At the end of August, 2016, Muslim scholars and religious leaders from across the world gathered in Grozny, Chechnya for a scholarly conference entitled “What is Sunni Islam?”
A day after the conference issued its final declarative statement, countless allegations were made about the origins and purpose of the conference and many of its participants were subject to vehement attacks and abuse on Arab social media channels. The conference was accused of everything from being a Russian and/or Iranian plot to define a new version of Islam, a declaration of war against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and an attempt to narrowly define Sunni Islam to the point it excludes those who do not fit its definition, to a fulfilment of the 2006 RAND report recommendation for the West to forge alliance with ’sufis’ among many other things.
I would like to take this opportunity to set the record straight on the Chechnya Conference and correct the rumours, fabrications and accusations that many media outlets in the East and West have propagated.
To understand why this conference took place in Chechnya we need to consider two things: first, that the Russian Federation is home to approximately 25 million Muslims who, unlike many other countries in the Western world, are native Russians, and second, Chechnya’s recent history.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Chechnya, like other republics, declared its independence. A brutal two-year conflict followed, ending with a peace treaty between the Russian government and the Chechen resistance.
Chechnya entered a difficult period following the conflict and had to contend with the issue of Arab foreign fighters who remained in the country despite the end of the war. Tensions intensified as the Arab fighters became more candid and insistent about their Takfirist ideology among a population for whom it was completely alien.
Three years later those Arab fighters, led by figures such as Ibn al-Khattab and aided by local Chechens under the leadership of Shamil Basayev, violated the treaty by invading Daghestan in pursuit of establishing a so-called Islamic state in the Caucasus. The treaty was withdrawn and Russian forces entered Chechnya once again.
The Mufti of Chechnya at the time, Shaykh Ahmad Kadyrov, issued a strong condemnation of the Daghestan invasion, stating that it will bring only further destruction to Chechnya and its people. He said that since Muslims broke the treaty, and as Muslims are bound by their religion to faithfully adhere to any treaties and pacts they enter into, the perpetrators were guilty of a transgression against Islamic law and must be brought to justice. In recognition of their support for the Chechen people during the first war, he offered the Arab insurgents amnesty if they surrendered their arms. If they did not agree, they would be asked to leave the country. His offer was refused. The Second Chechen war began and continued without mercy. Chechnya’s leaders and countless civilians were killed with over 98% of Grozny’s infrastructure obliterated.
Shaykh Ahmad Kadyrov and the scholars of Chechnya were united in their stance on the second Chechen war. They viewed the rebels, led by Ibn al-Khattab and Shamil Basayev, as engaging in an illegitimate cause driven by self-interest because resistance was no longer about the sovereignty and best-interest of the Chechen people. Thus, he intervened on behalf of his people and brought the war to an end through negotiating a political solution with the Russian Federation. He was assassinated by Takfirist rebels in 2004 after they passed a verdict that he was a traitor to Ahl al-Sunna (mainstream Sunni Islam) and an apostate. His successor was also assassinated.
Today’s Chechnya has progressed. Whatever grievances the international community may have with Ramzan Kadyrov, the country has witnessed a restoration of peace, order and stability. Houses, buildings, schools and mosques have been rebuilt, and the Chechen people live their lives with a normalcy that was unimaginable just a decade ago. This side to Chechnya leaves much to think about.
Despite the progress, Chechnya and the broader Caucasus region is still facing a real threat from Takfiri extremist groups. Over fifty senior scholars have been assassinated over the last fifteen years in Daghestan alone. The latest assassination took place only a few months ago. Scholars were killed either in the mosque, on their way to the mosque or returning from the mosque. During a visit to Chechnya last year, I met the father of Daghestan’s Mufti. He told me how his grandson was killed on the doorstep of his local mosque as he went to offer the Friday prayer. The reason for the killing? The Mufti represented a ‘misguided’ and ‘erroneous’ understanding of Islam and deserved to be excommunicated from the religion.
In a case from the second Chechen war, one of the most senior scholars of Chechnya, Shaykh Abdul-Wahid Bin Mud, was killed outside his home by a man named Abu al-Walid. Abu al-Walid used to be presented as one of the great Arab resistance fighters aiding the Chechen people. Abu al-Walid went to the home of Shaykh Abdul-Wahid, dragged him out and offered him an ultimatum: either he issues a fatwa legitimising the actions of Abu al-Walid’s faction as jihad, or he will be killed. Shaykh Abdul-Wahid defiantly refused, stating that he will not change his original fatwa condemning their illegitimate actions; and that they are not in a jihad because they are the ones who breached the peace treaty. He was shot eleven times at point-blank range. I visited Shaykh Abdul-Wahid’s home and saw the exact spot where they killed him, and met his wife who was forced to witness her husband’s grotesque murder.
The coherence of the Caucasus’ religious tradition is remarkable and, unfortunately, the target of extreme takfiri groups, who consider the indigenous Islamic tradition as erroneous and misguided. They justified targeted killings of traditional Sunni scholars under the pretext of ‘defending normative Sunni Islam (Ar: Ahl al-Sunna wa’l-Jama’a) from misguided scholars and erroneous understandings of the faith’. Scholars and religious leaders throughout the Caucasus were worried and concerned about the influence and spread of takfiri ideology. They wanted to address the issue and so they reached out to their peers from the Arab world with a proposal— convene a series of biennial scholarly conferences in Grozny with one clear purpose: reviving and reinvigorating the legacy of traditional Sunni scholarship as represented by the classical institutions of knowledge like Al-Azhar, Qarawiyyin and Zaitouna. We obliged and the first conference was convened in 2014. This year’s conference, the second in the series, has been two years in the making.
The theme for the Chechnya Conference was chosen based on current needs in the Caucasus region and an assessment of previous international conferences in the Muslim world
In the years following the 9/11 attacks, and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Muslim world experienced great turmoil. There was a dire need to create a united front against the internal sectarian and exclusionist divisions that were threatening to tear apart our communities and societies.
The Amman Message fulfilled this need. Led by King Hussein and Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan, the Amman Message answered the question ‘Who is a Muslim?’ by reaffirming the classical Sunni position that anyone who prays towards the qibla is a Muslim. It gave official recognition to the eight schools of sharia that Al-Azhar affirms as representative of the broader body of Muslims: the four Sunni schools, Ibadi, Jafari, Zaydi and Zahiri. The Amman Message was endorsed by the International Islamic Fiqh Academy at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and included in the Makkah Declaration that was led by the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
In 2007, following Pope Benedict’s unfortunate remarks in Regensburg, Germany, scholars and leaders from the Muslim world took the important step of creating ‘A Common Word’, an interreligious dialogue initiative to promote mutual respect and understanding among Muslim and Christian faith communities.
In the decade since the Amman Message, Makkah Declaration and A Common Word, a further, more specific danger has arisen: an ideology of takfir that shrouds itself in the garb of Ahl al-Sunna and lays [false] claim to this noble title. The proponents of this ideology have misled the faithful, governments and ordinary people into believing that they represent the mainstream Sunni tradition. Their espousal of this noble term has, with great regret, been used as a basis to discredit, marginalise, excommunicate and kill scholars and laity alike. The Chechen people bore witness to this before the Arabs.
Just as the entire Muslim community, Sunni and Shia alike, stood against division with the Amman Message, the Sunni scholarly community has an obligation before it today to answer the question “Who are the Ahl al-Sunna?” It is only by restoring and revivifying the classical technical definition of normative Sunni Islam that we can firmly and confidently reject the error of groups that falsely act in the noble name of Ahl al-Sunna and tarnish its honour. . The intent behind the Chechnya Conference was to address this question with the scholarly rigour it deserves.. Together, the Amman Message and the Chechnya Conference are complimentary initiatives, not conflictual. By reaffirming the classical definition of Ahl al-Sunna, the Chechnya conference declaration was reasserting the inclusivity of Sunni Islam that the Amman Message sought to uphold.
Some accused the conference of inciting further division and sectarianism by categorising Islam into ‘groups’ and ‘sects’ like the Ash’aris or Shafi’i’s, etc. . Indeed, a common retort to this categorisation is “rather than be Sunni or Shia, Hanafi or Shafi’i, Ashari or Athari, I will be a Muslim.”
This is a mistaken approach and a misunderstanding of the purpose behind the categorisation. The various schools within Sunni Islam do not represent groups, factions or sects. They represent a methodical code, a set of scholastic principles, a theory through which Islamic source texts are understood. Their attribution to the names of luminary scholars was merely functional, since the named scholar was the one who codified the method of a scholastic tradition that preceded him and so became the symbolic representation of that method. He did not invent nor innovate a new understanding.
The existence of plurality in our understandings of Iman, Islam and Ihsan, notwithstanding doctrinal and legal universals, expand the scope of the religion and manifest its mercy. In essence, the problem does not lie in there being a plurality of opinion, creed and understanding. Rather, it is our inability to embrace the inherent plurality of Islam that fosters divisiveness and discord.
The community of Sunni Islam represents the vast majority of Muslims in the world. Its scholars, institutions and seminaries have produced knowledge and advanced religious and intellectual sciences for over fourteen centuries. The sophisticated scholastic traditions that evolved over this time eventually settled in the form of four primary schools of law, two primary schools of doctrinal theology and the mainstream Islamic spiritual tradition. The academic term that defined this collective was Ahl al-Sunna wa’l Jam’a. In the face of new theological trends, innovations and influences, Ahl al-Sunna became the standard measure for understanding normative Islam.
For these reasons the conference theme was not, and could not be, exclusionist. This was one of the false allegations raised against the conference Neither the presentations, papers nor discussions involved any suggestion of creating a definition of Islam, or Sunni Islam, that restricts the inclusivity of the faith and excludes swathes of Muslims. I invite anyone to watch the videos of the conference’s proceedings, read its papers and contact attendees to verify this. The objective of the conference was simply to define Sunni Islam through the tripartite paradigm of the religion – faith (iman), law (islam), and spirituality (ihsan) – as has been understood and adopted by generations of Muslims from the beginning of Islam until the contemporary age. The conference was merely reaffirming definitions penned by earlier generations of Muslim scholars, such as al-Zabidi, al-Safarini,al-Amadi, al-Iji and others.
The classical definition of Sunni Islam reaffirmed in the Chechnya Conference is the most authoritative rejection of takfirism today. The reckless takfirism of extremist ideologies in the Muslim world are falsely justified through inaccurate interpretations of Islamic source texts, whereas the normative Islamic tradition, embodied in the Ahl al-Sunna, views takfir as a matter of grave consequence and has defined stringent criteria to guard against its exploitation. The Sunni doctrinal tradition affirms that ‘One who commits a sin is not excommunicated’ and ‘A person exits Islam only by negating the very statement he/she entered it by’.
The Ahl al-Hadith and Ahl al-Sunna
Ahl al-Hadith is a technical term used to denote the scholars of hadith science. In terms of doctrine, it came to denote the specialist scholars of hadith whose main adopted doctrinal position regarding God’s attributes was that of tafwīd, consignment. The term Athari is used interchangeably with Ahl al-Hadith.
It was argued that the final declaration of the conference deliberately excluded the Ahl al-Hadith and ceased to consider them among the broad corpus of the Ahl al-Sunna.
Let me state clearly that the conference did not cast the Ahl al-Hadith outside the fold of Ahl al-Sunna. Shaykh al-Azhar Ahmad al-Tayyab’s opening framework-setting speech very clearly stated the Ahl al-Hadith is within the fold of Ahl al-Sunna. The original final declaration did not mention Ahl al-Hadith because it was not considered technically precise nor useful. Historically, the Ahl al-Hadith were a community of Hadith scholars, experts in the science of hadith. They did not have a distinct doctrinal theological position that differed to the traditional Ash’ari or Maturidi schools. Upon close inspection of the doctrinal positions held by the community of Hadith scholars—the likes of al-Daraqutni, al-Hakim, al-Bayhaqi, al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Ibn Asakir, Ibn Salah, al-Nawawi, Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, al-Zabidi and others—it is clearly evident that one of two doctrinal positions on God’s attributes were upheld: ta’wīl or tafwīd (consignment). Both are established and official positions of the Ash’ari and Maturidi schools. Notably, there was a rare development in the Hanbali school of jurisprudence; a branch of hadith scholars inclined towards antropomorphism (tashbih) or corporealism (tajsim). However, this was wholly unrepresentative of the Ahl al-Hadith as a whole. Given this, at the time of drafting the final declaration, the scholars involved felt that there was no need to add the Ahl al-Hadith as another category since they did not represent a distinct or different theological position. More importantly, the declaration did not state that the creed of Ahl al-Hadith is not from the creed of the Ahl al-Sunna; this, instead, was merely assumed by the conference’s detractors.
Shaykh al-Azhar’s inclusion of the Ahl al-Hadith in his definition was deliberate and borrowed from classical definitons of the Ahl al-Sunna that sought to be descriptive as opposed to technical in their presentation. Hence, they would mention that Ahl al-Sunna ‘encompasses the scholars of hadith (Ahl al-Hadith), the scholars of Arabic language (Ahl al-Lugha), and grammar (Ahl al-Nahw) etc. The final declaration of the Chechnya Conference sought to present a technical, scholastic definition of Ahl al-Sunna as opposed to descriptive and populist, hence the reason for no mention of the Ahl al-Hadith. However, the application of this technique was unduly exploited by some as ‘evidence’ of a malicious campaign against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and ‘confirmation’ that the 200 scholars gathered in Grozny excluded the Ahl al-Hadith from the realm of Ahl al-Sunna. In light of these attempts to sow seeds of discord among the ranks of Muslim scholars and communities, the conference organisers, in the interest of preserving harmony and after consulting senior scholars, did not hesitate to issue a second draft of the declaration that included mention of the Ahl al-Hadith. Shaykh al-Azhar remarked that though the Ahl al-Hadith have no distinct creed than that of the Ashari and Maturidi schools, he included them in the opening speech to avoid giving detractors an opportunity to fan the flames of discord.
Falsifying a message or news with the intent of creating discord is not only dishonest and deceitful, but a direct violation of the Prophet Muhammad’s ethical teachings, who said, “A person who makes a false statement with malicious intent will not enter the Garden.”
Over 200 scholars from across the Caucasus region and the broader Muslim world attended the conference. The participants were highly representative of the plurality of thought that defines Sunni Islam.. This plurality is a distinguishing feature of the normative Islamic scholastic tradition and a strong demonstration of its universality.
Nevertheless, the Chechen context and the tumult that some countries in the Caucasus region are currently experiencing bridled the conference. The Muslims of the Caucasus region are adherents of traditional Sunni Islam and have been throughout their history—that is Shafi’i or Hanafi in jurisprudence, and Ash’ari in theology. This is the tradition that the scholars of the region are trained in. When local scholars were invited to attend the conference, this was the pool of scholars available for selection. Foreign scholars were selected in line with their expertise on topics that were designated for the various panels in the conference. It would have been particularly odd, and would have defeated the purpose of the conference, to have scholars attend who view the Ashari tradition as being a sect that is unrepresentative of Sunni Islamic theology, as is the view of adherents of contemporary Salafism.
One of the false allegations against the conference was that it excluded Saudi Arabia. The conference was accused of plotting against the Kingdom and working to the favour of its enemies at a time when the country and region are going through a very tumultuous period.
The conference did not invite states to participate—it invited scholars in their personal or institutional capacity to attend. Individual scholars from Saudi Arabia were part of the conference. The claim that Saudi Arabia, as a state, was not invited is as nonsensical as saying Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, or India were not invited. It is regretful that detractors resorted to framing the conference as an attempt to shun to Saudi Arabia, especially as the issue of states and the scholars that represent them was not discussed, at all, during the conference.
Secondly, there is no homogeneity in the rich scholarship that exists within the Saudi borders. There are ancient scholastic traditions that can be found in the Hijaz and Ahsa regions for example. Even within the dominant Salafi understanding, adherents are not a monolithic and differ. If the conference really did ostracise Saudi Arabia then it would have contradicted its own final declaration since Saudi scholarship itself embodies the diversity and plurality of Islamic thought and understanding.
Another fabrication that was raised against the conference was the alleged participation of Syria’s Grand Mufti, Shaykh Ahmad Hassoun. Shaykh Hassoun did not attend nor was an invitation extended to him. The invitations were at the discretion of the Chechen organisers and Shaykh Ahmad Hassoun did not figure. However, the issue is not with who came and who didn’t. The greater issue here is tarnishing a conference because of its participants and their personal political or social stances. This principle does not guide our decision making even if it is the measure by which others judge our endeavours. Holding a particular view on a current affairs does not preclude a person from speaking objectively on a theological topic nor does it invalidate their theological expertise. The conference was purposively and absolutely apolitical. The theme and conversational framework was explicitly theological, rooted in the Islamic scriptural sources, and not political beliefs and worldviews.
The conference was jointly organised by the Shaykh Ahmad Kaydrov Regional Charitable Fund and the Foundation for Chechen Islamic Culture and Education. The office of Chechnya’s president offered assistance with logistical arrangements.
The Mufti of Chechnya and Shaykh Adam Shahidov consulted me on the theme and I offered my support and confirmation of attendance. A formal request was made from the organising parties asking for Tabah Foundation’s assistance in communicating with and inviting Arab scholars.
The conference was fully funded by the organisers. Neither Tabah Foundation, the United Arab Emirates nor any other organisation, institution or country contributed financial support.
In closing, the landmark conference that was convened in Grozny, Chechnya, was another significant development in the attempt to restore balance to contemporary religious understandings and reinstate scholastic authority to the normative Islamic tradition. By endorsing classical definitions of Ahl al-Sunna we took a firm stand against sectarianism and Takfiri religious discourse. The noble intent of the conference endures and we expect many more to take place in the future.
In light of the vitriol against individual participants and the conference as a whole, and all the attempts to frame it as a ‘declaration of war’ against Salafism or Arab nation states, I extend this message to my brothers and sisters from across the spectrum of the Islamic da’wa field: are we all able to have conviction in the paths we have chosen without excluding each other from the fold of Islam and fostering discord amongst each other? Can we not sit together, in brotherhood and mutual respect, under the umbrella of our expansive faith, and come to an understanding whereby we delineate the exact points of debate and contention between us? Not to incite disharmony but to determine whether our areas of difference are from the roots (usul) of faith (iman) or its branches (furu’). Any attempt at creating harmony and unity will only stem from the point of acknowledging the validity of ikhtilaf. I believe that there are enough sincere servants among you for this to take place, and so I offer unreservedly the hand of accommodation and not the fist of separation.