongoing face-off between radicals and the mainstream is a face-off between heresy and orthodoxy. Those are the terms which are more indigenous and authentic than ‘moderation’ and ‘extremism’.”

This brings the discussion back to where this interview started: the great Islam debate in the media. Murad believes there is little point in expecting a more accurate account of Islam in the British tabloid press. Instead, he tells me what worries him is that among the educated classes in the UK, who, to some extent, conduct their conversation through the more respectable broadsheets, there is an unwillingness to acknowledge that non-Western cultures may have definitions of happiness and human flourishing which could be worthy of respect and have a right to exist.

“There is something implicitly totalitarian about the assumption that the value set esteemed by Westerners must alone be right,” he says. “This comes from the universalism of the Enlightenment, which thought that ‘man’ was a single sort of subject and about whom large generalisations could always be offered.”

More recently, he acknowledges, such thinking has come under a good deal of attack. “But that does not seem to have percolated to the public sphere,” he says, “where it is assumed that the West alone can define ‘universals’, such as ‘universal human rights’, even though philosophically Western thinkers have an increasingly hard time establishing any universals at all. Some thinkers, such as Gavin D’Costa, Geoffrey Stout — and, I think, Slavoj Zizek — are very aware of this paradox. D’Costa’s new book holds that everything Westerners say to other cultures can be reduced to variations on ‘Be like us’. That’s not entirely accurate, of course.”

Clearly, it would be wrong to put the entire burden of blame on the shoulders of the West. Murad believes part of the problem is the reluctance so far of Muslim states and agencies to encourage a broader and more thoughtful cultural discussion in the West which is rooted in a better understanding of Muslim culture.

He gives the example of the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan, whose Alliance of Civilisations at times seems to attempt such an effort. But if Middle Easterners really wish to be better respected in the West, he believes they need to engage in deep and extensive cultural investment. “The Arab League, or the OIC, should direct resources to creating something like the British Council,” he says, “or the Goethe Institute, with landmark institutions in Western capitals which promote a correct understanding and a healthy dialogue. At the forefront should be teaching the Arabic language. Unless the Muslim world engages in better public diplomacy on behalf of its culture, it cannot expect to be better understood and respected.”

Syed Hamad Ali is an independent writer based in Cambridge.

For more information or to make donations, log on to www.cambridgemosqueismoving.org.uk