x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Reforms needed to curb extremism spread at the pulpit

Friday sermons are too important to be left to ill-qualified imams.

This month, I attended a Friday sermon in one of Doha's main mosques. The imam's irresponsible sermon underlines an urgency to reform the system of Friday sermons in many countries of the region.

Sermons are the Middle East's most powerful vehicles of public communication. As specified by Sharia, worshippers must strive to stay concentrated throughout the entire sermon. They must remain quiet and show respect to the person who is speaking. Even those who disagree should wait until the end, pray and only then leave.

In most countries in the region, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, imams without any specialised qualifications give their opinions on issues of the day, and in many cases without even offering religious evidence to back their points. Dangerous trends of extremism and sectarianism often begin in the mosques.

Efforts to counter extremist views in these countries have often focused mostly on preachers who speak on television programmes. But mosque sermons can be significantly more powerful, considering that every neighbourhood has at least one mosque, with scores of worshippers who attend regularly. There needs to be more attention paid to who can take to the minbar, and what messages are being delivered.

Throughout the sermon last week, the imam berated Muslims for failing to comply with "Islamic orders" to hate everything for which non-Muslims stand. This was not just about faith. The imam called for Muslims to oppose non-Muslims in every instance.

"Don't talk to me about civilisation," he said. "This so-called civilisation will soon fall and Islam will remain until the Judgement Day."

His other sermons were coherent and consistent on this theme. I heard the imam speak on three separate occasions (which I listened to out of interest, but not empathy), and he consistently pushed for a narrow and extremist reading of Islamic teachings.

In a recent sermon, he spoke about the necessity of applying hudud - Sharia's penal code - and inexplicably focused on cutting off the hands of thieves. He said the issue was not subject to debate and "anyone who suspends hudud is a kafir", although there are historical precedents of caliphs suspending the punishment because circumstances had changed.

While the imam spoke, some worshippers nodded in agreement. But there were obvious logical fallacies in the argument, either because of his misquoting of the Hadith, or his failing to understand other religions or non-religious practices.

Such imams are often not qualified. Many study Sharia simply because they failed to qualify for other studies that required higher marks. Yet people take them as authority on every issue, from politics to scientific knowledge.

Particularly in the Arabian Peninsula, where expatriates from across the world live, work and attend mosques, the questions of properly qualified imams giving Friday sermons - and proper supervision of those sermons - have regional and international implications. Hardline Wahhabi strands of Islam are spreading quickly in Syria's east, for example, largely because of the influence of imams. Wahhabi clerics also sponsor the building of mosques in countries across the Muslim world, through donations to individuals and groups who share their worldview.

Syrians in the east of the country are attracted to this ideology, a relative recently told me, because of its "simplicity and candour". These imams appear to preach directly from the Quran and the Hadith, rather than repeating the ideas of another scholar. But the idea that such clerics adhere only to the Quran and the Hadith is greatly misleading, since they borrow that understanding from their own teachers - one such teaching is a treatise about why the Earth is flat.

These imams preaching in the mosques must not - and indeed it is not their religious duty to - lead Muslim communities in every aspect of daily life. The essential role of Friday sermons is to lead worshippers in prayers and provide an outlet for spirituality. When religious leaders have a larger role to play in society, that role must be through responsible, accountable and qualified institutions. It is not the job of an imam to stoke sectarian sentiments and deepen social divisions.

These sermons are guiding and shaping public opinion, even making policy recommendations. The mosques provide an environment that is similar to an educational setting. As such, imams should be qualified for their positions and accountable for their exhortations. Fatwas should be considered credible only if they are issued by institutions of religious scholarship, not pronounced off the cuff by poorly educated extremists.

The minbar is an extremely important platform that must not be underestimated. Imams should concentrate on leading the prayers, and must be held accountable for extremism expressed in their sermons.

If extremism among many young people is to be addressed, it should begin at a grassroots level in mosques alongside schools. The scale of the problem is alarming.

 

hhassan@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @hhassan140