October 2, 2019
Some fourteen centuries ago, the grandson of the last Prophet of Islam, Husayn, was killed at Karbala, in modern Iraq. Muslims around the world will mark the murder of him and his followers, recalling his struggle against a tyrannical ruler. His sacrifice continues to inspire Muslims worldwide, who hold him up as an exemplar who upheld what is right over against what is popular.
The decision of Husayn bin Ali
A Tunisian Muslim scholar who is credited with founding the discipline of sociology, ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān b. Khaldūn, commonly known as Ibn Khaldūn, wrote about that episode in Muslim history. He says that when the transgressions of the ruler of the time, Yazīd bin Mu’awīya, became apparent, a group of Muslims came to Imam Husayn, demanding he call Yazid to account. Imam Husayn arrived at the conclusion that he was obliged to stand against Yazid both because of Yazīd’s infamies and because Husayn possessed the right capacities to do oppose him successfully and thereby seize control.
Ibn Khaldūn, in his characteristic analytical fashion, argues that Imam Husayn was correct about Yazīd’s transgressions, correct that he had the right capacities to take control, but was incorrect about the power he needed in order to do so.
The analysis of Ibn Khaldūn is immensely interesting. Muslim tradition celebrates the notion that different valid answers to a single question might exist — even while only a single correct answer might pertain. Ibn Khaldūn notes this himself many times, but is scathing about those who use this imperative to judge that those who supported Yazīd might have had a valid point of view. On the contrary, he argues that while it was ethically permissible for people not to have rallied to support Imam Husayn on the basis of their assessment that he didn’t have the power to do what was necessary, it was utterly abominable to argue that Imam Husayn was immoral, or worthy of condemnation, for pursuing his course of action.
Rather, Ibn Khaldūn insists that the only course of actions for which valid arguments may be put are either in support of Imam Husayn or simply not to fight Yazīd. What is out of the question as being wholly unethical is to choose to support Yazīd in any way, as a tyrant of huge proportions.
Hundreds of years later, the question of how to engage with repressive rulers and tyrants of different kinds remains a topic of much controversy within the Muslim community. During the Arab revolutionary uprisings that began in 2010 and continue to this day, there were various arguments that offered support for the uprisings from a religious standpoint, as well as for the repressive regimes that were being revolted against.
The situations are, of course, different from those that faced the Muslim community in Imam Husayn’s time. But the question of how to engage with power, when the power structure was so oppressive, remains pertinent.
The witness of Shaykh Emad Effat
There were many Muslim scholars in countries like Egypt, Syria, Libya and Tunisia who backed the uprisings, on the basis that they represented an instance of “upholding the good, and forbidding the evil” — a classical and normative Islamic imperative. One of the first names that springs to mind, particularly when I think back to those years in Egypt, is Shaykh Emad Effat.
Shaykh Emad became known as “Shaykh al-Thawra” (the shaykh of the revolution) and “Shaheed al-Azhar” (the martyr of the Azhar). He was an upholder of the normative Azhari heritage, and beholden to mainstream Sunnism: the two major schools of theology (the Ash‘aris and the Maturidis), the minor school (the Athari or Hanbali) of theology, the Sunni schools of law and Sufism. And at the same time, he was a deep believer in contextualisation, in the finest tradition of his Azhari upbringing. As his student, Ibrahim al-Houdaiby, said of him:
The shaykh greatly respected expertise and listened closely to experts in all fields and gladly sought the advice of social studies specialists before expressing his opinion on something in their field. He criticised ‘preachers’ and ‘shaykhs’ who talk about God’s religion without being qualified.
As I consider the situation that confronts Muslim communities today, both where they are majorities in the Arab world and where they are minorities in the West, this critique seems immensely well-placed. Echoing an aphorism of the medieval polymath Al-Ghazālī — “The harm inflicted on religion by those who defend it improperly is greater than the harm caused by those who attack it properly” — I wrote in a recent article:
[M]any contemporary Muslim religious leaders active in the public sphere pontificate about modernity, postmodernity, and other ideological and ideational constructs without having gone through the requisite training. In the absence of that training, engaging different modern philosophical paradigms may take place — but often from populist, identity-driven standpoints. As a result, the intellectual universes that give rise to such issues in the first place are not particularly well examined nor especially well understood. Often this results in alignments with figures on the conservative (and anti-Muslim) right wing of Western political discourse, under the mistaken assumption such figures are allies against these paradigms. With proper training, however, such interlocutors would be proficient, educationally speaking, at advanced levels, about those constructs.
When it came to engagement with power, Shaykh Emad was a complex figure. He was a member of the official religious establishment from 2003 until his death; he held the position of amin al-fatwa, or the “director of religious verdicts” at Egypt’s Dar al-‘Ifta — a branch of the state’s Ministry of Justice, which issues religious verdicts to citizens and state departments that requests them. This is an important facet of Shaykh Emad, because it reminds us that being true to one’s principles doesn’t always mean being apart from power; sometimes it means engaging with power from within — though, of course, only up to the point where one’s principles are not compromised.
And that sense of consistency to principle meant that Shaykh Emad was also a member of the protests against the military leaders of Egypt in 2011, and led him to join the earlier protests against the then president, Hosni Mubarak. During the day, he would continue his work as an ‘alim that was part of the official state apparatus; them, at night, he went to Tahrir Square and called for accountability of that same state apparatus. He saw no contradiction in in doing — indeed, it was the expression of a more profound consistency to principle.
There is a sense in which Shaykh Emad Effat brought together what I would call the “Hasani” and the “Husayni” approaches to engaging with power: the former attempting to minimise damage and lessen conflict; the latter opposing it through open declarations. For Shaykh Emad, these approaches were intertwined — by consistency, by persistent adherence to principle, by a refusal to bow to authoritarianism of any type.
Some might be tempted to accuse Shaykh Emad of playing both sides of the field or of hedging his bets. But the reality is that the Husayni way of open opposition is appropriate in some situations, and the Hasani way of minimising damage others — they are both Prophetic. And they both revert back to that prescription “forbidding the wrong and enjoining the good.”
Is such engagement effective? What about those who suffer from that engagement? What about those who would suffer without such engagement? What is the extent of that engagement that is necessary? Can it be limited? Should it be? These were — and are — the types of questions that face all those who would consider engagement with power.
But Shaykh Emad wasn’t simply about engaging with the power structure and opposing that same power structure openly. He also was clearly opposed to those from outside the hegemonic power structure who engaged unethically and immorally. Ibrahim al-Houdaiby once tweeted about the massacre of the Copts in Maspero, which took place a couple of months earlier in Cairo. He declared that any talk which does not begin with the condemnation of the massacre was “an affront to humanity and patriotism.” Shaykh Emad, who tweeted nine times in his life, added, “And to religion.”
That was the role of religious vocabulary within Shaykh Emad’s lexicon: to stand for truth against power, not in trying to explain away the abuses of power through verbal gymnastics. He was clear about that when it came to the Egyptian state — even though he worked in one of its institutions — and he was clear about it when it came to sectarianism. The Maspero massacre was nothing if not a sectarian outrage, perpetrated by state institutions and defended by religious populists in the different political Islamist movements. But not Shaykh Emad.
I found his condemnation of the Maspero massacre doubly interesting, because it signified something very clear. It indicated to me — then, as now — that a man of religion like Shaykh Emad rejected authoritarianism and the use of power against the vulnerable by the powerful: whether in the name of religion or not; whether by the state, or by non-state actors. This, irrespective of his commitment to traditional Sunnism — or, as I think he would say, because of that commitment.
Shaykh Emad had no truck with those who would instrumentalise religion for partisan political interests, or those who would justify atrocities on the basis of religion, such as al-Qa’eda or ISIS — a poignant reminder, as we mark the anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks. This is why those groups have been so harshly condemned by the Muslim religious establishment, including those who would otherwise justify rebelling against tyrannical rulers.
The activism of Abdullah Haron
Besides Shaykh Emad Effat, who operated among a Muslim majority, there was Abdullah Haron, who lived in South Africa and is revered as one of the greatest martyrs of the anti-apartheid struggle. He too was a fairly traditional Sunni Muslim, and had travelled to Mecca as a young man in order to study under the noted traditional scholar, Shaykh ‘Abdurahman al-‘Alawi al-Maliki.
Though an imam, Haron was an activist through and thorough. He was a vocal opponent of apartheid. He engaged with the Coloured People’s Congress, the Non-European Unity Movement and the Teacher’s League, among other organisations. He was deeply involved in inter-faith relations, women’s empowerment and the building and strengthening of civic institutions such as newspapers. He was also an internationalist figure, responsible for the distribution of millions of rand worth of assistance to political detainees through the International Defence and Aid Fund, which he arranged during his travels to Europe.
But in 1969, he was arrested and imprisoned by the regime. During the 123 days that Haron was in prison, he was tortured with batons, electric shocks and needles stuck into his spine. He died of a heart attack on 27 September 1969, no doubt due to the trauma he experienced. During his funeral, the first earthquake to hit Cape Town in 160 years occurred; it was 6.3 on the Richter scale. The symbolism of this seismic event was not lost on the 30,000 people who attended his funeral procession. Here was another example of an Imam Husayn variety of Muslim scholar.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that the mainstream Muslim community of South Africa shared Abdullah Haron’s commitment to activism. And, in this regard, there are interesting parallels with the contemporary world. In South Africa, there were traditional Muslim authorities and figures that preferred a more quietist approach — they too loathed the system of apartheid, but decided that to oppose it might bring about more harm than good as a result of the ensuing instability. There were others that made apologies for it. Perhaps Haron might have been sympathetic to the first group, but certainly not the latter.
Shaykh Emad, likewise, didn’t advocate complete disassociation from power, though I believe he also respected such disassociation as a legitimate choice. But he was consistent. Shaykh Emad noted once:
Sheikhs of Al-Azhar used to leave their resignations in the drawers of their secretaries and told them: if you see us submitting to pressure then hand over the resignation to the press. When they are honest to God, He makes them victorious and cherishes them.
In analysing this observation elsewhere, I noted:
Ironically, critics of this parochial use of religion more often voice criticism of one camp, or the other. Seldom are objections of the phenomenon itself made — that while religion can inspire people to do wonderful things, it ought not to be used for partisan, venal political gain, irrespective of the culprit.
That critique, I would propose, applies to far more parties than we care to admit — including many within the political Islamist camp, as well as supporters of crackdowns against them.
“The end is the gauge”
Shaykh Emad told one of his students in 2011:
I urge everyone, especially my students, to pause and reflect. The gauge is not the success of the revolution but taking a stand. Revolutions can be aborted, and sincere calls can be defeated. Some prophets, peace be upon them, will come alone on the Day of Judgment, some were killed, and that is not a measure of failure. Not at all; the gauge is one’s stand.
Do not look at the consequence of what has happened but look at its nature and what it was. What was your position? Where were you? Why were some of us present in classes and at prayers, but absent at these blessed moments? We must reassess and hold ourselves accountable because God, with His mercy, extended our lives, and so this is an opportunity to re-evaluate. As long as we breathe there is room for repentance and revision. The end is the gauge. It is not too late. Perhaps what is coming is harder than what has passed.
This an important piece of advice because it reminds us of the possible ethical stances in engaging with power. One can disassociate from power altogether when it is repressive — and that’s a legitimate stance, as Ibn Khaldūn reminds us. There were many in Imam Husayn’s time who did not join him, but they did not back the tyrant that he was fighting against. To back such a ruler, according to Ibn Khaldūn, would be abominable; it is simply not an option.
It may well be the option to fight the tyrant openly — that was the stance that Imam Husayn took — but to do so in a way that is principled, rather than indulging in any form of extremism, in the name of religion or otherwise. Extremists like that took the life of Imam Husayn’s own father, Imam Ali, who described a part of their discourse as: “A word of truth by which is intended falsehood.”
At present, Muslim communities in both majority and minority situations still struggle with how to engage with repressive power. History is replete with examples — from the archetype Imam Husayn, to Imam Haron and Shaykh Emad. As Muslim gather this month to remember the sacrifices of those who gave their lives during Muharram with Imam Husayn, they are reminded of his stance — to oppose tyranny. A careful study of history will also remind us of those who opted to disassociate entirely, which is entirely valid according to the tradition. As for those who would associate with tyrannical power by supporting it, advocating it, defending it and claiming that the unethical is ethical, the immoral is moral, and injustice is justice … well, Ibn Khaldūn said it best:
So it was not allowed to fight alongside Yazīd, nor was it allowed for Yazīd! Indeed, this act was of the most extreme manifestations of his transgressions. And Husayn was a martyr, rewarded [in the hereafter], upon the truth and his [valid] reasoning.
Dr H.A. Hellyer is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Instituteand the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a visiting professor at the Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilisation in Kuala Lumpur. He is currently on the steering committee for a multi-year EU-funded project on ‘Radicalisation, Secularism and the Governance of Religion’, which brings together European, North African and Asian perspectives with a consortium of 12 universities and think-tanks.
Source: ABC Religion & Ethics