Twenty years after 11 September: a conversation with Afghan professor Mohammad Hashim Kamali, an influential scholar of Islamic law

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:05:08

Born in Afghanistan, Mohammad Hashim Kamali graduated from Kabul University and obtained a PhD in Islamic and Middle Eastern Law from the University of London. After teaching in Canada, he moved to Malaysia, where, among other things, he served as Professor of Islamic Law and Jurisprudence at the International Islamic University of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur and has been the founding CEO of the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies. A renowned scholar of comparative law and a prolific author, he has been featured regularly among the world’s most influential Muslims, an initiative promoted by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre, Amman. We asked him to comment on the anniversary of September 11 and the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.


Interview conducted by Michele Brignone 



In 2001, the September 11 attacks ushered in a new historical cycle, marked by what has been called the “war on terror.” This cycle seems to have come to an end with the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. What is your assessment of these two decades, especially with regard to the relation between the West and the Muslim world?


The background of the September 11 attacks is the post-colonial dialectic between Western excesses and Muslim reactions, the latter taking the form of Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic resurgence. And this story tends to repeat itself. The attacks occurred as a consequence of Muslim resentment. The Western counter-response was the war in Afghanistan, but it was totally misplaced and disproportionate, with manifold destruction and thousands of bombings and killings every night. And the same thing occurred in Iraq.


But the Muslim world is not a monolithic entity. Some countries, such as the Gulf countries and Egypt, have better relations with the West, while with others, like Turkey, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, relations are more tense. In general, there are some problems related to the persistence of major hurdles like the question of Palestine. Furthermore, the increasing militarism that resulted from 9/11 has worsened the situation. In such a context the best you can expect is that there is no open violence.


In the pattern you outlined, are fundamentalist groups and their responses representative of Muslim societies in general?


No, they are a reaction against Western militarism, but they do not represent Islam. The problem is that as long as the West insists in its militarism and the Muslims are on the weaker side, there will be these sorts of overreactions: suicide bombings, violence, groups like Isis. But Muslim societies do not support this violence, which is carried out by small minorities. We believe in peace, and we are experiencing a maturation of this point of view. Most Muslims have realised that radical or extremist readings of Islam are not the solution. The idea of wasatiyya, which is the “middle path of moderation” in Islam, on which I have published a book, is attracting attention and gaining support as an alternative to useless forms of radicalism. I think there is a growing sense of disaffection toward movements like al-Qaeda, Isis, and hardliners in general.


From this point of view, the Arab Spring was an interesting phenomenon because it was mainly about basic rights and good governance. This is what Muslim societies long for. Unfortunately, the Arab Spring did not succeed, even if people like Rashid Ghannoushi, who gave a lecture at our institute on this topic, maintain that the process will continue even if it has been temporarily interrupted.


You mentioned the Arab Spring. Indeed, when we in Europe deal with or talk about the Muslim world we are especially thinking about the Arab-Muslim world, which is our neighbour. As an Afghan living in Malaysia, what’s your perspective on the internal dynamics of the Muslim World?


I think the centre is shifting. South-East Asia and Turkey are witnessing the rise of prominent Muslim voices. Nowadays we look toward Indonesia much more than we used to in the past, even if the Arab World, being the birthplace of Islam, still considers itself the centre of the Muslim world. To be sure, history is history, and the most important Islamic places are in Saudi Arabia. This means that the Arab world is and will continue to be very important, but other centres are emerging. Moreover, demography matters: There are six hundred million Muslims in South Asia, and almost three hundred million in Southeast Asia, whereas in the Arab World they are less than four hundred million. This will have cultural and political implications.


Let’s focus now on your country of origin, Afghanistan. As an Afghan, and not just as a Muslim scholar, how are you feeling at this moment?


I welcome the American withdrawal. Americans did not deliver the peace and good governance they promised when they invaded Afghanistan after 9/11. They talked about these values, but it was idle talk. The reality was that the security situation went from bad to worse, the gap between the rich and the poor widened, and the trade of opium flourished. Moreover, the departure of the Americans means that the war has ended, and this is a positive thing. The Taliban’s initial statements about the need to form an inclusive government and preserve women’s rights to education and work are encouraging, but what they say is one thing and what they are going to do is another, so it remains to be seen. In their previous government experience, from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban achieved two major results: they restored order, albeit through brutal ways, and they eradicated opium. Now they have announced the same objectives, but over the last twenty years Afghan society has experienced some gains, especially in terms of freedom of expression and women’s rights, and we will see how they will deal with these changes.


As an advocate and theoretician of the “middle path of moderation,” aren’t you worried about the Taliban’s methods and interpretation of Islam?


I think they are ruthless people in ruthless times. But yes, I am worried, and I get more worried as weeks go by.


Over the last two decades there have been many interfaith initiatives, and you have taken part in some of these, for example as a signatory of the open letter, “A Common Word between Us and You” (2007). What do you expect from interfaith dialogue?


Interfaith initiatives can generate good understanding, but they also have limitations, and I must confess that my expectations are not very high. We need to recognise each other for what we are, but I don’t think interfaith dialogue can penetrate religious doctrine. Rather, we can use the good understanding it generates for practical purposes. Furthermore, Muslims can also benefit from dialogue amongst themselves, for example to improve relations between Sunnis and Shias.


More recently there has been some major developments, like the historic encounter between Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, who cowrote and co-signed the Document of Human Fraternity. From Malaysia, what’s your take on this achievement?


Pope Francis has created a very good impression throughout the world, thanks to his personality. He is someone who acts and not just talks, and this why the document was signed. It is difficult to bring those two figures together, but it happened. Encounters like this are important and they create hope for greater improvements.


The Italian original version of this article was published on September 10, 2021


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation