Thursday, April 14, 2005

Let's get going!

For this first post in the Political Islam section, I choose the following, quite provocative opinion piece by a Saudi university professor and writer, on the theme of freedom of thought in muslim societies, that has appeared in yesterday's edition of "Wajhat Nadar", a newspaper from the Emirates:

المحرمات في الثقافة العربية كثيرة، وبما أنها كذلك فهي تضع حدودا كثيرة وصارمة على تفكير الفرد وعلى سلوكه. وبما أنها كذلك أيضا فهي تسلب الفرد أهم حقوقه، وبالتالي تنكر عليه طبيعته الإنسانية التي منحه الله إياها، وأعني بذلك حرية التفكير، وحرية التعبير. لنأخذ فقط أهم وأخطر هذه المحرمات. أولها أنه لا يجوز القيام بأي تحليل تاريخي أو سياسي، أو تناول نقدي لما قاله أو فعله صحابة رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم، مما يقع في دائرة التحليل والنقد. يؤخذ النقد والتحليل في الأغلب هنا على أنه شكل من أشكال السب أو الانتقاص من رجال أو نساء ينتمون إلى عصر اعتبره الرسول عليه الصلاة والسلام أفضل العصور. كما أن الرسول عليه الصلاة والسلام قال "لا تسبوا أصحابي". طبعاً كون العصر الذي ينتمي إليه أولئك الصحابة رضوان الله عليهم هو أفضل العصور، وأن هؤلاء الصحابة، خاصة القيادات البارزة منهم، كانوا الرموز التاريخية الكبيرة التي تصدت لعملية التأسيس، وهي العملية التي غيرت وجه التاريخ، كل ذلك لا يعني عدم جواز تناول ذلك العصر بالتحليل والنقد

For the full text of article, click here.

Without going as far as the author and talk about the ability to criticize the Companions of the Prophet Muhammmad (a legitimate question but a highly emotional and controversial one), the question of how much reverence a faithful muslim should reasonably have toward contemporary religious scholars is one that has occupied my mind for a long time. I am especially thinking of politically active scholars. Quite often, you will find that the followers of a islamist political group will not judge their own leaders by the same standards they judge others, and will interpret their sheikh's words and actions in the most benevolent way, while they would look at every idea or action coming from a leftist or from the West with extreme suspicion. I personally find such an attitude to be hypocritical and counterproductive. At the same time, I can certainly understand that religious leaders, being those entrusted with the noble task of "encouraging good and forbidding evil", should enjoy a certain degree of recognition and respect, and that too much criticism could undermine their moral authority. The question is: when we consider the words and action of contemporary religious scholars, where should the limit lie between due reverence and legitimate criticism?


Jallal said...


Yeah, this is definitely a very sensitive issue as far as the Arab world is concerned. First, I want to address the question of criticizing or not the companions of the Prophet (pbuh). A couple of months ago, I was astonished by a comment from the scholar Dr Ahmed Al-Kubayssi who appears weekly on Dubai TV in a high quality TV program called “Al-Kalimat wa Akhawatuha” (regarding the words appearing in the Koran). During an interview Dr Al-Kubayssi criticized Omar Ibn Al-Khattab and Ali Ibn Abi Taleb, when they were ruling, for their severity and harshness towards their subjects. He said that Islam is like an educational exam. If you have more than 50%, you have succeeded. He explained that of course it is much better to get as close to 100% as possible but no one should make it obligatory for you. I do agree with this statement from Al-Kubayssi. And as the author of the above-mentioned article states, this criticism doesn’t mean at all any bashing of Omar or Ali. Dr Al-Kubayssi, by the way, always praises these companions and all others because they were real giants in history.

The second point is also related to the companions. Besides the issue addressed by the author regarding the prohibition nowadays of any criticism of the companions, I have another question. Why, is this prohibition taking place in modern times while this doesn’t seem to be the case during the era of the companions? The last statement can be easily proven if we look to historical books describing the life of the companions. In numerous accounts, we learn that a woman here had criticized Omar for letting her starving (and the ensuing justice trial between Omar and the woman), that a man there criticized Omar or another companion for something, without that this criticism leads to any controversy. Instead this criticism was usually received with open arms because, for the companions, knowing these criticisms was an invaluable asset to improve their ruling.

The last point concerns your question and comment. Yes, the followers of a certain Islamist political group usually don’t judge their leaders with the same standards they judge not only leftists or the west but even other Islamists group or religious currents. I think there are many reasons to this ambivalent behavior, like:

1. There is, in general, a lack of knowledge allowing people to get the ability to judge by themselves any situation rather than taking such a judgment from their leaders without questioning.
2. The Freedom of thought, whether political, religious or cultural in the Arab world in the aftermath of colonization is not mature yet. We still are not convinced of the advantages of pluralism. We still think that only on of us is right. The other in this case is always the “enemy”.
3. And certainly many other reasons that we might return to later.

The question where should the limit lie between due reverence and legitimate criticism is certainly a complex one. I have no clear answer to it, but I think getting a correct education is the best mean for people to find the best balance.


Karim said...


Thank you for your comment. While I wish to postpone the issue of the legitimacy of criticizing the Companions of the Prophet to a later stage, I would like to ask you if Kubeissi gave any evidence of the alleged harshness of Umar and Ali ? I haven't seen the TV program, and I am a little curious if this renowned scholar used specific examples to justify his charge, or if, as so often happens in the arab world, he tried to make a point with weak or no arguments.

Jallal said...

Probably, I still have the TV program at home. I don't remember that he gave specific examples, but it was understandable, because he wasn't discussing islamic history. He was giving an interview to a lady who was asking him about his life in general, and he talked about Omar and Ali quickly when he was speaking about the degree of freedom that should be given to ordinary citizen in the Islamic world. But knowing him, I think he doesn't lack justifications of his statement. And if you would ask him, he'll give you his arguments.

Karim said...


Well, until I hear specific examples, it's far from evident for me why he singled out Umar and Ali out the four "Rightly Guided"
caliphs? How about Abu Bakr and Uthman, were they immaculate? It was Uthman who created such an unprecedented level of discontent in the muslim community that the great schism or "fitna" ensued. So why didn't he include Uthman in his list of caliphs worthy of criticim? I don't want to create a diversion here from our main topic of our attitude toward contemporary sheikhs: criticizing the Companions of the Prophet, while a perfectly legitimate intellectual exercise, is a far taller task for it to be treated in such a casual way (in a TV interview), and without proper arguments.


(By the way, I am very surprized that Kubaisi put two men with such different personalities as Umar and Ali in the same basket: while it is well known for example that Umar was indeed harsh with fellow muslims, as testified by the Companions themselves at numerous occasions, in all my readings I have never come across such a testimony regarding the way Ali ruled! Amazing who amalgams can be so easy for some!!!)