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Dr Zaki

Dr Zaki

Issue 2 Nov / Dec 2003

The unofficial Mufti of Britain has long been an irrepressible opponent of the extreme, fatwa-happy sections of the community. Now, with the aftermath of the second Gulf War and the controversy raked up by the Hutton inquiry, Zaki Badawi’s voice of reason matters more than ever.


“I was very naughty,” says Badawi as he reminisces about his life as a child, raised by his single mother in Egypt. While he talks energetically about his past, I cannot help but notice the inner child bubbling within,  orever speaking his mind and rebellious to the core. Zaki Badawi was a sickly youngster but this never stopped his mischievous inquisitiveness. His mother always worried about him, concerned for her eldest but weak child. “She looked after me like a treasure” Badawi explains in a throw-away comment. But who could blame her, as her little boy, at the mere age of seven, had to deal with the death of his father and the responsibility of being head of the family looking after his mother and two younger sisters.


The loss of Badawi’s father was traumatic for all the family. He died suddenly of pneumonia while preparing for his own father’s funeral. This double tragedy left Badawi suddenly without a father figure. “My mother made my father the ultimate example, an ideal perfect man.” This frustrated him. “If he were alive I would have quarrelled with him. I would have had tension with him.” But he had died, so his quarrel was left with the world, religion and politics. The unrealised relationship between himself and his father and the pressure to live up to an ideal image made Badawi in his own words “aggressive in what I believe in,” and a man ready for a fight.

However, it is not an aggressive man that I meet. In fact, Zaki Badawi is jovial, charming and extremely affable. He is surprisingly slightfigured while exuding an infectious energy, yet he speaks with a calm and self-confidence that is enigmatic. We meet at the Muslim College, which he founded in 1986, an institution Badawi hopes will produce the most well-educated Imams in Britain. I arrive early whilst Badawi is busy organising a trip to Libya for the following week. “Have you got Baroness Uddin’s number?” he asks me. I don’t. He manages to track her down and within minutes the Baroness is rearranging plans and flying to Libya in a few days time. Such is his influence and power of persuasion. He hands a package to Mavis, his wife, “I’m going to be taking this to the Prince’s house myself.” Meeting the heir to the Crown seems to be a frequent event for Badawi. Mavis ushers me into the hallway and offers me a drink.

Badawi’s wife is a child psychologist who he met in the 1950s when they both studied psychology at the University of London. She and her husband have lived in Malaysia, Singapore and Egypt. I am soon being introduced to the canaries flying freely in the men’s washing area. “The men don’t seem to mind, but I’m not too sure if Zaki does.” It is easy to imagine how the students at the Muslim College would feel instantly at ease and comfortable here. “Many of the students come in during the holidays and are surprised to see us still working here. They don’t realise we have to keep this place running even when they’re not around.” The relaxed atmosphere gives the college more than the feel of an educational institution – rather it is almost a second home to Zaki and Mavis; their son is the secretary of the college and manages the everyday affairs. “It’s his birthday today so he is nowhere to be found.” I mention Badawi’s recent 81st Birthday and ask how he celebrated: “I worked.” This does not surprise me.

His 80th birthday was a much grander affair, with representatives of Prince Charles and Tony Blair present. With such influential friends, some Muslims often wonder where his loyalties lie. Badawi scoffs such concern; in fact when he talks of some Islamic movements and leaders he is quite scathing. “Our people  are ignorant,” he says bluntly. “The failure of Islamic organisations is because they are run by people who know nothing of Islam. If they run a country they ruin it, if they become leaders they become tyrannical.”

“It seems the movements that are active have hidden agendas – they want a separate existence. The concept of Pakistan seems to have inspired them all.” Badawi is concerned that countries declare themselves as Islamic States. “There is no such thing as an Islamic State. This is a recent idea. At the moment there is very little chance of having a state that will satisfy these people because they don’t know what Islam is. Most of them talk about the sharia and yet they don’t know what the sharia is all about.” He knows statements like these upset people in the Muslim community but it is his nature to antagonise and encourage debate, just as it was his way in college.

It was his father’s dying wish that Badawi went to Al Azhar College of Theology - Egypt’s Oxford. “My mother cried when she told me of my father’s request, and wailed ‘why my son?’ because my older brother from my father’s first marriage had a secular education which gave him more opportunities.” Badawi was unhappy there during his teens but it was not long before he began to revel in his studies, taking every opportunity to argue with the lecturers. “It was the tradition in Al Azhar to interrupt teachers in the middle of their lectures and question them.” Badawi would often read widely before every tutorial to do just that. He soon became a scholar well before his time. “When the public library opened in our village I systematically tried to read every book,” we both laugh at his precociousness, “but I never memorised them like my friends - I skimmed, so I read more than anyone else.” His overwhelming confidence is evident, any argument he puts forward, be it critical or controversial, Badawi will back it up. As a result his college days became his happiest, with many of the lecturers becoming good friends. Interestingly it was the ones he argued with the most who later became closest to him. But by his own admission his “naughtiness” brought both “admiration and hostility” from his peers.

Hostility is something Badawi is used to. His progressive approach to Islam fits well with contemporary British values and earns him many friends, but also many enemies. “I remember once I quarrelled with an older boy, so he beat me up. I must have been about six. My father took me to one side and told me that ‘your friends will choose you but you should choose your enemies. Make sure that your enemies are worth your enmity and are truly contemptible’”. I wonder who his enemies are. He does not divulge, “I don’t hate anybody but dislike bad actions and I hate all the cruelty around the world.” I ask if he dislikes war, “very much so, I think almost everything can be solved with debate and compromise. If you apply the sharia you will see it is not adversarial. It is a law of reconciliation, to find a satisfactory solution with no victor or vanquished.”

So did he hate the actions of Tony Blair joining the Americans in invading Iraq? It is here that I notice Badawi becoming cautious in the way he phrases his support for Tony Blair but not the war. “Tony Blair was in a difficult position. The Americans were going to fight in any case and if the Americans acted unilaterally there would be world disorder. By joining them Blair hoped to restrain the Americans.” I comment that for many people Muslims, Blair failed to do so. “If the enemy is so powerful it is very unwise to go against them.” He reminds me of his father’s proverb and comments on how taking on the United States would have caused greater international problems, “It was better for us to be on the side of the US”. His distrust of the Americans and dislike for war is running throughout our conversation and yet his support for Blair is unfaltering. This confuses me. Badawi explains that since the Suez crisis the British as matter of policy have  always supported the US and that Blair was following tradition. “Blair made the best of an awful situation.”

This awful situation prompted millions to demonstrate against the government’s decision to go to war, a demonstration that involved thousands of British Muslims taking to these treets for the first time. Badawi was not present at the demonstration; “It’s not my scene any more” he says, but states that he was in support of it. “What was really brilliant about it was that it involved the whole nation”. For Badawi this was an example of Muslims finally acting as part of a common national movement rather then a ghettoised separatist cause.

The need for Muslims to work with the British establishment has meant the emergence of groups like the Muslim Council of Britain, the Union of Muslim Organisations, and the Muslim Association of Britain; the list can go on and on. I ask Badawi if he considers them to be representative of Muslims in Britain. “I don’t think they can claim to represent all Muslims. But you do need a group that the authorities can talk to.” I point out the various groups end up competing for the government’s attention. “It is a pity that they are. This is because our community has not yet developed the sense of service for service’s sake. But it will come.” I presume that it is this sense of service that drives Badawi and his work. He talks of sleeping little, “five hours are good for me.” But for many he is considered the unofficial mufti of Britain. “I never claimed leadership. I would not claim to speak for the Muslims in this country at all. This is why I have kept myself away from all the organisations. In Islam, anyone who asks for a job  should be denied it. But the problem in our community is that everyone wants to be a leader. This is wrong.”

The only title that Badawi is completely comfortable with is Principal of the Muslim College. As Chair of the Council of Imams and Mosques he has always been critical of ill educated Imams. His College therefore provides a course that certifies those who have successfuly trained for the job. When I introduce the issue of Imams who are not trained here and perhaps do not even speak English, Badawi visibly becomes irritated by the thought. When he was appointed the chief Imam at the London Regents Park Mosque in 1978 the number of Imams who could not speak English horrified him, “they shouldn’t be Imams in Britain. They can go back. These people who shout in their own language, Urdu, Arabic, whatever, are not communicating and not relating appropriately.” We discuss the negative image compounded by people like Abu Hamza. “The media wants to use Abu Hamza against us. The media makes him. There are Abu Hamzas in Christianity, in Judaism, Hinduism and Sikhism. But only the Muslim Abu Hamza gets the publicity.”

 The media evidently frustrate Badawi but that does not mean he does not understand it. “Islam needs a better face.” He explains how even in the days of the Prophet, any spokesperson for the religion would have to be presentable and an eloquent speaker. A hook for a hand and disfigured face will always be highlighted in the tabloids as the evil face of Islam. This is something that is well understood by Badawi in today’s image-conscious news media. However, when it comes to Badawi, the press loves him. Quoted in countless magazines and newspapers, it was his opinion that journalists rushed to report after September 11th. His disgust over cultural practices such as forced marriages, female circumcisions, honour killings and his belief that women in Islamic society are still not being treated equally, even though the Qur’an insists on it, makes him a voice of Islamic reason in a world where fanatics dominate the tabloid headlines

Newspapers would rather have images of young disillusioned Muslims, who are rejecting western principles for a hard-line Islam. Badawi does not see any difficulty with combining both cultures. He has long been an advocate of an Islam that can fit well with the  British way of life and he is well known for coining the phrase ‘British Islam’ to the annoyance of those who prefer to regard themselves as Black Britain or British Asian. Yet, despite living in Britain for over 40 years, speaking the language fluently and being married to an English woman, when I ask him how he would describe his own identity he replies, “Egyptian, not British but I feel very proud to be living here.” Why does he not consider himself British? “I am Egyptian to the core. My ancestry and my roots make me what I am, but I do not see how that has to sit uncomfortably with my enthusiasm for Britain and for the emergence of British Islam.”

And what about second generation Asians, Africans or Arabs? “The definition of Britishness is still in flux, Britain is multicoloured, but the term is still ill defined and people are not committed to it. The wave of new immigrants into the country will redefine it again, so being British does not mean you have to be white skinned.” I mention the ‘British or Muslim?’ conference organised earlier this year by Hizb-ut-Tahrir. “They are crazy young people, they’re really lovely,” he says ironically, “their enthusiasm is enticing, they remind me of my youth, but they are so ignorant, so ill informed, so ill trained, but enthusiastic. Many of them will grow up later and become much wiser. If they say British or Muslim they might as well as pack their bags and go somewhere where they can be Muslim but this is the only the country that will allow them to function as Muslims.”

I wonder if this is true as we begin to discuss the relentless coverage of asylum seekers in Britain. Blunkett’s fear of being ‘swamped’ and illegal immigrants taking advantage of British goodwill is constantly on the cover of papers like the Daily Mail. As an immigrant himself is Badawi concerned by the extent of illegal immigrants entering Britain today? “The third world is impoverished and the terms of trade is dominated by the western countries. They have taken all the resources of the third world. Every year a capital of 50-60 billion dollars moved from the third world to the western world. People will always move with the capital. Why allow the money to move but not the people. People will move to where the work is.” Badawi’s solution is simple, “why not move the factories that are here back to the third world countries, like they have with steel and textile?” Badawi is an idealist; he believes that if countries like Britain and the U.S built schools and businesses in the poorer countries this would prevent the influx of immigrants coming to the west. Perhaps these solutions would be far better than building expensive detention centres here for illegal immigrants and wasting money and time tracking down asylum seekers who have disappeared from the system.

Badawi, the immigrant, never intended to settle in Britain but it is here that he has become one of the world’s most well known Muslims. His mission has always been to serve, but his rebellious nature has antagonised many along the way. Badawi is undeterred. “I feel I have a duty to the society in which I live in, I live to serve that society in the best way I can. I decided that my mission would be to help Muslims dig roots here and contribute to society here. I look forward to the time when Muslims become leaders of this country.”



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