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Can we bring together Islam and democracy?

Wlodzimierz Redzioch interviews Father Professor Samir Khalil Samir, S.J.

In his famous book Prof. Huntington foresaw that the 21st century would be the time of the clash between various civilisations of the world, among others the Western civilisation and the Islamic civilisation. The events we are witnessing in the world nowadays seem to confirm this thesis. Is that confrontation unavoidable? According to political scientists it could be avoided if the Islamic societies could reject religious fundamentalism and terrorist ideology of Islam and enter the way of democratisation. However, a basic question arises: can we bring together Islam and democracy? In order to answer this question I met Father Samir Khalil Samir, Egyptian Jesuit, professor at St. Joseph's University in Beirut, Lebanon, and the Pontifical Institute of Oriental Studies in Rome. In Poland he is famous for his book entitled Islam. 100 Questions. Samir Khalil Samir answers<>/i>, translated by Prof. Karol Klauza, Catholic University of Lublin, and published by PAX Publishing House, 2004.

Wlodzimierz Redzioch: - Professor Bernard Lewis, outstanding historian and specialist in Islam, claims that Christianity was born in the Roman Empire and developed being aware of the division between religion and state. The historical experiences of Islam are completely different: Muhammad was a prophet but at the same time he was a political ruler. That's is why since the beginning of the history of this religion there has been no difference between the sphere of politics and the sphere of religion in the Islamic society. Is this vision of a religious country still valid in the contemporary Islamic world?

Father Professor Samir Khalil Samir, SJ: - The religious life of Muhammad can be divided into two periods. During the first one, years 610-620, he lived in his hometown Mecca and preached. During that period his teaching was of religious and moral character, and he focused on acknowledging the Only God and the Last Judgement over all other deities. In order to deserve paradise man should observe certain rules in his earthly life: worship God, practice social justice, do not commit evil, do not commit adultery, etc. The rich inhabitants of Mecca, who worshipped their traditional deities, rejected this simple religious programme. Therefore, Muhammad made a pact (the so-called Aqabah pact) with the citizens of Jasribu (today Medina - the town of the Prophet), a town hostile to Mecca. In 622 (this year is the beginning of the Muslim calendar) he left Mecca with a small group of disciples and went to Jasribu where he arrived on 24 September. A new period started in Muhammad's life, which lasted till 632. During the second phase the Prophet also became a political leader and organiser of the state. Muhammad had no money and he tried to win favour with three rich Jewish tribes that lived in the town. In order to do that he commanded people to pray twice a day, turning to Jerusalem as the Jews did, and to fast only one day, which was parallel to the Jewish feast Yom Kippur. The creed was limited to acknowledge one God. Despite these gestures the Jews did not want to accept him as prophet. Thus after two years he again turned to the pagans and changed some customs: he ordered to pray five times a day turning to Mecca, and instead of Yom Kippur he established a holy month of Ramadan and pilgriming to Mecca, islamicizing pagan rituals connected with pilgrimages. He also became a legislator: he introduced many legislative elements of the Old Testament like stoning for adultery or the principle 'eye for eye, tooth for tooth'. Afterwards he began military expeditions because it was the only way to earn living: he invaded nomads to capture booty (the Koran often speaks of booty, for example the Prophet is to take 1/5 of the booty and he is the first to choose). Muhammad became a military commander and then the only ruler of the community. Thus a model of the state was created and in such a state Islam is the religion and at the same time, it is politics.
Today the more enlightened Muslims level two charges against this model. Firstly, the situation in Medina was the result of some coincidence, i.e. accidental; whereas the true idea of Muhammad was the Mecca model, religion and solidarity (in the later period Muhammad had to act politically but it was not his original objective of Islam). Such a vision of Islam - universal and spiritual - was supported by many people and its great follower was Mahmud Muhammad Taha (1909-85), from Sudan, who was killed in the early 1980s by Numajri. Secondly, the situation where religion and politics were connected was exceptional because it referred to the Prophet himself and that's why it can never be repeated. However, we must admit here that a predominant majority of Muslims think that religion and politics must be strictly connected and the state is to support Islam so that everybody could or - as some people claim - must practice it. Those who discern the necessity to separate the political sphere from then religious sphere are seen as people who are influenced by the West.

- Exactly, most Muslims think that the Western democracy is 'the invention' of the Jewish-Christian culture. So we must ask the question: 'is it possible that the religious and jurisdictional Islamic tradition gives birth to tolerance and pluralism, which form the basis of democracy?'

- The Koran and the Sunna (collection of statements ascribed to Muhammad) include elements, which favour both tolerance and pluralism. The big problem is that we can find everything in the Koran, including many contradictory statements. As far as tolerance is concerned one verse says that there is no compulsion in religious matters but many other verses urge to attack those who are against God and his Prophet. Therefore, the one who claims that the Koran supports tolerance does not err but the one who claims that the Koran urges to violence does not err, either. This example illustrates in the best way why it is so difficult to carry out a dialogue with Muslims.

- Christians believe in the continuous action of the Holy Spirit, the so-called certain 'dynamics' of revelation. For the followers of Islam revelation ended with the Koran. How can we face complicated problems of contemporary societies, referring to the Sacred Book, which originated 13 centuries ago? Do you think a 'historical' interpretation of the Koran and a modernisation of Islam (aggiornamento) is possible?

- Many Muslims study this problem. As I have already mentioned Muhammad's life can be divided into two stages: spiritual and social-political. That's why in the first place Islamic scholars try to differentiate between the Koranic verses that have absolute value and the verses that originated in a certain context and are valid only in the same or similar context. For example the words 'kill them wherever you meet them' were spoken in the context of the war between Muhammad and his followers and the inhabitants of Mecca who rejected his teaching, which means that they referred only to that situation. But other verses have absolute value, i.e. they are always true and they are true in every context. An example of such a type of verse is 'men and women are equal' or 'if God willed he would create one nation of you' (it means that God did not want to do this and what's more he wanted pluralism). These verses have absolute values, I mean, we can take them as the fundamental principles of Islam. As far as I know one should embark on a great task to 'get out' of the Koran these fundamental principles. As far as I know this has never been done in a systematic and complete way. Until such researches are carried out in order to form foundations of Muslim faith everyone can interpret the Koran as he wishes.

- Islam has five 'Pillars of Faith': public declaration of faith (Shahada), praying five times a day (Salat), fast in Ramadan (Sawm), giving charity (Zakat) and pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj)...

- These 'Pillars of Faith' concern only the cult and they say what a Muslim can do. If someone asked me what is the fundamental principle of Christianity I would quote Christ 'Love one another as I have loved you' (John 15:12). Furthermore, in the Catholic Church there exists the highest authority, which is the Pope (the Synod of Bishops has the same role in the Orthodox Church) who takes decisions in new situations. There is no such authority in Islam. If the caliphate had still existed a caliph could have fulfilled this role symbolically although his authority was political. Since 1924, when Atat(rk abolished the caliphate, Islam has been 'without a head'. There were attempts to give this role to Saudi Arabia or the Al-Azhar University in Cairo but they were not successful. That's why today every imam - even some chief of a small group of believers - can give a legal opinion (fatva), which has serious consequences for all people.

- What is the solution then?

- In my opinion, firstly, serious research should be conducted in order to discover 'levels' of the Koran and in the Sunna (Muhammad's tradition, a collection of stories, the so-called hadiths, about the Prophet's actions) one should identify the original elements and what was added later. A deep reflection to differentiate between all matters that are of fundamental importance in Islam and those matters, which are secondary (for example, a Muslim scarf is not as important as prayer).

- Another question arises: who has authority to assume this task in the Islamic world today?

- I would like to repeat once again that there is no religious, political or scientific authority in the Islamic world today that would be accepted by all Muslims. Moreover, this world does not have a tradition of self-criticism. Despite this most Muslims clearly realise that nowadays one cannot refer only to the Koran or the tradition (the Sunna), which were established at the turn of the 9th and 10th centuries. However, no one knows how to get out of this cul-de-sac.



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved