Some media institutions described what the young Moroccan king, Mohammed VI, is doing in his country with regard to the field of issuing religious edicts, legislation, religious preaching and guidance, and religious bodies, as “reform in the field of religion.”
The king of Morocco’s efforts focused on organizing and arranging the religious field in a manner that is quite far from what the term “reform” suggests to some people in terms of distortion, imprecision and deviation.
But away from verbal manoeuvres, reality states that what the Moroccan king is doing in essence is organizing and arranging the religious institution. The orientations that were authorized and the procedures that were approved are selected from the cultural Islamic display; the rise of some old jurisprudential choices or the emergence of new ones demanded by the realities of the state and its challenges. This was apparent in what we were lucky enough to witness with respect to the new Family and Personal Status Code that deals with divorce and divorce arrangements between spouses, and the issues of pay outs, residence and polygamy.
With regards to Fatwas, the new Moroccan procedures are paying attention to the dangerous influence informal Fatwas might have on motivating and mobilizing the public to follow this or that Mufti and his party affiliations or political orientations or to follow the path of rigidity and narrow-mindedness. We find them issuing Fatwas from behind the seas and the mountains to reach those living in the Moroccan countryside or on the outskirts of a city without knowing their social, economic and political circumstances and the possible impact their Fatwas could have on those members of small, tight-knit communities. We all know that Fatwas are the products of the reality in which we live. It is assumed that Muftis are aware of the circumstances of those seeking Fatwas, the social discrepancies between them and others, and the reasons why they are interested in a particular Fatwa at a particular time. These are just some of the details that have less to do with what Muftis have to memorize in terms of religious texts and have more to do with what they ought to know about the community, surroundings and circumstances of those seeking religious edicts. This is why Moroccan efforts are being focused on controlling the process of issuing Fatwas by qualifying and training Muftis, or as Mohammed al Hamadawi, head of the Unity and Reform Movement that is close to the Islamic Justice and Development Party said, “The real challenge is to be able to respond to Morocco’s request in the field of Fatwas instead of looking to the Muftis of [Middle] Eastern satellite television channels.”
This fear of the impact of Middle Eastern Muftis on Morocco also applies to Middle Easterners who fear the influence of Moroccan Muftis. Each party is more aware of its own affairs and just as there are extremists in the eastern part of the Arab world, there are also extremists in North Africa. But, in the end, each party is far more acquainted with the language, orientations and circumstances of its own people, and is more capable of influencing its society even with regards to the simplest matters such as dialects, clothing and name choices for example.
Muftis and clerics wield much power in the Arab world. This is an undeniable fact. Regardless of how much some people might try and play up the amount of influence that the state or the media has on the masses and their orientations, the state exercises its power through instruments of violence, control and funding, whereas the media influences the audience by breaking through all barriers to reach each and every person.
In the past, and before the existence of the modern state and organizations, and before the explosion of scientific specializations and the information revolution i.e. over one hundred years ago, a sheikh would earn his social and political status by carrying out a number of tasks. For example, he is the religious leader who influences the ordinary people with his Fatwas, which are directly connected to their private lives. He is also a social reformer who resolves conflicts and disputes, and political advisor to the ruler upon whom he has an impact and perhaps even pressures the ruler to divert his political course. On top of this, he would also be a writer, a poet and a judge. His abilities would increase in proportion to his talents and social ties.
In brief, the “religious” sheikh was equivalent to the modern-day “intellect”. This of course does not nullify the existence of men of letters, poets and even astronomers or specific social notables, but it definitely cancels out their rivalry with the religious sheikh in terms of combining all these features and his influence. This explains why politicians and social figures, regardless of their positions, had always sought the religious sheikh’s assistance and relied on him out of compulsion and not out of choice. Nearly all the leaders of the Middle East and North Africa, in the period of discussion, were devoted to this cultural atmosphere.
The truth is that the formation of the class of religious figures or “scholars” began at an early stage of Islamic history. One of the most effective comments that I read was made by the Moroccan intellect Mohammed Abed al Jabri who spoke about the exact period this class formed. He traced it back to the beginning of the Ummayad dynasty with Muawiya Ibn Abu Sufyan. During the time of the rightly-guided Caliphs, in particular during the reigns of Abu Bakr and Omar, the head of the political pyramid was also the head of the religious pyramid. The two Caliphs, Abu Bakr and Omar were the leaders of the Islamic nation both in the political sense and in the jurisprudential and religious sense. It was the same for the people; the army was part of the people, and the people were the army. The separation between the class of rulers and clerics on one hand, and the class of subjects and soldiers on the other, took place during the reign of Muawiya due to complicated historical circumstances. Ever since, the religious institution has been a special formation.
This religious institution was not imposed on society; it was society that called for it to face political authority. It was this institution that guaranteed the continuation of the Islamic nation’s adherence to Sharia law. It was also the embodiment of Sharia through the process of the judiciary and served as the shelter under which people would take refuge from the injustice of the ruling power.
This has been going on throughout our Islamic history, with some exceptions. But this is what happened. However, just over a hundred years ago, the entire world, including our Islamic world, experienced a major change. Many theories were refuted and replaced by others. The concepts of the modern state and citizenship were born. New socio-political contracts were established. Even in our Islamic world, reformists and revolutionists emerged. Most of them were turbaned or half-turbaned and calling for modernization.
Even after this long journey, the class of religious figures still has a clear influence on society. This is only natural in our societies that cling to their religious identity. Some religious figures made valuable contributions to bring together Islamic Sharia law and modern age. Far-sighted, open-minded and knowledgeable religious figures such as Sheikh Mahmud Shaltut, Sheikh Muhammad Abu Zahra, Sheikh Tahir Ibn Ashur or Saudi Sheikh Abdul Rahman Bin Saadi are just a few.
Other clerics were confused by the modern changes and challenges so they decided to confront them till the very last breath or to declare a rebellion against society and its institutions including the religious institutions, thereby going out on a limb and isolating themselves, or finally declaring Jihad.
The wise men of the religious corps play a major role in reducing the fears of some people in our Islamic societies, namely those who are perplexed by transformations and modernization. At times these fears have gone as far as not accepting the warnings of the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding the danger of the possible spread of an epidemic such as Swine Flu in the overcrowded Hajj season. This prompted Egypt’s Mufti, Sheikh Ali Gomaa together with the Sheikh of Al-Azhar to approve a warning to the Arab Ministers of Health. This is all because of people’s sensitivity to religious matters, which, by the way, was not as volatile in the past.
Sometimes we read Fatwas that are very rational and realistic but they do not gain a response from society. The more realistic some Fatwas are, the less popular they are. We see some leading figures of religious institutions talking in a calm and decent manner whilst their followers are hot-headed. Pope Shenouda III, the head of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, made a comment in this regard in his most recent interview with Asharq Al-Awsat. He talked about the tense relations that exist between Muslims and Copts in Egypt and said that his relationship with the Sheikh of Al-Azhar is a very good one, but this is not reflected in Coptic-Muslim ties. He said this with regret. The extremism to which Pope Shenouda III referred applies to both the Muslims and Copts of Egypt. Intolerance is on the rise.
The field of religion with all its institutions, exclusive of the creed itself, needs reorganization and reform to ensure that it is not transformed into an instrument for chaos and delay. We do not want to talk about the state’s manipulation of the institution of religion but we also do not want to talk about the institution of religion’s manipulation of state and society. All we need is a regulation that would guarantee that the primary function of religion is being fulfilled, that is to spread mercy around the world.
This is where the role of the rational Islamic state comes in to “safeguard religion and politicize the world,” as our forefathers used to say in a clever, early, and spontaneous distinction between religious and worldly affairs.
What Morocco has done in terms of reforming its religious field is a constructive step that goes beyond the finer details and deals with the wider context that defines the ground upon which society stands and the sky to which it looks toward.