WASHINGTON — On the occasion of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, the president of Egypt delivered a message for the faculty and imams of Al-Azhar University, the oldest Islamic theological school in the world: Religious freedom is God’s gift, and mosques must preach this respect for others.
“Our Lord created this world for nations, not just for one nation; for religions, not just one religion; and for sects, not just for one sect,” said President Fatah El-Sissi.
Nearly a year ago, the president, who has a long reputation as a pious Muslim, called on the clerics of Al-Ahzar to engage in an effort to “revolutionize” their theological teachings on Islam and reform and update their curriculum for the modern era.
The Dec. 22 speech at Al-Azhar in Cairo was part theological meditation and part exhortation to clerics, saying there has been in Islam a collective failure to preach and practice respect for others of different faiths. El-Sissi told the clerics that he had reflected for many years that the “real liberty” God gave man was the ability to choose him or not, and he expressed doubt that using physical or psychological force on someone to change his religion would please God. Reminding them that “what divides us, destroys us,” he encouraged the body to wish the nation’s Christians “happy holidays” and share in their joy.
“If you do not think so, it’s a tragedy,” he said. “If you think that this is not a part of your religion, it’s a problem.”
President El-Sissi is not alone in the Islamic world in rallying scholars and religious leaders in the work of renewing Islamic faith and teachings in the 21st century. Many Muslim leaders and scholars are engaged in the renewal of Muslims and their faith against the fundamentalist religious currents that are fueling jihadist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaida and political Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Throughout the year, King Abdullah II of Jordan, a well-known champion for the rights and dignity of the Middle East’s Christians, has warned that the world and Islam face a mortal threat from extremists, who must not be opposed simply on the battlefield, but defeated in the battle of the mind and heart.
“We are facing a third world war against humanity, and this is what brings us all together,” said Abdullah II, who has added status in the world of Islam, as the Hashemite royal family claims direct descent from Islam’s founder, the Prophet Muhammad, through his favorite daughter, Fatima. At a November media conference in Kosovo, long before the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., Abdullah II declared that Europe and the Islamic world are threatened by those Muslims who have made themselves the “savage outlaws of religion, devoid of humanity, respecting no laws and no boundaries” by joining Daesh, al-Qaida and other groups that use terror in the name of Islam.
The Jordanian king has framed the battle by referring to the threat as the resurgence of a violent sect that emerged within Islam shortly after Muhammad’s death and required an enormous effort to defeat: the Khawariji, or “outlaws of Islam.”
Robert Reilly is a Catholic foreign policy veteran of both the Cold War and the War on Terror, and director of the Westminster Institute, a non-profit organization that sponsors independent research into Islamist extremism and other radical ideologies. He told the Register that the Khawariji sect — much like Daesh and other jihadists known today as “Takfirists” — was “a puritanical splinter group” that killed Muslims on the basis that they were not true followers of Islam and, therefore, “apostates.” In fact, one of its many victims was Caliph Ali in 661, whom the Khawarijites assassinated on the basis that the caliph’s willingness to negotiate with a Syrian ruler made him an apostate deserving of death.
“It took a very long time for Muslims to extirpate this violent group,” Reilly said. Muslim leaders and scholars, including King Abdullah II and President El-Sissi of Egypt, he noted, have been “frank enough to say this is a war within Islam.”
Lack of Awareness
Unfortunately, explained Reilly, most Americans and people in the West are not aware of Muslims who are fighting to save their faith from either being corrupted or defined by violent jihadists.
Western leaders such as President Barak Obama have said ISIL is a “cult of death” that does not represent Islam, but wants to start “a war between America and Islam.” But Reilly said that Western leaders have failed to point out or support the Muslim leaders and voices that have been leading the spiritual war against the extremists, and as a result, their message has increased — not decreased — suspicion in the public against Muslims.
In reality, leading figures in the Islamic world who have been calling for reform already and are working for that goal.
“We have to stop guessing what constitutes the true Islam or abdicating the decision to those who speak loudest,” Stephen Ulph, an expert on jihadist and Islamist ideologies and reformist movements in Islam, told the Register.
Ulph said Western media narratives tend to miss the truth about Islam and terrorism. These narratives fall, instead, into two extreme categories: one being a crude interpretation that ISIS is “true Islam,” and the other is that ISIS and similar groups have nothing to do with Islam.
“Instead, we need to understand that it is a spectrum,” he said of the faith of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims. When it comes to that spectrum, jihadists and groups like ISIS occupy the extreme end of what Ulph described as the “far right” of Islam. The “far right” is typified by the Salafist movement in Islam, which casts aside more than 1,500 years of Islamic development and inculturation in favor of a fundamentalist vision of seventh-century Islam. Ulph is director of The Reform Project and the Almuslih site (“The Reformer”), which features the work of Arab-Muslim reformist scholars and makes them accessible to both English and Arab-language audiences. One of the contributors has called for Muslims to look at the Catholic Church’s experience with aggiornamento at Vatican II as an example for updating texts and teachings in the modern era.
“We must stop writing off all Muslims as being the same; we must stop listening to some current of Muslims who claim that there is a standard, unchanging Islam or Muslim ‘type,’” Ulph said. “And in that spectrum, we have to identify those elements from within the tradition that are capable, as many Muslims rightly believe, of co-existing with the rest of humanity and human experience and knowledge.”
Reviving Religious Debate
At Almuslih, progressive Arab-Muslim leaders, Ulph explained, are endeavoring on several fronts to “de-isolate” the Islamic tradition and renew it for the 21st century. They seek to show the cultural and historical context of traditional Islamic practices (e.g. the potential Byzantine origins of the hijab and sharia jurisprudence); de-isolate that tradition from other theories of knowledge (epistemology); restore understanding that the sacred texts of Islam do not oblige Muslims to form “Islamic” states (as explained by Shaykh ‘Al ‘Abd al-Rziq); promoting indigenous Islamic traditions as having equal status with Arab traditions; and refocusing the spiritual emphasis back on the individual Muslim as opposed to the collective.
“Because, fundamentally, we will have to actively — proactively — choose for ourselves, as do the Arab-Muslim progressives, the type of Islam that we can accommodate and indeed celebrate,” he said.
Reilly said he shares the view of a number of the Almuslih Muslim intellectuals and scholars that Islam was weakened theologically when the more Hellenistic-informed school, the Mu’tazila, lost the battle for dominance in Islam with the Ash’arite school by the 10th century and began its decline in influence until disappearing by the 14th century.
Reilly, who argues this thesis in his book The Closing of the Muslim Mind, said the Mu’tazila belief that the Quran was God’s word, but created in time — similar to the Christian view of the Bible — makes it easier for Muslims to argue that certain verses are restricted to the context of Muhammad’s time and no longer apply. The Ash’arite view that the Quran is uncreated and existed with Allah outside of time, he added, makes that more difficult to argue.
But Caner Dagli, an associate professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and former adviser on interfaith affairs to the king of Jordan, however, said that the impact of the Mu’tazila-Ash’arite debate on reason and science in the world of Islam was overstated. He noted that jihadists reject the mainstream Ash’arite view in Islam, and the traditional theological and legal schools which had to collate and distill the authentic hadith (sayings or stories of the Prophet Mohammed) for Muslims. The Ash’arites, he said, still embraced the importance of reason, but rejected what it saw as ““the overreaching claim by philosophers to attain, by reason alone, truths that can be known only through revelation.”
What Dagli, who is a signer of the Common Word declaration by Muslim scholars and religious leaders, said Islam in the modern world needed was a renewal of traditional Islam, which produced a global Islamic civilization that became spiritually diverse as it inculturated itself in societies from West Africa to Southeast Asia, developing beautiful libraries or shrines to its saints and mystics.
Dagli and a group of other scholars recently produced The Study Quran, which includes Sunni and Shiite [two main divisions of Islam that split in the eighth century] commentary, legal opinions, as well as commentary from the Sufi mystical tradition. The idea was to give both Muslims and non-Muslims “the deep picture” about what Muslims believe, or have believed, through the ages. Dagli believes it will have the additional effect of discrediting the “incoherent” claims of ISIS and other extremists, who pick and choose their verses with no regard to context or tradition.
“What I want this to do is to be able to cultivate a sense of classical Islam,” he said, and impart a “literate, nuanced and sophisticated reading,” which is as necessary to the Quran as it is to the Bible.
But Dagli said many calls for Islam to have a Reformation-type event were either ignorant of history, or in some cases, were cynically masking their desire to eliminate Islam entirely: Christianity’s Reformation was followed by an age of extremism pitting Christian against Christian, and all justified in the name of religion.
“What do people want, a return to Calvin’s Geneva?” he said, noting that the famed Christian reformer introduced a harsh legal regime by reviving the long-defunct Mosaic law, and its severe punishments.
The problem, Dagli pointed out, is that Islam has already had its Reformation event: Salafi Islam, an anti-intellectual variant of Islam that arose in the 18th century rejecting more than 1,000 years of Islamic religious development, and epitomized in Wahhabism, the official Islam of Saudi Arabia, and the only version of Islam allowed to be practiced there.
“As it were, one might say what we need is a counter-reformation,” he said, but only in those places affected by this Salafist “reformation.”
The problem is that Islam faces a challenge from Saudi Arabia and others — who “with the support or tacit approval of the United States” are spreading their Salafist interpretation by inserting themselves in different places and setting about “trying to cover up, muscle out, and dismantle existing forms of Islam and place themselves in charge everywhere they can.”
“They want to eliminate other versions of Islam,” he said, because they see other versions as heretical. The Saudis have also destroyed 99% of the Islamic shrines and monuments to its founders and saints, as well as its Christian artifacts — some of which had existed for more than 1,000 years. The Hashemites, King Abdullah II of Jordan’s family, had protected these holy places until 1925, when the Saudis overthrew them by conquering the Hejaz, the Hashemite kingdom encompassing Mecca and Medina.
“I can tell you story after story where the Salafis came in, and bullied everyone, and drove out other ways of being Muslim,” Dagli said. On many occasions, Salafists have shown up at mosques or student organizations, and took it upon themselves to purge the bookshelves of works they deem “heretical” — an act Dagli has witnessed personally.
Countering Saudi Extremism
Dagli noted that President Obama is calling on Muslims to fight extremism within their own community and reject (in his own words) “those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity,” when the biggest source of extremist and intolerant ideas is the U.S.’s strategic ally in the Persian Gulf. He added, when it comes to who chops off more heads and limbs (sometimes followed by crucifixion) — one of the features of Daesh that has horrified people in the West — there is no contest: Saudi Arabia comes out way ahead. But a threat to Saudi Arabia by the U.S. to remove aid or assistance, if it did not stop proselytizing, would do exponentially more than anything ordinary U.S. Muslims could ever hope to accomplish.
“Just one public statement by Obama about the Saudi export of Wahhabism would be a thousand times more effective in the real world than any conceivable effort by U.S. Muslims to ‘fight extremism,’” he said.
In fact, a New York Times profile of Tasheen Malik, who murdered 14 people in San Bernardino with her American husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, showed she grew up in Saudi Arabia, where her Pakistani family renounced their Barelvi version of Sunni Islam.
According to Reilly, the Sauds rule close to 30 million people in their kingdom but have spread their extremist faith by using billions of dollars in oil wealth to build mosques, train clerics and supply the theological content in order to destroy the native Islam elsewhere.
“Indonesia is one place in the world where Islam came peacefully,” Reilly noted. “It has a more pacifist Islam, and there have been attempts to radicalize it.”
Although President Obama has said that Muslims must “confront, without excuse,” the extremist ideology of jihadists, Reilly said Muslims trying to uphold their faith, or renew it, against extremists are at a severe financial disadvantage, and the U.S. has done nothing to even the playing field, as it once did with instruments like Voice of America when the threat was Soviet communism.
Asked Reilly, “Why aren’t we supporting their side? Why don’t we help these people?”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.