Click here to browse the booklet as PDF

1
CONTENT
INTRODUCTION
4
CHAPTER 1:
7
INSTITUTIONAL DIMENSIONS OF THE UAE’s SUFI NETWORK
Charging Political Sufism
8
Confronting Islamic Movements With Political Sufism
12
United Arab Emirates: Security And Balance
15
The Establishment Of The “Council Of Elders”:
Strengthening Civil Peace Or Fuelling Political Disagreement?
18
‘The Muslim Council Of Elders’ – Objectives And Contradictions
23
The Formation Of The Muslim Council Of Elders
And Challenges Of Representation
27
Will The Council Of Muslim Elders Succeed In Establishing
A New Religious Authority?
30
The Sufi Political Network And How It Operates
34
“Mominoun Without Borders” – The Islamic Left And Political Sufism
39
The Future Of Political Sufism
43
CHAPTER 2: 47
THE POLITICAL ROLE OF THE ‘NEW DERVISHES’
Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb: Dreams Of A Global Religious Authority
48
Abdullah Bin Bayyah: The Sufi Faqih
53
Ali Al Jafri: Political Sufism, Reality And Ambition
57
Ali Gomaa: Grand Military Mufti Of Egypt?
61
Hamza Yusuf: Intersections – The Naqshbandi Network And
New Allies
64
Jihad Hashim Brown: Tabah Reach And Vision
68
Zaid Shakir: Identity, Reason, And Political Sufism
71
Abdul Hakim Murad: The European Wing Of Political Sufism
74
Muhammad Hisham Kabbani: Confronting Hate With Hate
77
Musa Furber’s Spiritual Journey And The Winds Of Tabah
80
Content Continued...
CHAPTER 3: 82
IMPLICATIONS OF ABU DHABI’S SUFI NETWORK
ON SAUDI SECURITY
Describing The Wahhabi Movement As Jewish:
A Slip Of The Tongue Or A Formal Attitude?
83
US-Iranian Alliance Of Convenience
86
Identity Challenges In Saudi Arabia
89
Wahhabism: From the perspective of the former British intelligence officer
Alastair Crooke and Hassan Nasrallah
93
The Religious Establishment In Saudi Arabia In The Absence Of
A Coherent Regional Role
97
The Scramble For Religious Authority
102
What Is The Secret Behind Saudi’s Uneasy Attitude Towards
Islamist Movements?
106
Saudi Arabia: Towards A Rational Dialogue
112
CONCLUSION 114
Back to Content
INTRODUCTION
The UAE has witnessed major changes since the death of its founder, Sheikh
Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan in 2004.
Sources have attributed the modern transformation of the state to the efforts
of his son, Mohammed bin Zayed, Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed
Forces and Chairman of Abu Dhabi Executive Council.
One of the most important positions Mohammed bin Zayed has occupied is his
role as the advisor to the Head of State for National Security. Over the past
ten years (2004-2014), he has worked on incorporating religious affairs with
national security as part of a joint policy approach, considering the Sunni Maliki
Madhhab and Sufism as integral parts of the national identity of all the UAE.
It is difficult to separate his personal sentiments from his official handling of
the religious file. Mohammed bin Zayed was 13 years old when the Jeddah
Agreement was signed in August 1974 to resolve the border dispute (1971-1974)
between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Under that agreement, Abu Dhabi retained six
villages in the al Buraimi area including al-Ain, the base of al Buraimi Oasis
and most of al-Zafra desert. In return, Riyadh got a 25 km of shoreline which is
home to about 80% of the Sheba oil wells containing about 15 billion barrels of
petrol and 650 million cubic meters of gas in fields that have yet to be exploited.
Close associates of Mohammed bin Zayed talked about his conviction that the
ratification of the Jeddah Agreement was a kind of injustice, that it was signed
in a different geopolitical reality today when the Union sorely needed Saudi
formal recognition in the aftermath of its inception in 1971. He has also expressed
an interest in writing a historical account proving the legitimacy of the UAE’s
territorial claims in the region and documenting the perceived prejudice against
Abu Dhabi as a result of this convention.
A French news agency reported that Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed raised the issue of
the border dispute with Riyadh during his first visit abroad after assuming office
in 2004, to which Saudi response was that the Jeddah Agreement had his father’s
fingerprint on it, and a refusal to put the Agreement up for discussion.
In early 2006, the UAE issued its annual book “New Maps” showing some Saudi
areas in UAE waters, triggering a diplomatic crisis in relations between the two
Gulf States.
In August 2009, Saudi Arabia stopped UAE nationals from entering the country
using only identity cards (as was usually permitted) in protest to the alterations
made by UAE authorities to the geographical map on the identity cards of its
Back to Content
4
citizens outlining revised national borders. By March 2010, the crisis between
the two countries had reached a critical stage when UAE border patrol boats
opened fire on a Saudi boat and detained two members of the Saudi border guard.
Despite the apparent calm ever since, sources have revealed that the Crown
Prince of Abu Dhabi is actively seeking to integrate religion and politics and to
consolidate the Sufi religious current in the face of the “Wahhabi invasions”, as
he puts it.
In fact, relations between the two states experienced a downward spiral after
2004, when the UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided to host the regional
headquarters for the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). Based in
Abu Dhabi, the initiative has implemented 205 projects in 8 countries at a cost
of more than $11.5 million.
The MEPI office conducted several unauthorised activities inside Saudi
Arabia between 2006 and 2011, with these security breaches causing intense
embarrassment for the UAE. However, on the 9th October 2014, Stephen
McInerney, the executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy
(POMED), highlighted that this crisis led to the activities of the program being
curtailed.
Yet Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the Foreign Minister stand firmly behind
the American project, launched in 2004, to establish a global Sufi political
alliance. Emirati Sufi institutions continue to spearhead this project, whose
religious figures openly target Saudi Arabia and its religious traditions.
Abu Dhabi founded the Tabah Foundation in 2005 as a vehicle to realise the
strategic goals of this project. It brought together political Sufi leaders from
Syria, Morocco, Yemen and Egypt in an adversarial enterprise against “the
Hanbali neighbours who follow Imam Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab”.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed’s friends occasionally leaked information about
him personally feeling the strained climate between the two Gulf neighbours,
while the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research inflamed tensions
further after it published research papers challenging Saudi Arabia’s Salafist
religious traditions, accusing the Kingdom of supporting extremist movements
in the region.
Some sources in the US Congress have previously spoken about the UAE’s
desire to adopt a project establishing an “axis of Islamic moderation”. This
project has brought on board Cairo, Abu Dhabi, Sufi Sunni groups, and Sufi
Shiite scholars such as Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Sayed Hassan Qazwini, who
both enjoy close relations with the California-based Zaytuna Institute, headed
up by Sufi scholar Hamza Yusuf, as well as the Tabah Foundation and other Sufi
research institutes in Abu Dhabi.
Back to Content
5
Statements published by UAE newspapers covering the establishment of the
Muslim Council of Elders earlier this year in Abu Dhabi expressed hostility
towards Saudi Arabia. They attacked the Salafist approach, supported by quotes
from Emirati officials on the new role of their council to “correct the path of
some of the other established traditions”.
It is unfortunate that there is such an official sanction for this hostile tone,
but more importantly we should be extremely cautious of the implied
security risks in using history to incite sectarian conflict and divisions. The GCC
countries face common dangers that can only be addressed through
comprehensive dialogue and a sense of responsibility that transcends personal
ambitions. This book will attempt to explain the different dimensions of political Sufism
as adopted by the ruling bodies in Abu Dhabi. The first chapter discusses
the regional and international dimensions of the Emirati Sufi network and
addresses its actions and associations with an American project to counter
hard-line Islamic currents, especially in Saudi Arabia.
The second chapter sheds light on the most active figures in this network,
their educational backgrounds and work frames. It discusses the projects
to revive traditional Sufi ways and schools in various Arab countries, and
explains how the West plays a pivotal role in enhancing and promoting this
Sufi project.
Chapter three deals with the security threats tied to this project, and the
perpetual harm it has caused in deliberately undermining long-established
religious authorities in the kingdom. There is also an attempt to guide
decision-making centres in Riyadh to adopt a more astutely calibrated,
judicious policy when dealing with religious affairs, with a warning of the
dangers of poor management of this file on both regional and international
levels.
Back to Content
6
CHAPTER 1:
INSTITUTIONAL DIMENSIONS OF
EMIRATE’S SUFI NETWORK
Back to Content
7
CHARGING POLITICAL SUFISM
In October 2003, the Nixon Centre’s International Security Program
hosted a conference in Washington to explore the potential role of Sufism in
promoting American foreign policy objectives in the Middle East, and to
familiarize policy-makers with the Sufi spiritual orders that could form the
pillars of such a strategy.
The conference focused on the largest Sufi orders in the Middle East and Central
Asia, yet this was not the only topic on the agenda. Conversation also turned to
discuss ways in which the Wahhabi-Salafi current of religious thought prevalent
in Saudi Arabia, which has been rather simplistically castigated as the prime
factor behind the proliferation of extremism and terrorist movements in the
Islamic world, could be challenged through reviving Sufi movements as an
oppositional force.
Zaki Saritoprak, a lecturer in the Department of Theology at the University
of John Carroll, has diagnosed the present malaise in the Islamic world as the
Back to Content
8
product of an ongoing conflict between Wahhabism and Sufism, suggesting that
it is necessary for Western policymakers to forge alliances with Sufi orders to
counter extremist and terrorist movements.
Saritoprak has been greatly influenced by Sufism’s guiding philosophy, which
calls on its followers to seek out an inner, esoteric spiritual truth, placing less
importance on the teachings of other traditional scholars who study the science
of applying Sharia to everyday life. Sufism is therefore
seen to offer a broadly inclusive spiritual approach which allows for a greater
intersection of ideas between Islam and the Western world.
Within Islam, Saritoprak believes that the revered status of the fourth Islamic
Caliph and the Prophet’s son-in-law, Ali bin Abu Talib, in the Naqshbandiya
order helps to sustain a close connection between the Shia’s and Sufis as “the
figure of Ali is so important for Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, it can serve as a type
of common ground between the two traditions…”.
Dr. Hedieh Mirahmadi, Executive Director of the Islamic Supreme
Council of America, accused “Wahhabi-Salafis” of rallying Muslims for a
cultural battle against the West by deconstructing culture and replacing the
concept of personal spirituality with radical political theories. She added that:
“This massive Wahhabi deconstruction effort has brought blood and violence
to nearly every corner of the Muslim world. Parents and children turned against
each other and families were torn apart as the new generation was educated in
Salafi thought”.
To improve the relationship between Muslims and the West, Mirahmadi
suggested that it was necessary for the American administration to help
recapture lost Islamic heritage ​​through the reconstruction of the shrines of saints,
financing the religious Centre’s of Sufism and helping young people to free their
minds from the aggressive Wahhabi ideology.
Another scholar, Dr. Mohammad Faroughy at the Department of Religion in
George Washington University, contributed to the debate by encouraging
American policymakers to support political Sufism in order to restrain
“Wahhabism”, highlighting ways in which Sufism can facilitate the
democratisation of Islamic political systems.
Alex Alexiev, a former Senior Fellow at the Centre for Security Policy,
argues that what distinguishes Sufism from Islamic extremism is its vision of
jihad as an inner spiritual struggle to improve the condition of one’s soul whilst
Wahhabis define it as a global fight to spread Islam in the world. In his opinion,
the key stimulus behind the spread of extreme Wahhabism is the alleged funding
of terrorist movements from Saudi Arabia. He has claimed that Saudi Arabia
spent more than $80 billion since the 70’s to support Islamic activities in the
Back to Content
9
world, and has established about 160 “Wahhabi” mosques and radical Centre’s
in areas that were classified as moderate. Alexiev’s analysis seems to imply that
Riyadh is the source of all extremism in the region.
“Scholarly Sufism” versus “Saudi Wahhabism”
Taking part in the same debate, Professor Bernard Lewis and Hisham Kabbani
– deputy leader of the Naqshbandiya Sufi order which has a following of over
two million from across the globe. Kabbani was grandiosely introduced as
a moderate sheikh standing up to the threat of terrorism and as “the first Muslim
leader to warn the United States about the imminent threat posed by Osama bin
Laden and the al-Qaeda terrorist network”.
In his speech, Bernard Lewis suggested that the Wahhabi movement was akin
to the Ku Klux Klan, the controversial Christian fundamentalist movement
in the United States. The comparison between a radical Christian movement
that has almost disappeared in America, and a religious current dominant in
Saudi Arabia, a strong state which hosts Islam’s two holiest sites at Mecca and
Medina and a healthy source of income from enormous oil revenues, is deeply and
dangerously flawed.
Hisham Kabbani joined in by stressing that Salafism does not exist in Islam, and
that it is merely an umbrella term coined by the late King Fahd bin Abdulaziz
in the 80’s encompassing all extremist movements in the Islamic world. He
criticised Saudi Arabia for sending its supporters worldwide to demolish shrines
and tombs, and asked the question: “Are we as Americans going to support the
Sufis, or work with the Wahhabis?”
In reply, he advised that “If we do the latter, we run the risk that we work with
terrorists, whereas there is no such risk with Sufis. It is very simple: the United
States must reach out to non-Wahhabi Muslims if it wants to succeed in this
battle. It’s a no-lose proposition”.
(The meeting report can be found in full: Zeyno Baran (2004) “Understanding
Sufism and its Potential Role in US Policy” Nixon Centre Conference Report,
March 2004)
Back to Content
10
Turning Myths into a Political Programme
The politically biased and unsound recommendations of this conference have
been adopted as policy in the United States over the last decade. There are
numerous examples of how the American administration has used political
Sufism in this polarising religious battle. To counter some critical
misconceptions presented at the conference, a number of inaccuracies
should be clarified.
Wahhabism is not an independent doctrine in Islam, and there is no Wahhabi
movement in the intellectual or organisational sense in the Islamic world. It is
regrettable that this reformist movement is encountering such fierce hostility,
and that the practice of labeling Wahhabism as an odious peripheral movement
is being employed in the West in order to isolate Saudi Muslims from the rest of
the Islamic world.
Leading Western observers often overlook the role played by Riyadh in
fighting extremism and terrorist movements, taking innumerable positive steps
to enhance regional and global security, and the facts supporting this are often
cynically and conveniently omitted.
It is also very prejudicial to deny the political role played by some Salafi
movements in strengthening contemporary Arab democracies, including their
participation in council and parliamentary elections in the Arab monarchies and
their contribution to the political stabilisation of the republics affected by the
Arab Spring.
It is hard to imagine how positive relations and peaceful coexistence between
various currents and Islamic movements can be founded on antagonising a group
against another or by waging campaigns inciting bias and distorting reality.
Instead, there is a dire need for renewed and sincere efforts to forge transparent
and constructive relationships, building bridges that span across the religious
spectrum, promoting tolerance and maintaining the culture of dialogue. Only
then can a united, durable and enlightened Islamic coalition truly emerge to
tackle toxic and violent religious doctrines.
The tendency of many research institutions to link Takfiri movements to Saudi
Arabia by labelling them as Salafist or Wahhabis is deeply divisive and critically
counterproductive. All this only serves to further undermine efforts in reaching
the proposed just and balanced objective.
Back to Content
11
CONFRONTING ISLAMIC MOVEMENTS WITH
POLITICAL SUFISM
The events of 9/11 changed western attitudes towards Sufism and its
political role in Islamic communities, as western researchers began to call for the
revival of Sufism to counter the influence of “Political Islam”. British-American
historian Bernard Lewis and American political commentator Daniel Pipes were
among the first to rally Sufi movements and build on ideological grounds of
separation of religion and state.
The American researcher Stephen Schwartz took up the torch and encouraged
the American government “to learn more about Sufism and interact with its
leaders and followers and get to know its basic values”. He further added that
“American diplomats – in Islamic cities from Pristina (in Kosovo) to
Kashgar (in western China), and from Fez in Morocco to the Indonesian capital
Jakarta – must include local Sufis in their lists of people to meet during their
periodic visits”.
In the summer of 2002 the Rand Corporation, an American-based global
policy think tank, called for a strategic alliance with Sufi movements to counter
religious extremism in the Islamic world. Subsequently, the Nixon Centre’s
International Security Program held a conference in Washington DC which
explored the role that Sufism could play in achieving American foreign policy
objectives in the Middle East.
These developments marked a watershed moment, as international political Sufi
Back to Content
12
movements set about forging alliances with policymakers in the region. In April
2003, an International Conference of the Shazli Tariqa was held in collaboration
with the UNESCO. Then, in Iraq, the formation of the Higher Committee for
Council, Teaching and Research of Islamic Sufism was announced in January
2004, followed by the first conference of the International Sidi Shikhar Group
of Sufis under the sponsorship of Moroccan King Muhammad VI in September
that same year. Shortly after in December, the “First International Conference
of Sufism in Western Africa” took place, and nine months later, an international
conference was held in Libya entitled “Sufism in Africa: Present and Future”.
It was no accident that at the time the American Ambassadors to Morocco and
Egypt, Thomas Riley and Francis Ricciardone, agreed to approach regional
Sufi movements in 2006. On one occasion Ricciardone celebrated the birth
anniversary of Al-Sayyid Al-Badawy, who founded the Badawiyyah Sufi
order in the 13th century, with the locals in Tanta city. Riley has previously
attended celebrations of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad held by the
Qadiriya-Boutchichiya Sufi movement which has also recently attracted a large
following from amongst members of Moroccan high society.
Sources indicate that since the appointment of Ahmed Tawfik (an adherent of
the Qadiriya-Boutchichiya order who is very close to its leader) as the Minister
of Awqaf in Morocco, the promotion of political Sufism has continued. Support
for these movements has intensified as the Moroccan state adopted a “Religious
Reformation” policy with political Sufism as one of its pillars.
In Algeria, President Abdulaziz Bouteflika highlighted during elections ways
in which Sufism could offer an alternative vision of state-society relations
than that of political Islam in the Arab world. These efforts culminated in the
foundation of the Algerian Council of Sufi Culture in December 2013, which
aims “to revive the essence of religious and cultural Sufism”.
These developments encouraged the Muslim French philosopher and expert in
Sufism, Eric Geoffroy, to assert that the future Islamic world will inevitably be
dominated by Sufism, and to declare that Arab regimes had worked to infuse
Sufism into government policy to resist Islamic extremism. He highlighted
the appointment of notable Sufi scholars to high-ranking religious positions,
referring specifically to the Minister of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs in Morocco,
Ahmed Tawfik, and the Head of Al-Azhar in Egypt, Ahmed El-Tayeb.
In October 2013, the International Sufism Organisation was established in
France, consisting of prominent Sufi scholars from Turkey, Iran, Pakistan,
Morocco, Tunisia and Libya. Ahmed Al-Tasquiani, a member of the Higher
Committee of Sufism, said that: “The Organisation will play a pivotal role in the
fight against extremist ideas propagated by Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood,
to help lift the Islamic youth from the ignorance pervasive today.”
Back to Content
13
Ill-advisedly the responsibility for bringing these various Sufi organisations
together to create a central Sufi political project fell upon a Gulf state,
inexperienced in handling ideological contentions of the magnitude at hand.
Added to which there was a lack of local personalities capable of managing the
complex intellectual debates. Hence it relied heavily on outside religious leaders
known for their hostility towards other neighbouring Gulf countries and their
religious traditions. This in turn fostered a detrimental ripple effect on regional
security and unity, in the midst of a critical period of political and social change
in the region.
The question remains, can these networks of political Sufism, imported from
Egypt, Yemen and the US be successfully deployed in this strategy, and deliver
on security for member states of the Gulf Co-operation Council, contributing to
a stable and lasting political settlement between them?
Answering this requires deep and honest reflection on the part of all regional
actors.
Back to Content
14
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: SECURITY AND BALANCE
Prominent Emirati researcher Abdul Khaliq Abdullah criticised the foreign
policy of the United Arab Emirates, when he revealed that: “There is real fear
that Abu Dhabi has misused its political capital, and inadvertently invested in the
return of the security state”.
Abdullah wrote: “It is no secret that Abu Dhabi has invested greatly in Egypt,
and is betting on the return of stability. But the question is, is this tenuous bet in
the right place?”
Abdullah’s writing and tweets are part of a broader chorus of complaints
spreading amongst Emirati officials about the implications of the UAE’s
involvement in foreign adventures with unpredictable and often undesirable
Back to Content
15
consequences under the leadership of Mohammed bin Zayed and his brother
Abdullah. Troublingly, the UAE has thrown its support behind retired
General Khalifa Haftar in Libya, the Houthis in Yemen, and some prominent
figures in Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria, all of whom envisage deeply
militarised and coercive states as their preferred model of political organisation
in the Arab world.
Abdullah is close to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President
and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. He questioned whether the
Emirates had sufficiently examined its decision to participate in the new US
military alliance in Iraq, and whether it fully understood the risks of taking
America’s side when it is difficult to read America’s strategic intentions as it
wages a long-term war in the region. Abdullah’s main contention is the high
price paid for these operations, stressing that “it could be catastrophic” if his
country did not have clear answers to these concerns.
There is much unease amongst a number of officials and researchers in the
Emirates concerned with UAE’s current foreign policy stance. One official
warned of the erosion to UAE’s image as a successful model of economic
development, active financial exchange and free trade, if certain elite circles
were determined to set the country on a wrong path whereupon its international
reputation could be severely tarnished. In financing poorly conceived strategic
campaigns the UAE has unwisely stepped out of its usual operational comfort
zone.
Abu Dhabi regularly criticises the exploitation of religion for political
expediency by regional Islamic movements. Surely, this entitles the rulers of the
other emirates in the Union to express their concerns over bin Zayed’s initiative
to import a political Sufi network in a polarising battle for Islamic authority in
the region? None of the scholars in this network are Emirati, so they are more
Back to Content
16
inclined to drive their own political agendas in sync with those pursued in their
home countries.
Some Gulf countries also questioned Abu Dhabi’s venture to create a global
Sufi Centre of Islamic reference and raised concerns about the rationality behind
countering radical Islamist movements with a divisive Sufi movement led by the
Tabah Foundation’s Sufi theologians. Abu Dhabi’s ill fated intrusions in Istanbul
as well, by supporting US-based scholar Fethullah Gulen and his Sufi network in
opposition to President Erdogan, has also raised many eyebrows.
Referring to the level of support the Gulenist network receives from the UAE,
a correspondent of Today’s Zaman newspaper (which is owned by the group)
wrote on the 21st October 2014 an article detailing possible avenues for closer
cooperation between Turkey and Abu Dhabi, including coordinated efforts to
support “modern Islam” and the possibility of forming a united front against
Wahhabism. Writing about Wahhabism, he controversially argued that “this
ideology poses a grave threat to the Middle East, the Gulf and beyond” (Today’s
Zaman, Abdullah Bozkurt “The Gulf’s UAE is a good match for Turkey”, 21
October 2014). The author then went on to praise Abu Dhabi for its courage
in challenging Riyadh and overcoming traditional Gulf fears of criticising this
school of religious thought.
Such fragile alliances are regionally flawed. Western security sources indicated
that the Gulen movement is a non-coherent network of institutions that vary in
performance and funding, and which are under the sway of local officials who
often have divergent strategies and organisational perspectives.
Due to the relative inexperience of these elders in the political sphere, they
ultimately proved ineffectual in mounting a political challenge to the Erdogan
government. The movement has suffered from serious setbacks both in Turkey
and in many Western countries, who are wary of its religious educational
institutions.
Abu Dhabi has missed an opportunity to be at the forefront of a highly calibrated
Islamic project, drawing upon its strengths as an open, tolerant society and as an
important historical actor in promoting dialogue and dispute mediation, which
can unite rather than divide.
There is no doubt that such a gamble will damage the UAE’s ability to manage
religious affairs in a way that delivers stability and security, contributing to the
creation of a united front against extreme groups.
Does Abu Dhabi recognise the risks of such folly?
A tweet by Dr. Abdul Khaliq Abdullah may provide some food for thought:
“There will be a devastating disaster if the United Arab Emirates does not have
clear answers.”
Back to Content
17
THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THE “COUNCIL OF ELDERS”:
STRENGTHENING CIVIL PEACE OR FUELING
POLITICAL DISAGREEMENT
On 10th March, a forum for the promotion of peace in Muslim communities
was held in Abu Dhabi, which resulted in the issue of a set of recommendations.
The most prominent of these was to work towards “the establishment of an
Islamic Council to promote peace in Muslim communities, whereby a group of
well-known Muslim scholars and experts would by ‘word and deed’ counter the
spread of extremism.”
The official media in the UAE, which hosted the forum, belatedly directed
criticism against extremist groups and called them ‘advocates of sedition’. In his
opening speech, foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed described them
as “quasi-scientists who helped to create websites and platforms that occupy
various social media”.
Dr. Ali Rashid Al Nuaimi, the Chairman of the University of the United Arab
Emirates also launched an attack on the extremist groups and affirmed his
support for the recommendations of the forum, particularly the establishment
of a Council of Elders that would provide an alternative to current religious
institutional structures.
The tone of the attacks on the Islamic groups was not surprising. The surprise
was the criticism of neighbouring Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia, which
Back to Content
18
were accused of being responsible for the emergence of extremism and for the
promotion of the idea that anyone who opposes their worldview is an apostate.
UAE newspapers also quoted Al-Nuaimi’s criticism of the Kingdom in which
he said: “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had been the incubator of the Muslim
Brotherhood and all the repercussions and crises.” He added that “the challenge
was not the kingdom’s classification of the members of the group as terrorists,
but their failure to act on the ground to root out the group deeply embedded in
education Centre’s, Islamic religious associations, and other bodies”.
On the other hand, Ahmed Abdul Karim, a scientist and professor at Al-Azhar
University, stressed that the “Saudi Government had supported the Egyptian
people in the face of violence by the Muslim Brotherhood” but called upon the
Kingdom to exert more pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood and those who
stand behind them with support and funding.
In addition to these statements the organisers of the conference increased
pressure on regional religious institutions. Sheikh Abdullah Bin Beah attacked
one in particular in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Committee for the
Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. This institution was accused of
promoting deviations that feed extremism through the “misinterpretation of the
meaning of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which is claimed as
license to intervene and impose physical violence and inhumane behaviour”. He
further criticised the Saudi regulatory authority of being ignorant of “conditions
and disciplines” and mentioned that it “lacked the necessary qualifications
required under Islamic law to issue reliable religious opinions.”
By the same token the official press attacked the Salafis and published reports
from the forum including the following extract outlining its stated goal to
“confront the flood of puritanical religious Salafi excommunications, which
have been pouring on us since the end of the fifties, and which attracted many
uneducated young Arab and Muslim followers who were not aware of
science and the development of a new world based on tolerance and harmony
and cross-fertilization.” The statement further added that “they were like uncared
for desert plants abandoned until clerics, with minds closed on the past, and
striving to return nations to the days of shaving on the sidewalk, stoning
adulterers, and the banning of poetry, painting , sculpture , music, and the
abolition of the view that the Earth revolves around the sun .”
The media’s response was to challenge the assessments and declarations of
the forum, with one piece in particular retorting that “If we take this hostile
statement into account, urgent questions arise about the credibility of the call
made by the forum for civil peace, openness, and effective communication
between communities against the climate of exclusion and the attack by
extremists against official view”.
Back to Content
19
This further begs the question: Can Abu Dhabi feasibly become a new base for
a religious authority?
Despite the large attendance at the forum, estimated at about 250 participants
from different countries and with almost 30 contributing papers, no major
personalities of note were present. The allocation of representation to the
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was disappointing because their delegation was
confined to individual figures sympathetic to the aims of the organizers.
Some participants were prevailed on not to speak even though a source close to
Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb told the Sunrise newspaper (March 12, 2014)
that “the role of the Council of Elders of the Muslims is the correct path of some
of the major entities and would be an alternative way for them to complete the
journey to enlightenment for Muslims.”
Hostile statements made by the organizers of the Forum have undermined its
credibility as a vehicle for promoting civil peace and the principle of openness
to all Islamic currents of thought.
Notably, the forum’s final statement was problematic, emphasizing “the
importance of re- establishing the authority of the nation”.
Is it accurate to say that a nation has lost its authority, and is it feasible or right
to grant the responsibility of restoring it to religious delegates?
Does the State have the political power to establish a new religious harmony and
to exclude authorities that do not comply with its directions?
These are difficult questions to answer when the final conference statement is
taken into account, referring “to developing a theory of the nation which will
serve as a basis for steady and unwavering future international relations”.
Have delegates concluded that the nation is going through an “age of ignorance”,
resigning themselves to its collapse in the hope that it the Elders Forum may be
empowered to shape international relations for the Islamic nation as whole?
Has the “Islamic nation” lost its senses already? Or have the Elders Forum
misread the complexities and realities of the political landscape?
According to the Imam Muslim in his “Sahih”, the guidance of the Prophet
(PBUH) to the nation is clear: “Whomsoever says people should destroyed will
himself be destroyed”. Perhaps in this there is cause for reflection amongst the
Council of Elders, after the proclamations of its first session.
Back to Content
20
Council disintegration in its early stages of existence:
Once the unusual arrangement for the Council was announced; a new phase
of rivalry began between the two presidents. Bin Bayyah left to New York to
promote the Emirati project to face extremism, in a meeting organised by the UN
Counter-Terrorism Committee-UN Security Council on 30 September 2014. His
glorification in the media was further enhanced when the US President Barack
Obama quoted him, in one of his interviews with “CNN”, with the words “I call
to life. I do not call to death”.
Whilst the “Grand Imam” Al-Tayeb basked in the global atmosphere during the
World Cup in Brazil, when he sent a message on behalf of all Muslims. He also
venerated the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz with an honorary doctorate: “for
his courageous position with Egypt”. This initiative was blessed by President
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in a presidential decree on Thursday 28 August 2014.
In the shadow of this race between bin Bayyah and Al-Tayeb to head the Council,
some members of the constituent body of the Council withdrew from it. While
others disappeared, despite the events that shook the Muslim world, especially
the bitter attack on Gaza.
Sheikh Abdul Razzaq Qassoum, head of Algerian Muslim Scholars Association,
waited for four months to announce to the Algerians that he “was tricked” when
he was invited to the Muslim Council of Elders. While the nonattendance of each
of Abdul Hakim Sherman Jackson, Abdullah Nassif, Prince Ghazi bin Talal, and
Judge Mohammad Taqi Usmani of the Council’s first meeting, held in Cairo on
30 October 2014, raised more questions.
Some observers felt that the absence of Council members from Saudi Arabia,
United States, Pakistan, Jordan, and Algeria in its first meeting; added to the
numerous failures and severely hindered its work. It had also been boycotted
by the Moroccan clerics who preferred to retain their influence among Muslims
in South Africa, especially as they were already ahead in discerning local
specificities.
Most unfortunate for the Abu Dhabi Sufis is that Naqshbandi leaders in the
countries of “Eurasia” rejected the project of “Tabah”. So, Dr. Mehmet
Görmez, President of the Turkish Religious Foundation, hastened to gather
them in a similar Turkish project that was announced two days after Abu Dhabi
Council’s announcement.
But the biggest decline came about after a meeting that put “Grand Imam”
Al-Tayeb at the helm and bin Bayyah’s withdrawal. By then, bin Bayyah had
been a co-president with Al-Tayeb for three months. Initially, the statements
of the meeting were full of Shanqeeti marks, the initiator and architect of the
Muslim Council of Elders. Now the presidency unanimously went to Al-Tayeb
Back to Content
21
who was congratulated by his men and helpers starting: with Dr. Shawki Allam
Mufti of Egypt held, and Dr. Mohamed Mukhtar Gomaa, the Egyptian Minister
of Religious Endowments, Dr. Abdul Hai Azab, head of Al-Azhar University.
While, the voices of the founders in Abu Dhabi faded away. The Egyptian media
reflected Al-Azhar’s happiness upon its possession of cleric’s presidency, which
might help restore its image. In the meantime, they were renovating Al-Azhar
Mosque using Saudi funds.
As observers anticipate Al-Tayeb’s list of new members for the Council, to make
up for the shortfall, many questions are being raised about the credibility of the
nine remaining members with respect to their personal political agendas and
bias. Together with Al-Tayeb’s determination to impose his own print on Islamic
referencing and the UAE’s efforts to consolidate their foreign policy ambitions
as the alternative to challenge other established references in the Muslim world.
Back to Content
22
‘THE MUSLIM COUNCIL OF ELDERS’ –
OBJECTIVES AND CONTRADICTIONS
On the 19th of July, the creation of an independent international body called
‘The Muslim Council of Elders’ to promote civil peace in the region, was
announced in Abu Dhabi. The statement said that the Council is the “first body
to bring together Muslim Elders to achieve the recommendations of last March
from the Forum for Promoting Peace”. It confirmed that the aim of the Council
is to co-ordinate efforts to reunite the Islamic nation and extinguish fires that are
sweeping the region as a result of extremist ideologies that are contrary to human
values and principles of Islam.
But behind the scenes an early disagreement was revealed in conflicting
media announcements stating that Mauritanian Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah
was appointed as the president of the Council, while others claimed it was
Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar. To add to the confusion, some official
newspapers reported that the Council was chaired jointly by both of them.
The appointment of members to the constituent body appears to be an
improvisedand haphazard process. Representation of numerous established
religiousinstitutions was distinctly absent with membership selection proving
to be biased towards certain individuals. The selection process seems to have
been rushed, as evidenced by a resolution which identified a number of members
before specifying later that there would be now be no more than 40 members in
the body.
Back to Content
23
Notably, scholars from the Levant, Iraq, the Gulf States, Yemen and the
Kingdom of Morocco were excluded, as well as the founders of the Forum
of Civil Peace such as the Moroccan Minister of Awqaf, the Chairman of the
University of Qarween and members of the Association of Muhammadiyah who
had a prominent role in the drafting of the final statement of the Forum.
In addition, the appointment of a Mauritanian as president of the Council seemed
to disregard the sensitivities of Morocco, which was allocated no representation
on the Council and which has a historically tense relationship with its southern
neighbour. It also comes at a time when the Moroccan leadership of Sufism in
North Africa is being challenged.
When Mauritania launched its public celebrations at the presidential palace
for Ramadan this year, the opening speech delivered by Ahmed Waled Daoud,
adviser to the President of the Republic, focused on Sufism as a cultural and
intellectual reference for the city of Chinguetti, in connection to Nouakchott’s
plan to call for African countries to restore cultural freedom for scholars in
Chinguetti.
It is not surprising that the inauguration ceremony of the Council of Elders
coincided with the arrival of the Mauritanian President Mohamed Waled
Abdel Aziz, who was part of a delegation headed by fellow countryman, Sheikh
Abdullah bin Bayyah, even though the Council had stressed its independence
from regional political powers.
Can these tensions be resolved?
Sheikh bin Bayyah seeks to consolidate his influence over the conflicting
members of the Forum on Civil Peace, while the rumour in Egyptian circles is
that Al Azhar has dominated the make-up of the Council and has excluded all
influential figures that might compete with its leading scholar, Ahmed Al Tayeb.
It is worth noting that 7 of the 14 Board members are graduates of Al Azhar
University, and they all occupy leadership roles of Sufism in the various
countries of the Islamic world. These include Nigerian Ibrahim al-Husseini and
Abu Lubaabah, well known in Sufi circles in Africa as well Hassan El-Shafei,
famous for his writings about Al-Ghazali, theology and Sufism. Other board
members are Abdul Razzaq Qassoum, who received a Master’s degree in philosophy from al-Azhar in 1975, Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq and Ahmed Al-Haddad.
Fuelling the battle to control the Council, Egyptian newspapers proceeded to
emphasize and elevate the role of Al Tayeb as its perceived founder, when
Al-Ahram newspaper headlined the news of the launch of the Council (June 21st
2014) stating “Sheikh Al-Azhar launches the Council of Elders of Muslims in
the United Arab Emirates”. Following suit, Al-Arab (June 19th 2014) declared
Back to Content
24
that “the Sheikh of Al Azhar was appointed to honorary presidency”, while
Al-Wady was much more tactful, reporting on June 20th that “Al-Azhar Sheikh
presides over the first meeting of the Council of Elders of the Muslims in the
UAE,” without delving into the apparent complexities of the dual presidency.
Al Tayeb has succeeded in placing members of the Islamic Research Academy
of Al Azhar in the Council of Elders under his presidency. In April this year
he granted Abdullah bin Bayyah, Abu Lubabah, Al Tahir, and Abdul Razzaq
Qassoum membership of the body and subsequently pushed for their inclusion
in the Council of Elders two months later.
Political affiliation: denial and confirmation
Though the Council of Elders have stressed that they would remain impartial
and would not be party to any political conflict, religious or ethnic, it has been
criticised for making public statements praising the host country, the UAE,
without making mention of the contribution of other Arab states.
At the inauguration of the Council, Sheikh Al Azhar thanked the UAE for its
initiative and vision in launching the Council of Elders, and for being alert to
both internal and external threats and the potentially devastating effects that
could arise.
If divine providence was the inspiration for the establishment of the Council,
then support and funding is a blessing to the Islamic nation as a whole, according
to a statement by Ahmed Al-Haddad, who proclaimed that “The choice of
Abu Dhabi as the headquarters of the Council of Elders is a blessing to the Islamic
nation, created under the auspices of the UAE and the wise leadership of His
Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, may God protect him, and
indicates that the Council will be effective with 2 factors provided to it -the
headquarters in the UAE and the financial and other support for it to expand.”
The disparities between the statements of the Council of Elders and what is
published by the official press represents the most pressing dilemma and threat
to the credibility of the Council. On Middle East Online (19th July 2014)
Abdel Fattah Almniei, a researcher at the Almezmaah Studies and Research
Center in Dubai, reported that “The importance of establishing this Council stems
from its functions, which will result in a number of important achievements
for both the UAE and the Arab nation at the intellectual, political and strategic
levels”.
However, the official and semi-official press published comments by two
Emirati researchers stating that the Council “will pull the rug from under
the feet of Political Islam, especially the Muslim Brotherhood and similar
movements, exposing their true objectives and scientific shallowness to all
Back to Content
25
Muslims” (Middle East Online 19th July 2014). This surely calls into question
the declared independence of the Council of Elders, which was trumpeted as a
core founding principle.
In the same vein, Almniei further remarked that indeed the most important
function of the Council was “to pull the rug from under these movements,
parties and organizations which politicize Islam”. He added that the Council
will “implicitly expose through its work, in a moderate way, the so-called Union
of Muslim Scholars, formed by the Muslim Brotherhood with party elements
under the supervision of the President of the Federation, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and
supported by the Government of Qatar to serve the goals of the Muslim
Brotherhood through the issuance of fatwas, readily supporting their point of
view.”
Is the Council promoting peace or is it in fact fuelling polarization?
There is no doubt that a contradiction exists between the Council’s proclamation
of “total impartiality, with no internal, ulterior motives which could point to
members of the Council being party to any political or religious strife,” and
what has been published in the official press. This apparent paradox needs urgent
clarification, as do all the various statements concerning the unmasking of
Islamist movements and their objectives that have circulated within the UAE.
Back to Content
26
THE FORMATION OF
THE MUSLIM COUNCIL OF ELDERS
AND CHALLENGES OF REPRESENTATION
Following the announcement of the establishment of the Muslim Council of
Elders in Abu Dhabi on the 19th July, many questions were raised about its
founders’ intentions to form an alternative body of religious leadership in the
region. This compelled the head of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb and the
President of the Forum for Civil Peace, Abdullah bin Bayyah, to reply that the
council “does not represent an alternative to Al-Azhar”, in response to those
objecting to the creation of an entity that competes with the traditional religious
authorities in the Islamic world.
Despite such assurances, some voices have continued to doubt the foundation
of the Council, led by Sufi religious scholars from Al-Azhar and which seeks to
position itself as a “moderate Islamic” front to counter Salafist ideology.
Abdel Fattah Almaniei, a researcher at the Almezmaah Studies and Research
Centre in Dubai, was quoted by Middle East Online (July 19, 2014), for stating
that the Council will be “a natural substitute of the extreme Salafist movements,
whose ideas are not acceptable by most Muslims. It is presenting itself as an
alternative to the Sunnis’ doctrines, in an attempt to control them, despite the fact
that they do represent the overwhelming majority of Muslims”.
The launch of the Muslim Council of Elders has sparked hostility in the media,
Back to Content
27
mirroring reactions that came in the wake of the unveiling of the Forum for
Civil Peace. Articles in the official media attacking Salafist thinkers and
ideology have frequently been published, carrying statements about the teachings
of Imam Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, accusing him of inciting extremism
and contributing to the rise of radical movements.
Following the recent flurry of activity by the Council’s host country, the UAE,
in facilitating the body’s creation, some voices have expressed their uneasiness
with its attempts to hail Al-Azhar as the main point of reference of “moderate
tolerant Islam”, as it is often described by leaders in the Emirates.
Some sources have pointed out that this new dispute and the highly charged
political climate is a result of hostile statements published in newspapers in the
UAE. They highlighted that Saudi Arabia’s reservations have been relayed to
Abu Dhabi, specifically its concerns over Emirati media campaigns organised
to promote Al-Azhar as the sole Islamic point of reference and marginalise the
religious role of Saudi Arabia, undermining the foundations of Salafism upon
which the political system in the Kingdom rests.
They also revealed that Riyadh has expressed concerns over Abu Dhabi’s
backing of iconic Sufi scholars associated with Al-Azhar such as Sheikh Ahmed
el-Tayeb, the former Egyptian Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, and the Yemeni religious
scholar, Habib Jafri. Recently, such religious figures have been presented in
the Emirati media as the vanguard of a unique model of religious tolerance to
challenge Salafist ideology, to which all extreme movements in the Muslim
world are perceived to be attributed. In response to this, prominent clerics in
Saudi Arabia have strongly voiced their dissatisfaction with this narrative in
numerous tweets on Twitter.
In an editorial on June 17th, Emirati newspaper, Al-Khaleej, called on its readers
to accept Al-Azhar as the only religious reference in Islam, declaring that it
“is everyone’s responsibility to update the religious discourse to the tolerant
moderate one that accepts the others including: systems, governments, institutions
and religious Centre’s. But, it is primarily the responsibility of Al-Azhar, the
icon of encouraging and intellectual and cultural Islam, to create a unified
moderate Islamic discourse and put an end to the hindrance of religion”.
It is conspicuous that none of the members of the Muslim Council of Elders
is outside of the Sufi-Azhar nexus. Al-Muthaqqaf website pointed out (25th
July) that Abu Dhabi excluded leading Saudi scholars from the body because
the Salafist fatwa related to peace was not acceptable to them. Abu Dhabi views
the Salafi clerical establishment as being radical and considers it to be hijacking
Islam. Consequentially, the official position of the Council of Elders reflects a
general policy of opposition to Salafism in sync with the posture of al-Azhar.
However, Salafists are not alone in their exclusion. Religious scholars from
Back to Content
28
Morocco, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, the Gulf states (except the UAE) and other
countries with renowned Muslim clerics and respectful religious institutions are
also unrepresented. There is no doubt that by including only one contingent of
the broad and diverse Islamic spectrum and by identifying itself as a “wise”
council of enlightened scholars whilst marginalising numerous other respected
religious figures, the Council cannot live up to its hype as the heralded theological
focal point of universal Islamic reference.
The Council was established at a critical stage, when the Muslim community
needed a committed and concerted effort by religious leaders to build strong
foundations of openness and transparency, and to develop the instruments
needed to bridge divisions and foster mutual understanding. However, the
announcement of such a closed constituent assembly and the media campaigns
inciting hatred that have accompanied its launch were disappointing, damaging
the credibility of the Council from its inception.
Has the Council of Elders forgotten that exclusion, marginalisation and
imposition of agendas by narrowly represented institutions often lead to
conflict and disunity?
Can a closed group truly speak the language of openness?
Back to Content
29
WILL THE COUNCIL OF MUSLIM ELDERS SUCCEED IN
ESTABLISHING A NEW RELIGIOUS AUTHORITY?
The July launch of the Muslim Council of Elders in Abu Dhabi was the result of
a set of recommendations by the Forum for Civil Peace to “re-establish, across
Muslim communities, authority, leadership and scholarship, promoting the right
path and distancing themselves from political and theological disputes -hence
gaining a much needed, respected upper-hand in the affairs of Muslims.”
The statement declared that the Council would be “the first of its kind in the
Islamic nation.” It also envisaged that members of the Council would be
“objective and not connected to any political, religious or ethnic conflict”, and
that it would aim “to strengthen the resistance of the nation, especially its youth,
against violence and hate speech.”
These announcements unveiled the core features of the project, revolving
around the central concept of a new religious authority and institutional
Centre of gravity for the Islamic nation. Yet, official statements seem to indicate
a divergence in reality from the stated vision, aims and founding spirit of the
nascent Council of Elders.
Recently, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed has attacked those
opposing the creation of the Council, describing them as “quasi-scholars who
promote other media channels and fatwa platforms, which are followed blindly
by those without sense or knowledge.” He concluded his speech by mentioning
Back to Content
30
the need to bring the “nation to its senses”.
Elaborating further on the planned functions and purpose of the Council, the
Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, stated that its
primary task was to “counter advocates and instigators of sedition”. Similarly
the official press emphasised that the “role of the Council of Elders is to promote
the correct and enlightened path that Muslims and major organisations should
follow.” An influential UAE figure was quoted in the press as saying, “the
importance of establishing this Council stems from its functions, which will
determine a number of very important objectives for the UAE,” and stressed that
the Council of Elders: “will undermine political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Following these stirring comments, Council members in Abu Dhabi and
elsewhere scrambled to dispel fears over the Council’s agenda, with founding
member Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah making statements to the Egyptian press
in which he confirmed that the aim of the Council is not to be a substitute to any
existing religious authority, and that it does not intend to undermine any other
Fatwa or religious council in the Muslim world.
However, these statements were not sufficient to ease the increasingly audible
chorus of concern in various Muslim countries catalysed by the comments made
in the UAE, with anxieties being aired that the “Council of Elders” was a pretext
for re-establishing the Sufi-leaning Al Azhar as the primary religious authority
and substitute to other honoured religious institutions in the Islamic world.
The truth is that the membership of the Council did not develop in a vacuum but
is in fact a product of an Azhari-Sufi nexus with active support from Abu Dhabi,
working to promote the institution and carefully manage its political orientation
in the context of the current politically-polarised climate in the region.
In April 2014, Sheikh Al-Azhar was honoured as the UAE cultural personality
of the year, and was assured by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh
Mohammed bin Zayed, that “the State is keen to support the Al-Azhar Mosque
as a global cultural and religious Centre.”
Mohammed Khalaf Al Mazrouei of the Board of Trustees explained that the
awarding of the Zayed Prize to Sheikh Al Azhar, the highest UAE award for
culture, was in recognition for his standing as a “devout Muslim who represents
moderate Islam, which calls for tolerance and dialogue”.
Sheikh Al-Azhar was also honoured with the Dubai International Award for the
Holy Qur’an, when Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President of the
UAE and ruler of Dubai, congratulated Al Tayeb for his role in spreading the
culture of moderate Islam, the policy and approach of Al-Azhar since its
inception a thousand years ago.”
Back to Content
31
But, critically, the campaign to enhance the Council’s prestige came at the
expense and exclusion of other religious figures such as the sheikhs of the
Kingdom of Morocco, who contributed much to the Forum of Civil Peace and
were surprised by their omission from membership of the Council of Elders.
Some attribute the lack of representation of Morocco in the Council to criticism
in the UAE press of its membership in the Forum of Civil Peace, particularly
because the kingdom had pursued policies designed to gain regional leadership
of religious affairs in sub-Saharan Africa, angering Al Azhar at a time when
it was promoting itself as the primary authority in the Sunni world. Morocco
historically does not see itself as subject to the authority of Al Azhar.
At the same time, there has been much chatter in the media about the dispute
between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi triggered by hostile statements published in
Emirati newspapers against religious authorities in Saudi Arabia, attacking the
legacy and impact of religious ideas expounded by Imam Muhammad bin Abdul
Wahab in the Muslim world.
In Algeria, Islamic scholar Dr Abdul Razzaq Qassoum faced criticism in the
local press as a result of his participation in the Council of Elders. Reports
questioned whether he had taken the controversial decision in his personal
capacity or if he had decided to involve the Association of
Muslim Scholars for political reasons. He was accused by local sources of having
“subordinated the Algerian Muslim Scholars Association to Sheikh Al-Azhar”
(Shorouk News July 23rd, 2014).
Meanwhile in Turkey, the relationship between the official religious
establishment and al-Azhar exhibited signs of strain after the President of
Religious Affairs, Mohammed Gurmz, wrote to Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb
on April 11th stating that, “We are deeply saddened by the Al Minya court’s
decision to execute 528 people, especially at a time when the Egyptian
people are experiencing such upheavals and pain in view of the calamities
experienced in the Islamic world, at a time when foreign powers have intensified
their interventions, and when Muslim countries are fighting each other and are
divided…we hope that your Excellency and the scholars of Al Azhar university
will re-establish unity, solidarity and brotherhood amongst Egyptians and pursue
your duty with justice and compassion.”
Furthermore, the office of public relations of the head of the Islamic sheikhdom
in Bosnia and Herzegovina issued a statement in August 2013 in which it
condemns what it described as “brutal violence against the Egyptian people.”
In Russia, Sheikh al-Islam, Talat Tajuddin, on March 26th was even more candid
in his criticism, stating that Russia did not trust the graduates of Al-Azhar and
that it prohibited scholarships to Al-Azhar.
Back to Content
32
The truth is that the deteriorating position of Al Azhar due to its active political
involvement in the region cannot be ignored. In a direct challenge to Turkish
leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Al Azhar has called for an alliance of Egyptian
Sufi intellectual forces and their counterparts in Turkey to exercise pressure on
Erdogan to resign, as well as seeking to rally followers of the Naqshbandi order
to demonstrate in Taksim Square against his AKP government. Compounding
tensions between Al Azhar and Turkey, the World Federation of Azhar Youth and
other Sufi groups on July 29th demanded that ties with Turkey be completely
severed.
The long political shadow of Al Azhar and its resultant relegated standing as
an independent religious authority prompted the Head of Religious Affairs
in Turkey to convene a global conference on July 17th this year, two days
before the declaration of the establishment of the Muslim Council of Elders
in Abu Dhabi, in order to establish an alternative religious authority as part of
its “initiative for Muslim scholars to embrace peace and moderation”. The
conference included scholars and thinkers from 32 countries, called for the
formation of a delegation and for initiatives to proactively promote peace to
end religious conflict in Islamic countries.
The stark parallels between the official mission statements of the Forum of Civil
Peace and the Muslim Council of Elders in Abu Dhabi on the one hand, and the
draft for the presidency of the World Conference of Religious Affairs in Turkey,
cannot be ignored. It begs the question of whether Al Azhar, claiming the mantle
of leadership, will be accepted as the primary religious authority for the entire
Islamic world.
It is worth reminding the Council of Elders that they cannot achieve total
authority over Muslims through a closed Council which excludes different views
and does not enjoy political independence in its country of origin or its native
land. If the Council is truly to emerge as a beacon of wisdom in the Muslim
world and if the institution is to succeed, it should not exclude or marginalise
any religious groups and individuals for merely expressing dissenting opinions.
Crucially, it must also openly dissociate itself from all political and regional
conflicts that have shed innocent blood.
Back to Content
33
THE SUFI POLITICAL NETWORK AND
HOW IT OPERATES
After considerable preparation, the Muslim Council of Elders was launched in
Abu Dhabi earlier this year. A politically charged Sufi project run by a network
of scholars aiming to promote the influence of the Council and forming a media
unit to produce audio, visual and printed material (including an academic
magazine), the creation of an annual award, and most importantly, the formation
of a world youth organisation.
Its success although not immediate, has come about through the advance of this
effective Sufi network, asserting to represent “Traditional Islam” and promoted
Back to Content
34
through branching organisations and various institutes in the region functioning
as pillars of this strategy.
The Tabah Foundation
The first of these is the UAE-based Tabah Foundation, a non-profit organisation
founded by Ali Al Jifri in 2005. Tabah was built on the preset that it will conduct
research to inform policymakers and leaders, to improve governance and to
assist them in decision-making.
The Foundation’s activities are also focused on expanding its network of
influence, particularly through other institutions such as the Zayed House for
Islamic culture in Al Ain, UAE, Dar Al Mustafa in Tarim, Yemen, Dar Al Hikma
in Brussels, the College of Islamic Studies in Sanaa, the Madina Satellite
channel, Educational programmes in East Africa, and the Tabah Foundation’s
Program for Development Skills.
It is important to highlight the origins of this network and how it progressed
under Al Jifri’s leadership over the past 8 years. Various events act as signposts
for its development.
One such event was a lecture entitled “Islam in the West” by Hamza Yusuf, the
Dean of the Zaytuna Institute, which was organised by the Tabah Foundation. It
was attended by Ali Al Jifri, Farouk Hamada, the advisor to the heir apparent of
the UAE, and some of the royal family of the UAE.
Another highlight event was the conference in the Moroccan city of Fez, jointly
organised by the Moroccan Minister of Awqaf and the Middle Way Association
Back to Content
35
(a Sufi association registered in London with strong connections to Ali Al Jifri).
The Tabah Foundation’s participants at the conference included its Director of
Cultural and Educational Projects, members of its Advisory Council including
Abdullah Bin Bayyah and Habib Umar Bin Hafiz, as well as the Cambridge-based
scholar, Abdul Hakim Murad. The event hoped to raise the profile of the
Tabah Foundation in Morocco and garnered the support and co-operation of the
Moroccan Minster of Awqaf.
Another conference was held by “Al Raed Academy for Sufism Studies” in
Egypt, entitled “Sufism is the Right Method for Reform” was also attended by
Ali Al Jifri; and Ali Goma, an advisory member of Tabah. The conference was
headed by Sheikh Al Azhar Ahmed Al Tayeb and was attended by many national
leaders and religious scholars. A remarkable feature of this conference was the
repeated assertions by participants of Tabah’s perceived position as a leading and
legitimate religious authority in Islam.
Furthermore, a study concerned by the demolition of tombs in Libya was
conducted and published by Jihad Brown, a Tabah researcher and member of
its Advisory Council, and was republished by Ali Goma on his website in what
was an interesting demonstration of how the Foundation’s intellectual material
is recycled amongst its network.
A programme of visits to the UK was organised for Ali Al Jifri in June 2012.
He gave a lecture at London University (in participation with Dr. Abdul
Hakim Murad). Al Jifri also visited the Cambridge Muslim College set up by
Abdul Hakim Murad, who has strong links to the Tabah Foundation and the
Zaytuna Institute and who is often seen at the same venues as Al Jifri.
Members of the Tabah Foundation also attended the sixth meeting of preachers
in Yemen with Ali Jafri giving a joint speech with Omar Bin Hussein.
There is no adequate space here to list the many other activities and conferences
that have been arranged by the Foundation, in which its members make regular
visits to countries associated with the Foundation or its affiliates to continuously
promote its own concept of religious authority without reference to any other
programmes and currents of religious thought, including traditional Islam.
The Global Centre for Renewal and Guidance
Forming the second pillar of the Sufi political project, the Centre was established
by Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah in London in December 2007. Its objective
is to: “Support the renaissance of the Islamic ummah and study new proposals
offering solutions in accordance with traditional theory, and jurisprudence based
on modern human needs.”
Back to Content
36
Rather than explore the foundation’s organisation and funding, it will perhaps
be more illuminating to explain the basis on which Bin Bayyah established its
activities and functions. The Foundation’s official website mentions that events
are arranged by the Middle Way Association, which often works with Al Jifri to
organise Tabah symposiums.
Islamic scholars involved in the Centre’s activities frequently attend the Tabah
Foundation’s conferences, such as Dr. Abdul Hakim Murad and Hamza Yusuf,
a regular guest at all events of the Centre including the workshops on “Striving
to achieve the aims of minority communities” in London as well as the one on
“Thought and Rational Behavior” in Nouakchott, Mauritania. The latter event
was held July 2012 and was hosted by Hamza Yusuf.
Hamza Yusuf ensures that his mentor Abdullah Bin Bayyah, is invited to attend
events sponsored by the Zaytuna College in California including, the graduation
ceremony of the first cohort of MA graduates in June 2014. It is also evident that
Bin Bayyah and Hamza Yusuf, together with Seyyed Hossein Nasr, move in the
same circles as the Iranian lobby in Washington.
Dar Al-Mustafa madrasah for Islamic Studies
A third major institutional component in the Sufi political machine, this
academy was established by Habib Umar bin Hafiz in Tarim, Hadramaut in
Yemen in 1993. Due to the strong relationship between Umar bin Hafiz and
his student Ali Al Jifri, developed during the latter’s studies at the institute,
Al Jifri appointed his teacher to Tabah`s Advisory Council in Abu Dhabi and has
accompanied him to many of the Foundation’s events.
The Tabah Foundation has helped Dar Al-Mustafa to improve its administrative
organisation by restructuring its finance department, re-organising its management
structure, Human Resources, and accounts – in accordance with international
standards.
The official Tabah website states that the Dar Al-Mustafa renewal program also
includes plans to increase services provided to students, raise its portfolio and
fundraising and to establish an endowment in order to obtain official certification
that its systems meet required quality standards, within a 5 year period.
As part of the support plan, Ali Al Jifri, retaining his role as the head of
Tabah, was also appointed as the Vice President of Dar Al-Mustafa,
underthe supervision of Omar Abdul Hafiz (also a member of Tabah Advisory
Council).
In efforts to expand this network to North Africa, the UAE has spent a great deal
of money supporting the activities of the Tabah Foundation and its affiliates,
Back to Content
37
hoping by extension to propel Al Azhar into the sole religious seat of authority
in the region and as an umbrella organisation for all other Islamic theological
institutions. The UAE has provided significant funding to Al Azhar educational
projects both inside and outside Egypt, financially supporting the specialised
hospital in Al Azhar University along with a number of academic faculties.
It has established the new Sheikh Zayed Centre for Teaching Arabic
to Non-Natives on campus as well as founding an international library and
supporting the International Chapter of Al Azhar Alumni, which serves as
a human reservoirfor the Muslim Council of Elders as it strives to position
itself as the new “authority” on Islamic religious thought and doctrine.
Back to Content
38
“MOMINOUN WITHOUT BORDERS” –
THE ISLAMIC LEFT AND POLITICAL SUFISM
The “Islamic leftist” failed to progress in the last decade of the 20th century for
a number of reasons, primarily because of the popular Islamic movements which
spread throughout the Islamic world, and partly because it borrowed heavily
from other intellectual traditions but failed to influence the political culture.
Moreover, its interpretation of the Quran failed to provide modern alternatives
to traditional Islamic texts.
One of the pioneers of the Islamic left is Hasan Hanafi. He adopted Spinoza’s
method of studying the Torah in order to understand the Holy Quran
and its sciences. He defined the movement as “a historical, cultural, social,
political mass movement based on three fundamentals: ancient heritage, Western
heritage, and the Holy Quran.”
Progressive Islamists such as Hassan Hanafi in Egypt and Ahmidah Ennifar,
Salahuddin Al Jourachi, Mohammed Arkoun, Abdul Majid Asharfi, Hisham
Djait and Abdul Salam Messadi, adopted a religious path based on the premise
that “extensive use of reason, especially in the religious field, is legitimate since
religious and social awareness can only be complete with it.”
Some members of the movement believed that Sufism offered an innovative
Back to Content
39
intellectual foundation upon which Islamic heritage could be developed to
build a modern perspective more suitable for Muslims in the 21st century.
Outlining this concept, Hassan Hanafi wrote a book entitled “From Decline to
Permanence”, in which he defined “Sufi reform” and determined that its text is
not historical or eternal, leading him to conclude that in actual fact there is no
static eternal text and that the Quran in turn is open to modernisation.
Hassan Hanafi’s ideas about the pivotal position of Sufism in Islamic heritage
and the possibility of developing a new religious discourse has become, since
the Arab Spring, a theme around which intellectuals of the movement and
modernists have rallied in order to counter the spread of political Islam. Hence,
political Sufis and the Islamic left have found common ground with UAE
support in their opposition to political Islam.
As the Tabah Foundation pushed ahead with forging a global alliance of
scholars from the Muslim world and the West, resulting in the formation of the
Muslim Council of Elders led by Abdullah Bin Bayyah and Ahmed Al-Tayeb,
Mominoun Without Borders (founded in 2013) gathered remnants of the Islamic
left and their modernist peers together in order to play a new role in the wake of
the Arab Spring.
With Tabah demonising political Islam and constructing a Sufi-Azhari nexus
of authority, so the Mominoun Without Borders foundation aimed to demonise
the Islamist ideology itself and devoted most its efforts towards cultivating the
culture of the region, to search out the embodiment of the region’s quintessential
cultural characteristics. In that review it openly declared rigorous support for
social, intellectual and religious research on a scientific and rational basis,
coordinating and supporting communication and collaboration amongst
researchers, intellectuals and institutions who share common concerns.
Mominoun Without Borders and the political Sufi movement represented by the
Tabah Foundation and its brainchild, the Muslim Council of Elders, all actively
work to present a positive image of Islam and their agenda, specifically to the
West. While the jurist Bin Bayyah argues that peace is a necessary “compromise ”
and seeks to invalidate the fatwa of Ibn Taymiyyah for defensive Jihad,
Mohamed Al-Ani, the General Manager of Mominoun Without Borders declared
that his organisation is not interested in politics, adding that “there is a need for
an alternative intellectual and political framework to traditional Islam” and that
“the relationship between science and religion, morality and politics must be
honest and independent”.
Nevertheless, the relationship between Mominoun Without Borders and
Emirati institutions is strong, and the revival of Islamic leftist ideology is
apparent. Mominoun Without Borders strives to reproduce the ideologies
of those it considers to have instructive insights including Sudanese author
Back to Content
40
Mohammed Abul Kassim Haj Hamad, who wrote “The Governorship” and
“Roots of Fundamentalist Stalemate”, as well as Hassan Hanafi who applied
the ideas of the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza to the Quran and who was
honoured for his work at a conference held in Marrakech (17-18th January 2014)
entitled “Religious discourse: problems and challenges of renewal”. Hanafi also
revived Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid’s writings, which were the focus of controversy
during the 1990s.
The foundation is associated with figures well-known for their hostility to
political Islam, and especially Salafists such as Muntasir Hamada, a follower of
the Qadiriyya Boutchichiyya Sufi path and author of “Maghreb Islamists and
the Political Game”, in the critique of Islamic movements, Muslims and the
Al-Qaida question”, “We, and Al-Qaida, We and Sufism”, “Critique of Al-Qaida:
A contribution to refute the thesis of Islamist Jihadism”, “Era of conflict against
Islam”, and “Wahhabism in the Maghreb”.
The foundation also opened its doors to writers known for their extensive
examination of Islamic culture such as Abdelmajid Charfi, as well as Lebanese
scholar Radwan Assayed, who participated in the Forum for Promoting Peace
in Muslim Societies and who has declared more than once that “the failure
of political Islam was evident, both in the experience of Ikhwan and Salafist
movements and in the claims of Al-Faqih governance”. Assayed has also called
on many occasions for traditional religious institutions such as Al-Azhar in
Egypt, Zaytouna in Tunisia, Qarwin in
Morocco and other religious establishments in Saudi Arabia “to rehabilitate and
liberate Islam from the influence of Islamists and dictatorship”.
As part of its project to make religion more appealing, western friendly, civilised,
the Foundation was labeled with promoting the idea of unity of religions,
an idea that was popular among Sufis like Ibn ‘Arabi Al Mursi, Ibn Al Farid and
Jalaluddin Rumi, who supported the idea of limiting the role of religion in the
realm of the civil state, considering religion to be a purely personal matter.
Supporters of Sufism have also used this concept as a guide to interpret texts
outside the rules of Sharia. Ennifar Saden, a Mominoun Without Borders
researcher and his proponents referred to reasoned rational thinking and found
no difficulty in finding mechanisms to consider ideas borrowed from other
religions and cultures.
It should be noted that the foundation established a field operations Centre
in Morocco to counter the rise of revolutionary ideology in Tunisia. The
location was well chosen in order to facilitate co-operation with its Sufi ally
Maliki Al-ash’ari Junaidi. The foundation enjoys a close relationship with the
UAE which funds the Sufi network that links Abu Dhabi, Cairo and Rabat,
presenting itself as the central actor in a moderate axis against extremism and
Back to Content
41
radicalism, and dialogue with the West.
Both Tabah and Mominoun without Borders claim to share these values and their
rejection of political Islam and Salafist extremism – and in discrediting other
religious authorities in the region.
Back to Content
42
THE FUTURE OF POLITICAL SUFISM
A Zero-Sum Game
Following the outbreak of national protests in the Arab world, the promotion of
Sufi movements has constituted a core element of the national security agendas
of the region’s regimes. Their intelligence agencies worked to bolster Sufi orders
and empower their cadres to exercise a more active political role.
At first, this campaign attracted the support of leading personalities and scholars
such as Bernard Lewis and Hisham Kabbani, who met American officials to
discuss the role of Sufism in achieving Washington’s security interests in 2003.
This discourse tended to focus on what the former British Prime Minister Tony
Blair called “mainstream Islam”.
Under this label, Western theorists advocated the deployment of Sufi orders
in opposition to Islamic movements and delivered them as the primary
representatives of the majority of the world’s Muslims. At that time, figures
indicated that the Sufi orders of the world numbered around 280, of which 76
were in Egypt, 40 in Sudan and 13 in Libya. Algeria was home to 30 orders
with four million followers spread in 9000 locations around the country, whereas
in Yemen 20 orders were based in the Hadramout province, Tehama on the
western coast, Aden in the south, as well as Ebb, Taiz and Al-Bayda’ in the
central regions.
In addition to the various local orders from different countries, transnational
Back to Content
43
Sufi orders were also viewed as valuable assets for Western policymakers
in the battle against extremism, especially al-Qadiriya, al-Rifai, al-Shadhili,
al-Naqshbandi and other movements that transcended national boundaries.
The considerable number of Sufis worldwide and the willingness of leaders of
Sufi orders to ally with political authorities in Arab countries made the birth
of a “political Sufi” movement a reality. The Tabah Foundation based in the
UAE is considered the hub of this movement in the Arab world. It defines
itself as “a non-profit organisation that strives to impart recommendations to
decision makers” and declares its mission is “to bring about solutions to global
and regional crises, one step at a time. Tabah’s projects seek to meet its goals
via best practices of management methodologies informed by the highest
Islamic ethical principles, whereby a new standard for Islamic development
projects can be forged”. Emirati authorities have provided significant financial
resources to the foundation to develop a network infrastructure of cross-border Sufi
institutions and to reposition Al-Azhar as the institutional Centre of gravity in
Sunni Islam.
Dilemmas posed by the political role of Sufism
Analysts in Western research Centre’s have identified serious obstacles that
pose a challenge to the political Sufism project. Perhaps the most notable is the
absence of a mature political theory underpinning these orders, who have not
developed a coherent concept of political participation through the course of
their history.
The article “Muslim Networks and Movements in Western Europe”, published by
the American Pew Institute in September 2010, noted that Western governmental
support for Sufi movements was ultimately unsuccessful due to reservations held
by many Muslims of meddling funded by Western governments.
In December 2011, The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published
a lengthy paper entitled “Salafis and Sufis in Egypt”, written by the researcher
Jonathan Brown. The author believed that the scope for taking political advantage
of the Sufi orders was very limited, due to their historic association with the
ruling National Democratic Party in Egypt at that time, and their inability to
articulate a clear political vision. He predicted that they would have no real
impact on politics in the near future.
Najeh Ibrahim investigated the role of Sufi movements in Egypt in his study
“Will Sunni Sufism inherit political Islam in Egypt”, published in Al Youm
Al Sabi Journal (July 11, 2014). He drew attention to the cooperation between
Sufis and the ruling regime in Egypt. The most prominent proponents of this
partnership included Sheikh Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb, Mohammad Mahmoud
Back to Content
44
Abu-Hashem, former President of Al-Azhar Ahmed Omar Hashem, the former
Grand Mufti of Egypt Ali Gomaa, Mohamed Abdel-Baith al-Kettani, Usama
al-Azhari as well as Habib al-Jifri who has enjoyed official support from
institutions who have granted him a media platform to address young Egyptians.
This coalition has worked to exclude and isolate its competitors and assume
a more active role in politics, but has faced many obstacles. Amongst these is
the lack of a clearly defined administrative entity, the tendency of its leaders
to seek out fame, prestige and status rather than spiritual self-elevation and
improvement, an excessive emphasis on popular religion at the expense of
education in the Sharia sciences, a distinct inability to correct errors, and poor
communication between Sufi elders and their followers.
In a similar study entitled “The dilemma of the political role of Sufi movements
after the Arab Spring”, researcher Abulfazl Al Asnawi argued that the Arab
Spring exposed the marginal independent political role played by Sufi orders
in the Arab region. He deduced that this was a crisis of Sufi thought, including
a host of unorthodox popular practices and their almost absolute obedience to
local regimes rather than operating as independent actors within their social
environment. He added: “The ruling regimes used Sufi orders, locally and
internationally, whenever they needed them to achieve social balances and
political actions”. Al Asnawi highlighted that divergent Sufi political practices
have caused severe divisions within Sufi ranks which have
prevented them from performing the active political role some governments had
hoped for. He also pointed out that they have missed an important opportunity
to generate real political influence in the Arab world due to the absence of a
centralised administrative apparatus and a shortage in public reach.
There is no doubt that these academic findings raise serious questions about the
political future of Sufism in the Arab world and its ability to support government
institutions. The failure of the leaders of the Sufi orders to exercise an active
political role will inevitably cause Western financial help to dry up and limit
their ability to build and sustain influential networks. It may push the Arab
governments that are presently generously subsidising Sufi institutions to look
for other alternatives in this politically-polarising battle for Muslim hearts and
minds.
Al Asnawi further warned that Sufi movements do not fully appreciate the
detrimental impact of the policies, statements and behaviour of their leaders
on regional security. In addition to the convergence between the Tabah
Foundation and similar institutions on one side and the Iranian lobby
represented by Seyyed Hossein Nasr and his son Vali Nasr on the other, there
has emerged a union in Syria between government supported Sufis such as
Ahmad Hassoun and al-Bouti (who chaired the Advisory Board of the Tabah
Foundation until his death) and Iran. This Sufi-regime alliance upset regional
Back to Content
45
sensitivities and alienated the majority of the Syrian people. It underestimated
popular feelings of resentment towards Iran and its sectarian militias in the
region who are committing crimes against these populations.
In Egypt, the visit to Tehran in March 2013 of the Front for Sufi Reform,
headed by Sheikh Alaa Abul Azayem and representatives of fourteen Egyptian
Sufi orders, raised serious questions about the credibility of these orders and
their ability to understand the security risks associated with lobbying for funding
from Tehran in order to establish a higher council for Sufism in Paris.
Egyptian newspapers published a swathe of information about the meetings
between the leaders of the Egyptian orders with Iranian officials. Following the
meetings, the Sufi orders announced that they would put aside their conflicts and
unite in their efforts to bring Sufi and Shia sects together to fight other Islamic
theological currents. This development signified a critical break in the policy of
co-operation between the Egyptian Sufi orders and the government in dealing
with the unfolding crises in the region.
But the biggest challenge to political Sufism lie in the mentality of its
financiers and leadership, who fight religious hatred with hatred rather than true
engagement with opponents of other pervasive Islamic movements, and in so
doing forge alliances that pose a threat to the region’s security. Whilst claiming
that they want to deliver civil peace, in reality they have produced divisive and
harmful policies inciting yet more extremism and exclusion.
Back to Content
46
CHAPTER 2:
THE POLITICAL ROLE
OF THE ‘NEW DERVISHES’
Back to Content
47
DR. AHMED AL-TAYEB:
DREAMS OF A GLOBAL RELIGIOUS AUTHORITY
It was never envisaged that Dr Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the grandson of the leader of
the Alkhlutiah sect, would become a competing religious authority in the Islamic
world.
A simple farmer from Al Murashada village, he left to study theology at
Al-Azhar University in Cairo. He then went to France to complete his graduate
studies where he received a doctorate in 1977. Al Tayeb studied philosophy in
French, including Marxist political thought focusing on class, identity, and cause
and effect. He was strongly influenced by the ideas of Muhyiddin bin Arabi,
particularly his theories and visions concerning the State and Prophecy.
Following his return to Egypt, he struggled to find job opportunities due
to economic recession, so he went to teach at universities in Saudi Arabia,
Qatar, the UAE and Pakistan, eventually returning to Al-Azhar to work in the
Department of Religion and Philosophy.
The political arena proved more attractive to the young Al Tayeb than the
world of philosophy and so he joined the National Party, working within the
Policy Committee to explore ways in which the religious establishment could be
reformed through teaching and fatwas.
Back to Content
48
Tasked with rallying followers in the ‘battle for the party’ against Islamist
factions, he exercised the duties of his role enthusiastically. Former Egyptian
President Hosni Mubarak identified him as a strong personal leader with
absolute loyalty to the National Party and hastened his appointment as Mufti
of the Republic in 2002. He was subsequently appointed as the chairman of the
Al-Azhar University (2003-2010), then as Sheikh Al-Azhar as the successor to
Dr. Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, who died in the March 19, 2010.
Al Tayeb’s mission within the National Party was to draw upon Sufi doctrine to
persuade the religious establishment to favour the National Party in preference
to Islamist groups.
Despite his promotions, Al Tayeb retained his membership of the National
Party, remaining in his position in the policy committee until 2010 when he was
pressurised by public opinion to resign only a month after taking over as Sheikh
Al-Azhar.
Notwithstanding his resignation, Al Tayeb did not find it difficult to reconcile
his loyalty to the State with the management of religious affairs that proved to
be partisan in style. In the wake of his resignation, he said that the “institution
of Al-Azhar does not carry out the government’s agenda, but it should not go
against the government, because it is part of the State.” Al Tayeb remained loyal
to the State and even in the midst of events that rocked Egypt, he issued fatwas
forbidding demonstrations and called upon citizens to return to their homes and
“cease sedition”.
Al Tayeb incurred the wrath of the protest movement after Mubarak’s second
national address when he declared that demonstrations by the opposition were,
in accordance to Sharia, “Haram” and an invitation to chaos. After Mubarak
announced the transfer of power to Vice President Omar Suleiman, he remarked
to Al Tayeb that the continuation of demonstrations “had become unnecessary”
because the protestors’ demands had been met and that he had resigned in order
to save the National Party from collapse.
‘Wahhabism’ and the deployment of Sufism to counter it
During his chairmanship of Al-Azhar University (2003-2010), Al Tayeb sought
to purge the ranks of the teaching staff and graduate students, declaring that
“the doctrine of Al-Azhar is the doctrine of al-Ash’ari and Almetridi, and the
jurisprudence of the four, and the Sufiism of Imam Junaid”. He had no difficulty
in identifying his ‘neo-Salafi’ opponents.
In a series of meetings televised at the end of 2009, he launched a relentless
campaign against what he called the “Salafist -Wahhabis”, who he claimed were
deviant “outsiders” straying from the correct path, and were a threat to the unity
Back to Content
49
of the Islamic nation.
Al Tayeb warned of the danger of the Wahhabi claim to represent the Islamic
nation, commenting that they ‘pretend’ and are not followers of ‘good’ Salafism.
Sheikh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah and Imam Muhammad bin Abdul Wahab did
not escape Al Tayeb’s criticism, stating that the elders of their school “are only
followed by the uneducated” and echoing comments recently made by Sheikh
Ahmad Qubaisi in Abu Dhabi, who has argued that the doctrine of Wahhabism
has misled Muslims.
To justify the campaign against opponents in Al-Azhar University, Al Tayeb
warned of a conspiracy to ‘hijack the thought and approach’ of Al Azhari
moderates, a current of thought with a history of more than a thousand years.
He stressed that Al-Azhar “would preserve the Ash’ari doctrine on Sufi thought”
which has been cultivated by dozens of Al-Azhar sheikhs throughout history.
Hence he launched a purge of faculty members, especially those who were
accused of being Salafist or members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The newspaper Al Fajir reported that the committee set up by Al Tayeb under
the chairmanship of Dr Abdullah Hilal al-Husseini made recommendations
to remove faculty members who he described as “mercenaries and hackers in
this great Institution, especially those following the thought and beliefs of the
Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis.”
The dismissal of opponents by Al Tayeb sparked mass demonstrations at the
prestigious university in which professors, sheikhs and imams of mosques
demanded his dismissal on the grounds that he was a “leftover” from the Mubarak
regime.
The demonstrators denounced what they called the “outrageous and deeply
disappointing actions of Sheikh Al-Azhar”, after he issued official fatwas to
stop Friday prayers and for people to pray at home instead. The demonstrators
accused him of harbouring loyalties to the former regime, and berated him for
trying to thwart the demands of the millions of demonstrators. They also accused
him of arbitrariness towards the workers and staff at the Al Azhar.
In the response to this direct challenge, Al Tayeb urged followers of the
Alkhlutiah way to counter-demonstrate and to chant the slogan: “with our blood
we will redeem you imam.”
Will al-Azhar become a global religious authority of Sufism?
After a period of decline, Al-Azhar returned to prominence in the wake of the
removal of President Mohamed Morsi with the support of the military, who
needed religious authority to legitimize the rule of his successor.
Back to Content
50
The reality is that the initial appointment of Al-Tayeb to high station, the
subsequent rehabilitation of his character, and the continual support for his
authority are all developments resulting from political calculations and not
religious considerations.
Al Tayeb’s known support for countries supporting military action is pivotal.
He follows Sufism and does not hide his hostility towards Islamist groups and
Salafists. He has demonstrated his willingness to mobilise the religious authority
of Al-Azhar against the opponents of the Sufi order.
Furthermore, Al Tayeb is building alliances with Sufi institutions in the UAE, as
he seeks to broaden the front in the fight against opponents to his vision beyond
the borders of Egypt. This is evidenced by his key role in establishing the ‘World
Association of Al-Azhar Graduates’, an association that can provide a source of
support for the ‘Council of Elders of the Muslims’ project in Abu Dhabi.
Al Tayeb has achieved rapid success and recognition for his regional role, with
honours and rewards from around the Gulf being lavished upon him. He was
granted the Sheikh Zayed Award for ‘Cultural Personality of the Year’ in April
2013 as well as the 2014 Dubai Holy Quran ‘Islamic Personality of the Year
Award’. In addition he was appointed chairman of the ‘Board of the Elders of
Muslims’ in Abu Dhabi, and was honoured in the Saudi city of Riyadh.
As a result, the Egyptian writer Fahmi Howeidi questioned the relationship
between Al-Azhar and Salafis in Saudi Arabia “which historically has been
estranged and violent; moreover Al-Tayeb is a fundamental Sufi, which
distances him even farther from the Salafist movement”. He then went on to
query “the real reason for the call by Sheikh Al-Azhar and its scholars to visit
the Kingdom at the present time”.
It is also worth mentioning that in the past few months, the UAE has
significantly increased its level of funding to Al-Azhar in what is perceived
to be an effort to expand its influence and bolster its role as a religious authority
of the Muslim world. Such schemes include funding education projects both
inside and outside Egypt, support for the Specialty Hospital of the University
of Al-Azhar, the establishment of a group of colleges within the University of
Al-Azhar, the construction of the Sheikh Zayed Centre for teaching Arabic to
non-native speakers and the construction of an international library with the
latest technology.
In explaining the surge in UAE funding, the adviser to the ruler of Dubai
said that “the Grand Imam is a great authority for Muslim scholars and
Islamic people in all countries”. Perhaps revealingly, this statement mirrors
the reaction of Al-Tayeb when he first learned of his appointment as Sheikh
Al-Azhar in 2010, when he thanked the former President Hosni Mubarak for his
confidence and added that “the appointment as imam of the Muslims is a great
Back to Content
51
responsibility”.
It appears that the ambitious philosopher from the Marashda village in Upper
Egypt was thinking beyond Al-Azhar by referring to the “Imamate of all
Muslims”. Will the UAE give Al Tayeb what Mubarak failed to give him?
Back to Content
52
ABDULLAH BIN BAYYAH: THE SUFI FAQIH
Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah was born in 1935 in Tamabdgha, southern
Mauritania. His father, Judge Al-Mahfouz bin Bayyah, encouraged him to study
Sharia, Arabic, and the Quran at an early stage of his life, and later sent him to
Tunisia to help configure the judiciary.
There are stark similarities in the developmental and career paths of bin Bayyah
and his partner in the Presidency of the Muslims Council of Elders in Abu Dhabi,
Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb. One of those is being a cleric with political ambitions.
In fact, a key factor behind bin Bayyah’s prominence in the public sphere was
his engagement in politics in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, as a member
of the ruling Mauritanian People’s Party, becoming a Permanent Trustee for the
Party and a member of its Cabinet and Permanent Committee.
Back to Content
53
As the People’s Party, like its former Egyptian counterpart the National
Democratic Party, is the only ruling party in the country, bin Bayyah rapidly
progressed through the political and religious establishments by virtue of being
a party member. He was appointed as the primary mediator on Religious Affairs
in the Republic, Minister of Awqaf, Minister of Islamic Affairs and Education,
Minister of Justice and Official Holder of the Seals, Minister of State for Human
Resources – with the position of Deputy Prime Minister, then Minister of State
for Directing State Affairs, Organizations and Parties.
His life radically changed after he accompanied Saudi King Faisal bin
Abdul Aziz during his trip to Mauritania in 1972, drawing the attention of
Saudi officials during that visit. After considering Aelchenaqth’s position in
the Kingdom, bin Bayyah decided to travel to Saudi Arabia where he worked
for various high-level officials including King Faisal, King Khalid and King
Fahd, who was the Crown Prince at the time. Bin Bayyah was then appointed as
a professor at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah.
During this period, bin Bayyah enjoyed good relations with a variety of religious
institutions, joining a wide range of religious bodies including the Commission
on Scientific Signs in the Quran and Sunnah, the World Supreme Council for
Mosques, the International Aid Organisation of Kuwait, the World Muslim
Congress in Karachi, the European Council for Fatwa and Research, and the
Islamic Fiqh Academy.
However, his association with the International Union of Muslim Scholars was
fraught with controversy. He was quoted as expressing his dissatisfaction with
the random member recruitment in the Union and the leadership’s tendency to
make improvised decisions, often attaching his name to statements and political
positions on which he did not formally lend his support. All of this led to his
resignation from the Union in September 2013. He stated it was due to personal
circumstances, necessary in order to help preserve his modest role in seeking
reform and reconciliation, with no conflict of interest.
But it was clear to many that bin Bayyah’s resignation was in fact a result of
Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s escalation of rhetoric against the military regime in
Egypt and the Gulf states who are supporting it. This did not go unnoticed by Abu
Dhabi’s rulers, who invited bin Bayyah to stay with them, allowed vast space in
the media for him and assigned to him religious positions such as the Chair of
the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, membership of the senior
Advisory Board of the Tabah Foundation, and more recently, the co-Presidency
of the Muslim Council of Elders along with Al-Azhar Sheikh, Ahmed Al-Tayeb.
In this third phase of bin Bayyah’s life, two important developments are
clearly identifiable. First, he developed a passion for Sufism and tried to adapt
it according to the religious discourse prevalent in the UAE, his new host
Back to Content
54
country. Bin Bayyah began calling for a Sufi revival in the Islamic sciences
“to refreshreligious studies”. However, bin Bayyah’s appearances in the media
contradicted the very essence of his own beliefs, but this unbefitting exposure
was a necessary undertaking in line with the wishes of the management of the
Sufi Tabah Foundation in promoting the ritual space. The respectful Sheikh
was seen at the annual Mawlid (the Prophet’s Birthday) celebrations and other
religious festivals, sitting on the podium next to musical bands and instruments,
not entirely compatible with his traditional religious and academic background.
Among other most prominent events and forums in which the bin Bayyah
now appeared were the eleventh session of the “Burda” Award at the National
Theatre in Abu Dhabi, and in the Committees for the celebration of the Prophet’s
birth in the UAE. Widely reported also was his famous lecture in the Sidi Shiker
Second World Meeting in Morocco, in which he attacked those who were against
celebrating the birth of the Prophet (may peace be upon him).
Meanwhile, his students and colleagues in the universities of Saudi Arabia raised
questions over his debatable fatwas concerning the permissibility of eating
a carcass if it was blessed by saying a name other than the name of God, the
admissibility of using certain musical instruments in “Islamic” music, and similar
jurisprudence.
The second perceivable shift in bin Bayyah’s character was the resurgence of
the political spirit he abandoned long ago. He became increasingly proactive in
his Sufism, and his host country, the UAE, launched media campaigns against
those religious parties and organisations who opposed institutions such as Tabah,
especially those in Saudi Arabia.
In the meantime, questions were raised about the impact of bin Bayyah’s
students on their sheikh, especially those who held advisory positions in
Western governments such as Jihad Hashim Brown, the director of research
at Tabah Foundation who worked as a consultant on issues related to Islam
and international relations for various governments and institutions. From the
United States, Hamza Yusuf, the director of the Zaytuna College in California
who served as an adviser to the White House on relations between the Islamic
world and the West, who organised bin Bayyah’s high-level official visits to
the United States. These included meetings with the American president’s
senior assistant Kyle Smith, the National Security Adviser Tom Donilon,
representatives of government organizations and agencies including the
CIA and the National Security Agency, the public relations director at the
White House Jermaine Wet, as well as the Special Envoy to the Organization
of the Islamic Conference Rashad Hussain.
During these visits bin Bayyah forged good relations with Western politicians
and security officials, further cultivating these ties through his role of managing
Back to Content
55
the Global Center for Renewal & Guidance in London. His involvement in
the Tabah Foundation helped him build bridges of communication with the
Naqshbandi political network, led by Hisham Kabbani. It also enabled him to
develop controversial relationships with senior figures in the Iranian lobby in
Washington such as Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Sayid Hassan Qazwini, and began
to appear next to them in photos taken at conferences and public events in the
West.
Those developments have raised questions over whether bin Bayyah was truly
unaware of the fact that his name was being used in as a religious reference
against opponents, or whether this was in fact in accordance with a desire to
return to an active political role such as that which he enjoyed in Nouakchott?
Although bin Bayyah resigned from the International Union for Muslim
Scholars with the stated aim of preserving his independence and to prevent the
use his name in political debates, his membership of the Supreme Advisory
Council of the Tabah Foundation has put his religious and political credibility
back in contention, especially in the light of his strong association with the other
members, such as Mohammed Saeed Ramadan Al-Bouti, Ali Gomaa, al Habib
Umar bin Hafiz, Ali Jafri and other key actors in this political Sufi project.
Did bin Bayyah really achieve what he sought by resigning from the
International Union for Muslim Scholars in terms of “bridging the gap and
calling for reform and reconciliation?” Or did he find himself immersed in a
conflict that did not in fact unite but rather divided the nation further?
In answering this question, we should note that one of bin Bayyah’s first
actions as the newly-appointed co-President of the Muslim Council of Elders
was “heading the Muslim Council of Elders’ delegation that visited Nouakchott,
the capital of Mauritania, to participate in the inauguration ceremony of the
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz” (August 2nd, 2014).
Will the Faqih take off his turban and return to politics, following in the
footsteps of co-President Ahmed Al-Tayeb when he re- joined the ruling
National Democratic Party in Egypt?
Have the partners in the presidency of the Muslim Council of Elders found what
they were actually looking for in this politically polarising project?
Back to Content
56
ALI AL JAFRI:
POLITICAL SUFISM, REALITY AND AMBITION
Ali bin Abdul Rahman Al-Jafri was born in the city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
His father is Abdul-Rahman bin Ali bin Mohammed Al-Jafri, the leader of
the Association of the Sons of Yemen, otherwise known as “Al Rai”, which
supported the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) and the attempted secession by
forces associated with it in south Yemen in 1994. His father was appointed
by southern leader Ali Salem al-Beidh as Vice President of the secessionist
government but was then forced to flee the country with his family when
southern forces were swiftly defeated. He was placed on the Yemeni
government’s wanted “List of 16”, and he was later tried in absentia.
Due to the severe disruption in his education as a youth, which was limited
to attendance at a public secondary school in Jeddah, Al Jafri was keen to
compensate for the shortcomings of his educational background and so studied
the works of 300 Islamic scholars, though he was unable to meet the vast
majority of them.
Al Jafri was most influenced by the views and thoughts of Sheikh Mohammed
Alawi al Maliki, a Sufi Sheikh of Moroccan origin who grew up in Hijaz.
Al Maliki received a doctorate from the Faculty of Theology at the University
of Al-Azhar, before returning later to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He wrote
Back to Content
57
several books on Sufism, including Al Dhae’r and Shafa Al Fuad as well as
Mafaheem. Renowned Saudi scholars such as Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz,
Sheikh Abdullah bin Munia, Sheikh Hammoud Tuwaijri and Abu Bakr Algazairi
identified strongly with Al Maliki’s writings and this had a significant impact on
the psyche of his disciple Al Jafri.
Al Jafri was also an avid disciple of Habib Umar bin Hafiz, whom he lived with
in Hadramout, Yemen between 1993 and 2003. It was there in the Dar al-Mustafa
institute in Tarim that he studied a range of texts focusing on the core elements of
Sufism, which are taught as part of courses to hundreds of students from inside
and outside of Yemen each year.
Following this period of study with Umar bin Hafiz and others in the
Dar al-Mustafa, Al Jafri would refer to himself as “a Sunni of the Ash’ari and
the Shafi’i school, a lover of Sufism in my ways”.
Al Jafri worked with various satellite television channels in Egypt and
Saudi Arabia but, owing to his age and relative inexperience, he made mistakes
and errors of judgment, which led to him becoming a target of criticism by
various authorities in Saudi Arabia and Palestine. In one incident, the Khatib
(Speaker) of Al-Aqsa Mosque demanded that he be tried because his visit to the
Al Aqsa Mosque was seen as a kind of “normalisation with the Israeli enemy,
which amounts to collaboration and any collaboration with an enemy, amounts
to treason.”
Al Jafri drew further condemnation in the wake of his visit to Denmark at the
time of the protests in reaction to the publication of cartoons of the Prophet
(PBUH). The Egyptian government subsequently declared him to be persona
non grata and in 2001 requested he leave the country.
Al Jafri has stirred many a controversy, also evident in his visit to Cyprus to
seek spiritual endorsement from Sheikh Nazim Haqqani, the leader of the
Naqshbandia Sufi order. Al Jafri’s opponents raised objections to this along with
the followers of Sheikh Nazim himself, perceiving his visit as an attempt to
assume control over the Sufi leadership with financial backing from the UAE.
Significantly, Sheikh Nazim’s heir, Hisham Kabbani, had also rejected Al Jafri’s
approach.
Back to Content
58
Al Jafri was further criticised for his management of the Tabah Foundation in the
UAE, particularly over the contentious selection of the members of its advisory
board, Mohammed Saeed Ramadan Al-Bouti, Umar Bin Hafiz, Ali Gomaa, and
others, who were all notorious for their support of the failing governments in
Egypt, Syria and Yemen.
However, the dynamic young man’s ambition continued to attract the attention
of the authorities in Abu Dhabi, which sought to give him a central role in
their project to promote a more politically-active brand of Sufism. In the UAE,
Al Jafri organised what he called the “Award Burda” to celebrate the Prophet’s
birthday, and was entrusted with the presidency of the “Festival of Love”.
As a result his media exposure increased, especially on television in Abu Dhabi
and Dubai where he was accorded publicity not readily available to other clerics
either within the country or abroad.
Al Jafri has lectured at American universities on the subject of terrorism and is a
member of various councils and organisations including the European Academy
for Culture and Islamic Sciences in Brussels, the Al Noor Centre in Hadramout
and the Al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Jordan. He also lectures at the
Dar al- Mustafa institute in Yemen, which is headed by Professor Omar Bin
Hafeez.
Returning to Cairo after a long absence following the removal of Morsi from
office, Al Jafri spoke extensively about the programs that have been developed
there by the armed forces, delivering lectures in May 2014 at army barracks, and
to the army, naval and air defence colleges.
However, because of his absence from various significant events held in the
Back to Content
59
UAE whilst he was in Cairo, observers have aired doubts about his ability to
progress the Sufi political project sponsored by the UAE. Moreover surprise was
expressed at his absence from the launch of the Muslim Council of Elders in
the Emirates, despite his previous prominent role alongside key founder Sheikh
Abdullah bin Bayyah in organising the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim
Societies that preceded it.
Will the young Jafri need more time to mature and progress in his religious quest
to join the ranks of senior learned scholars?
The answer may become apparent when the additional board members of the
Muslim Council of Elders are announced.
Back to Content
60
ALI GOMAA:
GRAND MILITARY MUFTI OF EGYPT?
Ali Gomaa was born in Beni Suef in 1952. He completed a B.A in Commerce
at Ain Shams University in 1973, then joined Al-Azhar University where he
graduated in 1979. He later received a master’s degree in Juristic Methodology
from the Faculty of Sharia and Law at Al-Azhar in 1985, and a doctorate in 1988.
Gomaa attracted the attention of the ruling National Democratic Party, through
which he acquired a number of positions and titles including membership of the
Islamic Research Academy and, more recently, the Muslim Council of Elders.
He was appointed as the Grand Mufti of Egypt in 2003, and held this position
until 2013. His tenure was marked by a propensity for theological contradictions
and for issuing controversial Fatwas, especially on the sale of alcohol and
the permissibility of Riba banking (or Usury). He once claimed to have seen
the Prophet while awake. This prompted many scholars from Egypt and the
Arab world to respond and challenge his fatwas. The Mufti responded with a
campaign that lacked any restraint or propriety.
Taking up teaching responsibilities at Al-Azhar recently, Ali Gomaa has devoted
much of his energy to promote Sufi Ash’ari theological discourse in Al-Azhar.
He has organised and led intellectual confrontations against his opponents,
Back to Content
61
whom he described as “arrogant extremists”, with the support of the Sheikh of
Al-Azhar who invited Sufis from more than thirty Islamic and Western states to
the first global conference of Sufism in September 2011.
Formerly Ali Gomaa had high regard for the scholars of Saudi Arabia
during his work there. However, after his return from Saudi Arabia to Egypt,
he distanced himself from the Kingdom, derided the Kingdom’s scholars and
scorned Salafism and Imam Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and his teachings.
This surprising U-turn caught the attention of Ali al-Jifri, the UAE-based
Tabah Foundation’s director. Al-Jifri was similarly vocally critical of the scholars
in the kingdom he grew up in and has worked to fulfill the aspirations of his
spiritual mentor, Sheikh Muhammad Alawi al-Maliki, who bore a grudge against
the kingdom. Al-Jifri visited Gomaa and developed a good relationship with
him. In 2005, al-Jifri appointed Gomaa as a member of the Advisory Board of
the Tabah Foundation, a group of Sufis and scholars who have been engaged
in a campaign against their alleged extremist opponents. They follow the
foundation’s scientific approach advocated by the American scholar Jihad Brown.
Their output in sync with the policy approach of American political institutions,
which have been persuaded to support Sufism as part of a strategy to counter the
growing resistance in the Islamic world to America’s spreading influence there.
Ali Gomaa has worked closely with the Tabah Foundation’s leading thinkers,
including the late al-Bouti, bin Bayyah, Nuh Al-Qudat, al-Habib Umar bin
Hafiz, al-Jifri and some other Western Sufi Sheikhs, American and British. He
has demonstrated a strong commitment to the foundation’s programme, joining
al-Jifri on a visit to Jerusalem on the 18th April 2012 to launch the Integral
Chair for the Study of Imam Al-Ghazali’s Work. As a result of this visit, the
passport of the Grand Mufti of Egypt was stamped by an Israeli stamp, which
was considered an embarrassment by al-Azhar scholars and the priests of the
Coptic Church alike. The trip came on the tail of a previous visit by Ali al-Jifri,
to Jerusalem on the 4th April 2012, which suggested that Tabah Foundation’s
leaders were trying to break the fatwa forbidding non-Palestinian visits to
Jerusalem while it is under occupation. Al-Jifri and Ali Gomaa’s visit to
Jerusalem was part of a Tabah Foundation plan to override other fatwas, and
re-interpret definitive historical Islamic texts. A conference was organised in
Mardin in Turkey on 17th and 28th March 2010 to invalidate the famous “Mardin
Fatwa” issued by Ibn Taymiyyah, concerning the conditions under which jihad
is permissible. Ali Gomaa wrote a report about this conference, published by
Al Ahram newspaper on the 6th May 2010.
In 2009, the former Egyptian Mufti turned 57, controversially celebrating the
occasion by attending a local branch of the Lions Club headed up by Magdy
Azab, and ignoring a fatwa issued by the al Azhar Committee prohibiting
Muslims from joining such exclusive, elitist secular organisations.
Back to Content
62
Like other politically submissive scholars who enjoyed cosy relations with
the ruling elite, Gomaa was deeply troubled when his benefactor, former
President Mubarak, fell from power in 2011. On another occasion he expressed
his displeasure as millions of working class Egyptians voted in 2012 presidential
elections for Mohammed Morsi, who did not share Gomaa’s goals and vision.
When Morsi was ejected from the Presidential Office, Ali Gomaa publicly
came out in support of his ally in the military, al-Sisi, endorsing his actions in
removing Morsi by stating: “Do not be afraid, religion is with you, the Prophet
is with you, the believers are with you, the nation is with you and the angels in
heaven support you”.
Gomaa showed a lack of respect for al-Azhar’s position and mockingly
called those Egyptians defending the legitimacy of the deposed elected President
Morsi as “stinky” people. He even called for extreme force to be used against
them in a speech at the Police College on the 18 August 2013, in the presence
of then Defence Minister, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Interior Minister
Major General Mohammad Ibrahim, and a number of police and the army
leaders. Gomaa castigated the demonstrators as Khawarij, and said: “Shoot
them, and never sacrifice your people and soldiers for the sake of these Khawarij. God bless those who kill them and those killed by them, and those who
kill them are closer to God. We must cleanse our city and our Egypt from those
brutes. They do not deserve to be Egyptians, and we are ashamed of them.
We are innocent from them like the innocence of the wolf from the blood of
Jacob’s son”. The scholar pointed out that Mohamed Morsi fell because he was
“an interdicted imam” and declared to the audience that in his visions and visits
from the Prophet, assurances were given that the actions of the military and
police were just and morally valid.
After losing his position as Grand Mufti in February 2013, Ali Gomaa has
frequently appeared in the media broadcasting mystical sermons, following in
the footsteps of his sheikh, Abdullah bin Siddiq Ghumari, the leader of the Sufi
order in Morocco. He has often highlighted the significance of Sufism in the
al-Azhar educational curricula, and the importance of Al-Azhar in turn as a Sunni
point of reference for the Islamic world.
Despite being a close ally of Sufi sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah and Sheikh
Al-Azhar, supporting their political endeavours launched from the UAE,
his name was not included on the members’ list of the constituent body of the
Muslim Council of Elders. It is increasingly becoming doubtful whether he now
possesses the credibility or prestige to lead an advisory or scientific body.
Back to Content
63
HAMZA YUSUF:
INTERSECTIONS – THE NAQSHBANDI NETWORK
AND NEW ALLIES
Islamic scholar Hamza Yusuf (also known as Mark Hanson) was raised in a Greek
Orthodox Family in Northern California, USA. He converted to Islam at the age
of 18 and then traveled to the Arab world, spending ten years of religious study
in the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania. During this
period, he became increasingly absorbed in the teachings of the Naqshabandi Sufi
order, and was taken under the wing of a number of Sufi scholars in the al-Hajj
Ould Fahfu School. Hamza Yusuf subsequently accompanied Sheikh Abdullah
bin Bayyah to Saudi Arabia for a period of time, before eventually returning to
his native United States to establish the Zaytuna Institute in California in 1996.
Throughout his academic career, Hamza Yusuf showed a keen interest in
creating an English-language platform for the transmission of Sufi intellectual
heritage. Despite his assertions that he was following a form of “Scientific
Sufism”, he was criticised for adopting a more spiritual approach in his institute.
In continuity with the teachings and beliefs of his mentor Sheikh Bin Bayyah, he
would often say that Sufism is “the science of behavior and ethics, it is the core
of Islam, while the ways and the sheikhs are a different issue”.
He is fond of telling his peers about his penchant for linguistic interpretation
of Fiqh jurisprudence, especially in the field of the traditional Sufism that
understands Sharia through the lens of metaphorical concepts revolving in an
orbit of “truth”.
Greek philosophy greatly influenced Hamza Yusuf in his early life and he
Back to Content
64
frequently cited philosophers and Western thinkers, reflecting on Aristotelian
thought and his definition of happiness, Plato and his views on utopia, George
Bernard Shaw and his views on Islam, and Arnold Toynbee and his hypothesis
about the potentiality of a severe rift between the Global North and South.
But Hamza Yusuf’s scholarly prestige owes more to his political activities than
spiritual teachings. He was appointed as the White House’s adviser for relations
with the Muslim world following the events of September 11, 2001. He then
closed the Zaytuna Institute temporarily and devoted himself to lobbying U.S
policy makers on matters of Islamic affairs, making frequent appearances on
satellite TV channels. Describing himself, he once revealed: “I even took off my
turban and wore a suit and a tie”.
The attacks of 9/11 and its aftermath were a pivotal moment in Hamza Yusuf’s
life. He launched a campaign against anti-Semitism in the Islamic world, called
for the criminalising those who denied the Holocaust and urged Muslims to
exercise restraint and practice non-violence against the American troops in Iraq
and Afghanistan.
This raised many eyebrows , in particular from his own followers, who noted
a clear disconnect between the speeches he made before and after the events
of September 2001, the New York Times even publishing glaring examples of
those apparent contradictions. Hamza Yusuf meanwhile worked energetically to
defend the credibility of his new policy approach and theological direction.
According to the Washington Post in an article printed on the 2nd October 2001
shortly before American intervention in Afghanistan, Hamza Yusuf was the
only Muslim invited as part of a multi-faith delegation by the American
administration to pray at the White House with then President George W. Bush,
sing the national anthem, and show support for military action in Afghanistan.
Questions were also raised over Hamza Yusuf‘s links to a group of British
Muslims close to the UK government, who adopted the teachings of the
deputy leader of the Naqshabandi order in America, Hisham Kabbani, to wage
a campaign against “Wahhabism” in order to isolate the extremists and defeat
them. Also placed under the spotlight was Hamza Yusuf’s work with the
Quilliam Foundation, which expressed its support for British involvement in
the war in Iraq, and its recognition of the state of Israel.
In response to criticisms of his seemingly wavering political stance, he replied:
“My alignment is with what I perceive as just and fair. If it’s with the Muslims,
then I’m with the Muslims, if it’s with the West then I’m with the West.”
The book “Rebel between Spirit and Law”, written by Scott Kogl, offers an
accurate description of Hamza Yusuf’s personality at this stage of his life and
the nature of the advice he provided to the American administration. The author
Back to Content
65
explained that Yusuf was convinced that the American administration’s battle
against the “Wahhabi-terrorist” movements cannot be won without facing the
governments standing behind those movements and funding them.
On this particular issue, Hamza Yusuf and his peers have it would appear lost
some of their professional neutrality. He has used the label “Wahhabi” loosely, as
if it is the ruling madhab in Saudi Arabia, interchanging it with the term “Salafi”
and attributing the rise of the region’s terrorist movements to “Salafi-Wahhabi”
theological currents. By such mixing of the cards, the implication is it’s “us”
against “them”, that all Islamic movements that do not adhere to his doctrine
should be shunned and possibly criminalised.
Hamza Yusuf’s deep Naqshbandi connections have been evident in recent
initiatives. In a visit to the leader of the Naqshbandi order in Cyprus, Nazim
Haqqani, sources from the Naqshbandi network highlighted that the aim of
Yusuf’s visit was “to congratulate Haqqani on the opening of the grave of Umm
Haram”. Umm Haram is the tomb on which a Mosque was built in the south
Greek Orthodox side of the Island. It was closed during the civil war in 1974, but
the United Nations Development Programme worked on the restoring it at a cost
of $3 million, and the work took nearly four years. Haqqani reportedly informed
Hamza Yusuf that he should not visit him until
he visited the tomb of Umm Haram near Laranca Airport. There, he was also
introduced to the son of Hisham Kabbani, Nazim Kabbani, with the former
declaring: “This boy is a sayyid” (denoting an honorific authority or descent to
the Holy Prophet).
Upon returning to the United States, Yusuf was keen to maintain a strong
relationship with Hisham Kabbani. Both were very close to the White House and
actively worked together to draw the attention of the American administration
to the dangers of cooperating with “Wahhabi” movements and the countries that
support them.
The Kabbani-Yusuf alliance was further enhanced when a prominent Sufi
Shiite figure and Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University,
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, was brought onboard. He joined his colleagues in warning
the American administration of the threats of “Wahhabism” and soon became
a regular guest at events organised by the Zaytuna Institute. The home page of
the Institute’s website contained endorsements of the work carried out by the
Institute and Nasr. This Sufi-Iranian convergence followed the announcement
made by Sheikh Nazim Haqqani in April 2012 in which he declared that he
and his followers believed the Hidden Imam (or Mahdi) was the disappeared
Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Askari, the twelfth of the Ithna Ashari Imams.
It is worth mentioning that Seyyed Hossein Nasr and his son, well-known author
and political scientist Vali Nasr, are prominent members of the Iranian lobby in
Back to Content
66
Washington. Vali Nasr is a member of the American Council on Foreign Relations
and the Council of American-Iranian affairs, and enjoys good relations with the
American administration and some members of Congress. The American Centre
for Strategic and International Studies has frequently published his writings and
research, in which he has argued that it is in the interest of the United States to
empower Shiites and put pressure on Wahhabi groups funded by Saudi Arabia,
which, in his opinion, represent the greatest threat to American interests in the
region.
In his book, The Shia Revival, Nasr expresses support for the teachings of
Shia Iraqi cleric, Ayatollah al-Sistani, and calls for the empowerment of Shiite
organisations in the Arabian Gulf whom he believes could prove to be reliable
allies to the American administration. He has commented that such a strategy
“will help limit the risk of Sunni extremism that comes from Saudi Arabia and
the Wahhabi ideology”.
Furthermore, these linkages have been confirmed by the involvement of
American-based and Iraqi-born cleric Sayed Hassan Qazwini, also a key figure
in the Iranian lobby, with activities held by the Zaytuna Institute in co-ordination
with the al-Shirazi network leadership to which Qazwini belongs. Revealingly,
Hamza Yusuf has succeeded in enlisting the participation of his spiritual guide,
Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, in many of these events. Bin Bayyah has appeared
next to Sayed Hassan Qazwini and Seyyed Hossein Nasr in public conferences
hosting discussions about openness and building bridges, but which seem to
have paradoxically and divisively encouraged alienation and resentment towards
other religious groups and strands of theological thought.
In this light, Hamza Yusuf has used his influence in Washington to open the
doors of the American administration to the Mauritanian Faqih Abdullah bin
Bayyah, who has been promoting his controversial vision in the West of an
Islamic jurisprudence focusing on “giving priority to achieving peace over
claiming rights”.
Hamza Yusuf’s views and philosophical beliefs aside, it is important to recognise
that his networking efforts have reinforced the activities of the Iranian lobby,
which has put pressure on the American administration to recalibrate the
territorial boundaries of the Arab region along ethnic and sectarian lines.
This would undoubtedly entail separating the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia
from the interior Najd and coastal Hejaz regions. What the Naqshbandi and
“Scientific Sufi” scholars seem to fail to appreciate is the vast complications
of such intrusions, which could destabilize the Arab region even further. Given
the clear risks of such a geopolitical strategy, it is perhaps even more difficult to
comprehend why some Gulf capitals allocate vast sums of money to support this
conflict-ridden vision.
Back to Content
67
JIHAD HASHIM BROWN:
TABAH REACH AND VISION
Jihad Brown grew up in the city of Santa Ana, California. He studied at Rutgers
University, New Jersey, where he graduated in 1994 with a degree in Psychology
and Middle Eastern Studies. He also received a graduate degree in philosophical
theology from the University of Cambridge.
After completing his studies, Brown followed the path of his American Sufi
peers. He embarked upon the study of Sufism in academic institutions in the
Middle East to enhance his scholarly credentials and standing in the Muslim
community worldwide.
At the beginning of his career, Brown travelled to Damascus with his wife and
four children, forging close ties with Sufi leaders of whom the most important
was Mohamed Said Ramadan Al-Bouti, the Dean of the Faculty of Sharia at
Damascus University. Al-Bouti later joined forces with Brown in founding the
Tabah Foundation.
Brown was also mentored by the Sufi Sheikh Mohammed Adib Al Klass,
whom he revered as “a brilliant scholar in a long line of great scholars such as
Al Shatabi and Ghazali.”
After completing his studies in the Levant “Al Mashriq”, Brown moved to
Morocco “Al Maghrib” to round up his knowledge, where he studied at Tanalit
in the Atlas Mountains.
Back to Content
68
During this period, Brown studied under Muhammad Al Ghali Aldadsi, a member
of the Moroccan Supreme Scientific Council which is a constitutional body
headed by the King of Morocco. The council supervises the Religious Councils
of the kingdom and deals with religious affairs and Fatwas in accordance with
Moroccan traditions, specifically Maliki jurisprudence, the Ash’ari creed and
Sufi mysticism.
After parting ways with Sheikh Aldadsi, Jihad Brown returned to the United
States, where he became close to other American scholars of Sufism including
Imam Zaid Shakir, Hamza Yusuf (founder of the Zaytuna University of Islamic
Sciences), Yahya Rhodus and others.
Department of Research – Tabah Foundation (2005-2014)
When the UAE- based Sufi organisation, the Tabah Foundation, was launched in
Abu Dhabi in 2005, the founder of the institute, Ali Al Jifri, appointed Brown to
the Academic Committee, enabling Brown to concentrate on research and papers
on law, theology and other contemporary issues.
The Academic Committee was formally established after receiving endorsement
from Sheikh Al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb, the former Grand Mufti of Egypt
Ali Gomaa and the head of the Arabic Language Academy Hassan El-Shafei.
Members of the committee included Dr. Farouk Hamada (a Sufi of Syrian origin,
a Moroccan national and religious adviser to the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi ,
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan), Al Habib Al Jifri, Dr. Karim Lahham,
Kamran Bajwa, Dr. Mahmoud Masiri and Aref Nayed (the Libyan Ambassador
to the UAE).
Brown was also appointed as the orator for Friday prayers at the Mosque of Miriam
Bint Sultan in Abu Dhabi. He was a regular columnist for The National newspaper
in the UAE and has written about a range of topics including the acceptability of
celebrating the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. He also translated the written
works of prominent theologians such as Mahmoud Abdel-Halim. Brown’s
writings are in no small part inspired by his philosophical academic background,
which included the study of Psychology and Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers
University, and his pursuit of Islamic Studies in Syria and Morocco.
In line with his neo-Sufi peers, Brown engaged in media publicity and
appearances. He participated in the ‘Doha Debate 2005’ on women’s rights in
conjunction with Toujan al-Faisal (the first woman elected into the Jordanian
parliament), Saudi born Khola Hasan and Tariq Suwaidan. As expected, Jihad
approached his subject from a philosophical angle, philosophy being the essence
of religion in his view.
He has also participated in various television interviews, most notably in 2010 on
Back to Content
69
CNN when he discussed “the Muslim community at the crossroads in a leaderless
vacuum.” Another interview was held on November 14th 2013, hosted by the
Islamic satellite channel Iqra, focusing on “our ignorance of religion.”
In December 2007 following an initiative by the Royal Al-Bayt Institute for
Islamic Thought in Amman, Brown and others signed “The Common Word”
manuscript. This document, endorsed by prominent Muslim scholars, launched
a Muslim-Christian interfaith initiative in collaboration and co-ordination with
the Tabah Foundation.
Jihad also signed a Charter to promote stronger linkages between Islamic
organisations and accredited Islamic Sharia students. 45 of his Sufi colleagues
were also signatories, notably Faraz Rabbani, Hamza Yusuf, Abdullah bin
Bayyah, Ibrahim Eissa, Muhammad bin Adam Hanafi, Yahya Rhodus, Abdul
Hakim Jackson, Suhaib Webb and Zaid Shakir.
In recognition of his efforts to expand the reach of political Sufism, the Tabah
Foundation appointed Jihad Brown to the Intellectual Committee as a senior
adviser for research in September 2010. The Foundation acknowledged his
contribution and efforts over many years as Director of Research and hoped
that the new appointment would allow Jihad to further his research into law,
theology and contemporary debates. Sheikh Jihad’s continued membership of
the Board of the Foundation was underlined, as was his membership of the
Governing Council for Research and role as acting Director of Research during
the transitional period.
The promotion highlighted Brown’s central role within the Tabah Foundation,
widely known as the home of political Sufism, funding international religious
institutions and research Centre’s, and the driving force behind the Forum for
Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies and the recently established Muslim
Council of Elders.
To strengthen the Foundation’s presence in foreign policy making circles
(especially those connected to the influential network of Fetahullah Gulen)
Jihad returned to the United States, settling in Princeton, New Jersey. There he
is currently working to implement a number of educational projects, the most
important of which is: ‘Knowledge without Borders,’ managed by the Sufi
organisation Seekers Hub Global, under the guardianship of Faraz Rabbani.
Aside from his pivotal role within Sufi political networks (under the auspices
and generosity of Abu Dhabi), Brown has succeeded in engineering a new vision
of a globalised Islam, based upon Western thought and analysis.
Back to Content
70
ZAID SHAKIR:
IDENTITY, REASON, AND POLITICAL SUFISM
Zaid Shakir (formerly known as Ricky D. Mitchell) was born on 24th May 1956
in Berkeley, California in the United States.
During the early stages of his life, his home country experienced a racial struggle
between whites and black African Americans, whose ancestors were forcibly
brought over from the West African coast as slaves to work in plantations and in
coal and precious metals mines in the New World.
Mitchell was influenced and inspired by Martin Luther King, who fought for
racial equality and social justice, leading a campaign of civil disobedience.
Following the assassination of King in 1968, 12 year old Ricky continued his
quest for identity and spirituality and declared his conversion to Islam in 1977,
taking the name Zaid Shakir.
After a hiatus in his formal education, Shakir received a bachelor’s degree in
International Relations from the American University in 1983, then an MA in
Political Science from the University of Rutgers. He then went on to study Arabic
in Cairo, later becoming a professor of Political Science at Southern Connecticut
State University, and was appointed as an interfaith council Chaplain at Yale
University.
Like many of his fellow converts who embraced Sufism, Shakir travelled to
the Arab world in 1994. He stayed there for 7 years, learning Sharia science
in the Abu Noor Islamic Institute in Damascus, which was founded by Sheikh
Ahmad Kuftaro (the former Grand Mufti of Syria) in 1971, and in partnership
with the College of Islamic Dawa in Libya and the Imam al-Awza’i Institute in
Back to Content
71
Lebanon. Shakir was the first American to graduate from this Institute. He then
journeyed westward to Morocco, where he studied to attain certification in the
Islamic religious sciences, before returning to the United States in 2001to work
as a professor at the University of Connecticut.
Following the events of the 11th September 2001, Shakir struggled to reconcile
his religious and national identity. As an American Muslim, his American identity
compelled him to defend the national interests of his country. The philosophy of
his American Sufi friend Hamza Yusuf, who was an advisor on Islamic affairs to
the White House, helped him overcome this dilemma, sowing
the seeds of a strong alliance between the two – embodied in the establishment
of the Zaytuna College, the home of “scientific Sufism” based in California.
The institute strived to nurture a generation of neo-Sufis educated by a group of
Western professors who received their Sufi education from scholars in the various
madrasahs and institutes of the Arab world. Later branching into full cooperation
with Sufi scholars of the UAE-based Tabah Foundation, drawing Zaid Shakir
into the Sufi political project along with Hamza Yusuf, who introduced him to
the way of Sufi Faqih Abdullah Bin Bayyah.
Shakir accompanied Bin Bayyah on the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca in 2006, and
became increasingly involved in the activities of Sufi institutions headquartered
in the UAE. Shakir was now a member of a community of like-minded scholars
such as Umar Bin Hafiz, Faraz Rabbani, Shaykh Mokhtar Maghraoui, Abdal
Hakim Jackson, Tariq Ramadan, Abdul Hakim Murad, Jihad Brown, Yahya
Rhodus, Ali al-Jifri, Ali Gomaa and Mohamed Said Ramadan Al-Bouti. Shakir’s
transformational spiritual odyssey culminated with the launch of a project in
2009 (led by Shakir) called “Uniting for Change”, which sought to create a new
Islamic discourse based on Sufi values.
In common with his other colleagues in this Sufi political network, Shakir made
frequent appearances in the media, hosting TV shows, pro-active on social media
and participating in several Islamic events and conferences in the West. Reflecting
his newfound fame within the Muslim communities in the West, he and his friend
Hamza Yusuf were described in The New York Times as “leading intellectual
lights” and were both listed amongst the 500 Most Influential Muslims in a 2009
report published jointly by The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Jordan
and the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
Shakir is distinguished among his Sufi American peers for his advanced formal
education and his contribution to the academic community. He has translated
several Arabic texts into English and authored a collection of books, including:
“Scattered Pictures: A Reflection of An American Muslim”, “Where I’m Coming
From” and “Agenda to Change our Condition” (co-authored with Hamza Yusuf).
Back to Content
72
His rich academic record and close relationship with Emirati Sufis have steered
him into the Sufi political network and its activities and agendas in the West. The
question is: will Zaid Shakir, with his considerable scholarly acumen, emerge as
a positive force of enlightenment and reason within this Sufi coalition? Or will
the Sufi elders and scholars he is now working with enlist him as just another ally
in their politically polarising struggle for control over Islamic discourse?
Back to Content
73
ABDUL HAKIM MURAD:
THE EUROPEAN WING OF POLITICAL SUFISM
Timothy John Winter was born in Britain in 1960. His early education was
deep-rooted in established English institutions and eventually led him to
Pembroke College at Cambridge University, where he received a Bachelor’s
degree in Arabic in 1983.
Following a vacation in Corsica in 1970, Winter acquired a preference for the
meditative life, developing a sense that beauty lies not in material objects, but
rather in the abstract. According to journalist Tom Beck, this trip marked Winter’s
first step on the road to Islam and to becoming one of the most influential clerics
in the Islamic World (The Independent, 20th August 2014).
Back to Content
74
Building on his newfound spiritual quest, Winter converted to Islam, adopting
the Muslim name Abdul Hakim Murad. He then enrolled at Al-Azhar University,
where he studied Islamic Theology and Sufism for three years under Sheikh
Ismail Al Adawi. He subsequently moved to Jeddah, then to Hadramout in Yemen,
where he delved deeper into the mystical world of Sufism under the guidance of
Sheikh Sharif Ahmed Mashhour Al Hadad, who was teaching in Ribat Kidoon
in Yemen. Hadad is one among a series of renowned Sufi clerics or ‘Sheikhs’ in
the region, with others including Abdullah bin Omar al Shatri, Abdul Bari bin
Sheikh Al-Aidarous, Ahmed bin Mohammed Al-Mihdar, Abdullah bin Mohsen
Al-Attas and Alawi Bin Mohammed Al-Hadad.
After he completed his studies in Hadramaout, Abdul Hakim Murad returned
to Britain to explore other branches of Islamic culture through the study of
Turkish and Persian. In 1992, he went to Oxford University where he studied
for a PhD. He also served as Secretary of the Islamic Academy in London and
supervised the “Sunna Project” in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at
the University of Cambridge.
During this period, Murad published various academic works, and in 1995 he
translated two parts of Al-Ghazali’s book, Ihya’ ‘Ulum Al-Din (The Revival of
the Religious Sciences). He has appeared in the British media, including BBC
radio, and has published columns in UK newspapers. This brought him to the
attention of the leaders of the political Sufi network based in Abu Dhabi and he
was quickly embraced by the Tabah Foundation, which added him to the list of
foreign Sufi contributors to the Foundation’s activities. He also participated in
functions organised by Sufi scholar Ali Al Jifri such as “The Events of Love” in
Abu Dhabi, “Hadramaout Nights”, and went on a group pilgrimage to Mecca
with Abdullah bin Bayyah, Hamza Yusuf, Yahya Rhodus and Abdullah Al Qadhi.
He visited the Monastery of Bahira the monk with Ali Al Jifri, Muhammad Said
Ramadan Al-Bouti, and Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad. He also took part in tours
aiming to promote the agenda of the Tabah Foundation with its founder Ali
Al-Jifri.Of particular note was his 2012 trip on which he and his companion
Al-Jifri gave lectures about Imam Al-Ghazali in various British towns and
distributed the Foundation’s literature including the book, Reflections on the
Structural Conceptual Framework of Mohammed Al-Shahroor, authored by
Dr. Karim Lahham.
As a result of the close ties between Abdul Hakim Murad and Hamza Yusuf,
Murad was invited to contribute articles in Yusuf’s Zaytuna College bulletin
and participated in Sufi teaching seminars with other scientific Sufis such as Ali
Al-Jifri, Abdullah bin Bayyah and Nuh Keller in a series of lectures held as part
of a “Deen Intensive” course.
But contrary to the values of diversity and tolerance that the leaders of the
political Sufism project claim to profess, Murad’s hostility towards Salafist
Back to Content
75
ideology grew over time and he began openly revealing his abhorrence for Saudi
Arabia and its religious doctrine. He became the fiercest Western critic of the
Salafist movement, and wrote multiple articles to explain what he called “the
contradictions of the Wahhabi Salafist ideology,” arguing that this movement
represents a security threat in various conflict zones in the Islamic world.
In one of the anti-Salafism campaigns, Abdul Hakim Murad abandoned the
rational, scientific Sufi method and succumbed to personal sentiments leading
him, in a study entitled “The Contradictions of Salafisim”, to classify all
“Salafist-Wahhabist” movements as a threat to world peace, both those comprising
of moderate followers in Saudi Arabia and those seeking to establish universal
brand of Wahhabism, which seeks to produce a dogmatic political model based
on the concept of a “State of God on Earth”.
Murad’s hostility was apparent in an article in The Independent (1st July, 2007)
when he proclaimed that “the activity of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Muslim
neighbourhoods in Britain could be fatal to society”. He expressed concern that
“the growth of radical Wahhabi Saudi obscurantist activity nurtured the roots
that fed the ideology of Bin Laden”; and warned of the consequences of the
spread of this ideology among young British Muslims.
In explaining his viewpoint to British officials, Murad somewhat simplistically
equated Salafist ideology to the ideas of extremist Christian movements, stating
that the movement aimed “to get rid of saints and shrines, and to condemn all
devotional practices followed by Muslims in the Indian subcontinent”.
Persisting in his campaign against Salafism in its various forms, Murad asserted
that “the preferred style of theology for all terrorists is the Salafist-Wahhabi
approach.”
Murad’s inflammatory discourse on alternative theological movements, especially
Salafists which he regards as “the cause of war and conflict in many parts of the
world”, contrasts starkly with the spirit of tolerance and mutual coexistence that
the Tabah Foundation claims to promote. Murad has previously asserted that
a confrontation between Salafists and opposing ideologies is unavoidable, and
that the West will live in constant fear as long as it allows Wahhabi ideology to
influence the changing religious and sectarian map of the world.
This apparent disconnect between Timothy Winter, the academic who studied
theology, and Abdul Hakim Murad the spiritual master who studied Sufism
in Cairo and Hadramaout, is synonymous with the contradiction between the
Tabah Foundation’s stated support for universal values, and its actual policy
of exclusion towards divergent religious voices that finds form in provocative
campaigns of misinformation and distortion that are creating cracks within the
Ummah.
Back to Content
76
MUHAMMAD HISHAM KABBANI:
CONFRONTING HATE WITH HATE
Born in Beirut in 1945, Muhammad Hisham Kabbani studied chemistry at the
American University of Beirut, before changing course and immersing himself in
the study of Sharia’, attaining religious qualifications in Damascus. At this time,
Kabbani sought out the company of the leader of the Naqshbandiya Sufi order,
Nazim Haqqani (1922-2014), and subsequently married his daughter along with
Haqqani’s standing in the Islamic world and digital presence on the internet.
In 1990, Kabbani moved to the United States and established the Supreme
Islamic Council, through which there emerged strong links between the
American administration and the Naqshbandiya order. He became a prominent
adviser on Islamic affairs for administration officials such as Paul Wolfowitz,
who held periodic meetings with the Council and consulted with them on
issues of terrorism. Wolfowitz praised Kabbani for being “brave and the most
important man in America” in recognition of his promotion of values ​​such as
human dignity, justice, freedom of opinion, and the rights of women.
In 1999 Kabbani was invited to both the White House and the State Department
Back to Content
77
to lecture on “Islamic extremism and the threat to American national security”.
He later commented that his intuition was correct in forecasting the events of
the 11th September 2001, and stressed the need for the American administration
to engage in a collaborative effort with Sufis in the fight against terrorism and
extremist religious groups.
His spreading influence empowered him to establish 23 Naqshbandiya Centre’s
and schools in the United States. He embarked on visits to a wide range of
countries with significant Muslim communities such as Thailand, Indonesia,
Malaysia, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Japan, Turkey, England, Spain,
Morocco and the Levant where, often accompanied by his spiritual guide Sheikh
Nazim, he was received officially at senior levels.
Dr. Hisham Kabbani was notorious for his frequently expressed hostility to
“Wahabbism”, which he narrowly equated with Salafism, writing a number of
books that attacked Salafist preaching and accusing it of fuelling extremism and
terrorism. The most prominent of his works in the English language included
“The Salafi Movement Unveiled” (2000), “The Doctrine of Ahl-as- Sunna Versus
the Salafi Ideology” (Translation and Commentary 1996), and also “Refuting
Salafist Ideology” (1996).
When asked by a Sunday Times correspondent: “Are you saying that Wahhabism
is the main source of terrorism?”, Kabbani answered: “Yes, Islam is peaceful and
non-aggressive, but the followers of the Wahhabi sect spread extremist ideas;
they are financed by oil money and today we find Wahhabism everywhere,
not just in Saudi Arabia. If you go to any mosque, you will find books about
Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab (the founder of Wahhabism) and you will only
find books written by scholars of Saudi Arabia.”
When Sheikh Nazim became ill and unable to move or travel, Kabbani seized the
initiative and hurried to the opportunity as the representative of the Naqshbandiya
order. This however unsettled followers of Haqqani and resulted in hasty visits by
scholars such as Ali Jifri and Hamza Yusuf to Cyprus to meet with Haqqani and
voice their concern over any attempts to monopolise the spiritual leadership of
the order.
Meanwhile in the United States, Kabbani spearheaded a campaign against
his rivals who were benefitting from generous funding from Gulf States. He
accused them of hypocrisy by counseling American policymakers on the evils of
extremism whilst harbouring extremist tendencies themselves, implicitly hinting
at his Sufi colleague, Hamza Yusuf, who is well respected at the White House.
In response to pressing demands from American Islamic institutions, the State
Department published minutes of meetings with Kabbani, which revealed
controversial statements he made that were not well received by various Islamic
groups in the United States. Amongst those disclosed were his warning that
Back to Content
78
the government and Congress needed to be aware of the threat from extremist
ideologies propagated by those responsible for running 80% of the 3000 mosques
in America, to which the younger generation were increasingly becoming
susceptible.
In reaction to these statements Islamic organisations resolved to develop a
highly coordinated response, led by Hamza Yusuf and the scholars of the
Zaytuna Institute, who engaged in intense rhetorical, philosophical debates with
Kabbani’s followers about issues such as the position of Hamza Yusuf on Dante’s
‘Divine Comedy’.
Despite Kabbani’s general wavering character, a consistent feature is his patent
antagonism towards Saudi Arabia. In October 2003, the Nixon Centre held a
conference to discuss the role that Sufi orders can play in American foreign
policy, to which Kabbani was invited as a guest of honour. He proclaimed that
Salafism does not exist in Islam, pointing out that it is “a term, coined by King
Fahd bin Abdul Aziz in the 1980s, that enveloped all the extremist movements
in the Islamic world; and sent them out to advocate the demolition of shrines
throughout the world.”
In his speech to the conference, Kabbani asked: “Will we as Americans stand
with Sufism or we will work with Wahhabism? If we work with the Wahhabi
we will put ourselves in danger of dealing with terrorists, a risk we will not
face working with Sufis. The United States needs to connect with non-Wahhabi
Muslims to achieve victory in the battle against terrorism.”
Notwithstanding the tensions between Kabbani and other scholars for the
leadership of the Naqshbandiya order, they still share a common determination
to shape a narrative confirming Sufism as the natural extension of Sunni
theological thought. Yet, they are deeply troubled by rational criticism of the
legitimacy of their claims, and continue to paradoxically work to incite divisions
and confrontations within the Islamic community, a strategy that does not match
with their self-professed values of tolerance, inclusiveness and building bridges.
Back to Content
79
MUSA FURBER’S SPIRITUAL JOURNEY
AND THE WINDS OF TABAH
Musa Furber was born in Massachusetts and raised in Portland, Oregon. He
majored in computational linguistics and cognitive sciences at Portland State
University, undertaking a class in Arabic which deepened his knowledge and
interest in Islam.
Furber subsequently converted to Islam and studied Shafi’i jurisprudence with
a Sheikh who was a Portland resident. As has often proven to be the case with
fellow Western Sufis, he moved to the Muslim world to obtain certificates in
Muslim religious sciences. He arrived first in Damascus, where he lived with his
wife and three children. There he established contact with a number of scholars,
Back to Content
80
and translated some religious texts into English.
Furber then moved to Cairo, where he joined the Egyptian Dar Al Ifta and enrolled
in scholarly courses supervised by the former Egyptian Mufti Ali Gomaa, from
whom he learned the rituals and concepts of Sufism and under whose tutelage he
delved deeper into the intellectual realm of Gnosticism. Upon completion of his
studies, Furber stayed with Gomaa, working as a translator and researcher in the
Egyptian Dar Al Ifta.
Following its formation in Abu Dhabi in 2005, the Tabah Foundation recruited
Furber after Gomaa’s appointment to its advisory council. Gomaa had
recommended Furber to the institute’s founder Ali Al Jifri, who appointed
him as a researcher and mufti in the foundation. Furber translated several
books into English, catalogued religious research and co-authored in English,
along with Fouad Al Haddad, studies of the prophetic traditions (hadith) and
the Shafi’i ethics. He also conducted advanced studies of fatwa, established a
contemporary fatwa process, communiqués and publication channels. Two of
his published Tabah fatwa studies were discussed at a Cambridge University
meeting on 2nd July 2014.
Furber is an example of the breakthrough achieved by the Tabah Foundation in
reaching out to western youth. After his time with the Sufis of the Levant and
Egypt, Furber was utilised by Ali Al Jifri as a point of contact with activists from
Hamza Yusuf’s Sufi network in the US and Abdul Hakim Murad in Europe. Furber
also became an advisor to the Straightway Ethical Advisory (SEA), which is a
Sufi foundation specialising in providing advice on education, finance and world
economics. SEA is headed by two Sufi activists, Taha Abdul Basser and Faraz
Rabbani. Its membership also includes Ashraf Gomma Ali, the Berkley Zaytouna
Institute professor Abdullah bin Hamid Ali, Humza Maqbool Chaudhry, and
the Nigerian Fatimah Iliasu. The SEA is yet another clear demonstration of the
international dimension of the UAE-sponsored political Sufism project.
Back to Content
81
CHAPTER 3:
IMPLICATIONS OF
ABU DHABI’S SUFI NETWORK
ON SAUDI SECURTIY
Back to Content
82
DESCRIBING THE WAHHABI MOVEMENT AS JEWISH:
A SLIP OF THE TONGUE OR A FORMAL ATTITUDE?
Two years after the controversy surrounding his criticism of some of As-sahabah,
and the subsequent suspension of his TV show, Sheikh Ahmad Al Kubaisi faced
further heat last August when, in a TV interview, he accused the founder of
the modern Salafi school, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, of being a Jewish
creation.
In a video recording that was widely published on social media networks, Al
Kubaisi claimed that “Daesh (ISIS) and similar movements and even Muhammad
ibn Abd al-Wahhab (the founder of Wahhabism) were certainly created by Jews
and let them kill me if they want to”. He added: “I take full responsibility of this
opinion in front of God… I swear that this movement was established by Jews to
destroy the nation, and it already did. ”
Al Kubaisi’s statement encountered widespread criticism including a response
from the Imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Sheikh Saud Al-Shuraim,
who tweeted: “They are fed up with Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s
teachings that took after the Salafs, so they claimed it was all part of a Jewish
conspiracy, and this is the way Islam’s enemies follow.”
On Twitter there were calls to stop Al Kubaisi’s program or to demand his
Back to Content
83
deportation from the United Arab Emirates, where he is presently based.
Meanwhile, official organizations in the UAE rushed to manage the crisis and
mitigate any potential political fallout by releasing statements reaffirming the
strong relationship between the UAE and its Gulf neighbours.
On the 18th August, in an attempt to ease the tension caused by Al Kubaisi’s
statement, Dubai police informed the Saudi lawyer Othman Al-Otaibi that the
case made against the Iraqi Sheikh Ahmad Al Kubaisi, due to his attack on Sheikh
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, was to be referred. Al-Otaibi confirmed that he
had received moral support from some of the Sheikh’s grandchildren to bring
forward this case, pointing out that the purpose of this measure was “to liberate
humans from being devoted to things or people…supporting it is a religious and
moral duty that must not be abandoned.”
On the day Al Kubaisi’s case was referred to the court, the Saudi ambassador to
the UK in London, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, published an
article refuting allegations of the Kingdom’s support of extremist organizations.
He expressed serious reservations about the conflation of the term “Wahhabi”
with violence or extremism. He stated, “Wahhabism is not independent from
Islam, it is Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab invitation to revive what the
Prophet, peace be upon him, called for.”
The ambassador emphasized that Saudis would never accept the label “Wahhabi”.
He recalled what the Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, said three years ago
when he stressed that “some people used the word Wahhabism to describe
Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab teachings, in order to isolate the Saudi
Muslims from the rest of the Islamic world”. He pointed to ways in which some
governments, media and political analysts use the term to describe extreme
movements such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, al-Qaida and now Daesh (ISIS),
consistently declaring it as an Islamic threat to Western civilization.
There are concerns that some Gulf capitals are being used as bases to launch
campaigns against prominent Salafi scholars, linking them with extremist
trends and sometimes even branding them as disbelievers. However, this trend
did not start with Al Kubaisi – friction has been evident in between the Salafi
movement and followers of modern Sufi institutions. These have also criticized
its teachings, attacked the religious traditions and approaches of Gulf States
as well as reformers, and have often accused the movement of apostasy and
promoting radicalism.
Numerous efforts have been made to distinguish between the Kingdom’s
moderate approach on one hand and Islamist extremism on the other. However,
accusations coupling the two continue to originate from some quarters in
neighbouring Gulf States. Research centers in the region have a serious impact
by contributing to this confrontational discourse, producing the conditions for
Back to Content
84
sectarianism that divide Muslims and polarize the political and religious space.
In what seemed as a direct response to the Ambassador’s article, Hassan Hassan,
a researcher at the Delma Institute in Abu Dhabi, published a study in The
Observer newspaper, which was then republished in the Al-Arab newspaper
in London (August 19, 2014). It contained statements attacking the Salafi
approach of Saudi Arabia and described the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd
al-Wahhab as extreme and radical contending that “the Salafi movement turned
form a religious movement that rarely disobeyed the ruler, to a religious political
authoritarian organization, and Daesh is one of its modified versions”
Hassan Hassan further argued that “traditional Salafism and Wahhabism are the
main religious doctrine of this movement,” and added: “Muhammad ibn Abd
al-Wahhab revived the term “Salafist” in the twelfth Islamic century and his
movement then was called Wahhabism. The most prominent representatives of
this school are Abdul-Aziz bin Baz, Muhammad Nasir Albani and Muhammed
bin Saleh bin Uthaymeen. The essential and “hidden” approach that makes
Daesh too dangerous is the neglect of the ideological “revolution” and strategic
change in the traditional Salafi doctrine”.
In his study, Hassan Hassan concluded that extreme movements were borne from
the Wahhabi Salafist ideology and that traditional Salafism produced a militant
variant that objected to the principles of the traditional Salafis, and which called
on blind obedience to the rulers.
There are multiple studies, published by official religious institutions that also
made claims against the moderate religious discourse in the Kingdom and its
deep intellectual roots. Particularly noteworthy in this regard are the writings of
Tabah Foundation scholars such as Mohammed Saeed Ramadan Al-Bouti and
Ali Gomaa, Grand Mufti of Egypt, who are both members of its Senior Scholars
Council.
Published in the Observer one day after the publication of the Saudi ambassador’s
article in the Guardian, concerns have been raised that Hassan Hassan’s study
is part of a larger public campaign against Saudi Arabia, which seeks to create
linkages between the prevailing Salafi discourse in the Kingdom, and terrorism.
The issue will not be solved through legal action against Al Kubaisi. It needs to
be treated seriously on the intellectual level as a divisive strategy that threatens
Islamic unity and glosses over Saudi Arabia’s serious efforts to fight extreme
movements and radical ideologies.
The deployment of religious institutions by official bodies, which provide them
with political and financial support, to fight political battles carries significant
and serious risks that can undermine cohesion within the Gulf Cooperation
Council, and weaken its capacity to confront common security threats.
Back to Content
85
US-IRANIAN ALLIANCE OF CONVENIENCE
In retrospect it appears that one can begin with Bernard Lewis’ description in
October 2003 of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s religious tradition as: “One of
the most insane ideas in the history of the Islamic world”; then fast forward to US
Vice President Joe Biden’s recent October 2014 gaffe that US-Saudi alliance was
like “pairing with Soviet dictator Stalin during World War II”.
In that period between 2003 and 2014, many examples of hostile comments
made by Western officials and intellectuals against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
can be found, and various proposals of dividing the Kingdom along sectarian
lines.
This piece seeks to shed some light on the parties backing the campaign against
Riyadh, in terms of both organisation and funding; and to point to the inherent
dangers of utilising sectarianism to achieve political goals.
In the wake of 9/11, the US administration sought out a new strategy towards
the Arab world to further its own interests, an aspect of this was division along
sectarian and ethnic lines. Following the popular revolutions that later swept the
Arab Republics, it worked closely with Shiite minorities and built networks of
cooperation and coordination with opposition community groups.
In spite of fundamental differences with Iran over its nuclear program, the US
administration found common ground with Tehran’s mullahs in confronting
Back to Content
86
Islamic extremism, so-called “Sunni Terrorism”.
A conference in London organised by Zalmay Khalilzad back in December 2002
represented a turning point in cooperation between the Iranian-backed Supreme
Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the ruling Al Dawa Party. From
that point onwards, and following the
preliminary stages of the campaign to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein,
the relationship between Shiite groups and Western intelligence agencies was
fortified, enabling Shiites to take over the institutions of government in Iraq in
2003. Since then, they have played an important role as a link between other
Gulf Shiite leaders and Western intelligence services.
At the same time, US-Iran relations markedly improved. In the final months of
his presidency, George W. Bush reached a limited rapprochement with Iran by
holding indirect talks with its leaders, a policy trend that has continued under the
Obama administration. William Burns, the former Assistant Secretary of State,
disclosed that direct secret talks had been held with Tehran, triggering widespread
resentment as Arab States expressed their exasperation at being excluded.
Coinciding with this apparent US-Iran détente, Western think-tanks published
many studies exploring potential mechanisms for radical change of governance
in the Gulf through ethnic and sectarian lines. Among the most prominent is a
publication by the US Council on Foreign Relations and the Carnegie Endowment
for International Peace which assessed the possibility of the spread of the
‘Arab Spring’ revolutions to the GCC countries. Similar studies were carried out
by the RAND Corporation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Meanwhile, other Western research Centre’s demonstrated their hostility towards
Saudi Arabia when in 2012 they unveiled a so-called guide on ‘How to prepare
for a military coup in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states’ prepared
by Munzer Suleiman, the correspondent of Al Mayadeen channel in America. In the same year, they also promoted the book: ‘After the Sheikhs: The Coming
Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies’ written by Christopher Davidson, which
predicts the imminent collapse of the GCC ruling families. It is worth mentioning
that the author of this book, a researcher at the UK’s University of Durham,
previously worked at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates and is a
member in the Royal Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London. He
published four other books between 2005 and 2011 on political and economic
issues in the Arab Gulf, which portrayed the region in a negative light.
Throw into this mix a story reported in the British newspaper, The Guardian,
and also on the BBC News website, which revealed that Davidson had received
substantial sums of money from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the
Iranian embassy, as well as the U.S. embassy, to open communication channels
with hard-line Shiite personalities and to invite Iranian officials to participate in
Back to Content
87
events. When confronted, Davidson admitted receiving funds from Iran in order
to “hold functions aimed at bringing closer views from the West and those of the
Iranian establishment.”
The newspapers commented on payments made to Davidson by the US
administration and the Iranian government, including a lump sum of £5000 from
the Iranian Government to the University of Durham for a symposium in 2010.
The article highlighted that although Davidson claimed that these programs were
intended to support democracy and encourage the Government of Iran to promote
freedoms and human rights, ultimately any criticism of the Iranian Government
was completely muted. Yet, Davidson – along with a group of his students
and followers such Christian Olrikson – continue media campaigns against
Saudi Arabia, openly prophesising in Western press the imminent “fall of the
Gulf regimes”.
It is doubly troubling that some leading Western research institutions complicit
in this campaign against Riyadh are still receiving generous funding from
Abu Dhabi. They include the London School of Economics, which received
donations from the United Arab Emirates amounting to a staggering £5.6 million
at a time when some of its lecturers were involved in activities of a political
nature. LSE’s reputation was tarnished in the 1990s, when reports circulated in
the British press about the penetration of extremist elements. Later followed by
the high profile scandal of Saif alIslam Gaddafi PhD in exchange for financial donations from his father and
former Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi.
In November 2011, Britain’s Lord Chief Justice Harry Woolf issued a report and
confirmed that LSE “has made mistakes and committed violations which greatly
tarnished its reputation”.
Considering its generous funding to these institutions, and with such serious
implications, should Abu Dhabi be concerned that it could be harnessing the
influence of the Iranian Lobby in both London and Washington?
Back to Content
88
IDENTITY CHALLENGES IN SAUDI ARABIA
At the end of last August, an “anti-extremism” initiative was launched in
Washington. Amongst those who participated in the launch were a number
of well-known American figures including Frances Townsend (the former
Homeland Security Advisor to President Bush), the National Security Council
Senior Director for Middle East Affairs under Bush, the deputy campaign
manager of Bush’s presidential campaign in 2003 Mark Wallace, the former U.S.
ambassador to Chile Alejandro Wolff, the former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross,
Farah Bandich (a representative of the Muslim community in America), former
Senator Joseph Lieberman, Gary Samore (former White House Coordinator for
Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction), and former U.S. Congressman
Howard Lawrence Berman.
Back to Content
89
Some international figures were also brought in by the neoconservatives, such
as the former Pakistan ambassador to the United Nations, Munir Akram, the
former Director of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, August Hanning, the
Permanent Representative of Australia to the United Nations Robert Hill, and
the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, Cresencio Arcos.
Sources indicate that this initiative simplistically portrays all Islamist movements,
using a broad paintbrush, as terrorist movements without distinction between the
radical and moderate varieties.
Interestingly, before the launch of this project, the former U.S. diplomat and
researcher at the Washington Institute, Dennis Ross, wrote an article entitled
“Islamists are not our friends”. He pointed to the severe identity conflict raging
in the heart of the Middle East and stressed that the popular revolutions have
produced a new scene of conflict between Islamists and non-Islamists in the
Arab region. He added that Egyptian President al-Sisi is leading an existential
battle against the
Muslim Brotherhood, supported by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the
United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, and in cooperation with Algeria, Morocco
and Jordan.
In order to shape the prevailing narrative, Ross put all Islamist groups into one
basket including ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Iran and its allied
militias Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon. He explained
that “what the Islamists all have in common is that they subordinate national
identities to an Islamic identity”.
There are many studies produced by Western institutions concerning the identity
conflict in the Middle East, and it is important to make some remarks about them
here.
Firstly, it is very misleading to reduce the complex identity conflict in the Arab
region to a dualistic dispute between Islamists and secularists. Ross and his peers
fail to account for the fact that the nationalist and leftist movements that were
once dominant were based on national cross-border concepts of Arab identity.
They were not a threat to the national identity in the different countries that were
under their rule.
Secondly, not all of the Islamic forces fall neatly into one category. Many Islamic
groups believe in national identity and work to enforce it. The sectarian conflict
that Washington triggered as a result of its occupation of Iraq during the past
decade is still the biggest challenge to civil peace in regional societies.
Thirdly, it is surprising that the U.S. administration spends millions to
rehabilitate, train and empower ethnic, sectarian and religious minorities and
then simultaneously talks about preserving the national identity and character of
Back to Content
90
the Arab states. Surely Ross ignores the efforts made by the Bush, Clinton and
Obama administrations to legitimise certain unscrutinised (extremist) forces such
as the Organisation of the Islamic Revolution, the Shiite al-Dawa party and the
Peshmerga forces in Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as the current U.S administration’s
visible leniency towards the Shia Houthis currently seeking to occupy swathes
of Yemen? Added to which, the efforts made nowadays to enable the new
cross-border sectarian militias represented by the Iraqi Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, the
Iraqi Hezbollah, and the Lebanese Hezbollah.
Building on his analysis, Ross recommended that Western governments refuse
to co-operate with Islamist political forces, deducing that Islamist beliefs and
values were incompatible with Western values of pluralism and democracy. In so
doing, he has ignored the role played by some Islamist forces in maintaining the
political balance in the region. Ross has naively accused the moderate elements
of being equally as dangerous as extremists, stating that in Tunisia, “the Ennahda
party surrendered power only when it realised its policies had produced such a
backlash that the party’s very survival was threatened”. Turning his attention to
Turkey, he stressed that President Erdogan
needed to understand that his support for Muslim Brotherhood would inevitably
curtail Washington’s scope for cooperation with him, and eventually isolate
Turkey from its neighbours and allies.
Some sources have reported the positive reaction of Yousef Al-Otaiba, the
UAE Ambassador in Washington, to these developments. Al-Otaiba himself
has subscribed and contributed to this flawed narrative, publishing articles in
the Wall Street Journal and the Sunday Telegraph calling for an alliance with the
Western countries against extremism. However, US Vice President Joe Biden
responded by stating that any potential alliance with Saudi Arabia and the UAE
Back to Content
91
would be inconceivable and comparable to the unrealistic notion of an alliance
between Washington and Stalin at the height of the Cold War. This shocked the
Ambassador who believed his country could one day emerge as a strong and
close ally of Washington.
Ross adopted a similar position to that of Biden when he described the UAE as
an “authoritarian government” and highlighted that any cooperation with the
UAE was simply on the basis of pursuing mutual national interests and should
be terminated as soon as its purpose has been accomplished.
The U.S. administration is intentionally exploiting societal divisions to achieve
its interests and strengthen its influence in the region. The former Assistant of
the U.S. Foreign affairs confirmed this when he stated: “The new fault line in the
Middle East is a real opportunity for America”.
Back to Content
92
WAHHABISM: FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF
THE FORMER BRITISH INTELLIGENCE OFFICER
ALASTAIR CROOKE AND HASSAN NASRALLAH
The British intelligence (MI6) officer Alastair Crooke published an article on the
Huffington Post website (28 August 2014), titled “You can’t understand ISIS If
you don’t Know the history of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia”.
In this article Alastair Crooke claims that there is historical precedence on
the emergence of “Daash” (ISIS) - linking it directly it would seem to Imam
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s teachings.
In a poorly selective mix and match sources, the Director of Conflict Forum and
former diplomat went over historical stages to confirm the link between: Shaykh
al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah’s thoughts, the teachings of Imam Muhammad ibn
Abdul Wahhab, King Abdulaziz “Ikhwan” movement, and other contemporary
Salafi currents. He based his argument on a terminological system focused on:
Takfiri, Jihadi, Salafist notions. He compared the foundations of the Kingdom
of Saudi Arabia with that of the “Jacobin” radical thought that spread in Britain
during the nineteenth century. He also likened the Kingdom to the kind of Nazism
that produced the slogan: “one empire, one nation, one leader”, claiming that
Wahhabism has the slogan: “one leader, one authority, one mosque”.
Following his historic rant, the experienced diplomat went on to conclude that the
next threat to human civilisation lies in “the foundations of the Saudi-Wahhabi
project”.
Back to Content
93
However, in his conclusion he did not come up with anything new. He simply
echoed an assessment made by his former history teacher, Bernard Lewis. The
latter likened the basis of the Saudi state to those of “Ku Klux Klan”, the Christian
extreme movement in America. He used tragedian images of the Salafi ideology
in a RAND report (2003), Nixon Centre (2004) and Carnegie Institute (2007).
Those images were published in a research in the New York Times (20 August
2012) under the title: “Don’t Fear All Islamists, Fear Salafis”. It stated that the
emergence of “A new Salafi Crescent, radiating from the Persian Gulf sheikdoms
into the Levant and North Africa, is one of the most underappreciated and
disturbing by-products of the Arab revolts. In varying degrees, these populist
puritans are moving into the political space once occupied by jihadi militants… “
What Crooke failed to reveal was the MI6 contemporary records on: the creation
of ISIS under US occupation; the support ISIS leaders received from the Iranian
Revolutionary Guards; the facilities they obtained from the Qods Force; as well
as the unmonitored easy outflow of hundreds of fighters from Britain, France and
other European countries to join the organisation.
Crooke ignored this sensitive information and resorted to a slanted reading of
history to escape his country’s culpability in the emergence of extreme thought
and movements under the aegis of military alliances forged by his then former
bosses Tony Blair and the White House.
It is interesting that Crooke stopped short of mentioning the Salafi risk, without
telling us about the alternative Islamic version, as popularly nominated by
British official circles, and represented by the Sufi-Shia alliance. Crooke could
have spared us his historical narrative and presented a more contemporary story
about the official support bestowed upon Naqshbandi leaders and followers of
al-Khoei Foundation, within British decision making organisations, during his
time. But, he left that task to Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, who
spoke on the third night of the ceremony of Ashura, in the October 26, 2014:
“Today we are in need of calling things with their true names… In other words,
let’s go right into the details, about 200 to 300 years ago, a new sect was born in
the Arab region. This intellectual movement found itself in a position to have at
its disposal governmental capabilities, and for the last 100 years, this intellectual
movement has been working to strengthen itself, and to spread its ideas throughout
the Islamic World, and the entire world. Schools were established, colleges,
institutes, and universities throughout the entire world. Legal, political, and
administrative facilitations were provided to it throughout the world. Research
centres were established, and conferences were held, in order to spread (this
thought) throughout the world. Newspapers, publishing companies, magazines,
media outlets, leading satellite channels and Internet websites were established.
Within 100 years, tens or hundreds of billions of dollars were spent in order to
spread this thought … But allow me once to say, since it is obligatory to say the
truth as it is… The essence of this thought is the Wahhabi thought, Wahhabism…
Back to Content
94
They are the followers of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. This Wahhabism,
which as I was saying earlier, huge efforts were exerted to support, propagate
and spread throughout the world… here lies the danger. Whoever is searching
for a real, fundamental, grassroots solution to what we are suffering from as
Muslims, as Christians and as people of the region, they must go back to the
essence of the issue and see how they can resolve it”.
If one is truly inclined to investigate “the essence of the issue”, we must find
the reasons that compelled the leader of Hezbollah deflect slightly from the
usual statements scripted by his masters in Tehran. The story began when
the Washington Institute published a paper (20 April 2014) addressing the
transformation of Western attitudes towards Iran following the White House
instructions to form a political solution in the region through a comprehensive
agreement with Tehran. It also pointed that European governments could follow
the same approach, especially in view of their anxiety over the growing number
of European jihadists in the Arab region.
The change in the American attitude toward Hezbollah was apparent when the US
Secretary of State stated that America would not mind dealing with a Lebanese
government that included Hezbollah, adding: “ I call on them - Iran, Russia, and
I call on Hezbollah, based right here in Lebanon - to engage in the legitimate
effort to bring this war to an end”. That was the first time a US Secretary of State
spoke openly about the regional role of Hezbollah as an independent party to end
the crisis in Syria.
That statement was made around the publication time of a Western report
about negotiations conducted between the US Central Intelligence Agency and
representatives of Hezbollah. The latter offered services to fight against “the
forces of Sunni extremism”. Those leaks coincided with a statement by Hassan
Nasrallah, confirming the possibility that his party may play an essential role
in the fight against “extreme groups” and solve the Syrian problem if Western
countries were willing to negotiate with Hezbollah. The source confirmed that
the first two sessions of negotiations were held between representatives of the
CIA and representatives of Hezbollah in Cyprus. The US ambassador in Beirut,
David Hill, was coordinating the meetings and drafting points of agreement
between the two parties. In Iran, Khamenei was very keen on bolstering the
outcome of such negotiations by emphasising the role played by Tehran in the
“fight against Wahhabism, Salafi groups and the countries that funded them”.
At the same time, the former director for Iraq on the National Security Council,
Douglas Ollivant, confirmed that the US administration was proceeding with
its program to empower ethnic and religious minorities in the region. He said
that teams from the US Army were working with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party
(PKK), and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq’s militia that was fighting under the commands of
Qassem Suleimani (the leader of the Qods Force).
Back to Content
95
This being the current political climate, it would appear that Hassan Nasrallah
jumped on the bandwagon in offering his services in the fight against terrorism. In
fact, Hassan Nasrallah’s speech is ladened with great contradictions. He claimed
that Wahhabism is terrorism and Takfir, while he is the leader of the largest
outlaw militia that accused the symbols of Islam and the prophet’s Companions
of apostasy. He asserted that: “Islam does not call for murder but for saving
people”, at a time when his sectarian militia were murdering and destroying
Syrian lives. He claimed he was defending Islam in the face of extremist groups
who provided a distorted image of Islam to the West. In the meantime, he vilified
other Muslims and sent a message to the West that, to end terrorism, the very
foundations of Saudi Arabia must be targeted.
In addition to those inconsistencies, we should note the timing of Nasrallah’s
speech. It came two days after Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al-Sudais’s sermon at
the Holy Mosque, in which he defended the roots of the Kingdom and indicated
that the term “Wahhabi” is being erroneously used to challenge the Kingdom’s
history, political and intellectual foundations.
However, Nasrallah’s and Crooke’s testimonials are but a part of a fierce assault
waged by various parties associated with the new American project in the Middle
East. It started in Dubai with Ahmed al-Kubaisi’s defamatory remarks on Imam
Muhammad ibn abd al-Wahhab. Followed by media campaigns launched against
the Wahhabi and Salafi ideology in unison with the “Forum of
Civil Peace” and Abu Dhabi’s “Muslim Council of Elders”. Again, it would
seem almost in response to Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz’s
clarifications in defence of Wahhabi teachings.
In spite of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s role in addressing extreme and Takfiri
thought, these parties deny the fundamental role the kingdom has traditionally
played in the fight against extremism. Theirs is a hostile campaign that shows
greater cooperation between Western intelligence and the Iranians. It also reflects
the considerable coordination with the Sufi political project and Iranian influence
and expansion in the region.
Back to Content
96
THE RELIGIOUS ESTABLISHMENT IN SAUDI ARABIA IN
THE ABSENCE OF A COHERENT REGIONAL ROLE
The late King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia has taken on the task of
reforming the religious establishment so that it is more compatible with society’s
development and the requirements of the modern world. To achieve this, he
sanctioned major changes to most of the senior positions across the Kingdom.
In February 2009, he appointed new ministers of health, media, education, and
justice, seven judges in the Supreme Administrative Court as Court of Appeal
Presidents and about 50 new judges in various Sharia courts in the Kingdom. He
restructured and expanded the Council of Senior Scholars, and introduced 82
new members in the fifth session of the 15-member Shura Council.
These changes came as part of a package applying the Royal Decree issued
in 2007 to reform the judiciary, in which the king also appointed new heads
for each judicial system, launched two new supreme courts and enhanced the
powers of Sharia courts. He also added a new system to appeal and review
verdicts, re-structured the Council of Senior Scholars under a new secretary
general, and increased the Council’s members to 21 members representing the
four madhabs (or Islamic schools of thought). In addition, he selected Sheikh
Abdullah bin Suleiman bin Manie’, Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammed al-Mutlaq
and Sheikh Abdul Mohsen bin Nasser Al-Obeikan as advisors to the Royal Court.
Other new appointments included the selection of Sheikh Ibrahim bin Shaya
Hugail as head of the Office of the Ombudsman, Sheikh Fahd bin Saad Al-Majed
Back to Content
97
as Secretary General of the Council of Senior Scholars and Sheikh Mohammed
bin Fahd Al Dosari as president of the Supreme Administrative Court with the
rank of minister.
Significantly, changes were made in the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue
and the Prevention of Vice. Its chairman was replaced by Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin
Humain al- Humain, with the rank of minister. After his appointment, al-Humain
held a press conference and talked about his plans for a comprehensive reform
of the committee.
In a key development, Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan was relieved of his role as
the President of the Supreme Judicial Council, following reports that he was
responsible for stifling reform in the organization. The Ministry of Justice was
placed under the purview of Dr. Mohammed al-Issa, who adopted the Change
Project to update the legal foundations of the judicial system under the supervision
of the ministry, flying in Western legal experts like such as Marcus Zimmer,
Philip James Walker, David Stillman and Perry Mahoney in order to modernise
the Kingdom’s Sharia courts.
Five years on since this broad package was rolled out, the Kingdom is still in need
of more comprehensive and realistic reform that accommodates the requirements
of this modern period. Prominent voices have loudly criticized the performance
of the religious establishment recently, including the King Abdullah himself. He
accused the Kingdom’s scholars of being too passive and lacking the energy and
zeal needed to carry out their duty to serve Islam.
Some important publications have highlighted the weaknesses in the religious
establishment, particularly in the fields of Fatwa, Justice, Public Morality (the
responsibility of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of
Vice) and Islamic Affairs. The ministries governing these areas have traditionally
been controlled by a group of pro-regime scholars considered out of touch by
those calling for an “awakening”, who argue that they are less progressive in
comparison to scholars who are independent from the official institutions. The
latter are considered to be more efficient in dealing with societal shifts and enjoy
close contact with the people, while the official establishment has failed to find
ways to effectively communicate directly with society and keep its finger on the
pulse.
This dilemma was not tackled until the government became involved in a clash
with a number of scholars such as Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan, who was relieved
of the presidency of the Supreme Judicial Council, and Sheikh Saad ash-Shathry
who was dismissed due to his views on the mixing of genders. King Abdullah
intervened by issuing a decree on the 2nd August 2010 that limited the power to
issue fatwa’s to the Council of Senior Scholars in a bid to bring greater coherence
to official religious policy.
Back to Content
98
Similarly, those calling for an “awakening” have proven to be more responsive
to the significant transformations in the Arab world over the last three years,
and have demonstrably articulated mature and sophisticated views about culture
and politics. They have secured extensive exposure on many satellite channels
and the broader media, and have gained popular followings on social media
compared with the official establishment figures, who lack the same degree of
charisma and have lost the initiative and ability to influence the people.
Yet the leaders of this “awakening” have faced bitter criticism from various
quarters by those who have been deployed by authorities to work on strengthening
the position of the traditional religious institutions as the only religious
authority in the land. This counter-attack has manifested itself in published
material disparaging the phenomenon of independent preachers, spread through
online social networks under false aliases and accounts in order to undermine
independent scholars.
This struggle between “liberal” and “Islamic” religious groups has revealed a
trend indicating that Saudi society is becoming increasingly polarised. Jamal
Khashoggi pointed to this division, arguing that “we must recognize that our
country is in a state of polarization, which is disturbing. A reformed Saudi,
who is described as liberal, accuses his conservative opponent that he is from
al-Qaida. And in turn, the conservative accuses the reformers of being America’s
agents, and a fifth column”.
Leaving aside the arguments made by liberals in criticism of the religious
establishment and its relationship with the regime, it is clear that lately serious
flaws have arisen in the state’s strategy of dealing with religious issues as a
purely internal matter. Nowadays, ideas about religion and identity are no longer
limited by national borders and though it is still evident that the majority of
Muslims rely on the Kingdom’s scholars as guides in public affairs, the regime
symbols and the poles of the religious establishment are failing to come to terms
with this changing reality and the risks associated with the fluid spread of ideas.
The protagonists of this Islamic “awakening” have attracted wide support from
all over the Islamic world, have many followers on satellite TV channels and in
social media where seminars and conferences are disseminated instantaneously
at the click of a button. The authorities are troubled by this modern development,
as this poses a direct challenge to the state’s ability to ensure preachers work in
tandem with the kingdom’s political direction in terms of its management of its
allies and adversaries in the battle for ideas.
The traditional religious establishment has been deeply affected by the various
sudden appointments and dismissals in the religious authorities. In a study
published by Middle East Online, Abdul Aziz al-Khamis connected Saleh
Al-Lahaidan’s removal to his close relationship with the late Prince Sultan bin
Back to Content
99
Abdul Aziz.
Others have observed the incoherence of policy within the religious authorities in
dealing with religious matters, as highlighted in the controversy about the mixing
of genders at the 2010 Riyadh Book Fair. Prince Khalid bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz
had conveyed the Minister of Interior’s instructions to prohibit mixing at the
Fair. Contradicting this, the Ministry of Culture and Information undermined
these instructions and blocked the website that published the decision.
Linked in with this, the official Saudi news agency broadcast the dismissal of
Sheikh Ahmad Al-Gamdi’s, as he had previously decreed that mixing of genders
was permissible under specific conditions whilst he was still in the Committee
for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. The decision was then
annulled within the short space of a few hours, and any news coverage about
it was subsequently retracted by the news agency. In its confused handling of
religious affairs, the religious establishment has missed an opportunity to bring
in leaders who could play a role in the regional and international arena.
At the international level, global media outlets have caused huge damage to the
credibility of the Saudi religious establishment by promoting a discourse linking
the Salafist traditions of the kingdom with the emergence of radical regional
Takfiri movements, fostering a perception that the Saudi religious establishment
was the prime stimulus behind the spread of extremism and terrorism.
The columnist Hamad Al-Majid commented on this phenomenon, claiming in an
article in The Middle East (2nd September 2014) that the “Salafist Sunnis are the
only creed on earth behind terrorism in the past, present and future. It is the only
creed that is blamed and accused because of its members’ errors and the mistakes
in its literature. It is interesting that the accusations are mostly made by Muslims,
even by those who studied it from infancy”.
In this, Hamad Al-Majid is in fact highlighting the festering core of this very
damaging predicament. It seems official and unofficial Saudi media have
embarked on a negative campaign against Ifta, the judiciary, the Committee for
the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, as well as the religious
preachers. It appears that it is a campaign launched by liberals against more
conservative Islamists, but oddly not directed at specific figures or specific
errors, or aiming to offer any solutions. Also apparently unaware that such a
negative attack tallies with targeting the historical and cultural foundations of
the Kingdom.
While it must be acknowledged that the religious establishment is not beyond
criticism, clearly the problem cannot be effectively treated through the use of
confrontational language and by publishing defaming articles.
It is equally troubling that media coverage of religious affairs in Saudi Arabia is
Back to Content
100
handled by inexperienced journalists and broadcasters who are not necessarily
fully versed on the subject at hand and are more specialised in reporting on
matters of popular culture such as music and art. They often overlook the role of
the Kingdom’s scholars in repelling Takfiri intellectual attacks, and oversimplify
the issue of ​​religious extremism in the kingdom without considering the damage
and divisiveness such allegations can cause.
The truth is that inconsistent and arbitrary mismanagement of the kingdom’s
religious affairs and the coverage of these shifts in regional media has reinforced
the impression that the state has lost control of the religious establishment at a
crucial phase of its contemporary history. The solution begins when the various
parties realise that the religious affairs of the Kingdom is no longer the domain
of a small group of select religious figures. It is a complex and sensitive area
of public policy – judicious management of this portfolio is wrought with both
risks and promising opportunities. If it is not handled astutely, it could have a
profound impact on the kingdom’s security and stability.
Back to Content
101
THE SCRAMBLE FOR RELIGIOUS AUTHORITY
Several western institutions have recently adopted a hostile stance towards
Saudi Arabia and accuse it of being behind the spread of extremism and terrorism
in the region. They are supported by notable American figures such as Bernard
Lewis, who compared the official religious authority in the Kingdom to the
extremist Christian organisation of the Ku Klux Klan, and Henry Kissinger, who
has long called for the sub-division of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
There is also a large sway of opinion within Western defence establishments
and research institutions which call for a fundamental change of government in
Saudi Arabia leaning towards a federal system, and for its division along ethnic
and sectarian lines. They include retired officer Ralph Peters, who published an
article in January 2002 in which he stated that the war on terrorism will remain
incomplete unless “it restores human rights and tackles fundamentalist terrorism,
and the hatred promoted by Saudi Arabia, which plays a role in undermining
secular regimes, and spreads extremism in the Muslim world”.
Another is Laurent Murawiec, an expert strategist at the Rand Corporation,
who at a meeting with Pentagon officials in June 2002 spoke of “the role of
Saudi Arabia in supporting terrorism, its planning and funding”. He called
on the US administration to control the oil fields in the Eastern Province of
Saudi Arabia if Riyadh refused to adopt radical political reforms.
Back to Content
102
Max Singer, founder of the Hudson Institute for Strategic Studies, presented
a report to the Ministry of Defence in August 2002 calling for the division of
the kingdom along sectarian lines and the creation of a separate Shiite entity.
He argued that the Shia represent the “majority of the population of the eastern
region, while Sunni Wahhabis are only a small minority in this region”.
The onslaught on Saudi Arabia intensifies with every terrorist atrocity because the
West rather ineptly connects Islamic extremism to Wahhabism and Salafism, as
highlighted in an article in the Foreign Policy magazine on 22ndSeptember 2012,
in which the author suggested that the kingdom was complicit in funding
extremist organisations “to feed the confrontations between Islam and the West”.
Geopolitical intelligence website, Stratfor, has also adopted this dubious
narrative, warning of the spread of this extremist ideology of Salafism with
“support and funding from Riyadh” (October 2 2012).
The build-up to an alternative Islamic authority
As a result of this ongoing western narrative, various groups such as the
Naqshbandis are trying to establish an alternative Naqshbandiya Sufi religious
authority that will receive American blessing and support.
This group also received a boost when it gained backing for its project from the
UAE. At the meeting of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies in
March 2014, attended by about 250 delegates from various countries, the Saudi
delegation was limited to a select group of individuals who did not represent
the collective wisdom of the Kingdom. It seemed clear from remarks made
by the organisers that this exclusionary approach was evident throughout the
initial launch conference. A source close to the head of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed
Al-Tayeb, told Al Shuruq (March 12, 2014) that: “The Council of Elders of the
Muslims is the correct path and would show an alternative route towards Muslim
enlightenment”. However, in the final statement of the conference, emphasis was
placed on the “importance of restoring the rule of reference to the ummah”.
This strategic aim was reiterated further in the opening statement of the launch
event establishing the Muslim Council of Elders in Abu Dhabi in July 2014,
which declared that the raison d’être of the Council was to evolve into “the
primary authority of Elders of the Islamic ummah”.
Accompanying the launch of the Council were concerted campaigns in Abu Dhabi
to polish the status of Al-Azhar as the leading religious authority of the ummah,
above that of other religious institutions, which also attract widespread respect
and authority throughout the Muslim world. In conjunction to this there was an
unprecedented negative campaign against Salafi ideology and the teachings of
Imam Muhammad bin Abdul Wahab.
Back to Content
103
This is all part of an initiative involving members of the Advisory Board of the
Tabah Institute to promote a Sufi approach that is compatible with Ash’ari and
Mutaridi theological schools of thought representing Al-Azhar principles and by
implication traditional Islam. And as conceived by Hisham Qabbani, the head of
the Naqshbandi Sufi order in consolidation with the White House in 2003.
The rival Turkish project
Clearly attempts to monopolise religious authority in the Islamic world are not
confined to the Tabah Institute, Al-Azhar or the Forum for Promoting Peace in
Muslim Societies. These institutions and their associated initiatives are facing
stiff competition from Turkey, which is actively seeking to bolster its religious
authority as a potential alternative epicentre for political Sufism.
A meeting of Islamic scholars under the title “World Islamic Scholars for Peace
and Moderation”, was held in Turkey by the Head of the Directorate of Religious
Affairs, Mohammed Gormez on July 17th, two days before the declaration of the
establishment of the Council of Elders in Abu Dhabi. The conference, which was
attended by scholars and academics from 32 countries, called for independent
efforts to be made to resolve internal conflict and wars in Islamic countries,
without outside political interference.
The similarity between the stated purpose of the Muslim Council of Elders on the
one hand, and the World Islamic Scholars for Peace and Moderation on the other,
is noticeable. The latter group includes a Sunni bloc larger than that represented
by the Muslim Council of Elders, as Turkey exercises broad influence on Sufi
sects over a wider geographical area in which Sheikh Al-Azhar and his associates
are battling to assert their religious authority.
Sources spoke about Gormez leaning towards establishing a religious authority
based on a convergence between Sunnis and Shiites and drawing upon Turkey’s
influence due to its pivotal position in the Islamic world. It was noted at the
conference that the presence of the Iranian delegation was sizeable and
unprecedented, as was the absence of representatives from Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
This project aims to tap into Turkish traditions of Sunni and Shiite coexistence
by attracting Sufis from both sides and promoting the Turkish political model,
which formally separates the secular state from religious authority.
On the other hand the group associated with the Tabah Institute and the Forum
for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies have faced some criticism over their
adoption of followers and disciples to bring Sunnis and Shiites together with
the aid of Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah’s pupils in the West. They seem to have
forged ahead with their agenda and attracted leaders of the Iranian lobby in
Washington led by Sayed Hassan al-Qazwini, author Vali Nasr and his father
Back to Content
104
Sayed Hussein.
In this struggle for the soul of Islam, religious authority and convergence,
Saudi Arabia remains isolated, facing serious allegations of extremism and a
continuous torrent of anti-Saudi negative campaigning.
Can the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia rise to the challenge, revive its strategic position
as the regional power of moderation and prudence, implement a judicious and
more inclusive dialogue to lead Islamic nations in unity, defeating fragmentation
and divisiveness?
Back to Content
105
WHAT IS THE SECRET BEHIND SAUDI’S
UNEASY ATTITUDE TOWARDS
ISLAMIST MOVEMENTS?
This is a question that is frequently asked in Arab and Western communities,
and for which you find various answers that differ according to the views of
researchers and their varied affiliations.
It seemed at first that the Arab Spring was reinforcing the authority of the Islamists
in Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, and even Egypt where the Muslim Brothers
won 49.3% of votes in the parliamentary elections. The Salafists came after them
taking 21.8%, while secularists could not attain even 17% of the votes.
The presidential elections and the constitutional referendum both confirmed
that Islamists had emerged on top in the political struggle for Egypt. But,
demonstrations against the Muslim Brotherhood and the subsequent military
action altered the political equation and were contrary to expectations.
Once the movements in opposition to the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood started
to act, Riyadh encouraged them. Some sources even mentioned that the Chief of
General Intelligence, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, supported the army in order to
overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood and permanently exclude them from power.
When Adly Mansour took the presidential oath of office, the late King Abdullah
sent him a letter praising the Egyptian army, because “they saved the country
from falling into a dark tunnel”. Then, he gave a speech that was unusual given
Saudi Arabia’s traditional tendency to pursue a calm diplomatic agenda that
works quietly behind the scenes. He said, “The people and the Government
Back to Content
106
of Saudi Arabia stood and today still stand by our brothers in Egypt against
terrorism, extremism, sedition, and against those who are trying to interfere in
Egypt’s internal affairs”.
Shortly after, King Abdullah along with the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait
offered financial support of about $12 billion in aid to Egypt, a sum four times
that of the military and economic grants provided by the United States and the
European Union combined ($1.5 billion and $1.3 billion respectively).
After returning from a meeting with the French President, the Saudi foreign
minister, Saud al-Faisal, pledged to compensate Egypt for any financial loss that
may result from a cessation of grants from the European Union or the United
States. In the meantime, Prince Bandar bin Sultan was in Moscow negotiating
with the Russians on the mechanisms of providing logistic support for the new
regime in Cairo.
After all of those events, many analysts questioned why the Kingdom, famous for
its cautious diplomacy, decided to put all its eggs in the basket of such a fragile
new regime with an unpredictable future, considering the recent instability in
Egypt.
This pressing question was raised by Dr. Abdullah Al-Nafisi when he talked about
Riyadh fighting “and destroying every Sunni Islamic movement”. He highlighted
Saudi Arabia’s support to the army against the Islamists in Algeria, how they
stood against most of the Sunni Islamist movements in Iraq, Syria, and Palestine,
and opposed the Islamic re-orientation of Turkey in an uncharacteristically frank
way. He concluded that “Saudi Arabia itself destroyed every element that could
make it stronger or be a line of defence or a strength point”.
Despite sharing similar concerns to Al-Nafisi, it is difficult to substantiate this
perspective. There are several alternative theories suggested by Arab and Western
research institutions in their analysis of the Saudi position towards the Islamist
movements in the Arab region. The most prominent of those are:
1. The theory about the fear of competition to its central religious position
in the Arab world
Dr. Maha Azzam, an Associate Fellow of the Middle East and North Africa
Programme at Chatham House, believes Riyadh’s posture was not surprising. It
was a reaction to Washington’s abandonment of the kingdom’s closest regional
ally, Hosni Mubarak, and its acquiescence in his replacement by the Muslim
Brotherhood who could challenge the Kingdom’s claims of being the protector
of Islam.
Azzam argued that “What they had was a lethal equation, democracy plus
Back to Content
107
Islamism, albeit under the Muslim Brotherhood. That was a lethal concoction
in undermining the kingdom’s own legitimacy in the long run. They know full
well they do not want democracy, but to have another group representing Islam
was intolerable.”
David Hearst noted in the Guardian (20th August 2013) that the Saudi monarch
was embarrassed by his nation’s sympathy for the rule of Islamists in Egypt and
other countries involved in the Arab Spring. Social media feeds in his country
were buzzing with statements displaying empathy with deposed President
Mohamed Morsi. Some well-known judges, academics, businessmen and muftis
used the emblem adopted by the Muslim Brotherhood after its removal from
power, a four-fingered salute known as the sign of Rabaa, on their Twitter and
Facebook pages.
As evidence of this, Hearst cited statements made by Saudi religious scholars
condemning the Kingdom’s position. The king was criticized in a Friday sermon
at the al-Masjid al-Nabawi mosque, and a group of 56 of them issued a statement
describing the disqualification of Morsi as “a military coup and a criminal act
that was illegal and unlawful.”
2. The theory about the fear of the Arab Spring spreading to the land of
the Two Holy Mosques:
On the 2nd February, The Economist attributed the Saudi attitude towards
Islamist movements in the region to Riyadh’s concern that the protests would
expand and reach the Gulf monarchies. Most of those monarchies remained
insulated from the storm that swept through the republics and this prompted
them to restrict the activities of Islamist movements who were key players in
mobilizing demonstrations and provoking the middle class against the ruling
elites.
The West’s attitude towards the Gulf governments was alarming. Most
Western countries thought the “enlightened” Islamist movements were the best
alternative to the traditional regimes. Riyadh had no time to convince their
Western counterparts that the region could not afford further disorder and chaos,
especially when the political alternatives were weak and unable to manage the
affairs of the state. Riyadh therefore rushed into action and deployed the military
in Bahrain and supported the Army in Egypt, operating according to the logic
that if it used enough power it could draw up a clear battle plan, affording it
ample time to demonstrate the viability of its regional vision.
In fact, the recent reverberations of the Arab Spring have not tempted the people
in the states that have as yet remained relatively untouched by its spread. The
Houthis are rapidly expanding their influence in Sanaa and its surrounds, and
Back to Content
108
Daash (ISIS) forces are worryingly close to Baghdad. Meanwhile, Europe stands
still, panicking that terrorists will capture the regional capitals.
So, can we blame Riyadh for trying to protect its national security?
3. The theory concerning the security risks created by having Islamist
movements in power
There are many reports in the Saudi media about the serious mistakes committed
by Islamist movements in Egypt and Algeria, and the Islamic Salvation Front’s
inability to sense the dangers of supporting Saddam Hussein’s occupation of
Kuwait in the early nineties. Comparable to this were the efforts by the Muslim
Brotherhood in Egypt to seek a rapprochement with Iran without realizing the
risks of changing the balance of power in the region, upsetting most of the GCC
countries and pushing them to support the army.
Further examples of such behaviour can be found in a series of articles written
by Abdullah bin Bejad Otaibi on the “Muslim Brothers and Saudi Arabia”. He
detailed the important stages in the history of relations between Saudi Arabia and
Muslim Brotherhood and the group’s threat to the security of the Kingdom. He
pointed out that in 2012 Tunisian politician Rashid Al-Ghannouchi, in his speech
at the Washington Institute about Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, said that
“Revolutions made the Arab monarchies take tough decisions. They had either
to recognize that the time for change had come, or the wave would not stop at
their borders just because they were monarchies. The younger generations in
Saudi Arabia believe that they deserve the change as well as young Tunisians or
Syrians do”.
Otaibi added that “In 2009, and before Al-Ghannouchi, the Muslim Brotherhood
stood with militant Houthis from Yemen when they attacked the Saudi borders.
They issued a statement supporting Houthis, attacking the Saudis and denying
them their right to defend their borders. There are many examples, and I do not
intend to count them here, but just point out some”. He asked: “Is this Muslim
Brotherhood’s attitude toward Saudi Arabia a new and different one from the
ones that preceded it or is it the same old well-established one?”
The different theories were mentioned here not in order to weigh them up, but
to emphasize that the truth lies within the small details of all the above theories.
The grave mistakes made by the Muslim Brotherhood when they were in power
and their implications on the Islamist movements across the Middle East are
serious and difficult to assess at this stage. Certainly the Gulf Cooperation
Council fears the effects of the Arab Spring, which has turned the old republics
into fragile states. Yet, there are considerable security risks arising from foreign
Back to Content
109
intervention in the region’s affairs.
We can add another dimension to the existing theories- the sharp polarisation of
the region’s countries.
On 11th July 2014, the Brookings Institute published a study by Gregory Goss, a
researcher in the affairs of the Arabian Gulf. The study, entitled “The New Cold
War in the Middle East”, pointed to the existence of a cold “Sunni-Sunni” war in
the region, represented by polarization between the two Sunni poles, Turkey and
Qatar on one hand, and the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia on the other.
The winner in this war are religious extremist groups, who are experiencing
unprecedented growth in the region.
The Omani foreign minister raised similar concerns in the Gulf Cooperation
Council (GCC) meeting last August. He confirmed that Takfiris (extremists who
practice Takfir, or the denunciation of political and religious opponents of various
stripes as apostates) will largely benefit from the political polarization of the
GCC countries, particularly those concentrated in Iraq and the Sinai Peninsula.
The Omani perspective of the regional crises will not be discussed in detail here.
However, attention should be paid to the reality that this regional polarization
is not only affecting diplomatic relationships between the leaders in the GCC,
but also relations between intellectuals, journalists and religious scholars. These
individuals are leading debates, for or against Islamist movements, on social
media and using language that is not normally suitable on traditional media.
The underlying problem at this conflict-ridden time is the absence of a mature
way to deal with the challenges of religious identity in the Gulf States. There
is no doubt that these countries lack a nationally unifying discourse, with no
strategic vision of how to build and define the relationship between the state
and its religious organisations. This has ultimately fuelled social tensions and
popular anxiety.
It is strange and appalling to hear the various accusations outlined above; that
Riyadh is supporting extremist movements, that Qatar funds Takfiri groups,
that Salafism-Wahhabism is the source of such violent groups, and finally, the
argument that the Muslim Brotherhood is the primary source of malevolence and
unrest in the region. They are all not aware that by painting such a chaotic scene,
this puts the region’s safety at risk, threatens international security, and increases
the chances of foreign interference in the Arab region’s affairs. Socially, this
battle has fuelled hatred speech and increased the gap between elites. The lack
of diplomacy between these countries and the absence of cooperation and
coordination gives extremists the political space to act.
Instead of exchanging accusations, Saudi Arabia must take the initiative
and develop a good strategy to manage religious affairs and come up with a
Back to Content
110
diplomatic strategy that rises to the challenges in progress. This can only be
achieved through reform followed by a national dialogue that does not exclude
anyone. Only then can a united front be formed to confront extremist ideology.
Back to Content
111
SAUDI ARABIA: TOWARDS A RATIONAL DIALOGUE
Social division in K.S.A. is an increasing phenomenon that is often discussed on
satellite channels, newspapers and in social media.
At first glance it may seem that division is limited between liberal and Islamic
elites, however, it is more complicated than that because religious elites are
divided three ways between: ‘the official’; ‘the enlightened’; and ‘the loyalist’.
The same divisions are repeated amongst various liberal groups, and within
government organisations, which encouraged western research Centre’s to
investigate the phenomenon; as an example, the BBC considered that King
Abdulla Bin Abdul Azziz inflamed the conflict by reducing the authority of
religious institutions and expanding the power of liberals in the media, judiciary
and education.
Not only are the factions of religious movements not in agreement, but also
some Saudi liberals deny the merits of public freedom, political pluralism and
urge the State to suppress public freedoms of those whom they disagree with.
In the context of increasing mutual hatred and social division, some may question
the role of organisations that act as a bridge between the different groups and
currents. The most noted of these is the ‘King Abdul-Aziz Center for National
Dialogue’ which took over the task of: “enhancing dialogue between different
Back to Content
112
groups of the Saudi society”.
The Centre’s director, Faisal bin Abdul-Rahman bin Moamer (who also has
managed the ‘King Abdul-Allah Center of Inter-religious Dialogue’ since
2007, and has also been an advisor to King Abdul-Allah bin Abdul-Aziz and a
former minister of education (2009-2011) speaks with pride about the Centre’s
achievements that include the organisation of annual conferences on various
issues, including: national unity, extremism, women’s rights, youth, education,
employment, and medical services; as well as the organisation of more than
30,000 training programs to enhance communication skills, and the establishment
of an academy to promote dialogue and to survey public opinion. The position
of Bin Moamer was enhanced in July 2014 when he became the vice-chairman
of the Board of Trustees in addition to his work as the General Secretary of the
Centre since its establishment in 2003.
The King Abdul-Azziz Center of National Dialogue – the reality and the
aspiration!
Away from the publicity that accompanies the Conferences, it must be admitted
that the task of launching an intelligent national debate is still unattainable. The
Centre’s programs fail to address the factors causing social rift.
Although the importance of this task is obvious, the Centre’s activities lean more
towards foreign projects that do not serve the national interest. Centre officials
are more committed to embellishing “Sufi-political” authority and promoting
high profile personalities known for their hostility towards Riyadh.
There are many examples of the Centre’s bias towards foreign projects
that do not represent the national interest, such as participation in the forum
to Enhance Domestic Peace (March 2014) in which the religious authority
condemned the K.S.A., and the vice-chairman of the Centre’s board ‘Abdulla
Allah Naseef’ became a member of the Council of Elders in July 2014, which
led to vital questions being asked about the Centre’s understanding of the risks
of participating in a project to enhance a competing religious authority led by
leaders of the Naqshabandi Order.
Being a Director of a Centre for national debate and inter-religious dialogue,
Faisal bin Moamer should concentrate his efforts towards organising an effective
national dialogue, his central role must surely be the responsibility to safeguard
national welfare and defend the religious position of the KSA.
Back to Content
113
CONCLUSION
The previous articles and research here focused on a western project aiming to use
political Sufism to confront Islamist movements. In assessing the implications of
such a project, we need to be very careful with confusing facts, misinformation
and serious generalisations that can lead to injustice and abuse.
Sufism encompasses a diverse range of groups, spiritual paths and schools and is
not a monolithic theological current with a single point of ideological reference.
Its various political and institutional manifestations cannot all be judged under
the same criterion, especially as a number of these groups frequently revise and
adjust their paths, orientations and positions on various issues and challenges
faced by the Muslim world.
The previous series of articles focused on the UAE-Sufi network, riding on the
American vision for a new Middle East, having caused more friction and division
than perhaps was anticipated. However, here we should emphasise the otherwise
positive role contributed by scientific and revivalist Sufis in recent years.
But equally we also call for a clear distinction to be made between Salafist groups,
whether scientific, loyalist, revivalist, and activists. We point to the need to avoid
confusing these groups with extremist movements that claim to be Salafists. At
the same time, we must reject flawed and misinformed arguments about other
Islamic currents.
There’s a compelling call for justice and fairness across the religious spectrum, the
region’s regimes must be reminded of the urgent need for a mature management
of religious affairs to achieve national and regional security. We cannot continue
to deal with religious currents through repression, demonising campaigns and
distortion. Instead, these groups should be recognised as legitimate actors in
public life and societal fabric. All societal currents and forces should take part in
a rational and open, national-level dialogue aimed at promoting national identity
and civil coexistence to achieve overall harmony and peace within our societies.
We must encourage and bolster transparent, honest and informed actors and
institutions and enhance their role in theological reform and renovation.
The most effective and comprehensive way to deal with the identity crisis
plaguing the region is through the strengthening of inter-relationships between
these Islamic currents, rising courageously to tackle present political and security
challenges, striving to achieve national unity and serving the public interest,
reminding ourselves of the sacred verse:
“You are the best of the nations raised up for (the benefit of) men; you enjoin
what is right and forbid the wrong and believe in God”
Back to Content
114
© 2015 Islam Affairs
`