The Fatwa of 38
by Stephen Schwartz
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Hercegovina -- Catholic opinion, and some elements among Muslims, remain atwitter with news that "38 leading Muslim scholars" have issued a collective letter addressed to Pope Benedict XVI, regarding his September 12 Regensburg lecture. The declaration now appears at thousands of web addresses, including an official Egyptian government site. The publication of the letter was, by all indications, a public-relations triumph for its originators.
Non-Muslims welcomed the "Fatwa of the 38," as I will refer to it, as a pathbreaking statement of moderation. [A "fatwa" is no more than a religious opinion, and fatwas are not limited to condemnations, much less death sentences.] Nevertheless, there are serious problems with the text.
First, the "Fatwa of the 38" merely restates arguments that were made by other Muslim intellectuals and serious experts on Islam immediately after the Regensburg lecture. My own commentary on the topic, which included most of the main points made by the 38, appeared on September 20 [see here]. As others including me had stated before them, the 38 noted that the 11th century Spanish Muslim theologian Ibn Hazm, to whom Benedict referred, was not a mainstream figure in Islamic thought, but an extreme fundamentalist whose views were eccentric in his time and have been rejected for centuries. The 38 advised the Muslims to conduct debate on these issues in a courteous manner, as commanded by Qur'an. But this also was nothing novel.
The sole real contribution of the 38 was emphasis on the hope that Benedict and his colleagues in the Vatican would read the works of the outstanding Persian theologian Al-Ghazali, who argued for a balance of faith and reason, and legitimated the mystical spirituality of Sufism. A more interesting essay on Benedict's lecture was published by the Bosnian theologian, translator, and Sufi scholar Rešid Hafizović, who recommended examination of the 12th century Spanish author Muhyid'din Ibn ul-Arabi, considered the supreme exemplar of Sufism, and a sincere lover of Jesus. Hafizovic's essay will soon, I hope, appear in English.
In sum, there is little to be enthused about in the text of the 38, and nothing at which a Christian or other non-Muslim could take offense. But the publicity coup had very little to do with sincere interfaith dialogue and very much to do with the bombastic pretensions of an American called Hamza Yusuf Hanson. Hanson is listed as 10th among the signatories, but he has taken the initiative in the media campaign for the fatwa, and it may be reasonably assumed that he had more than a bit to do with its composition.
Who is Hamza Yusuf Hanson? He was born Mark Hanson, of a Greek Orthodox mother and Catholic father, and became Muslim as a teenager. For many years, he was the most strident and offensive radical Muslim preacher on the West Coast, and among the most inflammatory in the U.S. In 1991 he proclaimed "Jihad is the Only Way." One of his more notable diatribes, delivered before an Islamist conclave in 1996, featured his fervent denunciation of America and democracy. Hanson expressed contempt for "the 'land of freedom,' and other clinched [sic] and meaningless banality [sic] about a country that has little to be proud of in its past and less to be proud of in the present. I am a citizen of this country not by choice but by birth. I reside in this country not by choice but by conviction in attempting to spread the message of Islam in this country. I became Muslim in part because I did not believe in the false gods of this society whether we call them Jesus or democracy or the Bill of Rights or any other element of this society that is held sacrosanct by the ill-informed peoples that make up this charade of a society... [F]undamentals of Islam are being compromised ... [T]here should be no voting or debate... [W]e have no room for ayes or nays."
On September 9, 2001, Hanson declared before a Muslim student meeting at UCLA, "this country is facing a very terrible fate. The reason for that is that this country stands condemned. It stands condemned like Europe stood condemned for what it did. . . . This country (America) unfortunately has a great, a great tribulation coming to it. And much of it is already here, yet people are too to illiterate to read the writing on the wall."
Two days later the world changed, and so, we are told, did Hamza Yusuf Hanson. Suddenly the demagogic speechifier was replaced by a spiritual Sufi who condemned terrorism. In one of the most absurd misadventures during the early U.S. response to 9/11, Hanson was invited to meet with President George W. Bush at the same time as federal investigators were looking into his September 9 remarks. Hanson has used this casual contact with the president, ever since, to present himself as an advisor to the administration - when not corrosively denouncing the same administration in the normal fashion of Islamist radicals.
The cleanup of Hamza Yusuf Hanson was furthered by fawning articles in The New York Times, in which he was portrayed as the very model of the moderate American Muslim. But the mask repeatedly slips; in 2004 at the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), an entity created by Saudi Arabia's official and radical Wahhabi sect, Hanson called on the audience to take pride in "failing the test" of demonstrating moderation.
Still, Hanson got another break when the British authorities wrong-headedly decided that the answer to pervasive radical ideology among UK Muslims was to foster an Islamic tour of the island, idiotically dubbed "the Radical Middle Way," with Hanson as a leading member of an itinerant preaching team. British media fell all over themselves to embrace him, including the venerable but fallible Economist. Lately he has been spotted in Saudi Arabia, that redoubt of extremism and intolerance, where he clearly has powerful friends.
Unfortunately, Hanson often faces probing questions from Muslims, who see him as a high-decibel bigot disguising himself as an apostle of moderation. It was therefore extremely useful for him and his cohort to pull off a public-relations splash like that involving the 38.
But are the 38 signatories on the fatwa to Benedict really who they seem to be? When one examines the rest of the signatures affixed to the document alongside Hanson's, the effort becomes suspect. The list begins with Hanson's crony in the "Radical Middle" roadshow, Abdallah ibn Bayyah, a Mauritanian who teaches in the Saudi kingdom. That's not a good sign, since open resistance to the subsidized Wahhabi clerics is still forbidden in most Saudi schools. (Hanson made clear to The New York Times, in an article published on June 16, that he declines to denounce Wahhabis or other extremists by name).
As we peruse the list, real ambiguities make their appearance. The names of several Balkan Muslim clerics, most of whom I know personally, have been included, but in a most peculiar manner. Signatory 4 is Mustafa Ceric, the leading Bosnian Muslim cleric. But he is identified as "shaykh" and "grand mufti" of Bosnia-Hercegovina. All the other Balkan clerics on the document, beginning with number 6, Nedzad Grabus, are also identified as "shaykhs" and "grand muftis." But Balkan Muslim clerics are never referred to as "shaykhs." In the Balkans, that term is used only by Sufi teachers. None of the Balkan clerics on the list are Sufi shaykhs.
Ceric, Grabus, and three others (Sefko Omerbasic from Croatia, number 26; Naim Trnava from Kosovo, number 33; Muamer Zukorlic, number 38) use the title "effendi" rather than "shaykh." As one leading Muslim intellectual in Sarajevo commented on reading this document, "they are anti-shaykhs!" Furthermore, none of them is "grand mufti." A mufti is a Muslim religious jurist. Bosnia-Hercegovina does not have a "grand mufti," and has not had one since the 19th century. Finally, some of their names are misspelled and geographical location confused.
Why the "resume padding," so to speak? Who would embellish a petition in such a manner? Any Muslim who has been in the Balkans for an afternoon should know that the Muslim clerics there are not called shaykhs. But the "inflation" of the signers' titles does not end with the Balkans. Signatory 36, Muhammad Sadiq Muhammad Yusuf, does use the title shaykh, but is incorrectly titled "Grand Mufti of Uzbekistan." Shaykh Muhammad Sadiq, whom I know and highly respect, has never been the grand mufti of Uzbekistan. That position is held by Usman Alemov, who succeeded Abdurrahman Bahromov two months ago. Shaykh Muhammad Sadiq was head of the Spiritual Department of Muslims in Central Asia and Kazakhstan at the end of Soviet rule, and was later mufti in Uzbekistan and Tadzhikistan . However, he has been a critic both of radical Islam and of the Uzbek regime, and has no official position.
The inflation of titles on this document illustrates a basic problem. The first is that aside from the Balkan clerics and a handful of similar figures, few of the 38 are leading Islamic theological personalities. So it was necessary to boost their status by giving some of them titles they do not seek and would not use.
Non-Muslims should be pleased to read articulate statements of the moderate Islamic position and, in particular, should assist clerics like those in the Balkans who have proven their commitment to common global values, notwithstanding war and terror. But non-Muslims should be wary of "sudden Sufis" like Hamza Yusuf Hanson, and other extremists claiming to be moderates. These types should cease to gain adulation by Western media and support by Western government or religious leaders.