Modern breakthrough

Written by Tomader Fateh | Published on: April 1, 2008

Image for representation purpose only
 
Female muftis in Damascus and Aleppo soon: Syria’s grand mufti speaks


The highest religious authority in Syria, Sheikh Ahmad Hassoun, spoke about the clash of civilizations, a theory promoted by American political scientist Samuel Huntington in 1996 and cited frequently after 9/11. The mufti believes that civilizations meet, they don’t clash. He recalls an abundance of examples from Islamic history where Muslims learnt from, then developed, the legacy of their predecessors. They were then passed on to Europe – in peace, with no war or so-called "clash". That, along with interfaith dialogue and coexistence, was the focal point of his interview with FORWARD.

Since assuming his new job as grand mufti of Syria, Sheikh Ahmad Hassoun has established himself as an impassioned orator, a skilled statesman and a highly knowledgeable scholar of Islam. He has dazzled Muslims and Christians alike with his character, style, wit and sharpness. He uses his sermons to encourage coexistence, encouraging interfaith dialogue not only in Syria but throughout the entire world. When asked by FORWARD what his single message would be to Muslims around the globe, the mufti quoted a phrase from the Koran (Verse 2, # 256): "There is no compulsion in religion, truth stands out from error."

He then referred to other parts of the Muslim book, saying that the prophet’s role was just to convey god’s message – not force it on others. Sheikh Hassoun added, "To me, that is the utmost level of tolerance," and pleaded, "Please… read the Koran – not only its letters but try to understand it through explanations of the prophet himself. He was a role model in tolerance and respect for Christians and Jews." The mufti reminded us that the Koran embraces both Christians and Jews, referring to them as "people of the book".

The grand mufti then addressed the issue of honour killings in Syria where no less than 200 women are annually murdered by their fathers, brothers or husbands if suspected of being in an illegal sexual relationship. To date, the law in Syria and elsewhere in the Muslim world protects men who commit these crimes. The mufti condemned these horrific killings, calling for the protection of women at risk and reform of legal codes so that they undeniably state that such a murder is un-Islamic. In collaboration with the ministry of justice, the mufti is working to brand all of these killings as a crime – punishable by the harshest penal codes in the Syrian legal system. "Nobody is permitted to commit a crime in the name of honour," he explained.

The mufti then explained how "unfortunate and regrettable" it was that religion is being used for political and economic reasons – not only in the Arab world but in the international community. Many governments around the world use religion to stir up popular passion and often create a state based on religious or ethnic foundations. This monopolization of religion, he added, caused many of the world’s deadliest wars in the 20th century, citing the usurpation of Palestine and the creation of Israel on the foundations of Zionism. He added that the fact that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently said Israel was a "Jewish country" is further proof that the world is heading towards chaos where governments use religion to falsify history and expel people from their native lands.

Clash of Civilizations

The world has changed over the last 20 years, acknowledged the mufti, stressing that it has indeed become "a global village". This doesn’t mean that civilizations must clash, he noted. On the contrary, "We are supposed to develop an understanding of one another so we can prevent the clash of civilizations." As far as he was concerned, civilizations do not clash – they meet. Throughout history, civilizations enriched one another, he said, citing the Muslims who borrowed and translated works from India, Greece and the Roman Empire. They built upon the grand medical and cultural achievements of all of these people, reined them, then passed them on to Europe via Cordoba, Spain. Honest western thinkers and philosophers, he added, cannot deny the impact of Islamic civilization on the European Renaissance.

The situation of today however is the exact opposite. Arabs and many Muslim countries are benefiting from the technological advancements seen and promoted in the West. They fall short of taking what is beneficial from these cultures however and applying them to their own societies. "They are unable to take, give and enjoy the diversity that god has created in us – to celebrate it rather than fight it." The mufti thinks that Muslims who emigrated to the West must learn from the different cultures around them and adopt what is suitable for them without losing their original identity. Islam does not contradict with western culture, he added, noting that there are many things that go hand in hand between the western world and Muhammad’s faith. Citing some examples, he mentioned customer service, business transactions, democracy, freedom of religion and respect for diversity.

The grand mufti then talked about Islamic laws that govern the personal status of women in Syria. Several civil laws have been reformed over the past 30 years to create gender equity. Many of these reforms have not been enforced however because of social convention. In 2003 the Syrian government ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) with reservations applied to Articles 2, 9(2), 15(4), 16(1)(2) and 29(1). The government found these articles to be incompatible with national laws and the Islamic code (Shariah).

Syria’s reservations predominantly concern a woman’s right to pass her nationality to her children, freedom of movement and of residence along with equal rights and responsibilities during marriage (and divorce). Syria’s reservations on Article 2 of the convention are most significant, as it is this article that establishes the purpose of the convention and commits the state to engage in efforts to eliminate discrimination against women. Syria has not yet ratified the Optional Protocol to CEDAW.

The grand mufti recommended removing some of the Syrian reservations on CEDAW because he found them (the CEDAW articles) to be very compatible with the Islamic Shariah. The reservations that were taken out pertain to the following provisions: Article 2 (condemning discrimination against women in all its forms and pursuing a policy of eliminating discrimination), as it is in harmony with Islamic Shariah; Article 9, Paragraph 2 (granting women equal rights with men with respect to the nationality of their children), as nationality is a human right; and Articles 15 (equality of men and women before the law) and 16 (eliminating discrimination against women in matters relating to marriage and family relations), with some remarks on different fatwas regarding these articles.

For religious empowerment of Syrian women

The grand mufti went on to describe the efforts made by Dar Al-Ifta (the only religious authority in Syria able to issue enforceable religious decrees) for the empowerment of Syrian women. He said that for the first time in Syria plans are underway to appoint two female muftis to work in Damascus and Aleppo. "Female muftis are not new to Islam," he said, referring to examples from Islamic history like Um al-Dardaa and Fatima al-Samarkandieh. This modern breakthrough – when passed – would reflect the highest level of commitment to change within the religious establishments of Syria. He commended the "role of religious leaders in promoting education and knowledge", highlighting their positive impact towards their role in decreasing illiteracy and promoting development.

Courtesy: Forward magazine; www.fw-magazine.com