31 October 2014

Islam Today: Who Calls the Shots?

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“Egyptian Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb in Cairo January 2, 2011. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany." Note that he was listed as second most influential Muslim in the world by this year's issue of the Muslim 500, right after King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia “Egyptian Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb in Cairo January 2, 2011. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany." Note that he was listed as second most influential Muslim in the world by this year's issue of the Muslim 500, right after King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld/tag/azhar-grand-sheikh-al-tayeb-sukkuk-islamic-finance-muslim-brotherhood/

Muslims often say – with a twinge of pride, I’ve noticed – that there is no clergy in Islam. Well, there is no pope and each mosque is fairly independent; that said, the more conservative ones in this country do their best to import a good imam from Egypt or elsewhere. Also, Iran’s constitution calls for the supremacy of the jurist-scholar in running the affairs of state. “Right,” you say, “but those are Shia beliefs.”

Still, Islamic scholars, the kind who teach Islamic sciences and offer legal opinions (fatwas), either as state functionaries in Muslim-majority countries or as members of various Islamic associations in the west, wield a lot of clout. These are the ulama (“those with knowledge”).

So my question is this. With the Mideast in turmoil (and even more than usual!) – mostly because of the so-called “Islamic State,” who really speaks for Islam? Maybe it’s not the ulama but the politicians and statesmen who wield the decisive power to “speak” in these ways.

Saudi Arabia, after decades of funding conservative Salafi causes, including the Salafi-jihadis of Afghanistan in the 1980s and those of various stripes fighting Bashar al-Asad’s regime in Syria since 2011, has now joined with the Arab Emirates and Egypt to lead an Arab front against ISIS. In so doing, they seek to isolate Qatar, which has always been an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood (which, by the way, has no connection to ISIS; the MBs gave up violence in the 1950s). Turkey, much more powerful than those three combined, is a member of NATO and is on better terms with Qatar, since it is ruled by an islamist party. President Erdogan is leveraging his massive influence to get the US-led coalition to directly turn on Bashar al-Asad as well.

I could go on. But all I’m saying for now is that, just as it has always been in Islamdom, rulers and ulama stand in tension, sharing power uneasily – political power on one side, and religious authority on the other. But first, we need some historical background.

 

Some remarks about history

As I tell my Introduction to Islam students, the only “real” Islamic state lasted for ten years in Medina with Muhammad at its helm as founder, prophet and statesman. Sure, his four closest Companions continued to rule in Medina for the next 29 years. Yet apart from the great wealth flowing in from the astonishingly successful conquests (and maybe in part because of them), this rule was hardly idyllic. Three of these successors (the “Rightly Guided Caliphs”) were assassinated, with Ali, the last one, embroiled in a civil war from the start. Nineteen years later, the Umayyad caliph Yazid massacred the Prophet’s grandson Hussein, his family and entourage, at Karbala in Iraq. This represents the Shia’s defining moment, when their second “Imam” sacrificed his life in the way of God and for the sake of his followers.

What after Ali’s assassination in 661 constitutes an “Islamic state”? I suppose it’s in the eye of the beholder, but the 20th-century ideology of “islamism,” crafted first and foremost by the Muslim Brotherhood (founded in 1928) and now widespread under many forms, is sure that it did exist, at least in bits and pieces in the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties and the great “Gunpowder States” like the Ottomans, the Safavids (“Greater Persia”) and the Moghuls (India). The islamist slogans from the beginning were “Islam is the solution” and “the Qur’an is our constitution.” The more puritanical Salafis would answer that no genuine Islamic state ever existed after 661. Yet some of them now recognize ISIS as "the real deal."

The problem, of course, is that now we’re talking about a modern nation-state, the product of European Enlightenment ideals and statecraft hammered out in the ashes of Europe’s religious wars. These are states in which power is concentrated in various degrees among the three branches of government, executive, judiciary and legislative.

Islamic states came in many shapes and sizes over the centuries – from the mammoth Abbasid caliphate at its peak in the ninth and tenth centuries, to breakaway petty dynasties on the edges, to the various kingdoms and fiefdoms of West Africa and Indonesia. What they had in common, however, was the tremendous power of the ulama, the jurist-scholars who interpreted and applied God’s law, or the Shari’a.

In his great book The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, Noah Feldman explains how the ulama, “the heirs of the Prophet,” were the guarantors and mediators of the law which the rulers were sworn to follow. Indeed, caliphs, sultans, and local kings, if they cared at all about Islamic legitimacy, were told by the Qur’an to “command the right and forbid the wrong.” So they had to appoint judges from among the ulama. This also meant that if the ruler wanted to pervert justice for his own gain he would be seen by the ulama as violating God’s law, which immediately disqualified him from ruling in the eyes of the ulama and the people.

In practice, the ulama wielded only moral or religious authority, not military force. So they could hardly strip a sitting ruler of his title. Yet when any strong man seized power, either by force or by being the heir of the deceased, he urgently needed “to be able to rely on the scholars to assert the continuing legitimacy of his rule” (Feldman, 32). There might be several other claimants and challengers. But too, if the country was menaced by a foreign invasion, “the ruler would need the scholars to declare the religious obligation to protect the state in a defensive jihad” (32).

So the history of past “Islamic states” is replete with instances of this tug-of-war between political power and religious authority, between rulers and the ulama class. This fact entailed, ostensibly, a tension between religion and state, if not a de facto separation. Don’t forget too that rulers usually had their own set of courts (mazalim courts) and that a whole branch of jurisprudence gave legitimacy to the ruler’s laws (siyasa shar’iyya). But the sultan or king still needed to appoint ulama to the top courts of his realm. In the end, justice was still God’s justice, emanating from the divine Shari’a.

With the advent of European colonialism, particularly after Napoleon’s short invasion of Egypt in 1798, more and more traditional Islamic states imported western codes of law and consolidated state power at the expense of the ulama. Whether Muhammad Ali in nineteenth-century Egypt or Kemal Attatürk in 1920s Turkey, rulers sidelined and even muzzled the traditional jurist-scholars. In the 1960s, President Gamal Abd al-Nasser simply “nationalized” al-Azhar University in Cairo, in essence putting the ulama under the thumb of the state, something unheard of in Islamic history.

 

An article for your perusal

In light of this background, I will offer two thoughts on the topic of the ulama and their role today. The first is to call your attention to a chapter of mine (“Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s Purposive Fiqh: Promoting or Demoting the Future Role of the Ulama?”) in the newly published book edited by my friend, Adis Duderija: Maqasid al-Shari’a and Contemporary Muslim Reformist Thought: An Examination. It’s a case study of arguably the most popular of today’s ulama, Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Some of you will remember that I’ve published two other chapters in other books on him in the past. You can read another blog of mine that is in part about Qaradawi. Here I argue that his turning to this popular legal methodology of the “objectives of Shari’a” in the late 1990s may actually undermine his overall goal of increasing the influence of the ulama. For more on this, see the pdf document of this chapter in “Resources.”

 

Ulama and Sultans today

My main interest in this blog, however, is to have you reflect on the current balance between religious authority in Muslim circles and political power. Granted, each of the 57 states with membership in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC, formerly “Organization of the Islamic Conference”) are unique in their political and religious orientations. Also, not all are Muslim-majority nations.

Still, this is the first time since 1924 that an armed group having conquered a vast territory is calling itself a “caliphate.” That was when the secular leader of Turkey officially abolished the Ottoman caliphate. So now, by declaring himself “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of ISIS, is claiming the rightful leadership of the worldwide Islamic umma. Naturally, all manner of condemnations and official recriminations have rained down, and only a couple or so jihadi groups have pledged allegiance to him.

Enter the Ulama. First, British Islamic leaders, both Shia and Sunni, produced a video condemning ISIS as standing against all the central tenets of Islam. Second, and much more significant, a letter of condemnation was presented in a press conference on September 25, 2014, entitled, “Open Letter to al-Baghdadi”. This 23-page document is written by 126 Muslim scholars, most of whom recognized jurists in Islamic law. The whole letter is a point-by-point refutation of the doctrines and practices of ISIS in the language and form of classical Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). Again, scholars are both Shia and Sunni – a self-conscious and deliberate attempt to stigmatize Baghdadi’s virulent sectarianism.

You can download a copy of this letter on a site dedicated to it. From the Executive Summary which opens it, let me just offer you five of the 24 points:

 

7. It is forbidden in Islam to kill emissaries, ambassadors, and diplomats; hence it is forbidden to kill journalists and aid workers.

8. Jihad in Islam is defensive war. It is not permissible without the right cause, the right purpose and withoutthe right rules of conduct.

9. It is forbidden in Islam to declare people non-Muslim unless he (or she) openly declares disbelief.

10. It is forbidden in Islam to harm or mistreat—in any way—Christians or any ‘People of the Scripture’.

11. It is obligatory to consider Yazidis as People of the Scripture.

 

All this is abundantly clear. All 24 points – and the legal content of the next 22 pages – represents the consensus of the vast majority of jurist-scholars in the Muslim world today. The above points, I thought, need no commentary, except perhaps the ninth. This is the issue of takfir, or the practice of declaring a fellow Muslim an unbeliever (a kafir, or infidel, or apostate), and therefore, according to classical Islamic law, naming that person a legitimate target for killing. That of course is the crux of all jihadi movements today, as it was in the very first generation of Muslims when the Kharijites (or khawarij) left Ali’s ranks in the Battle of Siffin and waged guerilla warfare against the central Islamic state.

So the ulama still wield influence today (see for example the Fiqh Council of North America and some samples of their recent legal opinions). But their role is much more ambiguous and limited than it was in the premodern period. Apart from the fact that many Muslims are neither very practicing nor conservative enough to pay attention to them, there is another issue that looms large in the background.

 

The divisive issue of politics – internal and geopolitical

I alluded to this question in the beginning. Saddam Hussein by invading Kuwait in 1990 set off a series of events that have led to the perilous situation we now observe in the wider Mideast. Consider the following:

 

  • US President George H. W. Bush launched an international campaign to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. This occasioned leaving American military bases in Saudi Arabia for the first time.
  • Osama bin Laden, who was joined by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad movement leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued his “fatwa” (technically only a member of the ulama can do this) entitled, “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places.” That land, of course, was Saudi Arabia, his country which had just stripped him of citizenship.
  • The attacks of September 2001 sparked an almost immediate invasion of Afghanistan, which turned into the longest war in American history.
  • The US invaded Iraq in 2003, sparking a virulent resistance movement among the Sunnis, as well as the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq led by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. Before he was assassinated by the Americans in 2006, he had managed to provoke the sectarian war that still ravages that country.
  • On the heels of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, a mostly Sunni alliance in Syria demonstrated against their dictator, Bashar al-Assad. This quickly turned into a civil war, as Assad immediately repressed it with ruthless force.
  • This conflict in turn attracted fighters from all over the Muslim world and elsewhere, and in particular, it has helped to create Salafi-jihadi organizations like the Nusra Front and the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq, who under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (real name: Ibrahim Awwad al-Badri, with a PhD in Islamic Sciences from Baghdad University) constituted ISIS (Islamic State in Syria and al-Sham).

 

Much more could be added, but these are the salient points. Now I've saved one last source for you that merits attention.

 

The 2014-2015 Muslim 500 issue

This year’s issue of “The World’s 500 Most Influential Muslims” just came out (see my 2012 blog, “Defining Power: The 500 Most Influential Muslims”). This sixth edition of the Muslim 500 is the first one that isn’t free (it’s only $4.99 for a low resolution copy) and perhaps the first one that is showing signs of hurried editing (some typos and other mistakes here and there). Still, it’s an impressive publication and, as I mentioned before, it says a great deal about the Jordanian royal family’s (and especially Prince Ghazi’s) theological and political views. It’s also a handy way to check the pulse of traditional Muslim leadership at any particular historical juncture. The editor’s introduction (Abdallah Schleifer) devotes 4 of his 10 pages to the Da’ish phenomenon he calls “a murderous heresy.” “Da’ish” is the Arabic acronym for ISIS, which is used in the Arab world and in France.

Two points stand out here. The first is the prominence of the Open Letter to al-Baghdadi, published in full in this issue. Schleifer connects it to the juridical language of the Amman Message of 2005, which I have described as the most significant Islamic consensus document in over a thousand years. In his words,

 

“The Amman Message (p 30) which was of groundbreaking importance at the time precisely because it confronted the pretensions of Al-Qaeda and lesser known extremist groups. But the Open Letter is the most comprehensive Islamic juridical rebuttal by orthodox scholars of the “religious” justifications for revolutionary Salafi-jihadis, manifest in its most extreme form by DA’ ISH.”

 

What Schleifer is affirming here is the pivotal role of the ulama in contemporary Islam in marginalizing the horrific acts and grievous ambitions of militant Islam and the historic efforts put forth by his own patrons, the Jordanian royal family who employ him. And this leads us to the second point.

Schleifer simultaneously castigates Saudi Arabia for using his wealth since the late 1970s to spread its brand of Salafism (Wahhabism) around the world and thereby unwittingly letting the Salafi-jihadi genie out of the bottle. The proof is that ISIL has systematically distributed the works of 18th-century reformer Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab in every conquered territory.

With that background in mind, reasons Schleifer, we can breathe a sigh of relief that Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE and Egypt, has firmly condemned Da’ish and all other islamist adventurism. In his own words,

 

“King Abdullah has also firmly embraced Al-Azhar – the citadel of Orthodox Sunni religious thought and very much targeted by both Salafi groups and the Muslim Brotherhood in the anything-goes environment in Egypt of the Arab Spring and then its transmutation into Muslim Brotherhood rule for one year.”

 

Notice three things in this statement: 1) a strong affirmation of the importance of the Sunni ulama and their spiritual/theological center in Cairo’s al-Azhar; 2) a political statement: the Arab Spring was a calamity; and 3) President Sisi is a righteous bulwark against the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood (two very different phenomena, I’ll add).

So who are the "good" Muslims and who are the most influential? By now, I’m sure you’re dying to know who’s who in this year’s Muslim 500 list. In just the first top 20, eight are heads of state, eleven are ulama, and one is both (Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran – in 3rd place). The only islamist in the first fifty is Khaled Mashal, the leader of Hamas. Just this little bit says a lot!

This leads me to my last remark. Prince Ghazi of Jordan, himself both alim (singular of ulama) and royal family member embodies to perfection the traditional Islamic worldview I have alluded to in this blog. Who calls the shots in Islam today? In this globalized world of the Internet and massive flows of populations, it’s an impossible question to answer. That said, if you mean who is influential in mainstream traditional Islam, the answer is what it has always been – a constantly shifting power ratio of politicians and ulama.