Middle East Patheos Published Articles

Secondary Separation, in Islam

Secondary Separation Islam

In fundamentalist Christian circles there is an approach to the world known as ‘secondary separation’. While the Bible notes Christians are not of this world, there is tension when Jesus says they are also in this world, and should not expect to be removed.

Fundamentalism is one expression of this tension, that leans in the direction of withdrawal. A key verse is II Corinthians 6:17, “Come out from them and be separate,” quoting an Old Testament passage focusing on holiness.

Separation from the world is therefore a necessary Christian posture, though defining ‘them’ and ‘separate’ can be difficult. Fundamentalists take it a step further, saying that ‘them’ includes also those Christians who do not separate sufficiently.

This is secondary separation, and it has been most famously applied against Billy Graham. The renowned evangelist has been celebrated by most Christians for his gospel fidelity and salvation message.

But it that ‘most’ that offends this fundamentalist spirit. His crusades have cooperated with too many insufficiently fundamentalist churches, which they believe compromises the call to be separate.

In partnering with those who are not theologically pure, he risks endorsing their relative liberalism.

It is interesting to note a similar approach exists in Islam.

The posture of takfir is the process of declaring someone a kafir, an infidel. Longstanding Islamic jurisprudence says this should almost never be done to a Muslim, unless he or she openly renounces their faith.

But there is a verse in the Quran that provides Muslim fundamentalists, if the term is appropriate, a powerful retort. Sura 5:44 says, “And whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed, then it is those who are the disbelievers,” using the plural of the Arabic word kafir at the end.

This verse has been applied by Muslim insurrectionists throughout the ages against their Muslim rulers who they accuse of not properly implementing sharia.

Certainly Muslims also struggle with the tension of their texts, and they are invited to provide proper interpretation.

But leave it to ISIS, the so-called Islamic State, to take it a step further.

Should it be necessary: There is little similarity between Christian fundamentalists and Islamic terrorists. But a devotion to God and a commitment to his way may sometimes prompt an antagonistic stance not only to the world, but also to fellow believers.

And from an article in Jihadica, “The Caliphate in Disarray,” there is also a similarity in secondary takfir.

Turki al-Bin’ali, the self-proclaimed ‘Grand Mufti,’ or chief cleric, of ISIS, was killed several months ago in a US airstrike. His death set off a wave of eulogies, but also counter-eulogies and accusations. Some even speculated his location was tipped off to the enemy that he be eliminated as leader.

Takfir is one of the issues that divides ISIS and al-Qaeda, with the latter being slightly more reticent to call non-affiliated Muslims non-believers. It is a sensible position if you are trying to recruit, not to limit your pool of applicants.

Then again, the number willing to die in their cause is considerably limited by their viciousness. Perhaps then it is best to recruit only the purest of the pure. But as seen with Christian fundamentalists, purity is easily nitpicked.

As a result: theological division among those who believe they have already most dedicated to God’s path through jihad.

Al-Bin’ali’s nemesis on this issue, the Meccan-born Ahmad ibn ‘Umar al-Hazimi, preached a rigorous approach to takfir. The following excerpt may be challenging in its Arabic references, but careful reading will establish a clear similarity with secondary separation:

In his lectures, he [al-Hazimi] espoused a controversial doctrine known as takfir al-‘adhir, or “the excommunication of the excuser.”

The notion of takfir al-‘adhir is derived from two concepts in Wahhabi theology. The first is the requirement of takfir; the second is the inadmissibility of al-‘udhr bi’l-jahl, or “excusing on the basis of ignorance.”

According to the founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792), it is incumbent upon all true believers to excommunicate—that is, to make takfir of—those deemed unbelievers, as well as to excommunicate those who fail to excommunicate them.

As Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab stated—and this is the line around which the Hazimi-Bin‘ali debate revolves—“Whoso fails to make takfir of the polytheists, or has doubts concerning their unbelief, or deems their doctrine to be sound, has [himself] disbelieved.”

The duty of takfir is generally accepted in Jihadi Salafism, but there is some debate over al-‘udhr bi’l-jahl, that is, over whether ignorance may serve as a legitimate excuse for holding errant beliefs, and so shield one from the charge of takfir.

For al-Hazimi, who follows the traditional Wahhabi view, al-‘udhr bi’l-jahl is categorically invalid, meaning that the ignorant heretic is to be declared an unbeliever.

Moreover, as he says, anyone who regards ignorance as an excuse for the heretic’s unbelief is also to be declared an unbeliever. Hence the idea of “the excommunication of the excuser.”

Perhaps in truth this is a tertiary takfir, with standard Wahhabism being the secondary. But herein is the problem: Once you start judging a fellow believer’s faith, where does the cycle stop?

Fortunately for Christian fundamentalists, it does not continue to the bombing of a Billy Graham crusade. But there is many a former fundamentalist who has become jaded when he or those he respected found themselves on the wrong side of a Christian fatwa. Sometimes it moves them to a more nebulous evangelicalism; sometimes they leave the faith entirely.

But they are not killed. ISIS, while flip-flopping repeatedly on the issue, did not hesitate to execute proponents of the at-the-time-minority outlook. Others died in airstrikes under what is described as ‘murky circumstances’. The article features more of the back-and-forth diatribe, which revealed also a discontent in ISIS over corruption, dishonesty, unfulfilled prophecies, and the loss of territory.

All the above is a reminder that the tension in religious faith is not only maddening for the sincere believer, but necessary. If God said both this and that, both are true no matter the apparent inconsistency or challenge of application.

It is easy to side with that (or this) most congenial to personal temperament, but mature faith must grapple with both and live accordingly.

In the world, but not of it. Judge by God’s sharia, but don’t judge. The challenge applies to more than we might at first imagine.

My article was first published at Patheos.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

In Memoriam: Dr. Ahmed al-Sayih, Azhar Scholar

Fully deserving of his many titles, the glorious scholar and professor, Dr. Ahmad Abd al-Rahim al-Sayih passed away on July 7, 2011, fully engaged in life at the age of 74. Dr. al-Sayih died while filming an interview for the revolutionary-born al-Tahrir Television channel, speaking about his lifelong efforts in international popular diplomacy, to display a peaceful image of Islam and Egypt wherever he went. The world will miss him, his sharp mind, and his openness to people of all faiths.

Dr. al-Sayih was born in 1937 in Ezbet al-Sayih, a community roughly thirty kilometers from Nag Hamadi in the governorate of Qena, in Upper Egypt. Late in his life Nag Hamadi witnessed the horrific killing of six Christians and a Muslim police guard on Coptic Christmas Eve in 2010, an infamous incident which raised questions about Muslim-Christian relations. Dr. al-Sayih’s interaction with Christians, however, was completely different. He was a member of the noble Qulaiyat branch of the Arab tribe, and grew up with warm, friendly relations with the five or six Christian families of Ezbet al-Sayih. As he matured in his studies these Christians proudly recognized him as ‘our’ sheikh. Following the murders he helped organize an interfaith delegation from the Moral Rearmament Association to visit the families of those killed, explore the cultural environment of the crime, and discuss ways to overcome the national tragedy.

The journey Dr. al-Sayih pursued, however, did not begin as it ended, with real exposure to and open embrace of the Copts of Egypt. Though never an extremist, he pursued his studies with Muslim particularity, coming to master Islamic doctrine and philosophy after leaving his village and enrolling in the Azhar University. After several years he engaged in a professor exchange program, teaching five years in the Faculty of Sharia Law at the University of Qatar. Here his scholarly insight took the attention of the prestigious Umm al-Qurra University in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, but contractual regulations with the Azhar required him to first complete his doctorate while teaching at the Cairo-based institution. After obtaining his PhD in Islamic doctrine and philosophy in 1986 from the Azhar, serving as dean in the Faculty of Da’wa (the Islamic Missionary Call), he accepted the post in Mecca, where he taught for nine years.

After many years of exposure to religious thought in the Gulf, however, Dr. al-Sayih began to grow increasingly uncomfortable with its extremist Islamic trends, especially Wahhabism. Wahhabism is an austere interpretation of Islam, seeking imitation of the manner of life as lived by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. Unfortunately, it often results in a reactionary attitude to modern life, as well as rejection of other viewpoints and commonality with other religions. With growing awareness of the danger Wahhabism proved to authentic Islam, Dr. al-Sayih dedicated his life to exposing its errors.

This zeal resulted in a scholarly output of over 150 books and hundreds of articles written for Arabic journals around the world. Some of these books were co-authored by such luminaries as Dr. Ahmed Shawqy al-Fangary, Dr. Abdel Fatah Asaker, Dr. Rifaat Sidi Ahmed, Dr. Mohammed al-Halafawy and Sheikh Nasr Ramadan Abdel Hamid. His boldness in critiquing Wahhabism led also to the finding that much of what is attributed to Islam today is actually based on pious misunderstandings from poorly transmitted hadith, the stories recorded of Muhammad’s words and deeds. Never one to shy from controversy, Dr. al-Sayih was committed to discovering and teaching the truth as it revealed itself, finding in this the path to God.

Though he never committed himself to an actual spiritual guide or designated path, Dr. al-Sayih found sympathy with the Sufi interpretation of Islam. Over the course of his life, he attended over fifty international Sufi conferences, promoting an open and tolerant picture of Islam. This was more than a simple intellectual position. Dr. al-Sayih visited Makarious Monastery in Wadi Natroun, Egypt, and prayed over the grave of John the Baptist and the Prophet Elisha. He esteemed the monks there to be the truest of Sufis, who represent the best of Islam.

Furthermore, Dr. al-Sayih’s openness towards Copts facilitated his frequent collaboration with Arab West Report. Together they found commonality in the belief that Islam is not to blame for the often true difficulties Copts face in Egypt, but rather the ill interpretation of Islam which exasperates social tensions, giving ordinary community problems a religious face. This phenomena is often made worse when these tensions are manipulated by politics or religion. Dr. al-Sayih’s contribution toward promoting Coptic understanding in Egypt resulted in his commendation by no less an organization than Copts United, an American based group highlighting Christian difficulties in Egypt. Following the death of the Grand Sheikh of the Azhar, Mohammed Sayyid Tantawi, Copts United nominated him for succession.

Dr. Ahmad al-Sayih leaves behind a wife, three sons, and five daughters. He was buried in his village of Ezbet al-Sayih, and on July 12 received a commemorative farewell in Al Rashdan Mosque in Nasr City, near his home in Cairo. He was a man of both great mind and great heart, and will be missed by all who knew him. May Egypt produce similar scholars, who are able to follow in his footsteps.