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Who Do You Want: the Jurist or the Intellectual? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Last week, Dr. Ahmad al Baghdadi wrote an article calling for a courageous intellectual instead of a courageous faqih (jurist).

The Kuwaiti writer, considered a liberal by his enemies, was responding in the Dubai- based newspaper Al Ittihad, to my earlier call, in Asharq Al-Awsat, for a “courageous faqih”.

I indicated we need brave experts in Islamic jurisprudence who are not swayed by the public’s terror or fundamentalist leaders or by programs of different ruling powers. These faqihs should announce their daring interpretations on all aspects of Islamic jurisprudence such as women, jihad and hudud punishments.

For his part, Dr. Al Baghdadi saw that a courageous faqih was difficult to attain. “Al Zaydi’s call is foolish for several reasons including the fact that it is unattainable. Don’t you see them adorned right with wrong?” He then proceeded to give examples of instances in which faqihs allegedly flattered rulers and wondered, “Where will they find the necessary courage to express brave points of view?”

Al Baghdadi also feared the experts in Islamic law would fall under the influence of rabble-rousers and guardians of tradition. More crucially, in my personal view, is his question: “What is the use of discussing religious matters if we are going around in an empty circle and returning to the books of our predecessors that have become sacred and cannot be touched?”

In conclusion, the Kuwaiti writer says, “The world does not need a faqih but a courageous intellectual who has the willpower to face the religious oppression of religious scholars and the political domination of ruling regimes.”

Before proceeding further with the discussion, I would like to remind the reader that Al Baghdadi is a writer and university professor known for his honesty, and clashes with fundamentalists. Last year, he was given a one-year suspended prison sentence for ridiculing Islam in a June 2004 article on religious education in Kuwait. At the time, Al Baghdadi said he would leave the country, as there was no room for dissent. Coincidentally, he had distinguished himself in his critical writings on fiqh and heritage.

Yet, in the article to which I refer, Al Baghdadi obstructed the solution and did not uncover the nature of the defect that has affected Arab life. Part of the ambiguity is the confusion surrounding the generally accepted definition of the intellectual in the Arab world. If we are calling for an increased role for the intelligentsia, it is vital we define this group, especially as the term “intellectual” has recently entered the Arab political and social lexicon. A number of Arab researchers have even claimed that this term cannot be assimilated in the Arab mind and heritage and that it remains alien to Arab conceptualization.

Indeed, there is a real crisis, which many Arab critics have become alert to, in the search of the characteristics, role, nature and definition of the Arab intellectual. It is part of a wider problem related to the flawed interrelation between the Arab cultural and social situation and the West.

The crisis of the Arab intellectual is connected to a crisis of identity and a wider malaise. It is, as Luay Safi says, “Directly connected to the absence of a true vision that prompts the individual to examine things from his point in time and location.” It is no use relying on the criticism by French post-modernist thinkers of the Enlightenment project and then using it to deconstruct an Arab (enlightenment) project that has yet to see the light!

We are facing complex problems that obstruct the way for the Arab intellectual, starting from his definition, to his role and ending with his authority and legitimacy. However, all these problems are non-existent for the faqih. Here is an original concept whose theoretical authority is total and complete. His image in our historical memory is clear and we are very familiar with it.

Until now, and for the near future, change and reform will remain reliant, for a significant part, to the protection of the faqih’s cloak.

This issue demands clarity: Who amongst the Arab public, or even amongst the educated class, including Arab doctors, lawyers, engineers and professors, can identify the intellectual and knows the meaning of culture, beyond the caricatured image of an intellectual who speaks too much and uses foreign ambiguous concepts? But is anyone ignorant of Al Sharawi, Al Qardawi, Ibn Baz, Ibn Uthaymain or Al Sistani?

We must know our destiny. We live in the same age as the West and under the same sun. Some of us might even live in their capitals. Nevertheless, in truth, we live in two different eras. We are not subjected to the same conditions as the West is. The role of the intellectual that Al Baghdadi is calling for has an important meaning in the West as the intelligentsia is involved in everyday life by influencing public opinion.

But what about us? If the courageous faqih, who is an integral part of our society and is not ambiguous in our culture or conscience, ever wanted to display his bravery and preach moderate opinions and interpretations, he would be met with opposition and disturbance. In many instances, he is let down by Arab and Muslim governments. If this is the case of the faqih, then what of the intellectual?

We are still at the beginning. Let us discover the road by ourselves. It might take longer than we want, but we are obliged to pay our dues by installments, for life to return gradually to dried up roots. We need individuals to illuminate our darkened

nights. Headlights are only given to scholars and experts in Islamic jurisprudence. Is this not the case?

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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