Travelling Home: Summary and Reading Guide

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This is the first of two posts about Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad’s recent book Travelling Home. This post is a summary and reading guide of the book, and the second one is a review, analysis and critique.

The book is a collection of essays, most of which are derived from lectures the shaykh has given over the years. In fact the introduction lists the lectures that the chapters are derived from. The writing style is reflective of being derived from lectures. The arguments presented aren’t structured the way one is used to in an academic essay, as the narrative often moves freely from topic to topic. There are also lots of fancy words used where simpler ones would have sufficed. Because of that, the average reader might be confused by the book, have difficulty getting through it, or not know what to make of it. I’ve put this reading guide together to help.

This guide will describe the book thesis, summarize each chapter, and give suggestions on which parts to read if you’re low on time. I’ve also linked to the original lecture transcript upon which the essay was based if I could find it. I haven’t checked closely but it seems like some of the essays have been kept as they were delivered while others have been revised and adapted (for example, references to the COVID-19 pandemic were added here and there). And some is entirely new content, such as Chapter 2 which is one of the main chapters.

Book Thesis

The main argument of the book, in my words, is as follows:

The modern West is suffering, due to liberalism, secularism, individualism, and related phenomena. This helps fuel Islamophobia, because the West is insecure about itself and its own identity, and thus needs to create an external boogeyman to hold itself together, which is often Islam. Muslims should respond to this by empathizing with Westerners and recognizing the reasons behind their malaise, and by articulating solutions that are grounded in the Islamic tradition. Rather than pushing people away from the Deen or wholesale imitating the West.

It should be noted that he mainly focuses on Europe and the UK, though the arguments can also be extended to the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, with the understanding that the US is unique in certain ways as well. For that reason I’ve used “The West” in the above summary of the thesis, although perhaps a stricter version would say “Europe.”

Chapter One: Can Liberalism Tolerate Islam?

Read lecture transcript here.

This chapter makes note of the increasingly coercive attempts by European countries to get their Muslim minorities to adopt “liberal” values. It discusses how it’s paradoxical for liberal values, which ostensibly include tolerance, to be imposed by governmental force. In addition, SAHM shows how the very values being imposed now would have been considered strange or shocking even a generation or two ago. His main takeaway is to call for Muslim leaders to make alliances (where possible) with Jews and Christians who are also not comfortable with the imposition of these “liberal values.”

Chapter Two: Muslims and National Populism

This essay discusses the rise of Islamophobia in the West and its entry into mainstream politics via far-right politicians. The shaykh takes issue with the term “Islamophobia” and offers the term “Lahabism” instead, which he says is more indigenously Islamic and links modern-day Islamophobes to Abu Lahab, the uncle of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) who hated Islam and Muslims.

The chapter also notes the changing nature of Islamophobia/Lahabism. It started out as a form of Christian chauvinism, but in Western Europe has taken on a more secular nature. It’s not uncommon to find pro-LGBTQ, feminist, pro-climate, pro-economic equality activists and politicians in Western Europe who also have a visceral hatred of Islam.

The chapter then discusses the Muslim responses to these trends. SAHM points out a few responses which he claims are common but wrong. One is tanfir (which means driving people away from the religion), which is where Muslims will respond to enmity with enmity. Another wrong response he says is imitation of the West, and another one is retreat into “race-temples” (ethnic mosques/communities) which try to recreate the “back home” culture here in the West.

The shaykh then proposes his preferred response. He talks about the need to empathize and understand the issues that are driving Islamophobia. The West, having alienated itself from its own spiritual tradition, feels the need to create an Other against which it can define itself. Trying to correct mistakes and misconceptions about Islam won’t work, because the issue is spiritual and not a rationalistic misunderstanding.

He says that Muslims should pray for the Westerners, and give them da’wah from an empathetic point of view. He points out how there are a fair number of former far-right activists who have ended up embracing Islam, so it’s possible to change anyone’s heart. But he says that in order for this da’wah to be successful on a wider scale, Muslims need to adapt to Western culture when it comes to things like dress, food, mosque architecture, and so on. Part of the issue is that immigrant and children-of-immigrant Muslims come across as foreign, which creates a perception of Islam as foreign.

Chapter Three: British Muslims and the Rhetoric of Indigenisation

Read lecture transcript here.

This chapter contains a lot of names, citations, and philosophy. Some readers may like it but it’s safe to skip for the average reader. It’s about British history specifically and how Muslims do fit in there.

Chapter Four: Islamophobia and the Bosnian War

Read lecture transcript here.

This essay is about the Bosnian War and Genocide which took place in the 1990s. It highlights the fact that the Bosnian Muslims were targeted uniquely for their religion, and the Serbs saw themselves as committing religious acts.

The chapter contains descriptions of some pretty horrific atrocities, so I would skip it if you’re a sensitive person.

Chapter Five: The Venomous Bid’a of Tanfīr

Tanfir is the act of driving people away from Islam. The shaykh laments the rise of angry, firebrand, simplistic preachers who lack genuine grounding in the tradition. He also criticizes movements that he claims have turned Islam into an “ideology” (not named, but he means Islamist groups such as Jamaat e Islami, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb ut-Tahrir, etc).

SAHM also decries militants and terrorists in the Middle East as also engaging in tanfir, as well as coercive states that force their particular interpretation of Islam onto the population, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. According to the shaykh, both terrorism and state coercion are contributing to the youth in the Muslim world drifting away from the Deen.

The solution he calls for he terms “True Salafism.” This includes recognizing the flexibility of the Deen as the earlier Muslims did, and practicing love and forbearance for all. This will result in people’s hearts inclining towards Islam rather than being pushed away from it.

Chapter Six: Good Anger, Bad Anger, and Shirk al-Asbāb

Read the essay online here (PDF).

This chapter is about reacting to injustice. The author calls for us to recognize that God is in control of all things, and we should trust in Him as the foundation of our activism. Furthermore, he writes that we should respond to injustices against us with kindness and compassion, not by emotional or violent counter-reactions.

Chapter Seven: ‘Push Back with Something More Beautiful’ (Qur’an 41:34): Minority Muslims from Complainants to Therapists

Watch lecture here – I couldn’t find a transcript.

This chapter contains an analysis of the ayaat from Surah Fussilat that are about pushing back evil with something “more beautiful” (ahsan), citing many classical commentators. SAHM also states that most Muslims are following this, or something close to it, but it’s a few loud people who react violently or angrily and this discolors people’s perception of Muslims. He says that the ulema should take a larger role in correcting those voices.

Chapter Eight: A Theology of Ahl al-Kidhāb

Lecture given at Catholic Academy of Berlin on 16 April 2013, I couldn’t find a transcript or video.

This essay notes that the non-Muslims that Muslims dealt with throughout history have generally been religious people (e.g. Ahl al-Kitāb, the People of the Book), but now we are seeing Western countries where most people are atheists. SAHM terms this phenomenon Ahl al-Kidhāb, or the People of Denial.

The shaykh says that Muslims should respond to this with empathy and love. The atheists are in denial of their fitrah, but it’s still inside them, and their souls did testify to Allah’s lordship over them in the primordial realm, even though they deny it today. He says that with this in mind, we should do our best to accommodate the Western seculars and mingle with them.

He warns against Islamism which he calls “Movement Islam,” and claims that it turns Islam into an ideology. He also criticizes the importation of foreign cultural norms, such as certain headscarf styles and “desert clothes,” and even calls on Western Muslims to use “local” tajwid and adhan modes (though details aren’t specified). He cites the fact that Islamic law often incorporates ‘urf, or local custom, when deciding matters.

Lastly, the author says that Muslims in the public sphere should argue for their religious rights due to the material good that religion does, as opposed to the harms of secular individualism. This is not the main argument for religion of course, but rather one piece of the puzzle.

Chapter Nine: Seeking Knowledge: the Multiple Horizons of British Islamic Studentship

Watch lecture here – I couldn’t find a transcript.

This essay is about Islamic education in the modern times, and whether one is still able to obtain an authentic Islamic education that’s true to the tradition, in either the East or West. He lists the various options that are available, and criticizes them as coming up short. This is a quick summary, so the arguments are over-simplified:

  • Islamic studies curricula in Muslim countries such as Pakistan: too influenced by Islamism
  • South Asian madrasahs: represent a 19th century reactive discourse
  • Middle East and North Africa: either in violence or civil strife, or dictatorships taking control of religion
  • Islamic Studies departments in Western academia: influenced by Orientalism, dominated by “outsiders” (non-Muslims, many of whom are hostile), and dedicated to hyper-specialized research. However, he does praise the rise of Islamic theology schools in Western institutions, often led by Muslim scholars and academics.

The approach he ultimately endorses is that of “carefully hybridised spaces.” Examples given include the College of Islamic Studies in Qatar, Ibn Haldun University in Turkey, Zaytuna College in the US, and SAHM’s own Cambridge Muslim College in the UK. He says that Western and Islamic thought are in dialogue in these spaces, and this results in less intolerance and fundamentalism, whether the kind seen in madrasahs or in Orientalist departments.

Chapter Ten: Creation Spirituality

Lecture given at Nahdlatul Ulama Belanda on 19 June 2019, I couldn’t find a transcript or video.

This chapter discusses various approaches to nature. It’s on the more philosophical side, but it does contain references to Quran and ahadith as well.

Chapter Eleven: Zakat in the Postmodern Economy

Read lecture transcript here.

This chapter is about politics, economics, and the 21st century global financial system. It criticizes the excesses of modern capitalism, as well as some of its absurdities. “Islamic banking” is also discussed and found lacking. SAHM ends by speculating what it might look like if Zakat was revived on a societal and institutional level, and how it could make a significant positive difference in the world.

Low on Time? What Parts to Read

There’s obviously a lot to get through, and reading the book cover-to-cover is not for everyone. If you’re short on time, or just want the relevant parts that tie directly back to the thesis, here are some ideas:

  • Most relevant to the thesis: skip chapters 3, 10 and 11.
  • Short on time: read 1, 2, 5, 7, and 8. Add 9 if you’re a student or have a child you want to give an Islamic education.
  • Very short on time: read 1, 2, and 8.
  • Extremely short on time: just read chapter 2.

And of course, skip chapter 4 if you’re sensitive to descriptions of atrocities.

That’s it for my summary and reading guide. For the analysis and review, click here.

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