05/31/2017, 12.46
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Fr Samir: Attacks on Copts fueled by Al-Azhar's Ambiguity and the Spread of Islamic Fundamentalism

by Samir Khalil Samir

Islam continues to dwell in the ambiguity of a contradictory relationship between the Koran, the sayings and the life of Mohammed. This is where the Islamic State finds the justification for its most violent and cruel acts.  Islamic thought and the Islamic system needs to be revised and politics separated from religion.

Rome (AsiaNews) - In recent days, an armed commando attacked a group of Coptic Orthodox pilgrims in Minya, in Egypt, killing dozens of people, including women and children. An attack that has caused further pain and suffering a community, and an entire nation, that is once again mourning victims of Jihadist violence, killed because of their faith, after those of last’s months explosions at churches  [on Palm Sunday] and the attack near the Coptic Cathedral of St. Mark in Abassiya, in Cairo, in December.

In response, the Egyptian army launched new air raids against jihadist targets on the border with Libya. They targeted some Mujahideen bases affiliated to al Qaeda, located in the Libyan town of Derna and in the surrounding area. In a TV message to the nation, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi emphasized that Cairo will not hesitate to strike "terrorism" in all its forms; an open battle, he added, that must be fought inside and outside of the country.

However, the violence of the Islamic State is rooted in Muslim tradition, in the Koran, in the sayings and in the events of the life of the Prophet Muhammad. If we do not intervene in rethinking the sacred text, the violence will continue to be perpetrated, and Europe will become a battlefield for infidels and unbelievers. The Old Continent is, at least in part, also responsible for this abyss because it willingly abandoned the path of healthy secularism for an atheism that denies faith. This is the argument of one of the world’s foremost Islamic experts, Jesuit Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, professor at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome

Here, below, is his reflection:

The first, fundamental, point is that it is categorically untrue to claim that Isis is not derived from Islam and is not inspired by Islam itself. Indeed, it is inspired by the most authentic sources of Islam which are the Koran and Muslim tradition based on Mohammed's life, what is called the Sunnah and the Hadith, the sayings and the events inspired by the Prophet. This does not mean that the text of the Koran is centered exclusively on violence: it includes both violence and nonviolence, depending on the period and stage in Mohammed's life.

History and tradition divide Mohammed's life into two stages: the first in Mecca, his home, from 610 to 622; The second in Medina, following his flight, which runs from 622 to his death in 632. In the first phase, he seeks out the path of coexistence and the narrative is positive, though not without criticism, even towards Christians. In the second phase, the most important one, after the first two years of encounter with the Jews from whom he learned of the Bible, he took his distance and launched a war on the most important Jewish tribe, killing between 600 and 800 men, while women and children were reduced to slavery and shared among the fighters.

This gave way to a new phase in which Mohammed attacked one tribe after another, to subject them to his vision. This clearly illustrates how, from its very origins, the Islamic project was a global, spiritual and religious one of a single God who makes and decides our life, but one that also concerns the political sphere. The goal is the creation of Umma, the Muslim nation. This is an economic, cultural and material project, and embraces everything: from how we eat to how we dress and relate to people, everything is accounted for.

There is also one final point, an essential principle issued in the Koran: Given that Muslims themselves noted contradictions between one verse and another, a principle was issued according to which the last revelations, the most recent verses, superseded the older ones, based on the Arab principle abrogation. So the most bellicose verses, the most violent ones, nullify the previous ones. If earlier verses spoke of friendship, and later ones the opposite, the last position prevails.

This is also how Isis proceeds: Like every Muslim, it picks and chooses the verses of the Koran that most appeal to its cause. Tradition is divided into two points: one called Muhammad (Hadith), a collection that includes thousands, and which are recognized as valid in two encyclopedias dating to the Middle Ages (Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī and Muslim). As for the traditions, the other element, these regard what Mohammed did during his lifetime. If something is lacking in the Koran, it is supplemented with the prophet's sayings and events. This aspect is equally similar for Christians with regards to Revelation in the Bible and the New Testament.

The Koran itself has been the subject of discussion for at least five centuries: according to some it was ‘created’, written by Muhammad who was inspired by God, others claimed that it is ‘divine’ that is the direct work of Allah. In the end, some authors in the eleventh century established the divine nature of the Koran, which is the reference of every Islamic who searches for the late verses and the source of truth in the sayings and traditions of Mohammed. This is Islamic theory.

The roots of Isis in Sharia

From this point of view, everything that Isis [or Daesh, in its Arabic acronym] does, even its most brutal actions, have a clear source in this collection, within the Koran itself or in the life of Muhammad. This is the case with al-Azhar's positions or the decision taken by a leader of the Islamic State, who is invested by Sharia. How is it possible to know whether this is legally Islamic? In each country there is an imam, a great mufti (the one who emits a fatwa), a specialist in Islamic law, who states if an opinion is more or less correct. At national level, the great mufti is appointed by the government.  Isis also has its own mufti, a scholar of Islamic law, who says what is lawful and how to act. Everything, wrongly or rightly, has its foundation in the Islamic tradition. A Muslim leader can make an opposite but equally legitimate choice in Islamic terms. In the Koran we often find both positions.

For example, take the case of the Jordanian pilot who was captured by Isis, locked in cage and burned alive. Al-Azhar, by the mouth of the great imam al-Tayyeb, said that this act was contrary to Islam because in a saying of Muhammad (Sunnah) it is said that burning someone is a punishment of God, and only God can decide whether to kill somebody by fire. However, there is also another saying of Muhammad when he pronounces it possible in the case of two men caught in a sexual act (the theme of homosexuality). His answer is that they must be burned and their bodies abandoned in the desert to be eaten by the beasts. There are those who choose one verse and those who choose the other, but both are lawful: This is the underlying ambiguity.

Today, there is no doubt that the actions of Isis are inhumane, and most Muslims at this point agree. The majority states that this is no longer Islam, it is not human and I am also convinced that most Muslims do not agree with Isis. However, one cannot say that what they do is not Islamic. You can say that you do not agree and then outline your motivations according to the references of every Muslim, but they will respond with their own arguments. There is no need to prove that Isis is barbaric, but when it is stated that it is not the true Islam here, the difficulty arises: they carry out these inhuman acts even because within these ordinary teachings they find these positions.

The result of failing to revise interpretations of the Koran

The bottom line is the failure to reinterpret the Koranic text, as well as the sayings and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. Common sense tells us that a text cannot be understood outside its context. But the context in this case is seventh century Arabia. Interpreting does not mean affirming the opposite but contextualizing the saying or the tradition and understanding its meaning today, what would its intent be in the present context.

In Arabia at that time, there were no state courts or state infrastructures that are present today. The law was Mohammed’s word, given that he was the spiritual and human leader, and violence was an ordinary part of people's lives and a means of solving problems. Family violence was also authorized and prescribed, as in the case where the Koran states that man exercises authority over women and must correct her (Koran 4, 34). 

Another saying proclaims that women are lacking in intelligence and firm faith (al-Nisā’ nāqiṣāt ‘aqlan wa-dīnan). Hence the fact that even today in Egypt women cannot be judges because women are emotional and their reasoning is not always sound. And then, from a religious point of view, because they have the menstrual cycle and at that time are deemed unclean and unable to fast or pray and thus imperfect from the religious point of view.

The word of Mohammed corresponded to the mentality of the time, as in the case of Christians in Leviticus 15, 19-23, and more generally Judaism; women are considered impure during their menstrual cycle, thus, when she gives birth to a male a woman is unclean for 40 days, and when she gives birth to a female she is impure for 80 days (cf. Leviticus 12, 1-8 ). Hence the feast of 2 February with the purification of Mary. This tradition is still applied today in the Orthodox Coptic Church, so that after giving birth a woman cannot approach the Eucharist. This is to make it clear that I am not attacking Islam, but that we are in the face of a universal issue, that is still valid today.

Islam must rethink sharia

In this way, it is impossible to claim whether certain aspects are clearly inserted or not within Islamic law. There is a need to review every aspect of the law, but this effort is rarely exerted by the imams; Many intellectuals have done so, thousands in the Islamic world, they have written about it, spoken about it on radio and television, the Egyptian President al-Sisi explicitly said as much at the beginning of his mandate when he met the imams at the University of -Azhar. He claimed the need for an Islamic revolution within Islam, a rethinking of the entire religion and its norms. His words received a universal applause in December 2014, but at a distance of two and a half years nothing has been done. The books are the same, with the same comments and protests by intellectuals, there are clashes but no concrete change.

Therefore, we have to get to the core of the problem and ask ourselves where does all that we are witnessing today come from?   Everything comes from an Islamic and Koranic interpretation, an exegesis that goes back to a great imam who lived in the last quarter of 1700, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who founded the Wahhabi school of thought, which dictates the line in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other countries.

The Saudi kingdom is today the only nation in the world without a Constitution because, they say, our constitution is Islamic Sharia. But what is it exactly? And who has the right to interpret it? The Imam. And as they have followed since the formation of the state in the 1930s, they apply it with the approval of imams who determine what is right and what is not. For example, that a thief has his hand cut off;  that an apostate, who abandons the Muslim faith, is killed, and an adulterous woman stoned.

In this sense, Christ's attitude seems to me the most humane and divine: For example in the case of the adulterous woman, when the crowd citing Mosaic Law states that she should be stoned. Jesus does not dispute the affirmation, but replies that those who are without sin cast the first stone. He raises his head and does not see anyone. The first to leave is the oldest. Then he tells the woman that no one has condemned her. This means rethinking the faith, that is to live the true religion without condemnation. Religious freedom is one of the fundamental rights of man, sanctioned in Article 18 of the UN Charter, and this is why the Saudis did not want to sign it.

The attackers, those who follow the jihadist ideology, are convinced they are fighting the good fight, that they are right. The majority of the imams and Muslim faithful are convinced that the words in the Koran are the most perfect ones there are. There are also those who reflect, those who ask questions, but at a cultural level, critical thought generally does not exist and everything is taken literally. The al-Azhar imams also seem to play a part in this: when he speaks with the Westerners and with the Pope he says that Islam is "Salam" (peace), but it is a lie because Islam in itself really means "Submission" to God. And this, in a sense, can be beautiful, but on the other hand it is very dangerous, because you end up taking everything literally. So even those who think Isis is wrong do not say so, especially among the imams, because they are likely to be contradicted by verses within the Koran. As suggested by al-Sisi, and as some Muslim thinkers have been suggesting since the Middle Ages, there is an urgent need for reform and it can no longer be delayed.


There is a struggle between fundamentalist tendencies, between Wahhabism, Salafism, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (in Minya, the theater of the latest anti-Christian attacks, are mostly Muslim Brotherhood groups even though they have declared affiliation to IS) which all flow into Isis. 

But what is the Isis? From the very word, it speaks of the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria. And why these two countries? Because both are Shiite, so Sunni extremism wants to make war on them. This fanaticism comes from Sunnis who oppose the Shiites and then end up widening the scope of who their enemies are.

Let us reflect on why they also attack in France and England: they do so because Europe has been considered as unbelieving for at least 50 years and in this respect it is true that the Old Continent is becoming more and more secular, which is positive but now carries an anti-religious element. This evolution is evident in France, perhaps less so in Italy. Since the Islamic State does not make any distinctions, it states that the whole West is Christian and Christianity is a hidden, malformed form of atheism, not belief.

In the Koran there is a word to identify the unbeliever: Kafir. And according to the Koran the unbeliever must be killed. Jews and Christians, at least at first, were not considered Kafir, but viewed as imperfect believers and therefore had to pay a tax (Jizya) to live with the Muslims. Conversely, the Kafir cannot live among Muslims and has two alternatives: either to convert or to be killed. If these Islamic fanatics call Jews and Christians Kafir, they claim the right to kill, as they did with the Yazidi, massacring their men and taking women as slaves.

What can we do? In spite of everything I have to consider Muslims as my brothers and sisters, as who have been going through a crisis in their history down through the centuries, but especially in the last 50 years. I have to be a fraternal friend for them, to suggest to them that we too Christians have had to rethink many things. Some do, but it is the thinking and legal system as a whole that needs to be revised and this means, first of all, separating politics from religion. Let them know they are being held prisoners by some laws, and that faith is a personal matter. True secularism was brought by Christ, not the French Revolution: "Render unto Caesar what is of Caesar, to God what is of God".


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