Sunday, October 09, 2005


Aussie Sheiks and Byron Bay Gurus

I know this sounds a little weird, but I really feel sorry for John Howard and Phillip Ruddock. They are trying their best to consult the Islamic communities. And all they have to work with is a bunch of incompetents.

The government has, in good faith, set up a consultative body so that it can gain an understanding of what Muslims at the grassroots think. It thinks it can rely on these people because they are, after all, the heads of peak leadership organisations.

If the government had to consult Catholics, it would be easy. Just ring up the Church. There is a hierarchy, a priesthood, a system of accrediting spiritual and lay leaders. Same in the Anglican and every other Church.

But in the Muslim community, there is no priesthood, no hierarchy. And if you believe what you saw on the Sunday program last weekend, no real systrem of accrediting religious figures.

That allows shonks and crooks to make all sorts of bombastic claims and then gain the confidence of a generation of young Muslim Aussies with no exposure to mainstream Islamic ideas.

Send Khalid Yasin to Indonesia and see if he lasts even 5 minutes. Genuine religious authorities will pull him apart and expose him in no time. Send him to Turkey, and authorities there will do the same. The story will be repeated in just about every Muslim country.

But in Australia, where there is no central authority, shonky sheiks can make more money than Byron Bay gurus.

Some years back, some of my friends tried an experiment. We wanted to see just how gullible some young Muslim kids are. I drafted and sent out an announcement about this famous Sheik who was visiting from Mali and who had done his PhD at the University of Khartoum in Sudan. I gave him the grand name of Sheik Muhiyuddin Abdul Majid El-Sumbluq. I said he would be visiting Australia, and that people needed to book in advance for a place in his classes.

I had inquiries from across the country from starry-eyed kids wanting to attend the Sheik’s classes. Sydney was abuzz with talk of the famous Sheik el-Sumbluq. Until I sent out an announcement about the Sheik’s scholarly wife.

Her name was Aishah Umm-Yasmin El-Sumsheila. By the time people realised what we were upto, my friends and I were rolling around on the floor.

Why do some young Aussie Mossies believe this nonsense? Muslim Australians don’t seem to have a good record when it comes to religious instruction. We have a range of people describing themselves as imams or sheiks or maulanas or using some other title.

Yet we have no system of accreditation for imams. It seems anyone can stand up and claim the mantle of Islamic scholarship. And if they speak even half-decent English and have some charisma, they can be believed and followed.

The Australian Muslim community is like the Byron Bay of the Islamic world. I could go to Byron Bay, set myself up in some cottage, wear a sari or some other funky dress and call myself “Sheik el-Sumbluq”. I could set up the Sumbluqiyya Sufi order, and thousands of Kiwi backpackers and hippies would pay $200 a session to be part of it all.

So why does this problem exist? Why do we have so many weirdos and wackos masquerading as sheiks? Are young Aussie Mossies all as high as a bunch of Byron Bay backpackers?

Recently, American Muslim Gary Edwards told a Muslim audience that we should insist people claiming scholarship showing and proving their qualifications when asked.

“If just having a beard and wearing a cap makes you a sheik, I know plenty of billygoats who could qualify!” Mr Edwards said.

This situation exists because most real and qualified imams cannot speak English and cannot communicate effectively with young people. Our most senior cleric, Sheik Hilaly, is still struggling with basic English. I could count the number of imams proficient in English on 2 hands.

So 300,000-plus Aussie Muslims, most of whom speak English as their first language, are having their spiritual needs officially serviced by imams who cannot speak their language. The result is the growth of an entire “black market” of preachers and charlatans setting up “centres” and “societies” led by charismatic English-speaking frauds.

I know one fellow who claims to be a Sheik and to have completed a degree from Saudi Arabia and to have authorities from prominent Yemeni scholars. He is allegedly the chaplain of 2 university campuses. But to this day, despite numerous requests, he has never shown anyone his qualifications.

If the Khalid Yasin fiasco proves anything, it is that Aussie Mossies need to get their act together. They need to urgently fund local kids to study religious sciences in reputable institutions overseas.

And by overseas, I don’t mean some crackpot seminary in Saudi Arabia. I mean a real institution in the UK or the United States or Malaysia. In an English-speaking environment with people who don’t carry irrelevant cultural baggage.

We need an accreditation system for Imams and Sheiks so that we get real scholars and not Byron Bay billygoats teaching and preaching in Aussie mosques.

The author is a Sydney lawyer who has acted for at least one Imam and four independent Muslim schools.

© Irfan Yusuf 2005

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