The good and bad from Mehdi Hasan’s Oxford Union debate

Whilst many have disagreed and questioned the points raised in Zafer Iqbal’s critique of Mehdi Hasan’s Oxford Union debate “Is Islam peaceful?”, Amar Marar writes that there are positives and negatives to take from both sides of the argument.

Before Fajr yesterday, I read the article written by Iqbal on 5 Pillarz (, and my initial thoughts were “an article like this was bound to appear” because this is the nature of Islamic discourse between Muslims.

Mehdi Hasan

There is no doubt that Hasan is one of Britain’s most prominent journalists and he has done much good work (in his own style and methods) in the defence of Islam against Islamophobes.

Taking into consideration the nature of the Oxford Union debates, the time constraint and the theatrical environment, I felt Hasan did a good job in defending Islam against some obscene claims thrown at him by his opponents.

Given the fact that he is not a learned scholar on Shariah and an expert on the fiqh of warfare, as a journalist, he made an applaudable effort in defending Islam, though the secular paradigms imposed on the debate itself are questionable. Unfortunately, Britain doesn’t have a Dr Zakir Naik or Ahmed Deedat to shred opponents who vehemently sugar coat lies and quote isolated references about Islam out of context to picture the deen as a violent and backward creed.

If I had to choose someone in replacement of Hasan, it probably would have been Hamza Tzortzis because of his extensive knowledge in religious matters, especially regarding warfare, peace, Shariah and so forth.

In this article, I will briefly go over some of the points raised by Iqbal, and the short term positives and long term negatives of Hasan’s method of debating.

Should Mehdi Hasan’s debate be promoted?

Yesterday’s article by Iqbal had to be on top of many Muslims’ newsfeed whether on Facebook or Twitter. The article got over a thousand “likes”, over 200 shares on Facebook, loads of retweets and a hundred comments on the 5 Pillarz website – the fact is, whether you liked it or not, it was circulated widely and sparked some heated discussion in the last 24 hours, but arguably nowhere as popular as Hasan’s 600,000 You Tube views!

Iqbal raised numerous points in his article, which to my knowledge was chopped from 3000 words with cited references and footnotes to a 1000 words for editorial purposes. The points he raised were on the imposed secular paradigms of the Oxford Union debate, problems with the ideological loading of the subject matter – Islam as a religion of “peace”, Hasan’s alleged “negation of Shariah” and the notion of a “pre-colonial” and “post colonial” version of Islam.

Secular paradigms

The “imposed paradigms” would have been secular in nature regardless of what the participants demanded or requested. We are living at difficult times where Islam has unfortunately become synonymous to terrorism, extremism and violence, and this has not been helped by incidents like Woolwich. Living in the west, most discourse, discussions and debates between non-Muslims and Muslims will always centre around a secular paradigm because that is the society and world we live in unfortunately.

Therefore, whether we like it or not, the paradigms and the general nature of these debates will for many years to come be centred on Muslims being on the “defensive” and Islam under the spotlight. What are Muslims supposed to do then? Back out and refrain from the challenges put forward to us by academic Islamophobes? Of course not, someone from the Muslim community had to go forward, and Hasan did a far better job than any of our imams would have done.

As for Islam being a religion of “peace”, there is a difference of opinion on this definition. As far as I am aware, the word “Islam” comes from the Arabic word “Aslam” or “Istaslama” which means to “surrender” or to “submit”, and through submitting your will to Allah (swt) one attains “peace” (salaam) – but this is a whole separate discussion in itself.

The point I am making is that I am in somewhat agreement with what Iqbal stated – that Islam as a comprehensive way of life cannot be equated to just “peace” but neither can it solely be equated to “warfare”. Islam has rulings pertaining to both in a particular context and both realities have to be taken into consideration, discussed and shared with non-Muslims so we do not mislead them about clear ayahs of the Qur’an and hadiths of Muhammad (saw) regarding war and peace.

Shariah law and neo-colonial Islam

When Hasan stated: “I would like to see this book of Shariah law”, he was correct in saying that. There is not one defining book which all the scholars have an ijmaa (consensus) on, except that the source of the Shariah should be the Qur’an and Sunnah. If he had stated: “I would like to see these books of Shariah law” then he would have been mistaken because there are hundreds and thousands of books about the Shariah, it’s rulings and implementation as Iqbal rightly stated. Again both views have their credence, depending on how you understood the comments when they were made or written.

Lastly, this notion of a “pre-colonial” and “post colonial” Islam is basically what triggered a lot of the emotion amongst those who disagreed with Iqbal in defence of Hasan. The way Islam was practiced by the Prophet (saw), the Companions (ra) and the two righteous generations (the Salaf) cannot be compared to the Islam of today or previous caliphates.

Islam had already deviated from its original and uncontaminated manifestation hundreds of years before European colonialism. This happened as a result of expansion and the gradual application of Greek, Persian and Hindu philosophical ideas that were concocted with Islam know as “Kalam”. As a result you had groups like the Mutazila, Ashari, Jabriyya, Qadiriyya, numerous Sufi orders, all with their own understanding of the branches of aqeedah, the application of Shariah and so forth. So to assume that Islam was perfect before the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924 would be naive and historically incorrect, but to assume that it was weak, had no religious basis and “pragmatic” would also be a major error.

Secular ideas were prevalent amongst some of the leading Ottoman generals during the 19th century, the ideas of nationalism in a general context – Arabs, Turks, Persians, Africans and Asians differentiating themselves on ethnic lines were also existent before 1924 and T.E.Lawrence’s mission to Arabia. So Iqbal was wrong (if he meant this) to think there was a pristine Islam before European colonialism in the Muslim world, but on the other hand, Islam was definitely in a position of political strength, reverence and unity on a international scale compared to today.

The “post colonial” Islam I understood Iqbal to be stating was the influences of nationalism (based on the Sykes-Picot Agreement), socialism, secularism and other “western” political ideology’s influence on current Islamic political thought. Whilst this may be true, it has to be understood in a context. Yes the Muslim world was split between France and Britain and eventually the course of what many understand (whether they like to acknowledge it or not) as the political reality of “modernity” took place, as un-Islamic as it was. Perhaps suggesting that Hasan was a by-product of this neo-colonialist version of Islam may have been a bit harsh, but equally many were quick to label Iqbal numerous names.


In conclusion, the acclaimed journalist Mehdi Hassan and the less acclaimed masters graduate Zafer Iqbal are both Muslim. The Companions (ra) had disagreements with each other and differed in opinions and approach. Personally I didn’t find anything in Iqbal’s article offensive or as some Hasan fans claimed to be “slander” and “fitna”. Some of his views were not elaborated on, others were pedantic yet some were valid and had to be voiced.

As for Hasan, he is an ambassador of “mainstream” Islam in Britain, no one can really dispute this fact. He is also a staunch advocate of Islam’s assimilation to secular society and there are many other views of his that I strongly disagree with. But Muslims should not forget a key principle in Islam, and that is the higher you are ranked (by status or influence) in society, the level of scrutiny and accountability is also increased compared to the laymen.

Great efforts in defending and propagating Islam should be solely done for the pleasure of Allah (swt), so you can stand in front of Him and say you did your best for the right reasons – not to win a debate, or to win over an audience, but as a form of dawah and act of worship.

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

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