Leading by Example: Some Notes on Contemporary Ulema

With the phenomenon of celebrity scholars proliferating in the social media age, Salina Khan argues that justice oriented leadership of Muslim communities needs to be properly appreciated and respected.

About a dozen years ago when I first started listening to Islamic lectures online, I would tuck my kids into bed, grab my laptop and a cup of tea and tune in to my favourite scholar. He would be sitting in a simple room somewhere in Pakistan. The video would be fuzzy and his Urdu fancy for an American-born like me. I would have to pause frequently and ask my husband to translate.

I didn’t care, though. The gift of knowledge, understanding, practical guidance, and political analysis I got from Ustad Syed Jawad Naqvi’s Islamic lectures—which covered everything from instructing wives to dress up for their husbands only, to urging Muslims to decolonize their minds—I never found in any of the “popular” imams. His solutions-oriented approach to understanding Islam—stripped of the corrupting forces of dynastic, cultural, and sectarian influences—was invigorating. And his emphasis on collective awakening, self-determination, and Shia-Sunni unity to propel Pakistan into prosperity reminded me of Imam Khomeini and gave me hope.

Humility as the source of productvity

Pakistan needs a leader like this, I would think to myself but laugh at the notion because few in my circle knew him, and I didn’t either, other than that he had inspiring ideas and enlightening talks. I didn’t know then that Ustad was an Ayatollah specialising in philosophy, sociology, and fiqh nor that he had studied and taught in Qum, Iran, for three decades before moving back to Pakistan. Moreover, I had no clue I would become the first American journalist to interview him and spend time with his family in Lahore, Pakistan.

Indeed, since those early days of transiency, Ustad Syed Jawad Naqvi has demonstrated that he can also walk the walk, both in his personal life and public endeavours. In 2010, with the help of a few local donors, he built from ground up a university campus on 22 acres in Lahore. It houses 1700 students in the Jamia Urwat ul Wusqa boys and Jamia Ummul Kittab girls Islamic seminaries where students receive both Islamic and secular education from grades six through twelve.

The Jamia complex is almost a city within a city with its own 40,000 capacity Masjid Bait ul Ateeq, brand new four-floor research library comprising 500,000 books, a 50-bed hospital, poly-technical school teaching plumbing, electrical work, and art, Bethat television channel, Deen ul Qayyim virtual school, an organic dairy farm, and a multi-story residential building for teachers (where Ustad lives with his family in an apartment in the basement).

Considering Ustad’s depth of Islamic knowledge, accomplishments, and political insight, one would expect Pakistan’s cricket player-turned Prime Minister Imran Khan, who campaigned on making Pakistan into a model Islamic state, to seek guidance from him on how to exactly do that. Ustad Syed Jawad Naqvi openly discusses his political ideas during his lectures, Friday khutbahs and weekly Halaat e Hazira (Current Affairs) talks. His ideas are so powerful that American strategic think tanks such as the Hudson Institute, publications like Foreign Policy, and graduate students at universities like Tufts and Clemson keep a critical eye on Ustad’s movement.

Tragically, Pakistan is not taking advantage of Ustad Syed Jawad Naqvi, often referred to as the “Khomeini of Pakistan” in some international media outfits, to implement changes at the national level. The truth is that the power structure is threatened by revolutionary scholars like Ustad who call for systemic change and not just cosmetic reforms. The existing ruling class is benefitting from the system as-is and does not want to lose those advantages. In fact, some of the powers-to-be, both inside and outside Pakistan, promote hate campaigns against him on social media to discourage people from making Ustad their religious or political leader.

Substance over celebrity

This phenomenon is widespread in the Muslim world. There are other hidden gems scattered around the globe who also preach pure Islam as taught by the Prophet Muhammad (s). These men of God, who wield the knowledge and strength to get rid of corrupt and oppressive systems, also suffer the consequences of their commitment to Islam’s revolutionary principles. One has already been publicly executed.

A few:

—Imam Muhammad Al-Asi in America. Until Covid hit last year, Imam Muhammad Al-Asi had been leading Friday prayers on the sidewalk in front of the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C., for nearly four decades. That’s because he and his family were kicked out of the Islamic Center, where Imam Al-Asi was the elected imam, before fajr prayers one Spring day in 1983. The mosque was shut down for three days and when it re-opened he was no longer allowed to continue in his role. Imam Al-Asi was forcibly removed from his position because the Saudi embassy disapproved of his criticisms of the Saudi regime and Zionist State as well as his support of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.  Since then, Imam Al-Asi has written the first tafsir of the Quran directly into English called “The Ascendant Quran: Realigning Man to the Divine Power Culture,” and has had a translation of the Quran published in this year. 

—Shaykh Ibrahim Zakzaky in Nigeria. Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, and his wife were released from detention in July after undergoing six years of torturous imprisonment. They were arrested in 2015 after the Nigerian military brutally attacked their compound, killing at least one thousand supporters, including three of the couple’s sons, and then bulldozed the Husseiniya, a graveyard where members of the family and the movement were buried, the Sheikh’s house and other sites. Shaykh Zakzaky’s three other sons had been killed by the Nigerian army, the previous year in an attack on one of the many Al-Quds Day processions held across the country.  Shaykh Zakzaky founded  the Islamic Movement with the Funtua Declaration in 1980, which opposes the oppressive rule of the secular Nigerian government and promotes an Islamic system in the country.

-Shaykh Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia. Shaykh Nimr was executed by the Saudi government in 2016 for his criticism of the oppressive Saudi monarchy. He was arrested many times over his lifetime but continued to call for elections in the country as well protest discrimination against Shias in Saudi Arabia, most of whom live in the Eastern Province. His execution was met by protests throughout the world, including Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, United Kingdom, and Australia.

Meeting Ustad

In July this year, I had the opportunity to finally come face-to-face with Ustad Syed Jawad Naqvi, who has been such a strong influence in my life day in and day out, from personal worship to family matters to political perspectives. I was incredibly nervous but as I sat down, introduced myself, and apologized in advance for my mediocre Urdu (according to Ustad, my Urdu was fine but my accent was off!), I felt right at home with him. Partly, I’m sure, because I virtually spend every morning with him, lugging my laptop from room to room listening to his lectures as I do my housework. But more so because he listened intently to my queries and answered them honestly and completely, being careful to pause when he sensed I had a follow up question. Though we were under studio lights and in front of cameras, I felt like I was chatting with a family member or old friend where the conversation just flowed.

I was surprised to hear what a humble background Ustad came from. He was born in 1952 in Thipra (a village of mostly descendants of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)), in the Haripur district of Khyber Pakhtunkwa, Pakistan. He was the only son of his mother, a simple woman with no formal education. He lost his father at the age of four after which his mother struggled to provide for him and his siblings in their one-bedroom house. Ustad said she served the role of mother and father, tending crops in the small family plot and taking up whatever odd job she could find like scrubbing dishes or washing clothes to fulfil the needs of her four children.

“Her love for me was intense and known throughout the village,” Ustad said. “Whenever it rained and our roof started dripping, she would run and grab me, protecting me in case the roof collapsed.”

Though there was no major religious influence in his life, Ustad yearned for a formal Islamic education from a young age. His doting mother was reluctant at first but finally gave him permission to move to Islamabad for religious training after he finished tenth grade. Ustad took his mother with him when he moved later to Qum, Iran, for further studies. That’s where he married and had four children, two sons and two daughters.

Since returning to Pakistan in 2010, Ustad has given more than 10,000 hours of lectures and attracted millions of Sunni and Shia Urdu-speaking followers in Pakistan, India, and Kashmir as well as around the world through numerous channels on social media, including Islamimarkaz. Some of his overseas supporters have even returned to Pakistan to help with Ustad’s movement. True to his words, Ustad has kept Muslim unity and inclusion front and centre in all his endeavours, from selecting nonpartisan names for his institutions to hiring Sunni and Shia teachers, to providing students books from all Islamic schools of thought. He routinely brings together top Shia and Sunni scholars, thinkers, and academicians at Wahdat e Ummat (Muslim Unity) conferences to not only fend off sectarian tension but also to find Islamic solutions to Pakistan’s political, educational, and socio-economic problems. Many participating Sunni organizations, such as Jamaat-e Islami and Minhaj ul Quran, have been involved in unity efforts for decades and have recently invited Ustad to speak at their events. The mutual respect is heartwarming.

“I consider (Ustad) my imam but today he made me his imam,” said Maulana Manzar ul Haq Thanvi, grandson of esteemed Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi of the Deobandi school of thought. Ustad had asked him to lead congressional prayers at a recent Wahdat conference held at Jamia Urwat ul Wusqa. 

The relationships fostered at these conferences have already germinated in joint projects beneficial to all Pakistanis, including new educational federation boards and a makeshift Covid quarantine centre with a one hundred percent recovery rate. No doubt much more can be done under the leadership of scholars like Ustad.

But the power structure has other ideas. They repress true scholars while promoting apolitical reformist-type religious figures who focus on ritualistic or personal aspects of Islam without addressing the root problems in society. For example, despite having a Shia scholar like Ustad present in his country, in 2018 Prime Minister Imran Khan invited a Shia scholar from overseas, Iraqi-born Sayed Ammar Naqshwani, to speak at the Rahmatul lil Alameen (Mercy to the Universe) Conference held annually in the country’s capital of Islamabad. Naqshawani is a popular orator and was listed as one of The 500 Most Influential Muslims in 2014. At the conference he talked about things like “not wasting food” and “getting into jannah” and ended his talk by assuring the audience that their current leader is this generation’s “source of Rahma (Mercy)” and should be appreciated.

The promotion of religious figures– who won’t even rock the system let alone uproot it–is a huge detriment to the Muslim ummah, which remains misguided and unable to fulfil its true potential. These popularised scholars preach what Iran’s Supreme Leader Imam Khamanei categorizes as “American Islam,” a depoliticised perversion of the true faith devoid of any revolutionary sentiment. As Imam Khamenei said in 2010, “American Islam means ceremonial Islam, an Islam that is indifferent in the face of oppression.”

Indeed, agencies of imperialism have no qualms publicly touting their plans to manipulate religious leadership amongst Muslims.  Many of today’s “rock star imams” with huge social media followings and guest speakers at all the big Islamic conventions and fundraisers in America, for example, were handpicked almost a dozen years ago by the US global policy think tank RAND Corporation.  In a 2013 paper titled ‘Promoting Online Voices for Countering Violent Extremism’ RAND discussed plans to more deeply infiltrate, co-opt and subvert popular sources of online Islamic information — websites, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and more — by promoting scholars willing to preach Islam in a way that aligns the political views and behaviour of Muslims with imperialist interests.

Some of RAND’s recommendations: 

–Build alliances with existing “rock star imams” that already have huge online followings. “US officials should identify both established and up-and-coming social media personalities and incorporate these individuals into interagency engagement strategies.”

–Create new “Web sensations.” This is to be done by developing leaders who have “scholarly credentials, understand and are able to work in an American context, and can speak to young American-born Muslims who may feel disenfranchised from local religious institutions.”

–Disseminate political information through popular online magazines, virtual masjids, blogs and other portals that cover all aspects of Islamic life. 

–Fund technology, public relations and marketing training for “Muslim influencers” at home and abroad.

While it’s easy to blame governments and agencies like RAND for Islam’s leadership problems, the Muslim ummah has to realize that they ultimately decide their own leadership. Each and every one of us has to make a decision as to who to turn to for guidance and who to cancel.  Do we want to follow someone like Ustad who asks us to get out of our comfort zones by demanding courage, sacrifice, and commitment in the social sphere to make the world a better place? Or would we rather submit to scholars who only preach ritualistic obligations and personal growth while letting us wallow in the oppression surrounding us? 

Allah calls this a “test” in the Quran and helps us understand its importance through a narration about the Bani Israel. When the Prophet Musa retired to be in communion with Allah for forty days, the people had a choice as to who to take as their leader. One option was his brother Prophet Haroon, who had been appointed by the Prophet Musa and offers guidance in accordance with Allah’s pure religion. The other is Samiri, a religious and knowledgeable person from amongst them, who preaches a way of worship that is in line with the Pharaonic system.

Allah (swt) says in the noble Book,

“Said He [Allah], ‘Then [know that], verily, in your absence We have put your people to a test, and Samiri has led them astray’” (20:85).

The early Muslims underwent this examination as did every succeeding generation, including us.  

Imam Ali said: “I warn you about the munafiqs [dual-loyalists]. They are misguided and they misguide as well. They have appeared in society in different colours and with different faces. Their speech is eloquent, profitable and is even a cure for pain. But their actions are like incurable diseases.”

Imam Khomeini, leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, sheds light on how to identify the Samaris amongst us. In an open letter he wrote to Hussein Ali Montazeri, Imam Khomeini informed him that he will no longer be the imam’s successor. 

“Can you see what valuable services you have offered to arrogance?” Imam Khomeini asks him. 

We can identify some characteristics of false leaders through this letter.

–They have poor choices in advisors or “bureau.”

–They are “gullible” and “provoked easily.” 

–They ridicule scholars truly committed to Islam.

–They are the “mouthpiece” of the oppressors.

One person who took this test and insha-Allah passed it is Agha Syed Arif Rizvi, who recently moved back to Pakistan from the United Kingdom to support Ustad Syed Jawad Naqvi’s movement and now supervises the Jamia’s hospital, media and IT. 

“After Iqbal, God has once again given us a blessing [in the form of Ustad Syed Jawad Naqvi],” according to Agha Rizvi. “If we don’t respect and value him while he is among us, who knows how many centuries we will suffer that loss.”

“One thing is for sure,” Rizvi added. “God will bring forth a nation that will appreciate him.”Salina Khan is a reporter for the Islamic movement magazine Crescent International and also blogs at www.theperfectionistas.blogspot.com Previously, she worked as a business travel reporter at USA Today. She has a masters degree from Northwestern University and lives in the U.S with her husband and three children.  This article is adapted from a previously published article in Crescent International.