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Comprehensive Intellectual Dialogue with the Yemeni Al-Masdar Newspaper

Whatever differences you may have with Habib Ali Al-Jifri, you cannot help but respect his opinion. With his answers, you can simply see that what he says, he has thought over for a long time. What attracts you towards him is the quintessence of long meditation. In our dialogue with him we concentrated on a number of topics from “religious discourse” and “dialogue with the other,” to politics, in addition to other topics. Our dear guest explained his ideas with profoundness and with a great deal of serenity which he involuntarily transmitted to us. As a result, many times the desire to ask him a question would die out to be replaced by a yearning to just listen.  For this reason, the reader will find that this dialogue seemed more like an intellectual discussion than a normal interview.

The burden of religious discourse in all of its manifestations, mostly inherited, is the fruit of the decline of civilization. This muddles the purpose of religion in the lives of people turning it into a mere servant to conflicts and agendas which do not serve people’s lives or people themselves. In your opinion, what is the essential purpose of religion and what is the path to purifying religious discourse from those [unwanted] things which have been attached to it?

All praise is due to God and may His blessings and greetings be bestowed on our liege-lord, Muhammad, and his family.  I agree with you on some of the things mentioned in the introduction before beginning to deal with the end result: There is an inherited burden in present day Islamic discourse. It is the fruit of a recent phase which we can link to the fall of the Uthmani caliphate and events which followed its fall. There were some problems before this event which affected Islamic discourse. Nevertheless, after this phase, Islamic discourse was subject to two problematic issues. The first one was changing the formation mechanism for the person who assumes Islamic discourse. This includes the transformation of his preparation as a person who assumes Islamic discourse from a path of reception linked to the chain of transmission [sanad], where we find interconnected a chain of transmission with a chain of knowledge and a chain of purification of the soul as well as its upbringing, and substituting it with academia as a means of studying the sacred sciences.
Academia is extremely beneficial as a methodology of modern research which human intellect has access to when it accompanies the original methodology [traditionally] acquired to prepare the person who assumes Islamic discourse. In the past no one would dare rise on the minbar [a pulpit in the mosque where the imam, leader of prayer, stands to deliver Friday sermons] except for he who was authorized to do so by a scholar. This scholar was already fully acquainted with the person he authorized, his knowledge, his ability to address people, his morality, his behavior, the purification of his heart in addition to his sincerity in this field. Nowadays, the situation of the person who uses Islamic discourse when speaking is somewhat chaotic.
The second problem which has affected Islamic discourse is the acute, rapid inclination towards a methodology which carries terminology that [tries to] abbreviate the wide understanding of Islamic discourse in content and in means of conveyance. This abbreviation is highlighted in a way that it makes any one person, of the many who assume Islamic discourse, feel as though they are the only true representative of Islam. As a result we have stepped towards emptying the content of Islamic discourse of its extremely high value: the value of diversity and the acceptance of multiple opinions and perspectives.
These two problematic issues afterwards have caused many problems which I previously mentioned in the conclusion present in the question. Regarding the answer to the conclusion which I illustrated with that introduction, it consists of the fact that this question needs the joining of efforts as well as the assumption of responsibility by each individual who represents a party in this issue. Scholars have the largest share of responsibility along with leaders, the media in the Islamic world, men who work in finances, business, the economy and the members of the academic community who teach and prepare the younger generations. These five groups I believe have a primary responsibility. Then there is a secondary responsibility which goes back to the listener who originally receives and is affected by the discourse. However, the listener, if he increases his awareness a bit, may be able to contribute towards straightening this discourse. This idea can be illustrated with the following example. If the listener observes that the person who is directing the discourse carries a tone of repression or of mobilizing one group against another within the Muslim community, then the listener should make the speaker aware in a polite manner that this is unacceptable and walk away without making a ruckus, yelling or causing problems. This way, a certain amount of correction sets in; and the person who expresses an Islamic discourse feels that if he swerves away from this path, he will not find anyone willing to listen to him. So we need an effort on both sides of the message. Nevertheless, the larger portion of responsibility falls on the scholars who should make sure the people follow this. By the same token, the Prophet, divine prayers and greetings upon him, said: “Verily, God does not rip knowledge away from the servants. He takes knowledge away by taking away the scholars who possess it. So when there are no scholars left, the people turn fools into their leaders. They will give fatwas [rulings] with no knowledge. They will become deviated while deviating others.” Sahih Al-Bukhari, Book of Knowledge, Number 100.
These indicators mentioned by the Prophet, divine prayers and greetings upon him and his family, make us feel the importance of taking another look at who exactly conveys Islamic discourse. There is also another issue: the creation of awareness towards respecting the concept of “specialization” within the arena of Islamic discourse. Experts in hadeeth, in the past, would never dare give a fatwa in fiqh except if the expert in hadeeth became specialized in fiqh. Then he would be an expert in both hadeeth and fiqh. The expert in “ilmu al-kalam” [the science of theology] and “ilmu al-tawheed” [the science of the uniqueness of God] would not dare transform the result of his conclusions into rulings to be announced to people. The reason was that he saw that there was already a specialist in the field responsible for this task.
Nowadays, anybody who is specialized in one of these fields attributes to himself the right to speak as if he were also a specialist in all other fields. This situation has undermined the respect towards the concept of specialization within Islamic discourse. So it is important to stress that the revival of the path of spiritual purification and the kindling of sincerity within the hearts of those who serve this discourse will have a great impact. Finally, the entire answer may be summarized in two points. The first point is to give authority to those who it belongs to. The second point is to expand the field for institutionalized action based on serving discourse and not taking advantage of it.Religious

discourse has tarnished the function of religion in human lives. In your opinion, what is the function of religion in the lives of people?

The function of religion means that faith is a lamp in our lives which illuminates the path for people. It is also a factor which pushes people towards this path. Religion has two fundamentals. The first one is connected to reason, a path of clarification through which religion clarifies to people the road their lives take and where they will return. The second fundamental is the creation of a motive within people to encourage them to act in conformity with the insight their intellect provides them with. Intellect addresses the heart, the soul and the ego which illustrate the motive for action and progress. It intellectually reveals to people their path in all aspects of their lives.

Can we say that religion is a political system of a nation?

Religion is bigger than the term “political system of a nation.” One of the things through which we sometimes do not realize we are unfair to religion is when we reduce it to the concept of political system. We are afraid to separate religion from politics so we have transformed religion into a part of politics without understanding we should have done the opposite.
Religion is included in those issues linked to the nation. It addresses its rulers on how a nation should work. However, it should not be transformed into a means through which an authority, in the name of religion, is implemented for other purposes.
Religion has directions, guidelines and instructions linked to the economy. However, religion should not be transformed into something through which transactions are carried out in the economic arena. Religion has an essential role in pushing a Muslim towards the field of science, applied and experimental studies while discovering the symbols of life and the world we live in. Nevertheless, religion in itself should not become a tool used for this objective. On the contrary, religion becomes a motive which pushes people so they learn, understand and know life in a way it becomes beneficial for others and not prejudicial.
Religion is what gave us the greatest scientific inventors during the age of Islamic renaissance. It protected these people so that the fruit of their civilization would not be a subject easy to assimilate for other people to change it into a means of corrupting the Earth just as we are witness to in today’s civilization.

Is the present pluralism in Islamic legal schools a virtue or a problem? In the light of what we see happening in more than one place in the Islamic world, pluralism in Muslim society has become a source of internal fighting and conflict.

In Yemen there have never been any battles due to the question of differences between legal schools. Our problem is radicalism and not legal schools. Pluralism in legal schools is one of God’s greatest blessings. … The Truth [one of the names of God], Great and Exalted is He, is capable of making His message, which comes in the absolutely authentic texts, a message which has no room for dissent.
However, due to wisdom He wanted, He made the text not only on many occasions but on the majority of occasions carry more than one lecture in order to allow room for pluralism in ijtihad [the endeavor of a Moslem scholar to derive a rule of divine law from the Koran and Hadith without relying on the views of other scholars] to allow the intellect of human beings, their circumstances and the differences in time and place to assimilate the conclusions or ijtihad. So the problem is not in the pluralism in jurisprudence, which is one of God’s blessings. It is in how people see ijtihad and pluralism in legal schools, especially in contemporary times.
The problem is when some people come and attribute the sacred character of the text to their understanding of the text. The text is sacred as it is infallible. However, the understanding of a text by some people and their Ijtihad in how they understand it, along with the conclusions they extract from the text, does not give the text its infallibility. So when some people started to attribute to their Ijtihad, in the comprehension of the texts, the sanctity of the texts themselves and edict rulings to people on that basis, this is when these problems emerged. When personal, political, nationalistic or self whims and interests began to influence religious discourse, there was no longer room for disagreement. When the spirit of self-purification weakened, the same spirit which provides people with insight and understanding of the elevated Quranic Sunnah [prophetic tradition], the Sunnah of self criticism – and I am not excluding myself from this -, it became easy for a number of loud mouths who participate in Islamic discourse with mechanisms of transmission through institutions and media, to attack each other and turn the huge blessing of pluralism and different legal schools into the malice of strife and dispute.
In the past, the Ummah [nation of Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him] rested on cultivated, established and deep-rooted legal schools as was the case of the four schools we have, the school of the Sunnis, the school of our brothers the Zaydis, the school of our brothers, the Twelve Imams, and the school of our brothers, the Ibadis. The relationship in which the wealth of knowledge accumulated in each one of these schools, little by little enabled them to assimilate this pluralism. In Yemen for more than one thousand years, Sunnis and Zaydis have been living together in peace. We never heard of any battles waged in the sphere of religion due to differences in legal schools. There have been political battles but never has there been a battle in Yemen because of differences between legal schools. On the contrary, peaceful coexistence has reigned marvelously. The problem began when new religious invitations appeared with no connection to the deep rooted schools, each one with an accumulation of civilization, knowledge and culture long established in the Ummah. These new religious invitations, instead of being an addition of renewal to Ijtihad, emerged with an ax to destroy the Ijtihad of those before us trying to take its place. They try to exclude anyone who disagrees with them. This is the real problem and not the differences between legal schools.

In other words, can we say that the problem consist of “trying to exclude the other” in addition to tribalism? Can we also say the problem is not innovation in the sense of being open to new ideas as this stance is present everywhere even in Yemen?

The problem is in legal school – tribalism and in trying to exclude the other in addition to a third problem which is the chaos which has taken over Islamic discourse. The problem is not the existence of a new mujtahid [a person who practices ijtihad, a legalist whose decisions in legal questions are based on his own understanding of the Quran and Sunnah]. The problem is a person who claims to be a mujtahid and is not prepared to do so. The problem is a person who enters the arena of Islamic discourse and he is not prepared to assume such a role. This is just like a person who wants to open a medical clinic and he has not studied medicine or he did not complete his studies and failed. He was able to deal with the psychology of a patient and so was given a scalpel. This is without a doubt a crime.
In our religion there is no clergy. There is no control over Islamic discourse authority wise. However, there is respect towards specialization. People, who have not been able to learn the foundations of the Arabic language, Fiqh [jurisprudence], or even the discipline of logic, suddenly jump to the level of mujtahid [legalist]. They begin to claim Al-Shafi’i, Malik, Zayd and Abdu Al-Hadi made mistakes and they say they have a new and wider vision.
Here we tell them to take it easy. We want you to have a wide vision and the door of Ijtihad is open. No one can close it but [before you embark on it] prepare for it and, then, be our guest. Among the signs of preparation is understanding the meaning of respect towards those who preceded you in this field. You may differ with the imams who preceded you but in what kind of way? This is like a child who comes along – and excuse me for using this expression – and enters the field of Islamic discourse. He walks up to the minbar [the place in the mosque the imam gives the Friday sermon] and pulverizes Al-Shafi’i, Malik, Abu Hanifa, Ahmad, Zayd and Al-Hadi along with great scholars from within the legal schools like Al-Nawawi, Ibn Hajr Al-Asqalani. He calls this one a fool and speaks against the other. Here, the issue becomes a type of stupidity with the [false] image of renewal.

By the term “pulverize” you mean “disdain.”

I mean “disdain” and judging what those imams have concluded as outside of religion. We have mentioned two important points: tribalism and removal of the other. I will add a third point: chaos in the concept of renewal. We hear of a people who want to bring something new, something attracts the attention of others in order to create from it the image of a developed or modern Islamic personality or someone with a new, broad vision, who seamlessly wants to erase something agreed upon by Muslim scholars. I am not referring to the Ijtihad of Shafi’i or Malik but something agreed upon by the imams of the Muslims, the predecessors [Al-Salaf, or first generations of Muslims] and the followers [Al-Khalaf, or later generations of brilliant Muslim scholars]. They want to do this under the pretext that they have a new vision in Islamic discourse. The issue sparks doubt and is one that needs contemplation and discernment.
I repeat that there are new factors which have entered regarding issues, in the past, the concepts of which were part of the reason behind the ruling. The ruling in sacred law, in any specific issue, has become such and such because the prevailing understanding at the time is that the reason behind it is such and such. Subsequently, if it were to be confirmed later on, with the progress of human awareness in addition to the advances reached by humanity in scientific revelations, that the reason behind a legal ruling was not valid then I would not follow it. I would not follow it even if it were a ruling given by Al-Shafi’i, Ahmad, Malik, Abu Hanifa or Zayd. However, if the question was not based originally on varying factors and not on things that change with time and place, then who is the person who that wants to destroy the Ijtihad of those who proceeded him in something that has not changed? We consider this the core of the problem in Islamic discourse.

Specialization in medicine and engineering is based on foundations which are recognized internationally. So, based on studies which range from four to six years, the person becomes specialized. However, in the field of Islam, there are no internationally recognized foundations which everyone is familiar with.

On the contrary, there are foundations. At the beginning of our conversation, I reminded you that substituting the traditional methodology of Islamic education with an academic study of Islamic law in transmitting, receiving and teaching Islam is the cause of the disaster we are talking about. People no longer have a way of knowing whether a person is prepared or not. So whoever has a doctorate is considered prepared even if he is ignorant. The same goes for someone who is eloquent like the person who is speaking to you right now. He speaks well and appears on satellite TV channels and is considered a reference in everything. This is a mistake.
In the past, there was a superior and clear methodology and, unfortunately, it is taught in European universities. It is the basis of doctoral thesis which research the Maghribi methodological school in teaching sacred law and preparing scholars, the traditional Levantine school, the Yemeni schools – and not Yemeni school – such as the school of Sana’a and Dhamar, the school of Hadramaut, the school of Zabid, the Indian school in the preparation of Hadeeth scholars, the Iraqi methodological school in the preparation of scholars and the Azhar methodology with the same objective.
Now, there are higher studies in specialized faculties in the study of pedagogical methodologies, at a time when there is a lack of, in some of these places I have mentioned, the aforementioned methodologies which have been substituted with the imported academic methodology. This academic methodology has not been imported as a complementary methodology, which I welcome very much and see as beneficial, but rather as a substitute of the methodology of Islamic discourse defined by those who are prepared.

Is there a movement in the field which aspires to unite Islamic discourse or is it practically speaking difficult to implement?

I do not believe we need to unify Islamic discourse but I do believe there is a need to complete it. The talk about unifying Islamic discourse is similar to the talk about that which is impossible practically speaking. Additionally, I do not see that unifying Islamic discourse will benefit religion. We want difference in opinion to be amazing. Additionally, we want pluralism to be refined. However, there should be work towards extending Islamic discourse from that phase of detested pluralism based on opposition and removal of the other to the phase of a pluralism that is complementary.

There are many new preachers and Islamists who call for dialogue with the West. In my opinion these are attempts to shine and deny accusations of extremism, terrorism and inflexibility. So why is there no one among those preachers who adopts the call to Islamic-Islamic dialogue? Until now there are no calls for an Islamic-Islamic dialogue between the Islamic schools, sects and groups. Why don’t we see debates of knowledge, deep rooted, documented on an international scale between different religious groups?

With all my respect to your point of view regarding the motive that has carried some contemporary preachers to the point of moving towards dialogue with the West, except that I maintain this point of view as well as the terminology of the new preachers. I will say that there are two orders issued by God, Great and Glorious is He, among the orders given. There is an order linked to the Muslims which stipulates: “And hold fast, all together, by the rope which Allah (stretches out for you), and be not divided among yourselves” There is another order which is linked to the universality of this religion: “Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious,” “And dispute ye not with the People of the Book, except with means better (than mere disputation),” and “Say: “O People of the Book! come to common terms as between us and you.”
It is not feasible for me to neglect one thing in benefit of another. When I say it is not feasible for me to address the world or dialogue with it so it understands my religion and my culture and so that I understand its culture and arrive with the reasonable people among them to what is mutually beneficial for humanity and Muslims in order to fix the internal affairs of Muslims, this is not speaking pragmatically. A pragmatic way of speaking is saying: Yes, we back worldwide dialogue which begins with a number of great preachers and scholars today speaking with the other. Along with the same successful, refined, fruitful dialogue in our time with the other, we demand an internal dialogue with ourselves with the same objective.
Regarding dialogue with the other, thank God, over the last two years there have been excellent results. It is not the fault of this dialogue that Arab media has disregarded or tarnished it insincerely, concealing from the reader or listener the fruits reaped by those who conduct this dialogue for the benefit of Islamic discourse and humanity. Nevertheless, the fact is there are wonderful results reaped from behind this which are present, authenticated and lasting.  I do not see any praise for the preachers who do this. On the contrary, I see their image tarnished due to the presence of another category among our brothers, the preachers who practice what they suitably deem as their right by appropriating for themselves to preach to everyday people. I do not want to accuse anyone here but I want to say that there is a sort of breach of the principle of honesty by some preachers who reject the concept of dialogue when discussing this issue. That right is theirs as we speak about dialogue. You have the right to reject dialogue and to not practice it. But do not allow that stance to push you to behave unjustly towards your brother, treating him unfairly and attributing to him what he has not said or tarnishing his image mistakenly or in an insincere way.
Regarding the question of internal dialogue in different Islamic groups and tendencies, there are attempts, old and new, towards this. The biggest impediment we find in this issue is that some people who stand out in some Islamic groups do not deem this issue necessary or they see no benefit in it. Additionally, just as there are those who do not see the benefit in addressing the other, there are those who do not see it in internal dialogue and they deem it better to continue the path of excluding the other. This does not excuse those preachers from taking this path.
There are steps which signal the beginning of this issue. There is contact between a number of important Muslim preachers today. The question needs time before the issue reaches a phase where benefits can be observed. Not only does it need time but it also needs the union of the efforts of our young people working in the media. We also need their help in conveying the principle of accepting internal pluralism as well as its comprehension and adoption. This includes rejecting the practice of those who incite one group against another. So many things depend on your role in this issue. Nevertheless, I am happy to tell you there are steps being taken and you will soon hear, God willing, at the end of this year or the beginning of next, good news regarding this topic.
There has also been an initiative titled “Kalimatin Sawaa’ ”[Common Terms] directed to Christian leaders worldwide which has had more positive results than we expected.  Now, there is also a tendency to form another initiative titled: “Do not Separate” just as big as the previous one with great scholars and preachers addressing other Muslims.

In relation to the letter sent to the Christians, there is a letter which was sent to the pope which corrects the mistakes and slip ups which were in his famous speech. Was this letter the result of his apology?

The letter was not the result of an apology or the acceptance of an apology because he [the Pope] did not apologize. It was the result of the regret he manifested but it included, and this is the most important thing, a refined style in the correction of the mistakes made while maintaining respect towards the speech. Our website hastened to deny the news that an apology was accepted as some media outlets announced that 38 Muslim preachers and scholars had accepted an apology from the pope, something which made some preachers opposed to the idea of dialogue upset almost causing an internal conflict. They rushed to attack this letter before making sure, may God guide them. They tried to reject internally among the ranks of Muslims the principle of addressing others and having a dialogue with them. This is what pushed us to quickly deny that in the letter there was an acceptance of an apology as the pope did not apologize.
However, the initiative “Kalimatin Sawaa’ ”[Common Terms] is a different letter. It was created and sent to Christian leaders all over the world including the pope. We understand the pope is one of the most important Christian leaders in the world but there are also protestants, orthodox and some Catholics who disagree with him. So this letter was directed to 27 of the most important Christian leaders all over the world. In addition to the first 38 signatories, another 138 signed the letter. Endorsements later followed reaching around five hundred scholars up to now.
This letter included a discourse the contents of which explains that you and I represent 55% of the Earth’s population and that without sincere coexistence between us, there will be no peace. It concentrated on common ground based on two principles: The first principle is love for God, the One Divinity. The second principle is love for thy neighbor and treating him well. We live near each other on this Earth. In the letter, there were verses from the Quran which backed these two principles as well as texts from the Gospel which did not differ with the Quranic verses.
Praise be to God, really excellent reactions came from the majority of the world’s Christian leaders including Protestants, Orthodox and some Catholics. By the same token, 300 Christian authorities mostly from the United States of America including priests, Church authorities, academic theologians and leaders of large Christian institutions sent a letter welcoming . It included in the beginning a recognition of mistakes and sins committed by Christians towards Muslims like the crusades and excesses in the war against terror. They apologized for all of that asking for forgiveness and the turning over of a new page with the Muslims. This initiative is historical. Professor Miroslav Volf president of the Religion & Cultural Center at the well-known Yale University, one of the great Protestant theologians of the United States, who supervised that answer to our letter, told me he had eliminated some of the texts he taught during the semester and replaced them with the explanation of the text of the letter sent by Muslim scholars. So who can say that initiatives like these are fruitless and are merely trying to please others?

In the framework of dialogue with the other, as preachers don’t you face the problem that your lives do not reflect the greatness of this religion? If this is the case, how do you convince the other about something that has no effect on your lives as a society?

Excellent question. However, this dialogue does not include a dialogue in belief doctrine or theology nor in sacred legislation. Dialogue is based on the principle that you and I are different and, despite this difference, we can learn to live with each other. Then, after this, there is a phase of dialogue concerning legislation as well as dialogue in belief doctrine in closed sessions. Nevertheless, today we are in need of serious dialogue to solve the dilemma that we are in one global village where we hurt and kill one another. How can we live properly in a civilized manner in this way?
Just as the radical behavior of many Muslims does not represent the civilized characteristics we are talking about, many Christians do not illustrate this image either. But for someone who can observe this reality from a different perspective, he may be able to say that we [as Muslims] have our radicals and they [as Christians] have their radicals with the difference that our radicals are marginalized and hidden where their radicals are out in the open in the White House. Our radicals are being pursued by our leaders where their radicals are in leadership positions. While our radicals – like they say – have destroyed two towers killing three thousand people, their radicals have destroyed two nations killing 300 thousand.
There are radicals in the Christian world who have criticized the positive reactions to “Kalimatin Sawaa’” [Common Terms] accusing the people who reacted positively of being criminals and traitors just like what radical Muslims did to us. The good thing that has come out of this is that the reasonable people of both sides have begun to speak to each other. In the past, it was the radicals who represented both sides with the reigns of conflict in their hands while leading the world to conflict.

Then “dialogue” is not the call to Islam as a religion but rather a call to coexist peacefully within the framework of different religions.

I do not see the call to peaceful coexistence within the framework of the plurality of tendencies or religions but rather as a part of a refined way of calling people to Islam. Furthermore, I believe that some Christians see coexistence as a refined means of calling people to Christianity. We will not lie to each other: There is no sincere Muslim who as a principle d

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