Of ignorance, extremism and religious institutions

Ignorance and extremism fall in the same category

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

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I was never a critic of the Grozny conference and I never cared to comment on it because it’s just one of the dozens of government seminars held every year. It’s also the least important because it is sponsored by Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed president who selected participants from a group of “Muslim scholars.”

I think if you want to fight extremism, you should not include it in the dialogue process and you must not be biased toward any religious group.

After reading Ahmad Adnan’s article in the London-based Al-Arab newspaper, I became interested in engaging in the discussion as he transformed it into a pure political controversy. The best that was written on the topic was by Dr Radwan al-Sayyid in Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.

Truth be told, no one was going to hear about the conference except for the people of Chechnya who watch the government-owned television station. However, people across the world heard about it due to the outcry of those excluded from Salafist and Brotherhood groups. Those who oppose the conference are the same as those being objected to as they also hold conferences without inviting people they disagree with.

I disagree with Adnan’s statement that the point of reference for the world’s Sunnis is Al-Azhar. There are two reasons behind it, one historical and another that’s related to political theology.

In principle, traditional Salafism – such as the brand practiced in Saudi Arabia - leaves politics to politicians

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

First of all, the Sunnis do not have a reference – unlike the Shiites who, like the Catholic Church, have a “divinely impeccable reference.” Sunnis neither believe in the singularity of the reference nor in its infallibility. Therefore, Al-Azhar is a Sunni religious school of great significance in the Muslim world, however, neither its provisions nor other institutions’ provisions are considered a reference for the roughly 1 billion Muslim Sunnis across the world.

At the same time, I agree with him that the religious political reference for Sunnis is Saudi Arabia considering the status of the two holy mosques and the government’s interest in them. Al-Azhar used to be a reference during certain historical eras. This is especially so when it was representative of the Ottomans as they governed the region, including the land of Hijaz, and considered religion to be the business of the Sultanate.

It wasn’t the Salafists of Saudi Arabia who minimized the role of Al-Azhar on the political front – as Adnan hints – it was the Egyptian government itself. Late President Gamal Abdel Nasser diminished the role of all state religious institutions in favor of the socialist ideology.

Controversy of terrorism

Adnan took things further when he decisively commented on the controversy of terrorism and considered it a by-product of Salafists. No one denies that extremism is a problem and that terrorism and certain ideologies pose a threat, however, limiting it to one group falsifies our current history.

In principle, traditional Salafism – such as the brand practiced in Saudi Arabia - leaves politics to politicians and abstains from involving religious scholars in politics as they consider it the responsibility of the guardian, i.e. the ruler, who will be held accountable before God on doomsday.

However, what is happening is that Salafist rhetoric was mocked and came under pressure. This happened as a result of its mingling with other Sunni groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, which is known to accuse its critics of infidelity. The rhetoric then changed and a comprehensive theory of political governance was established.

This theory is based on the concept of the religious state that resembles the “Twelvers” Shiite ideology which relies on one point of reference. It should be said that the Muslim Brotherhood now has its own supreme guide too.

The Salafists are a socially simple and politically naive group but the Muslim Brotherhood is a politicized group with an eye on power. The path of violence we have witnessed so far is due to these groups which traditional Salafism exonerated itself from a long time ago. The names of Salafist groups tend to be similar but, for example, Salafist Jihadism has nothing to do traditional Salafism.

When an extremist man like Ali Benhadj in Algeria appears and gives rise to a broad identity of Ahl al-Sunna and Al-Gamaa, he included all the Sunnis. However, we know that Benhadj is an extremist man like Saudi Arabia's Osama bin Laden and Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri. All three men have nothing to do with traditional Salafism and are ideologically closer to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Eliminating others

The bright writer elected Al-Azhar as a reference because he thinks the Salafists of Saudi Arabia are “takfirists” who eliminate others. He himself eliminated them when he wrote that they are not Sunnis and uphold a different doctrine.

The writer eliminated millions of Muslims because some of their statements accused Sufism of infidelity or adopted proposals that eliminate others. He’s right that some Salafists, including some prominent scholars in Saudi Arabia and other countries, are “takfirists” and they must be confronted. However, it is wrong to generalize as such.

Limiting the problem to Salafists and the Saudis does not solve the issues we are all facing today. We are against extremism and against accusing others of infidelity and against enhancing the role of clerics in society and the state.

In Al-Azhar too there are scholars who issued fatwas (religious edicts) inciting to murder and accusing others of infidelity. These are not Salafists and are not Saudis. Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmad Karimah, who leads the campaign rejecting Salafists, is a takfirist. He described Saudis and Emiratis in general as aggressors and said their deceased men will go to hell.

Another prominent Al-Azhar cleric accused all Salafists of infidelity and said that the use of hashish and opium does not invalidate ablutions! Al-Azhar’s clerics espouse provisions that are as odd as those issued by extremist Salafists. They approved of Sheikh Ali Youssef divorcing his wife under the excuse of both having different lineages and one of their clerics even allowed adults to breastfeed!

To conclude this strange comparison between these two perspectives, do you know that Al-Azhar clerics used to accuse those who attain a foreign nationality of infidelity?

Ignorance and extremism fall in the same category. They are not characteristics that are exclusive to Salafists or Ash’aris, or to Sunnis or Shiites or Muslims and others.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Sept. 11, 2016.


Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashed


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