Book Review: ‘Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism’

Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism
by Sadek Hamid (2016)

reviewed by Tamim Sadikali



What attracts young Muslims to this type of ephemeral but
ferocious activism? One does not have to subscribe to determinist
social theories to realise the importance of the almost universal
condition of insecurity, which Muslim societies are now
experiencing. The Islamic world is passing through a most
devastating period of transition. A history of economic and
scientific change, which in Europe took five hundred years, is, in
the Muslim world, being squeezed into a couple of generations
[. . .] Such a transition period, with its centrifugal forces, which
allow nothing to remain constant, makes human beings very
insecure. They look around for something to hold onto, that will
give them an identity. In our case, that something is usually Islam.
And because they are being propelled into it with this psychic
sense of insecurity, rather than by more normal processes of
conversion and faith, they lack some of the natural religious
virtues, which are acquired by contact with continuous tradition,
and can never be learnt from a book.

Question to the floor – what is a Wahabi? What’s a Salafi? Can an Islamic activist ever be in sync with ‘British values’, or is the idea mere sophistry – camouflage for a wannabe Jihadi? For many, there is no need to unpick warp and weft of the Muslamic landscape – it’s a uniform and featureless desert. And therein lies the rub, because as Sadek Hamid shows us in Sufis, Salafis and Islamists, the major trends in British Islam since the 1990s have all been reactions to the inclement environ in which Muslim youth have found themselves. Alienated from their parents’ culture and unable to find sure footing within a secular milieu, a cornucopia of organic, grassroots movements took form, all self-styled with cultivating a counter-culture for British Muslim youth. And the body of Hamid’s work is given to analysing four such Islamic trends in Britain: The Young Muslims UK, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Salifism and neo-Sufiism.

Despite personal history as an ex-activist, Hamid’s scholarly approach holds a close but dispassionate lens up to each movement’s trajectory: from their inception and sources of inspiration, drivers, growth, internal and external conflicts, and ultimate transition or demise. For anyone genuinely interested in this field, the insider view which Hamid offers – a result of personal knowledge, painstaking research and scores of interviews with key past and present players – is without doubt a fascinating and robust account. But crucially, the cool, almost detached nature of Hamid’s analysis draws the heat out of the subject matter, allowing the reader to engage with greater objectively. And this last aspect carries a surprising payload – for the detachment afforded via Hamid’s academic lens makes these contestations between Islamic trends seem less other-wordly and more mundane; indeed, remarkably similar to the familiar battleground of secular, democratic politics. It strips the esoteric of its mystery, making it seem rather everyday – wherein what are essentially different parties refer to common political totems, and vie for the attention of an increasingly whimsical constituency.

When it comes to British Islamic politics, like in British politics more generally, the tail is most definitely wagging the dog, as Hamid shows us via the changing mission statements of the Young Muslims UK from 1993 to the present day:

The Young Muslims UK, (like its parent movement, The Islamic
Society of Britain) is a limb of the global Islamic Movement,
sharing its understanding with all the major world-wide
movements. Our situation here in Britain reflects the domination
of ignorance and the absence of Islam [. . .] Unfortunately for the
people of this country, batil (falsehood) reigns. And one of its
manifestations is the prevalence of shirk (associating partners with
Allah) – the greatest injustice of all. It is our responsibility that
Islam should be introduced to the people of this country not as ‘the
religion of the Saracens’ nor as ‘the next threat to the West’ but
rather as the cure to its many diseases.

YM UK was set up in 1984 to provide a vehicle for committed
young British Muslims to combine their knowledge, skills and
efforts for the benefit of one another and British society as a whole.
We bring together the youth, men and women from all social and
ethnic backgrounds, and different schools of thought, for the
benefit of all. As such, our membership largely reflects the
diversity of the British Muslim landscape. We welcome all
Muslims and non-Muslims, helping them understand Islam and
live by its teachings and principles. We strongly believe that
working for Islam is not just about campaigning for Muslim
rights, but also about sharing Islam’s view on God, life and society.
We do so as an organised and dedicated group, engaging in sincere
and constructive dialogue.

As Hamid correctly explains, understanding the history of British Muslim activism is a vital precursor to engaging with their present and future. And in Sufis, Salafis and Islamists, that recent past is succinctly unpacked, before projections into possible futures are considered. And for such highly-charged subject matter, it’s the perfect sober, scholarly primer.


Tamim Sadikali is the author of the novel ‘Dear Infidel’, as well as a reviewer of fiction and non-fiction. His reviews have appeared in Critical Muslim, Wasafiri and on Bookmunch.

Categories: Diaspora, Diversity & Difference, Rethinking The World, Reviews, Uncategorized

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