The Amman Initiative: A Theological Counter-Attack Against Terrorism

The Amman Initiative: A Theological Counter-Attack Against Terrorism

S. Abdallah Schleifer

Its hard to imagine the vast conference hall of a five star hotel as a field position where forces are massing for a major counterҗattack, but such was the case at the Meridien Amman Hotel, in this sprawling Jordanian capital. His Majesty King Abdallah II gathered here more than 170 Sunni and Shiite religious scholars and Muslim intellectuals from 40 countries in the first week of July   many of them outstanding figures— to take an uncompromising stand against extremist interpretations of Islam, and to go over on the offensive.

King Abdallah set the tone at the opening session. He announced that the leading religious representatives of the Sunni world ֖ many of whom were present such as Sheikh Dr. Ali Jumaa, Grand Mufi of Egypt and his colleague Dr. Ahmad al-Tayyib, President of Al Azhar University, the grand muftis of Jordan, Oman, and Istanbul as well as the populist Sheikh, Dr. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi ( who has waffled in the past when dealing with more politically fashionable examples of Islamist terrorism)  had all condemned the extremist practice in Iraq of branding Shiite Muslims as apostates and then killing them. Suddenly the outwardly familiar shape of an innocuous gathering of scholars with the standard collection of often tedious academic papers—already subtly challenged by the formal title True Islam and its Role in Modern SocietyӔ— had turned into a historic moment.

By the closing session all the scholars and intellectuals had signed off on a document based on fatwas gathered by King Abdallah from both the leading scholars at the conference and those not able to be present such Sheikh al Azhar Imam Muhmmed Sayyed Tantawi, and the Grand Ayatollah Al Sayyid Ali Al-Sistani. The document denounced the doctrine of taqfir that has been used by extremist elements on the margins of mainstream Islam since the earliest years following the death of the Prophet to excommunicate and murder their opponents, and was invoked by the assassins of President Anwar Sadat more than two decades ago, long before the murderous rampages of Al Qaeda and their allies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia since 9/11.

The document also took note that extremists have inflicted takfir on other groups such as the Sufis (practitioners of the mystical dimension of Islam) and went on to broadly reaffirm the traditional Islamic doctrine that no one has the authority to takfir any Muslim who has acknowledged the basic Creed and the rest of the five Pillars of a Muslims Faith— obligatory prayer, fasting Ramadan, Zakat (ғtithing for the benefit of the poor) and the Haj (pilgrimage to Mecca) 

The scholars repudiated the perverse and unqualified misuse of fatwas Ԗ the murderous equivalent of storefront religionӔ in Islam ( whose most outstanding practitioners are bin Ladin and Al Zarqawi) by first signing off as Sunnis and Shiites, on the fundamental validity of all the eight traditional and authoritative Schools of Islamic Jurisprudence, adherence to any of which define that a Muslim is a Sunni,  an Ibadi (a Sunni sub-sect to be found in Oman and Tunisia), or a Shiite, It was significant that as well as Iraqi and Iranian mainstream Shiite scholars,  representatives of the smaller Shiite currents the Ismaili followers of the Aga Khan and the Bohra Ismailis , as well as the Shiite Zayidis of north Yemen, signed off on this document. 

This is the key building block whereby these religious scholars and Muslim intellectuals have re-asserted the classic doctrine that only those trained and recognized as authorities within all of the eight schools of Islamic Jurisprudence have the authority to issue fatwas. By these standards, none of the outrageous fatwas issued by extremists that predate 9/11 and have been used since then to justify 9/11 and other acts of radical Islamist terrorism are legitimate.

This document will have an impact.  It will be remembered as that moment in Amman when a broad, authoritative body of Muslim scholars decisively moved beyond those defensive condemnations or even evasions, like the mantra ֓Islam is the religion of peace that have too often characterized our response to those acts of terrorism being committed on a daily basis in the name of Islam. And by terrorism I unequivocally mean the conscious targeting— wherever and by whoever— of unarmed civilians, that we may put an end to those sleazy moral equivalencies that have been invoked by defensive Muslims and even non-Muslim, leftwing Western apologists of terror committed over the past decade. It will be remembered as that moment when mainstream Muslim scholars acknowledged that terrorism was not only a security problem to be dealt with by state security agencies enjoying growing community support, but a theological problem within to be dealt with boldly by scholars and Muslim intellectuals.

This article appears in the Islamica Magazine August issue and was first published in the Cairo Daily Star.  It is reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.