A Book Review of Travelling Home: Essays on Islam in Europe by Abdal Hakim Murad
There is something strange happening in the Western world. Across hardly a half-century, religious observance in the West has not merely slackened, but vanished. The sudden decline of organized religion throughout Western civilization has been so precipitous, so staggering, that it in fact lacks any sort of parallel throughout history, almost as though overnight an entire civilization turned over in their beds and decided to stop believing in God. Nowhere has this civilizational collapse been more marked than in the stolid isles of the United Kingdom; a land once marked by the stern countenances and solemn observances of Cranmer and More, and fields on which “old maids bicycl[ed] to Holy Communion through the morning mist,” now long since torn up and desecrated. Upon their paved remains zoom large buses displaying the banal slogan of a vapid, hollow, and nihilistic class: There’s probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life.
But parallel to one rising trend comes another: as one once-majestic decrepit village church after another is deconsecrated and destroyed, a new masjid is often erected in its place. While European nations move at an expedient rate towards a world where “…the Church is no longer regarded, not even opposed, and men have forgotten / All gods, except Usury, Lust, and Power,” the Muslim population of those self-same countries is set to exponentially increase. This provides the premise for Travelling Home: Essays on Islam in Europe, a compilation of essays inspired by the lectures and writings of perhaps the greatest of all contemporary English religious thinkers, who, as a sign of the times, is neither an Anglican nor a Roman Catholic, but a Sunni Muslim: Dr. Timothy Winter, better known as Shaykh Abdal-Hakim Murad.
In Sh. Murad’s estimation, the challenge for the newfound class of diasporic and convert Western Muslims is not merely to cement their existence in a land alien to their faith— so too were Egypt, Turkey, and even Makkah and Madinah, once upon a time. Rather, Europe is unique for having defined its existence for centuries in opposition to Islam. In his introduction, Sh. Murad chillingly outlines the multitude of ways the West has defined, constructed, and re-interpreted numerous facets of its history to position itself as the eternal bulwark against the encroachment of the Muslim world. Travelling Home is an eclectic work, even for an anthology, its topics ranging from the Bosnian War to the vicissitudes of modern consumerist neoliberalism, but if there is one theme that unites his varied strands of thought, it is a Muslim’s hope in Allah ﷻ, and in the ability of the faith to take root and blossom even in the most barren of lands. An example the shaykh presents that permeates the entire book is that of a devout hanif, hands clasping tasbih beads in prayer, lips quietly engaging in recitation, boarding a metro alongside the average “post-European” youth of today, hands clasped around the latest technological innovation, lips murmuring the lyrics of the latest pop drivel.
What is it that connects these two individuals, without a common way of life or prism through which they view the world between them? Following the prophetic sunnah, Sh. Murad explicates these newfound myriad challenges with mercy and compassion, while remaining faithful to the Islamic tradition. Dr. Winter is, after all, not only a Muslim man, but an Englishman, and thus perfectly placed to walk the line between two worlds, as he looks upon the decline of both civilizations with great sadness and pathos. Even the title of the book, Travelling Home, easily interpreted as a nod to the sense of youthful adventurism and romanticism with which the Shaykh himself empathizes with, reveals itself as a condemnation of the anomie of modern society:
Britain is technically still home to the British, but in its unprecedented secularity it has become a travelling home, a laboratory for ever more radical beliefs and social practices. We deal not only with a loss of faith within individuals, but with its immense moral and social ramifications [page 208, emphasis mine].
Travelling Home does not concern itself only with social decay and civilizational decline, but with more individual and communal vices as well. Unjust anger, tit-for-tat vengeance, and sectarianism are not spared from analysis. While these inequities are by no means unique to Muslims, they have nonetheless been frustratingly prevalent among the diasporic community. Under the guise of a return to an austere traditionalism of yesteryear, false values diametrically opposed to our faith have been imported. Across the ummah, we see this result culminating in sharp and bruising online debates, each response more cutting and personal than the last, “race temples” scowling down at any not sufficiently affiliated to the lands Back Home who dare cross their doors, and beady-eyed gatekeepers of the manhaj perpetually on the lookout for any type of deviation from their preferred school. The fault here lies not in any one sect, whether salafi or sufi, deobandi or barelvi, but in an entire program of modernity that has infiltrated our deen. What Sh. Murad calls for is instead a return to real Prophetic values: mercy, courage, compassion, modesty, humility, honesty, and strength. While elements of the trends in Muslim communities that have been imported to the West may be culturally specific, Islam itself is not— and neither is the fitrah. The values imparted by the Quran and Sunnah cut deep into the hearts of every living human being, no matter how clouded by the fog of atheistic materialism.
It is perhaps because of this that Travelling Home feels refreshingly modern, despite its distinctly traditionalist outlook (and not merely due to its repeated references to the ongoing worldwide coronavirus pandemic). In an era when most public Western Muslim leaders and intellectuals insist that the faith must be watered down, neutered, and reduced to its barest rubble, able to coexist with practically anything, in order to retain appeal for the younger generation, Sh. Murad boldly suggests that the classical Islamic tradition should be presented in full, in all its complex diversity, and that the taking of ilm and scholarship should be encouraged. In his ninth chapter “Seeking Knowledge: the multiple horizons of British Muslim studentship,” the Shaykh compares the wandering, unmoored Western Muslim, fruitlessly searching across the Muslim world for relics of what he imagines to be his lost ancestral heritage to a Majnun of Arab folklore, seeking his metaphysical Layla. Rather than condemning such foolhardy wanderlust, however, the Shaykh celebrates it, and provides thoughtful advice to young Muslims drawn to this path. Sh. Murad’s vision for the coming generation is bright and intellectually-minded, easily far more appealing than any drab modernist revisionism.
As previously mentioned, the book is not, strictly speaking, an original text, but rather, an adaptation of previously published speeches and articles. Much of the material, however, has been expanded in its inclusion, oftentimes with a brand new conclusion or overarching theme. For example, his fourth chapter, “Islamophobia and the Bosnian War,” has been transformed into a detailed and bloodcurdling examination of how Orthodox theology was developed to target and eradicate the Balkan Muslim population. Thus, Travelling Home still has much to offer for even the most seasoned follower of the Shaykh.
For those who are not as familiar with Sh. Murad’s writings, however, Travelling Home may prove itself a much denser read. Aside from its over 60 pages of endnotes and citations, the Shaykh’s famed writing style— clever, idiosyncratic, and even witty— gives the reader much to contend with. In one of the book’s most entertaining digressions, he envisions a newspaper column from a not-too-distant dystopic future Britain in which gender-bending and sexual deviancy have been elevated to the level of a state religion, and belief in traditional marriage consigned to a heresy. A lover of the English language, the Shaykh rejects out of hand much of the clunky, secular terminology that has been derived to communicate ancient Islamic concepts. “Islamophobia,” for example, a meaningless term, here becomes “Lahabism,” hearkening back to the mindless hatred those steeped in kufr have for tawheed, dating back to the time of the Prophet ﷺ. Even the Muslim himself has been reconfigured into an ‘Ishmaelite’ (or potentially, as Sh. Murad suggests, an ‘Ishma-elite’). Like Ishmael ﷺ, the Muslim is often cast out, trodden upon, despised. While he should never come to accept this treatment in the dunya, neither should he have any reason to lose all hope, and thus forfeit the akhirah as well. For the Ishmaelite, everything is always the way it was meant to be. For the curious and open-minded non-Muslim, Travelling Home also may prove beyond their regard, being more focused on the unique position occupied by diasporic Muslims in Western society. Many may be interested in an author who seems as well-read in Marx and Kirkegaard as he is in Imam Malik and Ibn Kathir, but they might find themselves better served by the Shaykh’s earlier text, Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (2012).
Travelling Home is not destined to be universally popular. For starters, there is the author’s clear grounding in the tradition of tasawwuf to contend with, along with some of the Shaykh’s less common views, such as his belief that rulings on certain issues should be made lighter for Muslims living in the West, or that Western universities may become the next great breeding ground for a new generation of ulema. Notwithstanding these small disagreements, with the dearth of native literature from educated scholars on these issues stymying attempts at the organic growth of communities, the arrival of any text as insightful and perceptive as this one is certainly of great benefit. Travelling Home deserves a spot on every Anglophone Muslim’s bookshelf.
Amazon link to the book here. This is not a sponsored post.
About the Author: Luqman Quilliam is a guest contributor. He aspires to one day become a student of shariah. His interests include indigenous British Islamic heritage, statecraft, Islamic economics, and film.