On Scholars, Politics and the Prophetic Imperative to Truly Spread Peace

Dear Respected Inheritor of the Prophets,

I hope this note finds you well. May God reward you for all the great work you have done and are continuing to do. You have influenced so many in our journey to God, in reconnecting with what it means to be human and becoming more informed, educated people in the world.

God has uniquely placed you in a position of influence and stature where your words and opinions are taken with a special regard and weight. Undoubtedly, this position must weigh upon you for it must be exercised with caution and responsibility. I believe acknowledgement of this point is at the heart of the disclaimer that the analysis you offer is merely your opinion, take it or leave it — that you are still thinking through some of these issues and are open to to consider alternative perspectives.

Imam al-Ghazali, God have mercy on him, cites Imam Ali, God ennoble his face and raise his stature, in the Deliverance:

Do not know the truth by men, but rather, know the truth and you will know its adherents. The intelligent man, therefore, first knows the truth, then he considers what is actually said by someone. If it is true, he accepts it, whether the speaker be wrong or right in other matters. Indeed, such a man will often be intent on extracting what is true from the involved utterances of the erring, since he is aware that gold is usually found mixed with dirt.

I highlight this with the hope that the content and arguments of the sources I draw from in this letter are examined for their content and substance, and not merely dismissed for whom it comes from and their perceived political allegiances. You have previously stated that people are free to disagree with the views you have articulated in the public and that you welcome written arguments for alternative views. This is my attempt to articulate what I believe are some of the nuances that get lost in some of the conversations regarding scholarly authority and ‘political Islam’ in the contemporary period.

****

The Justified Critique of ‘Political Islam’

I believe that you have been making a justified critique over the last decades of the exclusive focus of ‘postcolonial’ Muslims on politics to the detriment and neglect of developing one’s imān (belief) and one’s focus on God and spirituality through purification of the heart.

The tremendous weight and concern you feel regarding the suffering of the people around the world is very clear. You understandably fear the greater loss of life through the armed rebellion. It weighs heavily on you; and scholars’ giving license to rebellion, if not protest, seems to you to be an unwise exercise in greater suffering and loss of life. I know you offered a caveat that you are not ‘in the shoes’ of people suffering around the planet, and that you cast no judgments on the people who are trying to make the best of the conditions God has placed them in. I believe this concern for the preservation of life must must have been the impetus for you to take a more cautious position from your earlier writing regarding protests and revolutions on the Arab Spring regarding the demand for dignity and rights against tyranny.

You make an important point with the ‘metaphysical critique’ you offer of the uncritical embrace by Muslims of Marxist ideologies. This, I believe you argue, leads to an exclusive dunya-wi perspective, exclusive focus on worldly conditions to the neglect of the Hereafter, exclusive focus on causal factors as opposed to the Prime Cause, and leads to excessive ‘complaining’ (al-shakwa), and a demand for rights (ḥuqūq), equality and and desire not to be humiliated. Especially astute is the point that due to the loss of a Qur’anic worldview, modern day Muslims often may be divorced from recognizing God as the source of everything that happens.

That being said, you also recognized and articulated (although perhaps it was underemphasized to the audience) that one can be attentive to the oppression of some human beings towards others, and be aware of the fact that God is in control (and that God is in no way pleased with everything that humans do). Not only can one with these beliefs still commit to struggling against injustice, in ourselves and in society, but may recognize that indeed that struggle may be obligated upon one by God.

I think it is perfectly warranted to critique ‘political Islam’/Islamism. You made a very important point and clarification to your presentation: the emergence of Islamist movements in the twentieth century that sought to respond to the changes in society, and often found a wide following, was due to the lack of adaptation/freezing (tajamud) on the part of traditional religious scholars with their classical texts. This was especially the case in the context of the excesses of Sufism, such as tomb worship, extravagant wealth accumulation of Sufi shaykhs and pirs, innovations, etc. which led to an understandable backlash against Sufism.

While acknowledging this aspect, the other two main staples of the triangle in your analysis in the presentation were that ‘political Islam’ and ‘Wahhabism/Salafism’, merged into al-Qaeda/ISIS/’religious anarchy.’ Previously, in “The Plague Within,” you wrote:

The terroristic Islamists are a hybrid of an exclusivist takfiri version of the above and the political Islamist ideology that has permeated much of the Arab and South Asian world for the last several decades. It is this marriage made in hell that must be understood in order to fully grasp the calamitous situation we find our community in. […] [T]his militancy…has everything to do with religion: misguided, fanatical, ideological, and politicized religion. It is the religion of resentment, envy, powerlessness, and nihilism. It does, however, have nothing to do with the merciful teachings of our Prophet, God’s peace and blessings upon him.

I would like to step back from this passionate response you offered in wake of the attacks in Medina last year and situate this contestation over the meaning of ‘true Islam’ in the contemporary period in a larger struggle taking place around the globe that has very tangible political consequences.

This includes the banning of groups involved in political organizing and designating them as a terrorist organizations. Many now fear that these administrations will also participate in designating any association with such political groups or ideas as worthy of the label of “terrorism”, with possible repercussions of curtailment, if not deportation or imprisonment, torture and assassination/execution.

Indeed,, Senator Ted Cruz has started to introduce legislation to implement this. “The Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act, introduced this week by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) in both chambers of Congress, advocates for the designation on the grounds that the Muslim Brotherhood espouses ‘a violent Islamist ideology with a mission of destroying the West.’” Related tho this, is the fears being stoked about “creeping shariah”. The Atlantic has covered Newt Gingrich “Outrageous Call to Deport All Practicing U.S. Muslims.”

Regarding the broader contestation that is taking place over the ‘true meaning’ of Islam, in his piece entitled “The Arab War on Terror, the foreign policy commentator and analyst, James Traub, points out, that the demonization of the Muslim Brotherhood by designating them as a terrorist organization, “increasingly looks like a flimsy rationale for authoritarian control.” He continues,

Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt have banned the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. The UAE convicted 69 Brotherhood members of plotting to overthrow the state…The great organizing principle of the current Egyptian regime is simply this: Crush the Brotherhood.

Traub, aware of America’s own troubled policies with curtailing freedom in wake of a perceived terrorist threat, nevertheless correctly points out:

It’s deeply disheartening to see the dark mass of the national security state so utterly eclipse the beautiful celebration of freedom that adorned the public spaces of the Arab world only a few years ago. What’s more, the brutal reaction to dissent is surely self-defeating in the long run. Killing unarmed Islamist protesters has proved to be surprisingly popular among Egyptians, but doing so is far likelier to foster terrorism than to deter it. And it undermines the new war on terror by conflating domestic political rivals with a genuine transnational threat.

Unfortunately, some of the most prominent scholars with relationships with authoritan regimes who are promoted and given platforms seem to be advocates of and participants in this demonization. For example, Dr. Aref Nayed, the Libyan ambassador to the UAE, in an interview on CNN, stated that “the entire discourse of ISIS is straight out of Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones…Osama bin Laden belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood at one point, Ayman al-Zawahiri belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, and I believe the ISIS founder and narrative is completely Muslim Brotherhood based.” Whatever the historical veracity of this claim, such a black-and-white portrayal of the Muslim Brotherhood has in recent years justified undue oppression of fellow believers.

As University of Toronto Law School professor Mohammed Fadel puts it:

There is no doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood, as an organization, is deeply flawed, and needs to engage in deep soul-searching and self-critique in an attempt to reform, that is, if they even survive this crisis. Their failings, however, are not the sort that justifies either their demonization or the ongoing attempt by the supporters of the current regime in Egypt to liquidate them.

As you know, Habib ‘Ali al-Jifri and Usaama al-Sayyid have recently been promoting their new books al-Ḥaqq al-Mubīn and al-Insāniyya qabl al-tadayyun, where they engage in a critique of Qutb, which is warranted, but further engage in bolstering this narrative that ties Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood to ISIS. Their critiques of Qutb do not come about in an apolitical context — their writings and rhetoric are actively being used by certain regimes to participate in this demonization of Islamist supporters. As stated previously, there are very real material consequences to such arguments of guilt by association or influence. Furthermore, some of the prescient critiques of Qutb and the use of violence have been written by critics within the Brotherhood who argued against Qutb’s judgement of jahiliyya upon society, takfīr, and the use of violence, for example, with Hasan al-Houdaiby, the author of Du’at la Qudat.

You have previously stated that the ‘ulama should be “above politics,” and while I personally wonder whether that is really possible, it is hard to ignore that what some of the ‘ulama are doing here is deeply political. I find it hard to sustain the idea that this servant of knowledge — Allah preserve him and reward him for all the good he has done — and the scholars in question are really ‘above the politics,’ given the political context in which they and we are situated in, the policies they are being pursued by various regimes, and the demonization and exclusion of Islamist voices.

Mohammad Fadel also has written insightfully of the inadaptability and ineffectiveness of the traditionalist scholar in re-calibrating and articulating an appropriate ‘political theology’ for the contemporary modern conditions in which we are living:

The promotion by Arab ruling elites of a politically neutered, state-dominated Islam that is disabled from holding power accountable to a moral standard serves their authoritarian political project well, even if the cost is quite high: The failure to produce a reasonably acceptable political theology that can serve the needs and further the aspirations of modern Muslims inevitably will create groups like ISIS, at least as long as religion remains socially salient. Neo-traditionalist Sunni theologians, such as ʿAli Jumuʿa of Egypt, or al-Ḥabīb ʿAlī al-Jifrī, who believe that it is possible to re-create in the modern world the division of labor of late Sunnism — in which the state, usually military elites, provided coercive resources and the ʿulamāʾ provided moral legitimacy, binding the public to the state through a regime of taqlīd — will inevitably, even if belatedly, discover that modern Muslims will not willingly cede their moral autonomy to them. Instead, it might produce more theological radicalism, either in the form of increased atheism or religious apocalypticism.

****

Protests as a form of naṣīḥāh, not khurūj

As Mufti Taqi Uthmani highlighted in the 1st Forum in 2014, we ought to have a frank conversation about the issues that are at the heart of people’s’ grievances towards their rulers and governments. It is not simply a matter of asserting the need for obedience to the rulers, and shutting off the ‘Islamicity’ of dissent and protest as engaging in prohibited khurūj (rebellion). Even without any modern notion of citizenship, and in pre-modern conceptualization of people as subjects, those being ruled, as servants of God, have the God-given right to voice grievances towards them by oppressive rulers. Indeed, in the past, some of the ‘ulama and jurists, took it upon themselves, to advocate for the rights of the ruled and bravely admonish the oppressive governing authorities. In a modern context, as Shaykh Saleh al-Ghursi has pointed out, demonstrations and protests are not khurūj, but rather a type of naṣīḥāh. Yet, many people who listen to you may leave with a firm impression that there is one representative position of scholars on these issues and that your position is that position.

Recognizing the Diversity of Positions Amongst ‘Ulama

Undoubtedly, our scholars have a multitude of different understandings on political issues and what position one should take. Our community and circumstances require much more nuance than many currently have in the community when addressing political issues in the future. Ideally, this will clear up misunderstandings the average Muslim in the West may have regarding scholarly authority and politics and will also encourage much needed dialogue among scholars who hold different positions. Additionally, the confidence the lay person has in scholars, which is important to have, will, in sha Allah, be cultivated.

It is important that the layperson understands that historically and contemporarily, that the ‘ulama’ do not speak with simple one voice upon contemporary political realities. Scholars differ from one region to another and within a region regarding their assessment of the political situation their community is facing. It is difficult to pronounce one uniform judgment regarding the validity and efficacy and legitimacy of protests from vastly different context from Toronto to Egypt to the Gulf states. I think emphasizing this diversity amongst ‘the ‘ulama’ and recognizing the various strands and voices amongst the ‘ulama will decrease the anxiety some people may have hereby they attempt to make the ‘ulama speak with one voice regarding incredibly different political contexts.

It is my understanding that religious scholars, despite their piety and knowledge of the Islamic tradition, are also fallible human beings whose judgments, perspectives, positions can be and ought to be subject to informed and balanced critiques. This is especially the case when they venture into areas that are not their specialty. I feel it is important to underscore this point as I fear that a critique of the positions of our beloved teachers, and their involvement in certain initiatives, may not be received at all, if it is seen as an attack on their character or their piety and closeness to God. I have no intention of going to war with God and God’s Messenger by attacking those who are close to Him. That being said, I am encouraged by the fact that the Prophet, upon him and his family be peace and blessings, invited alternative perspectives, especially in matters of strategy and planning, when they were outside the clear dictates of revelation.

The Need for Scholars to Have Independence

If this analysis has merit, then as there are pressing questions that ought to be addressed regarding the Forum and the politics it is participating in. As Shaykh Saleh Ghursi has said, ideally, the ‘ulama ought to be independent both of the people as well as of governments to serve as a moral check on all through the dignity and responsibility of being heirs of the prophets. Complete capitulation and uncritical support and legitimization of the brutal practices of governments would seem to be a betrayal of that trust.

As Shaykh Abdal-Hakim Murad has remarked, the sensitivity of the young generation to justice and oppression is very high and rightfully so. Shaykh Abdal-Hakim made the point that if the ‘ulama do not speak to the oppression that is going on in the world, that will largely make them irrelevant to the up and coming generation. What then if they not only not oppose that oppression, but participate in legitimizing and supporting the oppressors?

H.A. Hellyer puts it this way:

In any case — a genuine religious revival within Muslim religious institutions would probably have to begin with establishing genuine independence for those same institutions. No-one with a modicum of power in Egypt has been interested in that, even if there could be a guarantee that the type of religion that would become independent would be sophisticated, healthy and expansive. After all, independence of thought means critical thinking — which leads to criticism. At the very least, it leads to speaking truth to power.

Credibility

Dr. Jackson makes the point in his introduction to Initiative to Stop the Violence that the efficacy of the message of scholars is not simply a matter of their knowledge and piety, but also dependent upon their ‘street credibility’ where courage and a brave stance matter as well as their not being seen as being compromised or under the sway of governments. I fear that the credibility of the scholars involved with the Forum and its policies are being severely damaged due to the perception that they are heavily involved in legitimizing and justifying the powers that be, with the repression that comes with it, and are not seen as curtailing the abuse of power. Without a doubt, I do not know what goes on behind closed doors, and what form of naṣiḥah the scholars involved are perhaps offering the rulers they are working with. I am just troubled by what I have gathered of their public positions and seeming alignment and justification and even praise of these rulers and regimes and their policies as somehow being exemplary models of peace.

Third Forum

I take the main argument of Shaykh Bin Bayyah’s opening statement, paper and presentation at this year’s Forum to be that the historical form of the early khilāfah is not necessary today, contrary to the claims of groups like ISIS, but rather it is a matter of providing the goods of governance, which is the goal or maqsad and that the nation-state could possibly provide this form of good governance in compatibility with the sharī’a. If we accept this premise, I find it difficult to blanketly demonize Islamists and ‘movement Islam’. As numerous political scientists have demonstrated, Islamists are often the ‘Muslim democrats’ in many societies, namely those who have tried to enter the political sphere, organize and engage in elections, and gain the approval of fellow citizens to be their representatives.

During the 3rd Forum, I witnessed scholars simply promote the idea that Muslims should embrace the nation-state, but they did not discuss what that entails in terms of the rights of citizens [or ‘subjects’], and freedoms that the government is supposed to ensure. This omission makes the discussion grossly incomplete.

Despite the justified academic push back against some of Professor Hallaq’s claims in The Impossible State — which you mentioned to me as a good work — -I believe his central thesis which highlights the attempt for absolute control of religion by the modern nation-state and making the sharī’ah subservient to the state, rather than the state subservient to the God and the sharī’ah, is a very real concern that was not answered at the Forum.

Indeed, we saw the opposite, or what Yale law school professor Stephen Carter calls “the domestication of religion to the state,” exemplified in the panel on the in promoting peace in the 3rd Forum where the full reign to dictate what proper practice of the religion is in light of the political aims of particular regimes was highlighted.

To have a panel entitled “The Case Study of the UAE in the Promotion of Peace” comes off to me as very explicit propaganda and a means to justify repression and blanket submission to rulers, who are seen to be providing ‘Islamically compatible notions of governance,’ yet without affirming the right to dissent, question, or provide advice (naṣīḥah) to their rulers or voice their grievances. The heavy involvement of the UAE in killing uncountable number of civilians in their bombing campaign in Yemen while ‘preaching peace’ at the Forum, is what I know weighs heavily on the hearts of other respected teachers of mine who are critics of the Forum and its promotion of itself as a ‘promoter of peace’.

Shaykh Imad Iffat, who was a student and colleague of Ali Gooma, and was killed in the protests in Egypt on December 16, 2011, wrote to his student (and my colleague at Columbia), Ibrahim El Houdaibi, in 2010, this pressing reminder:

There are all these good words about respect for shaykhs, giving them leeway and excuses, but where is God’s right to His own religion? Where is the right of the public who are confused about the truth because shaykhs are silent, and your own silence out of respect for senior shaykhs? What is this new idol that you call pressure; how does this measure to Ahmed ibn Hanbal’s tolerance of jail and refusing to bend and say what would comfort the unjust rulers?

Conclusion

I would like to express explicit worry about the complete loss of credibility if these concerns are not addressed and scholars involved with the Forum are continued to be seen as only siding in support of the rulers and in not voicing any grievances and criticisms of those in power. It is the issue of not being independent rather than a blanket condemnation of any engagement with politics or rulers that I am concerned about. Of course, there might be an argument to engage with rulers, regardless of their role in promoting justice or injustice. However, if the scholars involved with the Council legitimize and lend their religious authority to what tyrannical rulers and regimes are doing, and further their self-constructed narrative of being “reformers” of Islam, I fear they will have lost their moral high ground, not just in relation to the rulers, but to the people as well.

More broadly, I would like to argue that a forum sponsored by a government is inherently political, and just logically, in the normal course of things, funding from governments comes with strings, and thus, here, the sponsoring government, like any other other sponsoring government for an initiative, would be interested in promoting its interests. This is inherently problematic for establishing some sort of independent entity that can really seek to promote peace all over the globe.

Lastly, and perhaps most sensitively, if the arguments I have presented here are not mistaken — if there are things that I am somehow missing or just not seeing, like that these “inheritors of the prophets” are indeed serving as moral checks on the rulers they are in conversation with— there is a further responsibility to rectify the situation, even if it means disagreeing with respected scholars and teachers.

I pray this is taken in a good spirit from someone who loves you and has benefited so much from what you have taught.