In the lastest issue of Oasis - no. 25 - we published the translation of a speech on the role of fatwas in contemporary Islam given at a conference in Cairo in 2015 by the intellectual Ridwan al-Sayyid. Due to space constraints, the entire text could not be included. Here you can read the original introduction, which offers insights into the current debate within the Muslim world on the rise of fundamentalism.
In early August 2015, the great legal scholar and Syrian sheikh Wahba al-Zuhayli passed away, leaving an immense interpretative heritage on shafi‘i law, comparative law, Qur’anic sciences, exegesis, fatwas, youth and complex issues of the contemporary era, on Islam and liberties. In addition to the thesis discussed at the Egyptian University of Azhar about the “traditions on warfare in Islamic Law” (1962), his most important publication is probably the enormous eight-volume encyclopedia entitled Islamic Law and its proofs (Al-fiqh al-islami wa adillatuhu). The great ulama of the most open law tradition, in Egypt, Syria and Morocco, were deeply convinced of the potential of this massive legacy, which, through an absolute ijtihad1 (as said by the sheikh) had opened up to renewal, thus adapting to the new times. Al-Zuhayli always believed that individual legal scholar and institutions of the era between the 1940s and the 1990s of the last century had achieved excellent results with the tools offered by usul al-fiqh [the foundations of jurisprudence] and the broad views of sharia goals. Therefore, they cannot be accused of not having understood the novelties, nor of having been unable to adapt to them. They therefore also cannot be accused of having little foresight in the face of the storm of modernity and the Western conspiracy against Islam. In the last twenty years, I had always said to sheikh Zuhayli that we are not only the product of modernity and of Westernization, but also of the fundamentalism that has developed within Islam. This fundamentalism, by rejecting all this tradition and claiming to return directly to the Book and the Sunna, has given birth to movements and parties who affirm their will to “restore the legitimacy” of society and the state through force and violence.
The sheikh did not deny the existence of these phenomena but referred me, as he did with some of his disciples, to his great book Islamic law and its proofs, saying: “This powerful book has been reprinted five times, and despite its size has been translated into several Islamic languages. So, how can you possibly say that the jurisprudential tradition has lost its momentum and its followers? And how can you explain the popularity of the books by sheikh Muhammad Abu Zahra, ‘Abd al-Wahhab Khallaf,’ Ali Hasan Allah, Muhammad ‘Abd Allah Draz and Mahmud Shaltut?!”2. In 2009, during a law seminar in Oman, one of his former students from the Damascus University’s Faculty of Islamic Law, told him: “I swear to God, sheikh, we do not want to argue with you or belittle the work of the great sheikh jurists of the ijtihad, of which you are part; but what can be done against this atrocious violence in the name of religion? Furthermore, please tell us, honestly: which books have been most popular in the past decades, not only in Syria, but also in Egypt and the Gulf countries? Your books or The Jurisprudence of Sunna (Fiqh al-Sunna) by sheikh Sayyid Sabiq?3 And what does this say about the change in consciousness of both young people and adults?”
As I saw him lingering, I introduced myself in the dialogue and said: “In the early 1970s, when he was in Syria among you, Malek Bennabi4 told me that Islam was experiencing new forms of dissenting, extremist and seditious ‘Protestantism’, ready to resort to violence. For him, it was crucial to combat violence in the minds of the youths, who in most cases did not study the Religious Sciences. The sheikh – may God have mercy upon him – said: “What evidence did Bennabi have to support this?” To which I replied: “He said that there is a falw in religious law (fiqh al-din), from which is derived a flaw in the jurisprudence of life (fiqh al-‘aysh).” Sheikh Zuhayli did not approve of this interpretation and said: “This is a Western curse: God’s Messenger – peace and prayer be upon him – left us a proof as clear as the light of the day, the abandonment of which spells certain doom. The flaw in the jurisprudence of life may have occurred for political, economic and social reasons, but at the same time it is impossible to create a flaw in religious law: to understand the phenomenon of fanaticism, look into the flaws of life (‘aysh), born from the causes I mentioned, which also explain the popularity of the books The Jurisprudence of Sunna, The Jurisprudence of Jahiliyya and many other things.”
Then everyone knows what happened in Syria and other Arab countries in 2011, and as tensions and violence rose, the political and jihadist Islam appeared. The last time I saw sheikh Zuhayli was in 2013 and he looked like he had aged twenty years or more. The other famous Syrian sheikh, Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti, who had been on the side of the Syrian regime until the end, was found dead under mysterious circumstances. Syria had been abandoned by most of its ulama, who fled in an attempt of not getting killed by either of the warring factions, while sheikh Zuhayli continued to live in his home in Damascus, maintaining firm neutrality. When I rushed to give my condolences for the death of al-Buti, he said to me: “If only I had died before this could happen! Ridwan tell me, what did Malek Bennabi say about religious law and jurisprudence of life, and their mutual relationship?”
[The rest of the article is published in Oasis no. 25. To read all the contents buy a copy or subscribe]
1Namely an interpretation of the law that does not take into account the teachings of the great jurists, but is based on a literal interpretation of the sources.
2Refers to the great reformer ulama of the twentieth century.
3A member of the Muslim Brothers, he was invited to write the jurisprudence of the Sunna by the founder of the Hasan al-Banna organization. The book, which was widely distributed, aimed to present Islamic law in a simple way. in order to be accessible to everyone.
4Algerian intellectual, author of many books on the relationship between Islam and modern civilization.