Available languages:
Carta di credito
Religion and Society

A Retrieval of the Meaning of History: an Opportunity for Islam

In a recent speech in Mecca, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar reopened the debate within the Muslim world about the takfîr, the declaration of unbelief. To resolve the problem, however, a radical reorganisation of the educational system (and not only of the religious one) is needed and, at a deeper level, a retrieval of the value of the meaning of history.

In the current Muslim world ‘each person thinks that he is the true Muslim and that everybody else is outside the community’. This, in summarising form, is the diagnosis that the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Ahmad at-Tayyeb stressed at the Islamic conference on the fight against terrorism that was held in Mecca on 22-24 February. This in technical terms is the question of the takfîr, namely the ‘declaration of unbelief’ with which the terrorist groups justify their crimes. This is a term that refers back to the theological debate, which is as old as Islam itself, about the status of the ‘great sinner’ – does he remain a believer or is he excluded from the Muslim community on the same level as a pagan? For the modern Jihadists, the imitators in this of the ancient sect of the Kharijites, the answer is the second: anybody who does not join their cause is a Muslim only in name and thus can be legitimately killed.



This diagnosis was accompanied in the speech of the Imam by a strong element of disgust and an accusation: disgust for the Jihadists who have ‘hearts harder that stone’ and the accusation that the ‘neo-colonialist forces allied with world Zionism’ set for Muslims the trap of the takfîr, thereby applying the principle of divide et impera. The Muslims, for their part, are said to have fallen into this trap in vast numbers with the result that ‘Iraq is lost. Syria is in flames, Yemen is lacerated and Libya has been destroyed’. This is a summarising but accurate photograph of the disaster that ‘has darkened the authentic image of Islam in the East and the West, but most I would say in the eyes of the new generation of Muslims’.



An Educational Emergency



Even though these observations may appear unprecedented to a Western audience, in reality they are thoughts that the Imam has been offering for months in his public statements. The novelty lies, rather, in the attempt to identify the causes of Jihadism. In his view poverty or maltreatment in prisons is not enough to explain it. The real problem is education. There will not be a solution ‘until we control instruction and education, in our schools and universities’.



It is difficult not to agree with this statement of principle. And yet some clarifications can help us to locate the proposal and its limitations in a better way. Put briefly, at-Tayyeb, and with him a number of religious authorities, seem to believe that a partial restructuring of the edifice of Islamic knowledge which is confined to isolating and healing the fissure introduced by the takfîr and does not touch its basic structures is possible. Some facts, however, suggest the need for a much more radical intervention and one which should probably bear upon the very foundations of this edifice.



First of all, the breadth of the crisis that is today affecting educational systems in most of the Muslim world should not be underestimated. Historically, the colonial powers bequeathed to the Middle East a network of schools on the European model, intended, however, only for the elite. After independence, some states adopted the path of Arabizing education but this turned out in large measure to be a failure. Still today, in almost all Arab countries, the scientific disciplines after elementary school are directly taught in English or French. But above all else the post-colonial states, with the exception of the oil monarchies, impotently witnessed the collapse of their educational systems because of a population explosion which was accompanied at times by foolish economic policies. In Egypt today state teachers receive a paltry salary. As a consequence many of them simply do not teach and get by giving private lessons to those of their students who can afford them.



A specific problem afflicts religious education. Most of the time teaching takes place on the basis of state textbooks whose contents are at times contestable. To tell the truth in recent years some improvement has been achieved, for example in Tunisia, Lebanon and Jordan, but the road ahead is still a long one. For that matter, even the training of religious scholars is not without its difficulties. It was not only the ancient Kharijites who used the weapon of the takfîr. Much more recently the Wahhabi movement, that ideological pillar of modern Saudi Arabia, has also used it. Can the Saudi monarchy now saw off the branch which it is sitting on? The question is no minor one in assessing the likelihood of success of an anti-takfîr mobilisation.



Changing the Paradigm



At a deeper level, we should not forget that most of the Jihadists do not radicalise at school during their hours of Islamic education, nor in mosques which are an expression of traditional Islam – they radicalise through internet. It is not, therefore, a question of changing some textbooks, and perhaps not even of acting in relation to the religious discourse of the ulema, but, rather, of a general climate which needs to be changed.



In this implementation of a new approach, fundamental help could probably come from an apparently secondary source: a retrieval of the meaning of history. In the version that today is dominant, history in the Arab peninsula began with an age of ignorance (in Arabic jâhiliyya), which corresponds to the pre-Islamic epoch, and this was followed by the advent of Islam which constituted a complete fracture with what had gone before. This is an unfounded historical vision and one which is above all else theologically dangerous because it tends to accredit the idea of a pure faith that is said to have become established in an a-cultural context. It is no accident that the idea of the jâhiliyya was used by the great Jihadist ideologues of the twentieth century, first and foremost Sayyid Qutb, to define the Muslim societies of the epoch and make armed action against governments legitimate – that is to say, once again, the takfîr. Once again it is here that we encounter the origins of that movement of rejection towards the past which with an increasing radicalisation ended up in the burning of manuscripts and statues attacked with hammers which have been shown by Isis on the web. In the face of this, the Lebanese intellectual Samir Kassir wrote provocatively: ‘we can well imagine what Copernican revolution it would be to admit the existence of a golden age prior to the golden age!’



On the other hand, there is a perpetuation in the Muslim world of an idealised vision of the first decades after the death of Muhammad, the so-called epoch of the Companions, which is seen as the expression of a by now unreachable perfection. In this case as well, reckoning with the fact that the epoch of the Companions was also a period of intense internecine struggles, of betrayals, of killings, and of the exploitation of religion for political ends, could help in freeing people from the complex that ‘the best is already behind us’. Thus even without touching upon the thorny problem of the historicity of the founding texts of Islam, which for the moment remains the concern of a few isolated thinkers, it would be possible to introduce a critical look at the past which would allow a more creative look at contemporary challenges, achieving liberation from the illusion that the solution has already been formulated by others. If to this were allied, at the level of method, greater attention being paid to the sapiential wisdom, which today is completely devalued in favour of a positivist vision in the scientific field and a legalist-literalist vision in the religious field, we could hope for a real turning point in the educational field which would also lead naturally to the abandonment of the practice of the takfîr.



Were the opposite to take place, the official religious discourse would always remain vulnerable to fashion and the requests of the moment. After sanctifying Arab nationalism, after experiencing the socialist nature of Islam, and after moving towards liberalism, this approach is now moving towards condemning takfirism. Tomorrow, who knows what will happen.


Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter

I authorize the use of my data after agreeing to the privacy-policy

For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal