Scholars Try to Rein in the ‘Sheikhs of Death’

DUBAI – Denouncing misguided religious fanaticism and terrorism, Muslim scholars and religious leaders who recently attended a major world Islamic conference in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), jointly called for the issuing of a unified fatwa (edict) on pressing issues in order to avoid the misuse of the religion.

Attended by more than 500 delegates, of which one-third were women, the conference was aimed at developing a framework to bring Muslims back to the original source of Islam. The recommendations are to be submitted later this month to authorities to ensure their enforcement in the Islamic world.

"We have all agreed that the Muslim nation should now follow the guidelines of the Prophet and rectify its mistakes according to the main principles of Islam. … This should be agreed upon by all Muslims and proves that Islam is a wide-ranging religion that takes into consideration different and diverse opinions that satisfy local needs," said Mansoor al-Minhali, director of Islamic Affairs at the U.A.E. Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs.

The call for a unified fatwa at the conference late last month was prompted by the controversy over the issuance of public fatwas permitting the killing of foreigners in Iraq and elsewhere by individuals.

Last year, a prominent Muslim preacher from Qatar issued a fatwa allowing the killing of Israeli pregnant women and their unborn babies on the basis that the babies could grow up to join the Israeli Army. He also said that killing "all Americans, civilian or military" in Iraq was allowed.

Condemning such fatwas, the scholars also emphasized that the declaration of Islamic legal opinions and fatwas should be left in the hands of experts.

"Anyone reading a couple of verses of the Koran installs himself as an ‘imam’ [religious leader] and issues fatwas. … Our nations are paying the price," said Issam Beshir, minister of Islamic endowments in Sudan, whose country figures on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism

"Many individual fatwas were issued, only to give the enemies of Islam pretexts to distort its pure image," he added.

A fatwa clarifies the Islamic ruling in an answer given to a question or a set of questions usually related to an Islamic issue. It does not make any difference whether the questioner is a person or a group of persons.

Experts at the conference explained that issuing fatwas is an arduous task and not every individual has the right to issue them and make pronouncements on matters.

"This is because the one who commits himself to issuing fatwas acts on behalf of Allah’s Messengers and Prophets," said the scholars.

Added Mansoor: "Fatwas should not be taken from any unqualified individuals, such as the individual who appears on satellite channels and issues fatwas according to what the audience wants to hear."

"In crucial issues that affect society as a whole, such as medical, financial, and political, the fatwa will be left to a council who will issue a collective declaration of Islamic opinion according to the Sharia," he said.

Mohammed Saeed Ramadan al-Booti, a renowned Muslim scholar, pointed out: "We call for unification of our word and unification of our authority that issues fatwas. Unfortunately there are a lot of activities that swim against the current. The more authorities we have, the more negative effects we have, including chaos."

There have been other campaigns against such fatwas. A petition sent to the United Nations by over 2,500 Muslim intellectuals from 23 countries has called for an international treaty to ban the use of religion for incitement to violence. It also calls on the UN Security Council to set up a tribunal to try "the theologians of terror." Most of the signatories are from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states plus Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine.

Hundreds of Arab writers and academics are collecting more signatures to the petition, including Jawad Hashem, a former Iraqi minister of planning, and Alafif al- Akdhar, a leading Tunisian writer and academic.

The signatories also described those who use religion for inciting violence as "the sheikhs of death" and asked the UN to order its member states to stop broadcasting the "mad musings of the theologians of terror."

The scholars also emphasized the importance of addressing the issue of the association of Islam with terrorism through government institutions, the education system, and all sectors of society.

Calling those who interpret Islam for violent purposes a "deviant" group, the delegates called it a distortion of the religion and refuted Western charges that Islam fosters extremism and terrorism. Such charges have intensified since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

Some Muslim countries are in fact fighting their own war on domestic terrorism, embodied in groups of Islamist militants who regard local regimes as un-Islamic.

"It is now necessary that Islamic scholars come forward to make it clear that Islam has nothing to do with that [the killings]," UAE Assistant Undersecretary of Islamic Affairs Hamdan al-Mazruwei said.

Added Beshir, the Sudanese minister: "This is a group of people that deviated in their behavior. They belong [nominally] to the [Prophet] Muhammad’s base, but they do not follow his steps."

Stressing that extremism and meaningless violence are alien to the spirit and nature of Islam, the experts unanimously condemned the growing trend among a few misguided elements in Muslim societies of adopting extremism. They pointed out that Islam does not sanctify anarchy that endangers human lives and destroys peace.

"Islam has taken the face of an aggressive personality. We are to blame for all this because there are certain groups that have an extreme attitude toward Islam and those at the other end who are extremely liberal," said Dr. Abdulmonim Bellah, a renowned Islamic scholar. "The moderate Muslims, who are in the mainstream, are not being heard. All this is because Muslims are not following Islam’s original principles."