Fri 23 Apr 2010
Every good capitalist knows about the Fortune 500, the annual ranking of the top grossing corporations in the United States. Now Muslims who read English have their own ranking of the top 500 most influential Muslims. The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in Amman and Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding have jointly issued a new book, edited by John Esposito and Ibrahim Kalin of Georgetown University. This is scheduled as the first in an annual series that will provide short biographies of prominent Muslims in a variety of fields. According to the editors, the aim is to “highlight people who are influential as Muslims, that is, people whose influence is derived from their practice of Islam or from the fact that they are Muslim.” So who tops the list?
As fortune would have it, this effort should probably be dubbed the Baraka 500, but more for the politics of the sponsors than the demonstrated holiness of the individuals. Deciding who are the influential individuals that happen to be Muslim is no easy task, especially considering that most Muslims have not been consulted in the process. So before you read any further, jot down who you think are the top ten Muslims in the world. I suspect that you will not duplicate the “official” list provided by Esposito and Kalin for their Saudi and Jordanian sponsors. Of the top four, for example, three are kings. It is perhaps not surprising that King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud should head the list in his role as custodian of the two holy mosques, but he might also top the list of the ten richest Muslims in the world. Second in line is the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who is definitely not a shah, but certainly has the theoretical power of a king. Two more kings follow: Mohammed VI of Morocco and Abdullah II of Jordan. Both have only recently been thrust into power, following their long-serving and far more famous fathers. Next in order are Recep Erdogan, the prime minister of Turkey and Sultan Qaboos of Oman. Finally, the last four spots are shared by famous religious clerics, including an ayatollah and three Egyptian sheikhs.
If these are the most influential Muslims in the world, long live the caliphate. If the Saudi king is at the top, it is only because his kingdom (which is less than a century old) covers Mecca and Medina. Were there not massive deposits of oil underneath the Arabian sands, even this privilege would probably not provide a position of influence. But apart from those who receive the largesse of this king, who among the billion plus Muslims in the world actually think he will have any lasting impact on the future of Islam. The Grand Ayatollah may have influence on Iranian shi’a Muslims, but this is a minority and equally as political as the royal families. The young kings of Morocco and Jordan are on the list only because they are kings. Ranking all of these political roles above widely visible scholars such as Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi or Sheikh al-Azhar Muhammad Tantawi is decidedly Orientalist. Why are contemporary voices such as Tariq Ramadan or Fethullah Gülen further down the list? If being a ruler is what makes a Muslim influential in today’s world, what does this say about how the editors view Islam as a religion? Are Muslim intellectuals only relics of the past? Is influence only for the rich and famous?
The top ten chosen by the professors is a far cry from those who received the most hits in the online poll at Faith World. Of some 1,882,172 online votes, a landslide 43% went to Adnan Oktar or his pseudonym Harun Yahya, showing that an ability to garner votes online has become an important mode of influence in cyberspace. Harun Yahya has a loyal following, as might be expected from his empire of slick websites, most notably and regretably attacking evolution with almost the same arguments and fervor as Christian fundamentalists. But I doubt any Muslim who is not online has ever heard of him. The comments on the Faith World blog, where the book is discussed, show little agreement with the published choices. A commentator named Rajjab argues that most on the official list are not Muslims at all but infidels and the most influential Muslim in the world is Osama Bin Laden. He may have a point, not that most Muslims agree with the politics of Bin Laden, but certainly his words and actions have influenced the lives of more Muslims than any other person in recent history. It is hard to imagine the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, let alone the so-called War on Terror, had there been no Bin Laden.
The problem with the published list of most influential Muslims is that influence is defined in this book almost exclusively by notoriety. Just as the First Lady in the United States is virtually guaranteed to be one of the most famous women in the country, so the rich kings, sultans and emirs secure their elite positions. Yet, in the last century, no Muslim politician has really been that influential as a Muslim. Who would be considered a greater influence: the Azhar scholar Rashid Rida or Egyptian King Farouk? Had this kind of book been published in the 1930s, no doubt King Farouk would have topped the list. Given that there is no pope in Islam, no single authority who speaks for all Muslims, the idea of defining influential Muslims is the ultimate modern extension of what Edward Said rightly attacked as Orientalism. A list of kings is more a reflection of the way we see Islam through a political lens than the view of the mass of ordinary Muslims. Most Muslims around the world would never pick their political leaders as role models or examples of Muslim lifestyle and for good reason.
The attempt by Esposito and Kalin to pick the top 500 Muslims in the world is really an exercise in who they know, or perhaps want to know about them. Will this list really change year after year, except for dropping out the names of the deceased. In some cases this would simply be a need to update the name of the old ruler’s son, ensuring that Islam remains a political issue rather than a vibrant faith for ordinary people. In fact most Muslims have little influence outside their own communities as long as their influence is gauged by simply being Muslim. Perhaps this is as it should be. Rather than putting together a list of VIMPs (Very Important Muslim People), I think it would be more useful to focus on how the faith of Muslims influences their lives, even if they are street cleaners rather than sultans. Professors Esposito and Kalin have done this through previous publications and in their outreach. Let the rich Muslim donors honor themselves, but let us not confuse wealth, political power and notoriety with the kind of influence that can be bought.
Daniel Martin Varisco
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