A detailed report and analysis, by Dr Qari Asim MBE of the Leeds Makkah Masjid, on the recent international conference held in Abu Dhabi titled ‘Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies’ under the patronage of Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah and Prof Dr Ahmad al-Tayyeb Shaykh al-Azhar.
On 9 and 10 March 2014 an unprecedented conference of Muslim scholars took place in Abu Dhabi under the inspiring leadership of Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah, head of the Global Centre for Renewal and Guidance and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Professor Dr Ahmad al-Tayyeb under the generous patronage of United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister of Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
The crème de la crème of Muslim scholars and thinkers from all over the world – belonging to different races and countries, speaking different native languages, having different backgrounds, and wearing different national dress of varying colours – gathered in Abu Dhabi to show their extreme concern at the lack of peace in contemporary Muslim societies throughout the globe. These celebrated scholars were invited to be part of a fresh and ground-breaking initiative, aimed at tackling the disharmony and violence that abounds across the Muslim world. They were all determined to put aside their differences for a common goal: bringing peace and reconciliation to the hearts and minds of their followers so that peace may prevail in the world.
It was the first occasion in recent times on which 250 distinguished Muslim scholars, religious ministers and thinkers from across the globe had gathered in one place. Leading Imams, profound thinkers and grand muftis from the Middle East, including war-torn Syria and the recently liberated Libya, the Indian sub-continent, North Africa, South Africa, America, Europe, Australia, Central Asia Bosnia and the Far East -whether Sunni, Shia, Salafi, Sufi or other – came together in search of ‘Peace in Our Societies’.
It was extremely encouraging to see that women scholars and thinkers were part of the Peace forum. Some of the women scholars were moderators of the sessions whereas others were speakers who addressed the audience, thereby dismissing the allegations made by some quarters that women do not have any role in reviving and uplifting the spirit of their communities. Shaykha Halima Krausen, a Germon scholar, opened the second day of the conference and urged the delegates to focus on setting up more institutions to train women scholars. She reminded the participants that their mothers, aunts and grandmothers must have played a key role in their tarbiyyah (raising up) and therefore the role of women in shaping societies and promoting peace in societies cannot be underestimated.
Objectives of the Peace Forum
Highlighting the reason for convening the Peace Forum, the leader Shaykh Abudullah bin Bayyah said: “We have come to the ‘Peace Forum’ to meet the demands of faith and humanity.” The aim of the Peace Forum was to debate key concepts that are being misused and abused, leading to confusion, chaos and turmoil in the world. These following key concepts were all scrutinised by specialists and the extremists’ ideology concerning these was obliterated though intellectually reasoned arguments and debate.
- Correcting Concepts: Jihad, Enjoining Good and Forbidding Evil, Adherence to the Law of the Land, Loyalty and Disavowal.
- Fatwa in a World of Strife: Fatwas and their Conditions and Constraints, the Degrees of Fatwa, and the Qualities and Qualifications of Muftis.
- Islam’s Contribution Toward World Peace
- The Humanistic Ethical Values of the Islamic Social Order
The Foreign Minister of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, opened the Peace forum and reminded the participants that they live in a world which is constantly changing and the scholars need to be equipped to guide their communities accordingly. Scholars must enlighten the hearts of their followers with love and their minds with peace, not hatred and resentment towards one another.
Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah’s Leadership
The two-day conference was held under the extraordinary leadership of Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah. From European governments to the White House, Muslim governments in the Middle East to the Far East, and from contemporary scholars to ordinary Muslims, the 78 year old Mauritanian scholar, Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah has the respect and the confidence of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
One of the reasons Shaykh bin Bayyah can engage a diverse group of people ranging in age, race, background and knowledge, and they are willingly listen to him, is because of his charisma, command of diverse branches of Islamic knowledge and unique way of explaining complicated subjects. One thing that distinguishes Sheikh bin Bayyah from his contemporaries is his ability to freely weave spirituality with secular rationality and philosophy. Shaykh bin Bayyah serves Muslims as a judicious and astute role model, particularly Muslim youth, who may too easily be swayed by the glitz and glamour of extremist ideologies.
Shaykh bin Bayyah’s key message: Jihad was undertaken by the Prophet (peace be upon him) to bring peace in the land and to the lives of his followers, not to destroy lives and properties.
Shaykh Dr Ahmad al-Tayyeb‘s Leadership
The two-day Peace conference was convened under the joint-leadership of Professor Dr Ahmad al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam and Shaykh of al-Azhar. Shaykh al-Tayyeb leads the oldest university in the world, Al-Azhar, where teaching has continued without interruption since 975 CE. This history makes Al-Azhar University a fortress of traditional Islam. Being the Grand Imam of the largest and well-established university in the world makes Shaykh Dr Ahmad al-Tayyeb an extraordinarily powerful and academically influential person. In an age where the claimants to authoritative Islam seem to be on every corner, Shaykh Ahmad al-Tayyeb has both the institution, and the personal skills to authentically claim to be a representative of traditional Islam. Due to his academic focus on the reception of Islamic culture and philosophy in the West, Shaykh Ahmad al-Tayyeb’s scholarly influence as a leading intellectual of sunni Islam spans the globe.
The Grand Imam believes in dialogue and openness to the other culturally and scientifically, without compromising Islamic values, in order to create a new civilization that brings Muslim countries to the rank of the developed countries, on one side, and preserving Muslim countries cultural ideology and discretion on the other side. He has called for the consolidation of peaceful values, security and brotherhood through dialogue and educational programmes for the youth so peaceful practices become the natural choices in the daily lives of the new generations.
Root cause of lack of Peace & Ineffectiveness of the UN
The Grand Imam Shaykh al-Tayyeb urged political thinkers and policy-makers to consider the root causes of terrorism because without eradicating those causes, peace will not prevail in the world. Shaykh al-Tayyeb maintained that some nations had adopted a strategy of creating a world “enemy”; a threat to the stability of the world. Those nations and political organisations then “move all aggression, fighting and killing from their own lands to other lands and this strategy is no doubt completely counterproductive to world peace, destroying all humanitarian and ethical frameworks that make peace the most basic right of human beings and society at large.”
Such strategy is contrary to the charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which emphasize the principle of equality between member states and totally refraining from interfering in the internal affairs of others. “Despite the passing of 66 years since the United Nations was founded to confront the threat to world peace, the mighty powers decide who deserves to achieve peace according to their own political gains” said Shaykh of Al-Azhar. The right to veto UN resolutions has been the most dangerous factor in compromising world peace and the most important cause of international terrorism. Citing an example, Dr Ahmad al-Tayyeb said that armament factories in some powerful contemporary jurisdictions continue to spew out weaponry even though it is prohibited for this weaponry to be used in their own countries. Where else, then, is it being used? And upon whom is it being used? This demonstrates that the so-called gate-keepers of peace are not sincere about peace in the world. The term “Peace” has become a mere rhetoric of international politics.
There is a difference between the Divine understanding of peace – as a basis of progress, prosperity and well-being – and the understanding of peace according to human temperaments which are sometimes volatile, sometimes conflicting and sometimes unjust altogether. Islam holds peace to be the norm in both international and civil and domestic relations between people. “War is but an exception and necessity which only compels Muslims to defend themselves, their beliefs and their lands against established oppressors”, said Shaykh al-Tayyeb
Dr Ahmad al-Tayyeb concluded his address emphasising the need to act promptly and sharply: “Today, not tomorrow, is the day to act and promote peace in the Arab and Muslim societies.” He called for the forming of direct channels of communication between scholars, political scientists and the decision-making politicians of the East and the West.
Peace in Our Societies
Islam has always been, and will always be, the religion of good, tolerance, love and solidarity among human beings. Of late, some isolated minority groups have started to instill hatred among people through their twisted thoughts, narrow-minded interpretations, exploitation of contemporary Muslim politics and to distort the image of Islam and Muslims by creating conflicts and spreading terror.
The scholars at the Peace Forum called on Imams, preachers, leaders and ordinary Muslims to seek peace in their communities and to help build a safe society. Achieving safety and security has been the mission of the Prophets (peace be upon them), in particular Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Peace and tranquillity is a necessity for human society to function. Hence, the Prophet (peace be upon him) would pray after very prayer: ‘Oh Allah, You are peace, and peace is from You, be blessed O Glorious and Honourable.’ The Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) also advised people to seek peace to remain always at peace.
Shaykh bin Bayyah maintained that there needs to a shift in Muslim public discourse/narrative: focus on seeking “our rights” needs to move to “peace in our society”. In order to achieve peace, the narrative of Muslim activists seeking “full rights” by any means necessary will have to be put aside in favour of reconciliation. Compromise and concession is not defeat if it is for the realisation of peace. Peace is the first and foremost condition (or “right”); once that is secured, other rights can follow.
Shaykh bin Bayyah reminded the audience that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) signed the treaty of Hudaibiyah with his oppressors to bring peace between the oppressors and the oppressed. When the non-Muslims of Makkah objected to the treaty being started with the attributes of Allah as “merciful and compassionate” and being signed by Muhammad (peace be upon him) as the “Messenger of Allah”, the Prophet of Islam, despite being in a position of authority, was prepared to accept such objections of the oppressors for the sake of peace. The fundamentals of Islam – belief in God’s characteristics and the Prophet’s prophethood- had been dismissed but the Prophet (peace be upon him) agreed for maintaining wider peace in society. Shaykh bin Bayyah continued drawing from the formative period of Islamic history to strengthen his argument that the relinquishing of rights for the greater objective of achieving peace in society is at the core of Islamic practice. The Prophet’s own grandson, Imam Hussain (may Allah be pleased with him), some decades after the Prophet’s passing away, relinquished his own right to the caliphate for peace and reconciliation.
Shaykh bin Bayyah’s candid and blunt message was: “We must declare war on war so that the outcome is peace upon peace.”
On the issue of Peace, Shaykh Professor Muhammad Abdul Fadeel al-Qawsi (Vice Chairman of WAAG International) reminded the delegates of the lack of spirituality in the modern world by stating that mankind had lost inner sense of peace. Hence, there is lack of peace in the world.
The scholars at the Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies conference attempted to define jihad in the context of current events in the Muslim world. It is a unanimously agreed fact amongst the mainstream orthodox scholars that the term “Jihad” has been hijacked by some who “brainwash” youth into radicalism by distorting the true meaning of the term.
The scholars explained the different forms and contexts which come under the concept of “Jihad”. “Jihad, in a general sense, means to put in a maximum effort to reach a legitimate goal, to seek Allah’s pleasure”. said Dr Adel Qouteh, a professor at the King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. Dr Amshanan of the Ministry of Religious Affairs of Algeria said jihad involving arms is a last resort, only to be applied when a Muslim state’s security is at risk.
There was recognition amongst the scholars that people need to be vigilant against the practices of those who pretend to be scholars but are actually ignorant of the holistic teachings of Islam. In order to exploit Muslim politics, they have used the exceptions permitted under jihad to apply to general matters.
Armed Jihad was undertaken by the Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) to bring peace to the world, not to destroy the lives and properties of the inhabitants of the world, advocated Shaykh bin Bayyah.
The governments, media and civil community all have to play a role in promoting and communicating Islam’s universal human values. The view from the Peace Forum was that political leaders must also become involved to lessen the spread of tyranny and poverty and to find solutions to chronic issues. It was also suggested that in order to combat radicalism in Muslim states, the governments should provide social justice, because by spreading equality and justice, the increasing level of frustration and anger amongst the youth can be contained.
Loss of dignity and liberty, lack of justice and equality, disregard for pluralism and cultural differences, are all breading hatred amongst young people. We must build institutions for youth and preachers which train them in different forms of dialogue and learning. Compassionate dialogue with youth and the application of proper legal reasoning in sharia will prevent hatred and extinguish the darkness of extremism.
Scholars need to be recognised by governments as being a part of the solution, not the problem. But who is a scholar? The charismatic speaker Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, whilst speaking about the critical role of scholars in promoting peace, maintained that the advent of the Internet had produced “Google shaykhs”, who are bereft of the deeper insight of Islam and are leading young people astray. A scholar’s role is to facilitate the achieving of peace in a society rather than lead the society to conflict and destruction. Speaking of the challenges faced by Muslims in non-Muslim lands, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf said the “Creative minority” can overcome challenges through wisdom and patience.
The practice of excommunication, one Muslim declaring another Muslim an unbeliever (takfir), was debated. The scholars’ view was that takfir is a cancer that is breading hatred and alienation. It is preventing peace and stability amongst the Muslims. Allah is a sufficient Judge and therefore the matters of the heart should be left to Him. “The ideology of takfir contradicts both the objective of love amongst Muslims and the foundations of Islam itself”, said Dr Rouki, President of al-Qarawiyin University, Morocco.
Muslims must learn to manage differences and embrace diversity in religious and political ideology; co-existence between different communities and schools of thought is part of the Divine plan. Learning to tolerate and accept ‘the other’ is the chosen path of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), was the message given by Shaykh Professor Muhammad Abdul Fadeel al-Qawsi (Vice Chairman of WAAG International) “Benefit and human welfare is the foundation of the fatwa”, said Shaykh Mohammed bin Ambala, Chairman of the Council of Fatwa, and therefore any fatwa given should take into account these two over-arching principles.
The construction of the Ummah is dissolving and the absence of tolerant leadership is a concern. Shaykh Dr Ahmed al-Tayyeb pleaded for unity for the sake of future generations; he urged scholars to endeavour harder at bringing peace in the communities that Muslims live in. He advised the leaders to stop sectarianism and realise that without tolerance and broad-mindedness, sustainable peace will not be achieved.
The scholars were in agreement that it is high time that Muslim leadership looks inwardly rather the blaming the “other” and endeavour to resolve the frustration and exasperation that exists in Muslim societies. Foreign hands may be involved in destroying peace in Muslim lands, but the lack of visionary and tolerant leadership in Muslim lands is also the cause of killing and hatred in the Muslim world. The scholars were attempting to have a see-change towards the mentality that “Wars begin in the minds of men, so we must build castles of peace in people’s minds.”
Dr Qari Asim, MBE
Imam, Makkah Masjid Leeeds