Thursday, 22 January 2009

Aftab Malik Interview by DeenPort

Have you always had a love for books or is this something that you picked up later?

I was fortunate enough to come from a family that read books, so I wasn't averse to reading. However, the real passion was lying dormant, and it was Shaykh Hamza who really awoke the sleeping giant, so to speak.-

Really? How?

Well, when I first heard Shaykh Hamza's lectures, I think back in 1996, I was just amazed at how articulate he was. The way he handled the facts and how he was able to weave in and out of one subject matter to another truly amazed me. Back then, there really wasn't anyone who ignited interest of Islam in me - I mean from an intellectual perspective. The alternative was the non-English speaking malvi saab in the Masjid, and that just didn't cut the mustard. Actually, it was really funny how I purchased the Shaykh's first tape.-

Why - what happened?

Well, at that time, all I knew about Islam was from Ahmed Deedat, and I was really proud that I was going to purchase my very own copy of one of his lectures. Anyhow, whilst pondering over which tape to purchase, the storeowner was muttering some words to himself until he realized that I was actually there. He then became animated and vocal. He said something like: 'Akhi! Take this tape. It's the first recording of an amazing lecture!' I looked at him, not being impressed at all, by what I thought to be a poor sales pitch. I just told him 'Jazak Allah khayran - but no thanks'. I was here to buy an Ahmed Deedat tape, and that was it. 'Take the tape' he exclaimed. 'Take it for free'. My ears perked up. A free tape? I thought to myself. Hmm. He probably was finding it hard to sell or something. 'No thanks brother' I said. 'I'm just looking for an Ahmed Deedat tape,' I said nervously as the owner began walking over to me. He was a big man. 'Listen akhi,' he said putting his arms on my shoulders. 'Take it. If you don't like it, bring it back, or give it to a friend. But I am telling you something. This tape will change your life.' I peered over to the cover and was unable to recognise who this person was. It certainly wasn't Ahmed Deedat and I was even less impressed. However, this mans enthusiasm was so great, I decided to take it. 'OK' I said, 'If I don't like it, I'll bring it back'. It wasn't long after that I found myself having nothing to do. It was a Sunday afternoon. I then realised that I had this tape. I put it on, and the rest as they say, is history. The tape was Shaykh Hamza's 'Dajjal and the New world Order', and that one tape really did change my entire life and that of my family

SubhanAllah! If you don't mind me asking, just how did your life change?

My whole outlook and perception of life changed along with my attitude, specifically to Islam. It completely turned around. I think I was what could be aptly termed a 'part-time' Muslim, in the sense that I prayed etc, but only half-heartedly. There was no spirit or desire that animated my barren actions. I really had dismissed Islam as being nothing other than a set of rules and regulations, and I had come to this understanding by reflecting upon the goings on at my local mosque. All I could recall were arguments and being told 'do this' and 'don't do that.' I was not impressed, and infact, what I saw, actually deterred me from wanting to learn about Islam. I thought that Islam really did not have anything to offer me, nor could be relevant to someone growing up in the West. Thinking about it now, back then I equated Islam to a set number of Pakistani traditions. How wrong I was. Shaykh Hamza immediately sparked, or set a catalyst of change in me. I was taken aback at how he portrayed Islam as something meaningful, scholarly and interesting. There seemed to be more to Islam than 'Namaz' and fasting. He also spoke in a language, which I could clearly understand - not in Urdu or Punjabi - but in English and it was very articulate, almost magic. I went from being a 'passive' Muslim into a 'proactive' one, in that I actually went out to learn about this din (as opposed to being dragged) and the more I learned the more I continued to want to know. This entailed changing my reading habits. I would read those books he had suggested. This entailed a lot of reading! So it was here that my passion for reading books really emerged.

What sort of books did you read?

I began to read books of Sirah, history and basic jurisprudence. I later then found that I had a real desire to learn about the 'ulama, so I began to read their biographies which then lead me to read their books. It was a real broad spectrum of books. There was a point after which I had left university that I was reading very heavily. I was reading three or four books at a time, often completing a book in one or two days. I really believe that period of my life served as a foundation from which I still benefit today. To be honest, I did actually read a whole load of books that looked into the 'controversial' questions that kept on coming up at university back then, and which continue to crop up today.

Such as?

You know, questions such as, is there such a notion as good bida'? Should we celebrate the Mawlid? Should we follow a Madhab etc etc.

And what did you discover?

I was actually quite surprised. I came to read the works of the great scholars such as Jalal al-Din al-Suyyuti, Ibn Kathir, al-Qurtubi, Imam al-Nawawi, Ibn Hajr al-Asqalani, and so on, and they answered most if not all of the questions. I was really amazed to find that most of the issues to which some people were objecting to were not instituted by the Pakistanis (!) nor were they considered evil or reprehensible. I did however, understand that scholars generally fell into two groups when understanding the hadith 'beware of matters newly begun, for every matter newly begun is innovation, every innovation is misguidance, and every misguidance is in Hell-fire,' and that both groups were able to show their evidences to prove their point. However, most of the scholars, such as Imam Shafi'i, ibn Athir, al-Qarafi, ibn Hazm, al-'izz ibn 'Abd al-Salam, Ibn Hajr al-Asqalani, Imam Nawawi and others categorized innovation into good and bad. The point was that these scholars did not call those who differed with them as Kuffar or mushriks, as some people were doing during the early nineties. Instead of recognizing that there were legitimate differences at how such scholars understood this hadith, and at how many scholars differed from one another over different issues, we were being told that there were no differences and that if they did occur, they were misguided. This was simply not true and if people actually read these works written centuries ago, they too would come to realize it. However, at university, no one really has the time to read, and way back then, there really were no good books that dealt with such questions. The ones that were available, were either poor translations and cheaply produced from India. The books that were widely available, relatively good quality and cheap, were the books that stated every innovation was misguidance, and praying this way was wrong and doing that would make you an innovator and so on and so on! It was quite depressing! You were really quite restricted for choice. That isn't the case now. There is now a vast choice of books of high quality on 'traditional' Islam.

Why do you think that is?

Personally, I think that this change has come about as a result of the very hard work primarily carried out in the English language by people like Shaykh Hamza, Shaykh Nuh, Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, Imam Zaid Shakir, Dr 'Umar 'Abdallah Faruq and others. The word 'tradition' was unheard of before they began to speak and articulate it. Now, everyone is talking about 'traditional Islam' and 'tradition'. I think through their influence, people have begun to produce more books, tapes and magazines in this line. We also have e-groups that disseminate traditional fiqh. These e-lists are moderated and answered by students who have been encouraged and motivated by the Shaykh's I have mentioned to go out and learn sacred knowledge. It is truly as a renewal has slowly begun. Just take a look at how many new publishing houses have sprouted just in the last 5 years. The exception has been of course, ITS (Islamic Texts Society) and The Quilliam Press, who begun this work long ago. People really want to know what this 'traditional' Islam is, and I really do believe that the people have been inspired by these scholars to go out and seek it.

What does traditional Islam mean to you?

Traditional Islam means different things to different people depending on the context. Roughly, I understand it as the legacy of the juristic, theological and spiritual interpretive communitiesthat forms around the third century and continues on. These interpretive communities developed a particular set of paradigms, symbolism, and linguisticspecificity that constituted themainstream tradition of Islam.It could be seen to be a continuity in these areas, and something that was taught from one generation to another through a process of transmission and isnad. When the isnad breaks, you could say that the tradition has broken, and what replaces it are the opinions of people who really do not recognize traditional scholarship. In-fact, they react against it and try to deconstruct its importance, simply because they haven't received instruction in this way. They deem it antiquated and irrelevant. Without a chain of authorities leading from one scholar to another, which ultimately leads back to the Prophet Muhammad, anyone could just about say anything, and we are seeing the effects of this phenomenon now. Infact, to repeat the words of the great scholar, 'Abdallah ibn Mubarak (d. 181); 'According to me, the isnad is from the din. If it were not for the isnad, whoever wished could have said whatever he wished. The example of one who studies this din, is like the one who tries to ascend the roof without a ladder.' Sufyan al-Thawri (d. 161) said that 'the isnad is the weapon of a believer.' There are countless such remarks. Tradition is something that is living and dynamic.

That is really interesting. You mention about tradition, and you actually wrote a book about that didn't you? Can you tell us more about it and what motivated you to write it?

Yes. It's called, The Broken Chain: Reflections Upon the Neglect of a Tradition. I basically attempted to illustrate what tradition implied. It is really concerned with bringing to light many opinions of the great scholars of Islam, such as the ones I have mentioned earlier, like Imam Nawawi, Imam Shafi'i etc. I never set out to write a book. I wrote a poem about the Prophet Muhammad, and then began to elaborate upon the points and statements made within the poem. Then I thought it could do with something explaining the role of poetry in Islam. Later, someone suggested that I should write something about scholarship and how and why Muslims have ended up in this situation where everything is contested and where one brother calls another Mubtadi, mislead or even a kaffir for praying in one way or for simply the way they show respect for the Prophet, scholars and those who take a spiritual path. It really is a summation of what I had learned and experienced. It would not have been possible had I not met Shaykh Hamza nor had I read the works of Shaykh Nuh and Shaykh Abdal Hakim.

Would you agree with some people when they say that people get a bit obsessed when around these Shayukh.

Yes, I have heard this a couple of times and it really saddens me, truly. Let me try and explain, Insha'Allah. Most, if not all those who respect these Shayukh do so for a very good reason, namely, as in my case, a transformation takes place for which one is eternally grateful. I have met some brothers who have been drug users and pushers and by meeting and listening to these Shayukh, they rejected their ways and adopted Islam in a wholesome manner. It is as if a second chance or a new lease of life has been given to them, one that is of meaning and purpose. Because of this, these brothers and sisters love the one who has rejuvenated them and many respect them greatly for this.In fact, this attitude isn't something new at all. There exists a whole corpus of literature in the Islamic heritage that discusses at length the status bestowed upon scholars, and the right that they have to be honoured. Because we have become so alienated from this tradition, when we se someone honouring a scholar, we deem it 'excessive'. Imam Shafi'i mentions that when he was in the lessons of his teacher, Imam Malik, he used to turn the pages very carefully out of fear that it would disrupt his teacher. Al-Rabi' swore that he never dare drink water when Imam Shafi'i was looking at him, out of his reverence for him. Were these scholars, who literally codified our din, excessive in their respect for their teachers? Would anyone dare say so? They wouldn't because they were living what they had learned about the greatness attributed to those scholars and teachers that change the states of people. Khatib al-Baghdadi, a prolific author, master historian and hadith master mentioned just some ways in which a student would prepare himself before his teacher. In his book, al-Jami' il akhlaq, he mentioned such things as the way to honour and venerate the teacher, and even how one should appear before a scholar. Here, he mentioned such things as ensuring that one's breath was fresh by staying away from food that would emit foul breath and to ensure that the miswak is used. He mentions that ones clothes must be clean, and one should perfume themself etc. He wasn't the only scholar to write about such things. Qadi ibn Jama'ah also wrote about how one venerates a scholar in his Tadhkirat as-Sami'. He even mentions the way the teacher should venerate the student during lessons; the adab of addressing, meeting and even questioning a teacher. He also wrote about the way one should respect books (as they are also a means to acquire knowledge) and how one should purchase books. In short, we are told by the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, to honour our scholars. Part of the reason as to why we no longer follow this tradition is because most of us are university educated Muslims, and although many would not like to admit it, in rejecting what many perceive as 'Western influences' such as philosophy, we actually absorb a vast amount of these values. As such, we no longer are able to recognize and acknowledge our scholars, and yet the Prophet Muhammad, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, told us to treat people according to their status. Imam al-Nawawi, for example, wrote that people should stand up for the wise and the elders, whereas al-'iz ibn 'Abdal Salam and ibn Hajr al-Asqalani said that if by not standing insult or corruption is likely, then it becomes forbidden not to stand. I apologise for rambling on, but it is important to understand the value and honour Islam places upon those who teach Knowledge. It really is a tragedy when no sooner does someone show both love and honour for a scholar that they are subjected to baseless accusations.Saying this, there are some people who do 'cling' to the Shayukh, and I have to say that they do this out of the reasons that I have mentioned. This can be frustrating for others, and I myself have been ignored and even pushed aside when I had tried to talk to the Shaykh. We can't blame the Shaykh, because often enough, they do not know what is occurring. To these brothers, I only ask that they be considerate of the feelings of others and understand that the Shayukh are there to benefit everyone, not just them. I urge everyone to read books such as the ones I have mentioned as well as Imam al-Zarnuji's 'Instruction of the Student' that is published in English by StarLatch press. That will provide some insights to the things I have just mentioned, and most likely will be more beneficial than what I have just said.-

Jazak Allah khayran for that. I too hope that people who read this can understand how much respect Islam bestows upon our scholars. Moving to my next question, can you summarise what you learned from all this reading that you were doing?

Well, it wasn't long into reading that I found that our din couldn't be taken by simply reading books. There were so many questions that I had from reading them that I realized quickly one required a teacher, and this was also the message of many of the books that I had read. It was clear to me that these scholars were the result of a vigorous educational process whereby they learned from living scholars. Unfortunately, I had found that many of the students at university had either read one or two books or listened to a few tapes and thought that they could tackle the most difficult questions, and amazingly, feel confident about making their pronouncements. This was and is a very dangerous trend, and you should read the warnings of the early scholars. The more I read, the more I realized how little I truly knew and the less comfortable I was in joining in on the trend of asserting 'my opinion'. Islam had become reduced to opinions of an uneducated mass of Muslim students, and the results were huge arguments, fierce rhetoric and a massive amount of damage to people's akhira. Words are easy to say, but with them, come a great deal of responsibility.

Have you written anything else other than The Broken Chain?

I have written several articles, the most recent being in the forthcoming Q-News Magazine that deals with the question of who speaks for British Muslims. I have edited three books in the past three years, the most recent being The Empire and the Crescent: Global Implications for a New American Century. It examines a number of issues thrown up since 9/11 that impact both Muslims and non-Muslims. That was a real experience and I worked with a diverse number of academics, scholars and journalists.

Do you care to say a few words about 9/11?

I think the significance of 9/11 is too critical to ignore. For one thing, the level of discourse within the Muslim community really needs to change. People still rant and rave about the Sufi Vs Salafi Vs Barelwi Vs Deobandi polemics. We really need to grow up and move beyond this discourse. We are not living in India or Pakistan and nor is this the 19th century. We have to deal with the problems that the 21st century presents and those associated issues with living in a predominantly non-Muslim country. We need to tackle issues such as, what does it mean to be a British Muslim? What are the roots of extremism here amongst Muslims? What is extremism and is it fair to talk of 'extremist' Muslims? What purpose do we serve as second and third generation Muslims living in Britain? Do we have anything to offer Britain? Is it wise to allow a moral reading of Islam to be superseded by a strictly political functional one? There are so many questions

What projects are you currently involved with?

Writing wise, I am researching for my next book

What is that about?
It's to do with Anti-Semitism in Europe and particularly it looks at the relationship between Muslims and Jews.

Very interesting! Can you tell us anymore?

I have a working title of: The Curse of Shylock: The Shadow of Anti-Semitism in the Muslim World. I am hoping that I am able to write an article on this subject matter for Zaytuna's Seasons Magazine in the Summer, Insha'Allah.

When will it be ready by?

I am hoping that the book should be out by the end of 2005. Allah Knows best though. It is a very aggressive deadline. I probably can make it if nothing else major takes my time.

What else are you up to?

What else? There's enough here already to do! Well, I am looking into the possibility of studying for a PhD in some field of study of Islam. Maybe to do with it relationship with Europe, some aspects of scholarship or even investigating further the idea that I am developing for my book.

Jazak Allah khayran for you time sidi. Do you have some advice for us Insha' Allah I would say, always ensure that you have a sincere intention in what you do and don't fail to make one. Learn how to say 'I don't know' and you would have gained a great deal of knowledge. Keep in the company of people who remind you of Allah and keep your tongue moist with His remembrance and of His beloved Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace. Don't get drawn into 'debates' and stay away from speaking ill of people. If you haven't anything good to say, then it is best to remain silent. Don't expose one another's shortcomings and pray with a focused mind. Love the people of Allah, always seek their company and ways of assisting them. Ask others to pray for you and always pray for others. Realize that everyone is the creation of Allah, and understand that had He wished, Allah could have made everyone Muslim, but did not do so. Look at one another with compassion and see what your own faults are before you point your finger. Always turn to Allah for forgiveness and never despair, no matter what happens. And finally, please keep me in your prayers.Was-salam.


"At last, a significant and sustained Muslim commentary on 7/7. Aftab Malik is to be congratulated on identifying a new generation of western Muslim thinkers at ease with the social sciences and mainstream Sunni scholarship. An indispensable point of entry for policy makers, academics and the general reader."

Dr Philip Lewis, lecturer in Peace Studies, Bradford University.

"In our current crisis it is imperative to hear sensible Muslim voices. This short book is a collection of such voices and its contents include pertinent social and political analysis as well as theological judgments and guidance. The Muslim community, indeed British society, needs to attend to both kinds of reflection."

Professor Tariq Modood, Author of Multicultural Politics: Racism, Ethnicity and Muslims in Britain.

"This is a serious and thoughtful collection of essays by Muslim scholars and writers. It draws on a wide range of sources to assess the political and theological issues raised by violence conducted in the name of Islam. It deserves to be widely read, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike."

David Hayes,


“Christians, Jews and Muslims and those without religious affiliation will welcome Aftab Malik’s brave efforts to create a dialogue about terrorism. Pulpits and parliaments have provided platforms for illegitimate and simple hate messages that cannot be justified by the core values of the Abrahamic faiths or the founding principles of democratic states.This book helps to create a rational and informed counterweight to those who pour oil on the flames.”

Professor Robin Cohen, University of Warwick, England

“Scholarly, incisive, and a must read for individuals committed to confronting misinformation, illusions, and spin from the Bush administration and the Media about Iraq, Palestine and the Middle East. Aftab Malik has done a masterful job of pulling together some of the best scholars in the field and this book will almost certainly become required reading for students and scholars alike. This is a breath of fresh air in the midst of a very toxic moment in our history.”

Professor Jess Ghannam, University of California, San Francisco, US

"In the finest public intellectual tradition, the contributors have produced work that is bold, engaging, humane, and deeply relevant to the troubling times in which we live.”

Dr John Collins, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York,


"... a much needed work...should be used as a reader in college classrooms...a truly amazing compilation..." Islamic Studies, Vol. 43, No1, Spring 2004"... a book that is compelling and authoritative." BBC Religion and Ethics"This is one of the most important books to appear since September 11th..Mark Curtis, Author of: Web of Deceit: Britain\'s Real Role in the World


"Essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the Western Wars on so called Terrorism."

Dr Roger Van Zwanenberg, Pluto Press

"Compelling Reading"

Yvonne Ridely"

"If you read only one book on the Bush administration's determination to drag the world into war .. we suggest this one!"

AK Press (UK)


This is an important, accessible and timely work that summarises the traditional scholarship that has become available to English-speaking Muslims in the last decade or so."

Q-News Magazine"

"An enlightening and important contribution to studies on contemporary Islamic law."
Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar,Author of Encyclopedia of Muhammad\'s Women Companions and the Traditions They Related

"A must read."

Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPACUK)

"University campuses are rife with self-styled mini-ulama, angry young people whohave read a few books on Islam coupled with modern technology of searchable databases of the sacred texts and the Internet. They are then deluded into thinking that they have properly read and understood the works and are qualified to give opinions onthem and other issues...Aftab Malik shows concisely and clearly that knowledge must be obtained from a living scholar and thereby reconnecting the "Broken Chain" and becoming part of the "Unbroken Chain" of a living tradition stretching back to the source of this great religion."

Articles“Is Islam Compatible With the West?” BBC News 8th September 2005

“The State Muslims Are In” OpenDemocracy.Org 15th August 2005

“Don’t Get Angry: The Power of the Written Word,” in The Arab News, 25TH June, 2005

“The Tribulation of Tribal Muslim, Tribal Islam,” in Islamica Magazine (Amman: Jordan) Issue 12, Spring 2005

“The Search for Authority and Authenticity” in The Muslim Weekly (London) 04-10 June 2004, #32, p24

“Who Speaks for British Muslims?” in Q-News (London) February 2004, Issue 354

“The Search for Authority and Authenticity in Western Islam”, in Islamica (Amman: Jordan) Winter Issue, 2003

“Changing the Nation”, in Q-News (London) #335, September 2001 pp 12-13

“The Path of Intellects”, in The Muslim Reader (Singapore) Vol. 21, # 2 (May – August 2003) pp 19-22

“The Islamic Civilisation: The Forgotten Contribution”, in Qalam International (London) Issue 3, Vol. 1, October 1998, pp.35-38

“Islamic Fundamentalism”, in Qalam International (London) Issue 2, Vol. 1, August 1998, pp. 11-14


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