Muslims should think twice before promoting Mehdi Hasan’s Oxford Union debate

Hasan is perhaps Britain's most prominent Muslim journalist

Zafer Iqbal argues that while prominent journalist Mehdi Hasan is undoubtedly an engaging speaker his analysis is rather superficial and doesn’t necessarily portray the correct image of Islam.

Mehdi Hasan’s recent performance at the Oxford Union debate “Is Islam Peaceful?” has generated much interest and discussion on the web. The You Tube link to his performance has so far generated nearly 600,000 views and Muslims in particular have applauded his efforts in defending Islam and Muslims.

But why should Muslims participate in such an ideologically-loaded debate which puts Islam on trial? The nature of Islam cannot be reduced to a simple “is it violent or peaceful” – it is far more nuanced than that.

I must admit that Hasan’s presentational style is striking and often amusing, however its content lacks coherence and rigour. Whilst an audience may take the material at face value and vote accordingly, a little research raises many question marks.

Is Islam peaceful?

Responding to criticisms of Muslim terrorism, Hasan raised a counter-question: “why are the vast majority of us not violent?” The answer he argued was because Islam was peaceful.

Hasan cited Gallup’s polling of 50,000 Muslims in 35 countries claiming “93% rejected 9/11 and suicide attacks” and of the remaining 7 per cent who supported them, they cited political reasons rather than religious reasons.

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But what Hasan didn’t mention is that apparently 30 per cent of respondents believed the 9/11 attacks were partially or in some way justified taking the total world-wide percentage of Muslims who thought 9/11 was either completely, partially or in some way justified, up to 37 per cent.

Secular grievances

Hasan then went on to argue that the causes of terrorism are secular, not religious, as they centre around the demand for foreign powers to withdraw military forces from Muslim territories.

But unlike Christians who have erected a temporal and spiritual divide, Muslims have never accepted this paradigm – they have always seen politics as part and parcel of their faith.

Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and His companions (ra) were leaders of an Islamic state as were their successors, implementing the Shariah across vast territories for over a millennium. Early writers incorporated the notion of a Caliphate not in books of law, but books of creed.

Ibn Khaldun, the famous fourteenth century jurist, wrote in his Muqaddima: “The appointment of the Imam is obligatory, its obligation known in the Shariah by the ‘ijmaa of the companions and the taabi’een… and the settling of that consensually/ upon consensus indicates the obligation of appointing the Imam.”

Warfare and Violence

Hasan’s rendition of Islam’s rules of warfare and violence must have been the most concise in history. Context was the key word he told the audience – but with no elaboration as to its nature, purpose or how it differed to the violence unleashed on the Muslim world by European powers, with whom Hasan identifies himself.

Whilst generally it is common ground amongst jurists that non-combatants cannot be fought, Hasan did not focus on the important questions jihadists raise – “can non-combatants be killed as part of collateral damage” and “can civilians be targeted where the enemy targets non-combatants.”

With widespread concerns relating to the US broadening the traditionally confined theatres of war, whether it be through drone attacks killing combatants and non-combatants, or extraordinary rendition, incarceration without trial, torture or pursuit of whistle-blowers exposing atrocities, these questions are pertinent and should have been addressed.

For both of these questions there is no scholarly consensus – the former is unintended and often unavoidable, and the latter is problematic if there is no potential retaliation to an enemy that targets non-combatants.

A clear articulation of the nature of Islamic warfare is necessary, a moral jihad as opposed to an immoral harb (war), whether offensive or defensive, to oppose tyranny and remove man-made political systems in order to bring about justice. However, given Hasan’s reticence about the Shariah, this may have been why he avoided this.

Islamic Shariah

And when it came to Shariah law, Hasan’s surprising defence was one of outright denial – “I would like to see the book of Shariah law; people argue over what is Shariah law … You empower the extremists by saying there is one Shariah law,” he said.

But unfortunately Shariah law cannot be airbrushed away so easily and it is dishonest to argue one is empowering extremists by making such a claim.

Shariah has been classically defined as “the speech of God in relation to the acts of his servants via requests, choices and circumstantial laws.” The Quran and Sunnah are the books that espouse it. Entire libraries have been filled with texts detailing and elaborating Shariah law, known as books of fiqh. To negate this is to negate the substance of Islam.

Hasan appeared to conflate two distinct aspects of the Shariah – a core and a periphery. There are immutable core Shariah laws where no debate exists – laws relating to prayer, fasting, war, peace, trade, taxes, governance, family matters and so on. But various interpretations exist in peripheral aspects of Shariah law, important debates that attempt to pinpoint meanings of some texts.

Neither can be rejected as they revolve around texts within the Quran and Sunnah. At best, what can be rejected are alternative interpretations on a given matter, allowing one to adopt what they believe to be the most persuasive.

Hasan’s negation of both categories, based on the fact interpretations exist, is not only unusual but mistaken.


So in conclusion the Muslim world is deeply divided by those who adopt the pre-colonial classical form of Islam and those who advocate a post-colonial re-engineered form. Hasan is arguing the latter.

Like most faiths and ideologies, Islam is simultaneously peaceful and violent and that should have been the message conveyed.

But given the self-imposed constraint of entering a debate with a loaded question, conveying that was going to be difficult, if not impossible. In the end Hasan has reinforced a myth which events, and the collective debate, will no doubt overtake.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the 5 Pillarz editorial board.

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