A question of identity
Abdel-Moeti Bayoumi tells Gihan Shahine that Muslims have to change their reality if the Muslim ummah is to regain its former worldwide esteem
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Abdel-Moeti Bayoumi in his office; an archival photo of Al-Azhar religious classes (right)
Ramadan is here and it is, perhaps, time for many Muslims to revisit issues pertaining to the current challenges facing the Muslim ummah and its prospects under the new US administration. On the occasion, Al-Ahram Weekly is launching a four-part series of interviews with Muslim scholars and intellectuals expressing a plethora of views on the issue
Sitting in his office which lies in the basement of his elegant villa in Nasr City, Abdel-Moeti Bayoumi has all the objects of his passion lying on his desk -- the holy Quran, Islamic books and a laptop. The latter, perhaps, is the most symbolic of Bayoumi's mission in life: adapting the interpretations of the holy Quran and Sunna (the teachings of the Prophet Mohamed) to the new entries of modern life. He is a firm believer in the benefits of ijtihad (independent reasoning), and being so, he has had to battle scholars who tend to stick to the old schools of thinking. His book Ijtihadat Moasera (Contemporary Reasoning) tackles so many controversial political, social, scientific and gender- related issues with such modernity that it has, perhaps, been frowned upon by many classic scholars.
In the face of criticism, Bayoumi remains undaunted. "I do not hesitate in expressing a certain viewpoint even if it goes against the consensus of scholars, so long as I rely on texts from the Quran and Sunna," he says confidently. "They call me courageous but the point is that I am just fulfilling my duty as a scholar before Allah. Many scholars who opposed me ended up agreeing with many of my views, but the issue is that many scholars are intimidated to oppose the consensus of religious opinion on certain matters. We have to admit that time is changing and the four old schools of thought should not be taken for granted. Had the authors of those schools, the great late imams Abu-Hanifa and Ibn Hambal, been alive today, they would have adapted many of their religious views according to modern times."
A knock on the door interrupts the conversation and, ironically, a postman steps in with the controversial books of secular writer Sayed El-Qimni. El-Qimni has recently been the issue of heated controversy after many Islamic scholars from Al-Azhar slammed his writings on the grounds that they defame Islam and the Prophet Mohamed.
However, only a few weeks ago, El-Qimni won the Mubarak Award in social sciences for his writings, a matter which further deepened the conflict between Egypt's intellectuals and Islamic scholars.
Bayoumi says that, "granting a state award to writings that are clearly offensive to Islam and the Prophet Mohamed is bound to encourage extremism." Although a firm believer in ijtihad, Bayoumi argues that the writings of El-Qimni should not be seen as ijtihad since they are clearly "sacrilegious".
" Ijtihad should be founded on texts from the Quran and Sunna," Bayoumi says pointedly, adding that he hardly found any difference between the writings of El-Qimni and the Danish cartoons which depicted Prophet Mohamed wearing a turban-shaped bomb, causing a global public outburst.
Bayoumi is one of the few contemporary theologists deeply concerned with the many internal and external challenges facing the Muslim ummah. His regular page in the weekly Al-Mossawar magazine has been vocal in refuting Western misconceptions about Islam and, in some cases, rejecting classic interpretations of the old texts. He argues, for instance, that a non-Muslim's testimony for a Muslim defendant can be taken as valid in court if there is no clear animosity between the two and in support of equal citizenship and rights. Bayoumi has waged battles condoning female governance -- a woman's right to be a judge and even a president -- on condition that the country is already applying democratic rule. He opposes the niqab (full veil) on the grounds that it tends to isolate women whom he believes should play an active role in society. For Bayoumi, polygamy is conditioned with necessity, and as such, should not be taken for granted since it implies injustice for the first wife. He also believes that husbands can only assume qowama (superiority) when they are actually superior in merit and are the only financial breadwinners of the family.
Following in the footsteps of the Prophet Mohamed, Bayoumi believes in the benefits of democracy, and thus, he has always slammed the autocratic rule of Arab regimes as one major reason why the Muslim ummah is lagging behind.
"Prophet Mohamed was the first to introduce shoura (counselling) in governance, which lies at the basis of any democratic system," Bayoumi said. "All the former empires preceding the advent of Islam were autocratic."
In that vein, Bayoumi laments the Western misconception that Islam stands as a barrier to democracy when, in fact, Arab countries are undemocratic in spite of it. The problem, according to Bayoumi, is that people do not live or rule according to Islam which condones all principles of democracy and development including equity, justice, equality and equal citizenship." "A few in the West admit or even know that Islam has, in fact, been the source of Western civilisation which relied on the great achievements of Muslims in Andalusia."
Having said that, Bayoumi lets out a sigh when asked on how he views the current state of the Muslim ummah. For him, autocracy lies at the root of the degeneration of the Muslim ummah, and that dates back to the first centuries of Islam when the Omayyads condoned autocracy and fought ijtihad. "These were the dark ages that provided fodder for foreign occupation and led to our current state of weakness," he told the Weekly.
The major challenge, however, remains in the educational system in many Muslim-majority countries. "Most cultures prepare their curricula according to what they want their younger generations to believe in. I mean that secular systems educate their children to be secular and education in the Soviet Union was tailored to teach the younger generation to be communists," Bayoumi explains. In case of Muslim-majority countries, however, Bayoumi says, "a clear absence of identity in the educational system has resulted in a generation that does not even know where it is heading."
The fact that many Muslim-majority countries lag in development despite having all the natural resources necessary for it, and the serious deficits in democracy as well as human and women's rights, all were an onslaught on the Muslim ummah.
Those deficits may partly account for why the Muslim ummah is bogged down in internal schisms and rifts, according to Bayoumi.
"If the younger generation was brought up to embrace the true teachings of Islam as a way of life, we would not have had any sects. I mean there would have been no Shia and Sunni sects in the first place because we would have all been just Muslims living according to the Quran and sunna [the teachings of the Prophet Mohamed]," Bayoumi says. Ignorance, he explains, breeds a state of extremism that is a far cry from the true spirit of Islam.
But this extremism, according to Bayoumi, is also grounded in politics and in that vein, Bayoumi would immediately slam the policies of the United States, which supports one party against the other, as the source of all evil and conflicts in the region. By supporting the government of Karzai in Afghanistan, Fatah in Palestine and the Kurds and Shia in Iraq, the United States has created a fitna [sectarian struggle] that set the whole region on fire.
"If the United States remains neutral, there will be hope for those fractions to reunite," Bayoumi insists. "The United States should have its hands free of the region."
Bayoumi is not optimistic that a new face in the White House will bring much change on the ground. Albeit not questioning the sincerity of President Barack Obama in his attempts to bridge gaps with the Muslim world, Bayoumi insists that an analytical look at the new president's Cairo speech would immediately put Muslim interests at the tail end of priorities. For Bayoumi, Obama's speech reflected a US agenda which primarily serves Israel, the United States and Arab regimes.
"President Obama stated clearly that he will not force any solution on either Palestinians or Israelis, and the latter will never provide a solution unless forced to, which means there is no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Bayoumi laments. Obama stated that Jerusalem is the land of all three religions, but has not clearly stated who should rule, according to Bayoumi.
Like many, Bayoumi believes that Obama's empathetic rhetoric has served the US by improving its image after long years of an unprecedented wave of anti-American sentiments. Former US president Bush failed to change America's image abroad despite investing millions of dollars in the establishment of the Al-Hurra TV satellite channel and programmes of public diplomacy. "Arab regimes also benefited from Obama's clear mention of the fact that the United States will not interfere in the internal affairs of any Arab country, which means the US will no longer push Arab regimes to democratise and respect freedoms and human rights."
What Muslims gained, in Bayoumi's viewpoint, is perhaps the fact that Obama's pro-Islamic discourse, which showed unprecedented respect for Muslim culture and heritage, may help change the image of Islam in the West in the long run. Which, a sceptical Bayoumi quickly adds, "remains to be seen".
Bayoumi believes that there has never been any conflict between Islam and Western cultures and that such a conflict was the invention of a handful of extremist politicians who found it in their own interest to portray Islam as the new threat after the fall of communism. Western media has also been instrumental in spreading those antagonist views of Muslims and Islam.
"The fact that Islam is spreading fast among Westerners has been a major source of worry among many Western politicians who fretted that their countries would end up under a Muslim rule," Bayoumi tells the Weekly.
This phobia, according to Bayoumi, is totally ungrounded since today's spread of Islam is cultural and not military; that is, people convert to Islam because they are convinced, while maintaining their loyalty to their countries and governments."
Neither did Islam spread by the power of the sword in its early centuries as the Western mindset tends to believe. Bayoumi explains that, "most of the Islamic conquests were carried out in self-defence. A case in point can be found in the fact that Muslim conquerors never seized the natural resources of any of the conquered countries as is the case with Western colonisation." Besides, Bayoumi adds, "it never happened that Muslims abandoned Islam when an Islamic empire was toppled, which is added proof that they were not forced to embrace Islam in the first place."
Bayoumi insists that Islam does not seek to convert the whole world to Islam on the grounds that the Quran makes it clear that diversity is an asset and a rule of life. It is also an Islamic rule enshrined in the holy Quran that there is no compulsion in religion.
Muslims in the West, however, have to know how to integrate in Western societies in a way that would not increase Western fears. "Muslims can practise their religion freely while also conforming to the principles of the Western societies they live in," Bayoumi says.
But for the Muslim ummah to regain its former power and prestige, Bayoumi insists that Muslims have to change their reality because God only helps those who help themselves. "It is true that God has promised us victory, but that victory is also conditioned with our work," he says. "There will be no victory so long as we are divided and are apathetic to the spread of corruption, the presence of autocracy and the absence of freedoms and human rights.
"Palestinians and Iraqis should renounce their differences and unite in the face of occupation," Bayoumi goes on. For Bayoumi, jihad -- in its true sense of resisting occupation -- is the only solution left for Iraqis and Palestinians to regain their seized lands.
Bayoumi quickly adjusts himself in his chair to explain "the huge difference between jihad and terrorism that many Westerners tend to put in one basket."
"Islam has nothing to do with terrorism and we at Al-Azhar were the first to condemn the 9/11 attacks on the US," Bayoumi says, waving his hand in assurance. Terrorism is killing civilians away from the battlefield or occupied lands. Jihad, on the other hand, is carried out in self-defence, on battlefields, and in accordance to the Islamic code of ethics. Bayoumi makes clear that Muslims are told to warn their enemies before waging wars and are ordered not to kill civilians, especially children, women and elderly people, or destroy any of the natural resources of the conquered lands during battles.
In case of Palestine, however, Bayoumi explains that Israelis cannot be seen as civilians since they already serve in the Israeli military and would engage in war in case of an emergency. "Both Palestinians and Iraqis are in a state of jihad since they are fighting occupation," Bayoumi concludes.
Abdel-Moeti Bayoumi is the former dean of the Faculty of Osoul Al-Deen (Religious Fundamentals), and a prominent member of the Islamic Research Academy of Al-Azhar, the country's highest Islamic religious institution. As a former member of parliament, Bayoumi has tackled several modern-day issues needing independent reasoning. His book, Ijtihadat Moasera (Contemporary Reasoning) tackles the political, social and scientific issues of today, while his latest book, Islam in the 21st Century , currently in print, also deals with the many challenges facing the Muslim ummah in our time