Asharq Al-Awsat interview with Syria’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun

Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- Sheikh Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun, Syria’s Grand Mufti is not an ordinary man. Regardless of the importance of his religious position, he has strong and courageous opinions concerning the relationship between politics and religion.

Sheikh Hassoun recently commented on the problem of Islamic political parties and their understanding of the concept of secularism. He called for the need to spare the Muslims and Islam the consequences of these political conflicts. Hassoun stressed that the Islamists were fighting secularism without distinguishing between the French secularism, and the secularism based on science [The word secularism in Arabic "Ilmaniyah" is derived from the Arabic word "Ilm" meaning science].

In this interview with Asharq Al-Awsat we focus on the Syrian mufti’s concept of secularism, his vision of the nature of the state in Islam, his understanding of the role of the clerics in this state, and his opinion of the conflict between the Islamists and the Arab governments, and between the Islamists and the rest of the intellectual and political tendencies in the Arab world.

The following is the full text of the interview:

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Recently there was controversy over the meaning of secularism from an Islamic viewpoint. What is your own definition of secularism?

(Sheikh Hassoun) One of the fundamental issues about definitions is that they do not become acceptable terms until the experts agree on them. This agreement takes place after extensive studies and deliberations, and then come those who read the concept and not the literal words of the definition to give their opinion. There is no such thing as a personal or non-personal definition of anything, including secularism. It is more correct and more proper to talk about a personal understanding. This personal understanding is based on the personal experience of any individual and his reading, in addition to the surroundings and environment in which he lives. From this starting point, I arrive at the personal understanding of secularism. The same as all humanitarian and philosophical concepts, secularism is neither entirely true nor entirely rejected. Therefore, we ought to discuss the issues before they become either rejected or a fait accompli. This is in order to make them suitable for us by choosing what suits us and rejecting what does not suit us. Here, we have to point out that the prevailing direct and improvised understanding [of secularism] has been masked in an inaccurate way. With its arrival as a contemporary political and intellectual term, secularism was placed through the media and ideologies in conflict with belief in the various religions and sects. Secularism was rejected equally by Christians and Muslims, because it was linked in their minds to the concept of fighting religion. This is what we find in the writings of the Ulema, such as Sheikh Muhammad Mahdi Shams-al-Din, God have mercy on his soul, who dedicated a complete book to secularism in which he refuted, analyzed, and criticized the concept, and which contained correct scientific views. Also Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi wrote and lectured about secularism.

What I say about the lack of contradiction and conflict is based on the linguistic meaning, and not the terminological meaning agreed by the people. I think that the difference between the viewpoints results from the difference between those who call for separating religion from the state, and those who call for the need to incorporate religion in the state. I see Islam as an international religion that does not need getting into such details. Against Single Reading

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Do you support redrafting society’s concepts according to a secular view of life that preserves the Islamic constants?

(Sheikh Hassoun) Let us keep away momentarily from the text of the question, which I will answer. I ask: what is the meaning of redrafting? What is the meaning of preserving the constants? These are puzzling rhetorical expressions. Redrafting is for something that needs redrafting, and Islam does not fall in this category. However, we also need a perceptive and accurate understanding of the religious text. Understanding comes with having many readers; hence the rule, “The presence of differences within my nation is a mercy.” You can imagine the effect of having a single reading of the text; what will happen then? We do not ask for freezing the religion within a clerical organization and isolating it from the political arena, but we are not in favor of politicizing anything that does not bear any political view. If what is meant by secularization is to neutralize religion, then this is a misconception because the Muslim, the Christian, and the others constitute the political, social, and economic fabric of the society, and no one whatsoever can find people who are absolutely neutral. We have clear examples of the individuals who established secular parties in the conventional sense, and who returned during the times of crisis to their religious roots. Therefore, I say that there is no absolute contradiction, because I am facing societies with many sectors, and I do not accept that they should impose their way of life upon me, and in exchange I do not accept to impose my way of life upon them. God Almighty said in Islam, “Let there be no compulsion in religion [Surah Al-Baqarah, from Verse 256];” and He said, “To you be your Way, and to me mine [Surah al-Kafirun, Verse 6].” Therefore, the Almighty has given the other the freedom to believe and to choose. Islam and the Roots of Secularism.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) There are intellectuals and historians who believe that secularism has roots in Islam, and that Islam is “in essence a secular” religion that includes facts related to Divine inspiration only. Do you support these pronouncements? What are the aspects of secularism in Islamic history?

(Sheikh Hassoun) This question is linked directly to the previous question. I say: Is there any opinion after the Divine text in the Koran? What is the value of the opinions of the intellectuals and muftis against the Divine Koran text? I object to the question in this form. Islam is great in itself and in its message, and it does not need research to indicate that it encompasses other things in order to increase its greatness. If they say that Islam includes the roots of secularism, this will not increase or decrease the value of Islam. This reminds me of the research papers that talk about the scientific miracles in the Koran, and that try to attribute everything to the Koran; this is clear overstretching. I do not care about anything other than the correct understanding of the contemporary terminology, and the correct understanding of the religious text from which I derive the rules that organize my relationships with both the creator and the creatures. Do I want to acquire a certificate of appreciation of Islam from the seculars who do not believe in Islam? Do I want to exonerate the secular’s attitude toward religion? This is the real question, and the answer is with those who present opinions and readings with clear impartiality and true transparency.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Where does secularism meet Islam, and where does it diverge from it?

(Sheikh Hassoun) What is the importance of secularism meeting Islam, or of Islam meeting it? Islam is an eternal religion that is valid for every time and every place. Validity is directly linked to correct understanding. As a Muslim, I am interested in my understanding of Islam, whether or not this understanding meets with secularism. Do I want to twist the neck of Islam in order to be able to say: Here I meet with secularism? This issue needs research and seminars not to identify the meeting points, but to identify the correct understanding of each of Islam and secularism.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Some people ask: How can we transform a closed intellectual system into an open and effective one? Do you consider secularism a condition for development on a national level?

(Sheikh Hassoun) Does the question mean that Islam is a closed intellectual system?! If this is the case, then the question as a whole is rejected because Islam is not like this. Here, I refer the honorable reader to the book by the Arab Muslim intellectual, Dr Umar Farrukh, God have mercy on his soul, which was entitled “Renewal in Muslims Not in Islam.” This valuable research came after a preceding book entitled “Evangelism and Colonialism.” If anyone accuses Islam of being closed on itself, this accusation applies to a group of Muslims, which we cannot identify, because every group considers itself correct, moreover it considers the others wrong. This reminds us of the reading of the Ulema, and their identification of the misguided group; perhaps an impartial observer considers all of them as misguided, while we ought to consider the others as correct from their viewpoint. I have not said, and I will not say that secularism is a condition for national rising in any country in the world; all I say is: Correct understanding and recognizing the other and his rights are the way to national rising. Islam has never at any time called for anything other than correct understanding and the recognition of the other and of his rights.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Some people also think that leaving the leadership to secular thinking is a road that ultimately leads to atheism. What do you think of this?

(Sheikh Hassoun) Who said that we want to leave the leadership to the secular thinking? We consider that the time of leaving the leadership in any society to any [single] tendency has gone. There are ideas that enrich people’s lives, and there is a leadership that leads the society in a way that serves the interests of the people; this leadership might combine atheists and religious people; there is nothing to prevent this! Arkoun was not correct, but I respect him.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Do you agree with French Algerian intellectual Mohammed Arkoun in his definition of secularism as “The unanimity of the people – apart from the clerics – i.e. away from their intervention in people’s lives?”

(Sheikh Hassoun) The intellectual Professor Arkoun has widespread opinions circulated by the media. Anyone who says something, whatever he says is up to him and expresses his views. However, if we look into this pronouncement, we will find that it needs scientific accuracy. If we, as he says, exempt the clerics, we will find that the society loses a large sector of its constituents; it is a very big sector, because there is no clerical class (priesthood) in Islam. Every Muslim adheres to the faith. Through Islam’s opinion of the religious scholars we will find that all Muslims adhere to religion. The question now is where is the unanimity of the people if we exempt the religious scholars? It is certain that this opinion [of Arkoun] cannot pass a precise test according to the criteria of mind and logic. However, it is an opinion of a specific person, and it only concerns those who subscribe to this opinion; I respect this opinion, but I do not agree with it. Are There Clerics in Islam?

(Asharq Al-Awsat) What do you think of the belief of some Arab intellectuals that what hinders the understanding and application of secularism is the influence of religion?

(Sheikh Hassoun) First of all, I do not agree with the expression: influence of religion. This is an expression that makes a dig at religion one way or another. Religion is belief, creed, and spirit, and is not a movement, a party, or a power so that we can say “the influence of religion.” However, if what is meant is the influence of the “religious scholars,” then the expression “clerics” does not exist in Islam, because, as I said earlier, every Muslim is a cleric. If such a class exists in our life, then it is a mistaken confusion of the concepts of the well-versed scholar, the Islamic caller, and the imam. The emergence of such a class that monopolizes religion is linked to ignorance and illiteracy among both the people and some callers equally. However, if we say the status of religion, then this is a more accurate expression, and we answer by saying that nothing can harm the status of religion, because God Almighty says, “We have, without doubt, sent down the Message; and we will assuredly guard it [Surah Al-Hijr, Verse 9].” Along history, religion has been exposed to confrontations, and we witnessed and lived through some of them; however this has not affected the foundations and essence of religion. I say that adopting a specific method does not necessarily mean abolishing the other ways; however, if one of the two paths is narrow-minded in reality, this will lead to conflict. There are the so-called extremist movements; the extremist movements are not all of the same direction, because they might be religious, they might be of different ideologies, they might be ethnic, or even secular.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Some Islamic thinkers consider that in order to achieve secularism in Islam there ought to be a separation of the religion and the priesthood from the state in all societies; in other words they consider that the Islamic model is based on secularism, i.e. on the absence of priesthood and its influence from the rest of the civilian institutions. What is your comment?

(Sheikh Hassoun) The vision of those you mentioned in your question stemmed from two issues: the first is the inevitability of atheism among the seculars, and the second is the inevitability of the conflict between religion and secularism. When they expressed these opinions they were influenced by the translation of the European renaissance when the church was neutralized. There are many differences between the two reality situations which are being compared. Islam is inseparable from the public life of the Muslims. We know that Islam has not been only a way of worship as much as it was a way of worshiping God and of living with the surrounding environment in its diversity; however, Islam has never at any time interfered in the structure of the political life in the countries that believe in it. If we noticed otherwise, this would be due to a group of individuals who cloaked their political ambitions in religious dress in an attempt to include the Shariaa into a collection of systems that act according to an agenda that serves their personal interests, or the interests of those behind this. Within these two groups we will find a mass of true Muslims who have been carried away by their sentiments. Therefore, Islam is a way of life, and has nothing to do with the civilian institutions except through its contribution to some charity aspects, and to moral and spiritual guidance; anything else is an illusion in the mind of the deluded. Once again, there are many religious people allover the world and of all religious denominations; have they been neutralized? Do we not see the world leaders practice their religious rites without anyone asking them to distance themselves from religion, while they are the ones who call for secularism!

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Do you think it is possible to unite the two religious and political institutions in any society?

(Sheikh Hassoun) Any society is based on pluralism. Pluralism is a form of wealth. Has not the United States and its progress been established on pluralism? Does not Europe live a state of pluralism and unity (gathering in a union)? The question as I understand it means that the religious authority could have political power. This could happen, and would be acceptable if those in power had awareness and impartiality; this situation also could be rejected. As I mentioned, there are a number of rulers in the world who have religious beliefs, and who perform the religious rites, but this has not made them impose their religious or sectarian opinion upon others; if this happened, as in some totalitarian tendencies, there would be a fire that is ready to erupt at any moment under such practice. Do you not think that the experience of most religious parties has been bitter? Do you not see that the Islamic religious parties on the arena adopt a pragmatic form, which changes according to the surrounding incidents and conditions? This is a new awareness.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Where are the areas of conflict between the group supporting partial secularism, the “Islamic left-wing,” and those who reject and fight any concept of secularism?

(Sheikh Hassoun) The conflict areas are represented by misunderstanding each other, and by not coming together to discuss and search for the points of agreement. This is where our greatest problem lies.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) In one of his books, “Islam and Secularism Face to Face,” Dr Al-Qaradawi rejected the presence of secularism in any Arab or Islamic country under any pretext or criterion, be they the criteria of religion, interests, democracy, or origin. What do you say about this?

(Sheikh Hassoun) The opinion of His Eminence Sheikh Al-Qaradawi represents a large section of Muslims. It is an opinion that is worthy of respect and appreciation. However, there is no human opinion that does not change or alter, and there is no human opinion over which people would not disagree. The problem would arise if the rejection were absolute. Let me put it in a different way: Are not there among the fanatical Muslims those who are more degenerate and more hostile than the seculars?

(Asharq Al-Awsat) How do you assess the current secular parties in the Arab and Gulf societies? Do you consider them as fanatics? What do they lack?

(Sheikh Hassoun) I am not a supporter of any party. However, experience has proved that the Arab partisan life, whatever the tendency of the party might be, needs continuous revision in order to benefit from their experiences, but this does not happen. As for being fanatics, this is natural, because as soon as the party is formed – any party – there will be an ideology. As for what they lack, this is a question that should be addressed to the leaders and followers of the parties; we are mere observers who consider the Arab partisan life not to be at the required level; I even fear that the masses will abandon them if they do not revise and develop themselves.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) How can we build bridges between heritage and modernism? Do you support the philosophical criticism of the Islamic history? What do you say about the old saying: Whoever adopts logic adopts atheism?

(Sheikh Hassoun) These are theoretical sayings that have no value in reality. In the past the Ulema used to have a stance against logic. As for the bridges of knowledge, they are built through communication, and through man’s realization of the importance of his past and present. At the same time, no one has the right to support or reject anything without evidence. However, what has been proved by the passage of time is that the Muslim philosophers in the early ages were builders of humanity, and were international intellectual and cultural leading examples. Do Not Wrong the Religious Institution.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Is it true that the individuals in the Muslim societies, particularly the intellectuals, have suffered in the past and continue to suffer because of the hegemony of the religious institution? Is it true that the history and present of the religious institution are arbitrary and packed with stories ranging between burning books, takfir, and killing? What do you think of all this?

(Sheikh Hassoun) Who said that the sectarian conflicts, or the conflicts hidden under a sectarian cloak, which take place today, are not carried out by seculars? If we agree with those who say that secularism is atheism, then it is assumed that no secular will participate in a sectarian war. In reality we also find that many of those who studied in the west and claimed to be seculars hastened to wear the sectarian dress. This makes us have a deeper understanding of the two issues of sectarianism and secularism; neither of them is the solution for the other, because man can change colors between these two sides. The way to get out of the sectarian crises lies in understanding the other, making him understand, and really believing in the right to disagree. The jurisprudence creeds have been established in order to serve the faith through the various understandings of the text, and not through exploiting religion to support the sect or sectarianism. Once again I stress that there is no religious institution in Islam; if there were an institution, its role would be to enlighten and not to increase ignorance. In the face of the practices of some individuals who act in the name of religion, I say that these individuals cannot under any circumstances be fit to rule according to Shariaa and Islam in particular. In order not to deviate from the general framework, I say: The incidents of takfir, killing, and similar deeds that fill the books of history have proved to the Muslim and Arab researchers, before any others, that these were incidents of political or sectarian killing, and it is unfair to attach these deeds to the faith or to the religious institution as you called it in the question.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Thus, do we need a state of religious neutrality?

(Sheikh Hassoun) I do not understand the meaning of religious neutrality. Religion is of the soul and of the spirit, and we cannot ask about the possibility of abandoning the soul or being neutral with it. I am one of those who consider that there is a tendency toward religion within any human being, even if he were an atheist. However, the dormant period of this tendency varies from one person to another. Environment and upbringing is what directs people toward the middle and toward moderation, as in real Islam, or toward fanaticism and the rejection of the other, as in the extremist movements in any religion.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) What do you think of the following pronouncement by one of the intellectuals, “Recent history has settled the issue of the relationship between the state and religion, or the issue of the secularism of politics; however, the irony lies in the piety of the society and the secularism of the state?”

(Sheikh Hassoun) This question comes within the framework of “whoever adopts logic adopts atheism.” I think that the issues are simpler than this sentence, because there are authorities and there are opposition groups, whether religious or non-religious. The religious person has the right to be a citizen who accepts or rejects, and no one has the right to tell him to isolate himself from the domain of the other; on the contrary, he has the right to play his complete role without guardianship, marginalization, or exclusion. As long as man is balanced in his values, free in his decision, and disciplined in his behavior, he will build and will not destroy, and he will unite and not divide; this is the true believer and true Muslim.