Muslim Scholars & Troubling Political Fatwas

Basmala

Slide1

Question:

My honoured Shaykh,

I’m a soldier in the Syrian army and we have differed amongst ourselves about what to do in the case that we are commanded by our commanding officer to shoot the protestors with live ammunition. Should we obey the command or not? Keep in mind that if we do not shoot the protestors we will certainly be killed [for disobeying the order]. We want a Sharia-based answer, as we trust your knowledge, so we may then know how to behave. Please answer us as quickly as possible. Thank you!

Answer:

The jurists have stated that whoever is commanded to kill without right to do so is not permitted to obey the command of the one commanding them, even if he knew he would be killed should he not obey his commander. For both crimes are equally dangerous in degree. Therefore, it is not permissible for one commanded to kill another to prefer his life to that of another innocent person like him.

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The above question and answer were present on the website of the late Syrian scholar Shaykh Mohamed Said Ramadan Al-Bouti (1929-2013) before it was taken down. This answer may come as a surprise to many people, because it has been popularized through media, especially social media, and it has now become intuitive knowledge that Shaykh Al-Bouti was a scholar supporting the Assad regime, and that he gave a fatwa giving permission to kill the Syrian protestors, which never happened.

It is part of the nature of politics that people take sides. One of the consequences of this is blind partisanship, where opposing sides no longer extend due justice to their opponents, and either decontextualize statements, or simply fabricate ones anew just to show how evil the opposition is. It goes without saying that this problem is exacerbated during conflicts and coups, as we see today in Syria and Egypt, respectively.

I bring this up because I received several messages from Muslims who are troubled to one degree or another about the positions some of their favorite scholars have taken since the beginning of the uprisings dubbed the Arab Spring. I have previously written an article titled Muslims Scholars & Politics, in which I address the question of how an average Muslim should approach this topic in general. However, given more recent developments I find myself in the difficult position of having to speak about certain scholars by name. The point of this is not to bash on scholarly figures that are revered by many. But a great many of us have attached ourselves emotionally to some scholars to such an extent that if they take a position we find morally reprehensible at a visceral level, it can be so troubling that it may end up testing some Muslims’ belief in Islam. This is no longer about politics, but about principles.

Furthermore, what follows should not be misconstrued to be a questioning of the intentions of scholars. The internal state of an individual is between God and them, and we have no right to speak about it. But we can question the apparent action. It is narrated in the collection of Bukhari that Umar Ibn Al-Khattab RA used to say, “People used to be taken into account through Revelation during the time of the Messenger of God ﷺ. But Revelation has been cut off, and we only take you into account by what is apparent to us from your actions. Whoever manifests to us good, we will entrust them and bring them closer, and it is not for us to investigate their intentions – God will take them into account for their intentions. But whoever manifests to us evil, we will not entrust them or believe them even if they say their intentions were good.” This narration is important to keep in mind. One major shortfall many of us fall into today is the haste we have in judging certain scholars to be hypocrites only because we differed with them politically.

We sound very hollow when we issue criticisms of celebrity worship culture, while many of us are engaged in a culture in which scholars are revered to the point of worship. There is a reason that teachers of Sacred Knowledge repeat to their students the phrase of Ibn Masud RA, “Let none of you mimic in their belief another person’s – if they believe you believe, and if they disbelieve you disbelieve. If you must mimic someone let it be the dead, because the living is not safe from tribulation.

The mureed culture has either blinded or tested many followers of certain scholarly and activist figures in the Islamic circles. An example of this is Habeeb Ali Al-Jifri, the famous Yemeni preacher, who visited the Egyptian military, staying with them for a week in May 2014 to give lectures. This is the same military headed by General Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi, who turned it against the Egyptian people and overthrew a democratically elected government, killing a great number of innocent civilian protestors in the process, and jailing many others.

The date of Habeeb Ali’s visit to the Egyptian military is important to note. In August 19, 2013, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released an initial investigation right after the dispersal of the people’s sit-in at Rab’a Square that took place on August 14, 2013, concluding at the time that it was the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history. These findings were confirmed in an official HRW report released on August 12, 2014. Over 800 unarmed civilians were killed that day, and the pictures of the dead and burned bodies are circulating online as evidence of this. Despite this, Habeeb Ali not only visited the military compound for a week 8 months after the world saw what they did, but he also publicly prayed for the success of General Al-Sisi after the bogus elections that made him Egypt’s new President.

It should be noted here that the Rab’a massacre was conducted with the blessing of the previous Mufti of Egypt, Shaykh Ali Jum’a, a scholar considered by Habeeb Ali, and many others, to be an authority in Islamic law. In a leaked video of a talk he was giving to the military, Shaykh Jum’a said about the ousted Muslim Brotherhood supporters, “We have to purify our city and our Egypt from these riffraff. They do not deserve our Egyptianhood. We are afflicted with dishonor from them. We have to absolve ourselves from them as the wolf was absolved from the blood of the son of Jacob. These are filthy people. They smell bad, externally and internally!

These “riffraff” as Shaykh Jum’a described them were human beings undeserving of such status or even life because they were against the military coup that ousted the elected president. Shaykh Jum’a used a number of Hadiths and analogical reasoning conclusions to give the green light for General Al-Sisi to kill unarmed civilians protesting the overthrow of their elected president. But before he did that, he dehumanized them first, and fueled the fires of sectarianism with his inflammatory speech to the military.

It should be noted here that Shaykh Jum’a was against the protests that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, then supported the protests that ousted President Mohamed Morsi, and finally was against the protests that rejected Al-Sisi’s military coup. In every time, he was able to cite Hadiths that he interpreted in a way that seemed to always benefit the military regime. This is what is academically known as political Islamist reasoning – the use of Islam as a rhetorical tool to manipulate public opinion to advance political goals of a ruling party. Ironically enough, General Al-Sisi positioned himself as the defender of Islam, thus turning Islam against the Islamists he overthrew, which in a twisted and very weird way makes him an Islamist of sorts. This highlights another problem for us as Muslims. Our emotions can be easily hijacked by anyone so long as they cite a verse from the Quran or a Hadith of our Beloved Prophet ﷺ.

Neither Habeeb Ali Al-Jifri nor Shaykh Ali Jum’a had to say anything about politics or do anything with the Egyptian military. They could have prayed for the rectification of our state as an Ummah. They could have remained silent and continued with their work in teaching Muslims how to refine their character, purify their hearts, and in the case of Shaykh Jum’a give fatwas pertaining to everyday life affairs of a believer outside of politics.

Habeeb Ali, is from Yemen, and lives in Abu Dhabi. There was no reason for him to involve himself with political affairs in Egypt, a country where he visits to conduct seminars from time to time, but does not actually live in. He could have done as Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, the famous Mauritanian scholar, had done when asked about his opinion regarding the revolutions taking place in different Arab countries. Shaykh Bin Bayyah told the questioner to redirect his question to scholars living in those countries and simply prayed for everyone involved. In fact, when asked whether it is permissible for a scholar to support a political party, Shaykh Bin Bayyah said, “The scholar should be like an umbrella, shading everyone.”

As for Shaykh Jum’a, either he was not aware of the legal transgressions ordered by Al-Sisi and exercised by his security apparatus, an inexcusable level of ignorance of local affairs, or he knew about them and continued to give them religious legitimacy, which is an even bigger calamity.

Lest one think that I single out Shaykh Ali Jum’a or Habeeb Ali for any ulterior motives, the reason I find myself in this predicament of having to name them is how vocal they were on the side of oppression, and how troubled this has made a great number of Muslims who hold them in high regard. They have influenced many people, and Habeeb Ali has tirelessly served Muslim communities all around the world, resulting in bringing into Islam many converts who saw the beauty of this religion through Habeeb Ali. The problem with their involvement in politics is that they give their detractors all the more reason to accuse them of hypocrisy, and their followers will be left with moral dilemmas that will remain unresolved.

The most recent religious figure to immerse himself into the swamp that is politics was Shaykh Abdur’Rahman Al-Sudais, the famous imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. News on August 1, 2014 reported that the Kingdom’s ruler, King Abdullah Al Saud, released a statement urging Muslim scholars to assume their duties and foil the attempts to malign Islam and present it as a religion of extremism and terrorism. On August 15th, Shaykh Sudais delivered a sermon in the Grand Mosque that was very strongly worded against the group that called itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), now known as the Islamic State (IS). While this may come across as a great message to deliver, its timing and who it is directed towards, as well as who would politically benefit from it are suspicious.

The Saudi Ministry of Endowments dismisses preachers for political sermons. However, Shaykh Sudais gave a sermon on Friday, August 23, 2013, in which he condemned the use of violence during protests, and spoke against faulty interpretations of the scriptural sources in the name of politics. As part of that sermon, Shaykh Sudais praised King Abdullah for his support to Egyptians and the efforts the Kingdom exerted to bring back the country to stability after the military coup. The Saudi support that Shaykh Sudais was praising was not one to bring back Egypt’s stability – it was an overt support for the coup that took place. King Abdullah pledged $5 billion in aid after President Morsi was ousted, and called the ousted Muslim Brotherhood government “terrorists”. Shaykh Sudais’ praises for his King came 9 days after the Rab’a massacre.

This leaves one wondering why Shaykh Sudais sermons here are tailored for the political benefit of the Al Saud family? Speaking against IS was commendable. But why praise a King who supports the massacring of innocent civilians? The same question asked about Shaykh Jum’a presents itself here again with Shaykh Sudais: was he unaware of what General Al-Sisi was doing to his people, a level of ignorance that is inexcusable given the publicly available official reports present at the time, or was he aware and praised his King for supporting these atrocities anyways? Moreover, as the case is with Habeeb Ali, given that he doesn’t actually live there, why is Shaykh Sudais immersing himself into Egyptian politics in the first place?

Irrespective of the answer for any of these scholars. What we can be sure of is that it is this type of inconsistency that the average Muslim on the street will interpret as hypocrisy. Very few people will apply the Hadith about seeking excuses and remember that the internal state only to God’s. More dangerously, once the scholars are seen as hypocrites, all trust is lost, and at the extreme end we have Muslims interpreting the texts on their own, without any of the required academic tools to do so. An example of this are the IS militants, who after Shaykh Sudais’ sermon started an Arabic hashtag on Twitter that said “#Sudais_barking_on_the_pulpit” (#السديس_ينبح_على_المنبر), which was used to hurl insults and accusations of hypocrisy against him.

Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said, “The one who leads to good action is the same as the one performing it.” This Hadith means that an individual who guides others to performing righteous actions will be rewarded in the same way as if they had done that action themselves. This also means that anyone who guides others to performing evil actions will accrue the same as those performing them. Shaykh Ali Jum’a, as well as Amro Khalid and others who spoke in support of their governments killing their civilians have blood on their hands. Habeeb Ali’s tacit support through his praise of the military and public prayer for General Al-Sisi also has blood on his hands. Shaykh Sudais’ praising his King for supporting the oppressive government in Egypt also has blood on his hands.

I understand how difficult it is to hear this about these important Muslim figures. The fact that some people are troubled by seeing these scholars stand in support of bloodshed and pray for its perpetrators is a product of this unhealthy attachment to scholars under the guise of reverence. It is a culture of pseudo-Sufism, in which we have elevated human beings to a position unbefitting of their fallible nature. For that, many of us are shaken when these scholars fail on the moral scale. Many of us do not differentiate between having respect for our scholars and glorifying them.

I have personally witnessed the entourage of Shaykh Ali Jum’a in Egypt a few years ago at Al Azhar, and how people flocked to him in frenzy so they can kiss his hand. I have also seen the behaviour of some students after Habeeb Ali gives a lecture, going up to sip water from the cup he drank from during class to get some of his baraka (blessing). If it was not for the heavy security, Shaykh Sudais would not be able to leave after leading prayer in the Grand Mosque. It is this over the top adoration for scholars and preachers, which eventually engenders a type of sectarianism abhorred in the Quran.

If our respect and love for our scholars were sincerely for the sake of God, we would hold them accountable to what God and His Messenger ﷺ have commanded when we see them make clear transgressions. The Beloved ﷺ said, “The greatest Jihad is a word of Truth said in the presence of a tyrannical ruler.” I never appreciated the true weight of this Hadith until these recent events, and saw how some scholars and preachers held in high esteem by many Muslims have responded.

A small note before concluding: do not let politics allow you to negate all the good these scholars and preachers have done. It is a problem that they involved themselves into this mess in the first place. But this does not mean we can erase their positive.

Finally, not everything needs a fatwa. We may claim that we do not have a clergy in Islam in the same way as Catholics have a Pope and a Vatican Church. But the fact is, too many of us have voluntarily surrendered our moral judgment on matters such as the taking of innocent human life to the discretion of scholars we emotionally attached ourselves to. The respect and adoration scholars get cannot be at the expense of doing or saying what is right and speaking against what is wrong. We should not hesitate to hold our scholars and preachers accountable when we see them pandering to tyrannical rulers.

Truth is more deserving of being followed, and it is not defined by who speaks it. Many Muslims feel heartbroken by seeing scholars they held in high esteem stand on the side of oppression. But their hearts would not have been broken had they attached them to the One who possess them in the first place.