Worse than Who’s Who

November 19, 2009

The recently released report entitled “The 500 Most Influential Muslims” would barely be acceptable as an IB MYP Personal Project from a 10th Grader. I certainly hope that the people who did the actual work were undergrads and not doctoral candidates or – Hasha lillah! – Esposito and Kalin themselves.

Aside from my personal biases, the most jaw-grind-inducing problem was the sheer inconsistency. There was apparently no criterion for deciding how individuals were assigned to the various categories. This was really noticeable with religious scholars who were haphazardly assigned to three or four different categories. There was also no consistency in the amount of detail or the extension of meaning of terms used in the sidebar. National placement was also fluid – Shaikh Nuh Keller (US born, resident in Jordan for two decades) is listed under the USA, while Shaikh Gibreel Haddad (Lebanon born, US educated, longtime resident of Syria, and settled for about 5 years in Brunei) is listed under Brunei.

The “top 50” are ranked, and the rest simply listed by country and region in their categories. The most offensive category is that for “women.” All of the women included are shoved in this category, no matter what their field. Sheikh Hasina Wazed – the Prime Minister of a country with a population greater than those controlled by the four “most influential” combined is not only relegated to this category but even has her name mis-Arabized. (I suspect the editorial hand of John “qital=killing” Esposito there.) The only exception is Sheikha Munira Qubeysi (!!!?!!1!1!) who makes it as the token woman in the top 50.

Only 11 out of the top 50 are outside of the Middle East – approxomately the inverse of the actual ratio of Middle Eastern Muslims to all Muslims. It appears that there was a fixed and roughly equal number of slots for South Asians, Southeast Asians, and Africans. Three of the top 50 are employed by al-Azhar – an institution which (no matter how many Western newspapers call it the closest thing to a Muslim Vatican there is) barely has any influence over its own staff and students. Taqi Usmani comes in just behind the Zaydi imam, even though his word holds extremely powerful sway over at least 10 times as many Muslims as there are Zaydis in the world, and is influential with many more. While Qaradawi deserves to be on there (he’s number 9), I think Taqi Usmani has much greater influence than he does. (Especially since many of those who listen to Qaradawi are the sort who don’t like to listen to anyone “too much.”)

Hazrat Professor Ameen Mian Barakati (Allah preserve him) is there as the token Barelwi, just above the Bohras’ Burhanuddin. Even if we set aside the whole more-Barelwis-than-Arab-Muslims-of-every-persuasion issue, I’m not sure how they settled on Hazrat Ameen Mian. If there was only room for one, I presume Azhari Mian (Allah honor him) would have been a better symbolic choice. Tahir al-Qadiri made it into the 500 (and he belongs there if not in the top 50.) I would think at least Maulana Ilyas Qadiri (Allah distinguish him) belonged in there as well. If we were being realistic, there would be several Deobandi and several Barelwi ulama in the top 50, along with a number of Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi political and cultural leaders.

I’m sure the Nusantara needsa similarly beefed up representation. It looks as if they had a single volunteer look at some Spanish-language Salafi site to come up with names from Latin America, and then someone pointed out that it didn’t look balanced, they went and found a Shi`i to add to the mix.

I suppose there might be two justifications for the choices the editors and compilers made regarding inclusion and exclusion. (Though there is no excuse for the inconsistency and ridiculous taxonomy.) First, this is a first edition – next year will include a whole different set of people. If that turns out to be true, great. Though I don’t know how the royal sponsors will take being bumped.

Second, that “influence” here means number of times mentioned in Reuters articles (or other Western media.) That makes sense if this is meant to be a guide to understanding the news as reported. It’s worthless if it’s meant to be a guide to understing the Muslim world. (And yes, by extension, the Western news sources are worthless as a means of understanding the Muslims of the world.)

The Arab countries get heavier coverage because they are small – a single bureau can adequately cover a whole nation, and because many more correspondents actually bother to learn Arabic because they have to. You can – and most do – cover India and Pakistan without learning Urdu. But you cannot even scratch the surface of the lives of ordinary Indian and Pakistani Muslims without it.

Of course the other reason the names of Arab rulers end up in the press so much is because of the outrageously disproportionate importance ascribed by everyone except maybe East Asians to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Other weird stuff:

  • Harith Dari, the head of the Sunni Ulama Union, is the only Iraqi under the “Political” section.
  • Mojaddedi is the only politician of any influence from Afghanistan aside from the President.
  • Only Justice Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan and General Ashraf Kiyani matter in Pakistani politics. (For perspective, more people voted for Imran Khan’s party in the 2002 elections than live in Lebanon, and they only got 1 seat.)
  • Haji Abdul Wahhab is well above Taqi Sahib, even though the latter is arguably more influential amongst even the former’s own followers. I suppose he’s there as a representative of the jama`at as a whole, but that’s just another inconsistency.
  • Apparently the Khadim al-Haramayn is “*head* of the most extensive da’wa network of missionary Muslims in the world.” And Salafism originated in Saudi. Which is OK, because the term is interchangeable with Wahhabism.
  • Their definition of Islamic Modernism seems calculated to offend everyone.
  • Where did they get the figures for the breakdown of 96% Traditionalists, 1% Modernists, and 3% Fundamentalists? I know some individuals who seem to have roughly that exact makeup, but what does it even mean when applied to the Islamic world as a whole?
  • They are unaware that Akhbaris also exist in India and Pakistan. Didn’t they even check akhbari.org? (I would have thought that would have fit in well with the rest of their methodology.)
  • They think the Suhrawardiyya have a strong presence in modern India.
  • A Reuters blogger is conducting a poll related to this. Shaikh Nazim’s people (Allah reward him) decided to flood it. Then Harun Yahya’s people started to do the same. It hadn’t occured to me, but he (for all his disturbingness) deserves to be in the top 50, or at least have a more thorough description. But having him in the “Science & Technology” section is almost as offensive as the whole women’s section issue.
  • They note that Newsweek named SRK one of the 50 most powerful people in the world – so how can he not be one of the 50 most influential Muslims? I’m pretty sure if we were to have a real test of “influence” as the ability to get more people to do what one says, he would beat everyone else on the list hands down.

To be fair, the authors do note the obvious lack of geographic balance in a section of their Introduction titled “Demography of Influence.” Why a three page Introduction needs sections I don’t know, but here’s what they say:

Geography is also an important issue in terms of influence, with the Middle East and North America and Europe holding disproportionate influence in relation to the quantity of Muslims in these regions. It is important to clarify that individuals from the Middle East have a disproportionate influence in the Muslim world, due to the fact that the region has many of the oldest and most well-esteemed institutions for Muslims, and most importantly is home to the holy sites in Mecca and Medina. Europe and North America are host to a large proportion of the world’s most highly respected educational institutions and draw talented, influential people from around the world, with global outreach through their wealth and high academic standing. Many important international institutions are also based in Europe and North America, which adds to this asymmetry.

The problem is that none of this is true. Many in the past have noted how little the Muslim communities in the West have been able to contribute to their homelands, in spite of their wealth and access to supposed power and influence. Pretty much the primary export from Western Muslim communities to the East is members of al-Qaeda and like-minded groups, nearly all of whom were educated and radicalized in the West. (As were Khomeini, Sayyid Qutb, and so many others.)

As for the Middle East, almost none of it’s institutions or individuals has a noteworthy level of influence in the Subcontinent. No one in India or Pakistan knows who Amr Khaled is. Only those whose primary language is English have ever heard Qaradawi’s name. And none of them would have recognized Tantawi’s name if he hadn’t shown himself to be a lewd, abusive and foul-mouthed old man. They’ll have forgotten him by next month. They all know the king of Saudi Arabia, and maybe of Jordan, but certainly not of Morocco. They have no idea Zaydis or Ibadis exist. Even many who have lived and traveled in Yemen and Oman don’t know they exist. Saddam Husain was popular with Indian Muslims, but he was just as popular with Indian Hindus.

Indians and Pakistanis may turn Wahhabi in Saudi or through a relative who’s lived in Saudi, and they reference the way it’s done in Saudi. Close inspections reveals, though, that they pick up almost everything exclusively from members of their own community and peer group, and it’s more about fitting in than following the way of the Haramain. Saudi influence is greatly exaggerated.

The rest of the demography section and the whole introduction is full of contradictions and unclear writing. They claim the list to be one of those whose are “influential as Muslims” and that “Influence in the Muslim world is derived from two sources: scholarship, and respect and trust.” Then they put monarchs front and center, both here and in the list, even though their influence derives from completely different sources. And what exactly are Khaled and Gülen exceptions to?

Argh.

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