In a talk show on one of Egypt’s TV channels, an episode turned into a wrestling ring between two guests on a program, when one of the guests, lawyer Nabih Al-Wahsh, a close associate of Al-Azhar, took off his shoes and hit the reformist Sheikh Mustafa Rashid. The debate was about the daring religious edicts (fatwas) of Sheikh Rashid.
Sheikh Rashid, a graduate of Al-Azhar himself and the Grand Mufti of Australia, has dozens of publications, fatwas and bold opinions that have been a subject of controversy in debates around Islamic jurisprudence since he issued them. His views are profoundly discrepant from those of Al-Azhar ulama in particular and imams of Sunni Islam in general. Rashid’s most prominent arguments are that alcohol is not forbidden in Islam and that women are not obliged to wear the veil. Intriguingly, Rashid supports his arguments with evidence from the Quran and Sunnah, which are considered the key sources of legislation for Muslims. Because of these arguments, he was accused of blasphemy and infidelity, especially that many imams across the Arabic speaking world were campaigning against Rasshid to distort his reputation as an Islamic scholar.
Undoubtedly he isn’t the only religious figure who was intellectually persecuted in Islam. Citing an article entitled “A Long History Of Persecution And Confiscation,” published in the online magazine “Masr madaniyya”, the modern history, especially in Egypt, registers many similar incidents dating back to the Ottoman occupation, all of which ended with suppressing thinkers and their ideas, precisely the ones rejected by Al-Azhar ulama. For instance it happened with thinkers such as Mohammed Abdu, Qasim Amin, Taha Hussein, Ali Abdul Razak, Khaled Mohammed Amin and many others until the present time.
By going further back into the Islamic history, incidents of religious persecution were also present. Such incidents have claimed the lives of many great thinkers starting form the killing of Mansur Al-Hallaj in Baghdad and Suhrawardi in Aleppo, to burning the books of Ishaq Al-Kindi and Muhammad Al-Razi (Rhazes or Rasis) and from persecuting Ibn Arabi to burning the writings of Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and exiling him because of his response to Al-Ghazali’s book “The Incoherence Of The Philosophers” [lit. Tahafot Al-Falasifa], in which Al-Ghazali accused Muslim thinkers such as Avicenna and Al-Farabi (Alpharabius) of disbelief.
We are not talking here about crimes of persecution of secular intellectuals from an Arab or Muslim origin. Despite the seriousness of these crimes, we are mentioning only cases of persecution that targeted Muslim thinkers and reformists.
But why are these Muslim thinkers being persecuted? Why do “official” religious authorities reject their opinions and work hard to remove their sanctity accusing them of blasphemy, which sometimes puts their lives at risk?
Since Islam’s inception until today, religious authorities close to ruling political elites have played a crucial role in the survival and dominance of authoritarian political forces in the Arabic-speaking world and Muslim-majority countries.
In fact, repressive political regimes like those in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Gulf States, Egypt and Sudan wouldn’t have continued had it not been for the support of religious authorities. Ruling political leaders derive the legitimacy of their control of and continuity in power from the religiously-coloured cultural and political propaganda promoted by ulama.
For a deeper understanding of the alliance between political forces and religious authorities, it is useful to cite examples from reality. Lebanon has been suffering from a state of political paralysis since the assassination of its Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri. This mainly owes to the intransigence of political elites. In spite of the deteriorating economic situation of most Lebanese people, the various religious leaders still support political forces that belong to their own religion or sect.
In a rare, yet expected political landscape, and in spite of all deep political differences, the ruling political elites were able to unite their interests several times in order to counterbalance syndicalistic and popular movements demanding change, such as when Hezbollah struck an alliance with Al-Mustaqbal Movement during the trade union elections or when all political and religious forces harmonised their responses to the demonstrations during the garbage crisis, which is still an on-going one. Interestingly, religious leaders have been supportive of political forces in Lebanon, despite the contradictions that marred their policies.
In most of the Levant and North Africa, ruling elites realised the importance of religious leaders’ support: On the one hand, ruling elites opened the door wide for religious leaders to exercise and espouse religious activities, and supported them politically, economically and culturally in order to keep the society in check. On the other hand, ruling elites fought and cleared their countries of both leftist and secular oppositional forces.
Outside the context of the alliance between religious authorities and ruling political elites, it would be difficult to understand the spread of a huge number of mosques and the establishment of official Quranic institutes in major cities in a country like Syria, which is a country governed by a dictatorial regime claiming to be secular and has no religious character. It is the same regime, which committed horrible massacres under the pretext of eliminating the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood movement, as classified by the regime. And it is the same regime, which then turned its brutality toward the left-wing opposition forces, arresting most of their leaders and shoving them into prison for many years. That’s, however, before the eruption of a massive popular uprising that turned into one of the most brutal civil wars in modern history. Nevertheless, until now the official religious establishment represented by the Ministry of Religious Endowment and Dar Al-Fatwa has been providing an unlimited support for the regime, despite all its crimes committed against the Syrian people.
Reflecting upon the Lebanese and Syrian cases confirms the hypothesis that the attitude of religious authorities is not based on any religious principle or moral values but rather on their own interests.
Both parties, religious and political leaders, also understand that any process of religious reform must end with removing both of them. The relationship between them is organic, as religious leaders tolerating ideas of reform necessarily paves the way for criticising political power, demanding to fight corruption and holding those in charge accountable. Thus turning these forces from a supporting force for political elites to an oppositional one.
Also any real attempt by ruling elites to support ideas of religious reform will make them lose their most important backers in the society and eventually lose political power. Both parties share several qualities such as tyranny, intellectual oppression and rejection of any attempt to achieve a real change. They are also aware of the seriousness of any clash between them because it presents an opportunity for other forces in the society to compete for power.
It is true that a large part of unofficial Islamist factions are in a state of clash with the ruling political power, especially in Arabic-speaking countries, as is the case with the Muslim Brotherhood and more radical currents in Egypt, Syria and Jordan, but in fact these oppositional Islamist factions don’t seek any religious reform. They are even more radical and reactionary in interpreting scripture and hadith than official religious authorities are. They don’t aim at any democratic change that allows all forces in society to participate in a political process. But they are struggling to seize power in order to realize their Islamist vision of state and society without any regard for the rights of citizens, and thus re-creating an authoritarian political power that doesn’t differ in substance from the current political elites. Through seizure of power, these factions attempt to ensure their long-term control of state, as is the case in Iran.