The first issue of Critical Muslim was published in January 2012, in the heydays of the ‘Arab Spring’. Anti-government protests and rebellions, starting from Tunisia, had spread across the Middle East. The issue was cheekily entitled, The Arabs Are Alive based on the hope that positive change will finally be ushered in the Arab world. Indeed, the whole CM enterprise was motivated by this prospect. But there were other issues and some nagging questions behind the project. The uprisings may topple the dictators, but will they dethrone the mind-set of dictatorship that is deeply entrenched in Muslim societies? What if we end up replacing one dictatorship with another – as had happened, for example, in the case of Iran after the fall of the Shah; or has happened in Pakistan numerous times. How do we move Muslim societies and cultures from imitation (taqlid) to original thought, from constantly looking backwards to an idealised past to looking forward, from passively accepting that ‘things change’ to actively changing things? A viable future for Islam and Muslims, I firmly believed, depends on looking at ourselves, our history, tradition, legacy, theology, societies and cultures, critically. To change and transform the world, nudge it towards equity and justice, we needed to engage with it judiciously. 

The CM project is related somewhat to my biography and personal quests. In my early travels and encounters in the Muslim world, from the 1960s to the end of the millennium, described in Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim, I met countless individuals, men and women, young and old, with a passionate, idealistic attachment to Islam. While passion can be a virtue, it can turn toxic without a modicum of critical acumen. Indeed, as the book makes clear, all varieties of Islam need a healthy dose of scepticism to avoid degenerating into authoritarian outlooks. Many readers of the book have complained that it does not have ‘a proper ending’. The last chapter of the book describes the initial preparation of a journey and simply concludes with the words: ‘But that’s another story’. Critical Muslim then is that journey, the continuing story.

My companion in that last chapter of Desperately Seeking Paradise is the then young, and rather optimistic, British-Pakistani science journalist, Ehsan Masood. (The optimism diminished as his age increased). Ehsan and I have entangled biographies – both of us have worked for, helped, and consulted with various community organisations and magazines. And when I accepted to become the Chair of the Muslim Institute in 2009, he joined as a trustee. We reformed and re-launched the Institute as a learned society of thinkers, academics, artists, and people generally interested in ideas. There was a need for the Institute to have some sort of publication. So, it seemed natural that CM should live in the Muslim Institute. I consulted fellow trustees, the former Chair and old friend, Ghayasuddin Sidqqui, and Sharia scholar, Mufti Barkatullah, who I knew from my student days. They concurred: there was an urgent need for the kind of publication I had in mind, and that it should carry the Muslim Institute imprint. The then Director of the Muslim Institute, Merryl Wyn Davies, was also a strong supporter of the project. But there was a problem with the name. Should it be ‘Critical Muslim’ or could it be ‘Critical Islam’? One trustee objected strongly: as believers, we cannot be critical either about Islam or about Muslims, she declared. But when the majority of the trustees agreed on the title, she resigned. 

Other questions arose as Ehsan, Merryl, and I sat to work on designing and shaping CM. Should it be an academic journal or something else? We approached Routledge and got a positive response. But none of us was in favour of ‘yet another academic journal that no one will read’. We wanted it to be an intellectual as well as cultural product, with reportage, art, fiction and poetry. As such, we needed novelists, poets, artists, who shared our vision to join us. At a book festival in Scotland, I came across novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab. I had read his novel The Road From Damascus, which had just come out, and liked it. It turned out that he had also read a couple of my books. Books bonded us. I pitched the CM project to Robin; and asked if he would join me as co-editor. Robin, a rather thin chap, scratched his reedy beard, which looks like week-old stubble, and thought. He seemed to scratch his beard persistently; and for quite a long time. Finally, he simply said: ‘OK’. 

Then, there was the question of finding a publisher. We approached I B Tauris without much joy. Ehsan suggested that we needed a ‘brave publisher’ who was not only willing to take a financial risk but was also able to face some the hullabaloos we will inevitably generate and face from certain quarters. I knew a number of publishers and editors who worked for various publishing houses – some friends, some acquaintances. But there was only one publisher I knew who fitted Ehsan’s criteria: Michael Dwyer of Hurst. Michael was first introduced to me, way back in the late 1990s, by my friend, the celebrated Indian intellectual, social theorist and critic, Ashis Nandy. In those days, Ashis came to London every couple of years; and would always be invited for dinner by Michael. His wife, Rachel, who taught at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), London University (and went on to be the first and only, so far, Professor of Bollywood) would persuade him to give a lecture or two. I was invited to some of these dinners; and, in turn, I invited Michael and Rachel for ‘Begum’s biryani’ and ‘killer daal’ at my place. (According to Scott Jordan, who has had quite a few dinners at our place: ‘you use a criminally low number of positive adjectives to describe your wife Saliha’s cooking’!). Our mutual love of classic Bollywood films and all good aspects of Indian culture and civilisation cemented our friendship. But, as Michael complained, in all the years I had known him, I had never published a book with him. Merryl pointed out that this situation had to be remedied before we could approach Hurst.

It was duly sorted. My next book, Reading the Qur’an, based on my Guardian blogs, went to Hurst. Soon afterwards, Ehsan and I presented the CM proposal to Michael. He was interested; but had a concern. He published books, not journals or magazines, which are a distinctly different speciality. So, CM was reshaped as serial books, or as we later called it, ‘bookzine’, each issue with a specific theme or title, published quarterly. Michael liked the idea. And we had a ‘brave publisher’. At about the same time, I persuaded Samia Rahman, who had worked on a short-lived Muslim style magazine, Emel, and was freelancing as a journalist, to join the Muslim Institute as Deputy Director. We soon discovered that she may be petite but she is big on initiatives and enthusiasm; and the natural choice as Deputy Editor.

We spent considerable time debating what we meant by ‘Critical’ and ‘Muslim’. 

A critical spirit has been central to Islam from its inception. The Qur’an is generously sprinkled with references to thought and learning, reflection and reason. The Sacred Text denounces those who do not use their critical faculties in the strongest terms: ‘the worse creatures in God’s eyes are those who are [wilfully] deaf and dumb, who do not reason’ (8:22). A cursory look at the life of Muhammad reveals that his strategic decisions were an outcome of critical discussions – the way he decided, for example, to fight the Battle of Badr outside Medina, or, later on, defend the city by digging a trench. The Prophet’s basic advice to his followers, in one version of his ‘Farewell Pilgrimage’, was to ‘reason well’. The scholarship that evolved around collecting the traditions and sayings of the Prophet was itself based on an innovative and detailed method of criticism. It is widely acknowledged that debate and discussion, arguments and counter-arguments, literary textual criticism as well as scientific criticism were a basic hallmark of the classical Muslim civilisation. 

Yet, with the exception of a few notable reform-oriented scholars and thinkers, this critical spirit is largely absent from the Muslim world. The reasons for the evaporation of this critical thought are many and diverse. Perhaps it was all the fault of al-Ghazali, as ‘a widely held view’ has it: he ‘strongly attacked Islamic philosophy in The Incoherence of the Philosophers’ and, as a result, ‘their role was significantly reduced in the Sunni world’, along with the importance of criticism, notes Abdullah Saeed. Perhaps it was ‘the well-known decree of al-Qadir in 1017–18 and 1029’, that banned the rationalist Mutazalite school of thought, as the late Mohammad Arkoun suggests. As a consequence, ‘to this day, the ulama officially devoted to the defence of the orthodoxy, refuses to reactivate the thinking introduced and developed by original, innovative thinkers in classical period’. Perhaps it was the closure of ‘the gates of Ijtihad’ that sealed the door to criticism: while no one actually closed the gate, it came to be treated, as Sadakat Kadri notes, ‘as a historical fact rather than a poetically pleasing way of saying that jurists were no longer as good as they used to be’. Perhaps it was because Muslim societies could not develop ‘legally autonomous corporate governance’, Arabic thought is ‘essentially metaphysical’ and incapable of developing universalism, and Muslim culture and ethos is just too reverential to religious authorities, as the arch critic of the history of Islamic science, Toby Huff, has argued. Perhaps criticism died out because of a lack of any kind of state support or protection for dissent; or maybe it was due to the colonisation of much of the Muslim world. However, all of these explanations of the decline of Muslim civilisation and the disappearance of the critical spirit are partial, and some are seriously problematic, as I argued in my 2006 Royal Society lecture. 

Merryl suggested we equate ‘critical’ with the concept of ijtihad, conventionally translated as ‘sustained reasoning’. What we are looking for, she argued, is ‘sustained reasoning and thinking to initiate Islamic reform’. For centuries scholars have been suggesting that ‘the doors of ijtihad’ should be re-opened. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Iranian thinker, Jamaluddin Afghani, and Muhammad Abduh, the Mufti of Egypt, suggested that Islamic thought needed to be upgraded. The message was echoed in The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, the famous book by the poet and philosopher, Muhammad Iqbal. Since then, the calls for ijtihad have been repeated endlessly. But virtually nothing has been done about it. And lack of critical thought, over centuries, has allowed extremism and obscurantism to become intrinsic in Muslim societies. We all agreed that reviving the spirit of debate and discussion, objectivity and lucid thought, was our homage to the Mutazilites, the rationalist school of Islamic thought and its great philosophers and thinkers such as al-Farabi, ibn Rushd and ibn Sina. But criticism for us was not so much about ‘deconstructing’ but more about enhancing the subject or object of criticism. It was about moving the discourse to a higher level. Samia suggested, repeatedly, that one of our goals should be to encourage young writers, scholars and thinkers, and equip them to solve complex, social and cultural problems of our societies. Ehsan wanted us to be equally critical of both, Muslim and the West, look at the wider world and seek to synthesise what is best and most suitable not just for Muslims but the human family as a whole. Ready-made Western answers as well as excesses of modernity and postmodernism should be put under the scalpel. Robin wanted us to promote openness, pluralism, and tolerance. We all wanted CM to be a good, engaging read. And there was a consensus that the quality of writing was very, very important.

The ‘Muslim’ part required less discussion. A Muslim, we all agreed, is not defined by naïve pieties, attachment to rituals, or nostalgia for bygone days. The obsession with a medial notion of ‘the Shariah’ and obscurantist, deathly traditionalist modes of thought had to be questioned and dispatched. The embrace of destructive modernity that suppressed or relegated life-enhancing tradition to the margins, had to be overturned. Sectarianism was as much anathema to us as fundamentalism; our aim would be to offer more inclusive and pluralistic perspectives on Islam and Muslims. 

After much debate and discussion, and several meetings, which, it has to be admitted, involved some raised voices if not actual shouting, we produced a mission statement, jointly written by all of us. It was printed in the first page of the first issue:

Critical Muslim isa quarterly magazine of ideas and issues showcasing ground breaking thinking on Islam and what it means to be a Muslim in a rapidly changing, interconnected world.

We will be devoted to examining issues within Islam and Muslim societies, providing a Muslim perspective on the great debates of contemporary times, and promoting dialogue, cooperation and collaboration between ‘Islam’ and other cultures, including ‘the West.’ We aim to be innovative, thought- provoking and forward looking, a space for debate between Muslims, between Muslims and others, on religious, social, cultural and political issues concerning the Muslim world and Muslims in the world.

What does ‘Critical Muslim’ mean? We are proud of our strong Muslim identity, but we do not see ‘Islam’ as a set of pieties and taboos. We aim to challenge traditionalist, modernist, fundamentalist and apologetic versions of Islam, and will attempt to set out new readings of religion and culture with the potential for social, cultural and political transformation of the Muslim world. Our writers may define their Muslim belonging religiously, culturally or civilisationally, and some will not ‘belong’ to Islam at all. Critical Muslim will sometimes invite writers of opposing viewpoints to debate controversial issues. 

We aim to appeal to both academic and non-academic readerships; and emphasise intellectual rigour, the challenge of ideas, and original thinking. 

In these times of change and peaceful revolutions, we choose not be a lake or a meandering river. But to be an ocean. We embrace the world with all its diversity and pluralism, complexity and chaos. We aim to explore everything on our interconnected, shrinking planet – from religion and politics, to science, technology and culture, art and literature, philosophy and ethics, and histories and futures – and seek to move forward despite deep uncertainty and contradictions. We stand for open and critical engagement in the best tradition of Muslim intellectual inquiry. 

We have, since then, been rather faithful to our mission statement; and looked hard at what thrills us about ourselves and the world, and even harder at our follies and agonies. Along the way, a number of established writers and thinkers joined us, strengthening our small team. Aamer Hussein, the amiable, considerate short story writer. Abdulwahhab El-Affendi, the ever cheerful and positive British-Sudanese academic and political scientist. The quiet and pensive, literary critic and writer Boyd Tonkin. The tall and exuberant historian of South Asia, Iftikhar Malik. The courteous and intuitive historian and writer on Arabic literature Robert Irwin. The frank and resourceful playwright and art critic Hassan Mahamdallie. The gregarious and efflorescent artist and poet Alev Adil. The celebrated poet Ruth Padel. The passionate anthropologist and cultural campaigner Leyla Jagiella. The ever reliable and erudite scholar of Islam, Jeremy Henzell-Thomas. The inquisitive guru and expert on religion Bruce Lawrence. The empathetic and inventive science fiction writer Naomi Foyle. The unassuming and learned academic and former government official, Peter Mandaville. The young, buoyant emerging scholar of Islam Shanon Shah (his only fault: he laughs at all my jokes!). And the even younger, adaptable and adventurous Scott Jordan, philosopher and emerging guru. All of them joined our Board and became regular contributors, advisors and guides. (Along the way, a couple of pestiferous individuals joined and then left; but let’s not go into that). We met at regular ‘high tea’ editorial meetings – riotous affairs full of scintillating ideas for themes and content, which were vigorously debated, some discarded, some collectively endorsed.

A CM Editorial Board meeting, 2014. Photo: Rehan Jamil

The first four issues caused quite a few ripples. Bulk copies of the second issue were confiscated in Malaysia: apparently, the Ministry of Home Affairs did not like ‘The Idea of Islam’, the title of the issue, that we were exploring. Michael, a self-effacing man with a natural ability to make deals, had secured co-publishing contracts with Oxford University Press (OUP), Pakistan; and later, with Westland Publications in India. OUP were concerned by my satirical essay on beards in CM3: Fear and Loathing. Criticising Muslim beards, they suggested, was an open invitation to Taliban and other extremist groups to take pot shots at them. They published three issues (1, 2, & 4), and then pulled the plug. The Indian publishers were anxious about the reaction of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his band of Hindu nationalists and extremists – and did not honour their contract. But they did publish two later issues as stand-alone books: Food in Islam (CM26) and Beauty in Islam (CM27). Quite a few eyebrows were raised by the issue Dangerous Freethinkers (CM12); my criticism of al-Ghazali upset a few of his devotees. As my friend Anwar Ibrahim, the Malaysian intellectual and leader of the opposition pointed out ‘most of Malaysia would be shouting at you in defence of al-Ghazali’. PostWest (CM20) was criticised because, it turns out, we are not against the West as much as we should be! And Futures (CM29) became the Bible of young Muslim thinkers seriously concerned about challenges and opportunities in the coming decades. And we upset quite a few academics for rejecting their contributions; largely because they could not liberate themselves from jargon and obscurantist terminology. ‘It is our stand against academic clichés’, Scott declared. 

We faced constant low-key resistance to the concept of long-form writing, and we were urged numerous times to make the CM pieces shorter, more bite-size. But, as Samia puts it, ‘we are one of the few platforms that offers such nuanced and thoughtful expositions that require length and are not bogged down with inaccessible jargon. Our appeal and success bears witness to the appetite for deep thinking, which goes against the narrative of shrinking attention-spans of readers’. However, we are constantly thinking of ways to disseminate the ideas and articles in CM in diverse formats so as not to alienate those who feel daunted by the idea of absorbing themselves in a mass of text. This has taken shape in the form of webinars and CM launches and we will continue to attempt to engage a wider range of audiences via innovative formats without compromising on standards of ‘deep critical thinking’ content.

Some of our contributors have gone on to turn their CM pieces into books – most notable being Medina Whiteman’s The Invisible Muslim, Hussein Kasvani’s Follow Me, Akhi! and Leyla Jagiella’s Among the Eunuchs. ‘We must strive to provide contributors with the space to explore issues and topics and showcase their talent, an opportunity to make their voice heard, that doesn’t really exist anywhere else’, says Samia. We allow those who are often spoken about and spoken for to reclaim their biographies by championing the diversity of stories that exist within Muslim traditions and lived realities.

A couple of times we came quite close to being closed. The first time, we were rescued by the Selangor Foundation, Malaysia; the second time by Aziz Foundation, London. There has also been an attempt or two to ‘influence’ CM with truck load of dosh, which we have rejected, and will continue to, in no uncertain terms. But we thought ourselves rather lucky to be presented with challenges that were not fatal; they gave us the strength to become an integral and undying part of the intellectual and literary landscape of the East and the West. CM is thus certainly filling a gap out there – a gap that is almost a chasm. 

How the world has changed since the first issue of CM was published! The Arab Spring turned into a severe winter. In Egypt, the secularists and liberals who joined the Islamists to topple the regime of Hosni Mubarak then turned on the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood and ushered in a military government even worse than the previous one. The West failed the opposition in Syria and allowed Bashar Al-Asad to turn it into a killing field. The ‘war on terror’, which was also a war on truth – perpetuated by presidents Bush, Clinton and Obama – has left Iraq in tatters, killed 80,000 people in Pakistan alone, almost a million in Afghanistan, and returned the long-suffering state to status quo ante. The fall of Kabul had all the hallmarks of the fall of Tehran and the fall of Saigon. When future historians write the biography of the West – both as power and concept – they will identify the last decade as the beginning of the end of Western domination.

During the 2010s, the world went genuinely postnormal: contradictory, complex and chaotic. Post-truth, a product of the ‘war on terror’ as much as pernicious relativism of postmodernism, arrived with a vengeance; and manufactured lies became the currency of politics, international relations, and social and cultural discourse. Social media, Big Data and Artificial Intelligence became supreme, leading to what has been called ‘surveillance capitalism’ where human emotions, desires, likes, hopes, and aspirations became the main commodity to be bought and sold. We could communicate instantly to millions of people; but we could not communicate with each other. The US split into two warring factions, faced an attack on Congress, and drowned itself in delusional politics and social relations. For the first time, the European Union encountered a country that wanted to leave rather than join it. Indeed, rather than a bastion of democracy, the EU has become more an incubator of fascism, given that two of its members have openly far right governments – Poland and Hungary – and around a quarter of members of the European Parliament come from far-right parties. China became the dominant economic and technological power, used AI to fuel ‘the fourth industrial revolution’, and transformed itself into an Orwellian state. Russia turned into the enclave of former KGB agents (who continued to do what they do best), flexed its muscles, captured Crimea, and began terrorising those who objected to its politics both internally and externally. India, the so-called ‘world’s biggest democracy’ became a totalitarian state under a far-right, Hindu nationalist tutelage. Brazil followed. NATO became a superannuated joke. Blockchain and digital currencies allowed criminals and nefarious networks to remain anonymous, and ushered an age of cyber theft, ransomware, and digital looting. Economics became a bankrupt discipline. We experienced climate change in real time. And, then, of course, there was the pandemic.

Aamer Hussein and Robin Yassin-Kassab listening attentively. Photo: Rehan Jamil

When the first issue of CM was published, the Middle East was facing a chaotic event. Ten years later, CM40 comes out at the same time as Afghanistan is recaptured by the Taliban.  

Was the chaos in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden was asked in an 18 August 2021 interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, ‘a failure of intelligence, planning, execution or judgement’? Biden’s answer: ‘it was a simple choice’. But there is nothing simple about our complex, interlocked world. It was indeed, a failure of intelligence for intelligence that does not take account of complexity and contradictions is not very intelligent. (While the Taliban were only a few miles from Kabul, the Pentagon was predicting it would take three months for them to enter the city!) It was a planning failure. For a linear plan that does not consider feedback loops and the speed with which things change is not much of a plan. Complex problems cannot be implemented in simple ways; they require complex approaches that adjust to rapidly changing situations. And sound judgement needs appreciation of the postnormal nature of our time. But retreating to simple solutions is not just an American problem; it is a global issue. We should not underestimate the incompetence of judgements based on old orthodoxies and dying paradigms. 

The more things change, the more they stay the same. A particularly notable contradiction is that while events and issues move at accelerating velocity, customary cultures transform at quasi-static pace. Have the Taliban changed since they were last in power some two decades ago? Perhaps. They may have learned a thing or two from their experience. But their one-dimensional view of the world, based on an outmoded notion of ‘Islamic Shariah’, does not bode well. If the Taliban really want to change, they could start by changing their name: from Taliban, that is semi-literate students, to Makhluq Bashariin, decent human beings with love and compassion for other creations of God. Calling yourself Mullah Hibatullah (Terror of God’), as one Taliban chief is known, and Zabiullah (Sacrifice of God), as their spokesperson identified himself, does not generate much confidence! 

 We have explored various aspects of postnormal times – described as ‘a noisy, chaotic, confusing world’ in The Economist television advertisement – in the pages of CM. From the shift of power to China and Asia to the last Hurrah of the West, the emergence of populism to the new varieties of racism, transformations in personal relations to values that endure, climate change, to rethinking futures – we have highlighted their complexity, dissected their inherent contradictions, and highlighted their chaotic potential. But truth moves as slowly as a glacier; and requires patience and perseverance. 

Closer to home, CM faced a shattering loss with the untimely death of Merryl Wyn Davies, who did so much, in her own inimitable but sometimes irritating way, in shaping the project. As I describe in my essay, she was an intellectual companion, penetrating critic, and loyal friend for most of my adult life. A formidable intellect, she was a highly original anthropologist, a treasure-trove of irrelevant information, a walking encyclopaedia on the Indian Ocean World, and a true devotee of classic Bollywood, particularly the films of the late Dilip Kumar, which she insisted on watching without subtitles even though she did not speak a word of Urdu. (Not quite: she knew a few expletives, which came out at appropriate times). 

The civil war in Syria had a devastating impact on the family of Robin Yassin-Kassab. Distressed, he became disillusioned. ‘I don’t see any Islamic answers to our problems. It’s fair enough to say I am disillusioned with the Muslims, though I am less disillusioned with them than I am with the media, the left (in particular), or Western (and Muslim) culture in general, which prefers its own stories to working out what’s really happening. I’m also disillusioned with my own capacities to do anything about it or to engage with it more than I have’, he said. He retired from CM, and moved to a remote part of Scotland, full of sheep, ‘silver birches, wild cherries, ash, hazels, hawthorns, rowans, field maples, Scots pines, larch, white beams and hornbeam, a walnut, a red oak, a beech, alders, elders, and a thicket of aspens’. He calls it ‘Mossland’. Aamer Hussein, who is profiled by the emerging Pakistani novelist, Taha Kehar, faced serious health issues. At one point, we feared the worse; but it turns out, he is as good at arguing with God as he is with his fellow humans. ‘Despite a difficult period in his life, Aamer keeps writing’; and passing his experience and wisdom to emerging writers as Kehar’s essay demonstrates. 

Writing biography is a Muslim art that we can trace right back to the life of the Prophet Mohammad itself. Classical Arabic biography – known variously as akhbar and sira – began with the study of the traditions of the Prophet, collecting hadith, and examining the chain of transmitters. Al-Nadim, the tenth century bibliophile, describes the akhbaris as collectors of reports, genealogists and authors of biographies. They were professional experts who rose to prominence during the seventh century Umayyad period. Earlier biographies concentrated on transmitters of hadith but after the Sira of the Prophet and hadith literature became substantial, the tradition of biography shifted to scholars, theologians, jurists, poets, singers, Qur’an readers, scientists, travellers, Sufi masters and other notables. Ibn Khallikan’s Biographical Dictionary, published in the thirteenth century, is a shining example of the Muslim biographical tradition. 

Reading contemporary biographies of the Prophet, Shanon Shah finds that different biographers present the Prophet in different lights. He is portrayed as ‘an environmentalist, a feminist, a human rights activist, an interfaith role model, and an instinctive democrat’ as well as someone who was angry, violent, or did not care much for Jews. Whether they are written from a pious or a hostile viewpoint, all biographies of the Prophet, Shah argues, need to confront a basic problem: while there is voluminous biographical literature on the Prophet, it does not ‘yield many certainties, because so little can be known for certain about the Arabian Peninsula of that era’. Shah opts for a personal relationship with the Prophet, speaking to him directly, and ‘paraphrasing this advice to me today’. 

Biographies can reveal as much truth as they hide. In ‘The Puzzling Memoir of Hanna Diyab’, Robert Irwin looks at the life of the eighteenth-century Christian Maronite who travelled to Marseille, Paris, and Versailles and worked for Antoine Galland, the translator of The Arabian Nights. Diyab’s The Book of Travels, which describe his travels and doubles as a memoir of youth, raises a number of issues. ‘How much do some of the most famous stories in Galland’s version of the Nights owe to Diyab? Was he perhaps the real author of “Aladdin”, “Ali Baba”, and “Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peri Banou”? Why does Diyab’s narrative end so suddenly?’ Irwin tackles these questions; but not all questions can be answered satisfactorily. Even DNA analysis, as Jeremy Henzell-Thomas discovers, can raise more questions than it answers. He manages to trace various strands of his DNA – ‘31.1% North and West European, 29.5% Irish, Scottish, Welsh, 18.6% English, 11.2% Italian, 3.5% Iberian, 6.1% Central Asian (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan) – but, in the end, has to admit: ‘our biography rests on much more than genes’. Henzell-Thomas suggests that we should ‘conceive the core of a biography as the extent to which it unfolds the Divine imprint within the original “text” of human nature’ – what in Islamic terminology is described as fitra, the ‘primordial disposition’, ‘the qualities or attributes of character which the human being has the potential to “unwrap”’.

Robert Irwin in a contemplatative mood. Photo: Rehan Jamil

Complex lives are not easy to unwrap; and memory is subject to selection and editing. In his article on Mohammad Asad, the Qur’an and Hadith scholar, political scientist, adventurer, and author of the classic The Road to Mecca, Josef Linnhoff suggests that we do not have a proper biography of Asad because he is difficult to pin down. ‘He defies neat classification and our tendency to sharply categorise and define scholars’, Linnhoff writes. ‘Is he liberal or Islamist? Progressive or reactionary? Heretical or mainstream? In Asad we see a commitment to social liberalism alongside strident anti-secularism; Mu’tazili-esque theology alongside Zahiri legal theory’. Thus, no group has claimed him as their own. But Asad’s own autobiographies are somewhat contradictory, with facts edited and changed in four different editions of The Road to Mecca. Focusing on historical facts, Linnhoff suggests, ‘blinds us from the deeper “truths” that Asad sought to convey’; and the task of future biographers of Asad is to go ‘beyond half-truth, simplification, and ignorance’, to discover the true multifaceted Asad and his truly monumental achievements. 

Linnhoff notes that we tend to reduce rich and complex lives into simplistic binaries. Who is the real person behind the biography? The ‘I’ in autobiography is always open to interpretation; and narratives of other lives, selected and abridged as they always are, seldom reveal the whole picture. And sometimes, the subject hides behind veils – nom de plumes being the most obvious. When novelist Bina Shah agrees to interview Algerian-French writer Yasmina Khadra, well known for such novels as The Swallows of Kabul and The Sirens of Baghdad, she discovers, to her surprise and confusion, that he is a man not a woman. Khadra explains: ‘during his time in the army, he became a counterterrorism expert and wrote six books under his own name. Then the Algerian Army demanded he submit his writing for authorisation and censorship. He refused, used different pen names for eleven years, then settled upon his wife’s name, Yasmina Khadra, as a tribute to her love and loyalty’. 

Often what appears to be the main event presents only an illusory image; the real story is often to be found on the side-lines. ‘Did I really see the Taj Mahal?’, asks Boyd Tonkin? Yes, no, perhaps, and maybe. He knows that he visited the Taj Mahal in Agra and Fatehpur Sikri, the nearby great fort city that was founded as the capital of the Mughal Empire. But did he actually see the great monument; or just saw a reflection of accumulated imageries? 

What really confirms the visit is the classic courtly Urdu he heard, the meat-heavy Baluchi restaurant he ate at, the hijras he encountered on road-side cafes, and the chants of the protestors he met. ‘The memorable truth of any life-event that will come to serve as a milestone of individual biography’, Tonkin concludes, ‘collects around its margins, not its centre’. 

Boyd Tonkin checking his photos of Taj Mahal. Photo: Rehan Jamil

Sometimes, what is written on the margins can indeed be the most important part of a biography. The off-centre bits of life narratives can have a real impact on the world and play a crucial role in shaping dialogues across cultures. When I first met Hassan Mamadallie, his life as an active anti-racist was behind him. I was co-editor of the art journal Third Text; he was responsible for diversity at the Arts Council, which funded the periodical. We couldn’t be more different from each other: his biography was rooted in Punk and the hard left movement; mine was entrenched in conservative Islam. What brought us together was something we did not talk about initially – our similar experiences not just of racism but also the heart-breaking stories of victims that we had witnessed. We became friends only when we shared these stories, a few of which he relates in his essay. When he left the Arts Council, we began a conversation about Critical Muslim. His Trotskyite tendency had not left him; and we disagreed on many things. But we agreed that there was a need to promote critical thought amongst Muslims, usher Muslim societies towards embracing humanism and pluralism, and give some serious attention to our pressing social and cultural problems. We should build on the intellectual and literary foundations of Islam, not hesitate to ask difficult questions, and work for positive change, Hassan said.

Critical Muslim aims to bring what is on the margins to the forefront, transform all variety of unthought into forethought. It is a two-part process: it articulates, to rephrase French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, latent meaning and calls for further, continuous reflection; and anticipates the potential hurdles and pitfalls of the unthought of the future. The goal is to rethink Islam for contemporary times, to discover anew what it means to be Muslim in the twenty-first century. We have to create a new space, beyond postnormal times, a space that could be described as transmodern. Transmodernity is a condition that is beyond tradition and modernity, but synthesises the best of both by rejecting the domineering, arrogant inflexibility that has become essential features of both. It is a space where open, plural societies with vibrant civic institutions and organisations that transparently hold their political, social, cultural, and economic conditions up to public scrutiny, that innovate as much as they value and learn positive lessons from history and tradition, thrive. It’s a place where questioning and self-criticism are the norm, and consensus emerges organically from robust open debate. 

‘Things change’. But they don’t always change for the positive. Moreover, positive change does not come overnight. It requires multi-generational effort. Critical Muslim is concerned with the continuous on-going process of changing things and shaping a more appropriate and desirable future for the Muslim world – and beyond.

Elsewhere on Critical Muslim: