In Search of a Muslim Hero
Last weekend a friend asked me to name one Muslim hero – historical or current – who is held in the same universal esteem as the likes of Ghandi and Mandela. It was a casual question tossed out on the sidelines of a music event in a local park.
Yet it had a serious undertone. My friend is one of the few people I know with as great a love of history as my own. His field of study is different from mine, but his interest in the past is no less intense.
I came up with two names, neither of which seemed to satisfy him: Saladin and Ibn Sina. Saladin not so much because of his achievements as a warlord, but because of one heroic act: resisting the temptation to repeat the massacre in Jerusalem that accompanied the city’s capture by the Franks in the First Crusade. Not a great example perhaps, but at the time he won respect among friend and foe for his sense of honour and chivalry in a brutal age.
Ibn Sina was an easier and less controversial choice. A product of the Golden age of Islam, respected in East and West for his contribution to the advance of medical science.
I suspect that the debate my friend really wanted was over the common perception in the West – fuelled by the atrocities of ISIS – that Islam is a religion in which violence is a core component. I wasn’t prepared to have that discussion, so I said something along the lines of “it’s complicated”, and that perhaps we should talk again after he had read Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword, and Stephen O’Shea’s Sea of Faith, two books that cast more light and shade on the subject than the “Islam equals violence” narrative normally allows.
I have my views on the subject, which I’ll get into later.
But first, the question about Muslim heroes deserves further exploration. Do we mean heroes who happen to be Muslim, or those whose heroism is inextricably associated with their faith? And what do we mean by hero anyway?
Ghandi and Mandela are viewed by the world as heroic partly because of their personal qualities, which may or may not have been rooted in religious faith. In Ghandi’s case you could argue that his creed of non-violence came as much from India’s cultural DNA as from his Hindu faith. Recently I posted a review of Cultural DNA – the Psychology of Globalisation by Gurneck Bains, in which the author suggests that the abhorrence of violence is a deep-seated trait that goes back to the earliest human settlement of the Indian subcontinent.
In Mandela’s case the Christian faith may have informed his views, yet in his politics he was resolutely secular, and rarely spoke about religion except in the context of his desire to build a South Africa that was blind to faith and race.
What of the heroes who wore their faith on their sleeves? There are plenty of martyrs to celebrate, yet their heroism is usually recognised only by fellow religionists. As for religious leaders, there are not so many renowned for reaching beyond their constituencies to those of other faiths. In recent times, Desmond Tutu, perhaps, but only because he used his authority as a religious leader to press for the social and political reforms that culminated in the end of apartheid.
Which leads me to Moeen Ali. For those of you who don’t follow cricket, Moeen is a member of the England team currently battling against Australia in the ultimate sporting grudge contest – The Ashes. His was one of the most influential performances in the match that ended on Saturday with an unexpected England victory.
That Moeen is a Muslim is instantly recognisable because of his beard. It’s the length of two fists, in the Islamic tradition, a highly visible symbol of his faith. He is not the only cricketer with such a beard. Hashim Amla of South Africa is similarly adorned. But Moeen is English, and the country of his birth is currently, post-Tunisia, wracked by fear of Islamist radicals bearing machetes, guns and suicide vests. On a Muslim male, the long beard and shaved upper lip is as potent a symbol of religious devotion in the eyes of non-believers as the niqab that covers the faces of many Muslim women.
Moeen has said that one of his reasons for growing the beard is to show that not all devout Muslims are the men of violence so feared in the West. There are many top-flight Muslim cricketers – those of the Pakistan national team for example – who do not go to such lengths to advertise their faith. But the Pakistani cricketers come from a country in which the vast majority are of same faith.
You could say that Moeen is brave to bear witness to his beliefs in such an uncompromising manner, to stand out from his peers, to be so obviously different from his teammates. I doubt if he would say that. He would probably take the view that he is what he is – to use the words of Martin Luther, “Here I stand, I can do no other”.
But here’s the thing. Watch Moeen in action. Are you watching a Muslim cricketer? No. You’re watching a man who loves what he does, and has an easy relationship with his team-mates. Right now, you’re also looking at a man who is observing the Ramadan fast, and yet you would never believe that no food or drink had passed his lips since dawn on the days when he caned Australia’s bowlers and teased out their batsmen. No mean achievement, and I speak from the experience of living in Muslim countries where many people are barely functioning by the time it comes to break their fast.
And watch how the fans take to him. It’s becoming a tradition at major cricketing encounters for spectators to dress up in as bizarre costumes as they can conceive – bananas, medieval knights, you name it. Some also pay tribute to the physical characteristics of their favourite cricketers. Silly moustaches, crazy hair and so forth. And lo and behold, a bunch of fans showed up on Saturday wearing Moeen beards.
It was at that point that I thought “here’s a guy who is making a difference”. He’s loved by fans not just because of his atypical appearance, but because he’s calm and modest, a benign figure whose style and behaviour is far from that of the bull-like gladiators you will see pawing the turf on both sides. He’s different not because he’s a Muslim, but because of who he is. His religious devotion makes him different, and yet he fits in with his fellow cricketers who clearly hold him in high regard.
It seems to me that he’s succeeding in acting as a role model who shows another way to those who are tempted to take the road to Syria. A role model who loves faith, loves his country and loves his cricket. And a role model who shows non-Muslims that not all believers from Birmingham, Bradford and Luton despise their country and everything those they call kufurs stand for. I have no idea how comfortably his core beliefs would sit with those who see an extremist behind every street corner, but I don’t really care, provided those beliefs do no harm to others.
So next time I see my friend, I will put forward Moeen Ali as a Muslim hero. Perhaps not yet of the stature of a Ghandi and a Mandela, but a hero nonetheless in his words and deeds. I will also cite Malala Yousefzai, shot by the Taliban for her advocacy of female education, as a Muslim heroine. If, rather than being acclaimed for a few exceptional acts, achieving the status of hero is rather like canonisation, an accolade awarded in recognition of a lifetime’s deeds, then perhaps it’s too early for Moeen, who is 27, and Malala, who turned 18 yesterday, to be so designated. Hopefully they have plenty of time to do much more with their lives. But what they’ve achieved thus far is good enough for me.
And finally to my friend’s implication that Islam is a religion of violence. Rubbish. People are violent, not religions. People were killing each other in Syria and Iraq with equal relish long before the birth of Islam. I don’t buy the argument that the presence of hadiths permitting the violence we see in those countries today proves the case against Islam. There are ten times, maybe a hundred times, more devoted Muslims who ignore those hadiths than believers who are guided by them. Moeen Ali by all accounts is among the former, as are many others whom I call friends.
Religions don’t kill. People do. Just as guns don’t kill, but people do. I repeat, people are violent. Most of us are capable of violence under certain circumstances. Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus are all capable of violence, not because of their faith but because they are people. Some will look to their scriptures to find justification for their acts. Others don’t bother to find any religious grounds for violence. Think of Buddhists who persecute the Rohingya, and the secular perpetrators of genocide in the twentieth century.
But although I have no argument with Islam, I do have a problem with Muslims and adherents of any other faith who fail to teach their children to think for themselves – to look at the world and come to their own conclusions rather than slavishly follow the dictates of others. Read this interview with Moeen Ali, and you will find that this is exactly what he did. He says that he was not particularly religious when he was growing up. He found his faith at the age of 18. And he found it on his own terms.
Perhaps what I should say next time I see my friend is that actually his question is irrelevant. The world doesn’t need heroes. It needs people of goodwill. People who demonstrate their goodwill in words and deeds. People like Moeen and Malala. And there are plenty more like them.
As this is the season of goodwill for all but a small minority in the Islamic world, I wish my cherished Muslim friends happiness and peace during the upcoming festival of Eid-al-Fitr.