Timothy Winter: Britain’s most influential Muslim – and it was all down to a peach

The Independent. Tom Peck (Friday August 20, 2010)

“How long must the Muslims of lower Manhattan have to wait to get a place to pray five times a day? With Islam there are certain liturgical requirements. It’s not like a church that you can build on the top of a hill and say, we’ve only got to go once a week and it looks nice  up there. Muslims need to pray five times a day, they can’t get the subway out and back. It should be seen as a symbol of reconciliation not antagonism.”

Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad - Timothy Winters

It was the sight of peach juice dripping from the chin of a teenage French female nudist that led a Cambridgeshire public schoolboy to convert to Islam. Thirty-five years later, Timothy Winter – or Sheikh Abdul-Hakim Murad, as he is known to his colleagues – has been named one of the world’s most influential Muslims. The hitherto unnoticed Mr Winter, who has an office in Cambridge University’s Divinity Faculty, where he is the Shaykh Zayed Lecturer of Islamic Studies, has been listed ahead of the presidents of Iran and Egypt, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Mahmoud Abbas. “Strange bedfellows,” he concedes. Tall, bookish, fair-skinned and flaxen-haired, a wiry beard is his only obvious stylistic concession to the Islamic faith. (Picture of Shaykh Abdal Hakim taken at Niagara Falls, Winter 09-10)

To the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre (RISSC), which is based at the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in the Jordanian capital, Amman, Winter is “one of the most well-respected Western theologians” and “his accomplishments place him amongst the most significant Muslims in the world”. Winter is also the secretary of the Muslim Academic Trust, director of The Anglo-Muslim Fellowship for Eastern Europe, and director of the Sunna Project, which has published the most respected versions of the major Sunni Hadith collections, the most important texts in Islam after the Qur’an.

He has also written extensively on the origins of suicidal terrorism.

According to the RISSC, the list highlights “leaders and change-agents who have shaped social development and global movements”. Winter is included because “[his] work impacts all fields of work and particularly, the religious endeavors of the Muslim world”.

In the 500 Most Influential Muslims 2010, Mr Winter is below the King of Saudi Arabia – who comes in at number one – but ahead of many more chronicled figures. He is ranked in an unspecified position between 51st and 60th, considerably higher than the three other British people who make the list – the Conservative Party chairman Baroness Warsi; the UK’s first Muslim life peer, Lord Nazir Ahmed, who was briefly jailed last year for dangerous driving; and Dr Anas Al Shaikh Ali, director of the

International Institute of Islamic Thought – making him, at least in the eyes of the RISSC, Britain’s most influential Muslim.

“I think that’s very unlikely,” says Winter, seated in front of his crowded bookshelves. “I’m an academic

observer who descends occcasionally from my ivory tower and visits the real world. If you stop most people in the street they’ve never heard of me. In terms of saying anything that makes any kind of sense to the average British Muslim I think they have no need of my ideas at all.”

The son of an architect and an artist, he attended the elite Westminster School in the 1970s before graduating from Cambridge with a double first in Arabic in 1983. His younger brother is the football correspondent Henry Winter. Tim says: “I was always the clever, successful one. Henry just wanted to play football with his mates. I used to tell him, ‘I’m going to make loads of money, and you’ll still be playing football with your mates.’ Now he’s living in a house with 10 bedrooms and married to a Bond girl.” (Brother Henry insists on the telephone later: “She was only in the opening credits. And it’s not as many as 10.”)

If this seems an improbable background for a leading Muslim academic, his Damascene moment on a Corsican beachis unlikelier still.

“In my teens I was sent off by my parents to a cottage in Corsica on an exchange with a very vigorous French Jewish family with four daughters,” Winter recalls. “They turned out to be enthusiastic nudists.

“I remember being on the beach and seeing conjured up before my adolescent eyes every 15-year-old boy’s most fervent fantasy. There was a moment when I saw peach juice running off the chin of one of these bathing beauties and I had a moment of realisation: the world is not just the consequence of material forces. Beauty is not something that can be explained away just as an aspect of brain function.”

It had quite an effect on him: “That was the first time I became remotely interested in anything beyond the material world. It was an unpromising beginning, you might say.

“In a Christian context, sexuality is traditionally seen as a consequence of the Fall, but for Muslims, it is an anticipation of paradise. So I can say, I think, that I was validly converted to Islam by a teenage French Jewish nudist.”

After graduating, Winter studied at the University of al-Azhar in Egypt and worked in Jeddahat before returned to England in the late eighties to study Turkish and Persian. He says he has no difficulty reconciling the world he grew up in with the one he now inhabits. “Despite all the stereotypes of Islam being the paradigmatic opposite to life in the west, the feeling of conversion is not that one has migrated but that one has come home.

“I feel that I more authentically inhabit my old identity now that I operate within Islamic boundaries than I did when I was part of a teenage generation growing up in the 70s who were told there shouldn’t be any boundaries.”

The challenge, he feels, is much harder now for young Muslims trying to integrate with British life.

“Your average British Asian Muslim on the streets of Bradford or Small Heath in Birmingham is told he has to integrate more fully with the society around him. The society he tends to see around him is extreme spectacles of binge drinking on Saturday nights, scratchcards, and other forms of addiction apparently rampant, credit card debt crushing lives, collapsing relationships and mushrooming proportions of single lives, a drug epidemic. It doesn’t look very nice.

“That is why one of the largest issues over the next 50 years is whether these new Muslim communities can be mobilised to deal with those issues. Islam is tailor-made precisely for all those social prolems. It is the ultimate cold turkey. You don’t drink at all. You don’t sleep around. You don’t do scratchcards. Or whether a kind of increasing polarisation, whereby Muslims look at the degenerating society around them and decide ‘You can keep it’.”

It is not this, though, that contributes to some young Muslim British men’s radicalism, he says, since their numbers are often made up of “the more integrated sections”.

“The principle reason, which Whitehall cannot admit, is that people are incensed by foreign policy. Iraq is a smoking ruin in the Iranian orbit. Those who are from a Muslim background are disgusted by the hypocrisy. It was never about WMD. It was about oil, about Israel and evangelical Christianityin the White House. That makes people incandescent with anger. What is required first of all is an act of public contrition. Tony Blair must go down on his knees and admit he has been responsible for almost unimaginable human suffering and despair.”

He adds: “The West must realise it must stop being the world’s police. Why is there no Islamic represenation on the UN Security Council? Why does the so-called Quartet [on the Middle East] not have a Muslim representative? The American GI in his goggles driving his landrover through Kabul pointing his gun at everything that moves, that is the image that enrages people.”

Is there a similar antagonistic symbolism in the construction of a mosque at Ground Zero?

“If the mosque represented an invading power they would have every right. Muslims in America are there as legitimate citizens with their green cards, with jobs, trying to get by. They are there in humble mode.

“Would you oppose the construction of Shinto Shrines at Pearl Harbour, of which there a number? How long must the Muslims of lower Manhattan have to wait to get a place to pray five times a day? With Islam there are certain liturgical requirements. It’s not like a church that you can build on the top of a hill and say, we’ve only got to go once a week and it looks nice up there. Muslims need to pray five times a day, they can’t get the subway out and back. It should be seen as a symbol of reconciliation not antagonism.”

Last year Winter helped set up the Cambridge Muslim College, which offers trained imams a one year diploma in Islamic studies and leadership, designed to help trained imams to better implement their knowledge and training in 21st-century Britain. This year’s first graduating class have recently returned from a trip to Romewhere they had an open audience with the Pope.

In an increasingly secular Britain, sociologists suggest with regularity that “football is the new religion”. Winter understands the comparison. “Football has everything that is important to religion,” he says. “Solidarity, skill, ritual, the outward form of what looks like a sacred congregation. Except it’s not about anything.” Just don’t tell his brother.

Nothing Reluctant about Mohsin Hamid’s Fundamentalist

I find myself reading a fair bit these days. I am not complaining. Ramadan is fast approaching and with it the imperative of a different kind of reading, one that promises to nourish the spirit.

“The Reluctant Fundamentalist”

I’ve had a few books gathering dust on my shelf for months now and thought maybe this was as good a time as any other to knock off a few. Mohsin Hamid’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” appeared a quick read and it was. Not because it happened to be engaging but rather because it was only 184 pages. And thank the Lord for that.

The book garnered some praise when it was first released. The inside flap said it echoed of Camus and Fitzgerald, describing it as “a riveting, devastating exploration of our divided yet ultimately indivisible world.” I think the publishers made a mistake and borrowed that praise from another book perhaps deserving of it.

I found the narrative childish, the kind of drivel you’d expect from a drunk at a late night cafe. Changez’s thoughts are unworthy of being called ideas. To compensate, Hamid makes him speak with a degree of artificiality that caused me to dismiss his main character as an idiot, an imbecile. Changez is neither idealistic nor is he realistic. He is neither a fundamentalist or is he a nationalist and yet the author wants us to believe he is a little of both. Changez is a confused immigrant, like so many brilliant Pakistani men wandering the corridors of great institutions in Canada, the U.S. and U.K. but whose minds are still trapped in Anarkali bazaar. New York has more character, passion, zeal and humanity that ten Lahores. I am not here talking about the Lahore of the exquisite Shalimar gardens, the lush openness of the Badshahi mosque nor the spiritual ecstasy of the Sufi mazar of Data Ganj Baksh which was the target of two suicide bombers last month. That’s the Lahore of the past. Hamid’s Changez neither understands Empire nor does he understand Colonization. He knows not the secular nor the religious, neither war nor peace.

He reflects the contemporary Pakistani born American, Canadian or British male, floating like a dangling modifier without a hint of a spiritual identity to anchor his lost soul. He latches on to the message of Zakir Naik and Anwar Al-Awlaki only to end up proclaiming his Sufi heritage a bid’a. He runs from his past only to arrive at the gates of hell with a beer in one hand and a whisky in the other. Changez is neither reluctant nor is he a fundamentalist.

Boualem Sansal: The German Mujahid

I didn’t realize when I bought Boualem Sansal’s “The German Mujahid” that it was signed copy dated Oct. 23, 2009. It’s a fictional novel based on a true story and inspired by the writings of Primo Levi. I am happy it’s a signed copy. The book is banned in Algeria where the author lives and that little detail alone alludes to the fact that it has ruffled the features of some very powerful people.

“The German Mujahid”

Actual book reviews are easy to find these days and my thoughts are not meant to be a review. I would recommend Sansal to Muslim students in high school. I’ll tell you why.

The first 16-years of my life were spent growing up in the Caribbean where people were given nicknames like Hitler and Nazi particularly if they were thuggish in their behaviour. The Holocaust in Europe was but a distant war where white folks killed each other after having ravaged Africa and India. We had our own grief to sulk on. Europe’s craving for sugar and tea claimed the lives of millions of Africans and East Indians and wiped out the entire populations of those other Indians – the Arawaks, Caribs, Incas, Mayans, etc.

I would soon learn that Indians in Canada and the United States didn’t fare any better after I migrated to Toronto and started attending Sir Sanford Fleming Academy – a high school with a large Jewish student body because it was located in the heart of an old Jewish neighbourhood.

Fleming was the better of the two options available to me. I wanted to go to university and pursue a career in journalism and a school that streamed English, Literature, History, Geography, World Religions for university was an obvious choice. The big difference between Fleming and other high schools I later learned was that the Holocaust was an integral part of the curriculum. We watched countless documentaries and read the books of Elie Wiesel among others. Some of my fellow classmates had parents and grandparents who survived the Holocaust. Class discussions were brutal. Guys who would knock me down and shove me around on the basketball court and talk tough in the locker room would become speechless in class, tears welling up in their eyes. This was 1981, a confusing time for a teenager in a new country. The Russians had invaded Afghanistan and a Jihad was being waged to get them out. Fanaticism was raising its ugly head in Saudi Arabia and blood was shed in the sacred Ka’ba itself. An uprising was taking place in the Kashmir region of India, Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran and the American hostage crisis was headline news. And I can’t exclude a gun-toting upstart named Yasir Arafat was holding out hopes of one day driving the Jews of Israel into the sea.

I still remember my English teacher who didn’t like me. I found out long after I graduated that her mother was a Holocaust survivor. Perhaps that’s why she was always so very bitter and why my questions in class upset her and caused her to respond in a way that made me feel as if I was a threat to her very existence. Still, I don’t regret the two years I spent at Fleming. It was a great school and it prepared me well for university.

My experience at Fleming is the single most important reason I made a decision not to send my own kids to Muslim private schools and with five of them I don’t think I could afford it. There are now over 40 such schools in Ontario alone. Sticking with your own kind creates a closed-minded mentality. Sure you’ll learn a great deal about Islam and may even memorize the entire Qur’an, but where’s the challenge when you’re surrounded by your own every day of your teenage years when critical questions about self and purpose are raised and sometimes resolved. But I digress.

In attempting to stream the two similar yet distinct narratives of Nazism and Islamism, Sansal’s novel has broken new ground. Both are absolute and closed narratives and when adopted by those in power they will inexorably lead to genocide. If it has happened in the past it can happen again as sure as the sun will rise in the morning.

Sansal brilliant novel is about two estranged brothers — Rashid Helmut a.k.a. Rachel and Malek Ulrich a.k.a. Malrich — and their relationship or lack thereof with their father. They find out that as a student in Germany, papa or Hans Schiller was an eager member of Hitlerjugends and then after graduating university as a chemical engineer, joined up with the Waffen SS and became a decorated Nazi mass murderer. Hans fled to Algeria after the defeat of Germany and ended up gainfully employed training the maquis in their struggle for independence against France. For his role in the Algerian war of independence he was granted citizenship and bequeathed the title ‘Mujahid’.

The 45-year-old ‘Mujahid’ Hans fell in love with 18-year-old Aïcha Majdali, the daughter of the village Cheïkh, converted to Islam in 1963 and adopted the name Hassan Hans a.k.a. Si Hassan and sometimes Si Mourad. He settled in his wife’s village of Aïn Deb, a remote outpost inhabited by people trying to hide from the world. When Aïcha’s father died, villagers began referring to the former Nazi as Cheïkh Hassan. Hans and Aïcha had two sons — Rashid and Malek — both of whom were sent to France at an early age to get a better education, Malrich failed while Rachel succeeded. On April 24, 1994 news reached Rachel that there was a massacre in Aïn Deb. Listed among the dead were his parents Hassan Hans and Aïcha Majdali. The government blamed their deaths on the Armed Islamic Group (AIG) and conferred on them the title of cahïd, martyrs, an honorable title in Islam.

While Rachel retraces his father’s bloody path back to the concentration camps, the younger Malrich is discovering the evil antics of Muslim fanatics trying to turn his immigrant slum where he lives near Paris into a mini-Islamic state with their own application of Shari’ah law.

There is a lot of take away from Sansal’s novel. A lot to learn especially at a time when hate-mongers in our community are determined to convince our youth that the Holocaust was a hoax, a conspiracy perpetrated by Zionists to justify their occupation of Muslim lands. Not so long ago anyone could pick up a copy of “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” at any of the many Muslim bookstores across North America and Europe. As young Arabs of mixed parents growing up in a highly racialized society, Rachel and Malrich would have been exposed to the bigotry and conspiracy theories espoused by Imams and visiting missionaries.

Acknowledging the Holocaust against the Jewish people is not a denial of Muslim suffering in Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo, the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. it is an affirmation of our collective will to condemn hate in speech and action whenever and whenever it rears its treacherous head.

Book: The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris

I just finished reading Leila Marouane’s “The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris.” I wish I could say I learned something. It is a stupid little novel. It reveals nothing, took me no where and didn’t cause me to reflect on a single issue worth dwelling more than two seconds on. Perhaps in French it offers up a critical commentary of the frightening delusions that can overtake the mind of an unmarried religious conservative with a highly successful career and living in a seductive city.

"The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris."

A man torn between his determination to lose his virginity at 40 (something) but haunted by an Islamic tradition he is determined to escape. But where is the tension? Will the illusion of the modern city give way to the lofty vision of the Islamic spiritual and intellectual tradition or will the half-baked narrative of what passes for Western Islam with all its Salafist/Wahabi predilections fall at the alter of sex?

I suspect Marouane’s sex obsessed man in Paris and Boualem Sansal’s novel “The German Mujahid” — are attempts to capitalize on the lucrative market for sensational works of fiction on all topics pertaining to Islamic extremism. The Al-Qaeda brand after all is in high demand. I think maybe I should complete Roy Moxham “A Brief History of Tea” before starting Sansal’s fictional journey which promises, the cover reads, to be “the first Arab novel to confront the Holocaust.”

When Conversion goes awry: The strange case of Umar Lee

I sympathize with converts to Islam like Umar Lee. It’s the kind of sympathy I feel for a child about to hit puberty, trapped between the innocence of childhood and the anxiety that comes with being a grown up. Converts have to cope with complex ‘push factors’ i.e. the reasons that cause them to part ways with a lifestyle, religion, or lack thereof, and the consequences that comes with that decision. But that’s not all. They have to then navigate the landscape of the “pull factors” i.e. the things that attracted them to Islam. And that’s a whole other game.

Converts like Umar Lee (and he’s certainly not alone) gravitate to men with short trousers and long beards who shout and wail in accents that betray the rage of hearts in need of some badly needed rest.

To converts, folks like me, born into a Muslim family, with all our small ‘t’ traditions (call them bid’a if you like), unsophisticated communities (close minded and parochial, yes), and a demeanor unruffled by the discourse of the ideologues burdened with the desire for political power or the narrative of vengeance neatly wrapped in Quranic verses and ahadith from the war ravished lands of Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia, are the reason why Islam lost the grandeur it once had.

And so the convert swell the ranks of the Salafis to fight against the majority of Muslim who follow one of the four Sunni madhahib, adhere to the ‘aqida of Ahlus Sunnah Wal-Jama’ah and have a daily routine of spiritual practices be it a wird or the recitation of Ayatul Kursi, dhikr and dua’ after salah.

Umar Lee is a smart person and he recognized the tragic pitfalls of the Salafists/Wahabi da’wah, or minhaj if you like. And one might say that’s a good thing. Lot of Sufis lined up to congratulate him. Converts like Saraji Umm Zaid and Abdur Rahman Robert Squires, hard-core Muslim convert bloggers with world-wide audiences, have recently denounced Islam and are now pursuing other options. Religion, not only Islam, can burn people out if they’re not careful.

I am sorry it took a personal tragedy to cause Lee to realize that the Salafis are shells devoid of kernels. But I say this to all converts: If you became Muslims to hike up your pants, grow your beards, don a black niqab, fight with other Muslims and marry/divorce as many women as you can before the sight of a Viagra brings a smile to your face, then go back to what you’ve been raised on and hope for the best. Trust me you’d be better off.

But this Lee fella digs himself a deeper hole. He’s now dreaming of a Sheikh named Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani. Lee says a person can’t believe everything he reads meaning perhaps he’s read or heard something about Gilani and his followers who go these days by the name Muslims of the Americas. I agree that you can’t or shouldn’t believe everything you read, but heck dude, believe some of it at least. If Lee is looking for a spiritual path he might have more chance finding it in Jacksonville instead of Holy Islamville.

I know Gilani. In fact, I am perhaps the only Western journalist to have interviewed him on camera for the CBC’s 5th Estate “Seeds of Terror.” A few years ago when his good friend Khalid Khawaja was alive before being executed by the Pakistani Taliban or the ISI, Gilani wrote me a four page letter apologizing for not being able to meet me in person while I was on a working trip to Pakistan. Funny thing was, I didn’t even request a meeting with him.

My own personal investigation has uncovered a trail of blood left by Gilani’s dervishes that stretched from Trinidad, Guyana, the United States and Canada. Long before September 11, 2001 rolled around Gilani and his fuqara were beating the path of ‘jihad’ assassinating prominent Hindus, Ahmadi missionaries and Muslims deemed heretics by Gilani such as Rashad Khalifa. I’ve counted 20 major criminal acts of terror dating from 1981 to 1990.

Gilani’s followers today are peaceful, no doubt. Some are on the run or in jail or looking at extradition from Canada to stand trial in the U.S. Some, like three men who plotted to bomb a Hindu temple and an Indian theatre in Toronto in 1991 have served their 12 years in an Ontario jail and have been deported to the land of their origin in the Caribbean.

Whoever was responsible for creating Gilani and sending him to the United States in 1981 when Zia-ul-Haq was supremo leader of Pakistan and a Jihad had to be won in Afghanistan against the evil Red Army, is still a mystery. But I can tell you this Lee, setting up Sufi khanqas was the last thing on the mind of Gilani and his handlers. Sticking it to the Ahmadis, American allies of Indira Gandhi and recruiting a steady flow of Jihadists for Kashmir and Afghanistan seem more in line with Gilani’s mission.

But that’s all history now. His followers, many of them very nice converts whom, I say respectfully, sing wonderful qasidas in authentic Urdu – you can see them on Youtube – have impeccable adab even as they espouse some very strange nonsensical gibberish. It is not Sufism and they are yet another manifestation of a cult.

So, I end by saying this to you Lee, you’re better off doing security for Mr. Suhaib Webb. God in heavens knows even a one time bouncer need protection from Pakistani uncles and aunties at ISNA convention. It’s all about appearances. Although, I have no interest in Webb’s message ever since he bought into the ideology of the Ikhwan hook line and sinker, I know this about him, he ain’t no fool.

Read about Umar Lee’s dreams here.