By Anwar Ibrahim
23 August 2014
In the history of Islamic civilization, the Ulema (scholars) have occupied a central place in shaping the course of events that have a direct impact on the Ummah. In the process, they have contributed significantly to political and socio-economic changes in Muslim societies, some for better and some for worse.
One prominent feature of the role of the Ulema has been and continues to be their relationship and interaction with the powers that be. In fact, it has been said that the extent of their influence on the people is very much dependent on the extent of their proximity with those powers.
Historically, their rise or fall was in the hands of the ruling government. We know that under Mustafa Kemal the influence of the Ulema in Turkey virtually disappeared.
In Syria under the Ba’athist regime of Hafiz al-Asad, Islamists were slaughtered by the thousands and membership in the Muslim Brotherhood became a capital crime. Similar faiths befell the Brotherhood and Ulema staunchly opposed to the secular and dictatorial regimes in Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar el-Sadat.
In contrast, in Turkey today, the Ulema are regaining their pride of place and are actively contributing to the national discourse on moving the Ummah to the next level.
The true Ulema command our greatest respect because they have dedicated their lives to the cause of Islam and justice. They fear none except Allah. I say true Ulema because there are those who are called "Ulema" or hold themselves out as "Ulema" but when tested, it appears that they fear Man more than they fear God.
“Allah bears witness that there is no god but Him, so do the angels and those with knowledge upholding justice. There is no god but Him, the Almighty, All-Wise.” (Quran, 3:18)
These are the true Ulema for they are not just "Ulul ‘Ilmi" but "Qaa-Imambilqisti".
Therefore, Ulema worthy of our highest respect are those who, in the name of justice, can stand up to dictators, tyrants and oppressive rulers. Imam Yahya an-Nawawi was one of them.
He refused Sultan al-Zahir Baibars’ request for a fatwa to legitimize further taxation on the people in order to finance his wars against the Mongols. While other so-called Ulema obeyed, Imam an-Nawawi refused and told the ruler:
“I have heard that you have one thousand male slaves and each one of them has a girth of gold. And you have two hundred slave girls and each of them has a portion of gold jewellery. If you spend all of that and you leave your slaves with straps and dyes instead of the gold girths, and you leave the slaves girls with their clothing and no jewellery, then I will give you a fatwa that you can take wealth from the citizenry.”
We know of course what price Imam an-Nawawi had to pay for this. The Sultan became angry and banished him from Damascus.
Just for the record, this was no mediocre ruler of the Islamic world. He was the first Sultan of the Bahri Mamluk dynasty of 13th century. He had defeated the crusaders in at least three major campaigns, and had led the Muslim army to victory against the Mongols in the famous Battle of Ain Jalut.
In terms of governance, he was exemplary in building the necessary infrastructure for the progress of the Ummah, and paid particular attention to nurturing development in the Islamic sciences.
But Baibars was human and not infallible. So, when the test came for Imam an-Nawawi, his choice was clear.
Coming back to Egypt, in order to fight the Islamist and after democratic opposition, we know how the dictators such as Nasser and Sadat relied on Al-Azhar Ulema to go on government controlled media to condemn them.
In the present day, the January 25 Revolution gave the Egyptian people a golden opportunity to taste true freedom and democracy. Unfortunately, after being democratically elected as president, Morsi was never really given a chance to take Egypt to the next level as the traitors of the revolution and enemies of freedom and justice were busy plotting to take Egypt back to its pre-democracy days.
So, on 3 July last year, General Al-Sisi, on the pretext of fulfilling the people’s wishes, staged a military coup. Ulema throughout the Middle East and in other parts of the Muslim world roundly condemned it.
Unfortunately, the grand imam of al-Azhar whose fatwa condemning it would have the greatest impact did exactly the opposite. Was this fatwa issued in the name of freedom and justice? Or was it in the name of supporting oppression and injustice?
As we know, the coup was followed by a reign of terror. Thousands of civilians, women and children were slaughtered while the United States, the European Union and most shamefully, many of the Arab states, stood by.
The Brotherhood was declared a terrorist organisation and those fighting for freedom and democracy punished with death or life imprisonment. Three journalists from al-Jazeera were held for months without trial and later tried by kangaroo court given severe sentences.
As for Gaza, the truth remains stark. Since July 8, more than 1700 Palestinians have been butchered by the Israeli government.
On the pretext of responding to rockets from Hamas, the IDF has unleashed a new phase of genocide that has caused unimaginable suffering. This mass murder of Palestinian civilians was committed with utter impunity in the face of world-wide condemnation.
The state of Israel, supported by their immense propaganda machine with the connivance of the western media, has been trying to justify its war crimes by representing Hamas as a terrorist organisation and that the relentless bombardment of civilian populations is an act of self-defence.
Firstly, Hamas is an organisation democratically elected by the Palestinian people. Secondly, just last April, they joined hands with the Palestinian faction particularly Fatah to work towards peace. They had pledged to adopt the three basic principles of nonviolence, recognition of Israel, and adherence to past agreements.
This cannot be the acts of a terrorist organisation. As former U.S. President Carter has declared, these are the acts of a legitimate political actor, representing a substantial portion of the Palestinian people, who are committed to peace.
The fact of the matter is that it is Israel that has rejected this golden opportunity for peace. No amount of spin doctoring can ever justify the way the Israeli Defense Forces have unleashed their bombs and missiles on Gaza, destroying thousands of homes and displacing more than a quarter million Palestinians. They even bombed mosques, schools and UN shelters.
It is therefore clear who the real terrorists are. It is clear who are the ones committing ethnic cleansing. And it is clear who is trying to wipe who off the map of the world.
Fanaticism Must Be Condemned
Meanwhile, the sectarian conflict in the Middle East shows no sign of abating. On the contrary, we have witnessed increasing violence and brutal killings.
Supported by external forces, the take-over by ISIS and the declaration of an Islamic caliphate in northern Iraq and south eastern Syria and the atrocities committed in the name of Islam is a classic example of religious fanaticism gone wild.
Whatever may be the causes, at the end of the day, the victims this orgy of violence, killing and bloodshed are the helpless civilians, women and children.
These conflicts have far reaching consequences going beyond the Middle East. In this regard, the role of the Ulema cannot be overstated. The Muslim world must take decisive action. The atrocities committed by Isis must be condemned unequivocally. And whether it is Sunni or Shia or other denominations, indiscriminate killing can never be justified. The Ulema must do their utmost to bring to bear their influence on all extremist groups.
Similarly, other extreme groups like Boko Haram and al-Shabab continue to spread violence and terror across the world. The Ulema must also condemn these and other similar organisations and make it clear they are the enemies of Islam.
These extremist groups trumpeting the labels of Shari’a rule and Islamic state are hijacking Islam to justify their perverse and barbaric ways. There is nothing holy about slaughtering people for not converting to Islam. There is no jihad for raping women or kidnapping girls from their schools and homes and using them as bargaining chips.
And there is no Islamic caliphate or Islamic state that is built on the altar of bloodshed, violence and hatred. These are the very characteristics shunned by Islam.
The Ulema must embark on a new and true jihad to reclaim the ground that is being usurped by these criminals and mass murderers.
“Allah will raise in ranks those of you who believe and those who have been given knowledge. Allah is aware of what you do.” (Quran, 58:11).