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Book review: From 'radical' to 'spiritual'

Updated May 16, 2013
— File Photo.
— File Photo.

'The Islamist’ is a memoir by Ed Husain — a British Muslim of Bangladeshi descent — who explains to us why he joined “radical” Islam in Britain, what he experienced as a “hardcore Islamist” and why he finally left and returned to what the author describes as “spiritual Islam”.

“Sufism was about hope and faith. Life itself was about hope and faith,” says Husain.

Mohamed Mahbub Husain, aka Ed Husain, was born in England to Bangladeshi Muslim parents. In his riveting memoir, the author takes readers through his transformation from the spiritual tradition of his parents to a die-hard Islamist. After spending about five years in activism as an extremist youth leader of the YMO [Young Muslim Organization], Hizb-ut-Tahrir (a radical group that calls for the establishment of the Caliphate) and the British wing of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) he finally transforms again to embrace the spiritual tradition of his family.

Husain’s memoir was first published in 2007 by Penguin Books. A review by Guardian described ‘The Islamist’ as: “A revealing and alarming account.” The author has received wide acclaim for ‘The Islamist’, which was short listed for the Orwell Prize for political writing. He lives in London with his family.

As a schoolboy, Husain discovers that he is short sighted. He gets his new spectacles from a local optician, but does not particularly enjoy boys shouting ‘Glass Man’ at him. After spending many years in Sir William Burrough Primary School it is time for Husain to join Stepney Green Boys School, as his parents do not approve of co-ed education. Husain loves his teachers at his former school, but he certainly does not like his new school, for his fellow pupils are mostly new arrivals from Bangladesh. He misses his classmates at Sir William’s which include Jane, Lisa, Andrew, Mark, Alia, Zak. At his new school, Husain writes, everyone was Bangladeshi, Muslim, and male.

Husain, in his childhood, is in awe of Shaikh Abd-al-Latif, a famous pir and spiritual master of his father. Shaikh was from the India-Bangladesh border region of Sylhet. The Shaikh, Husain writes, was a master of five Muslim mystical orders, a theologian, who had studied the Quran in Makkah. Husain’s mother introduces Shaikh to Husain as ‘Grandpa’.

“In many ways he (Shaikh) was like a father figure to my parents. He was softly spoken and always looked down when he walked, treading gently on the earth.” His father believed that spiritual seekers did not attain knowledge from books alone, but learnt from suhbah, or companionship. Husain liked his ‘Grandpa’ a great deal.

Thinking of himself as a misfit at a new school, Husain is on a mission to learn more about his faith. He meets Abdullah Falik, whom he respectfully calls Brother Falik. Falik, a serious and observant young Muslim, starts influencing Husain’s personality. “Falik used to wear a black and white chequered scarf (Palestine’s Yasser Arafat would wear a similar scarf). Bedouin headgear conveniently appropriated as a symbol of Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation. When I bought my own scarf, my father was puzzled,” writes Husain.

The first book Husain reads about Islam in English is ‘Islam: Beliefs, and Teachings’ by Gulam Sarwar. It is astonishing to learn about Husain’s journey from a quiet ‘Glass Man’ (who participates in annual mawlud gatherings organized by his father at home) to a teenage rebel to young extremist leader. For the first time he discovers that ‘religion and politics are one and the same in Islam’. This makes him wonder why his parents had never spoken about this aspect of Islam.

Husain’s changed mindset and proximity with Falik means that he develops differences with his family’s traditions and understanding of faith. “Together, we started to assert a new identity: we were young, Muslims, studious, and London born. We were not immigrants and neither understood the mentality of our peers who reminisced about their villages in Bangladesh, nor shared their passion for Bollywood actresses…”

Husain’s father isn’t pleased with his son’s association with Falik. On his part, Husain conceals any information about YMO and the East London mosque, fearing both these names would enrage his father. “I knew my father would not tolerate Mawdudi’s books under his roof, so I put covers on them, blacked out the author’s name, and secretly read as much as possible,” Hussain writes, explaining how he starts thinking that Islam has been misunderstood by his father and most of the people he knew.

‘You’ve changed,’ Husain’s mother says to him. ‘You’re no longer the son I raised.’

Finally, the battle lines are drawn.

A day arrives when Husain’s parents tell him in no uncertain terms that if he wanted to stay in their house, he will be a normal Muslim, ‘none of this politics in the name of religion’. He is advised by a senior member of YMO that it was time to choose between family and God’s work. Husain decides. One night, he writes a farewell note to his parents, and clandestinely steps out of his home. This is one of the turning moments in his life.

Husain’s oratory skills are polished with time. He is now a young Muslim leader, who develops interest in Hizb ut-Tahrir. “The Hizb was, from its inception, committed to establishing an Islamic state dedicated to propagating its ideology….” He is given important responsibilities within the new organization.

But there is another turning point. Husain develops serious differences with Hizb, as he can’t reconcile with the idea of violently targeting other communities in the name of religion. He bids adieu to Hizb ut Tahrir and sets on a mission to discover God and himself. “Since leaving Islamism, I could no longer believe in God who wanted to govern in his name.”

“During the course of our lives we all change our views and direction; some of us do so more radically than others. For me, the alteration of worldview is a troubling tale. The person I now am finds it difficult to recognise the person I once was. Yet, with time and experience, I evolved.”

These are the opening lines written by author Husain in the preface. His book, he declares, is a protest against ‘political Islam’. “Having undertaken this journey, I feel it is my human duty to speak out against what I see masquerading in Britain as ‘Islam’,” he writes.

Having rejected extremism he travels widely in the Middle East and works for the British Council in Syria and Saudi Arabia.

Husain’s memoir stands widely appreciated in the West. He has been critical of socio-political organizations like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. During the recently held elections in Egypt, the author in his blog on ‘Council on Foreign Relations’ argued: “Where the state failed, the Muslim Brotherhood entered with charity work, building low-cost hospitals, supporting orphans and widows, and running vocational training programs. This noble support for Egypt’s poor, however, smacks of bribery and corruption when used at election time to gain votes, undercut political opposition, and portray the Muslim Brotherhood as ‘God’s good soldiers’ against secular and liberal Egyptians.”

It is not necessary one has to agree on everything what the author writes. I certainly do not agree with some of the arguments Husain makes in his book. But he certainly forces readers to think and ponder on many important issues confronting Muslims living in the modern world.

Ed Husain’s book could easily fall in the category of being slightly controversial in content, but it is by no means as blatantly controversial as Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’, Irshad Manji’s ‘The Trouble With Islam Today’, Ayan Hirsi Ali’s ‘Caged Virgin’ or Taslima Nasreen’s ‘Lajja’.

I am of the view that ‘The Islamist’ is a book which needs to be read by one and all, especially young Muslims, particularly in the context of dilemmas and challenges they face in modern times. Those living in conflict zones will perhaps identify with certain parts of the book.

Gowhar Geelani is a writer/journalist with international experience. He has served as Editor at Deutsche Welle (Voice of Germany) in Bonn, Germany. Previously, he has contributed features for the BBC. Feedback at (