Al-Azhar scholars and Saudi Wahabist fight over followers among British Muslims

When two young British Muslims debate whether or not it is religiously permissible to wish their neighbors a “happy Christmas”, this indicates an ideological battle between prominent Sunni scholars of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, fought over in the UK.

Such a debate would have been almost unthinkable in London two decades ago. But today it is frequently the internet that young Muslims turn to when looking for spiritual advice. And what they find in cyberspace is often shockingly intolerant. “Do not congratulate [the unbeliever] on their festivals in any way whatsoever,” warns one prominent site. “That implies approval of their festival and not denouncing them.”

While the real world provides a vast array of interpretations from a variety of Islamic schools, more often than not it is the intolerant strands of Islam taught by Saudi Arabia’s fundamentalist Wahabi scholars that dominate online. Backed by billions of petrodollars and an army of tech-savvy graduates who are more than capable of capturing the YouTube generation’s imagination, the internet has long been a stronghold for the most intolerant forms of Islam.

But now, as the Hajj gets under way in Mecca, one of the world’s oldest Islamic institutions has come to Britain to remind young Muslims who might be tempted by the Wahabi rhetoric that there is an alternative way to worship. Scholars from Al-Azhar in Cairo have been touring Britain’s mosques to launch a new online book of fatwas (Islamic judgments) which directly challenge the Saudi way of thinking.

The 200-page book, entitled “The Response” and published by the Islamic Hotline Service, has been available in the Middle East in Arabic for two years but this is the first time a comprehensive list of some of the most commonly asked questions encountered by Al-Azhar’s scholars has been available in English, and equally importantly, Urdu, the national language of Pakistan. The issues answered in the book range from whether the Earth revolves around the Sun (Sheikh Ibn Baaz, Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti during the 1990s, insisted that the Sun revolved around the Earth) to whether a Muslim is allowed to perform magic tricks (Wahabis forbid it).