A list of the 500 ‘most influential’ Muslims in the world has left me confused, and not just because my name isn’t there

I was in Cairo International Airport earlier this week, scrolling through Facebook to see what my friends were up to, when I saw Shahed Amanullah had updated his status to say he was one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world.

I followed his link (pdf) to see who or what constituted influence these days. The result was a strange mix of clerics, dictators, terrorists and billionaires. It’s a fascinating document – all 202 glossy pages of it – and comes complete with a potted guide to Islam and a handy league table to show which country has the highest success rate.

“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,” says the introduction.

Influence is a tricky concept, it continues, and 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 swaths of humanity.”

The above provide the overarching criteria for selection but there are more than a few anomalies. A quick glance reveals that being good and being influential are not mutually exclusive – Adnan Oktar makes an appearance. Not being observant presents no barrier to inclusion either as I was always under the impression that Zaha Hadid is an atheist.

Dave Chapelle is also on the list. Dave Chapelle? Have they seen his R Kelly skit? The writer and comedian has never confirmed whether he is Muslim or not, so the judging panel might as well have included Ronnie O’Sullivan as one of the 500. But if you’re talking about affecting “huge swaths of humanity” then surely Osama Bin Laden should be at the top spot? He isn’t. It’s King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

Abdullah is custodian of the two Holy Mosques so he has a position of responsibility, but influence? The following paragraph is more revealing: “King Abdullah reigns over a land of massive crude oil reserves, Saudi Arabia has approximately 25% of the world’s proven oil reserves, making him a key player in the global petroleum industry.”

Bin Laden is on the list – as a radical. Funny, I thought he was a terrorist. This chapter is reserved for “infamous individuals [who] have incredible influence on vast amounts of people, often cited for heinous acts and controversial statements made from their platforms of authority.”

Alarm bells also ring over the lack of women featured. They get a separate section from the men. Too many of the top 50 are either heads of state, which automatically gives them an advantage when it comes to influence, or they have inherited their position. Lineage is a significant factor – it has its own category – and the predisposition to include children of important people reveals a mindset that indicates achievement is an optional extra.

There are some spot on assessments. Khamenei’s decisive role in geopolitics is undeniable. Erdogan’s position is also accurate. But this ambitious exercise seems more than a little inconsistent and ill-judged.

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