What is Next After the Fatwa?
Dr. Aslam Abdullah
The North American Fiqh Council issued a religious decree last week condemning acts of terrorism against non-combatants and declaring those who participate in such acts as criminals. This is a positive step and it confirms to what many of us have always been advocating for long.
However, the problem of terrorism or violence among Muslims is not due to the issuing or non-issuing of fatwas. The problem emanates from a multiplicity of religious, economic, social and political factors that deserve to be addressed if the religious decree has to have any meaning for those who commit these acts or inclined to commit them. Even then, one cannot eliminate violence or terror altogether.
A religious decree is based on the interpretation of the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet within the contextual framework of the times of interpreters. However, in essence, it is the reassertion of the divine commandments and prophetic teachings in an idiom that can be understood by common people without any ambiguity. Obviously, the strongest fatwa is that of God Almighty and His messenger and both have categorically condemned terror, violence and social disorder (fasad).
The crucial question many of our scholars and leaders have often failed to ask is why do some Muslims view and continue to view and use violence as a legitimate means to resolve their differences and express their opinions within the community of believers or outside of it. Is this view supported by the divine commandment and prophetic teachings or is it a due to their noncompliance?
During the last 60 years a lot of killing has been executed by people, groups, and governments claiming to represent Muslims. Shia-Sunni conflicts, Kurds and non-Kurdish fighting, Bangladesh-Pakistan and Arab-Persian wars, Algerian anarchy, persecution of political and religious dissidents and the killing of others are not uncommon in the Muslim world. On each of these issues, some of Muslim scholars and leaders have taken a biased approach often justifying the action on the basis of the Quran or sunnah. Only a few stand out who have spoken against violence as an ideology or methodology to bring about changes. Ironically, they don’t matter for those who indulge in these acts.
The socio-economic and political conditions in our world are often unbearable to most simple mind people who work day in and day out to give their families a dignified existence. In the Muslim world the situation is no better. Poverty, homelessness, deprivation, exploitation, injustice and inequality, persecution and denial of basic human rights and dignity are common. The conditions are ripe to make any thinking person go insane. For generations, millions and millions people have lived a life of hopelessness and desperation. The prevalence of alcohol, drugs, and many social ills among them speak of the frustration level among people.
On the basis of their Quranic perceptions of change, those who claim to be the leaders of Muslims developed three major solutions to the problem of the masses.
One group blamed Muslims for their failure to live up to ideals of Islamic moral life and argued that unless Muslims change their moral character on the basis of the Quran they would continue to live in the miseries God has consigned them to. However, these people failed to take into account of the massive social change that marks the modern era as well as the sociological factors that cause social alienation and religious apathy.
The second group put the blame on outsiders for every incident of misery of Muslims. Jews and Christians, communists or Hindus were always seen as the source of much of the problem of the Muslim world. This group too failed to understand the politics of the time and the developments that were taking place in the world faster than the imagination of many of the religious leaders.
The third groups put the blame of social deprivation upon the power elite and corrupt system, which must be changed if the social conditions of the people have to be improved. They too failed to understand the social dynamics of change and the role that people play in changing themselves.
The three groups developed strategies to promote their ideas. However, not many of them identified with the masses to improve their social conditions or to enhance their understanding of their religion. Worst was the language that these three groups used against each other. They declared each other a traitor or even a non-believer if it didn’t agree with their understanding of Islam or the Quran.
All the three groups focused on promoting their understanding as the only interpretation of the Quran without acknowledging their limitations in understanding the Quran or the teachings of the Quran.
Despite all their efforts little changed in the conditions of the Muslim people. In fact, if any change occurred, it was due to the secular structure of the state that used law and order to impose its ideology of social transformation.
The internal strife among Muslims claiming to be the only keeper of the truth within their community caused immense loss to three sections of the society. Non-Muslims were absolutely confused and baffled at the internal chaos within the Muslim community and they could not develop a genuine understanding of Islam. Shia sunni differences, salfi and non salafi fights, traditionalist and modernist debates all confused non-Muslims. If Islam is so simple and the final divine message then why is there so confusion about its interpretation. Arenմ there certain universal truths acceptable to all, many of them asked. Many young people got frustrated with what they were witnessing, hence many lost their confidence in the ability of Islam to offer any meaningful change in the world. If the religion that came to reform the world cannot reform the ranks of its followers, then what is the purpose of having this religion as a guidance to one’s life, they questions.
The third group that suffered the most dispossessed people whose sufferings continued to prolong. Why has God abandoned us and made us the lowest of all? After all none of us wanted to be born in a state of helplessness, they wondered.
None of the group offered any satisfactory answer to any of these questions. Yet, the mosques continued to be built and Islamic organizations continue to spring up and Muslim leadership continued to build hierarchies after hierarchies.
Everyone, of these groups referred to the Quran as the constitution of people and the Prophet as the real model. However, when it came to actually living a simple life as the Prophet lived or as the Quran suggested, most betrayed their own values.
These were the revolting conditions that increased the level of anger among Muslim masses. Muslim intellectuals or those who were well versed with modern realities focused on themselves rather than on their communities and Muslim masses became like untended sheep.
Within this context every national and international issue became a point of contention among Muslims. Palestine, Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and so on so forth continued to add fuel to the existing fire raging in the hearts of many. With no hope from anywhere, violence became a legitimate means of change. Suicide bombing, blowing public places, causing public panic by bombing public places were all the means to carry on senseless violence. The legitimacy was further gained from the practices of the dominant cultures of the world that praised violence as the only means to bring about justice. Many of the social and religious leaders from the three groups tried to justify the violence because they feared losing their own legitimacy in the community.
Many Muslim scholars know it well, that a fatwa remains a legal opinion as long as there is no authority to implement it. If this fatwa is to be implemented, the issuing scholars have to go to those dictators and despots in the Muslim world as well as many democratically elected leaders in the world who have shown total disrespect to human life.
There is confusion and helplessness among Muslims. For ordinary Muslims like myself a possible course of action is to identify with the masses with our strong Islamic identity and through positive actions convince the world that violence is not the divinely recommended methodology or ideology for change. Through working for the upliftment of people at large without looking into their religious backgrounds, we the ordinary people have to prove as we have proven throughout history that peace is the desired goal of the divine and nonviolence is the way to move forward.
At stake are not Iraq, or Palestine or Kashmir, Afghanistan or Iraq or Chechnya, but the teachings of a divine message that we Muslims believe are the final commandments given to humanity by their creator. The Muslim masses must hold the Quran steadfast and do not let the political or economic or social agenda of others make us deviate from the path of sincerity, and submission to God in peace.
Dr. Aslam Abdullah is the editor of the Muslim Observer, director of the Islamic Society of Nevada and director of the Muslim Electorates Council of America (MECA).