11 August 2012

Defining Power: The 500 Most Influential Muslims

Written by 
His Highness Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal of Jordan and His Beatitude Patriarch Gregorios III His Highness Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal of Jordan and His Beatitude Patriarch Gregorios III https://melkite.org/patriarchate/conference-on-a-common-word-and-future-muslim-christian-engagement

Islam knows no clergy (excepting today’s Iran) and certainly no centralized authority that determines either orthodoxy (right doctrine) or orthopraxy (right conduct). Yet all Muslims agree on five pillars (“2 confessions” and 4 rituals) and on the centrality of law – how on the basis of the Qur’an and the Sunna Islamic jurisprudence in its various schools evolved over the centuries to guide Muslims along the path that leads to God’s blessing in this life and the next (the Shari’a).

That said, if you want to understand contemporary Islam, you must know something about the disproportionate influence the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has played in the Muslim world in the 2000s. No doubt King Abdullah II has continued the path of moderation and interfaith dialog chartered by his father King Hussein. Yet since his accession to the throne in 1999 he has gone far beyond the vision of his father, and this, I would argue, is in large part due to his cousin’s brilliance, spiritual endowment, leadership and networking skills – Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad.

Prince Ghazi graduated with highest honors from Princeton with a B.A. in Comparative Literature, then from Cambridge with a Ph.D. in Modern and Medieval Languages and Literatures, then from al-Azhar in Cairo with a Ph.D. in Islamic philosophy. The common thread in his writings is a quest to understand love, both divine and human (see his book, Love in the Holy Qur’an).

Officially Chief Advisor to the King on religious and cultural issues, the Prince chairs several pivotal boards of directors:



Much could be added to this list, but these are the instruments of power at his disposal to combat extremism, promote his conservative theological views, and spread his message of reconciliation, first between Muslims, and then between Muslims, Christians and people of other faiths.


Landmark achievements of the Hashemite Kingdom

Managing the endowments of the third holiest place in Islam is a task the Hashemites of Jordan have always undertaken with great pride. I remember living in East Jerusalem in the early 1990s when the golden “Dome” of the Rock was being replaced. No expense was spared and in less than two years it was finished, shinier than ever.

More significant historically was the Amman Message initiative. On the heels of the mayhem and havoc wreaked by the series of terrorist attacks in the early 2000s, King Abdullah II in 2004 wanted to issue a statement of what “true Islam” was and was not, backed by the most respected authorities of the Muslim world. The legitimacy of the declaration would be enhanced both by the number of top authorities involved and by their diversity, aiming to represent all the various Sunni and Shii currents of thought, prestigious institutions, legal schools and mystical orders.

According to the official website:


“In order to give this statement more religious authority, H.M. King Abdullah II then sent the following three questions to 24 of the most senior religious scholars from all around the world representing all the branches and schools of Islam: (1) Who is a Muslim? (2) Is it permissible to declare someone an apostate (takfir)? (3) Who has the right to undertake issuing fatwas (legal rulings)?”


A solid consensus was reached, which was then ratified by all of the various international bodies of the Muslim umma (community) over the next year or so, from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to International Islamic Fiqh Academy of Jeddah. Never before had such an official consensus been reached on that scale since the early days of the Muslim community (and if you know your history, you also know that the umma was torn by divisions right from the start – so this could actually be a first).

Even the word “consensus” (ijma‘ in Arabic) evokes pious, successful, even triumphant images and feelings among the faithful, since it is one of the four roots, or sources, of Islamic law. For Abdullah II to manage such a feat he needed more than just boldness and a keen sense of converging interests in the opening of an historic window. He wielded power – a mixture of political power with an even greater dose of diplomatic savoir-faire. None of the bigger, richer, more influential Muslims states could have pulled it off. The political dynamics of the Islamic world, as any attentive observer can see, are a minefield.

For me the evidence that the mind and heart behind all of this was Prince Ghazi comes in what followed in 2007. Responding to Pope Benedict XVI’s ill-fated Regensburg lecture in September 2006, 38 Muslim scholars from diverse backgrounds sent the Pope a letter to engage him in dialog. Exactly one year later (Oct. 13, 2007), a subcommittee of the Amman Message Initiative, now called the Common Word Initiative, sent an official letter to the Pope and “all Christian leaders” – a letter Prince Ghazi had written and which was now signed by 138 Muslim leaders from all over the world.

The title of the letter, “The Common Word,” is taken from Sura 3:64 of the Qur’an, which reads: “Say! O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you …” Yet the content of the letter is not centered on the next phrase of that verse (“… that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him”). Rather, the “common word” of this letter is simply and only “love of God and love of neighbor.” Noting that Muslims and Christians together make up more than half of the globe’s population, the letter asserts that world peace will never be achieved without reconciliation between Muslims and Christians in the first place. This is not as difficult as it sounds, the letter goes on, since what unites the two communities is at the core of their respective traditions: love of God and love of neighbor:


“These principles are found over and over again in the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity. The Unity of God, the necessity of love for Him, and the necessity of love of the neighbour is thus the common ground between Islam and Christianity.”


This letter produced a flurry of conferences since the fall of 2007, with the participation of mainline Protestants, Catholics and evangelicals – a fact clearly under-reported by the media. The book to read about the impact of this letter is co-edited by Prince Ghazi himself and Yale theologian Miroslav Volf (A Common Word).


The Muslim 500 Project

Another brainchild of Prince Ghazi’s is a yearly publication of “The 500 Most Influential Muslims.” Here is the third edition, the 2011 version, which came out in June 2012. Note as well that this venture’s website indicates a much more ambitious project than the yearly publication. It provides updates on the various figures on the 500 list, as well as current articles of interest to the wider Muslim community.

First, who are the people behind this project? The “chief editor” is Professor S. Abdallah Schleifer, a Jewish convert to Islam originally from Long Island, who worked as a journalist in the Middle East for over thirty years, with NBC and a string of other outlets at different times, both in print and in TV and radio production. He also taught journalism at the University of Cairo and more recently has been Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought (both in Amman, Jordan) – which explains his role in this production.

Yet there is no doubt that Prince Ghazi is the prime mover behind this idea. He is the author of the most important introductory article of the 184-page document – “The House of Islam,” a ten-page introduction to what “Islam” is from a self-declared “traditional Islamic” point of view. This distinguishes the authors between two other currents – and notice that each of the top 50 names are evaluated in terms of their reactions and interactions with the “Arab Spring”:


“Our listings do tend towards a more traditional understanding of Islam than either Islamists (politically engaged fundamentalists) or modernists would have it (see: The House of Islam for the editors’ understanding of Traditional Islam), which means that considerations of what constitutes legitimate political rule does, to a degree, impact our ordering of the most influential in the political and religious domains, but not exclusively so. And because of the importance of ‘The Arab Spring’ in all its convoluted manifestations, our introduction to this year’s listings is inescapably far more ‘political’ in concern than would ordinarily be the case.”


So the traditionalist position defines itself over against the Islamists (those wielding and adapting modern ideologies so as to make the nation-state more “Islamic”) and the modernists (who would rather do away altogether with traditional notions of Islamic law and theology). The introduction then proceeds to quote Prince Ghazi at great length on the political philosophy of the traditionalist position. In a nutshell, the Qur’an and Sunna teach us that monarchy is the best way to lead a people in the Islamic way of life.

Though the modernists are dismissed as being "scorned by the masses," the ranking puts Dr. Mohammed Badie, the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, in the eighth position. Still, for traditionalists like Prince Ghazi, both kings of Morocco and Jordan get the highest marks for their handling of the Arab Spring -- enact some reforms but keep to the status quo.

In light of the above, it is no coincidence that the number one figure is the Saudi King Abdullah. King Mohammed VI of Morocco is second, King Abdullah II of Jordan is fourth, the emir of Qatar is sixth, the Sultan of Oman is ninth, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi is eighteenth, the Aga Khan VI is 22nd, and the Nigerian Sultan of Sokoto is 25th. The others in this space are all scholars, with Yusuf al-Qaradawi ranked 13th (on him, see previous blog).

One last thought on this: this "traditionalist" position is well named. It certainly reflects the reality of how power and authority were shared and contested in Islamdom over the centuries. Political authority was firmly in the hands of rulers (the generic word is "sultans," from the Arabic word for "authority"); but they had to continually negotiate with the Islamic scholars who were mostly jurists (generally known as ulama). For more details in this connection, see my blog in the Middle East Experience, "Of Ulama and Sultans."


Some thoughts about “power”

The website’s slogan is, “We ascertain the influence that individual Muslims have on the Muslim community.” So, besides political power, what are the criteria used for this ranking exercise? Here is a good starting point, taken from the Foreword:


“Influence is: any person who has the power (be it cultural, ideological, financial, political or otherwise) to make a change that will have a significant impact on the Muslim World. Note that the impact can be either positive or negative. The influence can be of a religious scholar directly addressing Muslims and influencing their beliefs, ideas and behaviour, or it can be of a ruler shaping the socio-economic factors within which people live their lives, or of artists forming popular culture. The first two examples also point to the fact that the lists, and especially the Top 50, are dominated by religious scholars and heads of state.”


So it’s clear for the editorial staff of the Muslim500 project that power – the ability to affect lasting change in Muslim society – is on many levels and the list seeks to reflect this reality. So when you visit the website you find a menu with twelve other categories besides political and scholarly influence: Administration of Religious Affairs, Preachers and Spiritual Teachers, Philanthropy/Charity and Development, Social Issues, Business, Science and Technology, Arts and Culture, Qur’an Recitors, Media, Celebrities and Sports Stars, Radicals, and Issues of the Day.

Another way of putting this is that there is both formal and informal power. The picture at the top of this blog reflects Prince Ghazi’s informal power. He not only wrote the Common Word document, but he used his influence to bring together a conference to discuss it, with the Archbishop of Canterbury presiding, and with many patriarchs, church leaders and scholars participating.

In May of 2012 (the month before my own visit) Prince Ghazi led a joint Muslim-Christian delegation to Nigeria to seek ways to diffuse tensions between the two communities. The high-level delegation was sponsored by the Jordanian Aal al-Bayt Institute and the World Council of Churches. Not surprisingly perhaps, he has been nominated three times already for the Nobel Peace Prize.

I began this blog by saying that if you want to get a feel for contemporary Islam, don’t overlook the influence of Jordan’s royal family, the Hashemites (see also my blog on PCI, Little Kingdom, Big Impact on Peace). On the one hand, they can take credit for the 2005 Amman Message, which arguably could turn out to be a watershed document in modern Islamic history. The same could be said for the Common Word initiative, which is still ongoing. On the other hand, depending on how the Muslim500 project is perceived and followed in Muslim circles over the next few years, Prince Ghazi’s influence (scholarly, political, relational, diplomatic, spiritual) – shall we say “power”? – may grow even more significantly.

Oh, and did I forget to mention that Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad is nowhere mentioned in the 500 plus names on this “who’s who” list?