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Friday, 14 December 2012 12:00

Hatem al-Haj : In building bridges and having dialogue with others, we are taught to be “diplomatic” and non-offensive Featured

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Born in Cairo, Dr Hatem al-Hajj currently resides in the United States of America where he is the Dean of College of Islamic Studies (English) -Mishkah University,USA. Dr Hatel al-Hajj participated in ‘Masterclass 2012’, a two-day workshop organised by the ‘Société Islamique de Maurice (SIM) at the University of Mauritius this week, together with Dr Hani Ramadan and Dr Nassima Prudor. News on Sunday asked Dr Hatem to make a review of Islam in today’s world of wars and turmoil and to teach us the way towards peaceful living in a multicultural society.
n  ‘Assalamu alaikum’ -you are participating at a ‘Masterclass’ on ‘Revisiting our Commitment to Allah’s Cause’, organised by the Islamic Society of Mauritius (SIM). What is your definition of ‘Revisiting?’ Does it mean that there is need for a ‘Reform’ in the administration, management and propagation of the Islamic faith?
Prophet Muhammad (blessings and peace be upon him) said, “In every century, Allah will commission, for this nation, those who will renew its religion.”

The renewal is by combating the innovations that get added to the religion, reviving the original concepts and practices that were abandoned, and also addressing issues that may change with the change of time and place, not because time and place are consequential factors in themselves, but because they are vehicles of variant conditions and circumstances that require variant forms of ijtihad (expert reasoning).” Also, when we talk about propagation, we are not only talking about the content to be conveyed, but the vehicles in which it will be conveyed and the techniques by which variant peoples of diversified backgrounds and orientations may be approached.

The world has changed immensely during the past centuries in terms of travel and technology. What are the tools needed for the propagation of Islam in our modern times?
It is true that the world changed a lot. However, we must remember that man doesn’t change like technology. The personal contact, charity and various acts of kindness, as well as role modelling, will continue to be the mainstay of propagation. In addition to that, we must reach out to the people through all available means, such the radio, TV, internet, social media, etc.

What is the relevance of the Qur’an in modern times? Is there any need for a revised version of the Qur’an to make it relevant to modern times and more knowledge-friendly?
The larger part of the teachings of the Quran is general principles. These principles provide guidelines of good conduct that are applicable in all times and places. In certain areas, the Qur'an provided specific details. It does this concerning matters which are deemed to be unchangeable. For example, the prayer is described in great detail in the Qur’an and Sunnah (traditions of the prophet), likewise, matters that pertain to the unseen, acts of worship, as well as the basic morals. When it comes to the laws of transactions, only general guidelines are provided, which will prevent people from deviation and injustice, and afford them a general road map to prosperity. Because of that, the Quran is flexible enough to suit all times and places.

You come from a country whose President bears a Muslim name. Is it a plus factor at making Islam more appealing to the Americans?
The name of the President may stir peoples’ interest in Islam. This is always welcome, because we believe that Islam will be able to speak for itself once the people embark on learning about it. Many of those people will be sincere, impartial, and unbiased enough to appreciate Islam’s beauty. Apart from that, I don’t believe the name would do much for us or Islam.

In Mauritius people cannot reconcile the image of Islam as a religion of peace when they see the images of war on television between Muslims in Islamic countries. What can you say to the Mauritian people to appease their uneasiness?
The main lands of Islam exist in the middle of the world. Those areas have always been crossroads and battlegrounds. The competing forces of the world have many strategic interests in that region, which makes it always newsworthy. There have been two hundred years of crusades, followed by centuries of colonialism. Where the colonial era ended, the regimes installed by the departing colonialpowers didn’t serve the interests of the peoples of those lands.

In addition to that, Palestine, the heart of the Muslim lands, which connects its Asian and African wings, was wrongfully seized and misappropriated by the European Jews, aided by the West. This created enormous resentment against those Western regimes amongst the Muslims. All of the above may explain part of the picture; however, it does not justify all of it. The Muslim nations went through periods of cultural stagnation and political corruption that resulted in those defeats and subsequently this mess and chaos.

I also believe that anyone who is aware of the history will realise that Muslims didn’t start the majority of wars in our contemporary times, or the recent or far past. If you go back a few decades, you will find that the two World Wars were not started by Muslims. The colonial wars prior to that were not started by Muslims. The 30 year-religious war in Europe was not started by Muslims. The acquisition of lands in the “new world” and the annihilation of their original inhabitants and enslavement of others were not done by Muslims.
It is hoped that once the people of these countries in the Middle East truly earn their independence and have righteous governance, there will be an end to most of the violence and manifestations of despair.

What is your assessment of the current instability prevailing in Egypt, your native land?
There may be a period of instability now because we, Egyptians, have not had a righteous system of governance for centuries, and didn’t freely rule ourselves, so it will take us time to make our own. However, I believe that the people of Egypt will find the light at the end of the tunnel – God willing.

As a jurist and expert in the Shari’a and the author of ‘A Manual for Gender Interactions’, what are your views on the participation of women in politics?
Women may participate in politics and other spheres of public life on the condition that no injustice will be done to their role as mothers. The entire community should help them do that. Our children deserve better than being raised by day care attendants or growing up on the streets. We must take heed of the rising prevalence of psychological ills amongst children of all ages. Our modern homes have no anchors.

I am a Ka’afir living in a multi-cultural and multi-religious country. What is your message to Mauritians of the Islamic faith in their daily interactions with other people in society?
If a group of Muslims worked with Christians, Jews, Hindus, or atheists on cleaning their neighbourhoods, saving the environment, protecting the oppressed, and standing for the poor, homeless, etc., that would be a virtuous alliance (hilf fuddol), just as the one Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was part of before Islam and said that he would be part of it after Islam.

We can disagree with someone’s religion or lifestyle and continue to be kind to them even if they were pagans. In fact, the following verse was in reference to the pagans:  “Allah forbiddeth you not those who warred not against you on account of religion and drove you not out from your homes, that ye should show them kindness and deal justly with them. Lo! Allah loveth the just dealers” (al-Mumtahanah: 8).

The Prophet said, “He who harms a peaceful/contracted non-Muslim Harms me; and he who Harms me Harms Allah.” [Al-Tabarani, with a chain that is sound/hassan] And he said, “He who Harms a peaceful/contracted non-Muslim, then I will be His opponent.” [al-Khateeb, with a chain that is sound/hassan] And said, “If someone entrusts a person with his life and then that person killed him, then I am clear of the killer even if the victim is a disbeliever.” [Reported by an-Nasa’ey and al-Bukhari in his book at-Tareekh and authenticated by al-Albani in Saheeh al-Jami’].

So, the “kill the infidels” practice is not ours and it is completely foreign to Islam.  Moreover, we were commanded to avoid stereotypes. Allah says, “Among the People of the Book are some who, if entrusted with a hoard of gold, will (readily) pay it back; others, who, if entrusted with a single silver coin, will not repay it unless thou constantly stoodest demanding, because, they say, "there is no call on us (to keep faith) with these ignorant (Pagans)." but they tell a lie against Allah, and (well) they know it.” (3:75).

By agreement, the many verses in the Quran that speak of showing kindness to people, particularly the kin and neighbours are not limited to Muslims only. “Worship Allah and associate nothing with Him, and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbour, the neighbour farther away, the companion at your side, the traveller, and those whom your right hands possess. Indeed Allah does not like those who are self-deluding and boastful.” (An-Nisa’: 36).

The Messenger of Allah showed us to respect the human soul when he stood during the funeral procession of a Jew until he was buried, and when he was alerted to it being the funeral of a Jew, he said, “Isn’t it a soul?” [Reported by Al-Bukhari and Muslim].

In building bridges and having dialogue with others, we are taught to be “diplomatic” and non-offensive, Allah says, “Revile not those unto whom they pray beside Allah lest they wrongfully revile Allah through ignorance. Thus unto every nation have We made their deed seem fair. Then unto their Lord is their return and He will tell them what they used to do.” (al-An'am: 108).

We were told to be gentle even with those who are sly and impolite. It was reported that when a group of Jews approached the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and greeted him with twisted pronunciation, and thus uttered “assam `Alaykum, O Muhammad!” (meaning “death and destruction come upon you”) instead of “as-salamu `alaykum”. `A'ishah heard them and responded by saying, ‘Assamu `Alaykum’ also, i.e. the curse and wrath of Allah!” The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) rebuked `A'ishah for what she had said. She told him, “Did you not hear what they said?” He said, “I did, and I responded by saying, ‘And upon you,’” (i.e., that death will come upon you as it will come upon me.) He went on to say, “O `A'ishah! Allah loves gentleness in all matters.” (Reported by Al-Bukhari and Muslim).

In addition, if talking to them is futile, and they start to transgress, Allah teaches us to stay away from the ignorant and avoid altercation with them,
  • "Hold to forgiveness; command what is right; but turn away from the ignorant". (7:199)
  • As for those who are kind to us, we should be more kind to them, and there are so many ways to build bridges with them without compromising our beliefs, such as:
  • Having interfaith dialogues to show them the beauty of Islam and develop a platform to work together on issues of common interest to humanity. Credible learned Muslims must conduct such activities.
  • Working with them on the common good of humanity, such as, previously mentioned, the protection of the environment, and standing for the unfortunate.
  • Being part of the civil society or serving on school or city boards may be more important than sending someone to the US congress.
  • Visiting their churches and inviting them to our masjid; for Omar visited the church in Jerusalem and the Prophet hosted the delegation of the Najranite Christians in his masjid.
  • Showing support to just causes worldwide, whether the involved parties are Muslims or non-Muslims.  
  • Inviting them to food and responding to their invitation.
  • Exchanging home visits with them as long as our religious preferences are respected.
  • Being good neighbours who look after their neighbours’ interests, and good co-workers as well as classmates.
  • Exchanging gifts.
  • Charity. Opening our food shelves to all people; having a drive to look after the homeless; visiting shelters and passing out supplies to their residents; visiting senior homes and inviting all residents to food and socialisation…etc.
  • There is so much that can be done to build such bridges and reach out to the non-Muslims who are good to us. After all, most of our ancestors converted to Islam because of the kind treatment they received from Muslims.

What have you learnt of Mauritians during your brief sojourn here?
I have come to learn that Mauritians of various religious backgrounds are tolerant by nature. This is a commendable quality. We humans need to move beyond working for peaceful coexistence between the various peoples to positive coexistence, where we cooperate on alleviating our sufferings and realising our common goals. Whenever we work together, we discover that we have an enormous wealth of shared values. We only need to put them to work.    





Indradev Curpen

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