A Liberal Challenge to Wahhabist Orthodoxy May Be the Way Forward for Islam

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Judith Mendelsohn Rood is a professor of history and Middle Eastern studies at Biola University.

The Kaaba in Mecca at night. Credit: Wikipedia

Ninety years after the abolition of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the League of Nations Mandate in Palestine in 1922, Hassan al-Banna and his political ally, Hajj Amin al-Hussayni, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood, have won their greatest political victory: the presidency of Egypt. Despite the efforts of the opposition to keep Egypt from becoming Salafist, the authoritarian tyranny that was the Mubarak regime has been thoroughly repudiated by the Egyptian masses. As in Gaza, the Muslim Brotherhood’s moral standing has proven lethal to Arab nationalism. The consequences for Muslim conservatives, liberals, Christians and women there have already been felt in Gaza, where Hamas has used its popularity to wage jihad against Israel and those whose presence is not welcome in Salafi society.

There is a double tragedy here. I have met Muslim Egyptian expatriates, businessmen and professors, who were forced to leave Egypt because of their support for peace with Israel. These men found their lives threatened by the Brotherhood and their properties confiscated by the very regime whose policy toward Israel that they supported. As Muslims, these Egyptians agree with the ideas expressed by the Azhar trained Secretary-General of the Italian Muslim Association and Director of the Institute of the Italian Islamic Community, Imam Abdul-Hadi Palazzi, who has gone on the record to repudiate the Salafist ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood who has articulated the idea that the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate left not only a political void, but an intellectual and cultural one as well.

In 2004 Palazzi called for the revivification of the Islamic sciences to redeem Sunni theological orthodoxy, condemning both the Salafi and Arab nationalist movements as twisted ideologies. He lamented that Mecca and Medina, whence spread Islam, have not served as centers for the transmission of classical Sunni thought. Rather, he charged that the Salafis have marginalized Sunni Islam by emphasizing what he refers to as “a primitive and literalist cult” propagated “through violence and coercion.” In the aftermath of 9/11 Saudis themselves realized that they had nurtured, in Palazzi’s words, a “world center of Wahhabi propaganda in Mecca” which was “...the final result of a project whose goal was replacing orthodox Islam” with the heretical “Salafi school.” Politically, Palazzi represents the Muslim liberals who have watched helplessly as the Salafists have taken become the source of popular Islamic thought. He wrote, “From the second half of the nineteenth century CE, Salafis identified the opponent to be silenced with the University of al-Azhar al-Sharif in Egypt and with other traditional center[s] of ... Sunni teaching, always alert ...[to] new theories and individual theological interpretations.” The shaykhs of al-Azhar, the oldest and greatest of the Islamic universities in the world, have failed to respond effectively to the Salafist view, in part because politics have once again trumped morality in Islam.

Palazzi singled out the Muslim Brotherhood as the “main instrument for the "Wahhabisation of the Arab milieu." He described its founder, Hassan al-Banna, as, “from a religious point of view ... a ‘reformer’ ... (but [one] no[t] so advanced in Islamic sciences) [sic]….” Palazzi explained,

...from a political point of view [al-Banna] ...was radically anti-Ottoman. Members of the Brotherhood, the basic militants of Islamism, are -- from a religious point of view -- laypersons who generally [lack training in] the basic ... Islamic sciences, but [who are still] appointed as “imams" of important mosques, especially in democratic countries, [where] there is no "Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs" to check their orientation and where imams having a regular ijazah shar’i [sic] [diploma in Islamic law] are rare exception[s]. From a theological point of view, [Salafi] beliefs were refuted by Sunni scholars of the Ottoman period but, after World War II, King Faysal of Saudi Arabia was in need of allies against secular Nasserism, and the Egyptian leader of the Brotherhood, Sayyed Qutb, received ... worldwide financial support. From that time on, the vast majority of the Muslim Brotherhood adopted the Wahhabi belief. Thus, Saudi Arabian clerics have propagated Ibn Taymiyyah’s teachings throughout the Islamic world today.

Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328) followed the teachings of the literalist Hanbali School of Islamic Law associated with Medina. He lived after the Mongol destruction of the eastern half of the Islamic world, including the destruction of Baghdad just five years before his birth. He was the greatest Sunni polemicist against both Shi’ism and Christianity during the height of the Crusades. He is hardly the kind of intellectual forefather who can point Muslims towards tolerance and empathy regarding those who don’t accept Salafist views: al-Qaida shares the same intellectual roots as the Muslim Brotherhood. No wonder that pundits so often group the three together.

Palazzi first emerged as an important Sunni liberal when he responded to the statement of the then-PLO appointed Mufti of Jerusalem, Ikramah Sabri on the eve of the Al-Aqsa Intifada: ‘There is no evidence that Solomon’s Temple was in Jerusalem; probably it was in Bethlehem or in some other place.” Palazzi characterized this claim as representative of those who repudiate “... the Jewish heritage [of Islam] as a whole, with the clear attempt even to remove it from historical memory, ” a stance that has characterized the dominant strain of Qur’anic hermeneutics since the rise of nationalism in the Middle East.

Last month, demonstrations in Mahalla in favor of president-elect Morsi showed us that Egyptian men enthusiastically endorse the same foreign policy agenda that led to the formation of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 -- jihad against Zionism and the reestablishment of the Islamic caliphate with its capital in Jerusalem.

Muslim historical amnesia about the history of Islamic political and legal philosophy has been the result of the Salafist rejection of the religious legitimacy of all Muslim rulers, and all Islamic institutions, since the death of Ali as un-Islamic. According to Palazzi, the Salafis consider non-Salafists as those, “who are interested in developing the spiritual, ethic and gnostic dimension of the Islamic faith,” but who are, in actuality, “deviated Sufis”—mystics, like Palazzi, who use reason and history to interpret the moral principles taught by Islam in order to help Muslims become positive contributors to the societies in which they live.

At the time, Palazzi asserted that the mufti's statement points to the sad fact that Muslims are so ignorant of their own history that they are “really inclined to take such words for granted, notwithstanding the fact that they contradict both historical evidence and Islamic sources.” The failure of non-Salafists to educate the masses has left them credulous and unprepared to think critically about Salafist calls for jihad, martyrdom, and conquest. Palazzi offered a refutation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s call for the destruction of Israel based the traditional Muslim view of the Islamic conquest of Jerusalem. He stated that Umar’s

first desire in entering Aelia [Jerusalem] was to find the place of al-Miraj, whose features he had learned directly from Prophet Muhammad’s telling, and to build a mosque there....” Accordingly, Umar ordered that a mosque be built on the southern side of the Temple Mount, the result being that Muslims face toward Mecca with their backs toward the Rock. Umar and Kaab’s points of view regarding the significance of the Rock reflect two attitudes, each of which emphasizes -- respectively -- “break or continuity” between Islam and the Bible.

Both positions "have more or less influenced the development of Islamic canonical expertise,” he explains. The one tradition emphasizes Islam’s continuity with the revelation of the Jewish prophets, while the other tradition emphasizes Islam’s unique claim to the Rock.

To remember the historical milieu compels every sincere observer to admit that there is no necessary connection between al-Miraj and sovereign rights over Jerusalem since, in the time when the Prophet... consecrated the place with his footprints on the Stone, the City was not a part of the Islamic State -- whose borders were then limited to the Arabian Peninsula -- but under Byzantine administration. Moreover, although radical preachers try to remove this from exegesis, the Glorious Quran expressly recognizes that Jerusalem plays for the Jewish people the same role that Mecca has for Muslims. We read in Surah al-Baqarah: “...They would not follow thy direction of prayer (qiblah), nor art thou to follow their direction of prayer; nor indeed will they follow each other’s direction of prayer....” All Quranic annotators explain that "thy qiblah" is obviously the Kaabah of Mecca, while "their qiblah" refers to the Temple Site in Jerusalem. To quote just one of the most important of them, we read in Qadi Baydawi’s Commentary: “Verily, in their prayers Jews orientate themselves toward the Rock (al-Sakhrah), while Christians orientate themselves eastwards....”

Palazzi concluded,

As opposed to what sectarian radicals continuously claim, the Book that is a guide for those who abide by Islam -- as we have just now shown -- recognizes Jerusalem as Jewish direction of prayer. ... After ... deep reflection about the implications of this approach, it is not difficult to understand that separation in directions of prayer is a mean[s] to decrease possible rivalries in [the] management of [the] Holy Places. For those who receive from Allah the gift of equilibrium and the attitude to reconciliation, it should not be difficult to conclude that, as no one is willing to deny Muslims ... complete sovereignty over Mecca, from an Islamic point of view ... there is not any sound theological reason to deny an equal right of Jews over Jerusalem.

As we watch the crowds in Tahrir Square, we can only hope that the Egyptians will not fall for the polemical Salafist foreign policy of the Muslim Brotherhood. Now that they have won the presidency, the real task of government is now before the Egyptian people. Will Egypt become Gaza? God forbid. As the home of both Al-Azhar and modern Arabic thought, Cairo is the only place that Muslims can turn to the great storehouses of Islamic wisdom to overcome the disastrous legacy of Salafism in our times.

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