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Heed Pope Francis' Exhortation to Find 'Adequate Interpretation' Of Holy Quran's Contextual, Allegorical Verses, Sultan Shahin Asks the Global Muslim Community at UNHRC in Geneva


Oral Statement, 30th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Geneva (14 September to 2 October 2015)




By Sultan Shahin, Editor New Age Islam

General Debate on Agenda item 8: Follow-up to and implementation of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action

28 September 2015

Mr. President,

In our search for peace and battle against Islamist terrorists, His Holiness Pope Francis has made a signal contribution. I would like to reach out to the worldwide Muslim community represented here with the submission that the Pope’s exhortation be taken seriously and acted upon as it is not only a wise counsel but also in conformity with repeated exhortations of Holy Quran itself.

Pope Francis has described the holy Quran as a “prophetic book of peace,” and asked Muslims to seek “an adequate interpretation.”

The Quran also asks Muslims repeatedly to reflect upon the verses and find its best meaning, as in Chapter 39: verse 55, 39: 18; 39: 55; 38: 29; 2: 121; 47: 24, etc.

So the Quran and Pope Francis are both saying that Muslims should not follow the verses literally but seek to interpret it in the best or most adequate way possible.

It is a literal reading of the contextual verses of the Quran that had come to guide the Prophet during the wars imposed upon him, and common belief in the divine inspiration of Ahadees or sayings of the Prophet collected decades and centuries after the demise of the Prophet, that has led us to the present crisis of terrorism, xenophobia, intolerance, fascistic supremacism and misogyny.

It is not that Muslims have not reflected upon these verses of Quran and ahadees. But even the readings of major theologians like Imam Ghazali, Ibn-e-Taimiya, Abdul Wahhab, Shah Waliullah and Sheikh Sirhindi, etc have led us into the blind alleys of supremacism and Jihad.  Clearly the interpretation is not adequate for the needs of the present times.

It is only with finding the best meaning and adequate interpretation that we Muslims will be able to evolve a new and coherent theology of peace and pluralism, acceptance of diversity, gender equality, religious freedom and human rights for all, consistent with the teachings of Islam, and suitable for contemporary and future societies.

Mr. President,

Pope Francis’ exhortation has come at a critical time. Fourteen years after 9/11, the Muslim world is still floundering in its attempt to stem the tide of extremism within its ranks. But the problem is deepening and radicalisation is actually growing around the world. Young school girls and boys are running away from homes to join the so-called Jihad being carried out by ISIS to expand its territories in Iraq and Syria, with the stated objective of making its version of Islam prevail in the world. Thirty thousand new recruits joined the ISIS in the past year from 100 countries.

The head of Egypt's top Islamic institution Jamia Azhar asserted early this year in a counter-terrorism conference in Mecca that that the curriculum of madrasas will have to be revised to stem the tide of growing radicalism. The Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb said that a historical misreading of the Koran had led to intolerant interpretations of Islam. He called for a radical reform of religious teaching to tackle the spread of Islamic extremism.

In a televised speech in January 2015 at an Al-Azhar conference centre in Cairo, President Sisi of Egypt called for "a religious revolution" in Islam. Radicalised thinking, he told the audience of Islamic scholars, had become "a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world." That had to change – and the scholars had a leading role to play, in schools, mosques and on the airwaves. He said: "You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world is waiting. The entire world is waiting for your next word because this nation is being torn apart."

Similarly Morocco has started a programme for training imams of a tolerant and open Islam, based on the Malekite rite and Ashaarite doctrine. Nigerian and other African countries too are sending their imams to Morocco to be trained there to promote moderation in Islam.

Other Muslim countries like Jordan, Indonesia and Malaysia too are doing what they can to stop the growing radicalisation.

Fatwas keep pouring in from around the world including India reiterating that Islam is a religion of peace and has nothing to do with terrorism. Recently as many as 120 ulema from around the world belonging to most schools of thought sent an Open Letter to the self-declared Khalifa ‘Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’. Written in over 14, 000 words, this fatwa condemns Baghdadi and his brutalities. It shows in detail what is wrong with “Khalifa” Baghdadi's rulings.

But, more importantly, this Open Letter also shows what is wrong with moderate Islam at the present juncture; why moderate exhortations are not working and and why our children will keep running away to ISIS and other terror centres. In fact, read between the lines, this moderate fatwa takes the wind out of the sails of moderate Islam. It say things that will quite rightly be seized upon by the apologists of violent Islamist ideologies and used as further justification of their theology. For instance:

"... everything in the Qur’an is the Truth, and everything in authentic Hadith is Divinely inspired."

This is confirmation from moderate Ulema that terrorist ideologues are justified in using contextual, militant, verses of the Quran and extremist opinions in Hadees attributed to the Prophet (saw) as tools of their terrorist trade. After all, this precisely is their argument. No difference between Quran and Hadees; they are both divinely inspired. One verse of the Quran is as good as the other. One Hadees narration supposedly from the Prophet (saw) is as good as the other. All immutable, universal, eternal guidance for all time to come.

Mr. President,

I would seek your indulgence to discuss the moderate ulema’s Open Letter in some detail as it shows as nothing else why our efforts at de-radicalisation have failed and have indeed only fuelled radicalisation.

In the chapter 13 of the Open Letter - Coercion and Compulsion - the moderate fatwa says: "It is known that the verse: ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ was revealed after the Conquest of Mecca, hence, no one can claim that it was abrogated." Then the fatwa goes on to criticise Baghdadi for using coercion. But the important thing is that even the moderate fatwa has accepted the basic premise of Baghdadi and other terrorists that peaceful Meccan verses revealed before the conquest of Mecca, that constitute the backbone of peaceful Islam, have been abrogated or, at least, may have been abrogated, and it is the militant verses relating to war that should now prevail.

In point 16. Hudud (Punishment), the moderate fatwa establishes a general rule: "Hudud punishments are fixed in the Qur’an and Hadith and are unquestionably obligatory in Islamic Law." Having accepted the basic premise of the Baghdadi tribe it goes on to criticise its implementation in the so-called Islamic State. It says: "however, they are not to be applied without clarification, warning, exhortation, and meeting the burden of proof; and they are not to be applied in a cruel manner." And so on. But once moderate ulema have accepted the basic premise of Hudud (Punishment) based on 7th century Bedouin tribal Arab mores being "unquestionably obligatory in Islamic Law" what difference does actually remain between moderation and extremism.

In point 20, moderate ulema seem to be justifying the destruction of idols. Read the following from the Open Letter:

"Your former leader, Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi said: ‘In our opinion, it is obligatory to destroy and remove all manifestations of shirk (idolatry) and to prohibit all means that lead to it because of Muslim’s narration in his Sahih:  on the authority of Abu Al-Hiyaj Al-Asadi, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib said: “Should I not tell you what he [i.e. the Prophet (saw)]  sent me to do: not to leave a statue without obliterating it nor a raised grave without levelling it.”’ However, even if what he said were true, it does not apply to the graves of Prophets or Companions, as the Companions were in consensus regarding burying the Prophet (saw) and his two Companions, Abu Bakr and Omar, in a building that was contiguous to the Prophet’s Mosque."

The impression is unmistakable that the moderate ulema are only opposed to the destruction of "the graves of Prophets or Companions," and not quite to the supposed obligation to destroy and remove all manifestations of shirk (idolatry). This is not a very good way of maintaining inter-faith relations in contemporary world where all civilised countries respect each other's right to practise their religion in the way they like and idols are worshipped in many parts of the world. After all, moderation in Islam should be based on acceptance of religious diversity as taught to us by the Holy Quran. When the Prophet and his companions were allowed to defend themselves for the first time, 13 years after the advent of Islam, they were told in the Quran to defend not only their own religious freedom but religious freedom per se, religious freedom of all religious communities. God wanted His worship to continue not only in mosques, but also in churches, synagogues, monasteries, temples, everywhere. Here are the exact words of God from the Holy Quran translated in English:

 “And had it not been that Allah checks one set of people with another, the monasteries and churches, the synagogues and the mosques, in which His praise is abundantly celebrated would have been utterly destroyed.” (Holy Quran 22:40)

 In point 22 of the Open Letter, titled, The Caliphate, the moderate ulema again concur with the basic proposition of the Baghdadi clique: "There is agreement (Ittifaq) among scholars that a caliphate is an obligation upon the Ummah. The Ummah has lacked a caliphate since 1924 CE." Then it goes on to criticise Baghdadi for lack of consensus from Muslims and accusing him of sedition, fitna, etc in fairly strong language. But the problem remains the same. Moderate ulema agree with Baghdadi on the basic premise of the so-called obligation of the umma to have a Caliphate. This is absurd in this day and age. Clearly both Baghdadi group and moderate ulema are equally outdated, seemingly continuing to live in the 7th century CE.

Is the difference in moderation and extremism in Islam then only that of degree? Degree of supremacism, degree of hate and intolerance, degree of xenophobia, degree of cruelty in imposing medieval punishments, etc.

Clearly the problem here is that moderate ulema are confirming their belief in the same theology as terrorist groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda, Taliban, Boko Haram or Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, etc.

Now the question is what are the essential ingredients of the current and almost universally accepted theology of Islam as depicted by the greatest theologians from the beginning of Islam till today.

Mr. President,

I would request the Muslim world represented here to look at the following rulings of some of our great theologians and decide for themselves if these should have any place in the present-day world, and should we continue to teach them in our madrasas and Islamic Studies programs.

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058 - 1111), considered the greatest of all theologians, and by many as next only to Prophet Mohammad in his understanding of Islam:

 “… one must go on jihad at least once a year...one may use a catapult against them [non-Muslims] when they are in a fortress, even if among them are women and children. One may set fire to them and/or drown them…One must destroy their useless books. Jihadists may take as booty whatever they decide... Christians and Jews must pay...on offering up the Jizya, the Dhimmi must hang his head while the official takes hold of his beard and hits on the protuberant bone beneath his ear ... they are not permitted to ostentatiously display their wine or church bells... their houses may not be higher than a Muslim’s, no matter how low that is.  The dhimmi may not ride an elegant horse or mule; he may ride a donkey only if the saddle is of wood.  He may not walk on the good part of the road.  They have to wear an identifying patch [on their clothing], even women, and even in the baths... dhimmis must hold their tongue...” (Kitab Al-Wagiz FI Figh Madhad Al-Imam Al-Safi’i pp. 186, 190, 199-203)

Imam Ibn Taymiyya (1263 - 1328) Most revered Hanbali jurist and scholar among Wahhabi-Salafi Muslims whose influence has recently grown immensely with the propagation of his creed by the Saudi monarchy:

“Since lawful warfare is essentially jihad and since its aim is that the religion is God's entirely and God's word is uppermost, therefore according to all Muslims, those who stand in the way of this aim must be fought... As for the People of the Book and the Zoroastrians, they are to be fought until they become Muslims or pay the tribute (Jizya) out of hand and have been humbled. With regard to the others, the jurists differ as to the lawfulness of taking tribute from them. Most of them regard it as unlawful...”  (Excerpted from Rudolph Peters, Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 1996), pp. 44-54)

Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi (1564-1624) - Indian Islamic scholar, Hanafi jurist, considered Mujaddid alf-e-Saani, the renewer of Islam of the second millennium:

1. “...Cow-sacrifice in India is the noblest of Islamic practices.“

2. “Kufr and Islam are opposed to each other. The progress of one is possible only at the expense of the other and co-existences between these two contradictory faiths is unthinkable.

3. “The honour of Islam lies in insulting Kufr and Kafirs. One, who respects Kafirs, dishonours the Muslims.”

4. “The real purpose in levying Jizya on them is to humiliate them to such an extent that, on account of fear of Jizya, they may not be able to dress well and to live in grandeur. They should constantly remain terrified and trembling.

5.    “Whenever a Jew is killed, it is for the benefit of Islam.”

(Excerpted from Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi, Muslim Revivalist Movements in Northern India in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Agra, Lucknow: Agra University, Balkrishna Book Co., 1965), pp.247-50; and Yohanan Friedmann, Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi: An Outline of His Thought and a Study of His Image in the Eyes of Posterity (Montreal, Quebec: McGill University, Institute of Islamic Studies, 1971), pp. 73-74.)

Shah Waliullah Dehlawi (1703–1762): Highly revered Indian scholar, theologian, Muhaddis and jurist.

 “It is the duty of the prophet to establish the domination of Islam over all other religions and not leave anybody outside its domination whether they accept it voluntarily or after humiliation. Thus the people will be divided into three categories.

“(Lowly Kafir (unbelievers), have to be tasked with lowly labour works like harvesting, threshing, carrying of loads, for which animals are used. The messenger of God also imposes a law of suppression and humiliation on the Kafirs and imposes Jizya on them in order to dominate and humiliate them …. He does not treat them equal to Muslims in the matters of Qisas (Retaliation), Diyat (blood money), marriage and government administration so that these restrictions should ultimately force them to embarrass Islam.”

(Hujjatullahu al-Balighah, volume – 1, Chapter- 69, Page No 289)

Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, (1703 – 22 June 1792):

“Even if the Muslims abstain from Shirk (polytheism) and are Muwahhid (believer in oneness of God), their Faith cannot be perfect unless they have enmity and hatred in their action and speech against non-Muslims. (Majmua Al-Rasael Wal-Masael Al-Najdiah 4/291)

Abul A'la Maududi (25 September 1903 – 22 September 1979):

“Islam wishes to destroy all states and governments anywhere on the face of the earth which are opposed to the ideology and programme of Islam, regardless of the country or the nation which rules it. The purpose of Islam is to set up a state on the basis of its own ideology and programme, regardless of which nation assumes the role of the standard-bearer of Islam or the rule of which nation is undermined in the process of the establishment of an ideological Islamic State.

…"Islam requires the earth — not just a portion, but the whole planet.... because the entire mankind should benefit from the ideology and welfare programme [of Islam] ... Towards this end, Islam wishes to press into service all forces which can bring about a revolution and a composite term for the use of all these forces is ‘Jihad'. .... The objective of the Islamic ‘jihad’ is to eliminate the rule of an un-Islamic system and establish in its stead an Islamic system of state rule.” (Jihad fil Islam)

This, of course, is too small a sample to be even considered the tip of the iceberg containing the vast corpus of juristic rulings, volumes of Ahadees, Sharia, Tafasir of Quran, Sira books and so on.

M. President,

Extremism and Islam supremacism appear to have seeped into the veins of the Muslim society. We hardly even notice when we ourselves speak or hear supremacist talk.  Extremism and supremacism have been endemic in Islamic history, present almost from the beginning. Muslims fought among themselves and quite vehemently even before the collection of Hadees and creation of Sharia, which they now consider divine. Muslims have still not found an antidote to contextual, militant verses in the Quran that are now available to anyone with access to internet. Calling all verses of the Quran, without reference to their context, as of eternal value, and applicable to Muslims for all times, is not going to solve the problem. Calling Hadees and Sharia divinely inspired is no answer to the questions of the day. Muslims will just have to  abandon the theology that leads to violence and supremacism and look for a new theology, a coherent theology of peace and pluralism, consistent in all respects with the original teachings of Islam, and suitable for contemporary and future societies.

This new theology will have to be based on an adequate interpretation of the Quran, as the Pope has suggested, and finding the best meaning of the verses as the Quran has repeatedly called for. It will have to abandon the literal reading of contextual verses, and give primacy to essential, constitutive verses of the Quran that can be truly considered of eternal significance.

We will have to abandon the vast corpus of interpretations, juristic rulings of the greatest theologians whom we have revered for centuries. A literal reading of Quran’s verses like La Ikraha fid Deen (There is no compulsion in religion) or Lakum Deeanakum waleya Deen (For you your religion, for me mine) is a cornerstone of every Islamic moderate's philosophy. These are constitutive verses of the Quran and eternal in significance. They are valid for us for all time.

The problem arises with contextual and allegorical verses when they are taken literally or even interpreted according to one's own understanding. The problem arises when so-called militant verses are taken literally, considered valid for all time as exhortations of God to all Muslims forever, and followed as they are today. ISIS leaders may have their own designs, but our children and youth, boys and girls who are running away from our well-appointed homes and private schools are doing so out of a literal reading of these militant, aggressive verses and considering them universal in nature. All Qur’anic verses are considered uncreated and taught in madrasas as having eternal value and as guidance for Muslims for all time to come.

One allegorical verse from Quran is being interpreted to mean that Malhama (Armageddon) is only two years away. Daesh (Islamic State) is said to be fighting the end-time battle called Malhama. This is also one reason why our youth are running away to engage in the battles of end-times. I therefore, think, merely literal reading of all Qur’anic verses, without reference to the context of contextual verses, or even personal, contorted interpretations of allegorical verses will be a disaster, is indeed already leading to disaster.

We must treat Quran as a created work by God, which contains constitutive, contextual and allegorical verses which have to be treated by us in different times and different contexts differently. Which means that we should observe Qur’anic advise that we use our rationality and think all the time before accepting anything blindly and that we try to find the best meaning or adequate interpretation as Pope Francis puts it. A literal reading of all Qur’anic verses cannot be acceptable.

I would again urge the Muslim states represented here to take the wise counsel of the Pope and the repeated exhortations of Quran to find adequate interpretations and best meanings of the essential verses of the Quran and create a new theology on that basis. We do have the intellectual resources to do that. What we need is the courage to abandon the old theology and the will to create a new theology of peace and pluralism, co -existence and acceptance of religious diversity, and justice and human rights for all.

URL: http://www.newageislam.com/ijtihad,-rethinking-islam/sultan-shahin,-editor-new-age-islam/heed-pope-francis--exhortation-to-find--adequate-interpretation--of-holy-quran-s-contextual,-allegorical-verses,-sultan-shahin-asks-the-global-muslim-community-at-unhrc-in-geneva/d/104739



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