I recently attended an interesting lecture given by the Grand Mufti of Egypt Sheikh Ali Gomaa on the reality of scientific research among Muslims.
The lecture was given by the Mufti in a crowded Ramadan gathering held by Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Sheikh Gomaa tackled the issue of the worn-out scientific conditions among Muslims, the absence of the spirit of scientific research, and the lack of a knowledgeable and practical approach among contemporary Muslims in comparison to their ancestors whose approaches were appropriate to their era and situation.
According to the Mufti, the old approach provided us with the renaissance, a manifestation of which is the development of science and the emergence of inventions by Muslims for example the astrolabe that was used by Christopher Columbus, who discovered America, and also in reference to Salahuddin Ayyubi’s knowledge of chemistry that contributed to his victories.
The Mufti stressed the importance of sending scientific delegations abroad, considering that we, as a Muslim nation, require an “inundation of delegations” to strengthen the desired culture of research.
Sheikh Ali Gomaa used the examples of Mohamed Ali Pasha and Abbas I of Egypt who, during their rule, sent delegations to France and Germany, noting that these scientific delegations could have imported problems that are inconsistent with the teachings of our Islamic civilization; however, it is necessary to benefit from the successful experiences of developed countries.
The Sheikh proceeded with his speech about development and its problems, away from any talk that has concerned many sheikhs for a long time now. For instance, one would find a sheikh, who is not in keeping with the times, interacting with his audience on limited and outdated issues such as the alms for camels and cows, the provisions of revenues and conditions of exorcism. On the other hand, we may find political players hiding underneath the scholars’ turbans, directing their audience that is absent-minded towards their political programs and pushing the emotions of this audience towards politicised religion or religion cloaked in politics.
This “spirit”, with which Sheikh Ali Gomaa had spoken, is the spirit of reform that characterized many senior scholars and sheikhs of enlightenment in the history of Islamic religious reform from the early periods of modern Arab renaissance, that is from the days of Sheikh Rifah al Tahtawi who was sent by the founder of modern day Egypt, Mohamed Ali Pasha, to lead the Egyptian scientific delegation to Paris in 1826, all the way up until Sheikh Ali Gomaa. Before taking on his role as the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Gomaa was the general supervisor of Al Azhar Mosque from 2000. He obtained his PhD in Usul al Fiqh [Juristic Methodology] and law at Al Azhar University. Furthermore, he obtained his Bachelor degree in Commerce from Ain Shams University.
Towards the end of the lecture, Sheikh Gomaa, filled with sorrow, spoke about the deterioration of the condition of Muslims and the predominance of trivial matters within their lives. He then spoke about the attacks waged against him because of his fatwa concerning interest even though he is a knowledgeable man in the fields of jurisprudence and modern economy. He said that his fatwa was straightforward and accepted the idea of taking interest from banks, stating that interest on deposited amounts in banks is permissible according to the changes in ways of covering an equivalent amount that in the past used to be done using gold and silver.
The Sheikh stated that usury is haram [religiously unlawful] and this will remain the case forever. But is this what we are talking about? Is it actually usury, as featured and prohibited in Islam that is currently taking place in banks? Do we, as people who issue fatwas, really understand the movement of the global economy?
The Sheikh explained, “This is like someone who tells you that eating pork is haram and you agree with his opinion and say, indeed, eating pork is haram. But the animal that he refers in actual fact is not a pig but rather a “sheep”! But he continues to say to you: Pork is haram and filth!
Perhaps this stubbornness and passion for radicalism that the Sheikh refers to are the secret behind the problem and the reason behind the inability to move forward. It is radicalism or doubt that expresses itself through counter-fatwas that attack any facilitating fatwa or one that bears the essence of modernity. The Azhar Scholars Front had already issued a fatwa in response to the Mufti’s religious ruling regarding interest. This had increased the campaigns in “civil” opposition newspapers in Egypt.
All of this signals a regression on the path of religious reform. If we talk about Egypt, Sheikh Ali Gomaa’s homeland, we will find that the religious reformist path started strong and was promising with Sheikh “Imam” Mohamed Abdo and his student, Rashid Reda, who left his hometown of Qalamoun near Tripoli [Lebanon] in the Levant escaping the abuse of the Ottomans and spies sent by the Mufti of Sultan Abdul Hamid and the shrewdness of the mystic Sheikh who opposed science and modernization, Sheikh Abi al Hoda al Sayady.
The path began vigorously but significantly declined thereafter. Let us cite the example of Rashid Reda when he spoke of the fatwa that permits interest, which Sheikh Abdo and his student had permitted beforehand.
After emigrating, or rather escaping to Egypt through the port of Beirut in order to catch up with Sheikh Mohamed Abdo in Egypt and after a failed attempt to contact Jamal ad-Din al Afghani in Istanbul where it was believed that he was poisoned in 1897, Reda fled to Egypt the following year. He was taught by Sheikh Abdo and accompanied him, naming him the Imam. Sheikh Abdo loved Reda and Reda adopted the same viewpoints as his teacher. He would sit in front of the Imam to learn from him. He had written the Imam’s biography in three volumes and fought on Sheikh Abdo’s side in all his battles. Sheikh Abdo protected him and conversely Reda supported Sheikh Abdo in all his enlightening ideas. He had even backed Sheikh Abdo’s defence of Qassem Amin and his opinion on the freedom of women (at a later point in his life, Sheikh Rashid Reda conflicted with the Iraqi poet Jamil Sidqi al Zahawi because he supported the liberation of women!). Furthermore, he highlighted the failure of Al Azhar sheikhs.
In accordance with the approach of his Sheikh, he focused on religious and educational reform away from political plots. He explained frankly that whenever he felt eager to discuss politics, Sheikh Mohamed Abdo would prohibit him from doing so.
Sheikh Abdo had arrived at the conclusion that reform is the creation of an intellectual and social elite that is based upon the promotion of rationality and religious reform, and the evading of politics following Ahmed Orabi’s revolution in which he effectively participated. He then made his famous statement, “May God curse politics”. The student, Reda, was obedient to his teacher and focused on educational reform. For this reason, in 1912, he established the school for Daawa and outreach in Jazeerat al Rowda, Cairo. One of its conditions was to not engage in politics. In addition to teaching Islamic and Arab sciences, he taught foreign languages, health, and art. The school graduated prominent figures of society, scholars and politicians including Hajj Amin al Husseini, Sheikh Youssef al Yassin, assistant to King Abdul Aziz, and Sheikh Abdul Razzaq Hamza, one of the scholars of the holy mosque in Mecca (Rashid Reda wa Al-Awda ila Manhaj Al-Salaf, Sayyed Youssef, page 140).
However, after the death of Mohamed Abdo, Sheikh Rashid engaged in politics to a large extent and adopted a rightwing approach. He antagonized other students of Sheikh Abdo who adopted a leftist approach such as Sheikh Ali Abdel Razeq, author of ‘Islam wa Usool al Hokm’, a significant book in which he refuted the arguments of each movement that sought to recruit religion as part of a political project in the name of the “Caliphate” or anything else.
Following the shock of Kemal Ataturk’s abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, enraged, Sheikh Reda made numerous proposals to reinstate the Caliphate. At one point he would support the Ottomans and another he would support King Fouad of Egypt; he even attended the [World Islamic] Caliphate Conference that was held in Cairo in 1926 that had failed. A third time, he would support Imam Yahya of Yemen and another time he would call upon King Abdul Aziz al Saud. This mood had had its impact upon him and so he had become more textual, or as the researcher Sayyed Youssef explained, he had returned to the Levantine Salafist texts, (we should bear in mind the Ibn Taymiyyah origins of this in the Levant region). He escalated politics in religion and explicitly said (in Al Manar magazine, April 23, 1926): “Appointing the Imam is a duty in religion….the group that we are ordered to follow is not called a group of Muslims unless it has an Imam to which it has pledged allegiance.”
If you look carefully at this last sentence, you will see the signs of the emergence of the Hassan al Banna and Sayed Qutb discourses that stipulated that in order for Muslim society to be religiously valid, the religious movement must control the state and authority. Undoubtedly, Sayyed Youssef saw these signs.
Perhaps this is why Hassan Al Banna commended Sheikh Reda and Al Manar (in its last edition printed after the death of Sheikh Abdo) saying that Reda considered joining the Muslim Brotherhood movement later in his life.
Religious reform that was presented by Sheikh Abdo was swallowed up by Rashid Reda’s deep engagement in politics and the dragging of religion into the picture. Thus, he lost both parties; Hassan Al Banna had surpassed his inspiration (Rashid Reda) and went even further based on Reda’s ideas!
Will the spark of “pure” religious reform return after this path, or rather long “detour” that Rashid Reda’s train had taken?
Could the early Rashid Reda return despite that the ideas and results of the late Rashid Reda have materialised for more than a century?
Perhaps the answer lies with Sheikh Ali Gomaa.