On 22 February, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, of Cairo’s prestigious al-Azhar university (Egypt’s leading centre of Islamic scholarship) denounced misinterpretation of the Quran as a justification for violence, as per the BBC.
This is a positive gesture, and may begin to assuage the doubts of the veritable legion of commenters that demand that the so-called ‘moderate’ Muslims apologise every time an act of terror is committed. The question that remains, however, is to ask whether this is actually a meaningful statement, or whether it is merely an ideological standpoint that will make very little difference in real world terms.
Unfortunately, I fear it will be the latter.
The problem is the following. Sheikh al-Tayeb claims that people are misinterpreting the religion’s Holy Book and thus using it to justify violence. This is all very well and good as an opinion, but that is all that it can ever be. Despite his prominence as a cleric, al-Tayeb can never be the defining voice of Islam, nor force his own interpretation upon others.
The Quran, as with the Bible and countless other religious texts, as you might expect from a tome written before equality or human rights had begun developing as ideas, contains episodes of violence, episodes that can fairly easily be manipulated to aid the cause of dissenting voices. And who’s to say that they are wrong? Who’s to say that the most unpopular and violent explanation is not the correct interpretation of the texts? Unsavoury, but a possibility. There is not, and can never be, an ultimate authority on the text, because God, or Allah, or Yahweh, or whatever author of whichever Holy Book you believe in has never made himself known and clarified the textual ambiguities.
Islam itself, as hinted at by the latter parts of the report on Sheikh al-Tayeb’s speech, sees itself as a ‘nation’ in a way that no other religion does since talk of ‘Christendom’ ended in the 20th century. Islam is a religion that wants to politicise and disseminate its own views, and whether that is by violence or by dialogue remains very much in the eyes of the interpreter. Ibn Khaldun, a prominent medieval Islamic philosopher certainly believed this, writing “in the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and (the obligation to) convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force” (via the Berkeley center). There have been enough justifications for violence over the years that it is now useless to pretend that they do not exist.
The point is it is hardly the first time that a celebrated Muslim scholar has spoken out about the importance of distancing Islam from violence. Both Afifi al-Akiti and Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri have in the past issued fatwas claiming the lack of a religious basis for violence of any kind. These haven’t worked, as shown by the rise of ISIL and Boko Haram, so why should Sheikh al-Tayeb’s voice make the slightest bit of difference?
The problem is mainly a political one, with insurgents linking religion to their political aims and then using it to retrospectively justify their actions, as well as to attract others to their cause. Whether this is a misinterpretation of the texts or not is open to debate, but it is hardly the first time we have heard the argument that it is. It is impossible to keep textual interpretation uniform, and as such there will always be some loophole available to justify heinous acts. Let us not forget that the Bible was used to justify slavery and racial discrimination for hundreds of years.
Al-Tayeb’s assertion is a welcome one in principle, but ultimately will prove to be an insignificant one. It is the nature of the beast that it is impossible to control how people define their own interpretation of religion, and it will always be possible for young dissidents to fall in with the wrong crowd and be regaled with tales of a religiously justified war, and that will be difficult to change unless some form of unified position on Islam can be made available, which seems highly unlikely at this stage, particularly given the ongoing dispute between Sunni and Shia factions that has been raging for centuries.