The Sunni world is realizing Wahhabism is anti-Islam: scholar
Interview by Catherine Shakdam
Following Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Hajj address this September, we asked Dr. John Andrew Morrow to comment on those very issues the Supreme Leader highlighted and very much denounced: Wahhabism, extremism, violence, radicalism …
If we are in fact to remain united as a religious community; if we are to hold true to our declaration of faith and testify to the wholeness and unity of Islam, in that it stands an expression of the Divine, courage, knowledge and wisdom will have to be our guide.
It is when the night is most dark that help will come to those who ask.
It is when hope has left our chest that our Prophet and his blessed progeny will act a righteous guidance, for on their lips the Word has endured unbroken, untarnished – as true as it was on the first day.
Dr. John Andrew Morrow was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, in 1971. Raised in a multilingual family, he lived in Montreal for ten years and in the Greater Toronto Area for another twenty. The product of a Catholic education, he completed his elementary school in French, his high school in English, and his university studies in English, French, and Spanish. He embraced Islam at the age of 16 after which he adopted the name Ilyas ‘Abd al-‘Alim Islam. After completing his Honors BA, MA, and PhD at the University of Toronto, where he acquired expertise in Hispanic, Native, and Islamic Studies, he pursued post-graduate studies in Arabic in Morocco and the United States. Besides his Western education, Dr. Morrow has completed the full cycle of traditional Islamic seminary studies both independently and at the hands of a series of Sunni, Shi’i, and Sufi scholars. Not only is he a senior scholar, academic, and professor, he is also a respected ‘alim holding the titles of ustadh, duktur, hakim, and shaykh. Dr. Morrow has spent over a decade in the United States working at various universities including Park University, Northern State University, Eastern New Mexico University, the University of Virginia, and Ivy Tech where he was unanimously appointed to the rank of Full Professor. One of his most noteworthy and memorable experiences involved working as a professor of advanced Spanish, Islamic culture, and world literature for the Institute for Shipboard Education’s Semester at Sea Program. Aside from his academic duties, Dr. John Andrew Morrow (Imam Ilyas Islam) is the Director of the Covenants Foundation, an organization dedicated to disseminating traditional, civilizational, Islam; promoting Islamic unity; protecting persecuted Christians; and improving relations between Muslims and members of other faiths. He regularly travels the world to promote peace and justice.
Q: In a recent address to the public Ayatollah Ali Khameini referenced the hajj and the brutalities many Muslims have had to endure by the hands of the Saudi regime. From a religious standpoint, how can we rationalize and comprehend Saudi Arabia’ stance?
Like a drug-addict who continues to inject himself with heroin despite the damage that it does to his health, his sustenance, and his family, the stance of certain countries is often difficult to comprehend. We seek logic where there is no logic. We search for stable patterns in the most mercurial of men. Politically-speaking, the political stances taken by Saudi Arabia resemble the erratic blood-pressure of a person in the process of having a heart attack or stroke. Rather than blame Iran for every evil on earth, the Saudis have no one to blame but themselves. They are their own worst enemies. They control their own destiny. They have the wealth and the means to restructure their society. They have the way; they are just lacking the will. Unless they act, however, in a manner that is sound, and unless they bring justice, equity, equality, tolerance, mercy, compassion, and love, they will, without a doubt, come to an untimely end. It is with concern that I call the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to ponder upon the following Qur’anic verse:
See they not how many a generation We destroyed before them, whom We had established in the earth more firmly than We have established you, and We shed on them abundant showers from the sky, and made the rivers flow beneath them. Yet we destroyed them for their sins, and created after them another generation. (6:6)
Q: Islam’s heritage as you already know remains under grave threat as radicals have called for the obliteration of shrines, holy sites and whatever tangible proofs we have of our world religious past – but what of Riyadh’s desire to restrict the universality of the hajj. Isn’t this in itself an act of destruction against Islam?
The custodians or occupiers of the two holy sites of Islam have been waging a war against sacred history for over two centuries. Despite isolated efforts to expose their crimes against Islamic culture, no collective and concerted effort has surfaced to channel the indignation and outrage of Muslims who have witnessed the systematic destruction of any and all relics related to Islam. In their so-called war against polytheism and innovation, the Saudi authorities have ransacked, destroyed, bull-dozed, and desecrated priceless archeological, historical, cultural, and religious sites and treasures. In fact, they do not even stop short of removing mountains! As Almighty Allah says in al-Qur’an al-Karim: “To respect the symbols of God is the sign of a pious heart” (22:32). O sons of Saud, have you no hearts?
Q: Islam’s very core principle is that of Justice. Justice of course implies accountability. In which case why has Saudi Arabia shunned away from its responsibilities towards pilgrims by refusing Iran’s calls to open a fact-finding mission as to identify the chain of events which led to the death of pilgrims last year?
Justice is indeed the essence of Islam. Without justice, there can be no peace. What the rulers of most Muslim nations do not comprehend is that one cannot control a population through repression. If people speak out, they suffocate them. If they speak out, they suffocate them more. So, either you suffocate the people to death or you create a deeply discontent populace that is seething to strangulate those who suffocate them. The only way to maintain power, long term, is by providing justice and with justice comes accountability: not only individual responsibility but governmental responsibility. Whether it is a corporation or a country, leaders bare ultimate responsibility and accountability. It takes a wise and humble leader to take the blame for what was done under his or her watch. It is critical, however, for individual and societal improvement. Justice also brings closure particularly when it is accompanied by compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. There is time for punishment and there is time for reconciliation.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as the hosts of the hajj, are ultimately responsible for the safety and well-being of its guests. If, by neglect, mismanagement, ineptitude or incompetence, they created conditions that led to the deaths of thousands of pilgrims, they are morally, ethically, and legally culpable. Since the victims in question were trampled and crushed to death, dismissing their demise as “the will of God” is callous. They did not die of natural causes. They died due to poor engineering and poor crowd management. If the Saudis came forward and said: “We apologize for the deaths of your loved ones. We accept responsibility for their untimely passing. We will compensate you for your losses. We will call upon a third, impartial, party, to conduct a thorough investigation. We will follow all recommendations to ensure that such a tragedy does not repeat itself. We beg the deceased, and their loves ones, for forgiveness,” then yes, by all means, we accept their apologies. It is the utter arrogance of the Saudis, their cover-up, and their refusal to accept responsibility, that is intolerable and undignified.
Q: Do you feel that there has been an attempt by Saudi Arabia to appropriate the hajj for political reasons, and that therefore the kingdom has betrayed the religious jewel it took upon itself to safeguard?
The Saudis have appropriated, not only the pilgrimage, but the entire Hijaz, and Arabia as a whole. What is more, they think that they have appropriated Islam. So, forget about them betraying the pilgrimage. That is just a single pillar. They have betrayed Islam as a whole: pillar by pillar and principle by principle. They have, for the past two centuries, engaged in false marketing on a planetary scale, fraudulently presenting Wahhabism and extremist Salafism as Sunnism. Although many Muslims went along for the ride (and the money), many of them have started to wake up for their long slumber and have started to speak out. The words and actions recently taken by al-Azhar are a veritable slap in the face to the Wahhabi establishment in Saudi Arabia. Nobody is asking the Saudis to convert to Shiism: we are simply asking them to embrace Sunnism.
Q: Islam speaks of unity and brotherhood; Islam speaks of compassion and social justice for all, regarding of one’s condition, or belief, and yet Saudi Arabia has fanned sectarianism, ethnocentrism and division among the Ummah to serve a very political agenda. Is the Islamic world being held ransom to the will of an elite?
Islam is tolerance exemplified. Islam is pluralism perfected. Islam is diversity with dignity. From day one, the Ummah of Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, was pluralistic. With the Covenant of Madinah, the Constitution of Islam, the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, created a Confederation of Believers. If the Covenant of Madinah is our Constitution, then the Covenants of the Prophet are our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These foundational civilizational documents enshrine the rights to life and liberty as well as freedom of conscience, belief, and religious practice. They protect people from religious coercion. They protect all religions, religious institutions, and religious leaders. They encourage the members of the Ummah, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, along with members of other faith communities, to love and respect one another. If the Ummah created by the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, looks like a utopia, the current system in most Muslim-majority nations, including Saudi Arabia, looks like a dystopia. However, before we build a “Prophetic State,” we need to rebuild the “Human State” for, verily, “Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves” (13:11).
Q: In his address Ayatollah Khameini details the many great crimes the house of Saud committed against both the Muslim ummah and the world – Wahhabism today has become a source of evil and one could argue apostasy, in that it negates God’s Words by redacting His Message. Isn’t it time today to face our responsibility and act as our Imams have done in the past before treachery and tyranny?
The external and internal enemies of Islam seek to stoke a sectarian war to weaken and destroy it from within. We need to be extremely careful when making calls for excommunication. It is one thing to say that Takfiris are apostates due to the fact that they call other Muslims apostates and kill them in defiance of right. However, traditional Sunnis are not Takfiris. We do not wish to paint all Saudis with the same brush. As for the Wahhabi, Takfiri who believe that they are the only “saved sect,” and that all other Muslims are infidels whose blood is halal, then, without a doubt, such terrorists are unbelievers. The term “apostate” would not even apply to them since, in the jurisprudential sense, apostasy means leaving Islam, and most the parties in question were never Muslims to begin with. So, yes, we must repudiate the Takfiris; however, at the same time, we must strengthen the solidarity between Sunnis and Shiites for the sake of Islamic unity and integrity.
As for acting like the Imams, peace be upon them, we must tread that path very carefully for none of us are divinely inspired. Far too often, Shiites believe that they should stand up like Imam Husayn, peace be upon him, and rise up in revolt against oppressive leaders. They claim that “Every day is ‘Ashura’ and every place in Karbala’” when, in reality, the Imams, peace be upon them, said that “There is no day like ‘Ashura’.” So, while there are times when we must be activists and follow the example of Imam Husayn, peace be upon him, there are times when we must be quietists and follow the examples of the third to eleventh Imams, peace be upon them all. There are times when we must make peace treaties like Imam al-Hasan, peace be upon him, and there are times when we must use both diplomacy and military action, as in the example of Imam ‘Ali, peace be upon him. And, finally, we should never forget the Master of all Masters, Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him and his progeny, who endured oppression for the first half of his mission in Makkah but who used both politics and physical force during the second half of his mission in Madinah. We must act, but always in the manner that does the most good but the least harm. Such is the Sunnah of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and his Household.
Q: Ayatollah Khameini has traditionally refrained from any unnecessary criticism towards heads of state or even individuals, and in that sense his critic of al-Saud must be understand as very serious indeed. Today the Supreme Leader has spoken as the guardian of Islam’s purest tradition by upholding the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and his blessed House. Isn’t it true that al-Saud Royals are actually calling for Muslims to turn away from the House of God to worship their own?
Imam Khamenei has been a moderating factor both domestically and regionally. He has attempted to balance the interests of the people with the injunctions of Islam. He has also worked hard to maintain the delicate balance between reformists, principialists, pragmatists, and neo-fundamentalists. Rather than incite revolution abroad, Iran, under Ayatollah Khameini, has been largely non-interventionist. A voice of reason in the region, the Islamic Republic has long adopted a conciliatory tone toward its largely Arab, Sunni, neighbors, calling them to peace, cooperation, and collaboration, rather than conflict. Diplomatic discourse, however, has its limits and, at times, leaders are required to dispense with subtlety, implication, and innuendo, and express their legitimate grievances in clear and unambiguous terms. As for the Saudis, their behavior over the past two-hundred years speaks for itself: some of them suffer from hub al-dunya, the love of this material world, at the expense of the eternal life of the hereafter, while others are infected with the disease of extremism and fanaticism.
Q: Saudi Arabia is capitalizing on the hajj, turning this sacred pilgrimage into a tool of oppression and religious coercion. Have we not failed to heed the warnings of our prophet and Imams when they warned us against the hypocrites?
Imam Khameini stated that no Iranians performed the pilgrimage to Makkah this year due to current circumstances and security concerns. If we combine this with the fact that the Saudis have returned to the Days of Ignorance, then we are truly revisiting a scene from early Islamic history. If we are followers of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, then we should follow his example. What did he do when Makkah was occupied by the enemies of Islam? He prevented his followers from performing the pilgrimage since the journey could result in the injury and death of many people. This is exactly what is happening today. We should therefore call upon all Muslims to boycott the pilgrimage to Makkah until the enemies of Islam are removed from the Hijaz.