Introduction 2009

The publication you have in your hands is the first of what we hope will be an annual series that provides a window into the movers and shakers of the Muslim world. We have strived to highlight people who are influential as Muslims, that is, people whose influence is derived from their practice of Islam or from the fact that they are Muslim. We think that this gives valuable insight into the different ways that Muslims impact the world, and also shows the diversity of how people are living as Muslims today.

Influence is a tricky concept. Its meaning derives from the Latin word influence meaning to flow-in, pointing to an old astrological idea that unseen forces (like the moon) affect humanity. The figures on this list have the ability to affect humanity too. In a variety of different ways each person on this list has influence over the lives of a large number of people on the earth. The 50 most influential figures are profiled. Their influence comes from a variety of sources; however they are unified by the fact that they each affect huge swathes of humanity.

We have then broken up the 500 leaders into 15 categories–Scholarly, Political, Administrative, Lineage, Preachers, Women, Youth, Philanthropy, Development, Science and Technology, Arts and Culture, Media, Radicals, International Islamic Networks, and Issues of the Day–to help you understand the different kinds of ways Islam and Muslims impact the world today.

Two composite lists show how influence works in different ways: International Islamic Networks shows people who are at the head of important transnational networks of Muslims, and Issues of the Day highlights individuals whose importance is due to current issues affecting humanity, disclaimer and invitation to participate Being the first attempt of its kind at a list that shows the broad extent of Muslims’ influence on the world we acknowledge that there are likely to be gaps in our categorizing, and are sure that we have missed some influential people. We would like to keep the process as open as possible and ask you to please write in suggestions to

Demography of influence

Influence in the Muslim world is particular to its context. There is not a clear hierarchy or organized clergy for Muslims to identify a leader, such as a Patriarch for Orthodox Christians or a Pope for Catholics. Islam as a religion is based on the individual’s relationship with God, without an intermediary. Influence in the Muslim world is derived from two sources: scholarship, and respect and trust.

Scholars are able to educate the masses or give respected opinions, and respected and trusted persons carry the weight of social and historical capital as leaders in their societies.

As you will see, three types of people–monarchs, religious scholars, and leaders of religious networks–dominate the Top 50 list. Monarchs are well represented because of the influence they gain from their political power, the length of time they spend in office, the lineage they derive from the institution of monarchy, and the deeply rooted establishments that they may inherit. Religious scholars are also strongly present in the list because they may be able to make religious rulings, and due to the simple fact that Muslims, of every hue, need figures from which they can source concrete answers to practical questions. In a globalized world, networks of people and of institutions permeate our international society and accordingly have great power because of their ability to affect people’s lives, whether it be through funds or services. The Muslim world is no different and leaders of Islamic networks are represented in the top rungs of our list of 500.

The one clear exception to this rule however is Amr Khaled who through sheer force of popularity and innovation–as the Muslim world’s first televangelist– exerts tremendous influence as a Muslim. Khaled has been able to chart his own course as a key figure in the Muslim world through the vehicle of mass media, and although as a layperson his religious authority is still somewhat limited he remains the great ‘start-up’ of the list.

Another important exception is Fethullah Gülen, a preacher, thinker and educator, who having assumed the leadership of a religious movement started by Said Nursî (1878-1960) has gone on to become a global phenomenon in his own right. His popularity and authority in Turkey have been the driving force of the social movement that is widely thought to have brought around the social and eventually political changes of which politician Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been the ultimate heir–that is the enfranchisement of Muslim politics in Turkey.

Geography is also an important issue in terms of influence, with the Middle East and North America and Europe holding disproportionate influence in relation to the quantity of Muslims in these regions. It is important to clarify that individuals from the Middle East have a disproportionate influence in the Muslim world, due to the fact that the region has many of the oldest and most well-esteemed institutions for Muslims, and most importantly is home to the holy sites in Mecca and Medina. Europe and North America are host to a large proportion of the world’s most highly respected educational institutions and draw talented, influential people from around the world, with global outreach through their wealth and high academic standing. Many important international institutions are also based in Europe and North America, which adds to this asymmetry.