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The Mercy Warrior

The first thing people notice about Habib Ali al-Jifri is his smile – broad, welcoming, honest. But beneath his gentle demeanour is a steely determination to engage in a genuine dialogue on the meaningful role Islam and Muslims must play in the West. He’s no pushover. Well read and well travelled, Habib Ali is a compelling religious scholar who brings a keen sense of social justice and relevance to his teaching. A critic of the economic and political policies that have brought misery to places like Iraq, Palestine and Africa, he is a spiritual activist who calls on Muslims to reject the path of anger and seek a higher moral ground. Abdul-Rehman Malik reports from London, Copenhagen and Abu Dhabi on the man and his mission.

“With all due respect, I simply cannot understand the nature of the devotion you have for your Prophet,” the journalist said incredulously. “There is simply nothing I think of that holds that kind of sacred value for me. Perhaps, my love for my children is the nearest thing I can think of.”

“Yes,” exclaimed Habib Ali al-Jifri, smiling. “We both love our children and would sacrifice anything for their well being. We feel even more love and adoration than that for our Prophet. He is dearer to us even than our own children, even more than ourselves.”

Sitting in a Turkish restaurant in London’s Farringdon Road, Habib Ali al-Jifri was meeting with a group of journalists, free speech defenders and human rights activists to discuss the now well-konown bayan or declaration of Islamic scholars issued in the aftermath of the global Muslim outrage following publication of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, across Europe. The landmark declaration condemned the violent demonstrations and the resulting attacks on Danish embassies, affirmed the principle of freedom of speech and ideas as something enshrined in Islam, while calling on the Danish government and the international community to enact the necessary legislation to protect sacred symbols and prevent libellous attacks on recognised founders of religious traditions. Signed by some of contemporary Islam’s most important scholars – including the Egyptian Grand Mufti Ali Jumua, Mauritanian jurist Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah and Syrian theologian Dr Saeed Ramadan al-Bouti – the document had come about as a result of painstaking negotiation and shuttle diplomacy much of which was carried out by Habib Ali himself.

Habib Ali listened carefully to the sharp criticisms of the declaration raised during the meeting. When one participant exclaimed that there were parts of the document that “just didn’t make sense” and were “simply incompatible” with a modern understanding of free expression, Habib Ali responded, “then you must write down your concerns, so I can take them back to the signatories. This declaration is not the end of a process but its beginning. We need intelligent people to respond to it, criticise it. Your comments will help clarify our perspectives and make them stronger.”

One leading free speech rights campaigner remarked to me after the meeting, “I like your Shaykh. He’s young, he’s energetic and – I’m not sure I should say this – he’s very handsome. He smiles a lot and I usually don’t trust people who smile too much, but he’s different.”

Since he started coming regularly to Europe and North America to teach and speak, the thousands who have come to listen to him would certainly not disagree. Even though he speaks only in Arabic and his lectures are understood by most of his listeners through translation, his message resonates profoundly with young Western Muslims.

Habib Ali Zain al Abideen ibn Abd al-Rahman al-Jifri hails from the Hadramawt Valley in southern Yemen. His father Abd al-Rahman al-Jifri was one of Yemen’s most influential political figures. Now in exile, he remains an important opposition leader and serves as chair of the National Opposition Front. Abd al-Rahman al-Jifri has consistently rejected violence and advocated national unity on the grounds of human rights and democracy.

Habib Ali took a decidedly different path. Studying in Tarim, a historic city known for its community of Islamic scholars, Habib Ali studied and served some of the most illustrious scholars of the modern age. In the valley of Hadramawt the descendents of the Prophet Muhammad himself settled generations ago and it is his example that is celebrated in rich local poetry and devotional music. The studies in Tarim are more than just academic pursuits – they represent a rigorous lifestyle of prayer, study and service. At the heart of the rigorous training is a gentle spirituality that constantly reminds the young scholars to be mindful of the Prophetic example and to place his merciful, generous ways at the heart of one’s faith. Western students returning from Tarim describe it as a place that reminds them of the Madinah talked about in stories of the Prophet.

Sitting in Habib Ali’s modest hotel room overlooking a quiet Copenhagen street, I glance at the morning edition of Politiken, Denmark’s leading progressive daily. A picture of Habib Ali kneeling in prayer almost covers the entire front page. Few outside of Denmark would have understood the significance of the image. The previous night Habib Ali had debated representatives of the right-wing Danish People’s Party (DPP) and the country’s governing Liberals. Alongside him were the Kuwaiti-based Tariq Suwaidan and the dynamic Egyptian preacher Amr Khaled, who like Habib Ali are popular figures on Arab satellite television. The debate took place in a cavernous hall that was once home to the Politiken’s antiquated printing presses and has recently been turned into a venue for public debate and discussion. For Danish freedom of speech advocates this is hallowed ground, where the Politiken’s campaigning journalists took on Denmark’s political establishment for decades.

Habib Ali’s very public prayer in the hall raised the eyes of many. One Danish journalist later confided to me, “That picture had more impact than the debate itself. Here was a Muslim scholar – with a turban and robes – completely at home in the temple of free speech. It was like he was honouring our holy ground.”

Politiken’s editorial line on the cartoons has been praised by Danish Muslims who have had few public defenders in the last few months. During the heated exchange, DPP parliamentarian Soren Espersen shouted down criticisms from young Muslims calling them “pathetic complainers.” “Just get on with it,” he bellowed to the jeers of the predominantly young Danish Muslim crowd. “We are not here to be your welcoming committee, if you say you are Danish then you have all the rights of citizenship. I’m sick and tired of this nonsense!”

When Danish Muslim activist, Imran Hussain, reminded him that senior DPP members had called Danish Muslims “cockroaches” and a “cancerous growth” that needed to be excised, he merely shrugged.

Habib Ali’s response was pointed. “It is this attitude of arrogance and this kind of dismissive behaviour that divides people. You do not consider these young people part of your nation and your society. It is you who are creating a ‘them’ and ‘us’ and yet you don’t even realise that there are people who look like you and have your ethnicity, yet they are Muslims. Your idea of who is Danish and who isn’t is confused.”

Habib Ali asked for all those Muslims in the audience who were ethnically Danish to stand up – these were converts themselves, or children of converts. At least two dozen audience members stood up to the thunderous applause of the crowd. Espersen shook his head and seemed for the first time that evening to be at a loss for words.

Habib Ali walked into the room and greeted me, smiling, immediately asking if he could get me some coffee or breakfast. Dressed in an immaculately pressed, white jalabiyya and wearing an equally unblemished skullcap, he shows his youthfulness in his broad gait and energetic, eager manner. This morning however, his altogether pleasant and welcoming demeanour cannot hide the tiredness around his eyes. Since arriving in Copenhagen he has maintained a punishing pace – meeting, speaking and doing press appearances from fajr prayers to late into the night. He has waded into a deeply fractured Muslim community and is seeking to help create a forum where disparate and clashing parties can at least talk to each other. When he is not in meetings or on a stage, he is on his mobile keeping in touch with his many projects all over the world.

His reason for being in Denmark is the launch of a dialogue initiative organised by Amr Khaled’s RightStart Foundation and the Danish Institute for International Relations, involving some 50 young people from Denmark and the Muslim world.

“We all have to stop speaking about ‘Islam and the West’,” he says. “There is no longer any ‘us’ and ‘them’. Islam is in the West. It is part of the fabric of the West and it is a reality which is not going to go away. The question is when will Europeans realise this and deal with Muslims as people who are no longer outsiders, but part of them?”

Habib Ali is full of passion as he speaks and his exhaustion seems to melt away as he reflects on the dialogue: “This trip has assured me of something I already suspected that the Danish people are good people, that they are reasonable people. I am convinced that we have to make a distinction between those in the government and who supported the publication of the cartoons and the Danish people themselves. Dialogue must address the ignorance people have about Islam. But we cannot treat them as they treat us – as all the same.”

He has particular praise for the Danish Youth Council, an important national organisation seen as the training ground for future politicians: “Many of the Danish youth who took part are activists and future leaders who can go and help change public opinion. This dialogue has opened the door for a cultural exchange between us and the future intellectual class here. In turn, these young Danes have been surprised by our openness and by how little they really know about Islam. I feel that much of the press here does not highlight the positive contributions that Danish Muslims are making. It is like there is a sort of general insistence here of not really keeping the people in the picture, sort of clouding their opinion so that the only road that can be seen leads towards clash and conflict.”

A day earlier Habib Ali had delivered the Friday sermon at a storefront mosque in the heart of Copenhagen’s Arab community belonging to the Wakf organisation whose leader Ahmed Abu Laban has been at the head of the campaign to internationalise the cartoon controversy. Habib’s message was short and direct: we love our Prophet more than we love ourselves, but loving him means never compromising his high ethical standard and it means never being controlled by our anger and rage.

After the sermon I met Musa, an Eritrean with Danish citizenship. He was heartened by Habib’s words, “al-Jifri is a very astute and clever man. I enjoyed his khutbah – it was short, effective and to the point. The Prophet demanded a lot from us and I think we have let him down. It’s hard not to be angry though, we go through a lot here.”

Musa works as a lab technician and has been in Denmark for 35 years. I ask if he feels Danish. He laughs sceptically, “Danish? I feel like a stranger, I feel like an outsider. I feel like people will not reach out to me so I won’t reach out to them. I can never run away from my faith and it’s my faith that concerns the people I work with. They are always poking fun. I just keep quiet.” Musa is angry. He says that while Muslims may be divided about what Abu Laban did, “we are united against munafiqs like Naser Khader [leader of the secular Muslims who claim to be moderates. The government uses people like him against us. At least Abu Laban reflects my anger.”

I tell Habib about the young men at the largest London rally who weren’t just talking about the cartoons but about Iraq, Palestine, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. One young person from East London declared that, “There is no Britain! There is no America! There’s just La ilaha ilallah!” How do we deal with an anger that simmering and feels like it could boil over at any moment?

“We need to emphasise that while there is legitimate reasons for anger it must be mediated by the sacred law. Anger is no excuse for ignorance of our principles and our way of life. We have to revive the spirit of brotherly connections, whether it is to neighbours, family or friends to bring back this connection between people, and to do it in a manner that is informed by the Prophetic guidance. Connection with others on a brotherly level or a neighbourly level eventually leads to a lessening of the anger, because we see when these connections are built up and further developed. We need to renew our core belief in the unseen – that is why we make sincere supplication to Allah, because we have certainty about Him. If someone feels frustrated and he feels all doors are closed, then the door of Allah is the one that is always open. Frustration should guide one to look to Allah for guidance on what he should be doing.”

Habib Ali is not just a spiritual teacher detached from the concerns of Muslim communities. At a major public lecture in London last December he took a strong political line, calling on people of justice to oppose the occupation of Iraq and Palestine and use every political means of opposing policies at home and abroad that are unjust. His message of civic action is guided though by Prophetic principles. The high moral ground and ethics of faith can never be compromised in the struggle for social justice and peace. His is a spiritual activism borne of noble conviction.

The Prophet is not alive in people’s hearts, he’s not alive in their spiritual wayfaring or in the way they do things and even in the way they list their priorities, and how they deal with others around them. This is what we’re missing, this is the real problem.

“The Prophet is not alive in people’s hearts, he’s not alive in their spiritual wayfaring or in the way they do things and even in the way they list their priorities, and how they deal with others around them. This is what we’re missing, this is the real problem,” Habib Ali contends.

“We are angry about the cartoons, we showed the world that. We showed them our anger but we didn’t show them the love for the Prophet Muhammad. So through this year’s mawlid celebrations, it’s important that people find out why we love him, and through the remembrance of his noble characteristics they will know the reasons for our love.” He has recently adopted the Arabic slogan Hayyun fi Qulubina (Alive in Our Hearts) as a rallying cry for this call to adopt the Prophetic values.

How do you explain to someone, like the journalist at the discussion in London, why we love the Prophet? “People love in general for three reasons jamal, kamal, and ihsan. Jamal is beauty, kamal is completeness or perfection and ihsan is excellence. We have to get out the message that we see all these three aspects in the Prophet and it’s these attributes that people actually need in their lives today.”

Habib Ali is an impeccable listener. When others are speaking, he’s completely focused and just to be sure, he asks questions that show that he’s been paying attention. Habib Ali is also a keen observer; he notices body language and pays attention to all those non-verbal cues that communicate so much. It’s not a sneaky kind of observation, but one that seems to inform his interactions with others. Like every good teacher, he lets his eyes take the scene in.

There is always something on offer when Habib is around. He makes sure there are gifts for guests, food for visitors and the offer of help and assistance whatever the situation. Sitting in on one late night strategy session, I noticed him quietly open a box of chocolates, and proceed to lob them at those assembled urging them to step lively and have a sweet. It broke the seriousness in the room and everybody started laughing.

The process of initiating these cross-cultural and international dialogues hasn’t been easy. Some leading personalities in the Arab world have dismissed these attempts at exchange as simply misguided and Habib Ali’s scholarly credentials have been questioned: stick to preaching, say the naysayers, and talking about matters of the soul, and leave the big issues to people who understand global politics.

Habib Ali is undeterred. He embraces the idea that the world is now no more than a global village and is acutely aware that his message is not just the right one, but that it is resonating with young Muslims.

Last month, in Abu Dhabi, Habib Ali invited a group of Danish youth leaders – with several Muslims amongst them – and a group of young Muslims from Europe, North America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, to come together for a four day gathering entitled Litaarafu: The Search for Mutual Understanding organised under the direction of the Tabah Foundation, the UAE-based think-tank and research centre of which Habib Ali is the director. Over four days of discussions, debate, and an evening under the desert skies, the participants eventually reached some common ground. Strong difference remained, but what Tabah hoped to accomplish through the initiative was to create an example of good practice, documenting why such dialogues really do work.

It’s easy to be cynical, after all a handful of well-educated, largely liberal minded students aren’t going to change the opinions of nations. However, the fruits of the exchange were seen in little ways.

The night before the closing ceremonies, a small group of delegates gathered around a laptop in the darkened conference centre trying to negotiate the text of the resolution that would be presented to the press in the morning. After several hours of horse trading words and phrases, the declaration seemed like it was in hand. That was until one of the Danish student leaders suggested that there should be a phrase stating that the Danes had learned about Muslim faith and practice and had also begun to understand the depth of love and devotion Muslims had for the Prophet. The objections surprisingly came from some of the Muslim draftees who felt such a statement would seem lopsided in favour of the Muslim delegates, but the Danes were adamant. “We want to demonstrate support for Habib Ali’s vision. We want people here and abroad to know that it has been a success.” In the end the naming of the Prophet Muhammad in the declaration was followed by “peace be upon him” – included, again, at the insistence of the Danes.

At the closing ceremonies, the delegates gave Habib Ali al-Jifri and fellow guest renowned scholar Dr Saeed Ramadan al-Bouti three standing ovations. One of the delegates, a young Danish woman, said, “Without Habib Ali we would never have had this opportunity. He is our friend and a true teacher.”

Habib Ali continues to teach for several weeks a year at Dar al Mustafa, one of the many seminaries in Tarim. He still studies with several master scholars and returns to his teachers for guidance regularly. During an unusually quiet moment during his whirlwind Copenhagen trip, I asked Habib Ali what he remembered most about his teachers.

“When I was ten years old, I remember spending time [with my teacher] Habib Abd al-Qadir Saqqaf. I saw the shama’il of the Prophet Muhammad reflected in him before I even read about them in a book. When I was with Habib Abd al-Qadir he reminded me of the mercy of the Prophet, the gentleness of the Prophet and the patience and forbearance of the Prophet, peace be upon him. When I think of Habib Ahmed Mashhur Al Haddad, I remember his presence with Allah. He was always present with his Lord, and this awareness was palpable. It affected us deeply. I’d find stories in the books of tasawwuf that speak of how some of the great masters were in a constant state of witnessing the presence of Allah – I felt that in him.”

After the conclusion of the Abu Dhabi dialogue, Habib Ali prepared for another long stretch of traveling – Syria to Kenya to the United Kingdom for the Uniting for the Prophet 2006 program at Wembley Conference Centre. He feels a great responsibility to help others spiritually. I ask aloud, what sustains him in his work?

“There is an authentic narration of the Prophet Muhammad that after he is first granted intercession on the Day of Judgment, they will still remain some people in hellfire who are Muslim, and so the Prophet, peace be upon him – not wanting this to happen – will prostrate himself before the throne of Allah and ask Allah to take them out. Allah would grant his request and still some would remain. So he would return to Allah a second time, and a third time, until one last person would remain in the hellfire. And Allah would then say that anyone who just said ‘La ilaha ilallah’ with honesty even once in their life should enter Paradise. So seeing that after all of the struggles and all of the strife, and all that the Prophet, peace be upon him, sacrificed for this ummah, he didn’t want to go to Paradise – he wouldn’t feel comfortable there – while even one of the people who believed in him remained back. This gives the impetus and the inspiration to continue calling to Allah and the truth. We have to do this for the sake of the Prophet, peace be upon him, because we don’t want him to feel this discomfort on the Day of Judgment.” He smiles and asks, “It just makes sense, doesn’t it?”

Habib Ali’s spiritual activism seeks to bridge the false gap between Islam and the West, Muslim and non-Muslim. His call to his brothers and sisters to seek a higher moral ground without giving up their commitment to their faith, their Prophet and social justice is just the kind of difficult challenge that many young Muslims – jaded by circular, angry and impotent political rhetoric – might be willing to embrace.

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