Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi
Interviewed by Syria Comment
by Matthew Barber
Sheikh Muhammad, it’s a pleasure to meet with you today.
I’m very happy to speak with you. You know, we still need America’s help to make it out of this conflict. What kind of help are you thinking of?
About 14 months ago, I believe, at a conference in Bulgaria, I signed a statement in the presence of the Bulgarian prime minister with some top politicians asking for the implementation of Chapter 7 of the UN Charter for military intervention by the Security Council. We could have avoided much of the undesirable developments concerning the growth of ideological military groups.
Groups based on ideology, I believe, now constitute a great threat to the unity of Syria, to the very fiber of Syrian society, and even to Islam; you know Islam in Syria is very moderate! … continuyes …
Shafi’ites, Hanafites, Sufis—they love the‘awliya, the Saints. Now someone is coming to brainwash them by force? To tell them that the shrines of the ‘awliya have to be destroyed? Issuing fatwas for this? They already destroyed 3 of them (I issued a statement about this). And killing on a religious basis such as takfir? This is very dangerous and I think the international community let it go.
There has to be a greater power that either unifies, unites the military groups—some Syrians are patriots, they are good people and no one can blame them for forming small groups to defend their honor, their families, their villages… But the absence of any greater authority allowed for the growth of ideological groups.
I think there’s a sense that a US presence in another Muslim country would not be a successful operation… I think Americans learned from Iraq that Muslims do not believe that a non-Muslim force should fight on the ground in a Muslim country; they will be viewed as another enemy.
That’s right, and that’s understandable. And my suggestion was to have international backing for a force comprised of troops from the region, with air force cover. Probably Jordanian troops, Saudi troops, Turkish troops. They would come together under an international umbrella to create safe military passage for besieged areas, like Homs. Step by step: I’m not talking about invading the country, but about imposing no-fly zones, for example.
Of course, a Security Council intervention based on the UN Charter would lend it legitimacy, instead of a U.S. or NATO intervention that would lend the regime legitimacy, enabling it to claim that they are fighting the good cause of resisting foreign occupation—and we won’t give them this legitimacy. But we have to weigh the pros and cons [even of other forms of intervention]. I issued a statement calling on Jordan and Turkey to intervene. I don’t believe they will do it on their own, but I want Syrian people to be prepared for an international intervention spearheaded by NATO, or the UN Security Council, or by the U.S., because I believe that’s more realistic. I believe we’ve reached a point where the Syrian people are ready to accept international intervention due to several reasons, including the levels of human tragedy, as well as Jabhat al-Nusra giving bay’ah [allegiance] to al-Qaida.
No one would deny that they [Jabhat al-Nusra] had some sympathy from the oppressed—not from all Syrian people; wise Syrians were always aware of the fact that these people are alien in their ideology. Probably the majority of them are foreigners—their ideology is alien to the Syrian religious culture… but one could say they had some sympathy, because they made some achievements, though we never sympathized with them; we made it very clear that car bombs are forbidden and such. But now, they lost—morally—their reputation… because no one wants a new Afghanistan in Syria, no one wants such… Now that people see the need to get rid of them, they see them as a burden, as a cause of harm.
We’ve seen this before and wise people should… but sometimes you wonder… For example, I was sitting behind Mu’az al-Khatib at the Friends of Syria conference here in Marrakesh, and I didn’t like his statement when he criticized the U.S. for listing Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist group. I felt that he rushed. In my opinion, the Ikhwaan are going to lead the battle against such extremists in the future, exactly like they are doing now in Egypt. The Ikhwaan want to reach power in Syria. And Jabhat al-Nusra will present a challenge to that. Exactly. And most of the Syrian politicians are afraid of making statements against them because they want to get in and out and Jabhat al-Nusra can assassinate them anywhere in Syria. So this is a reason for them being slippery in their statements… because they are afraid of being assassinated when they go in, either now or later. So this is one reason. But he rushed actually, and I thought it was unwise. Al-Nusra is al-Qaida; for us this was very clear.
Speaking of that, you issued a very compassionate and sensitive statement of sympathy for the victims of the Boston bombing: knowing that al-Qaida would not share your attitude of compassion, but in fact advocates the use of that tactic for political gain, how did you feel about the announcement that Jabhat al-Nusra is al-Qaida?
I’m not surprised. The ideology is the same. The ideology is against mainstream Islam. And I would stress that this is a sect now. This ideology does not represent 1.5 billion Muslims and it is contrary to the rulings of the four Sunni madhabs on jihad, on going against oppressive rulers or non-Muslim rulers, and on contracts and truces between countries. It’s not about whether I like the U.S. or don’t like it—this is something else. I may agree with U.S. policies or disagree with U.S. policies, but I cannot legally put any Muslim country at war with the U.S. There is not a single Muslim country at war with the U.S. now (or the UK, or France, or any of these “Western targets” of al-Qaida). So legally, I have to say that when they [Westerners] visit us, we have to safeguard their property and respect their freedom; when we visit there or live there we have to respect the same; Muslims don’t stab in the back. So there’s no justification for their ideology at all.
So Jabhat al-Nusra joining al-Qaida, as I said, really destroyed its own reputation in Syria, its future in Syria.
But they didn’t join it; they revealed that their group was created by or in conjunction with al-Qaida. And not only that, but they are Syrian, and the members who would later form al-Nusra were working with al-Qaida in Iraq during the Iraq war. That’s right. They gave bay’ah. Giving bay’ah is like joining. They are part of it now. They under the command of Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Why did he decide to reveal this now? It seemed that al-Nusra weren’t ready to announce this, but Ayman al-Zawahiri—
To be honest they are to be asked this question, but from what I read, there was a conflict between al-Qaida in Iraq… and al-Nusra in Syria. So they didn’t want to give allegiance to the Iraqi wing of al-Qaida…
Regardless, they all represent the Devil, I believe. The damage they do to Islam is much worse than that done by any outside force or group or anything that could be imagined, and it’s our responsibility as religious leaders—doctors of the law, theologians—to explain what Islam is. I’m not afraid… I’ve been known, probably, quite well, for criticizing Western policies in the past, but now I ask for Western intervention [because of the extremists]. [smiling] Because we really have to see what’s right and what’s wrong. Ok, I can criticize Western democracy—this is my right, just as many Western and American professors and politicians criticize Western policies.
Do you believe a new Syria should be a democracy?
Of course! We had the earliest democracy in the Middle East, after independence from France in ’46; we had a Christian prime minister, Fares Khouri; we had a very smooth political system… it was interrupted by some military coup d’état…
So do you believe in creating an “Islamic state”?
Syria is an Islamic state. People are talking about an “Islamic state”; if you mean a state “ruled by shari’a,” let me tell you that 80% of the rulings of the laws in Syria now are based on shari’a. These people who are calling for [Islamic] reform are ignorant. Even the civil law, taken from the Napoleonic corpus of law, intact in 1949 and taken from the Egyptian civil law with some modifications—85% or more of it is compatible with the shari’a.
In Syria, like most Arab states, shari’a law simultaneously is and is not in play. You have a single, codified personal status law that governs family matters, informed by and based on traditional, Medieval shari’a rulings. So for example, a Muslim woman still cannot marry a non-Muslim man, polygamy is allowed, a wife can lose her mahr if she is disobedient, and women do not have the same access to divorce that men have. But this is codified and modernized shari’a that all courts must implement; there’s no place for individual rulings on the part of religious jurists who can dole out punishments like hand-cutting or public whipping, stoning. And certain new modifications for the protections of rights, particularly women’s rights, like a minimum age for marriage, restrictions on polygamy, a few expanded options for female-initiated divorce, and the prohibition of forced marriage—those exist in modern Arab family codes. So you have shari’a, but it’s modified a little bit. In a new Syria, do you favor maintaining the use of standardized family law, or would you want to return to the system ofshari’a governance implemented by traditional ‘ulema and individual jurists that existed prior to late-Ottoman codification and the modernization that accompanied the advent of the nation-state?
We do not recommend, generally speaking, after the collapse of the regime, any radical change [to Syria’s laws], because that would create more chaos in the country. Considering personal status law, I do not recommend changing it. The liberals are calling for a change toward more freedom, from, let’s say, the so-called shari’a. I think in Syria we have quite a relaxed system where various sects have their own personal status, and are not forced to follow the shari’a. So on that issue, I do not demand, or recommend, any change in the personal status law. As you described, it’s quite moderate, and it is fully compatible with the shari’a.
The one that was intact before 1949 (I believe the change was around that year, if I remember right) was based on the Hanafi madhab, taken from theahwal shakhsiya [personal status] of Qadri Pasha of the Ottoman time. The change was also made to take [rulings] from the other madhabs. And outside the four madhabs, two issues were taken [apart from or in contradistinction from the rulings of the jurists of the four madhabs]:
[Sheikh Ya’qoubi here described 2 issues: one regarding the number of instances and timing of verbal repudiations uttered by a husband to divorce his wife—a ruling from a student of Ibn Taymiyaa was adopted apparently due to the influence of Tantawi and other Ikhwaan in the ‘50s; and the second regarding the adoption of a ruling from the Zahiri madhab on wasiyya waajiba, part of inheritance law.]
What about the goal of Islamists to create new codes of “Islamic law” in the areas they govern?
They can’t write them. They are not scholars; they are not experts. The League of Syrian ‘Ulema (which is a cover for Ikhwaan) held a week-long course for judges. But a judge has to study and be trained for years, to be able to practice. I gave a lecture before his Majesty the King of Morocco here, last Ramadan. It was on fatwa and qadaa’ and the difference between them in Islam. Very crucial. I received a lot of praise for it.
Just yesterday I received a question from inside Syria about two groups of peasants who were fighting with each other. There was a truce, but one group had prevented the other group from cultivating their land, for one year. What would be the ruling? So I issued a fatwa: the ruling in the shari’a is that the rent is not applicable; the peasants don’t have to pay the rent to the landlord, because they were prevented from cultivating it, and the other party has to pay them compensation for the damages. But this is not the point. At the end of the statement, I said “This is a fatwa, not a judgment.” A judge cannot use this fatwa unless he hears both parties and obtains proofs regarding the case.
They [inexperienced Islamists applying “shari’a”] are using the fatwas as judgments! A fatwa is an opinion, and it comes from a mufti. A qadaa’ is a judgment, and it comes from a qadi. A fatwa is just a piece of news. It’s optional; people may apply it or not, inasmuch as they fear God or trust the mufti. But a judgment coming from a judge in a court of law carries force.
So many of the people who give fatwas now (even some ‘ulema) are unaware that their fatwas could be used by the common people… and people kill each other because of the fatwas! We have to be careful.
There was a discussion between me and a few scholars over the net, a few weeks ago, regarding a fatwa I had issued. When three Italian journalists were kidnapped, I issued a fatwa prohibiting the kidnapping of foreigners, anywhere, and specifically inside Syria. And I listed the reasons for it [according to the shari’a]. Now, I had generalized by saying “all foreigners” (and referenced credible legal texts from Hanafi and Malaki jurists, and especially from Hanbali jurists, because Salafis tend to use the Hanbali school [chuckling])… Now several scholars starting writing to me, saying “You didn’t write about Iranians and Russians. The fatwa is wrong; the Iranians and Russians are foreigners inside Syria supporting the regime.” I replied, “I cannot give a weapon to the common people or to the military commanders for the killing of supporters of the regime. Because then, they will decide—on their own, on the ground—who is a supporter and who is not. The positions of a country change between one day and the next, and sometimes two different politicians from the same country make two different statements.”
Shall we give military commanders on the ground authority to kill by telling them “You cannot kill foreigners—it’s haram—unless they are supporters of the regime”? Are all Iranians or Russians supporters of the regime? I said that when issuing fatwas, especially regarding blood, the ‘ulema have to be very careful. And to be honest, most of the young ‘ulema now, even some who are good‘ulema, are not very well trained. They didn’t accompany great scholars. My father and grandfather were great scholars and I’m the 4th in the Umayyad Mosque as instructor (in the family) in 100 consecutive years. From this, you develop a lot of sensitivity, and understanding of the true spirit of fatwa, because one has to be very careful not to be trapped—someone comes and asks you for a fatwa and then you say “this is allowed and this is not allowed” and then people kill!
How influential are your fatwas, and when you issue a fatwa, what impact does it have in Syria?
I actually wasn’t aware of the level of influence of my fatwas until a few months ago. There’s a huge influence. First of all, my fatwas are given a high level of respect by Sunnis, and my going against the regime was crucial for hundreds of young ‘ulema who turned against the regime because of my position, and the trust they have in us. (This was because of the well-backedfatwa I gave supported by many texts concluding that no one should support this regime.) No one should support this regime from a shari’a point of view; the president has to be removed.
So considering the fear you mentioned on the part of Syrians about the future, and considering the way that Jabhat al-Nusra, for example, is implementing what they call Islamic law over the areas that they control, it seems that in an apparent reaction to this phenomenon, Mu’az al-Khatib in the last few days has announced a project to prepare a kind of code of Islamic law that would be a more moderate alternative to that of Nusra and al-Qaida, to be implemented in rebel-controlled regions of Syria. What do you think of this?
I believe that the Syrian people agreed on the personal status law that has now been in effect for many decades, and the civil laws. I believe the same laws should remain in effect for now, and any changes should be done after the collapse of the regime, by referendum, after a new parliament is elected, a parliament that forms a constitutional committee for legal reform. Once a constitution is established, it will have a basis for establishing the legal committee that will tackle legal reform. I think that legal reform conducted under the barrels of guns is very dangerous.
So what laws should they be using in rebel-conquered Syrian territory? They are saying they need to establish Islamic law to maintain order.
They should be using the same Syrian laws. I am not for permitting any military group to make their own laws. Now, if Sheikh Mu’az al-Khatib wants to form a committee to establish a new code of law, is it going to be passed by the Coalition? By votes? On what authority? Are people in the liberated areas going to vote on it? These are the important questions we need to ask. The Syrian people have been ruled by these laws for some time: whether they are right or wrong laws, let’s make the changes after the collapse of the regime. It is now premature to decide on a new legal system.
But since there seems to be this “rush toward shari’a” (at least in territory controlled by Islamists), perhaps Mu’az’s effort is necessary to counter what’s taking place?
He’s probably trying to be in the middle. Yes, he’s trying to be in the middle.I had this discussion with Qadi [judge] Muhammad Anwar Mujanni, a magistrate who defected from the regime. He is now the head of the Majlis al-Qudaa al-‘Aala—the Supreme Legal Council. I had a discussion with him in Egypt, while supporting this majlis. There have been some attacks against this council by the Hay al-Shari’a in Aleppo. The conflict between the two was that the Hay al-Shari’a wants to establish “shari’a,” while the Supreme Legal Council is ruling according to the already established laws. They did a lot of damage to the Legal Council, but it [the latter] has now gained more reputation. Under whose authority does it operate? It consists of a group of qualified judges. Are they working under the National Coalition? Not for now. They work independently. They were all qualified legal magistrates and judges working previously within the legal system who defected. They formed it during the uprising and are thinking of the future of the Syrian legal system.Exactly. They are in communication now with the Arab League, and they are calling for international recognition for their council. Shouldn’t the Coalition support that? It should, it should. But the Coalition doesn’t want to get too far away from Jabhat al-Nusra and from this desire to “establish Islam.” We all want to establish Islam, but what version of Islam? What school? What madhabfor each area? I would consider this not establishing, but imposing Islam. So there is dialogue between the Supreme Legal Council and the Hay al-Shari’ain Aleppo? They threatened the Legal Council, I think they kidnapped one of their judges, they invaded their center—there has been some real conflict.
So in the future, there is going to be an inevitable conflict between what you represent, and the Islamists who are actually controlling territory. If the regime were to fall, and the conflict with the regime were to end, those fighters will look at any opposition leadership and say “We were here fighting. Where were you? We have the guns. We control this territory. We have Islamic law here.” How is that conflict with leaders like you going to play out?
[Chuckling] Unmanned aircraft are going to hunt them! That’s what reports are saying America is planning now. Yes, there has been talk of drones. It’s so discouraging to think of Syria looking like Afghanistan. For me, our line is very clear. As long as we have lived, we have opposed such ideologies. We didn’t like these extreme ideologies, takfir ideologies, even the Ikhwaan ideology of Sayyid Qutb who is the father of all of these movements and ideologies, and we haven’t changed over time. Now, the biggest challenge for the Ikhwaan will be which side to take. There will be a huge decision for them to make when the regime collapses about what form of government will be there, and they will have to face the fact that the Islamists are the strongest on the ground, organizationally, politically, in funding. The liberals in the opposition are very small. Ikhwaan have a long history and many resources. Either way, they are going to be affected. If they side with Jabhat al-Nusra and support it, they’re going to lose, and if they choose to fight it, they’re also going to pay a huge price. Morsi took a decision to confront the Salafi-jihadis in Sinai. But this is a marginal issue in Egypt; it’s not the biggest problem. But in Syria, it’s the central issue. Jabhat al-Nusra is in control of major cities and oil wells now.
So when we consider this future problem, what is your opinion on how intervention can help? You mentioned that you still support the international community’s help with intervention. What kind of intervention, and how would order be restored in those areas controlled by rebels?
Well, the purpose of international intervention must be to assist the Syrian people in establishing law and order. Toppling the regime can be done by the Syrians, if the right help is provided. But after that, there will be a threat to the Jordanian Hashemite Kingdom, and many reports are coming out now about possible scenarios. There are Americans in Jordan now training Syrian rebels, and we’ve been working for this. I support this. I’m in contact with almost 70 military groups who consist of Sufis. A recent military group was formed, “The Free Sufi Movement,” and they consulted with me about their principles. I gave them a set of principles that they should use if they want to operate. One of the major issues was the necessity of handing over their weapons to the next Syrian government. They must swear by God that they will accept this.
So you believe international intervention could help establish the National Coalition’s authority over such groups in Syria.
Well, the National Coalition’s role ends upon the election of first government.
Right, but in areas controlled by rebels who may not recognize the authority of that government or of the Coalition’s transitional role, what kind of practical intervention could be conducted?
Some support for the Free Syrian Army. The exact form of it has to be discussed.
You were just elected to the National Coalition. Mu’az al-Khatib notified you of that, but now, soon after, he has resigned.
Well, he had already submitted his resignation when he notified me of my appointment.
Who do you think was responsible for your election?
Well, it is several factors. First, as Sufi leaders, we have been working together with a group of Sufi sheikhs of Sufi orders on an initiative to establish a political movement, a movement that would unite the Sufi powers, disciples, supporters, along with the Sunni ‘ulema. When did you start that initiative? Five months ago. Alongside the establishment of the Coalition. I made three trips to the area, including Cairo and Istanbul, holding meetings with Sufi sheikhs. We reached a point where we picked up 60 people: sheikhs and activists who are pro-Sufi. We contacted military groups. We now have the support of approximately 200 military groups of varying sizes. We set our principles in a document to be agreed upon and signed. We denounced violence, we denounced working in secret cells. We agreed to call the movement Tiyaar Binaa’ al-Hadara, Movement for Building Civilization. Some people wanted to call it “Islamic civilization.” I said no, just “civilization.” I specifically did not want it to have the name “Islamic” to keep it inclusive. Islamic civilization was also built by Christians, Jews, and others. But of course, included in its principles is that Syria is an Islamic state: the president should be a Muslim. Regardless of whether we achieve this or not—because this is the democratic process—the idea was to offer an alternative to Ikhwaan and Salafi political power. Those who are advocating the Islamist agenda in the Syrian political arena are three, currently: 1) Salafis (both ‘ilmiand jihadi), 2) Hezb ut-Tahrir, and 3) Ikhwaan (with several wings). And we believe that the three of them have no majority, no control, no popularity in Syria. They having been pushing in the last two years with a lot of money, and it can probably be said that Salafis have had the most success of the three—the ‘Ilmiya, not the jihadists, though the Salafi-Jihadis, like Jabhat al-Nusra, have been successful in building groups and using money to develop organizations. Ikhwaan would be next in terms of gains, and Hezb ut-Tahrir last. This is the main challenge that our people have been talking to us about over the last two years. Our people are religious and moderate by nature. Now, they will not stand behind someone who works against Islam or calls for the destruction of Islam. But they are complaining to us saying, “We are your students; we love you; we are not these people. What are you doing for us?”They are complaining about your absence in the armed opposition or the political opposition? Both. More than complaining, they are demanding results from us. Of course, people like me have been deliberately excluded, until now. When the SNC was founded in Istanbul, I had already been there for 3 months, before coming to Morocco. And I was excluded from all meetings and invitations. Even up until now: they recently held 3 conferences, and I was not invited to any one of them.
I don’t hear a lot about Hezb ut-Tahrir’s activity in Syria. Are they really that involved?
They are trying to make themselves bigger, and they’re pouring money [into the pockets of the rebel groups they want to win over]. I’ll give you one example: there’s a military group operating outside of Damascus in the Ghuta called Liwa Habib Mustafa. They consist of 2000 fighters. The majority of them are of the people, moderate people, fighting for their own villages, for their honor, for the property of their families, for their blood. And their leaders are, you could say, close to us; some of them might be influenced by Ikhwaan or Salafis, but in general they are moderate. Over six months ago I was contacted by one of the founders, begging for my help. They said “money stopped, we don’t have any funds.” Where was it coming from before? From Saudi Arabia. Every fighter had been receiving a salary of $200. At one point approximately six months ago, money stopped. (A lot of military groups complained that they stopped receiving funds around that time. I believe that a reassessment of the situation took place.) So they were in dire need. And Hezb ut-Tahrir came in, offering 20 million Syrian pounds, which at the time was about $100 for each fighter as salary, but requiring them to work under their umbrella, with the stated goal being the establishment of a khilafa¸ and pledging to fight until the goal is accomplished. Hezb-u-Tahir has its own corpus or interpretation of shari’a. Their founder wrote several books and they consider him as the only valid authority. Hezb ut-Tahrir has its own ideology in terms of ‘usuul al-fiqh; they have their own books, their own references.
So people were asking us for help, “please help us!” And I think they went ahead and took the money from them.
Speaking of the reassessment you mentioned, we’ve been reading that a lot of money stopped coming when parties began feeling that the opposition was too Islamist, and yet the non-Islamist fighters are complaining that parties like Qatar are giving money only to Islamists, sidelining the very groups that would be seen by others as legitimate recipients of support.
That’s right; several people are contacting me, even some members of military groups who receive through Qatar. They tell us “Qatar is paying money, why are you not getting anything? We don’t like it; we know that the leaders of our military groups are getting this money. But we are there just because we are getting paid. We can change sides and help form any new group, and we will be on your side.” To be honest, if we announced now a “Sufi Military Front,” we could easily get 50,000 fighters and a few hundred military groups together. So what are you waiting for? Funds. They can’t join if we don’t pay them. And it will be better for those more qualified with military experience to handle it—I don’t want to get involved in running the military myself; I’d rather stay on the political side.
Now you’re saying Islamists are a minority in terms of popularity and power inside Syria, but they are a majority in the political opposition. The Ikhwaan formed the political opposition and controlled it from the beginning, and they made sure that no other opposition figures would penetrate it. They are trying to make it appear that they represent all the Syrian people; this is why they do not want the ‘ulema to participate on any council, because people would turn to the ‘ulema. This is why good people left the opposition. There has been a hidden war against me personally, to block my access to these institutions. Al-Jazeera hosted figures affiliated with the Ikhwaan and excluded me, even though my name was suggested and recommended several times for appearances.
So coming back to the point about what has now led to my entry into the National Coalition: Sheikh As’ad, me, Dr. Mahmoud Hussein, a few others—we all wrote a draft letter to the Coalition a month ago and got the signatures of 25 Sufi figures on it. It is a good letter that demands several things from the Coalition. We demanded representation. We assert that we are a huge bloc of the social and religious tissues of Syria. That letter was sent to the chairman, Dr. Mu’az al-Khatib, and to the vice chairmen—this was before he resigned. We are now a group with 60 active leaders, ready to establish this movement. All we need is funds. We will be opening an office, hosted by Jordan.
What should the Syrian opposition look like, generally?
It should be made up of individuals, expertise, advisors from all sides and groups: religious and secular. The future of Syria is not bound by victory over the regime. I believe the future of Syria has to be looked at from different points of view, creating a unique opportunity between all members of Syrian society, and all religious and ethnic groups. We need to consider the non-Muslim vantage points. Consider yourself for a moment a non-Muslim Syrian citizen who is looking at the future of Syria. We need to look at how others see it, why others are afraid of us. It doesn’t mean that if I’m a Muslim, or a Muslim scholar, or a Muslim thinker, or a Muslim leader who happens to lead the uprising, that it should then be shaped or framed as in a religious way, or that I alone decide on the future of Syria. This is one point that I believe should be quite important. I don’t mind starting a political speech without “In the name of God.” Here I am in politics—I can mention the name of God on the way there, in my heart, as much as I wish, but now I am at a political event. However, some politicians around the Arab World do so, like Hosni Mubarak used to when he began speeches. It’s a cultural feature. Yes, it’s a cultural thing, but sometimes it shapes your discourse; we don’t want to shape our discourse that way. [By this] we are not running away from our religion! But we don’t want to threaten others. We don’t want others to believe that we are going to establish a shari’a-based state that is going to execute or exclude others. I believe we still have a huge margin of the Syrian people who are afraid to rebel against the regime, just because they are afraid of the future. Or they don’t have enough trust in the recent oppositional leadership. Mu’az won a huge margin—a lot of people who had been concerned before, joined the uprising because of his joining. And we need to give more assurances, I believe, from inside the Coalition. The expansion of the Coalition needs to continue until it reaches its best balance.
Now that you’re part of it, can you help make that happen?
Hopefully, hopefully. Even now that I’m part of it, I’m not claiming that I represent the Syrian people. I don’t have authority from the Syrian people to represent them, either in the Coalition or somewhere else. I am there to help the process of getting through this period, toppling the regime, organizing relief, trying to manage the areas now under the control of the opposition—whatever help we can offer. But the representatives of the Syrian people will be elected. Those who are elected after the fall of the regime will rightly claim to be representatives of the Syrian people.
Tell me your impression of Hitto.
I met him for the first time four months ago in Hatay Airport. He seemed to be quite well-educated. He’s head of the relief unit, the aid unit. I had a good impression of him. Now some people say that he is Ikhwaani, but I don’t know the history of his family. Even if he is, I don’t mind. We may have to deal with an Ikhwaani prime minister in the future Syria. That is democracy. But the real question is: will the government be of all one color, or will it be inclusive?
Tell me about your leaving Syria: why did you leave and why did you leave at that time?
Here’s what happened. Just to give you the picture before I get into this: I was well known for being a trouble-maker for the regime in Syria. At one point I had lost my job at the mosque for 6 months for criticizing [Grand Mufti] Hassoun. I had been offered several positions in the government when I returned to Syria in 2006 [after teaching for a period at Zaytuna College in California], and clearly they wanted me to serve as the mufti of Damascus. They negotiated and said, “This is the job for you.” But I always kept away because I was expecting the fall of the regime. So I did not accept the position to be mufti of Damascus; I was offered this and I refused. They appointed me as member of a council for just one month. Then I resigned. Hassoun was the head of the committee, overseeing the companies of Islamic insurance. I was there only one month and then I resigned after my conflict with Hassoun. This was in 2008. They were trying to woo me to the side of the regime, this is how they do it, by offering them jobs, money, compensation.
Hassoun is also a traditional ‘aalim. Yes. But the authority that appoints muftis in Syria is not ‘ulema-based but rather the regime.
This has changed since Kuftaro in 1960; before that it was a council of muftis that would sit together and elect a mufti. This is how Sheikh Abu al-Yasir Abideen, the mufti before Kuftaro, was elected, and it was how Kuftaro himself was elected as a mufti. So he was the last one elected. Exactly. But at the time he was elected, the term of a mufti was four years. Kuftaro was elected, and afterwards Hafez al-Assad made a presidential ruling that he would be mufti for life. So he became mufti for 40 years, almost.
So the regime was wary about me. And before the uprising, I had been called for interrogation 4 times. This was in 2010 and in January of 2011, because of the subjects of my speeches. In one of them I spoke about the Tunisian uprising (and it had also recently begun in Egypt), and I spoke about corruption. I criticized Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi doctrine and at the time they were trying to beg the Saudis for good relations, so they called me for interrogation.
That is very ironic.
Yes, very ironic!
So I was known for being a trouble maker. Every time there was a special occasion for the Ba’ath party, like an anniversary or such, I would do a speech against the Ba’ath party.
So when the uprising started, I thought, “Let’s not rush.” We heard the president giving promises of reform; let’s wait for the reform. This was wise, but at the same time I wrote a plan of two pages of suggestions for the president and gave it to a friend who was a friend of the president and asked him to give it to him. These requests included the basics: removal of those responsible for the killing of demonstrators in Dera’a, reform of the security system, and other things. The Friday after that I didn’t deliver a speech. Then killing started; I delivered a speech (it’s on the net) about the danger of murder and killing innocent people. When was that? That was in April. It was a full speech, a half-hour on the issue of killing people and how dangerous it is and how this culture is spread by the regime… You specifically said that “the culture of killing is spread by the regime”? Well, not exactly like that, more to the effect of the “army killing people” or the “government killing people,” but it was very direct. The following Friday, they sent over 200 security people to the mosque, with arms [concealed arms, men not in uniform]. I was not planning on giving the khutba. I had appointed one of my students to deliver the sermon in my presence (I was at the mosque). When I saw that over 200 people had come 15 minutes beforehand [who were not those who usually frequent the mosque] sitting with the worshippers— Everyone was scared. They came prepared to fight. It was obvious that they were waiting for any slight provocation or controversial text to be mentioned so that they could start beating people. So I told my student, “Let me go up; I’ll do thekhutba” because I thought he wouldn’t be able to handle it. So went up to the pulpit, said the prayers and introduction to the khutba, and then I said “That’s it.” I didn’t do a khutba or speak about any subject! You have to be wise: I had approximately 1,200 people praying in the mosque and I didn’t want a massacre. If you want to make a statement, you have to make it at the right time. So on the following Friday (the 5th of May), I delivered a disastrous speech for the regime, a big slam to the regime. When they were not expecting it. Exactly. And there is a video of it on Youtube with English subtitles that you can watch. No one dared to say something like that. I described what was happening, gave a story of a man who was killed at a military checkpoint in cold blood, his father was prevented from giving emergency aid to him, I mentioned his name Mu’taz al-Sha’ar, I mentioned how people are tortured in prison, I mentioned how people are killed in hospitals… I described what was happening and I said “In any conflict between the people and the government, the people will win.” Just look at history.
So it was really… people were afraid for me! I couldn’t go home after thekhutba. I had been planning to say something, so I had already sent my wife and kids to my in-laws, and after the speech I went into hiding. And the security force came to my home that evening, and the next day, three times total according to the neighbors. So for about 25 days I kept moving from one place to another. I don’t think that the government expected me to leave the country, or perhaps there is always some gap [between an event that makes a person “wanted” and the awareness of border security that such a person should be detained]. But on my passport, I didn’t have my profession specified, because I travel a lot, and every time I want to travel (as a scholar) I’m supposed to get permission from the minister. So the last time I renewed my passport, I went to my father-in-law who is a businessman and got a certificate saying that I am a sales manager. So I had my passport issued with “sales manager” on it. So that when I wanted to travel back-and-forth from the country, I wouldn’t have to get permission from the minister [the wazir al-awqaaf]. And my name was not yet on the list of people who were banned from traveling. But someone finally came and warned me saying, “Sheikh Muhammad, some of the top generals in the security services are speaking ill of you, sooner or later things are going to escalate, you have to make a choice: if you stay in the country, they’re going to get you.” So I traveled immediately. I traveled from the airport; my name was not on any list at that time. (I checked before I went—there are people to whom you can pay money and they will check the computer system for you and let you know if your name is on the list. I wouldn’t have gone without checking.) I think two or three weeks after that my name was on the list. After a few months, I got my family out, through Jordan.
In my first appearance on al-Jazeera, I issued a fatwa saying the regime has to be toppled, because there was no justification in the shari’a for oppression. That was from Istanbul, after leaving Syria. After it I did several other programs on the situation, on BBC world, etc. But now they are banning me from al-Jazeera.
Can you say something about the Sufi ‘Ulema? Approaches to policy?
Sufis generally prefer monarchy [such as Morocco’s], but they don’t trust Saudi Arabia, because of the anti-Sufi Wahhabi movement. They hate socialism, so they would tend more towards America than, say, Russia or China. There was fear in the past that some Sufis would be pro-Iran, as Egypt has had Sufis that are pro-Iran. But in Syria this doesn’t exist. Sufis in Syria have no love for Shi’ism. Probably one quarter of the Syrian population is Sufi. This is far beyond ten-thousand members of the Ikhwaan. We don’t allow working underground in secret cells. We work in the open. We don’t need organizations, because the ‘ulema rely on the trust they build with people, through their life of uprightness, knowledge, reputation. So we don’t need, and we prohibit secret organizations. Because the moment we get into secrets, we get into the Batiniyya. They are sects which hold to hidden meanings, hidden dogmas, hidden interpretations: this leads to hidden policies and agendas. Secrecy is forbidden in Islam. Everything we do is in the open; we don’t have a secret organization. I’m at the age of 50 now. I started preaching at the age of less than 15, formally at the age of 17. They discovered that I was under the legal age for a preacher in Syria (18), so themudiir of awqaaf in Damascus wrote me a paper that he signed, saying “next year we’ll appoint you,” and the age of 18 they appointed me. Since that time I’ve been teaching, preaching, giving fatwas, to varying degrees; we get more knowledge the older we get. And I haven’t seen any need for or good come from secret cells or organizations. It’s very dangerous and people are brainwashed. We are ‘ulema. People come to us; if they don’t like us they go to another scholar—a fourth scholar, a fourth mosque. No one is forcing them to attend a particular mosque; they can choose for themselves. People like scholars of different styles, but at the same time, we work for the same Islam. Hanafi or Shaafi’i—minor differences—but the major issues are wellbeing, protection of life… even the issue of going against the regime: it is very difficult to get a fatwa for rebelling against the regime. And I couldn’t give it, in any circumstance. But the Syrian case is really different. This is why Dr. Bouti—Allayirhamo—and others couldn’t understand the complexity of the danger of the Syrian regime remaining in power. So they went with the classical position of the four madhabs that you can’t go against a ruler—which is very true in the four madhabs! So why does this case qualify? Well, here is the point: The ‘ulema reference a hadith of the Prophet that says “Even if the ruler is oppressive—takes your money and beats you…” Not me, but other scholars have talked about how oppression operates at various levels: when it is levied only at individuals, the statement of the Prophet applies, because an individual cannot rebel against a ruler, even if (and I would say especially if) he is influential, who then creates chaos because he was a single individual of influence who half the people would then follow causing a civil war or great chaos—just because he was oppressed as an individual. Here, the statement of the Prophet applies because you can’t rebel for your own sake, even if you are oppressed. The issue is: when oppression is against the nation, it conflicts with the very reason that this ruler is a ruler. As a president, his job is to protect people’s honor or blood or wealth. How do you decide when a ruler oppresses the nation? We have had many dictatorial Arab regimes with various levels of oppression. Some might say the oppression is directed at individuals or groups who threaten their status or positions of influence within the society. Others might conclude that it is against the entire society. How do you come to the decision that the Syrian case qualifies as this kind of oppression that delegitimizes the very purpose of rule, and calls for a revolution? To be honest, when I issued the fatwa, I sat, writing down—the fatwa from Istanbul, after you left? Yes. It had been in my mind, and I spoke about it in private sessions when I was still in Syria. So it was something already known. I would not have gone against the regime if—according to theshari’a point of view, I had not been backed. The point is, first we have the history of the regime, which gave indications about what would happen [in the future]. We all know that in the 80s, the Ikhwaan were wrong in their assassinations of some top Alawite officials of the time; but the regime’s reaction was beyond measure. It destroyed the city of Hama and killed between 10 and 40 thousand people; we don’t know the real figures. Even at the lower figure of 10,000, I would put no trust in such a regime for reforms—with this history. But briefly, that fight was with a kind of radical Ikhwaan movement that posed a threat to the legitimacy of traditional ‘ulema, like you, and even at that time, that group was ready to use weapons against the regime, prior to the massacre in Hama, which, by your definition would be an illegitimate rebellion against a ruler. If Hafez al-Assad was an oppressive ruler, but targeted specific individuals or groups who threatened his domination (rather than committing statewide massacres), then the Hama incident could be viewed as a reaction against an illegitimate rebellion on the part of the Ikhwaan who began provoking the regime with weapons—which of course did involve a large, brutal massacre in their crackdown. No, you’re right; it’s very coherent. The ‘ulema at the time—my father was alive—he passed away at the end of ‘85—we witnessed and had discussions with many scholars and I was very active in the intellectual debate, and the ‘ulemawere against the position of the Ikhwaan. Not because the regime had legitimacy; it had reached power through coup d’état. But if a change is to be made, it has to happen by consensus of the representatives of the nation. Not by a small group. The Ikhwaan acted on their own. They didn’t consult with the ‘ulema. You know from the history of revolutions that you must prepare people before making a change. If there is oppression, you have to prepare people so that they accept the change or call for a change. Now in the 80s, I delivered a speech (I was a Friday speaker) in Salhiye, in the heart of Damascus at the al-Tawusiyya mosque. (My father was a Friday speaker in that mosque. And I was as well, from 1980 to 1990. Then I resigned from all my duties and left the country to study English in the UK , then I studied in Sweden—this was also after a conflict with the regime! A conflict with the Ministry of Religious Affairs.) So we used to deliver Friday speeches at that time. There were three elements of the regime we didn’t like: socialism, nationalism (Ba’ath ideology), and the sectarian character of the regime. We used to put hidden criticisms of the regime into our speeches. I remember giving a speech in which I said “Until when will our children repeat every morning ‘wahda, hurriya, ishtirakiyya’ [the Ba’ath motto, “unity, liberty, socialism”], and how are we going to liberate the Golan Heights and Palestine while our children are being brainwashed?” Things of that nature. Over 10 people immediately took their shoes and ran away from the mosque, in that moment. So people were not ready. And the ‘ulema are the ones who are in contact with people. If any scholar had called at that time for rebellion or demonstration, not 10 people would have gathered around him to support him. In the West they recently wrote an article about Sunni business people supporting Assad so that he reached power, and to be honest, that’s very true! It was Sunni business people who supported him for their own business interests. They didn’t mind working with the devil. This allowed Hafez al-Assad to become stronger and stronger. And over time those business people wouldn’t object to or express disagreement with anything he did… but now things have changed. With the advent of satellite TV channels, people have been changing; they are not numb any longer. They began asking, “Why should I forfeit my freedom to this political regime?” And you shouldn’t expect people to oppose a regime in the early years of its creation; it takes a generation or two. In our case it took one generation, for the Soviet Union it took three. So the ‘ulema have to be wise in finding the right time. When the time was right and I delivered my speeches in the al-Hassan mosque (at the beginning of the uprising), people were coming to me and embracing me, thanking me for making such statements. The Arab Spring was the first cause of this, the second was the regime gradually revealing its truly nasty image. If similar speeches even 10% to that tune of opposing the regime had been delivered five, six, seven years ago, especially in the early years of Bashar, for example, people would have attacked me for every word. So returning to why you decided that this was the right time to issue a fatwa against the regime when traditionally in Islam a ruler is not to be opposed? I’ll give you some historical observations on what has been going on. Either the president rules or he doesn’t rule and the heads of secret service / security are ruling. We heard testimonies all over the news of how people were executed in hospitals, how tanks ran over demonstrators, how people were killed in prison, tortured to death—this savagery wasn’t something done by mistake. It was a systematic policy of the secret service, and people revealed this to the president. I wasn’t among the people who met with the president at the time. But several people met with the president and some of them came to my home after the meeting, the delegation from Deir Ezzor, the mufti and others, for example. After they met with the president they came to my home and had dinner, and we discussed it. I heard from others as well who had met with the president. The president would sometimes express unawareness about these events; other times he would agree that they were occurring but maintain that they were isolated events. Sometimes if cornered and pressured significantly, he would say “give me the names of the people responsible and I will sue them.” This is an interesting issue: some people feel that the president himself is personally responsible for the killing, that he is the one issuing the orders, that he is a murderer of women and children. Others feel that he’s not really in charge of the regime but is just a figurehead, a face for the regime. It is deeper than this, but the simple answer is that yes, he is issuing orders, orders for military responses. Major decisions are usually made by the president himself. For example, no military unit can move from one place to another unless there is a presidential order. But we all agree that when he first became president, he didn’t have any power. He didn’t become president because of any power of his own; the people who made him president, I’m sure, have authority over him. Still? Well, still or not, this is another issue. He could sack Abd al-Fattah Qudsiya, or Ali Mamlouk, or Jameel Hassan from the Air Force Secret Service; he can sack one of them and appoint another person and I don’t think there will be a coup d’état against him or that there would be an assassination against him. But the main issue is that ideologically, he is justifying for himself everything he is doing. He thinks that he is really defending the country against terrorists.
Is he entirely wrong when we see, at this point, that Jabhat al-Nusra is with al-Qaida, and they are willing to commit killings based on a takfiri ideology?
I think he knows very well that he is not right. In his early speech in April 2011, he mentioned that there were 64,000 criminal outlaws—how did all of a sudden 64,000 come from nowhere? This was in April, 2011. These were demonstrators, people going to demonstrations. Why did people form military groups? Mainly they were the people who had gone to demonstrations, were captured, tortured in prison, and then released. After what they went through and witnessed in prison, they opted for fighting the regime, afterwards. So I’m sure the president knows what’s going on, especially with the secret service: the cook knows what’s going on in the kitchen. Abu Mus’ab as-Suri was handed over by the U.S. to the Syrians after being captured in Afghanistan. And then he disappeared in the Syrian prisons. We heard reports that Fira’ Falastin [فرع فلسطين– the “Palestine Branch” of the Syrian mukhabaraat, secret services] released the ex-al-Qaida fighters from Iraq who had been captured, and those were the early ones who began forming al-Nusra.
So they would have released them in 2011? Yes.
How solid do you believe that evidence is? This conflict is full of rumor, and it’s difficult for me to believe that the regime wanted to escalate the conflict (which threatens its very existence) just to bolster the principle of its legitimacy. Sure, it’s to the regime’s advantage that it can now point to real terrorist elements within the opposition, but to create jihadist networks and car-bomb its own cities—destabilizing the very country it still wants to control—seems contrary to its goal of restoring order.
The regime was betting on something, taking a chance. As long as the uprising was peaceful, the regime would be losing. We heard verified statements that some security and military officers started selling arms in Dera’a, in the south. And in another instance, I heard (something I can’t verify) that people were offered weapons deals. The other statements that can be verified claim that they left Kalashnikovs and other weapons, for demonstrators to carry, in order to justify the regime’s actions. In Bashar al-Assad’s most recent interview, he said that this is a war. And when he calls this a “war,” he has considered it a war from the beginning. A “war” means he’s not dealing with “people” (who are demonstrating, who are defending their honor); in a war he can resort to any means necessary. So they wanted it to turn into a war.
But that strategy does not work, because the other side of that war has captured areas like Raqqa, Deir Ezzor; the Kurdish area is no longer under state control; Dera’a is going back and forth between regime and opposition control with areas near Jordan and the Golan out of regime control; the fight in Idlib is very tough; Aleppo is divided… Though not necessarily losing, the regime is not really winning right now. So a strategy to convert an uprising of opinion and dissent into a war—Did not work. It worked on one level but not for the best interest of the people. Although I was asked, and I issued a fatwasaying that people may defend themselves, in Homs, when Homs was attacked in Bab al-‘Amr; I said that jihad was obligatory, at the time. I was one of the earliest people who did so. For me, if our people carry guns and defend themselves under the Free Syrian Army it is better than having either military intervention or having ideological groups proliferate. But unfortunately the down side is that—yes, it’s a war now—probably 50% or so (I don’t know exactly how many on the ground) are extremist groups, whose goal is not just to topple the regime, but to establish their “shari’a states” and have their own warlord-like control on the streets. The point is quite interesting. These people, especially foreign fighters, and including some of the extremist Syrians (I’m sure they will find some to brainwash and recruit) they won’t care about finishing off the regime or not; all they are interested in is their military activities, training, building secret cells, in order to move to other countries and to work against U.S. interests and some other countries. Someone drew my attention to this after having been inside and talking to some of them. He came back out with this impression. He said they don’t care whether the regime collapses or not; they are just building their own organization, cells, and strategic planning for future work. I believe that in the end, this will force the West to intervene, in order to get rid of them.
What did you think when Grand Mufti Ahmed Badr al-Din Hassoun issued the call for jihad on the part of the Syrian army?
[Laughing] Some have suggested that the Chechen brothers who conducted the Boston bombing were responding to this call for jihad! But that would mean that those brothers were somehow supportive of the Syrian regime!Yes, yes, this is the talk of Syrians who want the West to feel that the Syrian regime is the gravest threat to the U.S. Anyway, the call was very serious and very stupid. Ahmed Badr al-Din Hassoun is considered to be pro-West, pro-America. He was welcomed by the European parliament. He delivered a historical speech there, though I criticized him for some statements he made. I received a lot of damage myself, for criticizing him. Even in the U.S. some try to depict me as an extremist for criticizing him. Because they saw him as so moderate. Exactly. And this issue was related to the Prophet Mohammed; this, you know, is something serious. He made a mistake, he has to admit it—he did admit it. A few weeks before the beginning of the uprising, one of the top business people in Syria, Ammaar Sahlool contacted me and said “I want to come and visit you with him.” I said, “You are most welcome and I will honor him in my place when he comes.” He wanted to put an end to it, just to have a picture with me showing that things are settled, because my speech against him had had a huge impact. He admits that the toughest strike he received was from me. So anyway, I offered him condolences when his son was assassinated; death is something that when it comes, we must stand by each other. I respect him as a scholar, as a Sufi. I didn’t expect this to happen.
So my question is, is it possible for people on that side of the conflict to declare a jihad? There are many Sunnis still with the army, for example. They believe they are fighting for the protection of Syria from al-Nusra and other groups. Can those people not consider their struggle a jihad?
Yes, they can. So the call is legitimate. Not by the Mufti. We are talking about Sunni soldiers in the army who are brainwashed and are banned from any media except that of the regime. I would be lenient toward a soldier fighting in the Syrian army and accept his jihad if he believes in it; but not the Mufti. The Mufti knows what’s going on; he’s aware of the worldwide media, he watches it. You know he denied on al-Jazeera, live in an interview, that scud missiles hit Aleppo University. He denied it! He said, “Did you see it?” An empty argument! His call for jihad cannot be considered legitimate and no one is taking it seriously at all. But he’s an ‘aalim, he’s a mufti. Why can another call for jihad but not him? Okay, because he’s on the side of the regime. Calling for jihad for what reason? Well, from their perspective for the protection of Syria from certain threats. Well, if any people would be influenced by that, people who are brainwashed, people who have restricted access to the media, those who live within the army without a single day of leave and only watch Syrian channels… I think the fatwa is to serve these people. But I’m asking, from an Islamic perspective, theologically, is anything wrong with his fatwa. Yes, of course it is wrong. Everything is wrong with it.Why? Because the regime has no legitimacy, so why would you defend the regime? Why doesn’t it have legitimacy—in a theological sense? First of all, because the president went against his duty. I told you before: his job is to protect the country, protect the people, protect honor, protect wealth, protect sanity, and he did not perform this duty, at all. He had an opportunity to make reform, to bring criminals to justice. He formed a committee to study the case of Dera’a, Douma, and later on Lattakia, and the results of this committee’s analysis never came out. So it is very obvious that he is not on the side of the people; he is on the side of the criminals. So such a president, along with his assistants, has no shari’a backing or support for continued leadership of the country. Besides, from a shari’a point of view, let’s say there’s a controversy about him. He should resign, and hand leadership over to others—if the cause is right. If the cause is right, and there is a controversy, all that people are asking for is that he be removed. Ok, let’s bring someone else. Why not? Why is he sticking to the chair so? We see that the whole conflict will be solved by him being removed. So remove a nation (killing 100,000 people), or remove a single person from the presidency. It’s very obvious.
Sheikh al-Bouti echoed Hassoun’s call for jihad and referred to people fighting in the Syrian army as ashaab an-Nabi [companions of the Prophet]. All his statements supported that position of jihad on behalf of the Syrian army. I wonder about your relationship with Sheikh al-Bouti: he was an internationally respected scholar, and at the same time he supported the regime. It must be difficult and uncomfortable to reconcile that, and I wonder how you do it.
I wrote six articles refuting Dr. Bouti, in the past year. Dr. Bouti, as you said, is an international figure with a great reputation. His followers outside of Syria are millions of Muslims. His books have been translated into several languages. He was not my teacher, though I have to give him due respect as an elder scholar with a lot of experience and knowledge. He was a student of my father, studying for a while under him. He offered a great eulogy for my father in 1985 when my father passed away. I disagreed with him, with his positions, from 1990 on (or around that time). What positions? He went with the regime, and supported the regime. Hafez al-Assad succeeded in pulling him towards him, started sitting with him for hours and hours, especially when Hafez al-Assed was diagnosed with cancer. When Hafez al-Assad discovered that he had cancer, he began to spend more time with him?
In one session, he sat with him privately for seven hours; no one else was there. So this was when his health began failing; was he seeking something spiritual, that wasn’t about politics? Something like that. But probably, there were some politics in it. One of the strongest statements of Dr. Bouti in support of the regime came when Bassel al-Assad was killed (or died in a car accident). He prayed at his funeral, and made statements suggesting that he was in paradise, and that he saw him or that he would see him—I don’t recall the exact words, but his supporters claim that the opposition distorted his own statements. Is it a problem for him to make that statement about Bassel? It is problematic. Because he was Alawi? Not just because he was Alawi, but just because people were not ready to see anyone praising President Assad or his regime. It was very bitter. So the problem was a political problem, not a religious problem? Both, probably, both. Common Muslims are not really aware of theology. What affects them more is politics. No one was ready to see someone siding with the regime. If they had been able to get the Devil to come and replace Hafez al-Assad at that time, they would have welcomed the Devil. The image of Hafez al-Assad was so dirty that anyone who would shake hands with him would be rejected by people. And Sheikh al-Bouti’s relationship helped his image. It helped a lot. And then he prayed at the funeral of Hafez al-Assad himself, and he appeared on TV crying. And I saw him swearing that Hafez al-Assad was a Muslim. Now that funeral was in 2000. Yes. So why did you start disagreeing with him in 1990? The first public appearance of Dr. Bouti in support of the regime (or I would say, in the presence of Hafez al-Assad) was in 1980. That was the first event for the millennium festival for the 15th century hijri. It was at the University of Damascus’ theater. That was the first speech he delivered before the president. He offered sharp criticisms and pointed out the wrong that was happening within the government. He gave him strong advice, he didn’t praise him. But the government was smarter than was thought. They knew how to pull him. The people responsible for pulling him are two: Mohammed Khatib, ex-minister of awqaaf, and Alawite General Mohammed Nasif who was then head of internal security services. Now he is advisor to the president. He is one of the top Alawite rulers of the country now. What do you mean, “they pulled him”? Dr. Bouti was just a professor at the University of Damascus. He had two lectures weekly—Mondays and Thursdays in a small mosque. They succeeded in pulling up to that position and getting him close to the president. These two people. These two people. I don’t know Mohammed Nasif; people tried to have a meeting between him and me in the past few years because my name was growing. I said I have no interest in meeting him. I kept away from the regime, myself. But Mohammed Khatib, ex-minister—I know him very well. Mu’az’s family? No, a different family, from the south. He was minister from 1980-87. He was one of the greatest minds. And he is the one who got al-Bouti into supporting the regime. Now, Dr. Bouti is very emotional. He has some qualities which are good sometimes, but in politics they are not good. He believes anyone who gives him a statement; he doesn’t believe anyone would lie. He trusts people beyond what is reasonable. So little by little he established strong ties with people in the regime. They convinced him—Hafez al-Assad, for example convinced him that every morning and evening he was making extra prayers. He [Sheikh Bouti] gave him some texts to read, and every time they would meet, Hafez al-Assad would point out to him: “This is a text you gave me that I’m reading every morning and evening.” And these types of things lured him. So Dr. Bouti is different from Hassoun. Dr. Bouti really believed every word he said. This is why, when he died, I made a statement in his eulogy, and I consider him a martyr. And the bulk of the rebels disagreed with me, and I don’t care, because this is justice. Other scholars, even Ikhwaani scholars, kept silent, because they don’t want to lose popularity with the rebels. For me, I’m considering history: we have historical ties with Dr. Bouti. I disagreed with him on the theological and legal issue of whether rebelling against the regime is allowed or not allowed; I said this on a TV interview. But people should not be killed for their opinions. He died in a mosque, while giving a lecture, Friday night: he’s a martyr, from that point of view.
Tell me, what would be the place of the Alawi community in a new Syrian state?
My position and the position of the ‘ulema: We do not hold responsible any community or group, religious or ethnic, for the atrocities committed during the tenure of the Ba’ath regime or Assad rule. Every individual is responsible for his own actions. I think it is very important to emphasize the rights of allminorities, especially in the midst of this extremist violence, these winds of extremism blowing through the uprising. The ‘ulema in general have no problem with the minorities, and are probably the safeguard for the unity of the country, for the solidarity of the nation, for the coexistence between all groups—to give a guarantee for these. I recently suggested to the Danish Foreign Minister (I met him here at the Friends of Syria conference in Marrakesh) that someone should organize a conference and invite Sunni scholars and religious leaders from the Christian minority, from the Druze minority, from the Alawite minority, and we should agree on a common, historical statement for the future of coexistence in Syria. Between all of us. And I stress that this hasn’t been done until now. There was an attempt to do so by a U.S.-based organization, a good organization, called Religions for Peace, who invited me—Dr. William Vendley who is based in New York. They organized a conference in Istanbul, this last Monday. I was invited, but I couldn’t travel because of my papers here, which I have to have processed.
In a new Syria, regardless of whether it becomes a democracy or a system run by Ikhwaan or other Islamists, power is going to be Sunni. They are the majority and power is going to be in their hands. Under Islamic law, what kind of protection can there be for ghulaat sects? I don’t know if they are seen as ahl al-kitaab or not.
Let me first say that I don’t have an agenda to “Islamize” the law after the uprising succeeds; the law in effect would be applied for all citizens and I don’t think the law discriminates now. Yes, but it allows Christians and Druze to have separate ahwaal shakhsiya, so would ‘Alawi then be allowed to have their own?
Well, the question is about the very existence [identity] of the ‘Alawite minority. There is a long discussion about this issue—whether the ‘Alawites want to be depicted as ‘Alawites, number one. Under Hafez al-Assad they wanted to be identified as Muslims. As Ja’faris. As Twelvers. As Twelvers, exactly. Hafez al-Assad himself contributed to this. He allowed, for example, Sayyid Hasan Shirazi from Lebanon to come and do da’wa in order to open mosques and make ‘Alawites Ja’faris. And Hasan Shirazi at the time started establishing ties with the ‘ulema, and he came and visited us in our home in 1975. He visited my father and I attended the meeting. And the discussion was about ‘Alawites being Twelvers. And what was the attitude of your family and the ‘ulema in Syria at that time? Of course we would welcome this; this is much better, if they become Twelvers. But they were not Twelvers, they were just telling the public that they were. But here is the point: when you come to the ‘Alawites and ask them “Do you want personal status law,” they don’t have law. As a sect they don’t have it—it’s just a set of myths. Yes, but neither do Christians. Christians also don’t have “law,” but ahwaal shakhsiyya for Christians is necessary because the sphere of family law in Islamic societies is governed by shari’a. But the Torah is often included as part of Christianity, and it has many laws, including laws on marriage. But it’s a vastly complex legal system not followed or considered binding by almost all Christian communities. Christian legal systems that existed previously evolved when church institutions acquired political power, and where those institutions no longer have power those systems have generally fallen by the way. Christianity does not have a self-contained legal system like shari’a or Leviticus. But in Islamic societies where family law is governed by shari’a, it creates the necessity to give Christians ahwaal shakhsiya because they can’t be made to follow laws that are specific to Muslims. That’s right. But ‘Alawites have an internal conflict with themselves—whether they wanted to stay ‘Alawite, whether they wanted to change to Twelvers. If they wanted to write their own personal status law, I wouldn’t oppose it. If they do, it could distinguish them from Muslims. You see, their identity is not fixed. They themselves haven’t yet decided on their identity.But I question this idea that they “haven’t decided” on their identity. They are one of the oldest ghulaat sects in Islam. They are very old and they’ve existed in this area for many centuries. It seems that it was only in the 20thcentury that their identity began to be in flux, largely because of Hafez al-Assad coming to power, when they then had to wrestle with legitimacy. In terms of legitimacy, in the Hanafi school we consider them like the People of the Book. I didn’t know that. The Hanafi school has considered Magians as People of the Book. And similarly in the fatwas of the Hanafite scholars, such sects as the ‘Alawites and Druze are considered like the People of the Book, in a way that is quite simple, but which also has restrictions. Which scholars and in which period? I’m referring to scholars of the Ottoman period. I know you’re thinking about Ibn Taymiyya and others. I know he wrote against them. Exactly. So scholars after him in the Hanafi school—In the Hanafi school you also find books considering the ‘Alawites, and the Druze, and theBatiniyya in general as non-Muslims. Even a scholar called al-Mahdi from the Hanafi school authored a special book on them. (It has recently been re-published, just because of the uprising.) Now for me, mixing theology with politics is something very dangerous. When we say they are non-Muslims.. I was asked this question and some people misunderstood me. What I told them was that we teach theology in a class on theology: who is a Muslim, who is not. Who is a believer, who is an unbeliever—this discussion takes place in every religion. In Christianity: who is baptized or not baptized, who is entitled to salvation and who is not; it exists in every religion. But to have it in a political or a social law, this is different. When we say they are non-Muslims, it doesn’t mean they have to be killed. If we go to the books of politics: kitaab al-siyaasa, or kitaab al-jihaad, or kitaab al-whatever, or the books of fiqh, you’ll see that the muftis agreed on them living, agreed on giving them full rights. These were Ottoman muftis after Ibn Taymiyya; the Ottomans didn’t exterminate them. Now they had restrictions on them, which they [the ‘Alawis] considered oppression. Because they considered their religion falsehood, they were not allowed to proselytize for it. But nonon-Muslim religion is allowed to proselytize. Exactly. The other point is that because of their use of taqiyya, they were not allowed into higher positions, where they would harm the state. But you don’t see the phenomenon of Hasan Shirazi’s legitimization of them as a possible strategy for taqiyya? I think we have to differentiate between two things. There are some educated ‘Alawites, and I know some of them in Syria. I was in contact and in discussions with some of them including one of the greatest figures, Abd al-Rahman al-Khayir. Abd al-Rahman al-Khayir is from a scholarly ‘Alawite family and they consider the al-Assad family as a low family. The al-Khayir family are like the Sharifs of the ‘Alawites and there are several sheikhs from the al-Khayir family. The family and Abd al-Rahman al-Khayir himself was a friend of my father’s and other sheikhs. He presented himself as a Twelver. Now, I read some of his statements, and we believe that he was true in his statements. Now if others pretend, I don’t know. And I believe it was in the interest of the Iranian government to “Shi’atize” them.
Now I could be mistaken, but isn’t it the case that although ‘Alawis advertise themselves as Muslim, they often don’t make a point to portray themselves as Shi’i, but actually seem more aligned with Sunnis, even expressed through the president’s marriage to a Sunni woman?
Anything about ‘Alawites was banned. Books, media, newspapers, articles, radio programs, TV shows—anything. The word Alawiyya was banned. For 40 years! (From 1970.) They didn’t want people to discover the truth: that the regime was sectarian. Anyway, in terms of the future of the minorities, we have already set principles for all to participate in the civil conferences, and all citizens are equal before the law. We only reserve one right, which I advocate, and I think rightly; it is unspoken in most Western countries: the president has to represent the religion of the majority of the people. In Syria I think there is a need to satisfy people, and I think that would be good. When Kennedy was elected it was a big deal. Apart from that one item, I will rise to defend the minorities’ rights, even before defending the majority’s rights, because we don’t want anyone to be oppressed in the name of Islam.
Those with a takfiri ideology will say that ‘Alawis are the descendants of apostates, and therefore should be killed. They are also attacked with accusations of polytheism. Those who maintain these views would see them as unqualified for dhimmi status. When greater numbers of Muslims are being exposed to these views and are saying “hmm, that sounds right,” how does a scholar respond?
From a theological point of view, we oppose this because people may be unbelievers, they may be polytheists, but they may not be killed. These extremists who pose this “challenging” ideology—it doesn’t challenge anything. Their numbers are very small and everyone opposes them, all scholars including Ikhwaan. Here is the major difference between the Hanafi school and the opinion of Ibn Taymiyya (whose positions are not adopted by any of the four schools, but only by the Salafis): Although ‘Alawis are considered kufaar in the Hanafi school, as a sect we accept their legal presence within the Muslim community. They are not to be executed asmurtadiin [apostates], because they were not Muslims who rejected Islam. They were born within their sect!
Regarding the future of minorities, we need more representatives of their communities taking a stand against the regime now. The best guarantee for them is someone from that minority coming out in support of the uprising. We remember in Homs, people carried the cross in the demonstrations of Easter Friday. Muslims carried the cross in honor. Muslims will carry priests and honor them when they see them joining the uprising. The same with ‘Alawites. We haven’t seen highly prominent voices expressing regret and joining the uprising. That would be the best guarantee. However, our job as religious leaders is not to highlight the oppression that was carried out by ‘Alawites. In fact, we should prevent people from taking revenge. For example, Saudi sheikhs issued fatwas saying that women and children of the Nusayris should be killed. I said no. Around ten months ago or so, I was consulted for a fatwaon a military operation. Someone had planned an operation to kill a regime general, who was responsible for torture and such. He happened to be an Alawite. Anyway, they had put a bomb in his car, but when he got into the car, he had two sons with him. And there was a dispute as to whether they should detonate the bomb or not. After abandoning the operation, one of them said “let’s consult the sheikh” regarding what would be the right course of action. So he called me for a fatwa. I said “No, there is no way that you can kill him and kill his children.” Ok, do you have proof about him, that he is responsible, a criminal, an enemy in the war? But you can never kill his children. I’m very strict on this. There was another Alawite general who was captured in Douma. This was probably over a year and a half ago, early on in the uprising. And Douma has a mix of Salafis and others—Salafism is strong there. They also asked for a fatwa to kill him. I said “no way.” There is no way to kill a captive. Prisoners of war are to be protected. They tried to give examples from history, or from the Qur’an suggesting that prisoners of war may be killed. I said “this is not directed to you, it is to the ruler of the country!” If he decides that a prisoner of war is dangerous, he may be killed, and this is also based on the treatment of the opposition.
Myself and some others I research with found possible evidence of the killing of a bus full of prisoners in Raqqa, regime soldiers who had surrendered.
Oh, I have a number of stories also, of rebels accepting people’s surrender and then killing them afterwards.
It happens in every war. When people are angry and view the prisoners as those who are killing them, it becomes difficult to restrain the impulse for revenge amidst all that emotion.
This is why I never give a fatwa for the killing of anyone. A fatwa is more dangerous than a weapon itself, when you put it in the hand of angry people. In my last statement on kidnapping being forbidden, I said “a fatwa is a dangerous weapon when put in the hand of an angry man fighting on the ground—you will never know the extent of its effects.”
What role do you see yourself playing in a future Syria, when the country is rebuilt? What function would you like to perform?
Well, first of all I would like to go back to Syria to return to my work. One of the dearest things to me is to sit in the Umayyad Mosque; I want to continue teaching there. I was teaching al-Ghazali’s book Ihya’ ‘ulum ad-Din. Al-Ghazali is one of my favorites. And as a Sufi, I was teaching in the Sheikh al-Akbar Mosque, Ibn Arabi’s mosque [formally the “al-Salimiyya Mosque” after the Ottoman caliph]. I have very strong spiritual ties with him, and I was teaching Sufism there. I long for these places that have so much spirituality, such fragrances of history. Being there lets me perform a great service for Islam, which is a real honor for me. To continue teaching is the most significant role I can perform. At the same time, whenever there is conflict that I can resolve, a problem I can solve, I will always make a positive contribution when I can. Thanks to God I’ve been a good force in creating balance, influencing a lot of people in the uprising toward the right track. Wallah, I listen to so many angry people, receiving their anger; I try to absorb their emotion, their anger, and to transform it and produce something good from it. I tell them, “As Muslim believers if you’re going to treat your enemy in the same vengeful way that they do, you’re no different from them.” As Muslims, we’re unique for our mercy, for our pardoning, for our love, the love we have toward others. In the midst of anger, it is very difficult to control one’s emotions. I’m proud that through my talks, discussions, fatwas, that I’m spreading this orientation. We don’t have enough resources and support, and someone said to me, “In order to be popular, you need to be radical.” [smiling] I said, “I’m not going to change.”
That is going to be the most important thing in the future. After war, there is so much trauma. People suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, leading to problems in families, problems in connecting emotionally. Domestic violence increases after war, and the war-violence people experience affects all of their human relationships. Healing from that is very important, and your effort to absorb anger and produce something good from it is significant.
It is what people need most right now. Is any of the anger directed at you personally for saying or not saying certain things? No, it is just anger against the regime, anger at the atrocities. People need a guiding voice, we must embrace them, direct them in the right way, offer them solace. You know, the focus must not be on taking revenge. Revenge is not cured by further revenge; violence merely begets violence. The best way to treat it is by showing more love, showing mercy. This is what we can offer. If we were to really show it, no one could match Muslims in our mercy, but unfortunately, it’s disastrous now. We have to make a huge effort to heal hearts, to heal people’s hearts after the uprising.