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Asharq Al-Awsat Talks to Saudi Minister of Islamic Affairs Sheikh Saleh Al al-Sheikh - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- Saudi Minister of Islamic Affairs Sheikh Saleh Bin Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh believes that the royal decree by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz calling for the unification of fatwas and restricting their issuance to the Senior Ulema Council will achieve very positive aims that will transform the fatwa from having domestic status to an international one. This will help in looking after the higher interests, steering away from the aberrant and doubtful pronouncements, and looking after the general situation of the Muslims. Al al-Sheikh stresses that the efforts of the King are great and diversified with regard to removing suspicions at the international and political levels, and removing suspicions at the level of knowledge and ulema. The King’s efforts also act in the interest of the international character of Islam, and help in defending Islam against suspicion and introducing it in a civilizational way.

In a comprehensive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Minister Al al-Sheikh has considered that the achievement of intellectual security is a necessity and a requirement that stems from centrism. He points out that belonging to the country is part of the faith, and that the Islamic Affairs Ministry has succeeded in spreading the jurisprudence of belonging and citizenship within a project that has started, and will be generalized across all regions. Within this context, Al al-Sheikh stresses that the comprehensive reform steps, sponsored by King Abdullah with regard to the religious and intellectual aspects through the conference on the dialog of religions and of civilizations with the aim of closing the gap between the followers of different religions, have succeeded.

The Saudi minister of Islamic affairs states that the project of renewing the religious address and the concept of moderation, which has been adopted by the ministry for nine years, has succeeded. He considers that the hard-line attitude weakens the Islamic call, while moderation contributes to spreading the message of Islam, and hence spreads the Islamic call.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your assessment of the royal directive with regard to unifying the fatwa source, and restricting it to the Senior Ulema Council, and of the contribution of these directives to confronting and excluding the aberrant fatwas?

[Al al-Sheikh] We thank Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin-Abdulaziz, God support him, for his attention to the Islamic affairs, Islamic jurisprudence, ulema, scholars, and protectors of Shariaa. We thank him for his praise for them in this royal decree; all those included – be they Sheikhs in fatwa issuing work, employees of Ministry of Islamic Affairs, preachers in Mosques, Islamic callers, or university professors – were pleased by this praise. There is no doubt that the result of this royal decree will be the control of fatwa, because controlling fatwa is one of the duties of the guardian, and the protection of the religion and the world issues are up to the guardian. Controlling the fatwa is a protection of religion, and a guarantee that no one will fabricate something about God’s religion that is not part of it.

It is well known that fatwa is different from knowledge, and from jurisprudence; fatwa is applying jurisprudence to the reality on the ground. The application of jurisprudence, which exists in the books and in what Shariaa scholars study, to the reality on the ground requires additions to the knowledge, and an understanding of political reality, social reality, interests and harms, jurisprudence of priorities and what should be put first and what should be put last, and customs and conditions of the time and place. Jurisprudence is a general fatwa, or general ruling; it contains things that might suit the Kingdom but do not suit those in the United States, things that suit those in Indonesia but not those in Australia, and so on. Therefore, the jurisprudent mufti is different from the teacher of jurisprudence. The teacher of jurisprudence talks about the rulings in the abstract, but the mufti is the one who looks at the reality of the one asking for fatwa, the reality of his situation and what is related to it, and then he gives the fatwa in the way that makes the situation of the people better. This is because the fatwa is aimed at improving the situation of the one asking for it, at bringing him closer to God Almighty, and at achieving the public interests.

Therefore, we consider that the order by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques about this honorable issue will achieve great aims, God willing, and will bring the fatwa in Saudi Arabia to the international level, because if fatwa is controlled, it will look after the greater interests, steer away from the aberrant and doubtful pronouncement, and look after the general situation of the Muslims, and hence it will spread from the domestic level to the international one as a result of the confidence in the ulema of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The establishments of the ministry are dealt with by its affiliate organizations among the Islamic callers and those cooperating with it among the Sheikhs in delivering lectures; therefore, they will be prevented from issuing public fatwas in the lectures, except for those who have permission to do so. In the ministry institutions, the lecture is followed by questions. These questions can either be about the subject of the lecture, or asking for fatwa. If the question is asking for fatwa and the lecturer is not one of those permitted to issue fatwas, he will not accept the question. The next stage is to lay down a mechanism to implement the order of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Everybody notices the commitment of King Abdullah to supporting Islam and Muslims, and his relentless work to rectify the image of Islam in the eyes of the world through his directives to lay down a program aimed at explaining the loftiness of Islam and removing the suspicions about it. How do you observe these efforts by the King?

[Al al-Sheikh] King Abdullah’s efforts are huge and diversified. These efforts are too big to be observed by a single authority; there have to be several authorities, because some of these efforts are related to repelling suspicions at the international and political level, others are related to repelling suspicions at the level of knowledge and ulema. We consider that all the steps taken by King Abdullah – God preserve him – are for the benefit of the international character of Islam, the repelling of suspicions about Islam, and the introduction of Islam in a civilizational way. Even the surgical operations that are carried out to separate twin babies serve the message of Islam, because they give a good image of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the country of Islam and Muslims and the focus of all Muslims, as the country that pays attention to man, and is kind and merciful to him in accordance with Islamic Shariaa.

King Abdullah in his efforts has gone beyond the political aspect. He pays attention to the economic aspect, and to the reform of the world economy. You can see that he has participated in the G20 summit more than once and you have witnessed his effectiveness in the discussions and the proposals there with the aim of renovating the world economy and reviving it. There are also King Abdullah’s efforts in the Muslim homeland, and his commitment to unite the Muslim opinions, unite the Muslims, reconcile the brethren, reconcile the disputes, and support the Muslims at the times of disaster. King Abdullah’s initiatives in this respect are endless.

Also in the social reality, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques has pursued relentlessly raising the level of income of the Saudi citizen, removing poverty, helping the poor families, improving the economy, and strengthening the public income of the state.

Also at the Islamic level, which is one of the Kings mission, King Abdullah, God preserve him, has paid attention to a number of issues. These issues include, at the domestic level, reforming the judicial system, reforming the Islamic trusts system, reforming the fatwa, and reforming the Islamic call. He also paid attention to dialog abroad, the dialog among the followers of religions and cultures. The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques calls the dialog between the followers of religions and cultures “the dialog between the followers,” because the religions and cultures will survive and will not be abolished. Any religion will continue as long as God wills, and any culture will survive, but the problem is the interaction and dealings between the followers of religions and cultures. Dialog is an important bridge for communication between the followers of religions and cultures so that they can serve humanity, repel from religion any harm to man, and steer religions away from hostilities and from what does not lead to the truth.

The King also pays attention to making dialog a means to making people understand Islam. We have found through our observation, tours, and the information we receive that many people in the world do not know the reality of Islam. We have shortcomings in introducing Islam; there is Islamic call and we exert efforts, but we have a weakness in the introduction of the reality of Islam, the introduction of the Prophet, God’s prayer and peace be upon him, the introduction of the Koran, the introduction of the merciful Islamic legislations, and the introduction of the bright image of Islam.

For instance, consider the family system in Islam. During a certain period, there was a program for promoting the family system in Islam, and for talking about this system not about Islam. There were a larger number of people in the United States who followed up this program compared to those following up other programs. This is because they need the family program; how the Muslim family lives, its system, the marriage system, the system of bringing up children, the financial rights, the way to steer away from pretension, family ties, meeting, compassion, mercy, care for the sick, honoring the parents, and so on; this is the family system. Thus, the review of the family system was an introduction of Islam. For this reason the King has paid attention to the introduction of Islam, and the aim of the dialog and of the research centers across the world has been to convey Islam as it is in reality.

We have experiments in conveying Islam, but they were not all equal in their purity, and hence the efforts by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosque to convey Islam free from improvisations that might not convey its message.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Centrism and moderation are a prominent characteristic of the Islamic nation. However, this has not been noticed clearly on the ground of reality. What do you consider to be the suitable mechanism to spread centrism and moderation, and to confront excess, squandering, extremism, and exclusion? What are the plans and programs you have prepared to serve in this direction?

[Al al-Sheikh] This is a good and important question. The ministry is paying attention to this course, the course of centrism and moderation. This is a multi-faceted course.

First: Why do we pay attention to centrism and moderation? It is because our real survival, and the survival of our call, especially the Salafi and the Islamic call, is through moderation. In history, any excess movement, or any extremist movement dooms itself to extinction. Therefore, in order to secure our survival as a cohesive and united Saudi nation, we have to be characterized by centrism and moderation. Man cannot survive either with recklessness or with extremism; he has to be moderate, deal with God Almighty by paying His dues of monotheism and worship, deal with people by paying their dues through giving them what is their right and be king in his dealings, and deal with his guardians and his country by being well behaved. This coexistence and dealing is what centrism and moderation call for.

You find that in the society in Medina during the era of the Prophet, God’s prayer and peace be upon him, people had Jews and hypocrites as neighbors. A Christian delegation came to the Prophet, God’s prayer and peace be upon him, and he housed them in his mosque. This is a kind of coexistence. The pledge of Omar, which Omar Bin-al-Khattab, God be satisfied with him, gave Ahl al-Dhimmah [non-Muslim monotheists] in the Muslim countries various huge rights. This is because centrism, moderation, and giving people their rights is what makes the nation survive. If we become extremists, we will give the next generations the excuse not to preserve what we want preserved.

Second: As a plan, centrism and moderation deal with hearts. Hearts might or might not accept an idea. Sometimes someone comes to you and says: You are inviting us to moderation, but I do not agree to moderation according to your understanding, but I agree to it according to my own understanding. Therefore, it is imperative to determine the meaning of centrism and moderation. Someone might say: I am a centrist; what centrism? Is it whatever one wants it to be, as many scholars say? Is it what the politicians want it to be? Is it what the United States wants it to be? What, then, is centrism?

The Ministry of Islamic Affairs is not bothered about slogans. The ministry is concerned with the reality of dealing with the term, because terms and slogans are loose. Therefore, we have focused on centrism and moderation in their Shariaa concept, in their religious dimension, in steering away from excess even in worship, and in their social dimension in communication, thinking well of others, animated interaction with all the activities of the society, thinking well of the people, and to love for your brother what you love for yourself. The Islamic foundations and values call for not being proud, because sometimes extremism stems from one’s thinking that he is greater than others. If one believes in God, is submissive to Him, and is pious, he will say: The other might be better than me, and he might have done good deeds that have raised him. Therefore, we must be modest before God. This way we would deep-root the concepts of the values that really define moderation in behavior.

Third: We have established intensive programs to identify the Sunnah of the Prophet, God’s prayer and peace be upon him. The guidance of the Prophet, God’s prayer and peace be upon him, and his life are the criteria of centrism and moderation, so is the course of the Orthodox Caliphs and the good predecessors in their dealings and work. How do we see the reality now? The reality is that the human dealings cannot take place under multiple pressures. We call for centrism and moderation, and we find that there are currents that call for degeneration, and hence our message becomes weak, because there are those who want to force themselves even upon the religious constants to argue about the Koran and to argue about the Sunnah. There are those who want to say the Jews and the Christians should not be called infidels, despite the fact that the Koran says so. Such unstudied terms contradict the Koran, and lead to extremism in the other direction; this makes our mission in sending a general message of centrism more difficult.

Yes, there is a challenge in spreading moderation and centrism. This challenge stems from the reality of the activities in society, because there are those who encroach upon the constants, and when someone encroaches upon one of the constants another one will rise and move toward extremism. Therefore, we call on all to draw up a general course for the media, a general course for Islamic affairs, and a general course for education so that all will be within the framework of centrism and moderation.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz has taken comprehensive reform steps, some of which are related to the religious and intellectual aspects, such as the conference for dialog among religions and among civilizations. What is your assessment of the efforts of the King to close the gap between the followers of the religions, and to consolidate the values of tolerance, centrism, and moderation without violating the constants during this critical period in human history?

[Al al-Sheikh] King Abdullah’s project has been highly successful. For instance, if you look at the situation in the United States, you will find that after the 11 September events a very high percentage of the articles written every month about Islam, Muslims, and Saudi Arabia, were attacking everything we had, and there were delegations that came to the Kingdom that needed to change their concepts about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Several years later, we find that there is a huge reduction in the writings about Islam and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the bad writings are changing into positive writings. Now the negative writings are very limited in number. In the beginning there were hundreds of [negative] articles; now the positive articles are many and the negative ones are few. Naturally, this is due to the project, i.e. this result has not merely stemmed from the passage of time, but it has stemmed from a political project of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at the directives of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, his crown prince, and the second deputy prime minister, and as a result of the efforts of the foreign minister.

Saudi Arabia has succeeded in abolishing the western negative thinking about Islam and about the Kingdom. The fact is that Saudi Arabia has been the most influential country that worked for this result. Also the dialog has led to a good image. For instance, there is the viewpoint of the Vatican; now you see that the Vatican’s statements in the recent years are devoid of the hysteria that existed when the Pope was first appointed.

There are also the interfaith dialogs in the east. The Kingdom attended interfaith dialogs in Kazakhstan and the peace dialog, which were attended by representatives of religions. We are paying attention also to the east so that our attention would not be focused only on the west. Three conferences were held in Kazakhstan, and also a dialog conference on peace was held in Tokyo, in which the Kingdom participated. The Kingdom is effective in all the dialog conferences across the world, the dialog conferences among the followers of other religions and cultures.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How can we change the religious address and introduce renewal in Islamic thinking? Have you adopted practical steps to achieve this, particularly as this requirement was proposed as a principal axis in the last conference of ministers of Islamic trusts and affairs, which was held in Jeddah?

[Al al-Sheikh] For years you have been hearing the phrase: Changing the religious address and renewing it! What is the meaning of these words? Religion is in the Book of God Almighty and in the Sunnah of His Messenger, and the address is the means of conveying Shariaa and religion to the people. For two decades this address was emotional, and a large part of it was inciting and emotional, i.e. they used to stir up the emotions without controls. Also there was an address that contained many rulings that were incompatible with the correct Shariaa, or incompatible with the interpretative judgment of the well-established ulema. Some of the rulings were hard-line to some extent. This was the general address.

Eight or nine years ago, we proposed in the ministry to renew this address. This means that the vehicle for conveying the religion, the Shariaa orders, the religious concepts, and the creed to the people, which is the address, has to be smooth, far removed from excess, far removed from hysteria, and far removed from emotionalism and incitement. We have seen good results.

First: Perhaps you have noticed that the enthusiastic and inciting sermons in the mosques have diminished in number to a huge extent. Now it is rare to find a preacher who incites and makes the people emotional about nothing.

Second: You will find that the effectiveness of the Islamic callers in the call issues has increased, because they now participate in the media, such as the satellite channels. They also participate in the dialogs abroad; they travel and participate in showing the true image of the Saudi ulema, and that they bring good to the nation.

Third: We have achieved the renewal of the religious address by changing the style of writing. For instance, if you look into the numerous writings which present what we want to present, you will find that their form has become more suitable for the concepts of the society. The ministry is keen on conveying the Shariaa to the world, strengthening the creed of every Muslim, and cooperating in achieving what God Almighty says: “Show us the straight way [Sura Al-Fatihah, Verse 6].” This is because anyone who performs a prayer says to God “Show us the straight way,” i.e. strengthen my way, while he is already on the straight path, this means that he wants to strengthen his guidance. Thus, the ministry pursues strengthening this guidance through great means, which are the renewal of the religious address and the concepts of moderation. The success has been high, praise be to God.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have warned that the elite’s, the ulema’s, and the Islamic callers’ lack of vision of the future might lead to the fading of the Islamic call, and to the weakening of Islam. What is the ideal method to achieve change and renewal in the religious address and Islamic thinking?

[Al al-Sheikh] As I said, it is centrism and moderation. Indeed if we adopt a hard-line attitude, the Islamic call will weaken, but if we are moderate, the message of Islam will spread. If we become closed on ourselves, the world will not become closed, but we will become isolated; but if we open up, the result will be positive. For this reason, through conference and effective activists we contacted through the authorities active in the Islamic call, we have called for some integration between the government authorities and the private Islamic call authorities. The ministry has organized a number of symposiums jointly with effective sides, such as the international forum, and Internet websites, such as Islam Today website, Al-Sunnah al-Nabawiyah website, Al-Bayan magazine, and Al-Muslim website. These are only examples, and do not include all the private authorities we work with, as there has been interaction with other private authorities.

The idea was to establish some integration between the private work in Islamic call and the official institutional work. This is because I indeed found in many Muslim and Arab countries that the Islamic trusts ministries were distant from the private activities. This causes separation, and the official language, or the language of the government institutions in Islamic call becomes different from the language of the private institutions. This is something we do not want. All should be integrated, and the language should be close and united over the achievement of the same aim. In order to do this there has been huge interaction. We have organized a symposium and a closed workshop on the way to achieving communication and integration between the ministry, or the government Shariaa institutions, and the personal or private Islamic call institutions. These meetings took place, and they resulted in recommendations, which indeed were implemented in a number of independent forums.

We in the Ministry of Islamic Affairs aspire to establish greater integration between the Islamic call language used by the official institutions, and that used by the private institutions.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that now there is an urgent need to lay the groundwork for the civilizational Islamic call project that does not deny the reality and the needs of the people?

[Al al-Sheikh] Every Islamic caller knows that the magnitude of the Islamic call and the magnitude of its problems and the challenges facing it in reality require urgently a civilizational Islamic call project. Moreover, the civilizational project should not be restricted to the Islamic call. We would like an integrated civilizational project even in the state, a diversified civilizational project. In such a project work should not be based on improvisation, and in which what is allowed should be clear; everyone should know what is allowed and what is not allowed. The project should be in the form of a civilizational program, which we follow, and implement, and which is known to all, young and old. This is because it is not in our interest that the sons of the country do not know what it allowed and what is not allowed, and to have some improvisations in one place, and different improvisations in another. This is one country, and the civilizational project ought to be one so that it includes all the parts of the country, and all people, and so that the country progresses in this project in the same way in all respects, and hence the development, Islamic call, fatwa, and education are compatible with each other, and the civilizational course becomes united.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your estimation of the volume of the funds of the Islamic trusts in the Kingdom? How are these funds invested? What are their annual revenues? Where do all these monies go?

[Al al-Sheikh] First of all, most of the trusts in the Kingdom are dedicated for the Two Holy Mosques. The other trusts, which the ministry manages, are dedicated for specific purposes – mosques, fasting people, or pilgrims – and it is imperative to adhere to the conditions of the creator of the trust, i.e. the spending has to be according to the conditions of the creator of the trust. For instance, there are trusts to house the pilgrims coming from Bukhara, to house the Afghan pilgrims; every year we hire for them a building using the funds of their trust, and they are housed in coordination with the missions concerned. For instance, we have general charity trusts, from which the ministry supports the handicapped children society in Riyadh, Medina, and Mecca; also supports some religious and Islamic call work, and refurbishes many mosques. Every now and then we publish in the media information about some of the expenses of the trusts. Now, the volume of cash available for these trusts is not large, because we have engaged in many investment projects in Mecca, Medina, and other places. What is important is the volume of the assets of the trusts; the assets of the trusts are the land, and the real estate buildings. The assets are very large. I do not remember now the figure, but it exceeds 10 billion riyals, but the liquid cash is small. The investment revenues are spent according to the conditions, as I said, the conditions of the creators of the trusts. If something is in trust for the Two Holy Mosques, it will be directed to the Two Holy Mosques, and if something is on trust for a particular mosque, it will be directed to that mosque.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Has it been proved that any imams or Islamic callers working under the umbrella of your ministry have been involved in terrorist work or intellectual organizations affiliated to the misguided ideology? What are the measures you adopted to expose such people?

[Al al-Sheikh] We have not observed any such people.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Most of the subscribers to the misguided ideology have come out from under the cloak of religion, while religion is innocent of them. These people have exploited their presence in sectors that have a religious character to spread their ideas, which are alien to religion and society. Are there plans and mechanisms to destroy such tendency of these groups?

[Al al-Sheikh] This is a big question. The fact is that the misguided group is an extension of the Khawarij [group whose basic doctrine says that a person or a group who commits a grave error or sin and does not sincerely repent ceases to be Muslim]. The Khawarij emerged at the time of the Prophet, God’s prayer and peace be upon him, at the time of Omar, God be satisfied with him, at the time of Othman, God be satisfied with him, at the time of Ali, God be satisfied with him, and so on. The cause of their emergence is too much excessiveness, because in religion they exceed what is allowed, and hence they go further and further, which is the excess. For this reason, the Prophet, God’s prayer and peace be upon him, when he described the Khawarij, he said: A group of people will appear among you whose prayer, fasting and deeds will make you think little of your own prayer, fasting and deeds, and they will pass through the faith like an arrow passes through game. And he said: They will recite the Koran, but it will not get past their throats.

Therefore, these people were described as Khawarij in the era of the Orthodox Caliphs, the first era, which is the era of commitment, and the best era of this nation. And they were described as reciting the Koran, praying, and fasting, and that they recite the Koran and fast a great deal, but their recitation does not go past their throats. The Prophet, God’s prayer and peace be upon him, ordered that they should be confronted and fought; why? Because they deviated from the straight path. What is important is the course; the amount of worship or enthusiasm for major issues in religion is not a reason for the correctness of the deed.

Now in this era, they come in the name of jihad. They use the name of jihad, and want to be mujahidin, but the Shariaa jihad is innocent of them; why? Because in the jihad they claim they have shed prohibited blood, they fought peaceful, innocent, and protected people, and they violated sanctities, honor, wealth, children, and women. They do not distinguish between young and old. Therefore, this deed of theirs is similar to the deed of past Khawarij, because they pass through the faith like an arrow passes through game. They are as Prince Naif Bin Abdulaziz has called them: “They are the Khawarij of this era.”

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Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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