To be the leader of the Pakistani Muslim scholars’ council amid religious turbulences is never an easy task. At a time when terrorist groups are prospering in the name of Islam, and in a country neighboring both Afghanistan and Iran, Sheikh Hafiz Mohammed Tahir Al-Ashrafi is working hard to stand against all sorts of extremism both in Pakistan and across the Muslim world.
AlArabiya.net sat down with Sheikh Al-Ashrafi to seek his opinions and impressions on some of the most volatile issues in the Middle East.
Can you tell us what is the reason for your most recent visit to Saudi Arabia?
I was invited to the Kingdom by Prince Miteb bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, Minister of the Saudi National Guard and member of the Saudi Council for Political and Security Affairs, to attend the Janadriyah Festival.
Thankfully, while in the Kingdom, I got the opportunity to meet with and talk with both King Salman and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. I also attended numerous conferences, seminars and lectures where matters concerning the Muslim nations were discussed.
We talked about how we can improve the current conditions of Muslims worldwide and bring Muslims out of the current predicaments they are facing. During my meeting with King Salman, his message was quite clear; Islam is for everyone and the Kingdom offers its services and support to all the efforts against terrorism, extremism, corruption and ruin.
King Salman, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Naif and the Deputy Crown prince have one clear idea and one aim, which is how the Muslim world can pass these critical times on all fronts, especially the enemies of the Islamic nation, who are the terrorist and extremist organizations. That was the general message I got from all the Saudi officials, who were present at the activities of the festival this week.
Do you think that the ongoing conflicts in the Arab world (Syria and Yemen) can affect Pakistan? Moreover, how would that be?
The enemies of Islam want what is happening now in Syria, Yemen and Iraq to be happening in every other Muslim country including Pakistan. Pakistan has been in a state of war for 35 years and you see terrorist bombings there from time to time, but thankfully, we have our army and security officials, who with the help of other Muslim nations, will stand in the way of repeating a Syrian, Iraqi or a Yemeni scenario in Pakistan.
It is utterly important for Muslim nations and Arab Muslim nations in particular to stop the foreign mingling in their affairs. Groups like ISIS claim that they are Sunnis, and the question is; did ISIS every do anything for the benefit of Sunni Islam? On the contrary, it is because of ISIS that Aleppo has fallen. Other terrorist groups like Hezbollah, Al Qaeda and the Houthis and the Pakistani Taliban, they are all defaming the name of Islam by relating it to terrorism.
These groups’ main aim is to create ruin in Muslim lands but they will not win. The Houthi rockets targeting Makkah and the suicide attacker attempting to assault Madinah, these incidents have awakened the Muslim nations and made them form the military Muslim coalition, which can help retain the unity of the Muslim worlds against its enemies.
We are now in a state of war, and the military Muslim coalition, which comprises of 45 Muslim nations led by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, should be followed by a Muslim ideological coalition, which can bring together the Muslim nations’ clerics and unite them against the extremist thinking of terrorist groups.
Has the war on terror led to a transformation in Pakistani religious schools?
Religious schools in Pakistan have no ties whatsoever to terrorism. The Council of Pakistani Scholars and other religious institutions in Pakistan are keen on deploying both theological and worldly education.
We have more than 25,000 religious schools in Pakistan, no more than 10 of them tend to preach extremist thoughts and once we spot them out, we as scholars, work with the government and the army on ending these schools’ influence and presence. Pakistan’s scholars are working hand in hand with our army and our government against extremists in the country.
Usually your relations with the United States is a good one, did that change with Donald Trump taking over the US presidency?
I know that the Muslim world understands when Trump is coming out against and after terrorist groups that call themselves Muslims. However, Trump is wrong when he says that Islam and terror go side by side. Islam is innocent of these crimes and those [terrorist] criminals.
We have seen the US recently giving Crown Prince Muhammed bin Naif a medal for his counterterrorism efforts, which shows the efforts Muslims do to fight extremism. Other countries like France and Germany have also talked about the prince’s efforts in combating terror. How come after such recognition, Trump says that Islam and terrorism are one thing and go side by side?
Trump needs to change his words and needs to change his perspective too. A terrorist has no religion. Can I come out and say that the attacker who killed Muslims praying in Quebec is a Christian terrorist? No, I cannot, because he is just a terrorist.
We do not say the same when a Jew carries out an attack. What is clear is that terror has no religion. Therefore, like what the Pope himself said, we hope that Trump would work on maintaining world security rather than target Islam and Muslims.
How would you describe your relation with both the Pakistani Taliban and the Afghan Taliban?
We regard the Pakistani Taliban as terrorists who kill innocent people. As for the Afghan Taliban, we see that the Afghan government does not do anything about their Taliban’s terrorist acts. So many efforts were made by the Pakistani government to mediate between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government but there are people in Afghanistan who do not want such dialogue to happen.
The Afghan intelligence does not want such a dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The Pakistani government does not want to interfere in Afghan matters unless the Afghan government asks for help. It is up to the Afghan government to stop the Afghan Taliban terror. If there is security in Afghanistan, there will be security in Pakistan.
Have you been affected by the international crackdown on Islamist groups?
The presence of many militant and terrorist groups that function in the name of Islam has made many countries and governments suspicious of Muslims around the world.
That is why I say that countries and people around the world need to differentiate between peaceful, moderate Muslims and those who use their own extreme version of the religion to gather recruits and serve a certain agenda that has nothing to do with the essence of Islam.
Why do you not publicly condemn terrorist acts that occur in the Middle East?
On the contrary, in every single event or conference that I attend or when asked of my opinion after any of the terrorist attacks that happen inside or outside Pakistan, I am always voicing my strong condemnation to these assaults and talking about the importance of moderate Islamic scholarship in the face of extremism.
What is your stance towards Iran’s policies and activities in the region?
Iran is a neighbor to 15 countries and none of them is safe from the Iranian threat. We want Iran to take the path of security, but instead they are supporting and aiding those who are killing our children in the Levant, Iraq, Yemen and in Bahrain.
I pose this question to everyone; has terrorism appeared after the appearance of Mohammed bin Abdelwahab’s teachings in the Arabian Peninsula almost 200 years ago or it appeared following Khomeini’s coup in Iran? The answer is that it appeared to the world because of and after Khomeini’s coup. We hope for a [new] generation in Iran that would abandon the guardianship of the jurist [wilayat al faqih] and that would to stop interfering in the matters of Arab and Muslim countries.
After the fall of Aleppo, some Iranian officials started eyeing interfering in Kuwait and Bahrain and other countries. They aid Houthis in Yemen and the whole world knows that Houthis could not have secured heavy armament like missiles if it was not from Iran. I tell the Iranians not to send fire to other countries because this will end up burning them, as well as others.
How can terrorist groups functioning in the name of Islam be eradicated?
As much as the Islamic military coalition is important, the formation of an Islamic ideological coalition is equally important in fighting the proliferation of religious extremist groups. We as scholars and Muslims alike have to unite in order to educate and inform our youth about the real Islam against the extremist version some are trying to propagate. The role of the media is utterly important in this war against extremism.
What is your response to the criticism you face for some of your opinions regarding women rights and rape?
When it comes to women’s education, the rights of women are clearly stated in both the Koran, and the Sunna and any opinions or fatwas I issue in this regard are solely based on the clear Islamic instructions on the matter.