How New Zealand-born Joel Hayward became one of the world's 500 most influential Muslims

This eminent historian, who lives in Abu Dhabi, has written a number of well-received books on early Islamic history

Prof Joel Hayward, who became a Muslim in the early 2000s and is recognised as an authority on Islamic history, is a researcher at the Rabdan Academy in Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa / The National
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When Prof Joel Hayward received an email telling him that he had been included in a publication featuring the world's 500 most influential Muslims he, modestly, thought someone was joking.

"I was shocked to find, in fact, that it was me and that people do think that I somehow am making a difference," he said.

"I’m a historian and we don’t imagine that people read our books and that our books make a difference. To have been put in such an illustrious group of people is beyond imagination."

Islam transcends race and ethnicity — it binds us together regardless of our backgrounds and socioeconomic status
Prof Joel Hayward

The recent announcement that this 58-year-old researcher at the Rabdan Academy in Abu Dhabi has been included in the 2023 edition of The Muslim 500 should, however, not come as a surprise.

The British-New Zealander, a distinguished historian of warfare and military strategy, became a Muslim in the early 2000s and is now recognised as an authority on Islamic history.

One of his most recent books, The Leadership of Muhammad: A Historical Reconstruction, was chosen as the Best International Non-Fiction Book at last year's Sharjah International Book Awards.

Prof Hayward has found the life of the Prophet to be "immensely stimulating and very impressive".

Born in New Zealand to parents of British extraction, Prof Hayward developed an interest in warfare in part because his father was a soldier.

His interest also stemmed from a feeling that warfare was when "people are tested to the most extreme levels and … the quality of their character emerges".

"People become very frightened, they become very emotional, they become very angry. Also, they become very brave," he said.

"Those esteemed qualities — self-sacrifice, comradeship, courage — that we all place importance on are demonstrated best, I think, during wartime."

At the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, he completed a doctorate on the Luftwaffe’s operations during the Second World War and, after a number of years working as a lecturer in the country where he was born, moved to the UK

There he continued to lecture, including at a military academy, and to write books on military history.

Following the 9/11 attacks, Prof Hayward became interested in Islam when a senior military officer suggested to him that there was a militarism to the religion.

He took evening classes in Arabic so that he could read the Quran in its original language and, nearly two decades ago, became a Muslim himself.

In the early 2010s, Prof Hayward moved to the UAE, working first at Khalifa University, then the National Defence College and now the Rabdan Academy, a government security-oriented academic institution.

There he mostly teaches young Emiratis, who he says are enthusiastic to learn.

The Abu Dhabi resident spends between three and five hours a day reading and from Saturday to Thursday writes 500 words a day.

His background in the western source-critical historical method, in which scholars interrogate sources to understand their motivations rather than simply accept them at face value, coupled with his expertise in Islam, gives him a perspective few other historians share and one that seems to resonate with readers.

Prof Hayward has written a number of books on Islamic history, the latest of which is The Warrior Prophet: Muhammed and War. Running to nearly 500 pages, it has taken Prof Hayward about a decade of on-and-off work to complete.

Now he has turned his focus to the Prophet’s diplomacy. Prof Hayward said the Prophet had great strengths as a diplomat and insights into what others thought.

"When you know what people want, your competitors in other tribes, it’s far easier to negotiate than if you don’t know what they want," Prof Hayward said.

"He understood ego, he understood greed, he understood ambition — all those things that his competitors seemed to have been motivated by — and found ways to work with those traits to get the best out of people and to bring people together who might not ordinarily have wanted to come together."

Prof Hayward has found Islam to be a unifying force also in the present day because being a Muslim has given him a strong sense of kinship with his co-religionists, even though he is of a very different background to many of them.

"That’s the thing about Islam — it transcends race, it transcends ethnicity, it binds us all together regardless of our backgrounds, and also regardless of our socioeconomic status," he said.

"You go to the mosque and you pray alongside people who might be cleaners or construction workers or they might be CEOs. They might even come from one of the royal families.

"Everybody just prays together in a line. There’s no sense that status plays a role in that. In some ways that’s one of the attractions."

He feels lucky to be living in the UAE, which he describes as a Muslim country "that has so easily and fully embraced modernity and done so with success".

"I have been here a decade and I call the UAE home. I wish I could stay here forever. I can’t imagine being anywhere else," he said.

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Updated: November 27, 2022, 7:06 AM