Dr. Muqtedar Khan
I was fortunate to attend the third annual forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies in Abu Dhabi from 18-19 December. The event attracted over 400 Islamic scholars and peace activists from all over the world. It was hosted by the eminent Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, easily one of the most respected and admired of scholars in the Islamic World. The global forum enjoyed the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the United Arab Emirates. This forum has emerged as one of the leading global Muslim responses to both the rise of extremism in the Muslim World and to the failure of Muslim societies to come to terms with the fundamental elements of modernity, such as the nation-state, secularism and minority rights.
The forum was attended by ministers, educators, scholars and activists from several Muslim and Western countries. I am not going to report or summarize the statements and speeches by everyone, I will however shine some analytical light on three key ideas, that in my judgment dominated the conversation at this forum. The most important idea that was advanced at this forum was a call for the development of a jurisprudence of peace by Sheikh bin Bayyah. The other two ideas worthy of discussion involved the push back by many speakers against the advocacy for the Caliphate as anachronistic and the questioning of the ‘Islamicity’ of the idea of the Islamic state.
The call for a jurisprudence of peace was very interesting. It recognizes that Islamic law has paid a lot of attention to war and so we do have an extensive jurisprudence of war; courtesy the concept of Jihad. Islamic jurisprudence of war explores when war can be legitimately fought, and against whom and what are the ethical constrains on the tactics and scope of warfare. Perhaps one could argue that a desire to limit war itself gave rise to a jurisprudence of Jihad in Islamic law. The call for a jurisprudence of peace essentially recognizes the reality that the idea of peace remains understudied in contemporary Islamic discourse. It also opens a new line of intellectual inquiry into peace studies within the Islamic episteme. The Muslim World today is mired in a state of perpetual conflict. Will a call for a new jurisprudential tradition address the current needs for peacemaking in places like Syria, Iraq and Libya? I am not certain that it will, I do hope however that a global conversation on peacemaking in Muslim societies, enriched by Islamic legal and ethical tradition, is necessary to arrest radicalization and the proliferation of violence.
The discussions on the ideas of the Caliphate and the Islamic state were very interesting and revealing of how some states in the Arab world are fighting radical ideas to preserve status quo. The general trend was to argue that modernity has changed the world significantly and therefore returning to the past and trying to establish a universal Caliphate that would bring all Muslims under its singular jurisdiction was profoundly impractical. Additionally, some argued that Islamic sources do not actually stipulate a structure of government even though many aspects of governance are included in Islamic traditions; so, it is not the form but the content that matters.
Sheikh bin Bayyah advanced an interesting idea; he explored the possibility that since Negus the Christian King of Abyssinia had embraced Islam, it could be argued that there were two Muslim heads of states at the time of Prophet Muhammad (عليه السلام). King Negus also did not pledge political fealty to Medina. The point he was trying to make was to negate the call for one single political entity for Muslims – a caliphate – by positing the existence of two Muslim sovereigns at the same time during the Prophetic era. Though intriguing I did not find this argument persuasive. In King Negus’ life time, a clear majority of his subjects considered him as Christian and his Kingdom was viewed as a Christian kingdom by all and claiming it to be another Muslim country existing side by side with the State of Madinah is a stretch. It is not this idea in itself, but the creative approach to tradition that it brings was to me quite fascinating.
The criticism of the idea of an Islamic State (you can read a genealogy of the idea here) from a body of scholars deeply anchored in the Islamic tradition was overdue. The idea of the Islamic state itself emerged from an acceptance of modernity and recognition that we were now living in the age of nation-states and since Caliphates could not be resurrected we might as well accept existing states and just ‘paint them green (Islamize)’ and call them ‘Islamic’ states. It was a superficial remedy to the fundamental shifts caused by modernity. At this conference, many speakers questioned what was Islamic about the Islamic state, arguing that it is not structure but Islamic values that made a state or society Islamic. These speakers did not however present an alternative solution to structural problems of failed states and mismatched nationalities that emerged from the colonial era except to say, embrace reality. While their critique of the desire for the caliphate and/or the Islamic state is valid, young Muslims everywhere are rejecting the failure of current geopolitical realities and if they are not offered an alternate path to a better future, especially in failed and failing states, they will succumb to the seduction of revolutionary ideologies.
On a personal note, I find such international congregations extremely beneficial. They allow for networking, sharing and learning from mutual experiences and more importantly help create a shared understanding if not a global Ijma on critical issues that Muslims face.
I see the Abu Dhabi forum as a beginning of an important conversation. The forum rejected the call for a global Caliphate and therefore the dangerous ideologies peddled by ISIS and Al Qaeda and it also rejected the Islamic state and the ideology of Muslim Brotherhood that flubbed its historic opportunity in Egypt and Tunisia after the Arab spring. In a way, the forum is a powerful global Muslim initiative against religious radicalism and political extremism. I am glad that I was able to participate in the forum and I hope that it sustains the important Muslim-Muslim dialogue that it has begun.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan is Professor at the University of Delaware. He is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Global Policy. His website is Ijtihad and he tweets at www.twitter.com/Muqtedarkhan. Click for his Amazon Page, and his Youtube Channel.
On a personal note, I find such international congregations extremely beneficial. They allow for networking, sharing and learning from mutual experiences and more importantly help create a shared understanding if not a global Ijma on critical issues that Muslims face. I want to give a shout out to some of the participants from whose sohbet (fellowship) at the forum I benefitted a great deal. I had a chance to chat with Sheikh Hamza Yusuf and was deeply moved to learn first-hand about his vision and his struggles to establish Zaytuna, an Islamic University that teaches liberal arts. I was delighted to reconnect with Baroness Pola Uddin, a member of the House of Lords in England after a decade and learned about her continuing struggle for the rights of women and the disabled. I met Dr. Musharraf Hussain for the first time and he shared his new translation of the Quran with me. I met Zeshan Zafar the force behind these forums, for the first time. A Sufi in a suit, Zafar represents the activists and silent managers of the emerging Muslim movement against extremism and in support of tradition.
Dr. Qamar ul-Huda was there. He is a senior policy advisor in the State Department and a fellow consumer of Biryani, Qawali and Tasawwuf. He and Dr. Hisham Hellyer, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author of the new book, A Revolution Undone, were the bad boys who took me Sheesha smoking in Abu Dhabi. Its friends like them who help me understand the minute contours of global politics that enrich both my teaching and my research. I had a few confabs with Mohamed Elsanousi, who is one of the most active Muslims on the global inter-faith scene. Asma Uddin from the USA and Sara Khan from UK regaled me with stories of their activism and leadership. They both founded and direct their own think tanks. Sara directs Inspire, that empowers women and combats extremism and Asma a diehard advocate of religious freedom, has founded and runs the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom. I also met and reconnected with Manal Omar, a VP at the US Institute of Peace. She is an important voice in Washington DC and it is always good to hear from her. I also benefitted from the sagely companionship of Dr. Sherman Jackson. The brother is always sharp, intellectually and sartorially. I find any and every meeting with him enlightening. Clearly there were many more influential and powerful Muslims leaders, scholars and ministers at this conference. But I did not get to hang out with them. They are way beyond my paygrade.