Thoughts on Paul Williams’ Article-Muslim Apologetics: Abul Hussien al-Azhari


Bismillah Wa Alhamdullilah Wa Salatu Wa Salaam Al’a Rasulilah Wa Aali Baythi Wa Asahabi Wa Ba’d:


In light of the nature of the Paul Williams article, which seems to further contribute to the increasing breakdown of an environment suitable for a program of civil dialogue between Muslims thereby, revealing a crisis of vision, authority and rationality among Muslims in the West, I decided to publish my thoughts. I would have to agree that the article contributes to extending the spirit and intent of the Rand report in that it gives recognition to a particular section of the Muslim community over others, in the name of critical reason. In effect, the article gives social recognition to a section of Muslim leadership in the West, which aligned itself with traditionalism, while likewise endorsing the school of perennialism and the school of Muhammad Asad as a suitable model for da’wah in the West.

Leaving aside the school of traditionalism we will briefly look to the schools of perennialism, and that of Muhammd Asad. In fact, these three schools were combined in the article Muslim Apologetics into one category and that is a methodological error:

Williams said:

Gai Eaton, Martin Lings[r], Muhammad Asad[r] and Hamza Yusuf. This quartet of Muslim intellectuals share common backgrounds and characteristics: they are Western converts to Islam and have made substantial contributions to scholarship that is recognized and highly valued in both East and West, amongst Muslims and non-Muslims. Although their work could not be characterized as polemical in nature they are all Islamic apologists in the sense of a person who speaks or writes in defense of Islam.

If the school of perennialism, which for our sakes here is represented by Gai Eaton and Martin Lings and that of Muhammad Asad are of one grain then by which standard are we to come to see the commonality between them? I thought we were discussing ideas here and not cultural backgrounds. Are we to say that because the individuals who comprise the quartet were converts that this will be the point of commonality between them? Is the point of commonality that they have some status in Western society? In the scope of analysis that these matters have sociological significance? However, I thought that the purpose here was to analyze ideas. Frankly these parties of concern: Gai Eaton, Martin Lings and Muhammad Asad are the same in that what these schools do hold in common: a spirit of anti-modernity.


The school of Muhammad Asad is anti-western and carries an anti-sufi current so what real tie does it have to the other schools beside being connected by the fact that the head of the school was a Westerner? Is being Western a criteria for judging discourse this is a sociological catergory not an intellectual mark that lets us discuss ideas.


This school, that of Asad harnessed an anti-western discourse, and represents the rhetoric of political protest, which overshadowed a good degree of Islamic thought in the time that it emerged. These factors set it apart from the school of perennialism.



The differences between these two schools in question is visible in the tafsir of Muhammad Asad {r} that was alluded to by the author of the article and it should be brought into our discourse. The tafsir of Muhammad Asad was highly influenced by Shaikh al-Allama Rashid Rida {r} and is more inclined to favor a Salafi methodology. The Salafi methodology mentioned here by definition is represented by two tendencies Muhammad Abdu {r} who was a rationalist and Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahab who called to the school of Ibn Taymiyah {r} to some degree and revived the approach of Ibn Khuzaimah Ash-Shafi {r} in aqeeda as represented in the Book Of Tawheed compiled by Ibn Khuzaimah {r}. On the other hand, the school of perennialism, when put to the lens of examination is a metaphysical protest against modernity – philosophically and scientifically. In Western Civilization texts it is read by referring to Aldous Huxley.


In addition to being a defense of the spirituality and cosmology of the middle-ages perennialism is essentially a school of mysticism and has been a point of debate in every religion being as though it claims a religion above religions. This school of mysticism does not align itself with one religious tradition but rather subscribes to the notion of the Unity of Religions. In effect, this clashes with the idea of “abrogation,” which Islam espouses. That is that Islam is the final revelation.


The perennialist school holds the claim that there is a common core to all religions, although the forms of these religions are different. The best exponents today of this school are Jacob Needleman, Seyyed Hussein Nasr the last being greatly influenced by Franz Schuon. Martin Lings [r] was tied into this school and so was Gai Eaton and Rene Gue’non and for this reason the status of Martin Lings came into question in the school of traditionalism some time in the near past.

By default the da’wah model Williams proposes by pinpointing a “quartet” does nothing more but solidify, and further incite tension between Sufis and Salafis given the elevation of perennialism and to some degree traditionalism over any other tendency. In our estimation it was a methodological error to include Muhammad Asad into the Quartet without referring to the Salafi schools that he inclined to. Likewise Williams gave rank and importance to Sufism as a point of departure by claiming the other schools of da’wah like that of Ahmed Deedat and others are anti-sufi setting the other schools of da’wah that he mentioned against the Quartet. What we say here is that evidence should be established for the assumption presented given the conflict that could emerge from this within the Muslim community.



In our estimation, to bring indirectly into play the anti-western tendency current in the world today by referring to Asad and perennialism works to undermine the project of fiqh of minorities introduced to the West by esteemed scholars such as Abdullah Ibn Bayyah, Taha Jabir Al-Alwani not to mention the European Fiqh council and other scholars of repute in the West and East. The project of fiqh of minorities indicates that Muslims have no need to be apologetic. In actual fact, we are flexible in dealing with the West, especially under the condition that and in an environement in which the rules of justice and law are applied fairly as is claimed in major democracies.


Elevating these two schools that of Asad and perennialism does not create a platform of dialogue. Rather doing so undermines the effort of disciplined dialogue by giving precendent to these two schools which reflect a soirit of anti-modernity. And establishing their discourse over other discourses present in the public space. In actuality a da’wah to the Qur’an and the Sunnah is much more flexible then these schools in that we are not bound by the spirit of anti-modernity but rather we judge the good and bad in modernity according to morality and public good.


It is our estimation also that elevating these schools works to displace the project of fiqh of minorities which in itself is an attempt to address modernity in a constructive manner. By elevating the school of Muhammad Asad, which promotes an Islamized version of the Clash of Civilization thesis and on giving recognition to perennialism, which is permeated by the spirit of anti-modernity where are we to stand except to collide with the West in toto.


Perennialism has been an object of debate not only among Sufis and Salafis in general but also among “traditionalists” themselves in particular. So why should we espouse such a model of daw’ah as suggested by Williams? This model incites division and rancour among Muslims for the reasons given above. Perennialism is a more refined argument against modernity than the school of Asad, which at times is marked by militant overtones.


Perennialism, in sum, is a school of apology for the spirituality and thought of the middle-ages and in not considered authoritative as a source of Islamic teaching. So,we find the model Williams proposes to be problematic initially by virtue of his identifying sources for Islamic discourse which are questionable. Likewise his schema of speakers promotes division among Muslims and support for contentious matters while claiming to serve the cause of dialogue between faiths. In addition, this model does not remove us further from the thesis of clash of civilizations and bring us to the platform of dialogue between civilizations. Instead it encourages the spirit of anti-modernity, among Muslims and this impedes the project of islamization of knowledge or a dialogue with Western intellectual traditions. How are we to judge what is acceptable in these traditions if we are against them from the outset based on no premise other than that they are Western and modern? Likewise there is no mention of looking to Islamic tradition to assist us in building an Islamic identity in the West that is capable of dealing with current day trials and realities. Not to mention that the Qur’an and the Sunnah as points of reference for defining what morality, beauty and good and evil are are never mentioned.. In fact, by dismissing Ahmed Deedat and the likes it is as if we are asked to dismiss the Qur’an and the Sunnah and build on an exchange of philosophical ideas without any reference to revelation.


In our readings of the schools of Asad and perennialism we see that there is no serious potential for a dialogue of civilizations in perennialism nor the school of Asad. These schools are governed by intellectual frames of reference that set us on a course of schizophrenia incapacitating us, making us incapable of dealing with Western life and its intellectual traditions in a manner that will initiate a new renaisannce because they are destroyers of those traditions and also distanced from the realities of Islam and the message of revelation.



Given the state of confusion among Muslims today we wanted to attempt to bring balance to the new discourse on Islam that is emerging in the West. This new discourse is characterized most by its claim to: higher rationality, critical rationality, rationality capable of exposing the truth, establishing the truth and by the assumption that this rationality is absent in contemporary Muslim thought. In light of this new emerging discourse, which mirrors various aspects of the spirit of Orientalism, there is a dire necessity that is not given much attention. Muslims in the West by necessity need to embrace a degree of distance from the internal conflict that has infected and plagued the Muslim mind in the West and examine thoroughly the assumptions and aims of this new discourse which demands to become part and parcel of the intellect of the Muslim in the West. To say the least this task is fard-kifayah.


We hope that the intellectual leadership of Muslims in the West would devote more time to three efforts:


1.] qualm the tension among Muslims


2.] take to task this new strand of Orientalism that Muhammad Asad {r} said would be done by Muslims themselves and that is critique Islam


3.] focus more on the project of fiqh of minorities which is being sponsored by scholars of repute and translate what the scholars are saying and their works in fiqh and other sciences which cater to the Muslims in the West.



What need do we have of perennialism? The vast majority of Muslims in the West are ignorant of the Qur’an not to mention the Sunnah and works of the great Ulema of this Ummah. As far as the thought of Asad there is not much difference in the angles of Muhammad Asad [r] from those of Said Qutb [r] but we hear critiques of Qutb and few on Asad. These two figures emerged in a time when the Cold War riveted the attention of the world dividing the world into Capitalists and Communists. They were thinkers with a political vision not full blown scholars so we should not elevate these figures in our intellectual universe as we proceed to make sense of being Muslim in the contemporary age. In turn, we should focus our attention on elevate the position of the Qur’an in our intellectual and spirtual lives making the Qur’an central in our intellectual and spiritual diets. This intellectual and spiritual regiment should be supplemented by all that will help us to make sense of the Qur’an such as the Sunnah and the scholarly tradition which embodied Islamic sciences that are key to undestanding the sources of Islam.



Muslims in the West have made great strides but still possess great distance from the Qur’an and the Sunnah and the scholarly legacy of Islam. Unfortunately, Muslims in the West have no real tie to experienced and tempered scholarship capable of dealing with new and unprecedented events that arise their live this further exacerbates the feeling of alienation that comes from being distanct from the sources of revelation.


In this context that Muslims in the West live we must ask why are we giving ear to discourses which are not contributing to establishing Muslim community and identity nor islamic literacy? Why are we distant from those scholars capable of helping us in the effort of dealing with life today? We have marginalized them and continue to do so and fuel internal conflict by presenting perennialism, and Asad as figures upon, which to base our identity upon and da’wah upon and through which we ought understand Islam.

Until now there is a refusal to accept a scholarly reference [mar’je wa mar’jiyyah] in the life of the Muslim community in the West. Where do Muslims in the West refer to for scholarly guidance is the key question? Many have problems in answering this question in a positive and freshin manner and yet there are calls for Muslims in the West to disconnect from or break ties with the East. How is da’wah served without guidance and by incorporating critiques on Islam from figures who hold no weight in the world of Islamic scholarship?


Who will rise to give fatwa and deal with the crisis of reference that we are facing in the West will we continue ro refer to unqualified figures? If we are going to engage critique with regard to Islamic discourse than there needs to be a clear understanding of the fiqh of critique. It must be made clear what is allowable and open to critique and what is not. There needs to be a reference to a body of qualified scholars tempered in the sciences of Islam despite the fact he may be a migrant or a convert, despite race or color. The fulcrum point is scholarly qualification and faith.


Knowledge and faith are the criteria by which we judge qualification for leadership. Let us take an example from the Maliki school of fiqh and make and analogy from this example. In this school of Malik the Imam of Salah is chosen based on memorization of Qur’an and knowledge of fiqh this is the criteria for picking an Imam in Salah. Now we must ask do we have at least this criteria in place for choosing Imams in da’wah or for the intellectual leadership of the Ummah in the West?


Should not our senior leaders work together and be trained in islamic sources and sciences and be capable of some degree of ijithad in addition to understanding the world they live in, not to mention the culture of the people they serve?



Why have we marginalized The Fiqh Council of Europe and why did we allow the Fiqh Council of North America to become obsolete? We don’t need personalities to lead us we need Ulema to point to us the path with pleases Allah {swt}.



Critical thought if it is to be acceptable we are obliged to ask under what conditions and keeping in mind what ends and upon what foundations are we to establish, accept, and judge the legitimacy of a claim to “critical thought,” what are the parameters of critical thought in Islamic epistemology and what is the hukm shar’i on engaging critical thought and its various forms? Now that the door has been opened to critique of Islam and Muslim leaders and scholars by Muslims and non-Muslims it is clear to understand what forms of reasoning are acceptable and what type are not according to the five legal judgments: Haram, Makruh, Mubah, Halal and Mandub.



Presently, many have taken to engaging in critique but possess no scholarly credentials no authority, no foundation in Islamic learning that if possessed would qualifiy them to do so. We see that in the circles that make ijaza a criteria for scholarship we do not hear that critics of Islam are asked for ijaza. Why? Despite the necessity for qualification in knowledge being a must for a person to speak regarding Islam unqualified voices whether Muslim or not, are given an audience. In an environment where people inquire much about ijaza and correct aqeeda how is it that this is possible that the illiterate in Islam have weight in Muslim discourse?


Being the case that the Williams article was posted for public consumption on a prominent and respected Islamic website identifies the importance of bringing shar’iah parameters to the table if we are going to understand how to engage in critique. That we failed to do this during the time of the cartoon contest in Europe seems to indicate to us that we need to seriously talk and analyze our condition in the West in light of sha’riah a bit more seriously.


A shallow glance at the various ideas out there in the world of Sunni cyberspace we see that some mock the prospect of working unity between Muslims and others mock the prospect of functioning in the West but very few establish an authoritative opinion on these matters that realizes the common good as defined by the Shar’iah. There are a few questions here in need of answer given this millieu:


Does the Williams Article, which is established on a few baseless premises and upon visible bigoted assumptions help us to live as Muslims together in the West?


Does the article help us continue with the prospect of da’wah to non-Muslims and maintain our identity as Muslims or does it call us to put aside our identity by asking us to espouse perennialism?


Does the Williams article fuel hostility to some degree between Muslims?


These question we ought ponder seriously and answer them for ourselves and be clear with each other on what our conclusions are.


It seems Muslims in the West are in urgent need to identify who is qualified to do da’wah and what are the conditions of da’wah, its principles and parameters and this must be done under the guidance of a body of scholars. Likewise we need to discuss openly who and what is a scholar considering the various realities in Islamic education today.


Until now there have been assertions made in the Muslim community about who is a scholar and how da’wah should proceed but no real criteria is set forth that is clearly agreed upon to identify the scholar. The opinions in circulation regarding Islamic scholarship until now are plausible but lack support from senior scholars in the Sunni world. They are in fact the saying of individuals and not a body of scholars that represent the Ummah. We need a majority voice in this serious matter given that defining what scholarship is and who is a scholar has been clouded by sectarian difference.


We are pressed to ask in this chaotic setting that we live in: “where is the necessary balance in approach and discourse in solving our problems and why do we refuse to return to the Shar’iah as the criteria for judging beauty and right and wrong, the good and the truth and justice and oppression?”


Instead of referring to the shar’iah as a criteria by which disputes are settled and from which we receive guidance, we prefer intellectual duels and verbal wars and high flown discourses which have nothing to do with our needs as Muslims.



We are in need to build community and support effort at increasing Islamic literacy plus address social matters for all, Muslims and non-Muslims. What is it that we are giving to society at the end of the day and how are we contributing to the well being of humanity?



In the post 911 West it has become fashionable to “critique” Islam, the Qur’an, scholars etc., in the name of “rationality” so much so the affair has become profitable. If we shun from the responsibility to know, or refuse to bring a fiqh of critique and a fiqh of da’wah to the table we will soon find ourselves in a trying position. More and more people will be confused with the possibility of some turning to militancy to defend what they think to be correct out of desperation and others to kufr out of disgust. We saw a glimpse of this happen during the cartoon contest that took place in Europe and we hope not to see such insanity re-occur.


A question arises here. If we support free-speech under what conditions and in what spirit are we to support it and uphold it? Why do we want to continue to promote a Cold War between Sufis and Salafis in the West instead of answer the above question? According to some codes of law in the West free-speech is tolerated as long as there is no liable or does not contribute to a clear and present danger in these cases free-speech is limited.


Until now Muslims in the West have not demonstrated that they understand clearly the fiqh of free-speech, nor the freedom, which allows for critique and the responsibility that comes with that freedom. Despite our illiteracy in these areas of fiqh some of us endorse ideas that claim to be critical but which in fact contribute to, fuel and lead to the disintegration of the Muslim community in the West. The Williams article is an example of this new form of critique that is endorsed by some Muslims because it supports there ideas and efforts despite the fact that it assassinates another group of Muslims without ever really discussing real ideas in an academic and critical manner.



What we need and want in the West is to build cordial relations with others and we want our dignity preserved as the preservation of dignity is an objective of the Shar’iah in the thought of Imam Qarafi {r}. We need clear scholarly leadership that guides us we don’t need sectarianism. Muslims in the West must stand with one another and the oppressed and refuse to oppress others.

We are in desperate need of a fiqh of critique and da’wah and even debate and a fiqh of leadership. Given the number of educated Muslims in the West I am shocked that we are plagued with deficiencies in the basics of discussion and debate and critique and in leadership. That there has to be a fiqh of how to deal with the critique of Islam and da’wah is what the Williams article makes clear to me.

The only good that I see that came out of the Williams article being posted on a public Muslim forum is that it reintroduced in the consiousness of Muslims if only for a shirt time the need for understanding “fiqh of minorities” and “fiqh of dealing with media“ and a “fiqh of da’wah” and a “fiqh of leadership.” What I learned overall from the event of the Williams article being posted is that there is an absence of two things: a fiqh of da’wah and a fiqh of critique among Muslims, and it is fard kifayah that at least some of us know this fiqh which is not in traditional fiqh manuals. Very few seem to be interested in these branches of fiqh but engage the new school of critique without knowing the ahkam of such activity. This is problematic.

I would hope that those engaged in fiqh that represent the organizations in the West begin to consider this matter seriously and address it in a mature manner making clear the ahkam for such action.

Allahu Al’am Wa Al’a Wa Billahi Taufiq Wa AstagfirUllah



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