Religion & Beliefs

Is Today’s “Letter of Harmony” A Sign of Emerging Islamic Reformation?

There is an emerging Islamic Counter-Reformation — an attempt led by traditional Islamic scholars to try and wrest authority back from demagogues and terrorists. In the late 90's and early parts of this century, Islamic clerics saw people like Bin … Read More

By / February 26, 2008

There is an emerging Islamic Counter-Reformation — an attempt led by traditional Islamic scholars to try and wrest authority back from demagogues and terrorists.

In the late 90's and early parts of this century, Islamic clerics saw people like Bin Laden trying to wrest authority from them, the clerics came together and coalesced. With backing from the King of Jordan, they issued the historic Amman Message whose purpose was to try and eliminate the idea of takfir among Muslims. Takfir is the practice, by one Muslim, of casting another Muslim out of Islam (which then makes it permissible to attack the apostate). It had long been strictly forbidden by traditional clerics, but was revived by 20th century Islamists in order to make it easier for them to cleanse their opponents. Therefore, an attack against takfir was powerful attack against extremism (and, as I argued, an important forerunner of a more embracing view of apostates). Many of these scholars are trying to set up a centralized House of Fatwas which would only permit the power of fatwa to those who are adequately qualified.

Emboldened by the positive reception of the Amman Message, last year Islamic clerics then sent a conciliatory letter to the Pope. The gesture was received warmly by Pope Benedict (coming off his own controversial comments regarding Islam).

Seeing that conciliation and dialogue were beneficial (and getting picked up in the media), traditional clerics pressed ahead. Recently in India, 20,000 clerics declared terrorism un-Islamic. The act is significant because it comes out of the ultra-orthodox Deoband school. Also recently, the Department of Religious Affairs in Turkey, began to cull objectionable hadith narrations.

Today, Muslim clerics sent a "letter of harmony" to Jewish leaders as well, yet another positive development. It gets past the geo-political discussion and focuses squarely on matters of faith — as many of us have long encouraged Muslim leaders to do. It says in part:

There is more in common between our religions and peoples than is known to each of us. It is precisely due to the urgent need to address such political problems as well as acknowledge our shared values that the establishment of an inter-religious dialogue between Jews and Muslims in our time is extremely important.

Failure to do so will be a missed opportunity. Memories of positive historical encounters will dim and the current problems will lead to an increasing rift and more common misunderstandings between us.

The initiative is being advanced by Akbar S. Ahmed, a former high-commissioner of Pakistan to Britain, and a well regarded public intellectual among Muslims.

This letter seems to be an initiative led by Western Muslim leaders. It has not come out of the Muslim majority world. In other words, it is just one baby step rather than anything historic. However, it does bode well as it comes on the heels of a declaration in Tikkun magazine by a prominent traditional cleric in America that holocaust denial is un-Islamic. The mere enunciation of such ideas is positive, as it arms clerics in other parts of the world to have precedent they can call upon.

Not only that, but many of the more conciliatory advances of traditional scholars around the world have had significant connection with Muslim leaders in the West. The pluralist and inter-faith Islam being developed in the Western world (as well as in India) seems to be going into the Muslim world and emboldening the pluralist minorities there. This, actually, has been a longstanding trend within Islamic history. The Islamic "fringes" — i.e. the parts geographically closest to non-Muslims — have always produced the more universalist and syncretic versions of Islam (i.e. Islamic Spain, Bosnia, and India) — ironically, this historical trend directly contradicts Huntington's assertion about Islam's bloody borders; in fact, its actually the other way around.

If there is a hope for a reduction to anti-Semitism among Muslims, there will have to be more letters of harmony until Arab, Iranian and Indo-Pak scholars feel emboldened enough to take a stand on the matter as well. However, there will also have to be genuine scholarly works that deconstruct the various anti-Semitic interpretations that scholars have assigned to Jews in the past. An honest and modern interpretation of texts is as necessary as conciliatory letters.

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