It was 1992 and I had just arrived for my interview at Islamia School for the job of class teacher. As I entered the small school office I saw a slim and youngish looking Jamaican Muslim wearing chic grey Armani jacket over a long white Jilbab. On his head was a cotton laced cap and had a small beard on his chin. We exchanged Salams as I entered the room, then sat in silence until he was called in. I discovered later that his name was Sheikh Faisal and that he had applied for the job of Islamic Studies teacher. Both he and I were successful in our interviews and we started at Islamia School together – he as the new Sheikh and I as the new class teacher.
Little was known about Sheikh Faisal at the time apart from the fact that he had recently graduated from an Islamic Studies course in Saudi Arabia, but he impressed everyone with his charisma and sense of humour. He had a style that the children loved and enjoyed wearing fashionable jackets and expensive robes. He used to say that it was part of Islam to look good. But his behaviour quickly began to make the teachers concerned. He encouraged a rather over-familiar relationship with the children – especially the girls. He could often be seen walking around the playground or seated in the canteen, surrounded by girls holding his hand. His Friday sermons were also a little too ‘adult’ in their content, raising topics such as sexual relationships, contraception and Jihad along with derogatory remarks about the Kuffar. I myself spoke to the head teacher and others about his inappropriate comments and behaviour and generally avoided him. I think the feeling was mutual and we rarely spoke to each other. Then about 6 months later day Dr. Baig called me into his office and asked if I could give the Friday Khutbah (Sermon).
“Is Sheikh Faisal ill?” I replied.
“He has decided to leave.” Replied Dr. Baig. I later discovered that he had been asked to resign. For quite a few weeks after that, Dr. Baig and I rotated the job of giving the Khutbah to the whole school, until another Sheikh was found – a Palestinian named, Sheikh Abdul Salam.
Faisal became the Imam at the Brixton Mosque and, being a convert of Jamaican origin, was able to build up an excellent rapport with the Afro-Caribbean population there, many of whom were also converts. He was a magnetic speaker, often using street language to make jokes and ridicule the rulers and religious leaders of Muslim countries. This made him popular amongst the youth. However the long standing and well respected Sheikhs and Imams regarded him as a crackpot, and he earned the title of Sheikhu-Takfeer (The Sheikh of declaring people infidels) for his habit of calling other Muslims Kafir. He soon fell out of favour with the Brixton Mosque Committee, and after an acrimonious struggle, they succeeded in removing him. The Committee at Brixton Mosque were Salafis like Faisal, but they were loyal to the more moderate Saudi Salafi Sheikhs. This reflected the major split amongst the Salafis that was occurring in the 90s. Bin Laden was the main instigator of this when he turned against the Saudis and their scholars in 1991 for allowing the US to have bases in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. Bin Laden came out with a series of Fatwas (religious decrees) culminating in his 1998 Fatwa to ‘kill Americans and their Allies, civilian as well as military.’
Faisal continued preaching elsewhere, and his fiery and controversial sermons found favour amongst the young and disaffected. He held a circle in Tower Hamlets and was invited to speak at gatherings up and down the country.
I didn’t see or hear about Sheikh Faisal until a few years later when I turned up one day at Willesden Library Centre to attend Friday prayers and was shocked to see him standing in front of the congregation giving the sermon. Willesden Library Centre was a stone’s throw from my house and when I wasn’t attending Friday Prayers at Islamia School, I would pray there. I knew the community in Willesden well; many were friends or family of children I taught. A few weeks before I saw Faisal I had been approached by one of the organisers, who also happened to be the father of a girl in my class, a jovial and amiable man of Turkish origin, married to an English convert.
“We are having difficulty finding a regular Khateeb (speaker), brother Hassan,” he told me. “Would you be able to fill in for a while?”
I declined his request, but suggested the names of possible speakers. During the following weeks we had an assortment of speakers, some good, some not so good, until the day I saw Shiekh Faisal standing there. I was surprised and disappointed, but sat down and listened. He was talking about Jihad and his rhetoric had become even more radical. I could barely believe what I was hearing.
“It is our duty to go out and kill the Kuffar!”
More worshippers packed into the upstairs function room that had been cleared of chairs and sheets placed on the floor.
“We spread Islam by the Sword and so what? Today we are going to spread Islam by the Kalashnikov and there is nothing you can do about it. This is what Jihad means, it means killing the Kuffar!”
His words echoed around Willesden Library Centre.
“The Munafiqs (Hypocrites) claim the greatest Jihad is to struggle with the nafs (ego/self), but that is a fabrication. The true meaning of Jihad is fighting with the sword. It is the highest act of worship a Muslim can do. If you want to go to Paradise, it’s easy. Just kill a Kafir! By killing that Kafir you have purchased your ticket to paradise.”
I could see library centre staff walking along the corridors outside the room and I wondered what they must have been thinking.
“Allah ordered us to terrorise his enemies! He the Most Glorified, Most High said;
“Prepare, against them, your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to terrorise the enemies of Allah.”
So yes! We are terrorists, because Allah has commanded us to be and we are proud of that!”
Some worshippers began looking at each other, but most sat with their heads bowed in silence. It is true that the Muslim community must bear the responsibility for allowing such people to preach, but it is not easy for the ordinary individual to confront radical preachers such as Sheikh Faisal. Most Muslims will not question a person who appears to be in a position of authority. This is especially true when in public and surrounded by other Muslims. The vast majority of Muslims are not well versed in Islam and lack both the knowledge and confidence to raise objections. Nevertheless the ease at which Faisal became a Sheikh and started spreading his hate is worrying.
Born Trevor William Forrest to a Salvation Army family of practising Christians in Jamaica, Faisal converted to Islam as a teenager. He travelled first to Guyana and then to Saudi Arabia where he attended Muhammad bin Saud University in Riyadh. There is no uniform process by which someone can become an Imam or Sheikh in Islam, nor any central authority that appoints clergy to positions of authority. So with his Diploma from Saudi Arabia, he simply put on some gold braided robes and started calling himself a Sheikh.
After Faisal’s Khutba I saw him standing outside the entrance to the car park, surrounded by a group of brothers. They were talking animatedly amongst themselves, but stopped when I approached and looked me up and down warily.
“Wa-Alaykum Assalam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu, Hassan,” replied Faisal. “How are things at Islamia School?”
Faisal rarely looked one in the eye when he spoke. He shifted his eyes sideways and downwards as he talked.
“I hear you have Sheikh Ahmad there now!”
“Yes, masha-Allah. He’s an excellent Imam.” Faisal gave a sarcastic smile to the brothers around him.
“Is Dr. Baig still there?”
“No, he left. Teacher Abdullah is the Head now. Listen, I wanted to ask you about your Khutba, what you said about Jihad meaning killing the Kuffar.”
“Look it up in the Qur’an and Hadith, Hassan. That’s exactly what it means.”
“What about the hadith that the struggle to conquer one’s own ego is the greatest Jihad?”
“Ibn Taymia said, ‘This hadith has no source and nobody in the field of Islamic knowledge has narrated it.’ This is supported by many other scholars.”
“But there are many scholars who disagree with Ibn Taymia’s interpretations.”
“There are many wicked scholars who will say anything if you pay them enough; Scholars for Dollars!” Faisal’s entourage chuckled.
I thought it ironic that he should accuse non-Salafi scholars of being ‘Scholars for Dollars’, when it was the Salafi scholars who had been well financed by the Saudis in their effort to ‘cleanse’ Islam of heresies and pour doubt on every interpretation that conflicted with their narrow doctrine. Several books have been written exposing ‘weak’ or ‘fabricated’ Hadith such as ‘The ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr’ and ‘Seek knowledge, even to China’. The Saudis have also financed ‘edited’ versions of classical texts to purge them of ‘mistakes’. They published a translation of Ibn Kathir’s famous Qur’anic commentary, which although regarded highly by Salafis, nevertheless contains some narrations they don’t approve of. In a verse about Jews who broke the Sabbath being turned into monkeys and pigs, Ibn Kathir includes an interpretation that says it is ‘allegorical’ and means only that they were ‘humiliated’ and made ‘lowly’. Such interpretations don’t suit the literalist Salafi creed; they prefer to believe that the Jews were literally transformed into monkeys and pigs, and so you won’t find the metaphorical interpretation in their ‘edited’ translation. Similarly Yusuf Ali, in his famous translation of the Qur’an, says regarding one verse, “Slavery is now no longer applicable in the true spirit of Islam.” Yet in the new Salafi version, that sentence has been removed. They still regard slavery as permissible according to Islam. It is true that the extremist Salafis have fallen out with the moderate Saudi Salafis, but their beliefs are basically the same, which is why it is hard to have any pity for moderate Salafis when they complain that Islam has been hijacked by the terrorists, since it is their ideology that created them.
It was clear that anyone who took Faisal’s words to heart could be capable of virtually anything. However when I spoke to others about the things he was saying, most seemed to think nothing would come of it and dismissed him as a crank. He continued to preach at Willesden Library Centre every other Friday, his audio tapes on sale in the foyer next to perfume bottles and rosary beads. I could see that some of those attending were not from the area, proof that he had built up a dedicated following by then. I considered complaining to Brent Council or even the police, but couldn’t bring myself to do it. My sense of Islamic brotherhood made such a thing seem traitorous. I tried to convince myself that telling the authorities about someone who was spreading such hatred was not being a ‘traitor’ since that person was going against Islam, but I still couldn’t do it. I decided the least I could do was to avoid listening to him and consoled myself with the thought that it was just hot air.