While most media coverage of interfaith deals with interfaith conflicts there have been significant progress in interfaith dialogue. Amongst the more prominent projects are the following:
A Common Word (ACW)
The ACW interfaith initiative celebrated its 5 year anniversary on October 13, 2012. Starting as an open letter from a group of 138 Muslim scholars and clerics addressed to Christian leaders everywhere, the ACW has become the catalyst behind a global bridge-building effort between Christians and Muslims. ACW focuses on the common ground between both religious communities, highlighting points of commonality found in the commandments to love God and one’s neighbor; (see the recently redesigned website at: www.ACommonWord.com).
The Muslim-Catholic Forum
From November 21–23, 2011 the second Muslim-Catholic Forum was held at the Baptism Site of Jesus in Jordan. Twenty-four Catholic and twenty-four Muslim religious leaders, scholars, and educators met and in continuation of the first Catholic-Muslim Seminar held in Rome in 2008, discussed together the theme: Reason, Faith and the Human Person and issued a joint declaration surrounding these issues.
The World Interfaith Harmony Week
Extending the principles of A Common Word to include people of all faiths, and those with no faith, King Abdullah II of Jordan in his address to the UNGA 2010 proposed ‘Love of God and Love of Neighbour’, or ‘Love of the Good and Love of Neighbour’ to designate the first week of February, every year, as a World Interfaith Harmony Week (WIHW). A month later, the resolution, a brainchild of H.R.H.Prince Ghazi, the Chief Advisor for Religious and Cultural Affairs to H.M. King Abdullah II’ was adopted. The first week of February is now observed as an official week and has seen hundreds of events each year in dozens of countries with up to 50,000 attendees at the events. The second annual week, held in February 2012, saw a large increase in gatherings and the upcoming WIHW 2013 looks even more promising with the recent announcment of annual prizes, including $25,000 for the best event.
More information: Download RISSC’s A Common Word: Between Us & You, 5th Anniversary Edition for free at http://www.ACommonWord.com. To learn more about the WIHW visit their website at: www.WorldInterfaithHarmonyWeek.com.
Prominent Influencers: Sheikh Dr Ali Gomaa (p. 63), Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah (p. 87), Habib Umar bin Hafidh (p. 91), H.E. Dr Mustafa Ceric (p. 96), Dr Aref Nayed (p. 97), Dr Timothy Winter (p. 98), Dr Ibrahim Kalin (p. 113), and Dr Ingrid Mattson (p. 114).
Since the very beginning of the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, the holy sites of the Old City of Jerusalem have been under attack, particularly Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa, one of Islam’s three holiest sites. The explicit goal of these attacks and violations is to build the ‘third temple’ on the site of Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa.
Attacks & Violations
In recent years economic, social, political and physical attacks on Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa have intensified. Calls for the demolition of Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa, once the preserve of extremists and fundamentalists, have now become pervasive, commonplace and to be found even in mainstream media. This, coupled with an almost daily violation of Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa by violent settlers and their ilk make the partition or even destruction of Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa a distinct possibility. The partition of the Ibrahimi Mosque into Jewish and Muslim parts in neighbouring Hebron in the early 1990s is the blueprint for these ambitions for one of Islam’s most holy and sacred sites.
Breaking of a Taboo
On 28 February, 2012, during a meeting for the Arab League in Doha, Qatar, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made a plea for Muslims to visit Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa. On April 18, 2012, H.R.H. Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan, accompanied by the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, broke what had been, in some parts of the Islamic World, a 45 year taboo by visiting Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa in order to pray there and support the beleaguered Jerusalemites. The visit was viewed as controversial in Egypt, but set off a change of public opinion in the Islamic World. During the trip to Jerusalem, the Prince and the Grand Mufti also visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This visit was much appreciated by the Christian community of Jerusalem.
Role of H.M. King Abdullah II
H.M. King Abdullah II of Jordan is the custodian of the Muslim holy sites in the city of Jerusalem. He has gone on record in March 2010 to condemn Israel’s inclusion of West Bank religious sites on its national heritage list. The Jordanian Awqaf and Islamic Affairs Ministry announced in 2010 a donation of over 2 million Jordanian Dinars from H.M. King Abdullah II for projects around the Al-Aqsa compound.
More information: Read Dr Wasfi Kailani’s Why Should Muslims Visit Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa? and Keys to Jerusalem (free downloads from www.rissc.jo).
Prominent Influencers: HM King Abdullah II ibn Al Hussein (p. 49), Sheikh Dr Ali Gomaa (p. 63), Habib Ali Al-Jifri (p. 93), Sheikh Dr Yusuf Al-Qaradawi (p. 67), Sheikh Dr Ikrima Sa‘id Sabri (p. 125), and Dr Sari Nusseibeh (p. 119).
3. Palestinian Statehood
On Friday 23 September, 2011 at the UN headquarters in New York, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority submitted a request for formal recognition of a Palestinian state along pre-1967 lines. Although this move has the support of most members of the UN, the US vowed to veto it. The statehood bid at the UN has not been met with approval by all. Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, criticized Abbas for accepting pre-1967 borders, and thus foregoing 80% of Palestinian land. The Israeli Prime Minister dismissed the whole process. Apart from these two reactions, most other responses have been overwhelmingly in favour of Abbas’ move, with an estimated 80% of countries supporting the bid.
Prominent Influencers: HE President Mahmoud Abbas (p. 90), Ismail Haniyah (p. 119).
The Gaza Strip, bordering Egypt and Israel, covers approximately 25 miles by 4-7 miles and has a population of 1.7 million people. Israel withdrew its occupying force in 2005, but the Gaza Strip has been subject to a crippling economic blockade since 2007. Attempts by international peace activists to break the blockade have led to fatal confrontations with the Israeli Defence Force.
Border skirmishes between the Palestinians and Israelis happen consistently, and have in 2008-2009, and in 2012 (as of print) led to massive destruction and killing in Gaza by the combined might of the Israeli air, navy and ground forces. The 2008-09 conflict saw approximately 1,400 Palestinian and 13 Israeli deaths. There was international outcry at the number of civilians, particularly children, who were killed, and there was much evidence of the use of banned weapons (white phosphorous) by Israeli forces. The current conflict is following a similar pattern with much of Gaza being reduced to rubble, high civilian casualties, and Hamas rocket and mortar attacks targeting southern Israel. It has also fired a rocket at Jerusalem (Hamas says the target was the Israeli parliament but the rocket landed miles away.) Islamic Jihad (a more militant Gaza group) took credit for two rockets which targeted Tel Aviv but ended up landing in the sea nearby. The Israelis say these are their “red lines” and have continued to call up reserves, with a large IDF armour and infantry force now poised at the Gaza border.
The international community has again condemned the killing of civilians, and much support has again mobilised for the people of Gaza. An unexpected source of support has been from the hacktivist group ‘Anonymous’ which has launched cyber attacks on over 700 Israeli websites.
The current conflict is being fought not just on the physical ground, but also on social-media sites, and in cyberspace.
5. Massacre of the Rohingya Muslims
According to the UN, the Rohingya Muslims are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, and have been described: “among the world’s least wanted”. Living in the state of Rakhine (Arakan) in western Myanmar (Burma), they are a people who nobody wants. The Myanmar government classifies them as stateless Bengali Muslims, and the Bangladesh government refuses to acknowledge them. Many have fled to refugee camps I Bangladesh (where they receive no aid), or along the Thai-Myanmar border (there have been reports of boatloads of Rohinga being abandoned in the open sea). They been subject to all kinds of persecution and recently they have become targets of violence by Rakhine Buddhists.
According to the President of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, 650 Rohingyas have been killed, 1,200 are missing, and more than 80,000 have been displaced since the riots. The Burmese army and police have been accused of targeting Rohingya Muslims through mass arrests and arbitrary violence. A number of monks’ organizations that played a vital role in Burma’s struggle for democracy, have taken special procedures to block any humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya community.
9. Destruction of Sufi Shrines
The past year has seen a troubling trend of systematic grave desecration done by various Wahhabi groups in Libya, Mali, and Egypt. With the fall of ruling powers resulting from the Arab Spring many Wahhabis have decided to utilize power vacuums that opened up in Libya and susequently Mali to ravage these lands by destroying all signs of their holy sites, which according to their puritanical view are heredical, pagan-like, grave worshipping, despite the fact that the vast majority of Sunni scholars throughout history have held them to be valid and even praiseworthy to maintain. Spurred on by some popular scholars in Saudi Arabia the trend continues to happen although their destruction of centuries old heritage has been condemned by all other Muslims as sacrilege.
March 2012 – the Tomb of a 15th-Century scholar Abdel Salam al-Asmar in Zlitan, about 160km (100 miles) south-east of Tripoli.
Al-Shaab Al-Dahman mosque housed close to 50 Sufi graves inside and, outside, the tombs of Libyan Sufi scholar Abdullah al-Sha’ab and a martyr who fought Spanish colonialists.
October 2011 – Desecration of the Al-Masry shrine in Tripoli
In January 2012 – fanatics wrecked the cemetery of Sidi Ubaid in Benghazi, stealing 31 corpses
August 2012 – digging out the blessed resting place of Hazrat Shaykh Ahmad Zaruq
Tomb of Sidi Mahmoud who died in 955 A.D
July 2012 – Sidi Mokhtar Ben Sidi Mohammad and Alpha Moya Lamtouni
Ansar Dine tore down one of the doors of the 15th century Sidi Yahya mosque.
September 2012 – The destruction of the tomb of Almirou Mahamane Assidiki in Goundam
2010 – extremists bombed the shrine of well-known sufi master and wali, Hazrat Data Ganj Baksh Ali Hujweri, in Lahore, Pakistan, killing 42 people.
In April 2011, during the annual festival at a large Sufi shrine in southern Punjab in Pakistan, two suicide bombers set off an explosion killing more than 40 worshippers and injuring hundreds more.
April 2011 – in the Egyptian town of Qalyoub, armed with crowbars and sledgehammers, two dozen salafi fanatics arrived at the Sidi Abdel Rahman shrine in the middle of the night aiming to smash it to pieces. Five other shirnes in Qalyoub were destroyed soon after Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power.
In November 2012 a Salafi cleric called on Egyptians to destory all ancient Egyptian landmarks, including the popular Sphinx and pyramids: the vital bloodline of Egyptian tourism revenue.
In addition to this destruction, one can add the tragic assassination in August 2012 of Said Afandi, the Muslim Sufi leader of Dagestan. An outspoken critic of Wahhabism, the leader was murdered by a female suicide-bomber.
6. The Fight for Al-Azhar
Al-Azhar University is the oldest university in the world (some say that the Qarwiyyin University in Morocco is older) being founded in 975CE. It is also the largest university in the world with about 500,000 students in its university campuses and another 1.5 to million students in its schools. In addition, it runs the accreditation programs for hundreds of Islamic schools and universities all over the world. Added to this is the fact that over 45,000 of Egypt’s 110,000 mosques are owned and run by Al-Azhar (and their preachers are Azharis – graduates of Al-Azhar).
The Grand Imam of the Azhar (who appoints the head of the University and heads the Higher Council of the Azhar—currently Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb) is a lifetime appointment, that once appointed, cannot be removed even by the President of Egypt. The Grand Imam is considered the highest religious highest authority of the Sunni world. (90% of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims are Sunni).
All foreign students studying at the Azhar study for free. There are perhaps 75,000 foreign graduates from religious sciences colleges in Egypt alone all over the world. These graduates form the religious elite of the entire Islamic world.
Most important of all, the Azhar is the bastion of traditional, orthodox, moderate Sunni Islam, i.e. the Islam of Ash’arite-Maturidian doctrine, Sufi practice and ‘four Madhhab’ (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali) Jurisprudence. In other words, the Azhar is the spiritual and intellectual home of 90% of Sunni Islam (i.e. of 1.7 billion Muslims all over the world): of all Sunnis except Salafis, Muslim Brotherhood and Secularists. The Azhar student body is 95% traditional, and the teaching staff is 99.9% traditional. The Azhar openly and regularly criticizes and dismisses Salafi thought.
So important is the Azhar that the previous Egyptian (Mubarak) government did not allow any foreign funding (especially from Saudi Arabia or the Gulf) to the Azhar—in order not to allow any outside influence. It regarded the Azhar as one of Egypt’s greatest strategic assets, and paid US $ 800 million from the national budget to the Azhar annually. That was not nearly enough for the Azhar to reach its full potential, but given Egypt’s impoverishment, it shows how importantly the government regarded it.
It is impossible to overstate the Azhar’s importance and influence in the Islamic world. It is the single most important reason—perhaps the only serious factor—in keeping heavily-funded Salafi thought down to less than 10% of the Sunni world, despite all the Salafi money and the impoverishment of traditional Muslims. (Salafis are fundamentalists, but not militants as such. Nevertheless, militant fundamentalism is largely an offshoot of Salafism).
In short: The Azhar is the Harvad-Yale-Princeton-Oxford-Cambridge-Sorbonne-cum-Vatican-and-Catholic-Church of the Sunni world (i.e. for 90% of Islam’s 1.65 billion Muslims):
The Muslim Brotherhood has publicly stated that they want to ‘reform’ the Azhar, the Egypt Ministry of Religious Affairs, and the Grand Mufti directorate. In 2011, they stated they want these more than they want the Presidency of Egypt. Even if they do not get direct control of the Azhar, they will likely seek to control it indirectly by controlling its government funding or by parliamentary legislation.
If the Muslim Brotherhood gain control of the Azhar and the Salafis gain control of the Fatwa council, it will mean a fundamental change for Islam in Egypt, and beyond, with the oldest and most powerful university in the world having its classical Islamic Asharite doctrine replaced by Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi ideas. Perhaps as a sign of things to come, on 16 November, 2012, Shaykh Qaradawi, the spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, delivered his frst ever Friday Khutbah (sermon) at the Al-Azhar mosque. Thus, the battle for control of the Islamic World’s greatest institution, the Azhar, and all this implies, has begun in earnest.
Prominent Influencers: H.E. President Mohamed Morsi (p. 57), H.E. Sh. Ahmad Al-Tayyeb (p. 51), Sheikh Dr Ali Gomaa (p. 63),
7. The Integral Chairs
The International Initiative for the Islamic Integral Professorial Chairs.
The sciences of traditional Islamic knowledge are very poorly understood in the Islamic World, and taught only in selective, abbreviated versions. Fundamentalism increasingly rules the mosques while secular academic methodologies rule the institutes of learning in the Islamic World. Even in the West, though Muslims have donated hundreds of millions of dollars to create professorial chairs and academic centres in leading western universities, these chairs and centres are invariably run or occupied by non-Muslims (or secular Muslims), and so the centres and chairs—funded by Muslims!—wind up being hostile, or at least unhelpful, to traditional Islam. This situation is leading to intellectual and spiritual impoverishment in the Islamic World, a rise in fundamentalism, and ironically, at the same time, a rise in secularism.
The purpose of this initiative is to restore knowledge and teaching of traditional Islamic orthodox high culture and scholarship in philosophy, theology, mysticism, jurisprudence, Qur’anic exegesis, sociology, history and Arabic language and grammar in the Islamic World in combination with traditional Islamic teaching and preaching methods. The goal of this initiative is to set up around 50 Integral Chairs in the Islamic World each as a waqf (religious endowment) in mosques and universities combined, occupied by practicing Muslim scholars, and dedicated to the intellectual and spiritual legacy of the greatest Muslim scholars and sages. Thereafter, an international institute to connect and support their activities must be established.
The Integrals Chairs project, the brainchild of H.R.H. Prince Ghazi, the Chief Advisor for Religious and Cultural Affairs to H.M. King Abdullah II, was officially launched on January 30, 2012 in honor of the 50th birthday of H.M. King Abdullah II ibn Al-Hussein (p. 49), under whose name the waqfs for the first two chairs were established. The first chair, The Integral Chair for the Study of Imam Al-Ghazali’s Work at the Holy Al-Aqsa Mosque and Al-Quds University will formally launch in January 2013 with Professor Mustafa Abu Sway (p. 103) as the first Integral Chair along with an Academic Board that consists of H.R.H. Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, H.E. Sheikh Ali Gomaa (p. 63), H.E. Sheikh Dr Muhammad Said al-Bouti (p. 86), Habib Omar bin Hafiz (p. 91), Habib Ali Al-Jifri (p. 93), and others. For further information see www.rissc.jo.