Unlike the West, Egypt’s president calls for a revolution in Islam

Rory Leishman
March 19, 2015
Rarely do mainstream Muslim leaders acknowledge a link between Islamist extremism and the core teachings of their religion. But the President of Egypt has done so, and called for a “religious revolution” to save Islam from self-destruction. It’s a message that must be echoed by Muslims in Canada and elsewhere to end the spiralling violence and oppression being committed around the world in the name of Allah. Rory Leishman explains…

Unlike the West, Egypt’s president calls for a revolution in Islam

Rory Leishman
March 19, 2015
Rarely do mainstream Muslim leaders acknowledge a link between Islamist extremism and the core teachings of their religion. But the President of Egypt has done so, and called for a “religious revolution” to save Islam from self-destruction. It’s a message that must be echoed by Muslims in Canada and elsewhere to end the spiralling violence and oppression being committed around the world in the name of Allah. Rory Leishman explains…
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Leishman image President al-sisiSo far this year, Islamist terrorists have murdered 23 people in Paris, massacred an estimated 2,000 villagers in Nigeria, beheaded 21 Coptic Christians in Libya, slayed 18 tourists in Tunisia and slaughtered uncounted numbers of civilians in Iraq and Syria. Time and again, Muslim leaders throughout the world have deplored such excesses, but few have acknowledged any link to mainstream Islamic teaching.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is a striking exception. The former army general and Defence Minister was elected president in 2014 and is regarded as an exceptionally pious Muslim for a military man. In an extraordinary speech on New Year’s Day at Al-Azhar University, the seat of Muslim learning in Cairo, Sisi called for a revolution in the interpretation of Islam on the grounds that “the thinking that we [as Muslims] hold most sacred” is causing “the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world.”

This is intolerable, Sisi declared: “I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world is waiting for your next move…, because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost — and it is being lost by our own hands.”

Meanwhile, ‘Aziz Al-Hajj, a courageous Iraqi journalist, has likewise called for fundamental reforms to Islam. In a column published on a liberal Iraqi website following the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris on January 7, he insisted: “We must purge our curricula of all praise for tyrants and arch-murderers like Khalid Ibn Al-Walid, and rediscover the enlightened Arab and Islamic heritage, as exemplified by the Mu’tazila, Ibn Rushd and Al-Ma’arri.”

Among mainstream Muslims, Al-Walid is widely revered as a military conqueror, while Rushd (Averroes) and Al-Ma’arri are generally despised as heretics for having upheld reason as an indispensable guide to morality. Likewise the Mu’tazilites, who predominated during the golden age of Islam in the first half of the ninth century, are anathematized for having maintained that reason is essential to interpreting the Koran.

Revelation trumped reason in Islam 1,200 years ago

In The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis, Robert R. Reilly notes that the Mu’tazilites’ viewpoint prevailed only until 848, when a new Caliph banned them from his court and imposed the death penalty on anyone who upheld Mu’tazilite doctrine. Ever since, exponents of orthodox Islam in both its Sunni and Shia guises have rigorously insisted that there is no role for reason as a guide to understanding either morality or the Koran.

As a result, much of the Islamic world rejects religious freedom and outlaws any criticism of Islam. Muslim-majority countries are rife with religious persecution such as the brutal flogging outside a mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on January 9, when Raif Badawi, a Saudi Arabian writer, was subjected to the first 50 of 1,000 lashes for having ridiculed the country’s religious police in postings on his website, Free Saudi Liberals.

Last year, Badawi was also charged with apostasy. Luckily for him, he was not convicted. In Saudi Arabia, as in Qatar, Afghanistan and five other Muslim countries, apostasy is a criminal offence punishable by death.

Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi applauds such grotesque severity. He is an internationally renowned expert on Sharia law, president of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, the spiritual and intellectual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and an immensely popular preacher on Al-Jazeera television. In his widely published book, The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam, he writes: “Apostasy from Islam after willingly accepting it and subsequently declaring an open revolt against it in such a manner which threatens the solidarity of the Muslim community is a crime punishable by death.”

No mainstream Muslim leaders in Canada publicly advocate the death penalty for apostasy, but apart from members of moderate minority sects like the Ismailis, Ahmaddiyya and Druze, few are reliable advocates for freedom of expression in relation to dissenting opinions from Islamic orthodoxy. Consider the views of Ingrid Mattson, a prominent Canadian-born Muslim convert with a PhD in Islamic Studies from the University of Chicago. She holds the London and Windsor Community Chair in Islamic Studies in the nominally Anglican Faculty of Theology at Huron University College at Western University. From 2006-2010, she also served as President of the Islamic Society of North America, one of the most influential, mainstream Muslim bodies in Canada and the United States.

Mattson is the author of an introductory text entitled The Story of the Qu’ran: Its History and Place in Muslim Life. This book was first published in 2007, two years after hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America engaged in a frenzy of protest over the publication of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammed in a Danish newspaper. In the aftermath of this uproar, Mattson wrote:

It is evident that the issue of free speech and freedom of opinion, when that speech or those opinions contradict notions of orthodoxy, is a particularly challenging one for many Muslim societies. Preservation of religion is the most important goal of the Shar’ia, but what does that preservation mean? The Qur’an clearly states,

            There is no compulsion in religion.

(Baqara; 2:256)

What does this statement mean? Does freedom of religion entail the freedom to reject religion, and even further, to question, insult and belittle religion? Some contemporary scholars — certainly a minority at this time — believe it does. Most Muslims, however, understand the preservation of religion in the traditional sense to mean promoting Islam and promoting respect for the sacred in general. At the same time, they want to uphold the principle of freedom of speech. What is clear is that this will continue to be a topic of extensive and vigorous discussion among Muslims in contemporary society.

Such equivocation is, to say the least, disappointing, especially coming from a prominent, Western-educated, Muslim scholar like Mattson. Correspondingly, she publicly condemned Islamist violence after the horror of 9-11, but like many Muslim apologists she still blames America for inciting it.

Islam needs more dissident reformers, fewer mainstream apologists

In contrast, Salim Mansur, a prominent Canadian Muslim dissident, is commendably forthright in his support for freedom of speech and freedom of religion. He is a professor of political science at Western University, and Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute, a non-partisan, international think tank dedicated to upholding freedom and democracy.

In Islam’s Predicament: Perspectives of a Dissident Muslim, Mansur deplores the widespread expressions of Muslim outrage over the Danish cartoons. He contends that such an irrational, violent reaction to a few “irreverent drawings” is symptomatic of how “Muslim fundamentalists have succeeded through violence and support from unelected leaders, for example military dictators in Pakistan, in intimidating Muslims to comply with their literal-minded, bigoted and witless interpretations of the Quran and the shari’ah, the legal norms constructed by religious scholars in the first two centuries of Islam.”

Referring implicitly to the tragedy of the Mu’tazilite reformers, Mansur recalls: “There was a moment in Muslim history, the 8th-9th century, when a rationalist theology flourished briefly in Baghdad. But the zealotry of the literal-minded reactionary men of the mosques and religious schools snuffed this earliest venture of reconciling revelation with reason.”

With this statement, Mansur has pinpointed the root cause of Muslim bigotry and Islamist extremism: namely, a failure among mainstream Muslim leaders to reconcile revelation with reason. Together with ‘Aziz Al-Hajj and other dissident Muslim intellectuals, Mansur bravely calls for the abolition of sharia law and a rational revolution in interpretation of the Qu’ran.

Policy makers in Canada and elsewhere who are grappling with rising Islamist extremism should take note: radicalization is not likely to be stopped by intellectual equivocators like Mattson and the pedestrian exponents of mainstream Islam in our mosques. Instead, we should do whatever we can to amplify the voices of dissident Muslim reformers like Al-Sisi, Mansur and Al-Hajj who recognize the urgent necessity for a revolution in Islamic thought that is compatible with peace, freedom and democracy.


Rory Leishman is a freelance journalist based in London, Ontario, and a former lecturer in political science at Western University and national affairs columnist for the London Free Press.  

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