There are two depressing things about the recent poll (YouGov Grand Mufti Survey, 8 June 2007) according to which two-thirds of Sunni (sic) Muslims are in favour of a Grand Mufti for the
Firstly, the very fact that the poll splits its respondents into Shia and Sunni – this hair splitting seems to be the order of the day. No discussion of any aspect of Islam or Muslims is allowed to pass, it seems, without inviting comment from any of the many post September 11 ‘instant book’ Islam-experts, regarding the crucial importance of the differences between Shia and Sunnis. So much so that on reading them one would conclude that Eid itself is a sectarian festival!
Secondly, the results of the poll seem to suggest that there is considerable support amongst Muslim communities for the proposal that the office of Grand Mufti would be of benefit to us. The question remains how robust that support would be if these ‘soundings’ were to be used to justify the establishment of an official Grand Mufti. Superficially, the idea seems attractive, not least in the prospect that a Grand Mufti would be able to adjudicate in disputes of Islamic doctrine. His (alas) appointment would finally resolve the chattering classes’ frustration about the lack of unity among Muslims; a frustration many Muslims themselves share without giving too much thought to what this lack of unity actually means in the racialized contexts in which all Muslims find themselves within the Western plutocracies. In such contexts, I would suggest, not only will a Grand Mufti not bring about unity, but his appointment will in fact serve to silence Muslim voices rather than give them expression.
In the UK the Prime Minster appoints the country’s bishops, and it is likely that a Grand Mufti would be another government appointee, perhaps selected from the ranks of Labour or Conservative party donors (aka the ‘good and the great’). This bishop of Islam would be able to issue fatwas, and such fatwas – directly or indirectly, for good and bad – would carry the weight of the
The idea that the Grand Mufti would represent the silent Muslim majority to the government is contradicted by the experiences of colonialism which suggest that such figures would end up representing government to Muslims, rather than the other way round. In the
In the situation in which Muslim communities outside Muslimstan find themselves it is important to bear in mind that rather than being a weakness or problem, having a diversity of organizations is the very means of safeguarding the interests of Muslim communities. Muslims need a plurality of organization to represent them. Only a plurality of organizations can help institutionalize Muslim autonomy in situations in which we are structurally in a weak position. With a host of Muslim organizations contending with each other to represent the Muslim voice we have a better chance of avoiding our representatives becoming a mere echo of the establishment. If there is only one legitimate leader designated by the government (whether directly or indirectly) that Muslim leader will not be able to articulate a Muslim voice since his legitimacy flows from those who appoint him, not those whom he is supposed to represent.
Muslims who care about being Muslim need to be wary of attempts to foist a Grand Mufti upon us. We should seek instead to enrich our public life by developing a ‘parliament’ of Muslim representative bodies which in the process of contestation will help ensure a distinct Muslim voice in the conversation of the nation. What we need is persistent political engagement, not a bishop of Islam.