The Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri denied preaching racial hatred in a British courtroom on Thursday. Al-Masri has been linked to the would-be shoe-bomber Richard Reid and stands accused of starting a terrorist training camp in Oregon. Most news reports also mention that al-Masri has only one eye and no hands. It seems like we're always hearing about blind or half-blind Muslim clerics—what's the deal?
There is a pattern of the blind leading the not-blind in modern Islam. (For an annotated list of some important blind clerics, check out this sidebar.) A traditional Muslim education in some ways favors the blind, since it proceeds largely through the repetition and memorization of sacred texts. Children chant Quranic verses until they know them by heart; those who learn the whole book often receive advanced religious training. Blind kids—who often make up for their disability with a finely tuned sense of hearing—tend to do quite well at this.
Children who can't see may also get pushed toward the clergy by their parents. Clerics often preach through the artful recitation of the Quran—something a blind person can learn to do as well as anyone else. The same child would be at a severe disadvantage in a conventional classroom, and he'd have a harder time holding down a regular job.
Muslims have revered blind clerics for over 1,000 years. In one scene in the Quran, the Prophet frowns and turns away from a blind man, only to have Allah castigate him for rejecting a spiritual seeker. The man, called Abdullah ibn Umm Maktum, became an important early follower of the Prophet. (The tradition of blind religious figures extends back to early Judaism and Christianity as well.)
Today, some in the Muslim world use religious appellations to describe a blind person, regardless of his training. In Egypt, blind men are sometimes described casually as moulanas, a term of respect given to Muslim scholars. *
Another factor in the prevalence of blind clerics may be the high rates of blindness in Arab countries. A 2002 study, for example, reveals a dire situation in Lebanon, Oman, and Morocco, where more than 5 percent of the people over the age of 50 couldn't see.
The blind clerics most often mentioned in the Western press are radical jihadis like Abu Hamza al-Masri or Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman—the "blind sheik" accused of masterminding the World Trade Center bombing of 1993. But blind clerics are just as likely to be moderates. The revered Saudi Abdelaziz ibn Baaz, for example, renounced violence in the name of installing Islamic governments. He also issued a fatwa allowing Muslim men to take Viagra.
In fact, blindness could be a liability within the most militant sects of Islam. In the 1980s, members of the Egyptian jihad movement debated whether Abdel Rahman's blindness made him a poor operational leader. The strongest voice opposing him belonged to Ayman al-Zawahiri, now thought to be al-Qaida's No. 2 figure.
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Explainer thanks Richard Antoun of the State University of New York, Mahmoud Ayoub of Temple University, Fawaz Gerges of Sarah Lawrence, and Valerie Hoffman of the University of Illinois.