Muslim Scholars Increasingly Debate Unholy War

CAIRO, Dec. 9 – Muhammad Shahrour, a layman who writes extensively about Islam, sits in his engineering office in Damascus, Syria, arguing that Muslims will untangle their faith from the increasingly gory violence committed in its name only by reappraising their sacred texts.

First, Mr. Shahrour brazenly tackles the Koran. The entire ninth chapter, The Sura of Repentance, he says, describes a failed attempt by the Prophet Muhammad to form a state on the Arabian Peninsula. He believes that as the source of most of the verses used to validate extremist attacks, with lines like “slay the pagans where you find them,” the chapter should be isolated to its original context.

Islam / Islamism

Islamism is a totalitarian ideology adhered to by Muslim extremists (e.g. the Taliban, Wahhabis, Hamas and Osama bin Laden). It is considered to be a distortion of Islam. Many Islamists engage in terrorism in pursuit of their goals.

Adherents of Islam are called “Muslims.” The term “Arab” describes an ethnic or cultural identity. Not all Arabs are Muslims, and not all Muslims are Arabs. The terms are not interchangeable.

“The state which he built died, but his message is still alive,” says Mr. Shahrour, a soft-spoken, 65-year-old Syrian civil engineer with thinning gray hair. “So we have to differentiate between the religion and state politics. When you take the political Islam, you see only killing, assassination, poisoning, intrigue, conspiracy and civil war, but Islam as a message is very human, sensible and just.”

Mr. Shahrour and a dozen or so like-minded intellectuals from across the Arab and Islamic worlds provoked bedlam when they presented their call for a reinterpretation of holy texts after a Cairo seminar entitled “Islam and Reform” earlier this fall.

“Liars! Liars!” someone screamed at a news conference infiltrated by Islamic scholars and others from the hard-core faithful who shouted and lunged at the panelists to a degree that no journalist could ask a question. “You are all Zionists! You are all infidels!”

The long-simmering internal debate over political violence in Islamic cultures is swelling, with seminars like that one and a raft of newspaper columns breaking previous taboos by suggesting that the problem lies in the way Islam is being interpreted. On Saturday in Morocco, a major conference, attended by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, will focus on increasing democracy and liberal principles in the Muslim world.

On one side of the discussion sit mostly secular intellectuals horrified by the gore joined by those ordinary Muslims dismayed by the ever more bloody image of Islam around the world. They are determined to find a way to wrestle the faith back from extremists. Basically the liberals seek to dilute what they criticize as the clerical monopoly on disseminating interpretations of the sacred texts.

Arrayed against them are powerful religious institutions like Al Azhar University, prominent clerics and a whole different class of scholars who argue that Islam is under assault by the West. Fighting back with any means possible is the sole defense available to a weaker victim, they say.

The debate, which can be heard in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, is driven primarily by carnage in Iraq. The hellish stream of images of American soldiers attacking mosques and other targets are juxtaposed with those of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi beheading civilian victims on his home videos as a Koranic verse including the line “Smite at their necks” scrolls underneath.

When the mayhem in Iraq slows, events like the slaying in September of more than 300 people at a Russian school – half of them children – or some other attack in the Netherlands, Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia or Spain labeled jihad by its perpetrators serves to fuel discussions on satellite television, in newspapers and around the dinner tables of ordinary Muslims.

“Resistance was never like this – to kidnap someone and decapitate him in front of everyone,” said Ibrahim Said, delivering pastry in the Cairo neighborhood of Nasser City recently.

“This is haram,” he went on, using the Arabic word for something forbidden or shameful, and then quotes the Koran on his own. ” ‘Verily never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change it themselves.’ That means nothing will change unless we change ourselves first.”

Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, director of the Dubai-based satellite network Al Arabiya and a well-known Saudi journalist, created a ruckus this fall with a newspaper column saying Muslims must confront the fact that most terrorist acts are perpetrated by Muslims.

“The danger specifically comes from the ideas and the preaching of violence in the name of religion,” he said, adding, “I am more convinced there is a problem with the culture, the modern culture of radicalism, which people have to admit. Without recognizing that as fact number one, that statistically speaking most terrorists are Muslims, we won’t be able to solve it.”

Mr. Rashed senses there is a movement in the Arab world, if perhaps not yet a consensus, that understands that Muslims have to start reining in their own rather than constantly complaining about injustice and unfairness. The violence has not only reduced sympathy for just causes like ending the Israeli occupation, he says, but set off resentment against Muslims wherever they live.

On the other side is Abdel Sabour Shahin, a linguistics professor at Cairo University and a talk show stalwart, who says the Muslim world must defend itself and most foreigners in Iraq are fair game. In the new middle-class suburbs stretching into the desert beyond the Pyramids, Professor Shahin greets visitors inside a small gated compound of high white walls that includes his own mosque where he preaches each Friday.

“There is a large group of people who wear civilian clothes but serve the occupying forces,” he said. “So how can we demand from someone who is resisting the occupation to ask first if the person is a civilian or not?”

When asked what he thinks of those who chop off heads, he responds: “When a missile hits a house it decapitates 30 or 40 residents and turns them to ash. Isn’t there a need to compare the behavior of a person under siege and angry with those who are managing the instruments of war?”

His remarks echo those of Sheik Yousef Qaradawi, an Egyptian-born, now Qatari cleric whose program “Islamic Law and Life” on Al Jazeera satellite television makes him about the most influential cleric among mainstream Sunni Muslims, the majority sect.

Last August Sheik Qaradawi seemed to imply that all Americans in Iraq could be targets. Asked whether that included civilians, the sheik responded with a question, “Are there civilians in Iraq?” In the ensuing uproar across the region he issued a clarification, suggesting that he meant only those who abetted the occupation, and pointed out that he had previously condemned beheadings.

Yet late last month, right after the renewed United States assault on Falluja, the sheik again put the Islamic seal of approval on anyone fighting back.

“Resistance is a legitimate matter – even more, it is a duty,” he said on television.

While few Muslims argue with the right to resist a military occupation, the problem is that such sweeping, ill-defined statements are interpreted as a mandate to undertake any violence, no matter how vicious.

“You condemn the beheading and then on a different question you say anybody who supports the occupation is worth fighting,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi expert on Islamic movements. “So the message does not sink in.”

In November, 26 prominent Saudi clerics signed a petition supporting the “defensive jihad” in Iraq. Although their statement ruled out attacking relief workers or other uninvolved parties, it was interpreted as a signal for Saudis to volunteer. Osama bin Laden and his followers emerged from a similar call 25 years ago to fight in Afghanistan, a fight that they subsequently spread around the globe.

The discussion on the reinterpretation of Islam remains largely confined to an intellectual elite, but even raising the topic erodes the taboo that the religion and those schooled in it are somehow infallible. There are no opinion polls on the subject, but in talking to people on the streets, one gets the sense that they are grappling with these issues within their own understanding of their faith.

Some utterly reject any criticism and immediately identify Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Bush as those bearing the most responsibility for the butchery. They inevitably also mention the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib as needing to be avenged.

But others exhibit a certain introspection.

One sense of the growing public dismay in the Arab world is the muted reaction to the Falluja assault last month compared with the one six months ago. This has been partly attributed to the atrocities committed by the insurgents, including suicide attacks killing many Iraqis.

The wide public sympathy enjoyed by those fighting the American or Israeli soldiers, however, makes it difficult to mount any campaign against violence and terrorism, advocates of a change say.

Proponents of jihad argue that it is only natural for Iraqis and Palestinians to fight back, and point to what they call American hypocrisy.

Sheik Khalil al-Mais, the mufti of Zahle and the Bekaa region in Lebanon, compares the treatment of two despots, Saddam Hussein and Muammar el-Qaddafi, both with a long history of abusing dissidents and other ills. One did not yield to the West, while the other abandoned his unconventional weapons programs.

“Qaddafi bought his way out, but Qaddafi is still Qaddafi,” the sheik said, donning his carefully wrapped white turban before leaving to deliver a Friday Prayer sermon. “Why did they put Saddam in jail and leave Qaddafi in power? America should not talk about principles.”

Asked about those who say the problem lies deep within restrictive interpretations of Islam itself, Sheik Mais grimaced and exclaimed, “Take refuge in God!” summing up the viewpoint of most Islamic scholars.

You cannot divide Islam into pieces, he says. You have to take it as a whole.

But whose whole, the would-be reformists respond, lamenting what one Saudi writer calls “fatwa chaos.” A important difficulty under Sunni Islam, as opposed to, say, the Shiite branch predominant in Iran or the Catholic Church, is that there is no central authority to issue ultimate rulings on doctrinal questions.

Those in the liberal trend believe that Islam, now entering its 15th century, needs to undergo a wholesale re-examination of its basic principles. Toward that end, the Cairo conference this fall recommended reviewing the roots of Islamic heritage, especially the Prophet’s sayings, ending the monopoly that certain religious institutions hold over interpreting such texts and confronting all extremist religious currents.

Those taking part were harshly accused of dabbling in a realm that belongs solely to the clergy, with the grand sheik of Al Azhar, Muhammad Sayed Tantawi, Egypt’s most senior religious scholar, labeling them a “group of outcasts.”

But Mr. Shahrour says he and an increasing number of intellectuals cannot be deterred by clerical opposition.

He describes as ridiculously archaic some Hadith, or sayings, attributed to Muhammad – all assembled in nine bulky volumes some 100 years after his death and now the last word on how the faithful should live.

“It is like this now because for centuries Muslims have been told that Islam was spread by the sword, that all Arab countries and even Spain were captured by the sword and we are proud of that,” he said. “In the minds of ordinary people, people on the street, the religion of Islam is the religion of the sword. This is the culture, and we have to change it.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
The New York Times, USA
Dec. 10, 2004
Neil MacFarquhar

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This post was last updated: Friday, May 9, 2014 at 1:22 PM, Central European Time (CET)