Articles > Religions and the public sphere > 2017 > “Muslims Need to Reflect on Themselves”

“Muslims Need to Reflect on Themselves”

The reactive speech that contributes to the spread of the ideological discourse popular on the market of extremism should end

Antoine Messarra | 13 April 2017

With the Cairo Conference and the participation of more than 200 personalities from more than 60 countries, al-Azhar University and the Muslim Council of Elders aim to rescue a troubled Arab world. The Lebanese presence, with dignitaries and high profile personalities, confirms the role and the message of Lebanon as a normative example in a hostile environment or in a democratic transition.

The inaugural speeches open the conference after several recent statements by al-Azhar. What is at stake is “to re-state the message of Islam” (Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayyib), “to undertake a joint action at the level of religious and civil authorities, and to tear apart the veil of deception” (Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Raï), “to liberate religion from political conflict” (Sheikh Abdul Latif Deryan, Grand Mufti of Lebanon), “to ensure that al-Azhar returns to being the ultimate reference for all Muslims in our societies under attack, as it was and still is the case in Palestine” (Sheikh Ahmad Kabalan, Shi’ite), “to promote a modern enlightened discourse” (Pope Tawadros II), “to recognize and practice the primacy of law” (Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Secretary-General of the Arab League), at the beginning of the XXI century “in which religious pluralism becomes universal” (Bistop Cebus Sarkissian). The Iraqi representatives’ excruciating cry adds to the relevance of the interventions the daily suffering of the Iraqi people.

The Political Science of Religion
Does all this mean that al-Azhar is trying to earn a political role again, in the conventional sense of the past? Not at all. The statement is categorical: “No political role, understood as power, from al-Azhar, which exerts a moral judiciary in view of citizenship, civil peace and coexistence.” The atrocities taking place are called “crimes” and not Islamic extremism, Islamic politics, or worse, Islamic State (Gregory Laham, Melkite Patriarch). However, al-Azhar never speaks of a religious state, but has a sense of public space and of religious policy in the public sphere (Ridwan al-Sayyid, Lebanese intellectual). The much polluted notions of “People of the Book” (Muhammad al-Sammak, Lebanese intellectual), sharia (religious prescription) as source of values for the legislation, and tashrī‘ (law) as the source of law enforcement, should be developed deeply.

How to reconcile sharia with citizenship? (Gregory III Laham). In the future, we will surely need to distinguish between two components of citizenship: the legal aspect of equality in terms of rights, freedom and participation, and that of a culture of citizenship, of civic behaviors and of new generations’ socialization. It is underlined that “citizenship is based on education” (Khaled Ziadé, Lebanese diplomat) and that we will need to “rethink the teaching programs” (Mar Louis Raphäel Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church of Babylon). Since 2013, committees have been formed to pursue this goal, including the reform of al-Azhar’s programs. A dogmatic religious teaching, often lacking the spirituality of faith, does not contribute to the formation of young people.

Especially the need for networking and partnership will allow to make concrete changes, because “we must work together for a common future” (Msgr. Paul Matar, Archbishop of Beirut for the Maronites). It is a matter of “building bridges between al-Azhar, the Church and Christian institutions” (Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak, Patriarch of Alexandria for the Copts) and of “rooting the Christian participation” (rev. Habib Badr, National Evangelical Church of Beirut). Ridwan al-Sayyid underlines that “we are responsible, but to say that we are not working is not correct.”

Looking at the future, Egypt holds a pioneering role, as Lebanon – “a point of encounter for the Lebanese people, different and complementary, which enabled it to recover from disasters” (Hares Chehab, Secretary-General of the Islamic-Christian National Committee for dialogue). A Jordanian participant says: “When the Maronites were accused of isolationism I started to worry” (Saleh al-Kalab, former Minister of Information and Culture of Jordan). In spite of the inferiority complex of intellectuals and academics who propagate an alienated and alienating ideology of nation-building, Lebanon remains the normative example, despite the numerous inflexibilities and laborious actions of experts in manipulating pluralism under the pretext of participation, consensus and dialogue.
There will also be the need to think of an Arab renaissance project, “to meet the challenges of our time, to put into practice the truth, to live in a time of change” (Vittorio Ianari). The Saint Egidio representative finally raises the question of whether after The drama of atheist humanism (by Henri de Lubac, 1944) and the decline of all ideologies, “it is possible to found a humanism without faith at the beginning of the XXI century.”

What Is to Be Done?
The Declaration of al-Azhar University on March 1, 2017, read and proclaimed by the Imam of al-Azhar himself at the end of the conference, wants to promote seven action points in the Arab world, in universities and research centers, in the actions of religious, civil, cultural and educational authorities, in the media and in Muslim-Christian dialogues.

  1. Promoting a new discourse, bearer of novelty and authenticity. It is a matter of putting an end to the reactive speech that, no matter how well argued, contributes to the spread of the ideological discourse, popular on the market of ignorance and extremism. This perspective is primarily aimed at academics, intellectuals, researchers and journalists who, lacking new and profound ideas, think over, embroider and react to what others say. “Islamic” state, the three “D” of Islam (Dīn, Dunya, Dawla, i.e. religion, temporal life, state), confessionalism, communalism, sectarianism: these slogans, launched in theses and conferences, create so much fuss about nothing. Enough!
  2. Everyone is responsible for his own image. Enough with Islamophobia, with the negative image of Islam, with accusing others to spread an ideology and a negative image of Islam in the world! Dumping responsibility on others is a pretext. Correcting an altered image of Islam that others have and producing books and manuals to improve communication only fosters de-responsibility. Everyone is responsible for his own image. Friedrich Nietzsche said about Christians: “I might believe in the Redeemer if his followers looked more redeemed.” This means that Islam and Muslims need to reflect on themselves.
  3. The hierarchy of values in Islam. We cannot keep randomly talking about Islamic values and producing, often with good intentions, intercultural pedagogy manuals for a mutual understanding without living and deepening the central problem of a hierarchy of values in Islam. What is the point if two spouses share a hundred values, but the wife forgives while the groom is revengeful? Rahma (mercy) is at the top of the Islamic values’ hierarchy. Indeed justice (‘adl) without mercy slips into injustice (summum ius, summa injuria – says the Roman saying). Tolerance (musāmaha) without mercy becomes complacency and social courtesy. Piety (taqwā) solicits mercy. Freedom (hurriya) can deviate from its purpose and can return to the right path through mercy. Christian love and the Muslim mercy are two expressions of the same transcendent value.
  4. The distinction between mu‘āmalāt (social organization) and ‘ibadāt (worship) in Islam. By the very nature of things, it is time now to make this clear distinction, otherwise how else can real and thorny issues regarding the family, the status of women, equality, the succession of property, eating and clothing habits be resolved? This perspective perfectly fits within the need to tafakkur (i.e. to rethink, to resume one’s thought, according to Paul Valéry’s expression). The term “tafakkur” recurs dozens of times in the Qur’an.
  5. The origin of the principle of legality in Islam and in the Arab world’s history. This natural anthropological phenomenon, that is proper of all societies, has often been concealed. This has generated confusion between sharia and tashrī‘ (legislation), even among experts and in academic works. The law, as positive and imperative executive text, is an exclusively human production, the sources of which are religious, philosophical, ideological... The historical and pragmatic approach, in view of the acculturation of law, leads to serious consequences in the writing of the Arab world’s history, in the process of legal socialization and in the education to citizenship.
  6. Who are the munāfiqūn (hypocrites, impostors)? The term appears almost twenty times in the Qur’an but the exegetes have never delved much into who the impostors are, as is the case with many Pharisees and teachers of the Law in the Gospel. Today, with the decline of the great ideologies of the past, impostors and merchants of the temple have invaded and are still invading all the temples, with a political science of religion that has nothing to do with religion and faith.
  7. The Muslim and Arab heritage of religious and cultural pluralism’s management. This heritage, not taught in universities, denigrated by an alienated and alienating ideology of nation-building, stuffed with slogans of communalism and sectarianism launched by intellectuals and academics persecuted by an inferiority complex, is completely out of phase with the need to manage religious and cultural pluralism in today’s world.

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