Analysis and Comments on a Friday Sermon (Khutba) at Didsbury Mosque, Manchester, c. December 2016

23rd September 2019

With the Name of God, All-Merciful, Most Merciful

  1. We, Usama Hasan and Salah al-Ansari, have between us, over 50 years’ experience of serving as imams in Egypt and England, since we both began as imams in our teens. This includes over 45 years’ experience of delivering Friday sermons, an important and influential religious duty since the Friday imam has a captive audience: Islamic tradition obliges the congregation to listen in silence and pay attention to the sermon.  From Cairo to London to Cambridge to Newcastle, we have delivered hundreds of sermons in the UK and the Middle East since the early 1990s, i.e. a time-period spanning almost three decades.  Our experience covers some of the UK’s most influential mosques, including the Regent’s Park Mosque (London Central Mosque), and major mosques in Cambridge, Woking, Basingstoke, Margate, Brixton, Leyton, Palmers Green and Ladbroke Grove.  We have also delivered dozens of Friday sermons at many, major university campuses around the UK.
  2. As with millions of our fellow imams around the world, we have memorised the entire Qur’an in its original Arabic and recited it in its entirety to our congregations dozens of times, especially during the occasions of Ramadan.  We have also studied and taught the Qur’an for decades.
  3. Therefore, we are very familiar with the Qur’anic verses about Jihad. We analyse and explain those verses in our work, Tackling Terror (Quilliam, 2018), a comprehensive and principled response to ISIS’ Jurisprudence of Blood (Fiqh al-Dima’). At the beginning of that work, we show how Jihad is a comprehensive concept of sacred struggle in Islam, from self-development to charity to social struggle against injustice.  We also show that armed or military Jihad was only eventually allowed in the Qur’an, largely if not entirely, for the purposes of self-defence and to protect religious freedom. In particular, at the end of that work, we summarise how a holistic reading of the Qur’an and hadith literature leads to “Modern Islamic Warfare Ethics,” as agreed by all the leading, contemporary Muslim authorities, that are broadly identical to warfare ethics as accepted in modern, international law.
  4. I, Usama Hasan, also trained and fought with jihad fighters in Afghanistan against Soviet-backed communist forces in 1990-1. I also knew people who fought jihad in the 1990s in Bosnia, Kashmir, Burma and Chechnya (all before 9/11) very well, so I have some knowledge and experience of how Qur’anic verses are understood by such individuals in the context of islamist jihad campaigns.
  5. Based on all of the above, our concern is that the above sermon would have been read by many as a call for people to support armed jihad in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Palestine, Gaza, Burma and elsewhere, or “everywhere” in his words.  
  6. Context is important. This sermon was delivered in a major UK mosque.. It was delivered by an imam who would have been well-known in his congregation for having fought armed jihad very recently against Gaddafi’s forces in Libya (2011). [footage of the imam fighting in Libya in 2011 was aired by BBC Ten O’Clock News, 16/8/18]
  7. There is a one-line fig-leaf in the sermon, as we have discussed in our footnotes to the sermon text above: a brief mention of jihad “against Shaytan [Satan].” Furthermore, there is no specific warning against joining terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS who justify all their atrocities in the name of Jihad. Our view is that an explicit injunction against joining such a terrorist group should have been included in this sermon.
  8. The passage which raises particular concerns, in our view, is the  imam’s exhortation to his congregation to “do something! … now is the time to act, not talk!”. We have personally witnessed this sort of language being used elsewhere. For example, at a University of London Islamic Society in the 1990s, a similar kind of non-specific exhortation to act was expressed in Friday sermons by someone who was later convicted of terrorism offences linked to Al-Qaeda. But that was a young man who was barely 20 years old – much higher standards are expected of an imam in his 50s. In 2003, Anwar Awlaki, who later became Al-Qaeda’s top English-language recruiter, preached that people must “Do something!” in response to the “War on Terror.” 
  9. We are not suggesting that this Imam is connected to or necessarily has been consciously promoting terrorism. Rather, our concern is this. Inflaming people’s passions with tales of Muslims suffering, and then telling them that the “time to act is NOW! Do something!” without giving constructive, practical, legal steps is a recipe for disaster. It has the capacity to misguide impressionable youth. This is especially so, when Jihad verses have been misquoted. We, the authors of this analysis, have given Friday sermons immediately after sensitive situations in the UK following terrorist attacks such as the Madrid bombings, the Beslan massacre and the 7/7 London bombings. It is vital that such sermons are delivered, carefully, and with consideration of the possible consequences of a religious leader’s words on impressionable listeners.
  10. Based on all our experience as detailed above, we consider this sermon in December 2016, at a major and influential UK mosque, to be highly irresponsible, even if it did not break the law.  The imam who delivered this sermon is, in our view, utterly unfit to preach to British Muslims at such a critical juncture in our history, until he successfully undertakes some serious training in contextualising Qur’anic verses within the wider Islamic tradition, within history, and within Britain today.
  11. 15-20 years after Al-Qaeda first came to prominence and two-and-a-half years after ISIS rose to prominence by capturing Mosul in Summer 2014; after the atrocities of ISIS and the recent AQ/ISIS-inspired terrorist and massacres across Europe such as those in Paris and Brussels; it beggars belief that such a dangerous and irresponsible sermon was delivered in a major UK mosque as recently as December 2016.
  12. The Manchester suicide-bomber’s own sister has said that her brother carried out the attack as revenge against the West for “Muslims suffering in Syria.” We note that the sermon above blamed “Europe” as well as others for “Muslims suffering in Syria.” The BBC have reported that the Manchester suicide-bomber was connected to this imam via the mosque and Libya-related campaigning, and that he bought his ticket to the concert, that he later bombed, ten days after this sermon.  All of this shows, in our view, how dangerous and irresponsible this sermon was.
  13. We appreciate that the imam admitted that extremism does exists in the Islamic context, in the first part of the recording. Yet, we think that this is just lip service, as this section of the sermon lays out the foundation for undermining inclusivity and diversity which is the key to a tolerant society. This part of the sermon is actually a subtle delegitimisation of Muslim scholars who disagree with his interpretation of Jihad or concept of Umma. The sermon implies that the only true religious authorities that ought to be followed are Islamist Imams and others must be ignored as they are not genuine.  For him, understanding Jihad in the modern context of international law, as we and many Muslim authorities around the world hold, is a type of twisting and distorting Islam.
  14. We appreciate that this sermon was given in the context of a catastrophic humanitarian crisis around Aleppo in December 2016.  Sadly, such humanitarian catastrophes have occurred regularly around the world throughout our lifetimes. Since only the 1990s, Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo and many other places around the world come to mind.  However, this is no excuse for careless sermons. Indeed, there is all the more reason to expect our imams to give wise, sensible advice, taking a long view of human history and suffering, and not careless, knee-jerk, emotional reactions.
  15. We call on relevant British Muslim communities, mosque trustees and senior clerics, as well as wider political and community leaders to address the root causes and symptoms of this problem, and take constructive, practical steps through dialogue and commitment to our fundamental, shared British values, in order to prevent such dangerous situations occurring again in the future.  We would be happy to contribute to such constructive endeavours, including a private or public discussion with the Manchester imam and others.
  16. Other Western European countries in the recent past have deported imams who said such prayers in their Friday sermons.  It is fortunate for the Manchester imam that Britain is so much more tolerant.
  17. Mosques, like many places of worship, are established as charitable foundations. We very much hope that the Charity Commission will consider these concerns.

You may read a translation and transcript of the sermon,  here

You may listen to the sermon on Soundcloud

This article was written in February 2019, but we are publishing it now due to unavoidable delays caused by sensitivities around some of our sources.