Influence and The Muslim 500

by Tarek Elgawhary, PhD

When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, overwhelmed by this new and strange land, he commissioned a group of scholars, engineers, and scientist to compile data and draw images of everything they saw and observed. The findings of this expedition were published in 34 volumes in 1809 in France and served as the first description of Egypt that the Western world had ever seen. While there were colonial experiences throughout the periphery of the Muslim world before, Napoleon’s expedition/invasion had opened the door to the heartland of the Muslim world, and world fascination ensued with everything Islamic ever since.

This was not the first time, however, that the heartland of the Muslim world was exposed to outsiders. The Mongol invasion and sacking of Baghdad in 1258 and the subsequent Mongol-Muslim Sultanates that ruled over vast areas of Muslim land for centuries (the last Mongol-Muslim leader and known descendent of Genghis Khan was Emir Said Mir Mohammed Alim Khan who ruled Bukhara until the Russian invasion of 1920) was another time in history that this heartland came to face-to-face with outsiders. Yet, unlike the European experience in the Muslim world, the Mongols had a more tolerant and syncretic approach towards Islam and the other faiths they encountered, and they were able to subsume Islamic thought, legal norms, and customs into their vast empire.

Of course there were many other encounters and the comments above are only meant to make a simple point: for nearly 800 years the world has been trying to figure out how to deal with and understand the Muslim world and the Islamic faith. From “enlightened muse” to “the devil incarnate”, religious leaders, political leaders, scholars, artists, poets, and merchants have sought to provide commentary and descriptions of how to interpret Islam and Muslims. This concern is true today more than it ever was in the past. The world is itching to know how the Muslim world works, how it things, what it thinks, and how one can influence these patterns.

At the turn of the 21st century the Gallup Organization, and American based polling company, sought to do something that no one in history had done before, poll the Muslim world. If Napoleon showed the world the first images of the Muslim world, Gallup showed the world Islam in numbers. The Muslim World Poll that Gallup undertook in the first decade of the 21st century provided invaluable insight into thought trends, economic trends, political trends, sentiment analysis, etc. of the Muslim world for the first time. It also matched these with impressions that Westerners (specifically European and North Americans) had of the Muslim world. Not surprisingly, the data showed huge gaps of understanding, massive amounts of miscommunications, and at the same time gigantic opportunities based on the immense level of shared values.

As extremism and terrorist acts in the name of Islam, much of which is discussed below, became more prevalent in the second decade of the 21st century, another American based polling company, Pew, took on the task of further polling Muslim attitudes and sentiments. From attitudes towards Sharia, to perspectives on ISIS, Pew has been a leader in showcasing actual data of Muslim attitudes and attitudes towards Muslims and Islam. While the data sets provide nuances and clarification, it is not surprising that the major findings of the Gallup poll a decade earlier are still the same and not much has changed. The gaps remain, and so do the opportunities. These two examples, coupled with the fact that Islam is currently the world’s fastest growing religion, (approximately ¼ of the current world’s population and according to a recent Pew report Muslims will outnumber Christians worldwide by 2035), and present in nearly every country on the planet, has made the importance of understanding Islam and Muslims today a necessity of day-to-day life; a necessity of being considered a global citizen.

Yet, these global polls do not only focus on the Muslim world and Muslim sentiment, they are global polls that seek to provide similar answers for all populations. These types of polls are used by corporations to better market their products, by politicians to better target their campaigns, by governments to rate their performance with their citizens, etc. One way of thinking about this phenomenon is to think about the importance of influence. The interconnectedness of the world today has made the subject of influence even more important to identify than ever before. What makes people do what they do, buy what they buy, think what they think, and most importantly behave they way they behave? Whether in the space of consumer goods, education, popular culture, religion, or propaganda, the power of influence is a highly sought after and coveted tool. While polls are by no means the only tool used to gauge influence, they are an important one.

The importance of influence as it relates to Muslims and Islam cannot be overstated. People, ideas, and organizations that continually influence human behavior indicate that in some way they are fulfilling deep human-needs. Some people have their needs fulfilled in positive ways, what is referred to as positive behavioral vehicles. Others have their needs fulfilled in negative ways, what is referred to as negative behavioral vehicles. This means that a particular human need can be fulfilled positively or negatively, but it still has to be fulfilled and people will rarely rest until two to three of their basic needs are fulfilled. People that provide constant influence, therefore, are people that have found a way, whether consciously or subconsciously, to fulfill people’s needs continually, and understanding this point can become a critical key to understanding the Muslim world and Islam. To understand who and what influences the Muslim world is to fundamentally understand what are the needs of Muslims.

Of course for those who self-identify with “Islam” and “Muslim”, influence is related to the religion of Islam as passed down generation after generation. The Prophet of Islam (God bless him and give him peace) said, “Hold to my way and the way of the righteous successors (khalifas) after me. Hold onto this with your wisdom teeth!” This pattern of behavior is what Muslims refer to as sunna. In this sense, Muslims look back for inspiration and compatibility with Prophetic guidance, but strive to apply these timeless teachings in a copasetic, contemporary mode. It is no wonder, then, that many of the figures of influence throughout the Muslim world are interpreters of matters related to religion and faith.

This list of the Muslim 500 provides an invaluable tool to both insiders and outsiders of the Muslim world. While not an answer to every question on everyone’s mind, it does provide insight into the trends of influence in the Muslim world, trends that many in the past have gotten wrong, and only a few have gotten right. In the list and short biographies that follow we will come to learn why these people provide influence and therefore what types of human needs they fulfill. If we understand the Muslim 500 in this light, rather than see the Muslim world as containing “problems”, we will see patterns of “opportunities” and clues for “solutions.”