Monday, December 12, 2011

The world’s 500 “most influential” Muslims

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science. 

Last week I received a bulk email from the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center (based in Amman, Jordan) announcing the release of their third annual ranking of the 500 “most influential” Muslims. All three of their annual documents can be downloaded (here) for free, or ordered for $30 or so.

Last year, I had written here about their list in general, but paying closer attention to the Science and Technology category. Salman then noted the particularly conservative, anti-modern standpoint proclaimed in the document itself.
The essential problem with this list is that not only is the term “influential” difficult to define, one clearly realizes that the editors of the document(s) oscillate between at least three very different meanings of the term: a) having power to affect Muslims (through policies); b) being popular among the Muslim public and thus having some “influence” on attitudes and beliefs; c) making important contributions (of substance) in one field or another, contributions that sometimes few Muslims have even heard about and thus have no wide “influence”. This is why one finds in the list, in fact even in the Top 50, people as diverse as Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani (Emir of Qatar), Khaled Mashaal (political leader of Hamas), Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi (perhaps the top Muslim scholar/preacher), and Seyyed Hossein Nasr (the thinker). And among the “honorable mentions” (who missed the top 50 just by a bit), one finds Harun Yahya and Zakir Naik!

So what’s the point of this list and ranking? According to the email I received, “what you’ll learn” in this “must-own book” includes: “the actual movers and shakers in the Muslim communities”, “the scholars, teachers, and preachers who affect the widest number of Muslims”, “the main Muslim politicians who get things done in the domestic and international realms”, “the top business leaders”, “the Muslims who donate millions to or run large charities”, “the top Muslim scientists, artists, celebrities, sports stars”, etc.

Now, a brief look at the document will reveal that not only is the same kind of conservative/orthodox agenda being pushed, in some ways this year’s edition is even worse than last year’s.

First, in an introductory section titled “The House of Islam”, the doctrinal stands of the producers of this list and document shows up very clearly – as it did in the previous editions. After presenting the “Major Doctrinal Divisions in Islam”, which it divides into Sunni, Shii, and Ibadi, it devotes a sub-section to “ideological divisions”, which it categorizes as “Traditional Islam” (96% of the world's Muslims, it says), “Islamic Modernism” (1 %, it says), and “Islamic Fundamentalism” (3 % of the world’s Muslims, it says). Never mind the percentages and where they come from; it is the descriptions of these categories, particularly “Islamic Modernism” that is quite stunning: “Islamic modernism is a reform movement started by politically-minded urbanites with scant knowledge of traditional Islam. These people had witnessed and studied Western technology and socio-political ideas, and realized that the Islamic world was being left behind technologically by the West and had become too weak to stand up to it. They blamed this weakness on what they saw as 'traditional Islam,' which they thought held them back and was not 'progressive' enough. They thus called for a complete overhaul of Islam, including—or rather in particular—Islamic law (sharia) and doctrine (aqida). Islamic modernism remains popularly an object of derision and ridicule, and is scorned by traditional Muslims and fundamentalists alike” (emphases added).

With that kind of conservative mindset and agenda, one then understands the list, starting with the top 10:
1. King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, King of Saudi Arabia (as last year)
2. King Mohammed VI, King of Morocco (was Number 5 last year)
3. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister of the Republic of Turkey (was Number 3 last year)
4. King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein, King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (same as last year)
5. Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran (was Number 3 last year)
6. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Emir of Qatar (was not in the Top 10 last year)
7. Professor Sheikh Ahmad Muhammad al-Tayeb, Grand Sheikh of the Al Azhar University, Grand Imam of the Al Azhar Mosque (same as last year)
8. Dr. Mohammed Badie, Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood (was not in the Top 10 last year)
9. Sultan Qaboos bin Sa’id, Sultan of Oman (was Number 6 last year)
10. Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hussein Sistani, Marja of the Hawza, Najaf, Iraq (was Number 8 last year)

Then among the 12 “Honorable Mentions”, one finds interesting figures like Dr. Zakir Abdul Karim Naik, who is presented simply as “Preacher” and Adnan Oktar (Harun Yahya), labeled only as “Science & Technology”! That says quite a bit about the standards being upheld, not to mention what the Center and the editors of this document consider as “Science & Technology”…

But our (bad) surprises are not over. Further into the document, there is a section for “Science & Technology”, with the statement: “These are the main figures from the world of science and technology.” The list begins with Dr. Zaghloul El Naggar, the foremost proponent of I`jaz (miraculous scientific content of the Qur’an and the Sunna), and Harun Yahya is listed again, pointing the reader to the “Honorable Mentions” list. One must recall that these two writers and media-savvy people are indeed “influential”, in the sense that millions of people gobble up what they say, though there is no description or discussion in the document of the type of influence that these people exert on Muslims.
And to confuse readers even more, the list does consider other types of “influence” by listing more mainstream and prominent Muslim scientists such as Ahmed Zewail, A Q Khan, and Atta-ur-Rahman. The ‘S & T’ list is, for the most part, identical to last year’s, but the editors of this document have decided to take out people like Mehmet Oz (Dr. Oz of TV/Oprah fame) and Anousheh Ansari, whose “influence” was a mystery to begin with…

So it’s the mixed bag and subjective selection that one must decry, as it gives the wrong understanding to those who cannot quite discern the valid personalities from the badly influential ones.


Gary said...

I was similarly bemused by the contents of the list. I didn't read the preamble with its classification of Muslims though. To say that Islamic modernists lack knowledge of the principles of Islam is insulting. The ones I know of tend to firmly base their arguments in Qur'an and hadith. As for being a traditionalist, that is a very slippery term. Some people who appeal to the "traditions" I would definitely classify as fundamentalists while others who call themselves traditionalists are clearly modernist in their views. I guess it all depends on which "traditions" they adhere to.

As for the scientists their choice of Dr. Zaghloul El Naggar, Zakir Naik and Harun Yahya is more reflective of their influence than their (unfortunately poor) grasp of science. In the case of Harun Yahya inc. I suspect his team of writers do understand the science but only well enough to distort and misrepresent it.

If you are going to list scientists for their influence surely their impact in their own professional field should be a prime criterion. If this was applied the list for this category would be noticeably different.

Perhaps we should counter by using this criterion to produce our own list of Muslim scientists.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Thanks, Gary.

"Perhaps we should counter by using this criterion to produce our own list of Muslim scientists."

It seems to me that the difficulties and disadvantages of this idea (defining "influential", inflating already-big egos, defending the list, etc.) outweigh its potential benefits (publicizing good work, familiarizing the public with scientists who deserve to be better known, encouraging good work, etc.).

I think that if we continue to just disseminate good work (and critique bad products), we will achieve the "influence" that is sought among the public.

Anonymous said...

So as a liberal, how fair can you be to the Muslim world which might not share your "civilizing idea"?