Muslim Scholars & Politics

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Screen Shot 2013-08-23 at 10.51.20 PM{They said, ‘Shu’ayb, does your prayer tell you that we should abandon what our forefathers worshipped and refrain from doing whatever we please with our own property? Indeed you are a tolerant and sensible man.’ He answered, ‘My people, can you not see? What if I am acting on clear evidence from my Lord? He Himself has given me good provision: I do not want to do what I am forbidding you to do, I only want to put things right as far as I can. I cannot succeed without God’s help: I trust in Him, and always turn to Him.} 
– Quran, Hud 11:87,88

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with the onslaught of one calamity after another that’s befalling Muslims in the Arab world. It was called the “Arab Spring,” but it’s becoming rather evident that it’s more like the “Arab Fall.” Spring is a time of new beginnings. Plants break out of their seeds, new animals are born, flowers bloom, and colourful butterflies are chased by young children in the field. Problem is, nobody thought the tiny airwaves coming from the butterflies flapping their wings would eventually turn into massive windstorms that bring about these tornados we’re seeing today.

Syria is now the land that produced over 1 million refugee children. Libya is a chaotic mess. Tunisia is still struggling to form a properly functioning democracy. Lebanon has had targeted bombings over the past couple of days. Iraq is crippled by sectarian violence. Egypt… well, only God knows what in the world is going on in Egypt. Middle East observers and political analysts have never had a busier time than now, and the complexity of the various situations combined with the different geopolitical interests of a number of countries are leaving everyone confused. In the midst of all that’s happening innocent people are paying the price of whatever you want to call what this is.

One factor that’s emerging is the role Muslim scholars are playing in the current events. This is quite a sensitive subject because unlike anyone else who makes a political statement that would represent their own understanding and perspective of the events, Muslims scholars are perceived to be speaking not from a personal conviction, but from an Islamic injunction. Unfortunately, when it comes to political statements that will inadvertently have an affiliation, the scholar who gets involved in politics is not only risking not being listened to, but also losing all their religious authority with those on the other side of the political divide. Worse yet, for many the scholar is a representative of Islam, and his mistakes are considered mistakes of Islam, and thus can result in one leaving Islam altogether.

In response to the danger of conflating the scholar with Islam, there’s a knee-jerk reaction call to the scholars to remain completely neutral. They must refrain from making any political statements and effectively pretend as if there’s nothing going on politically. In a sense, it’s a call to enact the phrase attributed to Jesus Christ PBUH saying, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” The attempt here is to protect the general Muslims’ belief in Islam by placing Islam in a protected bubble and silencing the scholars completely.

It must be made utterly and unequivocally clear that anything the scholar says is nothing more than their fallible human opinion. When it comes to matters related to the Islamic Tradition, the authority the scholar has is not out of thin air. It’s from years of study and dedication to the Islamic Tradition. However, when it comes to political analysis, we must reconsider what authority a scholar of Islam can have in such a field. The reason a seemingly clear point such as this must be addressed is that Islam is believed to be a comprehensive religion that deals with all aspects of life. By extension many average Muslims have a simple conception of this comprehensiveness that in turn makes Islam into a boy-scout religion, and the Muslim scholar into a scholar of all aspects of life. Hence, to this day we have scholars getting asked about numerous issues that would require different experts to address each one. This problem is further exacerbated by the increasing number of scholars who come out with full force giving their political analyses and in turn support for different movements. To make matters worse, for those scholars who condemn a side, some of them will serve their condemnation dressed up with verses from the Quran and Hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH.

Scholars issuing political statements is an issue further complicated by the fact that as a body representing people of religious knowledge, they end up splitting into camps. In contrast to all other matters in which they can differ yet maintain their unity and mutual respect, when scholars differ politically they often end up jeopardizing their relationships. In some cases their public political disagreements become public defamations of character. For a group of people who are referred to in the Quran as the “People of Remembrance” and “People of Knowledge,” and who are theoretically supposed to embody the highest moral ideals of Islam, the masses observing their split and loss of composure end up losing trust in such religious leadership. It’s not for nothing that traditional scholars were removed from the political process and maintained a separate prestige in Muslim society.

Scholars & Politicians

The interaction of Muslim scholars with politicians is not something new or foreign to Islam. Numerous incidents from the Islamic Tradition and history can be cited in support of this. For example, in a famous story of Imam Malik it’s reported that he was beaten by the ruler of Medina because he used to narrate the Hadith of Prophet Muhammad PBUH, “No pledge is binding for one forced to make it.” The Caliph at the time was seen by some to have taken the pledge of allegiance to him from various groups by force as opposed to by choice. Imam Malik was told to stop relating that Hadith and to retract a ruling of his derived from it which stated that a forced divorce is invalid. Imam Malik refused and thereafter was beaten until his shoulders came out of their sockets, and was then put on a donkey to be humiliated as he was paraded around the streets of Medina. As he was being paraded he used to scream in defiance, “O people, you know who I am. I’m Malik the son of Anas and the divorce of one forced to do it is invalid.” It’s worthy to note here that this is the same Imam Malik who’s been reported to have said, “70 years under a tyrannical ruler is better than an hour of chaos.” So it behooves us to consider that the relationship between Muslim scholars and politicians cannot be easily reduced to a black or white, take sides or don’t, speak up or stay quiet type of narrative.

Just as there are stories similar to Imam Malik in which scholars were standing up for principles of Islamic teachings, there were others to the contrary. The title “Scholars of the Sultans” was coined to refer to scholars who would bend different religious texts and interpretations of certain rulings for the benefit of the ruling elite. In return they would receive monetary compensation and be brought closer to the rulers as part of their inner circles. This is not surprising as nothing can move a religiously devout mass like religious rhetoric. Instead of resorting to the force of the sword to command allegiance, such clever rulers resorted to the soft force of scholars over the hearts of the people. Scholars of the Sultans are those who sold their religion and Hereafter for a temporal worldly gain, and in the process have driven many Muslims who saw through their hypocrisy to reject all religious authority, or in some cases to reject Islam itself.

The uniting quality of Scholars of the Sultans is that they’re all at the doorsteps of rulers marching to the beat of their drums. Prophet Muhammad PBUH said, “The best of rulers are those at the doorsteps of scholars, and the worst of scholars are those at the doorsteps of rulers.” In explaining this Hadith, our scholars said that there is no exception in the description of the best rulers, but there’s an exception for the scholars. The only time this Hadith doesn’t apply to the scholars at the doorsteps of rulers is if they’re there to advise them and remind them of their responsibilities. Hence, not every Muslim scholar who interacts with politicians is a Scholar of the Sultan.

In the shoes of scholars

In spite of the dangers of getting involved with politics, many scholars still choose to do so. Unfortunately, given that average Muslims are for the most part disconnected from their own tradition, much of what they hear from their scholars is not properly understood due to a gap in communication. The average Muslim is unaware of the various factors that play into how a scholar arrives at his opinion, and will therefore project onto the scholars motivations that much of the time have no basis in reality.

The lens which we see the world through and our interaction with it is determined to a large extent by our educational, cultural, and religious backgrounds. A vivid example of how this can work is the author of the preeminent psychology textbook Biopsychology, University of British Columbia’s Dr. John Pinel. As a researcher in a field that requires expert knowledge of the brain and how it influences behaviour, Dr. Pinel has a different perspective on human behaviour. A few years ago he started experiencing several symptoms that affected his senses of hearing and smell, as well as his balance and facial expressions. He visited his personal physician to check what’s wrong, and after a few routine tests she told him it was aging-related symptoms and there’s nothing to worry about as it was part of the natural progression of life.

One evening as Dr. Pinel was editing an image in his textbook that was showing the anatomy of the cranial nerves, he started to go through the functions each nerve is responsible for. To his horror, all the symptoms  he had been experiencing over the past couple of years could be accounted for if the diagnosis is a tumour around cranial nerve VIII. To confirm his self-diagnosis he contacted a fellow researcher of his who was conducting a study using an fMRI machine, and enrolled himself in the study as a control subject without telling anyone about his hypothesized tumour. As soon as Dr. Pinel was put into the machine the tumour was immediately visible to the technician who was shocked by the finding. This move of Dr. Pinel was his lifesaver. But he could only make it because of how he interpreted his behaviour and symptoms in light of his knowledge about the brain.

Dr. Pinel’s story illustrates how a person’s education can guide their interpretation of a certain aspect of the world. Given the same event, different specialists will give different accounts and interpretations of the same event even if given the same type of information. When it comes to scholars of the Islamic Tradition, the way in which they view the world is always filtered through the lens of the Quran, Hadith of Prophet Muhammad PBUH, and Islamic history. What many average Muslims don’t realize is the extent of the message that Prophet Muhammad PBUH has delivered. When scholars look at the unrest in various Muslim countries, they’re not confused from a religious perspective. The political details might be complex and multifaceted. But the conduct of the people and the general state of affairs are not surprising to one who is familiar with and understands the Quran and Prophetic Hadith.

The Role of Scholars

Times of political unrest are dangerous. Principles collapse for most people, what was clear before turns opaque, ends become means, means become ends, and human life loses sanctity in the eyes of those who are more concerned with political calculations. It’s a time of chaos and concern for short-term gains without regard to long-term consequences. The focus of everyone becomes this world at the expense of the Hereafter. Muslim scholars are using different criteria when assessing this type of situation. Their political knowledge may be lacking. But their knowledge of the role humans should be playing in this world is not. More importantly, at a time when everyone loses perspective and forgets their absolutes, scholars serve the role of the People of Remembrance.

Politics is powerfully polarizing. Most people expect everyone to take a side – it’s either you’re with us, or against us. When scholars issue statements or give talks that have political ramifications, the last thing anyone in the public would consider is what has motivated these scholars or what they were in fact even talking about. Rather, those who like the statements will claim that the scholars are issuing non-biased, principled, and objective opinions that stand with the truth. On the other hand, those who dislike the statements will let their tongues loose with all kinds of accusations. Both sides view the statements as political statements and neither seems to recognize them as statements that are in many cases arising from principles that have political ramifications. It would be unfair to place the blame completely on the masses. After all, when the platform allows for everyone who has something to say to mount it, it becomes nearly impossible to decipher who’s making what type of statement.

The role of Muslim scholars is not to engage in the dirty realm of politics. Their concern as inheritors of Prophets is to be guides to God, not guides to political parties or promoters of ideologies. Unfortunately, there’s a strong presence of Islamopolitics today, and a large number of self-appointed self-taught pseudo-scholars pretending to speak on behalf of the Islamic Tradition. Hence, many Muslim scholars have become politically involved in order to counter the opposing Islamopolitical rhetoric. Due to the mass confusion seen today, such a move is ill advised. Instead of correcting views, scholars are no longer seen in their rightful role and are being grouped with one political party or another. Instead, the approach that should be taken at this time is to refrain from getting involved with politics in any direct way, because the harm is proving to be greater than the hoped benefit.

Manage the symptoms or cure the disease?

Imam Abu Hamid Al-Ghazzali, is one of the most influential figures in the Islamic Tradition and the only one in the Sunni tradition to be called the “Proof of Islam.” However, he was not free from critiques, some of which were justified, while others were driven by jealousy. One of the critiques was that Imam Al-Ghazzali never addressed the circumstances in Jerusalem, which during his time had fallen to the Crusader forces. Instead of engaging in the same rhetoric about Jerusalem as other scholars had been, Imam Al-Ghazzali spent his time writing the Revivification of the Sciences of Religion.

For Imam Al-Ghazzali, the fall of Jerusalem was a symptom of a deeper disease. When Moses PBUH was speaking to his people as they were under the oppression of Pharaoh he said, “Turn to God for help and be steadfast: the Earth belongs to God – He gives it as their own to whichever of His servants He chooses – and the happy future belongs to those who are mindful of Him.” [Quran 7:128] When all the other scholars and preachers during his time were focusing on the political gains and losses of Muslims, Imam Al-Ghazzali was concerned about the Muslims’ fulfillment of the requirements to be true representatives of God on Earth. The fall of Jerusalem was a consequence of diseased hearts and faulty states, which made the Muslims unworthy of being the caretakers of Jerusalem, and that was the motivation for Imam Al-Ghazzali to write his magnum opus.

The modern day example of how a scholar should interact with politics is embodied in Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah. He was asked to comment on the situation in various Arab countries and he said, “These countries have their own scholars who are physically there and know the situation on the ground, so they’re the best ones to give you a response.” When asked about the revolutions themselves he responded, “They say rain in April is flowers in May. We’ve been seeing rains of blood ever since the beginning of these revolutions and we’ve yet to see their flowers. The young people who went out didn’t seek advise from anyone and acted from within themselves. Rulings that would’ve been given before cannot be given after the fact, because the situation is different.” When asked to delve into deep political analysis, Shaykh Bin Bayyah’s concern was more concerned about objectives and preservation of lives. He spoke about general principles of Islamic teachings when it comes to political rule and the nature of the interplay between the ruler and the ruled. Instead of siding with anyone, he kept coming back to the issue of the sanctity of human life.

The knowledge our scholars carry and continue to pursue is called Sacred Knowledge. By getting themselves involved with politics today they will necessarily bring dishonour to what Allah has honoured them with as the people will reflexively group them with a political movement. To add insult to injury, given that the Islamic tradition relies upon transmission from one generation to the next, the damage the scholar does when he involves himself with politics is not restricted to him – it’s a domino effect that will take down all his students and those who were granted degrees and ijazas by him. During times of political turbulence and mass disorder, when principles get deluded and clarity of direction is lost, Muslim scholars are supposed to be the steadfast pillars in the storm. We cannot afford to lose our religious leadership because they chose to embroil themselves in a realm they couldn’t tell their heads from their feet in.