One cleric’s war on radicals is the hope for moderate Islam
When I was asked to attend a conference in Abu Dhabi on “Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies” this week, I was reluctant. How many more times will we Muslims reiterate Islam is peace, I thought. The invitation, however, came from a man who has no contemporary rival. From Bill Gates to Barack Obama’s White House to millions of ordinary Muslims around the world have sought his advice: when Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah calls, 250 renowned Muslim scholars and thinkers from across the globe respond.
Outside of Mecca, I have not seen so many Muslim thought leaders gathered in one place. Imams and muftis from Morocco to India to Bosnia to Chechnya to Pakistan to Saudi Arabia to war-torn Syria – Shia, Sunni, Salafi, Sufi and others. Not only was the convening power of the 78-year-old Mauritanian Sheikh bin Bayyah on display as a popular senior scholar, but the emerging importance of the UAE as a potential home for moderate Muslim scholarship.
Al Qaeda is a direct result of misinterpreting Muslim scripture and exploiting contemporary Muslim politics. It is not enough to say mainstream Muslims are against extremism – where is the orthodox Islamic correction of radicals’ writings? They exist in complex, scholarly language from Libya to Egypt to Pakistan.
Sheikh bin Bayyah’s genius is to bring his sterling Islamic knowledge and mastery of French and European political thought expressed in language that simplifies complicated history and religion. Extremists demand “our rights as Muslims” to “overthrow governments and establish an Islamic state”. In this absolute pursuit, unjust violence is justified as “jihad”.
Thus far, many Muslim leaders and institutions have held back the tide of Muslim radicalism by arguing that now is not the right time for an “Islamic state” or that spilling blood of innocents is forbidden by the Quran. To these points, extremists shout back their rehearsed lines by referring to selected verses or quotes from radical clerics. Rather than try to engage hardliners only on their own aims and declarations, Sheikh bin Bayyah’s fresh approach changes the conversation.
For example, what should be the prioritised focus of public demands of Muslims? Should it be “our rights” or keeping the peace in society? Should Muslim activists compromise, or seek full rights by “any means necessary”?
Sheikh bin Bayyah reminds us that Prophet Mohammed signed the treaty of Hudaibiyah with his oppressors to keep peace in society. When his opponents rejected the first line of the treaty drafted by Muslims, the Prophet erased references to Allah as “compassionate and merciful” in line with demands from Mecca’s non-Muslims. Not content, they then required the Prophet delete mention of “Mohammed, the Prophet of God” – in other words, the Prophet’s entire raison d’être was rejected. The Prophet made the changes, the Hudaibiyah agreement was signed. At what price? The very basis of belief in God’s characteristics and the Prophet’s purpose dismissed – but agreed by the Prophet himself for maintaining wider peace in society. Peace is the first right – once that is secured, other rights can be considered.
The Prophet’s own grandson, Husain, some decades after the Prophet’s death, relinquished his right to the caliphate. Imam Husain sought compromise and peace at the expense of his own rights. So what of today’s Muslims? With erudite interventions throughout the two days from Islam’s highest sources, Sheikh bin Bayyah inspired confidence in mainstream Islam’s correction of extremists. The light of Islamic knowledge can extinguish the darkness of extremism.
It was sponsored by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the foreign minister, as a patron of knowledge and research, but he promised not to intervene in the conference’s proceedings – and he did not. Unlike most western governments, the UAE’s leadership understands the civil war of ideas within Islam. Their support for Sheikh bin Bayyah indicates a strategic investment to strengthen the right side of the debate inside Islam.
This was the first time an Arab and Muslim country had hosted so many Muslim influencers and, more importantly, intellectually demolished the ideology and theology of Al Qaeda and like-minded groups. The underlying ideas of takfir, jihad, governing by Sharia, wala wa al bara (loyalty to Muslims and disavowal of others), religious classification of non-Muslim countries and war were all scrutinised. Still, orthodox Islam’s millennium-old, weighty arguments need a much larger platform.
This conference illustrated that mainstream Muslim scholars have the networks, outreach, ideas, arguments and energetic drive to eradicate the cancer of hate and intolerance in the name of Islam. But one conference is not enough. The UAE should help institutionalise this global gathering annually or bi-annually. Sheikh bin Bayyah and his colleagues collectively access the vast majority of the world’s Muslims through their offices. The UAE should assist in amplifying the message of these Muslim leaders through seminaries across the world to university students who study Islamic texts.
Friday sermons at mosques around the world can also follow the lead from imams who support this initiative. Pakistan’s Mufti Taqi Usmani went further and suggested that we invite radical clerics to debate and dialogue. We should – we can win this debate.
“We must declare war on war, so the outcome will be peace upon peace,” declared Sheikh bin Bayyah. Will we respond?
Ed Husain is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York
On Twitter: @Ed_Husain