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In an episode of the recently cancelled TV series “The West Wing” which focuses on the decision-making process inside the White House, the president’s spokeswoman, CJ, finds herself in a critical situation. A few minutes before her daily press briefing was meant to begin, she received information on the death of 17 Saudi female students in a fire at their school, because the religious police refused to rescue them because they were not wearing the veil.

The scene above was alluding to the fire at a girls’ school in Mecca on 11 March 2002. When the religious police came under heavy criticism, it denied obstructing the rescue effort and accused journalists of lying.

CJ, who is clever at fending off journalists’ prodding questions and defend the administration, did not seek advice from anyone. When a journalist asked her to comment on the incident in Saudi Arabia, she replied, “This is a country that fights women and forbids them from driving; it allows polygamy.” The spokeswoman posed for a moment and added, “She confronted the journalists and added, “In spire of this, the country is our partner in peace making and stability.”

The above scene partly reflects how we are perceived in the West, an image full of errors and controversy!

It is an image that has prompted me to contemplate the recent tragedy during the annual Hajj (pilgrimage) when at least 350 pilgrims died in a stampede during the stone-throwing ritual in Mina and hundreds more were injured. A number of commentators blamed ignorance and the carelessness of some pilgrims who did not follow instructions for the tragic incident. Others held the narrow-minded religious scholars responsible for indicating that it was not permissible to complete the stone-throwing ritual until sunset on the third day, which caused large crowds to present in one location and constituted a perfect recipe for disaster.

Regardless of the government’s responsibility and the investigation, the religious establishment is also somewhat guilty. Why insist on certain views, even if previously held, when they are harmful?

This question goes beyond the stone throwing ritual and the pilgrimage to cast its shadows on other aspects of everyday life for Muslims: political, economic and social… Fatwas (religious edicts) and religious opinions remain inflexible until matters reach boiling point.

Sadly, a number of Muslim jurists and religious institutions deliberately avoid adopting moderate edicts under the pretense that it will harm religion. A certain section of the public goes as far as only supporting the more extreme jurists!

For example, with regards to the issue at hand, a number of past Muslim jurists such as Abu Hanifa have indicated, contrary to the publicly held belief, that stone throwing can occur on the second day of the pilgrimage prior to nightfall. Others, like the Hanbali jurist Abi al Wafa ib`n Aqil believed that the ritual could take place on the second or third day before sunset. This opinion was also shared by the Hnbali jurist Ibn al Jawzi and more recently, by Sheikh Abdullah al Mahmoud, the late mufti of Qatar and Sheikh Saleh al Balihy, a Saudi scholar.

Why are strict religious edicts preferred? Do jurists feel that, by adopting strict religious fatwas, they become better accepted? Perhaps some “weak” jurists might think so. I admire the Iraqi scholar, Sufyan al Thawri, who said, “Every jurist can be extreme. But, wisdom is the license of the true jurist.”

It seems we are regressing in our religious and intellectual development! Early Muslims were more spontaneous in their interpretation of religious texts and less critical about what is now referred to as “cultural invasion”, “fixed principles” and identity and other expressions that besiege any real attempts to introduce new ideas.

Personally, every time I encounter extremism, I seek refuge in the past to seek salvation, as if our future is to be found in the past!

Don’t Islamist groups nowadays loudly call for the establishment of a Caliphate and proclaim that the existing political entities are anathema to the correct Islamic concept which is the single united Caliphate?

However, unlike their fixed and static rationale, our jurisprudence heritage is replete with astounding flexibility the changing needs of the time and place. This is surprising given that, in their days, change was minimal compared to the sweeping changes of today. All some contemporary jurists have done is to look for a precedent and adapt new events to it.

In order to better understand how previous scholars dealt with a changing political climate, let us examine how Abul Maali al-Juwayni, a Shaafi scholar dealt with the issue of the caliphate solely as a religious post, contrary to the prevalent theory at the time. During his lifetime, he witnessed the Abbasid caliphate become a mere symbolic power in Baghdad , whereas government was transferred to the Buwayhid sultan in Iran , the Fatimid in Egypt and the Atabek dynasty in Syria .

Sanctioning the plurality of nations, al Juwayni said, “I believe it is permissible to have two imams in two divergent and distant lands.” Other sects such as al Karamiya and al Jarudiya also held a similar stance.

Our predecessors seem to have adopted opinions more attuned to their time than us to ours. On the other hand, we seem to cling stubbornly to inflexible opinions despite all the changes, especially with regards to the issue of the caliphate. Even scholars who are not part of political Islamist currents (who place the caliphate at the core of their project) believe that only a single caliphate should exist.

Sheikh Wahbah Al-Zuhayli, Dean of the Islamic Shariaa (law) Faculty in Damascus underlined this when he said, “According to Islam, it is not permissible to establish two or more states.”

Are politics and government a religious or secular concern?

To return to al Juwaini, the Muslim scholar said, “Issues surrounding the Caliphate could not be settled and, as such, lack a clear verdict.”

This is how they used to think and this is how we think today!

Perhaps the West is ignorant of our society and unjustly ties to impose its model on us, just as CJ in the West Wing attacked polygamy in Saudi Arabia without attempting to understand its social and cultural roots. Yet, in spite of all this, we are also responsible for damaging our image. The fatwa prohibiting the stone throwing ritual before dusk and the Islamists’ unrealistic insistence on a single Caliphate are two cases in point. We need to repair our distorted image and instead of relying on others.

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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