Is the ISB “Living Islam” or killing Islam?

Blogger, Abdullah Noorrudeen questions whether the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB) is reviving Islam or reforming it in line with a modernist interpretation, which fits the right-wing neocon agenda.

It is interesting to note that those who compromise normative Islam or demonstrate a modernist tendency suddenly become “leading Sunni” Imams. The epithet was applied by the Times to former ISB President Ahtsham Ali who spoke at the Living Islam event, presumably because his statements fit in with neocon policy of attacking normative Islamic stances.


Claiming that the separation of the sexes is absent in the Quran, he iterated a statement which I would expect to see from modernist reformists of the Usama Hasan variety, “Stay in your houses and do not display yourselves like [women used to] in the time of ignorance [before Islam],” was intended specifically to the prophet’s wives, Ali said.

Aside from the obvious irrationality of ignoring principles of exegesis, like where a command is addressed to the wives, it is for all women unless specifically stated otherwise, the validity of this statement can be determined by a perusal of a multitude of exegeses written on this verse which clearly indicate that the application of this verse is ‘aam (generic, to all Muslim women) as opposed to khass (specific).

The preceding verse which states that the mothers of the believers are “unlike other women” indicates to their special, raised status over other women by virtue of being the blessed wives of the Prophet (saw), not towards the specificity of the command (as claimed by proponents of Ali’s position).

There are more problems with Ali’s words. By focussing solely on the Qur’an to unsuccessfully refute a mainstream understanding in Islam, he side-steps an entire corpus of hadith and Usul al-fiqh (principles of jurisprudence) which is also used, in addition to the Qur’an, to extrapolate rulings. It smacks of a Taj Hargey statement who uses similar reductionist diatribe to give justification to strange, un-Islamic views. One wonders how Ali would reconcile is position with the following hadith:

Aisha (ra) says that a woman from behind a curtain gestured a letter to the Prophet (saw). The Prophet (saw) withheld his hand. The woman said, “O Prophet of Allah, I extended my hand to you with a letter and you did not take it?” He said, “I could not know if this is a man’s hand or a woman’s”. She said, “It is a woman’s hand.” The Prophet (saw) said, “If you were a woman you ought to have changed your fingernails with henna.” (Sunnan An-Nasa’i)

Imam Ahtsham Ali was the former president of ISB.
Imam Ahtsham Ali was the former president of ISB.

The attack however continues with the emulation of the Prophet with his incredibly misleading statement: “You don’t emulate except what [the Prophet] asked us to emulate. Wasn’t he allowed to have the culture of his time in 7th century Arabia?”

This is a grossly incorrect, reductionist statement. Emulation without an express command formed the basis of many rulings. Furthermore, emulation without exhortation was an expectation:

Aisha (ra) said: “The Messenger of Allah did something as an example in order to make things easier for people but some people still refrained from doing it. When the Prophet heard about that, he praised Allah and said, ‘what do you think of people who refrain from anything that I myself do? By Allah I am the greatest of them in knowledge of Allah and the strongest of them in fear of Allah”. (Bukhari and Muslim)

From an Usul al-Fiqh point of view, custom is to be taken into account only if it does not conflict with other deductive principles such as Qiyas (legal analogy) and istihsaan (legal discretion used to restrain Qiyas) in the Hanafi madhab for instance, or in the Maliki madhab, the Sunnah itself.

Emulation and its link to Iman

Had Ali delved into the technicalities of the types of emulation of a particular act of the Messenger (saw), whether it was a’adah (habitual) or not, and clarifying that the culture of the locality is merely mubah (permissible), as opposed to emulation of actions of the Prophet (saw), which are desirable and rewarding, then the statement could have had some credibility.

isbAs it is, his statement, which is essentially to eschew the Sunnah, unless it is a command, is blatantly wrong, tantamount to a trivialisation of the actions of the Messenger of Allah (saw) and a removal of a barrier which protects the distinctive character of Islam. In an age where excuses are many and the aspiration to adhere to Sunnah lessening in the face of increased hostilities towards Muslims, such a statement is nothing short of irresponsible.

The desire to emulate those actions purely for the sake of Iman (faith) and admiration was a quality of the Companions (ra). Anas (ra) once saw the Prophet following the pumpkin around the plate. He said, “I have loved pumpkin from that day.” Al-Hasan ibn Ali (ra), Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas (ra) and Ibn Ja’far (ra) came to Salma (ra) and asked her to prepare some food for them which the Messenger of Allah liked. Ibn Umar (ra) would wear tanned sandals dyed yellow after he saw the Messenger wearing the same. Such emulation of acts which are extraneous and a habitual Sunnah are regarded as the first sign of the love of the Prophet.

The element of love is directly linked to Iman, as the famous hadith of Umar (ra) shows, in which the Messenger of Allah (saw) said: “O Umar, your faith will never be complete until you love me more than yourself.”

Ali’s statement, in this way, is encouraging the weakening of Iman.

ISB’s affinity with reformists

His statements however should not come as a surprise. Dodging scholarship and making misleading, modernist statements seems to be becoming an ISB staple trait. Living Islam’s event itself had a list of speakers which brought me into dismay.

Sara Khan is the director of Inspire.
Sara Khan is the director of Inspire.

Sara Khan’s PREVENT propounding capabilities are evident from her rhetoric on her feminist website. She assumes the role of countering extremism through “Jihad against violence” which includes “violent extremism”. It claims to be a human rights organisation, and criticises everything but the human rights violating PREVENT policy. Listed amongst the UK ambassadors for this “Jihad against violence” is the notorious, Islam-twisting, neocon-serving Usama Hasan of Quilliam Foundation who shares liaisons with the bigoted neocon Henry Jackson Society.

Khan’s work has an endorsement from another Islam-twisting organisation – British Muslims for Secular Democracy (BMSD), an organisation which propagates anything but Islam. Tehmina Kazi, who is also listed on the Living Islam website, is the director of BMSD. The organisation previously had a plethora of anti-Islam luminaries such as, Taj Hargey, hijab-hater Yasmin Alibhai-Brown who was the director of BMSD and who is now currently vice chair, and Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, another reformist who believes Islamic laws are outdated.

The links between ISB to reformists do not end here however. Their “Plain Islam” website, which is supposed to be a means for dawah contains some perturbing individuals. Once again reformist Usama Hasan rears his devolved head with his rather disparaging insinuation against Allah that He (swt) did not complete the process of achieving complete gender equality, ignoring of course that equality in the Islamic paradigm entails the material world as well as the hereafter, whereas the secular paradigm is wholly materialistic in its endeavour: “Thus, Islam’s giving women full rights of property and even some inheritance and recognition as a qualified witness, albeit not equal to men initially, has to be seen as revolutionary and the beginning of a process of the liberation of women, not as a fixed end-point that cannot be changed

Ziauddin Sardar is a modernist reformer.
Ziauddin Sardar is a modernist reformer.

Ziauddin Sardar is also listed on the site. His views are just as jarring as Usama Hasan’s. He has described the emulation of the Prophet (saw) as a “fetish”, and believes that Muslims should, “question what now goes under the general rubric of Shariah and to declare that much of Islamic jurisprudence is now dangerously obsolete… Serious rethinking within Islam is long overdue.

And within which paradigm should that rethink occur? “Unlike the ‘Ulama, modernist scholars do not shun the West. In fact they embrace the West in its totality, warts and all. While the traditional scholars sit on the crest of contemporary times perpetually looking back into history, modernist intellectuals place no real value on Muslim tradition and history.” (Ziauddin Sardar, Islamic Futures p.352)

There are other serious issues with the individuals mentioned on the Plain Islam website however, for the sake of brevity, this will suffice for now. The tokenistic statement at the bottom which disclaims synonymy of views with ISB is pathetic considering the fact that the “in-depth” section of a da’wa website contains reformists and haters of Ulama.

ISB “living Islam” or killing Islam?

Ahtsham Ali then, is merely the tip of a ship-crippling iceberg. ISB was at one point in time, a highly respected organisation with classical Islam as its beating heart. Over the years, ISB has taken some disconcerting decisions. Giving platform to such dangerous individuals is not a presentation of living Islam but an attempt at killing Islam. The staging of such rhetoric from modernists is reminiscent of the RAND Corporation document which advises giving platform to modernists to force a reformation of Islam. The statements of Ali, in effect, tears down the established principles which protect Islam from malicious incursions of the reformist kind.

Islam is not in need of a reformation, rather it is the hearts and minds of Muslims which need a reformation. A reformation which reinforces the Sunnah and avoids the doubtful in an age of strife. As the Prophet (saw) said,

“Whoever brings to life any of my Sunnah which has died after me will have the reward of all those who act by it without decreasing their reward in any way. Whoever introduces a misguiding innovation which does not please Allah and His Messenger will have the like of all those who act by it without that decreasing their burden.” (Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah)


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