Earlier this month, two news stories in Asharq al Awsat caught my attention: The first announced the retirement of the Saudi Muslim cleric, Aed al Qarni, and the second featured a call by the renowned Muslim activist, the Sudanese Hassan al Turabi. He urged Muslim movements worldwide to give up the slogan “Islam is the solution”, in what resembles a kind of revision to a trend he initiated almost 25 years ago.
The two figures differ in several aspects; the first is a graduate of the Saudi Salafi school of thought and has not been involved in politics, while the contemporary history of Sudan is not complete without a mention of al Turabi. He was known for his changing alliances, from enemy of former president Jaafar al Numeiri to close aide towards the end of his rule, from opponent of Sadiq al Mahdi, his brother-in-law, to ally, from de-facto ruler of Sudan during the National Salvation revolution to prisoner in solitary confinement in al Bashir’s jail, and finally from a supporter of jihad against the “crusaders” in the South to an ally of John Garang.
Despite al Turabi qualifying, in his own admission, in his early days, to become a religious reformer with his traditional education and legal knowledge, his intellectual contribution did not exceed a number of eloquently-written short essays dominated by emotional language.
His attempt to renew the science of the origins of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) therefore remained incomplete. He also failed to develop his opinion of art and his position on women in Islam.
Despite his recent criticism of Islamic movements and his deteriorating relationship with the international Muslim Brotherhood, who he accused of intellectual superficiality, al Turabi did not succeed in garnering support for his alternative project.
After years of isolation, al Turabi wrote his main oeuvre in which he combined all his ideas and presented the outcome of his political and intellectual project, “Politics and Authority.” The volume did not contain any radical new ideas except for the emphasis on the values of freedom, shura (consultation) and justice interspersed throughout the text.
For his part, the retired cleric al Qarni belongs to a new generation of star preachers who have reached thousands of households through the small screen. He was well-known for his plain style and language which emit hope, contrary to those who opted for an extremist style. He can be compared to the Egyptian Amr Khaled, or the Yemeni Sufi sheikh al Habib al Jaafari, or the Kuwaiti preacher Tariq al Suwaydan, in that he avoids politics and prefers to present a more spiritual material based on the stories of the life of the Prophet.
His audience included the working classes, the rich and the middle classes who are witnessing a religious revival, reflected in their adoption of religious slogans, away from politics or revolutionary austerity, and a discourse that highlights the appeal of religion whilst not considering it an obstacle to rampant consumerism.
It was therefore not unexpected for al Qarni to feel disappointed and resentful towards the modernists who accused him of being a rebel, the religious extremists who claimed he appeased the authorities and the politicians who suspected him. In fact, he competed with the modernists even if the style and content differed. He also competed with the religious extremists with whom he shares a frame of reference but disagrees on their aggressive stance toward society.
Interestingly, the fierce campaign against al Qarni was caused solely by his appearance in the documentary “Women Without Shadows” by the Saudi filmmaker Haifa al Mansour where he publicized a fatwa (religious edict) allowing women to show their faces, as approved by the majority of Muslim scholars.
Between the revisionism of al Turabi and the retirement of al Qarni, one can detect a crisis in the current popular Islamic discourse, as it suffers from two serious flaws: extremism and ideological errors.
No longer just an intellectual position, extremism is now manifested through violence and terrorism. Security crackdowns will not solve this problem alone. Muslim scholars need to engage with extremist ideologies and rebuke them.
Ideological aberrations are reflected in the absence of a revisionist perspective on jihad and the lack of dynamic reading of religious texts. Mohammad Iqbal’s philosophical groundwork was never developed while Mohammad Abdu’s interpretations were not expanded and the political program of several Islamic movements failed to build the ideological foundations sought by al Turabi.
Since the umma (Islamic nation) continues to cherish Islam and remains keen to observe its rituals and follow its morals without being influenced by revolutionary and radical projects, a new breed of preachers are presenting the needed spiritual fare to enrich the everyday life of mass consumers. Their audience includes those in power, movie stars and businessmen. They earn considerable incomes from the marketing of their books and television shows; they sell hope and are most needed in times of despair. They distribute psychological joys that are neither harmful nor dangerous.
Al Turabi may need to retire, as his reckless adventures have caused his country a host of problems, rather than al Qarni who announced his plans in a long poem. Do not mourn, al Qarni; go back to your post as a preacher of hope in an age of extremism and violence.