By Professor Azza Karam
NEW YORK, Oct 26 2020 – As the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed Al-Tayeb said on October 20: “As a Muslim and being the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, I declare before Almighty God that I disassociate myself, the rulings of the religion of Islam, and the teachings of the Prophet of Mercy, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), from such heinous terrorist act and from whoever would embrace such deviant, false thought.
At the same time, I reiterate that insulting religions and abusing sacred religious symbols under the slogan of the freedom of expression, are forms of intellectual terrorism and a blatant call for hatred. Such a terrorist and his likes do not represent the true religion of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Likewise, the terrorist of New Zealand, who killed the Muslims while praying in the mosque, does not represent the religion of Jesus, peace be upon him. Indeed, all religions prohibit the killing of innocent lives”
The above words of the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Al-Sharif — Sunni Islam’s intellectual headquarters, long standing knowledge base and one of its political epicenters — were shared at an ongoing conference hosted by the St Egidio Community, entitled “No One is Saved Alone Peace and Fraternity”.
In turn, these words were read out at this meeting, by Judge Mohammed Abdel Salam, the first Muslim to ever present a Papal Encyclical (in October 2020), and the first Muslim ever to be decorated as Commander with a star medal (Commenda con Placca dell’ordine Piano), by the Pope, for his great role and efforts in promoting interreligious dialogue and the relationships between Al-Azhar and the Catholic Church (in March 2019).
Judge Mohammed Abdel Salam is the Secretary General of the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity, and represents the Grand Imam on the World Council (governing board) of Religions for Peace, a 50 year-old multi-religious organization representing all the world’s religious institutions and faith communities – in effect, a “UN of religions”.
And yet these words seem to have to be repeated again and again. Many Muslims live in fear that each and every day’s news potentially bears yet another heinous act of violence whose mad perpetrator(s) claim(s) is done for or inspired by “Islam”.
Many Muslims still hear two comments again and again from within the western hemisphere: “where is the condemnation?”, and even more insidiously, an assertion that “there must be something in the religion that makes these repeated acts of violence …possible”.
Some western government-sanctioned narratives go so far as to describe “Islamic extremism”, further compounding a sense of victimisation by many Muslims, and adding to the ‘spin’ that the religion itself is capable of extremism.
No religion is itself intrinsically capable of anything. People live religion. In his latest Encyclical “Fratelli Tutti”( in Chapter 8 “religion and fraternity”), the Pontiff focuses on “Religions at the service of fraternity in our world” and emphasizes that terrorism is not due to religion but to erroneous interpretations of religious texts, as well as “policies linked to hunger, poverty, injustice, oppression” (paragraphs 282-283).
The Encyclical maintains that a journey of peace among religions is possible and that it is therefore necessary to guarantee religious freedom, a fundamental human right for all believers (paragraph 279).
Muslims – leaders, laypeople, communities, and multiple institutions – have condemned, continue to condemn and will always condemn violence in the name of their faith.
Imam Sayyed Razawi, the Secretary General of the Scottish Ahl al-Bayt Society, and a Trustee of Religions for Peace, notes that “since Islam does not teach harming others, a question that arises is what was the motivation of an individual who had a claim to being Muslim, to violate the parameters of the laws of his faith and country in committing such an act?
There is no doubt Muslims, be they in France or across the world, hurt, when their Prophet is seemingly insulted. However, it does not justify breaking the very principles laid down in Islam to prevent such acts”.
Both Judge Abdel Salam and Imam Razawi, are of similar age. The former, living in the Arab world, the latter, living in the West. Both are Muslim leaders, and both are well versed in Islamic Jurisprudence, and learned about Islamic traditions. Both continue to iterate, in multiple speeches, conferences and contexts, that what inspires them, is to serve humanity.
Imam Sayed Razawi continues to note that serving humanity leads us down a pathway which has various labels, though amounting to roughly the same thing: interfaith, inter religious dialogue, and/or multi faith collaboration. The ultimate aim and purpose have always been, and remains, how best to live harmoniously with others.
For both these Muslim leaders, and millions of other Muslims, the inspiration to maintain that such atrocities are not in our name, comes from the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). A man who even before prophecy was working with peoples of various faiths and backgrounds. A merchant, whose employer was a woman – later to become his wife when she proposed to him- and who believed passionately in being truthful and trustworthy.
“So much so” Razawi maintains, “that Jews, Christians, and pagans alike would entrust him with that which they held valuable to themselves, with the belief it would be safe. As a Prophet, Muhammad developed a city where Muslims lived side by side with Jews, Christians, Sabians and pagans. These lessons lead to the formation of a civilisation on the very same principles: coexistence and peace.”
Both the Imam and the Judge speak of their hurt when evil acts such as what has been witnessed in Paris take place. Both maintain, again, alongside countless others, that “it is important to repeat and continue to repeat that these are not the teachings of Islam, nor its Prophet or the interpretations of core Islamic principles”.
These atrocities are against what they believe, what they live, and what they preach, which is: peaceful coexistence, reconciliation and obeying the laws of the land one lives in, not to mention the need to uphold virtues such as compassion, love and forgiveness.
Both maintain that acts of violence are not reflective of a religion whose leaders have categorically emphasised the need for “loving thy neighbour”, because, as Imam Razawi states “either a person is your brother in faith, or your equal in your humanity.”
So why would an act be committed which is contrary to the very faith the actor confesses to be?
This is the question secular policy-makers may not ask. Or perhaps they do ask behind closed doors in rooms bursting with indifference to religion and religious sentiments.
Or yet again, maybe this is a question asked by religious ‘technocrats’ (those working on religion in secular spaces) and/or secular bureaucrats keen on instrumentalizing religious sentiments for ‘national security’ concerns.
But this is the question that every faith leader asks – and asks repeatedly. The answers lie, again, in what the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”, calls for, which the Catholic Pontiff also concludes his Encyclical with: “we were made for love” (Paragraph 88), and love builds bridges.
But how can we build bridges with love? Religions for Peace has been doing this work through 96 national and regional Inter-Religious Councils, with representatives of all faith traditions, for five decades.
In 2019, 250 religious leaders committed to building these bridges with and through service to the Sustainable Development Goals Agenda.
When Covid-19 hit, Religions for Peace set up a Multi-Religious Humanitarian Fund dedicated to supporting faith communities work to serve all, together. The religious leaders understood that there is no point to working to realise the SDGs, without a mechanism to collate and coordinate their efforts, geared towards serving social cohesion (in a world gone awry), within our new normal: humanitarian crisis.
Confronting Covid is an opportunity to work together across religious and institutional differences to build bridges of love. The humanitarian call is being heeded today like never before, by the first responders in crisis situations – i.e. religious institutions and NGOs. But few of these religious NGOs are actually collaborating, meaning jointly investing their resources, to serve together.
We can keep on having meetings to speak to building back better, and the uniqueness of faith (or business or civil society actors), and still face countless acts of violence (attributed to religion) from those whose sense of marginalization is intensifying.
We can choose to continue to serve our own organizational and territorial visibility and interests, while hundreds of thousands continue to die, and millions suffer, from a shared ecosystem of planetary degradation.
Or we can serve the multi-religious call – the multi-religious imperative – and actually pool our financial, human and spiritual resources together – to build bridges with love. The choice is ours.