Thoughts on Egypt II: Guilt by Association

Intro

During my graduate years at Princeton, I was taught that one cannot truly write on a topic unless they have read everything concerning that certain topic. While this makes writing very difficult, I must admit it is perhaps the soundest scholarly advice I received. One of the main problems with the proliferation of social media and other online media outlets is that people have more of a tendency to write on topics as knee-jerk reactions, rather than measured commentary. I have to admit that I have not read everything written about Egypt, Rab‘a, and the removal of Morsi as more and more is written every month. I have, however, read a lot and I have also been a firsthand observer being in Egypt throughout many of its more dramatic political events over the past five years, particularly the breakup of the Rab‘a protest. I have focused a lot of my reading on people’s comments regarding the attitudes of the ‘ulamā’ towards these events. I have found the general commentary to be as follows:
  • Some of the ulamā work with the State and are therefore co-opted by the State and in so doing loose their legitimacy. This is what I call the “guilt by association” argument.
  • Mursi was democratically elected and there was no right to remove him. This is what I call the “democracy” argument.
  • Some of the ‘ulamā’, particularly Ali Gomaa, have openly supported the use of lethal force by the State in certain circumstances and as a result of their public positions many innocent people were killed. This is what I call the “human rights” argument.
There are certainly many smaller points, but these three broad points, in my opinion, have caused some to dismiss the ‘ulamā’ and leave many feeling no hope as to the future of Islamic scholarship. What most of those who write about this topic have not done is tackle some of the more important background issues needed to know in order to understand the positions of these ‘ulamā’ and, more importantly, our attitude towards them:
  • How is legal authority made in general and how does this apply to the Sharī‘a? And by extension who has the right to speak authoritatively on the Sharī‘a perspective on certain issues?
  • What is al-siyāsa al-shar‘iyya and what is its relevance to this discussion?
  • What is our standard of scholarship and normative Sunni Islam?

It is important to address these issues because, in my opinion, the hyper negativity towards some of the ‘ulamā’ in addition to the ensuing doubt amongst Western Muslims that is levied towards Islamic legal authority is a very dangerous conjunction of events and opinions. In this post and what follows I will attempt to address some of these issues that hopefully could segue into a larger discussion and study in the near future.

Guilt by Association

The ‘ulamā’ have always been a part of the state, either directly or indirectly. This is largely a function of the religion itself. Islam is not just a set of personal spiritual guidelines, but also contains a blue print for matters of state and international affairs, what we term al-siyāsa al-shar‘iyya. Without the ‘ulamā’ there would be no authority of the State (see discussion of al-siyāsa al-shar‘iyya in next post), nor would there be authority in the law of the state, which is based on the Sharī‘a (see the discussion of legal authority below). This “circle of justice”, to borrow from Wael Hallaq, has taken many forms from the advent of Islam until our time.1“The Circle of Justice”, as translated by Wael Hallaq, refers to the religious sanctioning of a ruler over his subjects. As Hallaq himself notes, “The sovereign himself was expected to observe not only his own code but, more importantly, the law of the Sharī‘a….siyāsa, therefore, was in no way the unfettered power of political governance but in a fundamental way the exercise of wisdom, forbearance and prudence by a prince in rulings his subjects”. See: Wael Hallaq,Sharī‘a: Theory, Practice, Transformations(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 208-216. As opposed to Hallaq’s argument of the destruction of the Islamic state in the modern age, however, I argue that it continues to be a delicate negotiation between the scholarly class and the State.2One of his many conclusions in: Wael Hallaq,The Impossible State: Islam, politics, and modernity’s moral predicament(New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. This has caused some to argue that the ‘ulamā’ who serve in official roles are somehow co-opted by the State and therefore serve as their puppets. Not only is this an extremely dangerous idea, for reasons I will highlight below, it is an extension of the takfīrī ideology outlined by Sayyid Qutub (d. 1966) in his Quranic commentary Fi Ẓilāl al-Qur’ān and other writings.3Sayyid Qutb,Fī Ẓilāl al-Qur’ān, 6 vols., (Jeddah: Dār al-‘Ilm li’l Ṭabā‘a wa’l Nashr, 1986). 2:887-905. Qutub argued that essentially there is no more real Islam or real Muslims, only ignorance and shirk, a judgment he also extended to “man-made political systems.”4Ibid., and 1:590.While the link of his ideology to violent and extremist Muslim movements is undeniable, and while many have rebutted Qutub’s heretical arguments, it seems that the effects of this type of thinking is a constant underlying notion when discussing politics in the Muslim world today.5One contemporary discussion of Qutb’s heretical views, and relevant for this discussion is, Usama al-Sayyid al-Azhari,al-Ḥaqq al-Mubīn fi man Talā‘ab bi’l Dīn(Abu Dhabi: Dār al-Faqīh, 2015). See in particular p17-29 for a discussion of Qutb’s tafsīr on verse 5:44. It is almost a forgone conclusion that because there is wide corruption in many Muslim countries this somehow is equated to their un-Islamic nature. However, and as the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) mentioned, a recognized political entity that claims to follow the Sharī‘a necessitates our political allegiance, even if corrupt. 6Imām al-Bukhāri narrates in his collection that the Companion Ḥuydhafa Ibn al-Yaman (God be pleased with him) asked the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) what to do if the community of Muslims vanishes. The Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) said, “hold to the community of Muslims and their leader (i.e. political leader), and in the narration of Abu al-Aswad, ‘listen and obey (the political leader) even if he strikes you and takes your wealth,’ and in the narration of Khalid Ibn Sabī‘ī, ‘if you find the Caliph hold to him even if he strikes you, and if you find no Caliph, then flee.’” See: Ibn Ḥajjar al-‘Asqalānī,Fatḥ al-Bārī14 vols., (Cairo: Maktabat al-Salafiyya, 1407 AH), 13:40 Political allegiance does not equate to acceptance or approval of all State affairs, nor does it bar one from trying to rectify wrongs and establish a more equitable society. It does mean, however, that the body politic is intact and must be respected as such at the highest level of government.

           One of the ramifications of the takfīrī way of thinking as it relates to the current discussion is that “the ‘ulamā’ of the State” cannot be trusted at all, and anything they say and/or do justifies all the actions of the State. This is because, the logic follows, the State is inherently evil, corrupting, and un-Islamic. It is here were people fall into a type of guilt by association mentality. The truth is that many of the ‘ulamā’ that hold religious positions, such as judges or muftis, or ‘ulamā’ that advice heads of state, or even others that work with governments, play a vital and delicate role on behalf of all Muslims. They not only keep the important link between the Sharī‘a and the State alive, they also continue to provide guidance, in varying degrees, to the application of Islamic law in courts and national codes of law. At the same time it is also a fact that their influence is limited in almost everything else. Therefore, one should not conclude that their involvement with government is: one, an approval of everything that government does in every aspect of its governance, and two, we should not automatically assume that they are co-opted, but rather understand the delicate and vital role they play. In the case that these ‘ulamā’ do make a mistake, however, or an error in judgment, one should likewise approach the matter with forgiveness and understanding. An error of judgment does not negate their role as ‘ulamā’, nor does it negate their important role in the ongoing formation of legal authority.

The Making of Legal Authority

There are essentially two types of laws: official or public law and non-official or private law. Official or public law is defined as those laws that are composed under the direction of a political entity (in our case the modern state) and used in courts to adjudicate cases. This is precisely what a legal code is. Non-official or private law is essentially everything else and defined as law that is carried out through the mechanism of juristic discussion and its various manifestations.7My definition of private law is adapted largely from Charles Donahue and should not be confused with the distinction made by David Snyder of private law and privately made law which is not entirely relevant for our purposes here, but necessary to know. See: Charles Donahue Jr., “Law without the State and During its Formation”, inThe American Journal of Comparative Law56(2008): 541-565; David V. Snyder, “Private Law Making”, inOhio State Law Journal64(2003): 371-449. The legal traditions as found in the writings of Dumont and Pothier, for example, were the realm of private law. They discussed and summarized earlier existing legal works, especially Roman and Canon law, in addition to customs. Therefore, the authority that is presented in the Napoleonic code that emerged in the early 19th century comes not from the fact that it was a code and issued by the state, rather its authority comes from the legal sources the drafters of the code chose and picked form. As Nils Jansen argues, “the abstract authority of a text giving expression to a legal norm consists in the legal profession accepting it as an ultimate source of the law, without requiring further legal reasons to do so.”8Nils Jansen,The Making of Legal Authority(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 43.And for these sources to become authoritative and to be recognized as authoritative (admittedly an issue that while important falls outside the pale of this post) there must be a vibrant, continuous culture of juristic discussion surrounding these private law texts in which the concept and idea of legal-textual authority is accepted.
It is precisely this continual juristic discussion that adds layers of authority and ratio legis (‘illa) to the body of Islamic law. It is no coincidence, then, that a large part of this juristic discussion, but by no means all of it, takes place through official religious institutions and bodies throughout the Muslim world. To write-off these ‘ulamā’, especially when they make statements or take positions that we either do not understand, or fundamentally disagree with, is to loose site of the fact that they will continue to impact the discursive future of Islam, and not non-‘ulamā’ who endlessly criticize them. Many of the ‘ulamā’ who have been written about and even defamed since the Arab Spring have been and will continue to be fundamental to our understanding of applying and interpreting the Sharī‘a in this century.9In the case of Ramadan al-Buti, his writings continue to be influential in the way we understand the relationship between materialism and Islam, the role of maṣlaḥa in contemporary Islamic law, and the position of normative Sunni Islam towards those who deny its historical plurality. In the case of Ali Gomaa, he too has added to the ongoing juristic discussion. He has provided juristic leadership on a host of critical issues and, in addition to his own more than 40 books, published the entire corpus of Dar al-Iftā’s fatwa collection (forty volumes and counting). Despite the many, many who find both these scholar’s positions towards political events in their respective countries repugnant, the fact remains that their addition to Sunni legal thought is a vital part of how we will continue to understand the Sharī‘a throughout our lifetime and beyond.

References   [ + ]

1. “The Circle of Justice”, as translated by Wael Hallaq, refers to the religious sanctioning of a ruler over his subjects. As Hallaq himself notes, “The sovereign himself was expected to observe not only his own code but, more importantly, the law of the Sharī‘a….siyāsa, therefore, was in no way the unfettered power of political governance but in a fundamental way the exercise of wisdom, forbearance and prudence by a prince in rulings his subjects”. See: Wael Hallaq,Sharī‘a: Theory, Practice, Transformations(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 208-216.
2. One of his many conclusions in: Wael Hallaq,The Impossible State: Islam, politics, and modernity’s moral predicament(New York: Columbia University Press, 2013
3. Sayyid Qutb,Fī Ẓilāl al-Qur’ān, 6 vols., (Jeddah: Dār al-‘Ilm li’l Ṭabā‘a wa’l Nashr, 1986). 2:887-905.
4. Ibid., and 1:590.
5. One contemporary discussion of Qutb’s heretical views, and relevant for this discussion is, Usama al-Sayyid al-Azhari,al-Ḥaqq al-Mubīn fi man Talā‘ab bi’l Dīn(Abu Dhabi: Dār al-Faqīh, 2015). See in particular p17-29 for a discussion of Qutb’s tafsīr on verse 5:44.
6. Imām al-Bukhāri narrates in his collection that the Companion Ḥuydhafa Ibn al-Yaman (God be pleased with him) asked the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) what to do if the community of Muslims vanishes. The Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) said, “hold to the community of Muslims and their leader (i.e. political leader), and in the narration of Abu al-Aswad, ‘listen and obey (the political leader) even if he strikes you and takes your wealth,’ and in the narration of Khalid Ibn Sabī‘ī, ‘if you find the Caliph hold to him even if he strikes you, and if you find no Caliph, then flee.’” See: Ibn Ḥajjar al-‘Asqalānī,Fatḥ al-Bārī14 vols., (Cairo: Maktabat al-Salafiyya, 1407 AH), 13:40
7. My definition of private law is adapted largely from Charles Donahue and should not be confused with the distinction made by David Snyder of private law and privately made law which is not entirely relevant for our purposes here, but necessary to know. See: Charles Donahue Jr., “Law without the State and During its Formation”, inThe American Journal of Comparative Law56(2008): 541-565; David V. Snyder, “Private Law Making”, inOhio State Law Journal64(2003): 371-449.
8. Nils Jansen,The Making of Legal Authority(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 43.
9. In the case of Ramadan al-Buti, his writings continue to be influential in the way we understand the relationship between materialism and Islam, the role of maṣlaḥa in contemporary Islamic law, and the position of normative Sunni Islam towards those who deny its historical plurality. In the case of Ali Gomaa, he too has added to the ongoing juristic discussion. He has provided juristic leadership on a host of critical issues and, in addition to his own more than 40 books, published the entire corpus of Dar al-Iftā’s fatwa collection (forty volumes and counting). Despite the many, many who find both these scholar’s positions towards political events in their respective countries repugnant, the fact remains that their addition to Sunni legal thought is a vital part of how we will continue to understand the Sharī‘a throughout our lifetime and beyond.

Thoughts on Egypt I: the Revolution and Ali Gomaa’s Timeline

Introduction

I have continued to observe the number of articles and public discussions since the Egyptian revolution in 2011. I have been hesitant to comment since my experience is that political/social events unravel so quickly that what we know today is only a portion of what we end up knowing tomorrow. One of my professors commented in the early days of the 2011 revolution that one needs to make sure that what one says publicly is something they are ready to live with in the future. I have also found that this general demeanor of hesitation and the need for verification a quintessential part of traditional Islamic scholarship.

In addition to this general attitude, I have a personal stake in the dramatic political events of Egypt in the numerous ways I am connected to Egypt. One link in particular has caused me to want to write a little about this topic and this is my relationship to my shaykh, Dr. Ali Gomaa, the former Grand Mufti of Egypt. While I am fairly agnostic to public sentiment against him, as someone who has been in the public eye for nearly 20 years I am used to him having detractors, the events involving him and the Egyptian revolution have been quite different. He has, I believe, been treated unfairly and this is largely due to two factors: one, he has been misquoted extensively, and two, no one has sought to verify what he said and when. In the post below I try to provide a timeline with sufficient references to what he said, when he said it, and a little bit of why he said it. This last part is not necessarily the goal of the below text, and something I hope to turn to in a future piece.

2011 Uprising

Dr. Ali Gomaa made several public statements in relation to the massive uprising that began on January 25, 2011 and lead to the stepping down of former Egyptian president Muhammad Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011. His general position was one of caution addressing the potential for mass bloodshed and chaos. [1] He was clear that public protest to address grievances is a fundamental human right [2], but cautioned that mass demonstrations that lead to a disruption of day-to-day life could be considered impermissible (haram) from an Islamic legal point of view. 1Ibid.

On Thursday February 3, 2011, Dr. Gomaa went on national TV to answer “hundreds of calls he received that day” with concerns about attending Friday prayer services. [4]  He issued a fatwa allowing people who feared physical harm due to calls of further mass protests to pray at home and not attend Friday prayer services.

Morsi’s Year

In March of 2011, Dr. Gomaa’s 60th birthday and the official retirement age of Egyptian government employees, the SCAF issued him a one year extension to help with the continuity of government. 2Author in discussion with Dr. Gomaa on the eve of the one year extension. In June of the same year Muhammad Mursi was elected Egypt’s new president. [5] On July 20, 2011 Dr. Gomaa held a national press conference to announce the start of the holy month of Ramadan and announced the month in the name of Egypt’s new president.[6] In March 2013, Dr. Gomaa retired from his position of Grand Mufti of Egypt and Dr. Shawqi Allam became Egypt’s new Grand Mufti.

Post June 30, 2013

Millions of Egyptians took to the streets on June 30, 2013 to protest policies and constitutional decrees of President Mursi. As a result, he was placed under arrest by Egypt’s Defense Minister Abdul Fattah al-Sisi who also dissolved the constitution and placed the head of Egypt’s Supreme Court Justice Adly Mansur as the interim president. [7] Dr. Gomaa argued that the arrest of Mursi was legitimate from an Islamic legal perspective since the “people of the state” and those who “loosen and bind” (ahl al-ḥall wa’l ‘aqd), manifested in the Defense Minister, the Republican Guard, Sheikh al-Azhar Dr. Ahmad al-Tayyib, and the Coptic Pope Tawadros II, were the ones who moved against Mursi to prevent further national chaos. [8] Dr. Gomaa also drew comparisons from recent history in which an ruler was removed from power due to national security concerns. [9]  Morsi supporters, largely led by the Muslim Brotherhood, staged sit-ins in various squares around Cairo, most notably the Raba‘a Square in Nasr City.  At the same time, there were major security lapses in the Sinai region that required military and police intervention. Legal action was taken to allow the Ministry of the Interior to break up the Raba‘a protests [10], and this eventually took place on August 14, 2013. There was significant loss of life throughout the Raba‘a breakup from both police forces and protestors. Five days after the Rab‘a breakup, on August 19, 2013, Dr. Gomaa addressed Defense Minister Sisi and other members of the armed forces in a live televised event in which he supported not only the breakup of the protests and military intervention in Sinai, but also argued for the legitimate use of lethal force. [11] He based his position on the fact that the protestors in Raba‘a were armed and that, according to eyewitnesses, it was the protestors that fired on the police first, not the other way around. [12]  Dr. Gomaa argued that the use of force from the side of the protestors and the significant loss of life from police forces at the beginning of the conflict necessitated the use of force to quell armed insurrection, and that these facts alone meant that Raba‘a was no longer a legitimate peaceful protest and the argument for the right to freedom of assembly ceased to have legitimacy. 3Ibid.

Dr. Gomaa’s comments and opinion towards the Muslim Brotherhood extended beyond the Raba‘a episode.  Since August 2013, Dr. Gomaa has likened the Brotherhood to the early khawārij who sought to rise against the Caliph Ali bin Abi Ṭālib in the 7th century. [14] On October 31, 2013, Dr. Gomaa held a national press conference to announce the launch of a fund to help rebuild Christian churches in Egypt that were destroyed by Muslim extremists including members of the Muslim Brotherhood. [15] As a result of this specific incident and generally due to his public attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party engaged the London based law firm ITN to bring charges of crimes against humanity against Dr. Gomaa and other members of the Egyptian state establishment. [16] Dr. Gomaa’s solicitors put ITN on notice that such actions were a PR stunt of the Muslim Brotherhood and a direct response to his efforts to help the Egyptian Christian community.4I personally oversaw this letter being issued from the Coexist Foundation, of which I am president and of which Dr. Gomaa is a trustee. The Coexist Foundation’s UK solicitors, CMS Cameron McKenna LLP, issued a letter on behalf of the foundation on December 20, 2013 placing ITN on notice for potential libel.

References   [ + ]

1. Ibid.
2. Author in discussion with Dr. Gomaa on the eve of the one year extension.
3. Ibid.
4. I personally oversaw this letter being issued from the Coexist Foundation, of which I am president and of which Dr. Gomaa is a trustee. The Coexist Foundation’s UK solicitors, CMS Cameron McKenna LLP, issued a letter on behalf of the foundation on December 20, 2013 placing ITN on notice for potential libel.

Finding a Shaykh

Many people ask how one can find a proper teacher/guide/mentor, what Muslims normally refer to as a shaykh . Questioners ask about finding a shaykh of the outward sciences, Sharī’a, ḥadīth, Qur’an, etc., as well as finding a shaykh of the inward science of Sufism. While there is a great deal of literature about the conditions of a teacher or shaykh, the following points offer advice I have found to be extremely helpful and proven to produce results in the age in which we live.

A Shaykh of Learning

A shaykh of the outward sciences such as Sharī’a, Ḥadīth studies, etc. should have the following general qualities:
  1. A known pedigree of study. This means they must have an unbroken chain (sanad or silsila) to the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) with a qualified teacher and/or hail from a known seminary of learning that demonstrates their expertise and authority to teach a particular subject matter. For example, they studied at al-Azhar or al-Qarawiyyin, or they studied with a well-known scholar of a particular field who in turn is licensed (ijāza) to teach and pass on that knowledge. One should avoid at all costs well intentioned people who have no formal training, even if what they say is comforting. This does not mean that all people who fit the above category will be equal in their ability to teach, but at least they have a foundation that can be built on.
  2. They adhere to a holistic, normative view of Islam meaning that, in the most basic of terms, they uphold the hadith of Gabriel in which the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) outlined three major branches of Islamic learning: law (islam), belief (imān), Sufism (iḥsān). This also means a clear acknowledgement that these three branches evolved from the early generation into the various schools of law, thought, and Sufi orders that we have today.
  3. They are able to answer most questions posed to them regarding their subject matter, and are able to research more complicated and lesser known matters.
  4. They are able to say clearly when they do not know an answer to a question and therefore provide a clear line between their grounded knowledge and conjecture.
  5. They have good character and implement the Sunna of the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) to the best of their ability, regardless of the subject they teach.
  6. They should be effective in their teaching methods so that people can benefit from them. It should be kept in mind, however, that respect from the student to the teacher is always necessary in learning and this point should never be used as an excuse to walk away if  a situation can be remedied by more decorum from the student.

A Shaykh of Sufism

As for Sufism, there is much literature around the conditions of finding a shaykh and Sufi order that works for an individual. What follows is a general overview of these conditions so as to make it easier for a person in the 21st Century:
  1. One needs to find an order that is closest to the Sunna. Some Sufi practices, while valid from a Sharī’a perspective, have developed non-Sunnic practices. We should remember, however, that the Prophetic example is always our aim in everything we do.
  2. The shaykh must have an unbroken chain back to the Prophet of Islam (God bless him and give him peace). There is no Sufism without an unbroken chain and there can be no spiritual advancement without it.
  3. One looks for a path that is easy. Some orders are difficult requiring copious amounts of devotional works, and in the cacophony of today’s dominant culture one needs to find a way of ease in order to advance. Prophet Muhammad (God bless him and give him peace) always chose the easiest option when presented with a choice, given that there was no sin involved (narrated by Abu Dawūd). It should be noted that this is in regards to ease of extra devotional works required of the aspirant. When it comes to obligatory acts and cessation of impermissible acts, this is a universal obligation for all Muslims despite their affiliation to a particular Sufi order.
  4. One needs to find an order that has accessible publications. Immersion is the best way to learn and the spiritual path is no different.
  5. You and the shaykh. One needs to have a certain amount of compatibility with their shaykh. When there is no compatibility, one should not assume that  a particular shaykh is deficient, but rather their own spiritual sustenance is not meant to be from that shaykh. In this instant, one should remain respectful and keep searching.
Until one can find the above it is recommended to send prayers on Prophet Muhammad (God bless him and give him peace) at a minimum of 300 times per day using any phraseology. This prayer takes the role of a spiritual guide until a living shaykh can be found.