A chat with Muhammad al Yaqoubi, a prominent Syrian Islamic scholar who taught at Damascus' Grand Umayyad Mosque. Self-exiled, wanted by the Assad regime and Daesh, his mission is to tackle extremism, help Syrians and revive spirituality in Islam.
When the Syrian uprising started in 2011, Shaykh Muhammad al Yaqoubi was one of the first Sunni scholars to support the peaceful demonstrations. In his home city of Damascus, he rose to prominence when he vocally criticised the Assad regime for its harsh crackdown on protesters and demanded that Bashar al Assad resign to allow for democratic changes. Under pressure from the Assad regime, Yaqoubi was forced into exile and fled to Morocco.
In 2015, Yaqoubi published the book Refuting ISIS: A Rebuttal of Its Religious and Ideological Foundations, which used evidence grounded in Quranic verses and the Prophet Muhammad's traditions and sayings to refute arguments made by Daesh. He concluded that the armed group's so-called caliphate was not legitimate and that fighting against the group was an obligation for Muslims. The book received an enthusiastic response. Following a wave of terrorist attacks across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, Yaqoubi published the second edition in 2016.
A leading theologian, jurist and spiritual master in the Sufi tradition, Yaqoubi founded the UK based educational initiative Sacred Knowledge to spread the teachings of orthodox Sunni Islam. He has since held intensive programmes and trained hundreds of students, imams and preachers across the world, including in the UK, Finland, South Africa, Turkey, Indonesia and the US. He has also been listed several times in Georgetown University's Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding's annual The 500 Most Influential Muslims.
Now Yaqoubi says that despite the recent wins by pro-Assad forces in Syria, he wants people to help Syrians through acts of charity. He sat down with TRT World's Mohamed Taha.
What did you think when the first demonstrations started in Syria in 2011?
MUHAMMAD AL YAQOUBI: We had a lot of hope when the demonstrations started. We thought the Assad regime would collapse in a few months. But unfortunately, the Assad regime forced the opposition — by very extreme atrocities and using power, military power — against peaceful demonstrators which pushed people into carrying guns to fight. That was very unfortunate. People had to defend themselves.... of course anyone who was attacked, villages invaded, massacres committed — people had to defend themselves. But that has changed the whole struggle of the Syrian people.
Why did you oppose Assad at the time?
MA: Any free man must oppose Assad. Assad has been killing his people — [current President Bashar Hafez al] Assad the son, and [former President Hafez al] Assad the father — continually, systemically for 40 years. In prison, torture was a policy, it wasn't an exception. In terms of the economy, the country was robbed. The Assad family and the closest circle around it just usurped people's wealth. They made people poor and needy. No, we knew it was going to change at one point or the other. In the 80s or the 90s, people were in a state of of anesthesia, they were totally helpless. They couldn't even make any move towards freedom or towards a change of regime because of the oppression. Now, with the media around the world, everything is filmed, everything is put on air on the following day, in a few hours. Now people had [the] courage to go to the streets, thinking that the world would help them, and [that] so-called democratic countries, big democracies around the world, would stand by their struggle. But [the Syrian people] were left alone.
Six years on, in hindsight, how do you feel about what has happened?
MA: The Syrian people will never stop fighting for their freedom but unfortunately, the whole Syrian uprising has taken a different image. People are coming from around the world for their own agendas. They're not coming to help the Syrian people, they're coming with certain goals already set in their minds, either to fight the West or the US or build the so-called Islamic State which they actually envisioned in their own minds. That did a lot of damage to the Syrian people in their peaceful struggle against the Assad regime.
Do you see this as a religious conflict as much as a civil conflict?
MA: It is a civil conflict; people are asking for freedom. Now we have people who are turning it into a religious conflict. People did not fight for an "Islamic" state, this is the point. Syria is already an Islamic country. Eighty per cent of the Syrian legislation is compatible with Sharia [Islamic law]. So any changes have to be done gradually in accordance with people's wills. Now someone coming from different parts of the world, to implement Sharia in Syria, cut fingers or throw people from top of buildings, is not how Sharia is supposed to be. This is not how Sharia was implemented and practised in the past centuries. Sharia is full of mercy. Islam is the religion of justice. Whenever you see injustice, whether in the name of Islam or the name of dictatorship, you should know that it is against God's instructions.
As an Islamic scholar, what is your analysis of the ideology of Daesh and where does it come from?
MA: The ideology of Daesh is an extremist ideology. Of course it grew within Islam and between Muslims so definitely it has its roots in Islam, it has texts from the Quran, it has texts from the hadith of the Prophet, peace be upon him. I believe the main methodology they are using to produce their extremist ideology is relying on the apparent meaning of sacred text. By that I mean taking the letter of the text, not the spirit of the text. That's the main difference. Because you have a text. Now the text may be applied in different centuries by different people in different counties. This is one of the most important features of Islamic Sharia. It is applicable. Many of its fiqh, or Islamic legal rulings, are changeable depending on the circumstances. We have for example five daily prayers; you can't change this. You have fasting the month of Ramadan; you can't change this... But the implementation, the application of Sharia depends on the understanding of the sacred text. Now this is a science, this is jurisprudence. Great scholars of the past like the founders of four madhabs [Islamic schools of law within Sunni Islam]: Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Shafi, Imam Malik, Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal. These great imams and many others, and even their followers and their students, they had methodologies. We call it Usul al fiqh, or jurisprudence.
Now these people unfortunately — in ISIS or other similar organisations — they totally neglect this science. They neglect the understanding of the Arabic language. They do not recognise the use of metaphor. They do not recognise the context of the text. Let's say a certain legal ruling was applied 1,400 years ago, because a verse of the Quran was revealed for a certain case. Now, the case is different. It's not my job as an ordinary Muslim just to take a verse from the Quran and say the situation is similar, I'm making myself here like a legislator. It doesn't work. That's the main issue with ISIS, they are making themselves scholars, judges, Muftis, giving legal opinions and then executors. So anyone carrying a machine gun now does all of these things together and in five minutes, someone is killed because they believe he committed a crime against Islam.
Daesh has put you on a hit list. They called you an apostate. Are you concerned about this?
MA: I'm not concerned about this. They can't decide on people's lifespans. It's already set up by God I believe. This is not going to sway us from our mission. We have a message to convey to the world about Islam being a religion of peace, a religion of mercy. These people whether ISIS or any other names, they are all various brands of the same product, we don't care how much they threaten us. They will not exist. They are born to die because there's no ideology in Islam that will support them. They are twisting texts, they are manipulating some religious rulings, they are brainwashing people because of anger or the injustices implemented on Muslims around the world.
But Muslims are clever and intelligent. They are learning now that you cannot burn a Muslim alive and the Prophet made it forbidden. They are learning that you can never kill an innocent person. You cannot kill a person, a non-Muslim, travelling to the Muslim world. Or a non-Muslim living with you in your country — in the West, or in the Far East, or any non-Muslim country. Muslims are learning how the Prophet, peace be upon him, protected innocent life, how he protected people's honour, people's wealth. What is happening now by ISIS or others does not belong to Islam.
You have argued in your book that Daesh constitutes the most serious threat Islam has ever faced. Do you still believe dealing with Daesh is first and foremost an internal battle within Islam, and then an external problem for the world?
MA: Yes, because they are now making people believe they represent Islam. They are destroying Islam from within it, from inside it. They are saying Allah says, the Prophet says. They are quoting the Quran and words of the Prophet, peace be upon him. We can't just let people use the holy Quran and noble hadith of the Prophet and keep silent. Those people threaten the very existence of Islam and the very identity of Muslims. They are playing with Muslim's emotions and this is very serious.
What is the most effective way to combat this extremism?
MA: I believe there are two major points that we need to refocus on. We should admit the fact that in the last 70 years, Islam has not been presented as it was presented thirteen centuries before. Thirteen centuries before there were two major points that were central in creating and forming the image of a Muslim, a personality, a character of a Muslim.
One is following the example of the Prophet. So people would recite prayers upon the Prophet. The celebration of the birth of the Prophet, following the Prophet, focusing on the character of the Prophet. The Prophet was central in a Muslim's life. They never studied his wars. They would study his miracles; they would study his character. Wars were studied by scholars in order to study international law. Not to practise on everyday life. What they studied in everyday life was how the Prophet treated orphans, how he interacted with boys, how he lived inside his home and helped his wives in the housework. How he went into the market and did his shopping as an ordinary person. How he pardoned people, how he was generous. These examples were central in people's lives. So everyone embraced the example of the Prophet. So Muslims in the past 13 centuries, mercy stemmed from their hearts.
The other point is spirituality. We should admit the fact that in the past 70 years there hasn't been much focus on spirituality. I mean here mainstream media, curricular in schools, Islamic education, faculties of Sharia. This element of spiritual upbringing, cultivation, spiritual light and spiritual dimension of Islam which focuses on the cure of the diseases of the heart, which focuses on the growth of the spirit of the Muslim. Putting hope on treating the anger. There are angry people, you can be angry and Muslims in the past were angry. My job as a scholar is to treat this anger. Not to make a Muslim kill himself because is angry. My job is to give him a peaceful route for change and plant in his heart a love for life. Now what these extremists are doing is love for death. This is totally against Islamic principle. Now if people are poor, do they rebel against society? No. This is what is called Sufism in Islam, spirituality. Our job is to open for them routes for change, for positive change. Rather than feeding their anger and making them rebel against the government. That spiritual dimension of Islam is totally absent now, except in small communities.
Long-term solutions need to refocus on the Islamic discourse. Making the Prophet, peace be upon him, the centre in our life because we have him as an example of mercy. Interestingly enough, the previous spokesperson of ISIS twisted one of these statements. Allah says in the Quran talking about Prophet Muhammad, we have not sent you but as a mercy. Now Abu Mohamed al Adnani, ISIS spokesperson, [who] was killed, twisted this, distorted the whole Islamic verse by saying we have not sent you but as mercy but with sword or I was sent by sword as a mercy. This is never mentioned in the Quran. See how this is twisted. We need to refocus... and revive the spiritual dimension of Islam [which] is the cure of extremism.
We witnessed tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing the besieged city of Aleppo in December. Once again, the humanitarian crisis caught the world's attention. How do we make sure we don't forget the people suffering after the headlines fade away?
MA: The best route for calming ourselves is to help relieve the Syrian people from some of their agonies. The Syrian people do not need bullets. They don't need bombs. They need bread. They need medicine. They need shelters. So we're angry because of what we see now let's adopt an orphan. Let's help a charity, let's provide some bread. I choose this route because I believe this it the route to bring life. To bring hope. To bring smiles. This mercy, this help that we show to the Syrian people in this time of agony I believe they will be really grateful to anyone who helps them. Friends in need, friends indeed.
The recent ceasefire in Syria is a great win to the Syrian people; we pray it lasts. Let Syrians go back to peaceful means of change.— Muhammad Al-Yaqoubi (@Shaykhabulhuda) December 30, 2016
Do you expect that one day you can return to Syria? What will the country look like when you do?
MA: Syrians have a lot of hope in a future Syria. We know Syria is a blessed land. We know those oppressors have no future. That is a divine law. How long they [the oppressors] are going to last, a year or five years or maybe next month, Syrians have a lot of hope that they will return to their homes. I have a vision that Syria will be rebuilt again. That people will come back to Syria and will enjoy freedom, democracy, dignity in Syria. And we will put our hands together as we did before, regardless of our affiliations or political ideologies or our religions or ethnicities. We will build Syria together. There are a lot of powers who do not want to see a united Syria, there are a lot of parties who do not want the Syrian people united. But we will stick together and we have hopes that Syria will come back again.