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These are the world’s 500 most influential Muslims?

Georgetown University’s Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, like any good institution, knows that the way to steer publicity toward their work is to make a list. This is the only possible explanation I can conjure up for their report on the world’s top 500 most influential Muslims. Somewhere, Prince Al-Waleed must be ...

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Georgetown University’s Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, like any good institution, knows that the way to steer publicity toward their work is to make a list. This is the only possible explanation I can conjure up for their report on the world’s top 500 most influential Muslims.

Somewhere, Prince Al-Waleed must be pleased that he’s getting his money’s worth from the $20 million donation he made to establish the Center. Headlining the list is his uncle, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. One can, of course, legitimately argue that Abdullah is the world’s most influential Muslim — he is the custodian of Mecca and Medina and Saudi Arabia has done more to spread its version of Islam than any other state. However, it’s hard to read the description of King Abdullah’s reforms as anything other than a press release. The report lauds Abdullah for “his ability to enact multiple landmark reforms to fight corruption, balance the Saudi budget, tailor the education system, [and] address women’s and minority rights.” This, in a country where women cannot drive.

Looking at the list more broadly, there is also a clear bias towards the Middle East (using a broad definition including Iran and Turkey). The top 14 Muslims all hail from the Middle East, and only six out of the top 40 are from outside of the region. Perhaps only a third of the world’s Muslims live in this area, giving them an outsized influence on what it means to be “Islamic” in today’s world.

The list is also weighted very heavily toward invidividuals who represent more conservative forms of Islam. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah clocks in at number 17 and Hamas’s Khaled Mashaal is included at number 34, but PA President Mahmoud Abbas and IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei — who no doubt consider themselves good Muslims — are nowhere to be found in the top 50. Even Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an adherent of the Alawi sect, is considered too heterodox for this list. That’s without mentioning hugely influential figures outside politics such as Mohamed El-Erian, Fareed Zakaria, and Muhammad Yunus, who didn’t make the cut.

To be fair, these figures are mentioned later in the report — a list of 500 names gives room to cover all the bases. The report’s title is something of a misnomer; it provides a ranking ofthe top 50 influential Muslims, and then organizes the remaining 450 by subject field without attempting to impose a hierarchy. Nevertheless, it is instructive that the individuals headlining the report are filled almost exclusively with rulers and conservative theologians from the Middle East. In the end, this report tells us very little about the world’s most influential Muslims, and a great deal about what Georgetown’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding believes constitutes a good Muslim.

(Above: German free style motocross champion Hannes Ackermann performs in front of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque in 2008)

MUSTAFA OZER/AFP/Getty Images

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