On Monday, January 5, 2016, Mohamed Ghilan interviewed Shaykh Sa’eed Fodeh to get his input on a couple of issues related to Islamic theology. Shaykh Fodeh is arguably the most prominent Muslim theologian in the Ash’ari School living today and a master of the Kalam tradition, having authored an extensive list of over 80 works in the discipline. He lives in Amman, Jordan.
This conversation is divided into two parts. Part one is on the divisions within the Muslim community in America, and more generally in the West, along theological fault lines, where the camp of Salafis under the banner of Imam Ibn Taymiyyah face off against the camp of Traditionalists under the banner of Imam Al Ghazali. Part two is a discussion on the relationship between rationalism and empiricism and how this relates to Islam, science and atheism. The following is an English translation of part one of their conversation:
Mohamed Ghilan: We have a situation in the West, where the Muslim community tends to divide within itself into different camps. The most prominent two camps today are those who refer to themselves as Salafis vs. those who refer to themselves as Traditional Sunnis or Ash’aris/Maturidis. Unfortunately, there are members within each camp who are quite vocal in denouncing the opposing side, and some go quite far in their attacks. Many of the issues being raised are historical in nature and don’t have much practical relevance for Muslims living today. In fact, what makes this more problematic is the current rise of Islamophobia, exemplified by phenomena such as the rise of Trump and his supporters. What are your thoughts on this matter?
Shaykh Sa'eed Fodah: I will address this as briefly and as direct as possible. Differences among Muslims will never cease, regardless of whether they are in America, Europe, here in Jordan, or anywhere else in the world. This was the case historically from the very beginning, has continued to be so until today, and will be as such until the Day of Judgment. However, having said this, it’s imperative upon Muslims to respect the ones whom they differ with. If we’re commanded in the Quran to respect those who don’t share our belief in Islam, what does that say about how we should treat our co-religionists when we differ – “and argue with them in the best of manners.” [16:125]
Our problem as Muslims is that many of us go beyond the acceptable limits when we debate each other, and many start accusing one another of even destroying the religion. In reality, most of those who engage in these arguments and conflicts are ignoramuses with very limited intelligence. I actually blame the scholars and people of knowledge who haven’t shown by example how to debate and argue in the best of manners. When I say manners, I don’t mean being nice and cordial. We’re actually really good at faking that. The manners that scholars mention in their texts are not about one being pleasant. Rather, the etiquettes of disagreement (adab al-ikhtilaf) stated by the scholars of theology mean listening to and understanding the opposing side’s position in the way they intended it, not in the way I project onto it. That requires listening, clarification, and confirmation before responding. I don’t believe that our problem is in having differences or disputations. Our real problem is in our lack of etiquettes of disagreement.
There is a difference between being a listener and being a speaker. Take a look at public debates held between theologians and atheists. Do you see the whole crowd arguing with each other? Or do you see the scholars debating and the crowd listening? Our issue is that we fail to recognize who should be speaking and who should be listening. We seem to have trouble discerning who has the right to debate. We have many pretenders; hitching themselves onto the ladder of scholars to get platforms they have no business being on. One has to spend a lot of time sitting quietly and learning before getting the right to speak. As soon as you see people hurling insults and accusations against the ones they differ with, know that you’re in the presence of ignorant fools.
People who are genuinely seeking knowledge and truth quietly discuss the matters under question. Even if they depart at the end with disagreements, they do so being closer to one another than they were before they started.
Finally, we have to remember that we call people to Islam in a general way. I myself am an Ash’ari, and I support the Ash’ari School and believe it to be the most authentic path of Sunni Islam. However, I don’t call people to the Ash’ari School. I call people to Islam. What I represent is a school, a way of understanding Islam. But I don’t claim that it’s the only way and my understanding and convictions here are the final statement on this matter. Islam is greater and more encompassing than me, those who came before me, those who come after me, or this one specific school.
The trap many Ash’aris fall into, and I have many disagreements with many Ash’aris about this, is that they make Islam the title of the Ash’ari School. In fact, this is the same trap all the other groups fall into. We can claim that the Ash’ari School is the most authentic way of understanding Islam. In fact, other schools, including the Salafis with Ibn Taymiyyah, or even the Zaydis, Ibadis, and Mu’tazilites, have the right to also make this claim. This is not a call to having fake humility about this or a claim of equivalence. We can claim that Ash’aris are the closest and have the most correct understanding of Islamic theology, and in turn offer our reasons for having this belief. In the same way other groups can make claims to being most correct in their own estimations and offer their reasons. The scholars can then all sit down and discuss and debate with respect for one another and in accordance with the proper etiquettes as I mentioned them.
Ultimately, differences and disagreements will remain. What we need to do is treat each other with respect and with good manners, and have tolerance of one another’s differences. This is how we can all be united. What harms Muslims most is not that they have disagreements. It’s that they mismanage how they deal with their disagreements.
By ImanWire , 25 Jan 2016