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the Message Continues ... 7/75


Newsletter for November 2007


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The Crisis of Muslim Leadership
"Passive followers are just as responsible as bad leaders"
by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, UK

The crisis of leadership in the Muslim community is also a crisis of follower ship, says Shelina Zahra Janmohamed. Leaders and followers both need to understand the etiquette of exercising their duties.

One of my favorite stories from the Qur’an is the tale of Prophet Ibrahim, known also in the Bible, as Abraham. He always struck me as a deeply discerning character, who found truth in the simplest and clearest ways.

Ibrahim watches the sun rise, and like his contemporaries considers whether it might be the lord of the worlds. As the sun sets and disappears to nothingness and oblivion, he concludes that it cannot be the Almighty. He watches the moon rise and set in the same way, and reasons that it too cannot be the Creator for the same reason. He concludes that the true Creator must be far greater, that the true Divine is one that must have created all these things that people wrongly believe are gods. Ibrahim declares that he is not of those who believe in many gods.

As a person of faith, this narrative strikes us as simple and obvious. Yet it does not seem so obvious to his peers. How is it that they cannot see the truth in front of their noses? The facts are so clear, we cry, waving our fists fervently at the verses recounting this inexplicable inability to see the truth.

When Ibrahim challenges his uncle - ironically, a man who carves idols - about how he can believe in all these gods, especially those who he himself has created, the answer is one that makes me stop dead in my tracks. For me, the uncle’s response is one of the most telling and yet least pondered on in the whole Qur’an.

His answer offers us insight into the painful modern tensions of culture and faith, the thorny yet fundamental issues of leadership and direction, the stunting reluctance to admit the need for change. In ordinary lay terms, the man immortalised in the Qur’an shows us how drawing from misplaced authority can result in fatal and devastating consequences. To me, the response is a clear statement of the fact that blind following and literalism is a debilitating phenomenon of the human condition, and one which we continue to be crippled by today.

Ibrahim is a cheeky chappy, and one whom I admire for his ironic audacity, all of which are qualities in which we are severely deficient today. In engaging and challenging authority he uses a certain charm, and a well-defined adab, etiquette. He chops the heads off all the idols which the local community worship, except for the chief idol, and then places the axe on the shoulder of the chief. When he is challenged by the local leaders, he smiles wryly and says, why don’t you ask the chief idol, he’s the one with the axe. Cue cartoon steam flaring out of the leaders’ ears and much communal anger at this anti-establishment upstart. Again, the truth of Ibrahim’s narrative is obvious. The anger of the leaders is based on the simplicity of his exposition of the truth. They can see, yet they are blind. And what is the answer as to why they continue to believe?

“Because our fathers, and their fathers used to do this.”

In our ringside seats at this historical debacle we jump up and down screaming, do you not have your own brains to reflect? Is it not possible, even obvious, that your fathers were wrong? Have you not derived the authority for your actions from an incorrect source? Ibrahim’s gentle humor and irony forces his community leaders to engage in dialogue and respond to their followers.

Stop for a moment and reflect. We are in the same situation. Muslim communities and mosques are upholding traditions because this is what our fathers used to. Women are treated as inferior beings, not permitted in mosques or on mosque committees. Like our fathers…Imams preaching in languages other than English. Like our fathers…Marriages and matches based on caste and family rather than compatibility and choice…like our fathers…

But ‘fathers’ is also metaphoric, referring not just to those who precede, but also those to whom we give authority. And here, exactly here, are the Big Questions for the Muslim community. Who should have authority? What should be the nature of the relationship between leaders and followers? Most critically in what manner should followers engage with those in authority?

Those in authority should fully expect to be kept on their toes. They earn their stripes by engaging with those who challenge. They must show leadership through creating dialogue. Those leaders who insist on broadcast monologue and who cannot hear the questioning, enquiring, even challenging voices do not bear out the qualities required in a Muslim leader. Leadership in the worldly sphere is consensual. Even the Prophet asked his people, “Is it not that I have authority over you?” Only when they replied “But of course you do!” did he proceed with offering them further direction. This is the etiquette of the leader.

Our leaders need to address these fundamental requirements. Communication - both in language as well as style and format - is critical. Being forward thinking and visionary in order to lead by example are also fundamental. Being open to new challenges, ideas and situations is also key. Underpinning all these is the concept of dialogue. Authority, like respect and trust, has to be gained, not simply asserted through history, culture or shouting loudest.

The Muslim communities are indeed in a leadership crisis. What this means is that we are also in a crisis of followership, because the relationship between leaders and followers is a symbiotic one. We abandon our responsibilities as followers and then whine when we are not happy with leaders. If we complain that we don’t have the right leaders, it is because we don’t know how to exercise our duties as good followers.

Good followers know when to challenge, but more importantly they know how to challenge. Healthy enquiry does not require mass anarchy and rebellion, but it does keep leaders on their toes. After all, the Prophet was often asked ‘why’, and the Qur’an is constantly referring to those who believe as people who ‘think’, ‘reflect’ and ‘ponder’, all qualities of a questioning mind.

Ibrahim does not raise his voice to his community leaders and shout them down, telling them brutally that they are outdated and engaged in shirk, polytheism. He does not call them names and humiliate them in public, asserting that they are wrong, and only he is right (even though in his case he actually is). Rather, with his uncle he uses gentle discussion and compassion, and even goes on to pray to Allah for him. With the community leaders he does not enter a slinging match but rather uses humour and patience in exposing the falsity of their idol worship. Even the Prophet spends forty years building relations with the community before even saying a word about the One God and the dîn of Islam. And when he does start to spread the word he invites the leaders of the tribe to share a meal at his house.

We have forgotten that Islam was a challenger, an outsider that came to confront establishment. It brought revolutionary ideas - the equality of human beings, the rights of women, the unity of God, the peaceful co-existence of tribes and nations. It met with resistance from leaders because it challenged the status quo. Islam grew because as a challenger, its style and etiquette was based on the wisdom of manners. Courtesy, compassion and patience were its foundations.
The challenge for Muslims today is to discern to whom they should give authority, and to engage in constant dialogue with them, with the right Islamic etiquette. The leader must understand that gone are the days for monologues and silent obedience, and now is the time for interaction and engagement. Leaders must expect this and encourage it. The follower must understand that questioning and challenging are a duty, but must not to be engaged in with hostility and rebellion, but with enthusiasm for improvement and aspiration for the truth.
Ibrahim is asked to sacrifice his son at the command of God, to prove that he is willing to give up what he loves most. God replaces the intended victim with a sheep, a creature known for following blindly and unthinkingly.

The choice of Ibrahim is always before us: to assess truth on its own merits irrespective of mass opinion, culture and history or to suffer the consequences of unquestioning and unthinking follower ship.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed has her own blog at







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