Reviewer YAHYA BIRT
Walaa Quisay, Neo-Traditionalism in Islam in the West: Orthodoxy, Spirituality and Politics (Edinburgh: University Press, 2023), 296pp. ISBN 978-1399502771. Hardback, £90.000; eBook, open access (free).
This is no ordinary book review. It was due to a last request from the late, great Dr Shabbir Akhtar (1960‒2023), the philosopher, theologian and comparative religionist, that I review this work for Muslim Views in South Africa. I did not see his email until a few days after his demise, at the age of 63. Hence I honour his request posthumously.
However, some preliminary words of tribute to Shabbir are a sacred duty upon me. He came to Bradford, England from Pakistan at the age of nine. His father was not formally educated, but recognising his son’s precocious sensibility, he gave Shabbir an English dictionary to memorise, which remarkably, Shabbir did. This laid the foundations for Shabbir’s exemplary talents as a writer of English – he really had no rivals in his generation of Muslim academic writers. A working-class lad from Manningham, Shabbir was accepted into Cambridge to read philosophy, where he was a student of Elizabeth Anscombe, a major disciple of Wittgenstein. Graduating with a first, he completed a doctorate in comparative religion at the University of Calgary. Thereafter he returned to Bradford to work for the Racial Equality Council as an education officer.
He is best remembered for his trenchant defence of Muslim indignation at Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses. He championed the cause of Muslim honour in his capacity as the spokesperson of the Bradford Council of Mosque, in the media and in his polemic, Be Careful with Muhammad. This book was entirely dictated to a typist in a matter of months.
However, his more enduring legacy will be his academic work. Of his nine books, the ones that may well prove most significant are those on political theology, especially The Quran and the Secular Mind: A Philosophy of Islam (2008), and Islam as Political Religion: The Future of an Imperial Faith (2010), both of which championed a revival of Islam as a robust defender of justice and as a witness to monotheism in a heartless, disenchanted world, dominated by Western monoculture.
On a more personal note, I remember Shabbir from our numerous phone conversations as the archetypal Muslim uncle who also happened to be a world-class intellectual – warm and humorous, but also very hard on any form of woolly thinking or unsubstantiated argument. One of the more gratifying things to discover after his death was how Shabbir had exercised a quiet, but wide influence among younger Muslims from Britain, North America, Bosnia and Malaysia. It was also evident that Shabbir was that rare phenomenon – a scholar’s scholar. I know that Shabbir would’ve appreciated Walaa Quisay’s book. He wanted to see younger Muslims champion Islam as an uncompromising force for justice, as the religion of Musa, Umar and Imam Husayn.
Quisay’s monograph is very much written in the shadow of the counter-revolution to the Arab Spring, when the Gulf monarchies, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia, alongside autocratic republics like Egypt, instigated coups and civil war to overturn the threat of democracy to their rule.
What concerns Quisay most is the soft power counter-reaction these states mobilised through quietist ulama. However, given the globalisation of religious authority through the internet, especially in English, some of those co-opted quietist ulama are based in the West. To Arab audiences they disparage democracy, while in the West they court those political forces, whether the US Republicans or the UK Conservatives, whom they deem most likely to keep democracy at bay in the Middle East.
Quisay focuses on one branch of these quietist ulama in the West, the neo-traditionalists, a movement that arose in the 1990s. She concentrates on three key figures in this movement, Abdal Hakim Murad or Timothy J. Winter (b. 1960), Hamza Yusuf (b. 1958), and Umar Faruq Abd Allah (b. 1948). This movement sells itself as upholding the late Sunni consensus in theology, law and mysticism and claims to be miraculously untouched by Western modernity. Quisay shows, to the contrary, that Western neo-traditionalism is a movement of our times.
As this is very much a post-Arab Spring book, Quisay analyses neo-traditionalist polemics against Islamism, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, but I think a more complete account of neo-traditionalism would highlight two other dimensions.
Neo-traditionalism is also profoundly influenced by the Syrian ulama’s reassertion of Sunni Islam in response to neo-Salafi criticism, notably exemplified in the writings of Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti (1929‒2013), and was further influenced by their ethos of political quietism, driven by the imperative of survival, even as they were co-opted within the Baathist police state. To put it in more general terms, the movement advocates a political theology of servitude to arbitrary state power.
Another defining aspect of neo-traditionalism is its indebtedness to the Guénonian critique of Western modernity while rejecting its advocacy of a perennial philosophy underlying all religious traditions. The French metaphysician René Guénon (1886‒1951) argued that modernity had ushered in an age of darkness, which could only be resisted in the West by elitist pockets informed by an uncontaminated wellspring of religious tradition. Mainly influenced in his metaphysics by Vedanta Hinduism, Guénon eventually left Catholicism which he deemed compromised, and embraced Islam and Sufism.
But while Guénon disdained political engagement, neo-traditionalism mirrors the trajectory taken by Julius Evola (1898‒1974), Italy’s prominent post-war fascist thinker. Evola believed that ‘traditionalism’ should be preserved or advanced through an alliance with ethno-nationalism, either on cultural or political fronts, or both. This approach extends beyond Evola and encompasses figures like the Russian supremacist Alexander Dugin (b.1962), and can be seen with Steven K Bannon (b. 1953), the American alt-right, and their impact on the Trump Administration. Consequently, neo-traditionalism, deeply rooted in Guénon’s critique of modernity, has displayed a propensity to seek Evolian refuge within Western ethno-nationalist movements.
Based on sensitive ethnographic interviews with young Muslim seekers, Quisay observes that the neo-traditionalist movement recasts the idea of tradition as an antidote to feeling unanchored in secular Western modernity. Tradition therefore is a direct outcome of rupture and the attempts by neo-traditionalists to heal disenchantment through their religious programming, which takes the form of intense Islamic study held in retreats. Quisay focuses on what might be called the ‘reception room’ of neo-traditionalism, the first step beyond the consumption of online lectures into more formal study. In the retreat, the movement attempts to inculcate a spiritual and religious counterculture that temporarily reenchants the world. However, and this is the crucial insight, the neo-traditionalist movement, now in its fourth decade, today seeks to tie these seekers into its current institutional and political alliances. And thus the neo-traditionalist movement has become entangled with the Anglo-American right and alt-right, both culturally and politically.
Of the seekers in the cohort Quisay interviewed, only a minority unquestioningly adopted neo-traditionalism’s rightward alignment, while the majority opted out. This refusal is hope for the vision the late Shabbir Akhtar articulated. After all, it is the next generation who will decide whether to ride the politics of reactionary nationalisms in an all-out war for diminishing resources as the climate crisis intensifies, or instead, choose to oppose them. Western Muslims can decide to defend their privilege or to articulate an Islam infused with a fairer and more just vision of the world, one in which they remember that the prayers of the oppressed are always heard and answered by God. Such pious and courageous Muslim youth would have made Shabbir smile with joy.
- Yahya Birt is a community historian of British Muslim life who lives in Bradford. His books include British Secularism and Religion: Islam, Society and the State (2016), Islam in Victorian Liverpool (2021), The Collected Poems of Abdullah Quilliam (2021), and Our Fatima of Liverpool (2023). He is the co-founding editor of Oxford British Muslim Studies series for the Oxford University Press, and he works as a research director at the Ayaan Institute in London.