‘Enough is enough: we cannot stand by and allow people to terrorise, stifle debate and issue death threats in the name of our faith’. Muslims in Britain and beyond uphold the right:
- to express informed opinions without fear,
- to inculcate an ethics of difference and divergence of opinion,
- and to facilitate safe and critical spaces in which faith and the challenges that the contemporary world poses can be discussed and understood.
We want to explain the reasons for the creation of the Defend Usama Hasan group and why the way in which Usama Hasan has been treated is unacceptable and needs to be condemned.
What follows is a brief biography of Dr Usama Hasan, a brief background analysis of the events that led to the establishment of this group, and a list of things that you can do at the end. It is a partial view and open to improvement; it should not be read as a definitive or a collective statement. It is not intended to victimise groups or individuals; it is not a further attempt to engage in the sectarianism that has plagued much Muslim politics in Britain. The aim is to enhance understanding in the hope of advancing a just resolution, and to reaffirm the minimal conditions for decent living together in our country.
Although apparently about the (in)compatibility of evolution and Islam, the situation has more to do with mosque politics, gangsterism and growing opposition to Dr Usama Hasan’s movement from his past positions. There are many matters here for us to reflect on but our focus is to highlight the issues of dignity, solidarity and safety, which are, of course essential, to decent community life anywhere or for anyone.
Short Biography of Dr Usama Hasan
Since his childhood, Usama has been associated with Masjid al-Tawhid, a community-based mosque in Leyton, East London and a bastion for one strand within Sunni Islam, which is self-described as being ‘Salafi’ which means following closely the example of the first three generations of Islam. Another self-description is as ‘Ahl al-Hadith’, or followers of the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings, example and way of living.
Usama’s father Sheikh Suhaib Hasan is a respected Islamic scholar and leader at Masjid al-Tawhid. Mentored by his own father as well as by other Islamic religious scholars, Usama holds traditional certificates of scholastic learning (ijazas) in both the Qur’an and in the Hadith, the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad.
Usama also went on to obtain degrees in Physics and Artificial Intelligence from the Universities of Cambridge and London.
After graduating, Usama worked for five years in industry before returning to academia, and is currently a senior lecturer at Middlesex University. He is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, and was formerly Planetarium Lecturer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. He has served as a part-time imam at Tawhid Mosque in London for over 20 years, has translated a number of Islamic works from Urdu and Arabic in English, and has been a long time activist within the Muslim community at local and national levels.
Background to Recent Events
In recent years, Usama has faced growing and vociferous opposition to views he has formed through his extensive study of Islam and the empirical sciences. As an individual with considerable stature within the Salafi/Ahl al-Hadith sector of the Muslim community he has been seen as a mentor to many.
In recent years, Usama has changed his views on a number of issues, which would seem to be uncontroversial in wider society but have proved to be highly controversial, depending on the issue at hand, among a few or within some or within many sections of the Muslim communities in Britain.
These have included:
- the non-obligatory status of the hijab (the headscarf worn by some Muslim women),
- rethinking the nature and centrality of jihad in Islam,
- support for a secular democratic system of governance within Islam,
- support for a robust, confrontational and highly public approach to extremism within Muslim communities, and
- arguments for the compatibility of evolutionary theory and Islam.
Usama’s changing views have caused great consternation, particularly amongst those who had grown attached to him as a mentor and who had followed his views in the past. The thuggish elements of this disquiet have subjected Usama to unacceptable harassment, to threatening phone calls and hostility.
We can trace the start of this recent controversy over evolution and Islam to an article in the Guardian celebrating the Darwin Bicentenary in September 2008 in which Usama argued that Muslims needed to mature their childish ideas on science, and in particular on evolution.
Why is evolution so controversial for many Muslims? Although Darwin's ideas, or at least analogous ideas before Darwin, have been affirmed by some Muslims in the past and in the present, the thought of associating the Prophet Adam (peace be upon him) with a human-like ancestor is disturbing and unacceptable to many. They regard his creation as a direct act of God as being an article of faith, and that evolutionary theory directly contradicts this understanding of the relevant Qur’anic verses by saying instead that the first humans had hominid ancestors which they share in common with the great apes.
However if a biological theory is an issue of controversy in Muslim communities, it only serves as a catalyst for other worrying dynamics which this group serves to highlight. The ethics of disagreement, the rules of debate and the procedures for the formation of scholarly opinion require a careful and considered response to the challenge that evolutionary theory make pose to believers.
The Campaign against Usama Hasan
Although there has been intense debate over Usama Hasan’s change of views at a community level for quite a few years, this briefing note focuses on the recent and immediate campaign against him.
On New Year’s Day 2011, an online campaign began to 'Save Masjid Tawhid'; religious sanction in the form of a strong refutation of belief in evolution was sought and given by Sheikh Al-Sadlan, a scholar visiting Britain from Saudi Arabia over the Christmas holidays. His views have been backed up by some foreign scholars whose views were sought and then given. Sheikh al-Sadlan ruled that a believer in evolution was not to be prayed behind in the congregational prayer at the mosque.
This was the theological cover in a campaign to unseat Usama. Online forums bear electronic witness to the heightened emotions, the sense of betrayal and heated discussion running through the campaign at the time. At the time of writing this briefing note, the petition has 1109 anonymous signatories.
Following the Friday prayers on 14th January, leaflets against Usama were distributed outside Masjid al-Tawhid. The situation was escalating.
On Saturday 22nd January, Usama was due to give a lecture at Masjid al-Tawhid to answer his critics who were mobilising to remove him from an institution in which he has spent most of his life. A crowd of a few hundred gathered to listen, consisting mostly of the sincerely confused and who were interested in understanding what Usama had to say.
Being unavoidably delayed on the day, Usama began his lecture with an eye to answering questions at the end, but the crowd had grown impatient, restless and unruly. Unwilling to allow 'the accused' time to finish what he had to say, rude and hateful aspersions of takfir (excommunication of an individual from Islam) ensued from audience members and the lecture then descended into a farce.
It should also be noted that Usama’s father, Sheikh Sohaib Hasan, also spoke at that meeting, and while disagreeing with his son’s position on evolution, defended his right to hold a different view, and he also condemned any form of intimidation.
Usama Hasan’s speech:
Sohaib Hasan’s speech:
Repeated blog-based clarifications from Usama thereafter have not been successful in satisfying his critics and so the campaign against him has become increasingly personal, belligerent and hurtful. Although we are not privy to the details, we understand from Usama that there is a live and ongoing police investigation into death threats that have been made against him. It should go without saying that we should await the results of these investigations and we do not seek to prejudice them or to pre-empt them in any way.
Our intention is simply to stand in support with Usama’s inalienable right to freedom of religious conscience and to defend him and his family from any hate speech, intimidation or threats of violence.
Usama Hasan’s blog
On 24th February 2011, a letter surfaced on the internet apparently relieving Usama of his duties as a trustee and an imam of the mosque, based upon ad hoc meetings held on 26th January and 23rd February 2011 by a minority of the mosque’s trustees.
Later on the Chair of the mosque, Dr Suhaib Hasan, clarified that these meetings were unconstitutional as they did not meet the requirement of a quorum needed to vote out Usama as a trustee, and thus as an imam.
On 4th March Usama Hasan issued a retraction of some of his previous views and an apology on his blog. We do of course respect his right to express any change of view on his part as a matter of personal conscience and reflection, but we would also like to state the principle that this should never be a matter of coercion or intimidation either.
On the 5th and 6th of March, Usama Hasan’s case was being reported in the national press in the Independent and the Guardian, and has been reported internationally since.
In the following week, the Muslim communities in Britain have begun to speak for themselves, in defence of Usama's wellbeing and safety. Many of these links have been posted up on this Facebook group, and we encourage all community organisations to send any press statements as permalinks through to us.
In the escalation of this controversy, the trustees who voted against Usama have themselves received death threats.
The original 'Save Masjid Tawhid' website has since transferred hands.
This will be updated when necessary. And Allah knows best the truth of matters.
What Can You Do?
- Support a process of arbitration within the mosque. It should be noted that the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board has publicly offered its services in this regard. Of course, such a course of action is at the discretion of the trustees of the mosque. We affirm that all mosques should conduct their internal affairs within the regulations stipulated by the Charity Commission and any other relevant legislation.
- Invite your friends to join the Facebook Campaign group, “Defend Usama Hasan”. At the very least we would hope that the number of named supporters in defence of Usama Hasan would outstrip the numbers of those who are anonymously calling for his removal (see the link above).
- Disseminate the Facebook Group on mailing lists with a link and the list of principles to encourage others to sign up.
- Write blogs in support of the campaign with links to the Facebook Group. Feel free to mention Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom of expression).
- Write letters of support, solidarity and encouragement to Usama Hasan c/o Masjid Madrasah al-Tawhid, 80 High Road, Leyton, London, E15 2BP.
- Draft letters for publication in the national press.
- Post up articles from Muslim religious scholars that outline the proper etiquette for debate and disagreement and for the articulation of considered scholarly opinions
- For those who have faith in God, please don't forget, most importantly, to pray for peace and understanding and resolution.