Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Enemies of true Islam

The recent terrorist attacks in Brussels are anathema to Islam and go against the fundamental tenets of the religion and religious law, writes Yassin El-Ayouty

Al-Ahram Weekly

In Brussels, where terror struck on 22 March, there had been many words of welcome for Muslim refugees. Fleeing terror in their lands of origin, some of these nevertheless harboured in their midst those who have been schooled by Islamic State (IS) to cut the hands, and at times the heads, of those who shelter them. This is an act of unbelievable criminality and a denial of the essence of humanity.

In the Muslim world, the origins of such poison are active in various forms, including in Wahhabism in which the Qur’an is given an imperfect interpretation. This is especially the case when it comes to denying legitimate access to worship by adherents of other faiths, faiths that lie at the roots of Islam itself. It is also true of the Muslim Brotherhood, which hoists a flag bearing two swords even though the book of the faith, the Qur’an, does not even contain the word sword.

There has also been an avalanche of spin-offs of criminal gangs inspired or led by thugs, from Osama bin Laden (they call him sheikh), to Al-Zawahri, Al-Zarqawi, Al-Awlaki and, the biggest joke of all, the so-called “caliph” Al-Baghdadi of IS. There is also Al-Nusra Front, Boko Haram and Al-Shabab, not to mention the “Friends of Jerusalem,” ensconced in Gaza, the run-away Palestinian Strip lorded over by Hamas and a clear and present danger to the New Egypt.

It is this New Egypt, home to one-third of the Arab world’s people, that has raised the flag of secularism through the gentle winds of Al-Azhar in Cairo. Meanwhile, in the West, the Muslim Brotherhood, now declared by Egypt to be a terrorist organisation, is being enabled by an absurd public-relations campaign that presents the Brotherhood as the “victim” of a “military coup” allegedly led by Oresident Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, in fact the duly elected president of Egypt and a staunch nation-builder.

The previous president, the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi who ruled in 2012-2013, sought the glory of a Muslim caliphate. This was a pipe dream whose only outcome would have been to turn Egypt from a state into a province in which the Copts would have been persecuted, Hamas empowered, and those Muslims not in the fold of the Brotherhood cowed into abject submission. The seat of power would have shifted to the Guidance Bureau of the Brotherhood.

In one horrible year of his failed “Islamisation” of Egypt, Morsi claimed to have completed 480 national projects called injazat (accomplishments), including a trash-conversion factory in one of Egypt’s 27 provinces. But the Brotherhood’s injazat booklet does not mention the fact that Morsi was elected before the drafting of an Islamist constitution (now repealed), that in November 2012 Morsi declared himself to be above any constitutional limitations, and that for three days (30 June to 3 July 2013) he rejected Al-Sisi’s attempts to have the Brotherhood respond to the calls of 35 million Egyptians for a new plebiscite.

Stubbornness, in the context of Islamist ideologues, is falsely considered to be “the righteous way” (al-sirat al-mustaqeem). But in Islamic jurisprudence, the welfare of the community comes first as part of what is called maslaha jurisprudence, which means what is in the interests of the community (ma yanfao al-nas) at any given time.

In that sense, terrorism in Brussels, or anywhere else, makes a mockery of Islamic law (Sharia). When some rotten apples engage in that type of genocidal warfare, they give Islam a black eye. So please do not trouble me with talk about Islamophobia. It is terrorism that creates both fear of and hatred towards Muslims.

And don’t trouble world history by tracing the roots of terrorism to the days of colonialism. The colonial period has largely gone, and it has been succeeded by a system of Muslim rule that puts the perpetuation of its rule ahead of national development and the peaceful transfer of power.

Shifting the blame for the present to what happened decades ago rather than facing the causes of today’s realities, is not credible history. This is why I look upon Al-Sisi’s call for a “religious revolution” as the right way of moving the New Egypt forward. Happily, Al-Azhar is heading that call, and tangible proof of this is to be found in a speech in Arabic by Al-Azhar’s rector, Ahmed Al-Tayeb.

Standing before the Bundestag, the German parliament, in Berlin on 15 March, he addressed many issues, of which the following are a selection (the translations are mine, aside from quotations from the Qur’an).

On the new Muslims in Europe, Al-Tayeb said, “I say to my co-religionists who now live in Europe, observe the high values of the societies in whose territories you now live.” On Islam’s respect for diversity, he said, “You ought to present similar perceptions of Islam and its tolerance — perceptions which respect the other, regardless of religion, sect or ethnic origin.”

On not combatting their new societies, Al-Tayeb called for the framing of the following Qur’anic verse: “With regard to those who have not fought you in the cause of religion, nor expelled you from your homes, God does not forbid you from being considerate and dealing justly with them. Surely God loves the just” (Chapter 60, Verse 8).

On the links between Islam and other faiths, Al-Tayeb told the Bundestag, “Islam is a faith with organic links to other revealed faiths. As Muslims we believe that the Torah, the Bible, and the Qur’an are all purveyors of guidance and light.”

His evidence came from the Qur’an, Chapter V, Verse 46: “And We sent, following in their footsteps, Jesus the son of Mary, confirming what was before him of the Torah, and gave him the Scripture in which was guidance and light, and confirming what was before it of the Torah, and a guidance and an admonition for the pious.”

On women in Islam, Al-Tayeb raised Al-Azhar’s voice in defence of gender equality. “In the Sharia, women are equal to men in both rights and obligations. So please do not think that the marginalisation of the women of the East is attributable to Islamic teaching. This is a misconception. In truth, women’s suffering is the result of divergences from Islamic teaching regarding women. Arcane traditions and worn-out customs with no relation to Islam have been in the ascendant.”

On IS and other similar movements, he said, “IS and its affiliates murder, destroy and cut off heads, all in the name of God and of Islamic law ... These are acts that are antithetical to Islam. Let us bear in mind that no faith would be immune from the charge of violence and terrorism if it were evaluated from the perspective of a few perpetrators amongst its adherents.”

On Al-Azhar’s role in renewing Islamic discourse, he said, “Al-Azhar is continuously concerned with revamping its message and educational curricula ... Everywhere, its scholars confront wrong concepts, concepts which distort Islam’s message exploiting it for the advocacy of blind insurrection, blood-letting and destruction.”

On inclusiveness between all religions, Al-Tayeb said that Al-Azhar in December 2014 had held a conference attended by Muslim Sunni and Shia scholars, the heads of churches, Eastern and Western, and representatives of the Yazidis of Iraq. In its final communique it condemned “all armed sectarian groups and militias which pursue violence, terrorism, and assault the lives of peaceful citizens ... Any violence perpetrated against Christians and others in the name of faith is contrary to the ethos of Islam.”

The gulf is indeed wide between the voice of true Islam, as expounded by Al-Azhar’s grand imam, and the voices of death heard loudly recently in the Brussels attacks. Confronting jihadist ideology through the voice of Al-Tayeb is the starting phase in what promises to be a protracted struggle.

For despite the centrality of the voice of Al-Azhar, as the premier citadel of Islamic learning, the divergence in Islamic practices throughout the dozens of Muslim countries and cultures can make that voice carry less power. Yet hope springs eternal. The Qur’an, the traditions of the Prophet (sunnah), and ijtihad, the interpretation of scripture, will undoubtedly come out on top.

How can Al-Azhar deal more effectively with this generational battle against rogues pretending to be Muslims? The needs of Al-Azhar’s “religious revolution,” as initially called for by President Al-Sisi, are legion. Among them is adequate funding and staff whose main expertise is in communication in the world’s major languages in order to pass on the great message delivered by Al-Tayeb at the Bundestag.

The call by the president for such a revolution is a historic game-changer in the world of Islam. Yet one Cairo TV anchorwoman, Azza Al-Hinnawi, recently called Al-Sisi “a do-nothing president who speaks like Hitler”. This is below-the-belt stupidity, even for a person like her whose contribution to the New Egypt has not gone further than holding a microphone in her hand, connected to an empty head that does not even retain memories of the recent inauguration by Al-Sisi of the New Suez Canal.

Judging by the follow-up to the message of the grand imam of Al-Azhar, I am left with the feeling that Al-Azhar’s counter-attack against the kind of murderous ideology that led to the Brussels massacre, and could have led to the possession of a “dirty” nuclear weapon, lacks some basic tools.

These include good translations from Arabic, which are still woefully lacking, and better communication by Al-Azhar throughout the world. The institution should be staffed by experts who do not take holidays. A continued failure to uproot IS and its sister organisations is no longer a viable option. This should be a fight to the finish.

Let us keep in mind the emblematic treatise by a great predecessor of Al-Tayeb as grand imam of Al-Azhar, Mahmoud Shaltoot. One of his books is entitled Islam: Faith and Law (Al-Islam, Al-Aqeedah wa-Al-Sharia), published in Cairo in more than 24 editions. In the book, Shaltoot says that “fatwas [religious opinions] are not binding statements of law,” “the views of the caliph, the imam, or the judge are not infallible,” “interpreting Islam is not the exclusive prerogative of anyone,” and “the titles of sheikh al-Islam and mullah are only scholarly titles that have no binding consequences.”

Shaltoot writes, “Ijtihad [interpretation] is more authoritative when arrived at, not individually, but collectively.” Through this freedom of religious thought there appears, through the present fog, another bridge that can lead us all, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, to an existence that is better than that of a constant fear of an imagined Islam that in fact does not exist.

The writer is a professor of law at New York University.

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