Moving Perspectives – Shafaqna Exclusive Interview with Youssif al-Khoei

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SHAFAQNA –  In order to bring you, our readers, closer to realities and truths, Shafaqna will conduct a series of exclusive podcast interviews with renown political analysts politicians, officials, religious leaders, and academics.

As always our aim is simple – knowledge.

In a world run, and based on falsehood, Truth has become somewhat of a rare commodity – still, we ought to seek what has been dissimulated as to rise truly free.

As Imam Ali said: “Ask in order to understand, and do not ask in order to find fault, for surely the ignorant man who wants to learn resembles a man of knowledge, and surely a man of knowledge who wants to be difficult resembles an ignorant man who wants to find fault.”

Following is the interview Catherine Shakdam, director of programs for the Shafaqna Institute of Middle Eastern Studies conducted with Youssif al-Khoei.

Yousif al-Khoei is the Executive Director of the Al-Khoei Foundation in London, a major international Islamic charity institute and socio-economic foundation established under the patronage and auspices of his grandfather, the late Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qassim al-Khoei of Iraq. Apart from his philanthropic work, al-Khoei is also a co-founder of Dialogue, an current affairs Islamic monthly magazine and is a regular participant in interfaith initiatives, and a founding trustee of several Muslim organizations, including the Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism and the Association of Muslim Social Scientists. al-Khoei was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 2008 for his work with the British Muslim community.

SHAFAQNA – Earlier this July AhlulBayt TV published a documentary discussing the issue of Shia rights, and the repression Shia communities have had to face over the years by the hands of radicals, and/or violent political regime. From Bahrain to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, Shia Muslims have been branded undesirables, dissidents, and heretics. Al Khoei has been instrumental in bringing such issues to the attention of the United Nations. How do you understand developments in the world today, and why has such violence remained grossly under-reported by the press?

YOUSIF AL KHOEI – For too long, Shi’a Muslims in much of the Muslim world have lived as a silent minority, who are not featured in the public domain. Sadly, a significant number of those who profess expertise in Shi’a Islam have shown themselves to be ignorant of its history, culture, politics, and theology. Some make grand and misleading assumptions about Shi’sm based on politicised views and ideological stances taken against the Islamic Republic of Iran, the civil wars in Lebanon, or the Iraq invasion. It is very sad indeed that the great tradition of Shi’a Islam with its long history, vast intellectual output, rich philosophy, and proud heritage, is reduced to recent political phenomena.  

Many also confuse between political ideologies that claim affiliation with Islam and religious theologies and spiritual outlooks. Like other religious traditions, the religious experiences in Shi’a Islam are diverse, multifaceted, and plentiful. The faithful is free to choose their religious leader and free to turn for spiritual advice to whomever they feel is most qualified. Spiritual leaders are often not political figures. In most cases these leaders steer clear of politics and do not express any political ideology.  

Often overlooked is the fact that for far too long, Shi’a Muslims have been the subject of state-led persecutions, social and political marginalisation, and harassment and imprisonment in countries, especially where they are a minority. Opposition to the rights of Shi’a Muslims is usually motivated by politics – by those who consider Iran, and Shi’a Muslims by extension, an adversary – and theology – by those who view Shi’a Muslims are disbelievers and heretics.  

The Al-Khoei Foundation has striven for decades to ensure that Shi’a Muslims – wherever they may be – are afforded equal rights of worship and freedom of expression with all citizens of their respective homeland. The Foundation has gone to great lengths to promote inter and intra-faith initiatives, to foster harmony between Sunnis and Shi’as, and to forge common ground between representatives of different religious communities.

SHAFAQNA – Al Khoei Foundation has done extensive work in the field of education, interfaith and of course the promotion of human rights. For those who are not yet familiar with your work, and your goals, how would you define your purpose, and how does it offer a reflection of Islamic principles?

YOUSIF AL KHOEI – Our purpose is defined by the Islamic ethical principles of duty towards one’s community and our commitment, as a charity, to help the poor and needy. Our educational programmes are motivated primarily by our desire to keep alive the heritage of the Prophet Muhammad (p) and his Ahl al-bay. It is true that much of the studies in western universities and by orientalists have not given Shi’a Islam sufficient attention; some usually saw the Shi’a tradition as a reaction to Sunni Islam, which is, of course, historically inaccurate and the opposite of reality. This lack of proper grasp of Shi’sm is reflected into the textbooks that are taught in religious studies syllabi in and around the United Kingdom, for example.

The Al-Khoei Foundation and other Shi’a organisations feel that this needs to be rectified and this definition of Shi’a Islam as a reaction to Sunni Islam needs to be brought to academic scrutiny, particularly as there is a lot more in common between Sunni and Shi’a as people might gather at first sight. Any theological difference should be put in the right context where the end game is educating and teaching the pupils about the faiths, rather than preaching and polarising students.

The Al-Khoei Foundation was pleased that very recently the national curriculum bodies responsible for the teaching of Islam in British schools have decided to include a significant component on Shi’a Islam. Future generations may now be better informed and will benefit much, we hope, from those teachings of Shi’sm that promote tolerance, respect for as can be found, for example, in the sayings of Imam Ali (s) and Imam Zainul Abideen (s).

In fact, one of our main purposes is to fight for the rights of all minorities that are discriminated against. We also aspire to bridge the gap between all minorities and to strengthen relations with other faiths as well as groups of no faith. This draws on the Islamic principles taught to us by Imam Ali (s) who famously said, “Humans are either your brothers in faith or your equals in humanity.”

SHAFAQNA –  Islam it has been often argued is facing an internal crisis against radicalism. Do you think this assessment fair, when so many Islamic clerics and scholars have already denounced takfirism as profoundly un-Islamic?

YOUSIF AL KHOEI – Islam today faces a number of challenges related to globalisation, leadership and social and economic equalities from within. This has given rise to powerful and sometimes sinister actors within the world of Islam, who use religion as a means to expand their power base and promote versions of Islam that spread intolerance, hate, and social resentment, which has unfortunately given rise to so much violence and extremism. Such actors often have friends and supporters within the western foreign policy making circles and are tolerated because of their strategic, economic and oil interests. It will require a major shift in policy to deal with the causes of the rise of extremism and statements from religious leaders should not be expected to deal with this important issue of our times.

SHAFAQNA –  As you know much of the violence and upheaval currently unfolding in the Middle East has been blamed on this infamous divide which the media claims exist in between Sunnis and Shias. How would you define this Schism? Does it really exist in religious terms?

YOUSIF AL KHOEI – Shi’as and Sunnis have had a mixed history of coexistence and conflict. You will find that most conflicts have been caused by political leaders and rulers who were more interested in the preservation of the rule and maintaining their empires. We are witnessing something similar today where political actors are in fact the ones directly responsible for stoking sectarian strife in order to keep their grip on power. The truth of the matter is, the overwhelming majority of the Sunni and Shi’a faithful can and do in fact live side-by-side in harmony and have done so for centuries. For example, the Sunnis and Zaydis, a branch of Shi’sm, co-existed for centuries in Yemen and ironically the Saudis helped keep president Saleh, who is a Zaidi in power and provided him with arms. Yet suddenly when the political equations changed, the conflict was given a sectarian narrative.

SHAFAQNA – The word Shia has been used and abused at length but do people actually understand what being Shia entails? How would you define Shia Islam? What principles it offers, and why do so many factions feel threaten by its teachings?

YOUSIF AL KHOEI – I speak as a social activist with experience in religious dialogue and religious education. For me Shi’sm is a unique reading of Islam. Shi’sm that dimension of the Islamic faith that focuses on love and community. We are encouraged to love our creator, our prophet, and our imams. We are also encouraged to love good moral values and correct ethical conduct. By the same token, Shi’sm entails a duty and commitment to the community at large. The followers of the Ahl al-bayt are but a single community akin to a brotherhood. Bonds of spiritual and religious commitment to emulate the teachings and actions of the Prophet (p) and his Ahl al-bayt unite us. And as such rooted in the psyche of every Shi’a is the desire to ensure love prevails over hate, to ensure justice wins over injustice, and to ensure community bonds are maintained.

SHAFAQNA – The issue of the World Islamic Heritage was recently brought back to the forefront of a media debate this July after the Baqee Org held a protest in Washington DC to denounce the disappearing of Islam holy sites in Saudi Arabia and around the world. The organization argues the world is facing a cultural and historical genocide. Do you concur? How grave is this issue?

YOUSIF AL KHOEI – Our identity as religious believers is defined in part by our heritage and the great achievements of past civilisations and scholarly communities. Monuments and sites of religious and cultural significance are a constant reminder of our religious identity. Future generations will look back at these cultural and historical monuments and find inspiration to do great things. On a more religious level, the visitation of burial places and shrines of Muslim personalities is an important component of spiritual life for both Shi’a and Sunni. Islamic teachings make clear that blessings are sent to these sites and places and that angels decent to pay respects. Equally important is the social dimension of these sites where believers come together in spiritual communion and social harmony. They keep the flame of Islam alive and offer an opportunity for Muslims to renew the bond of love and devotion that ties believers to God.

Attempts to eradicate these sites and threats to destroy important shrines are nothing more than an affront on the key tenets of Islamic spirituality and a dishonouring of Islamic heritage. The issue is grave and serious. To prevent we need to speak in unison against any actor who wishes harm to these sacred places.

The Al Baqee Cemetery in Medina is important to both Sunni and Shi’a Muslims as it contains the graves of many of the early companions and family members of The Prophet Muhammad (p). Muslims continue to visit these sites during Hajj, but unfortunately these shrines were bulldozed in 1925. Al Baqee Organisation and others continue to remind Muslims of the need to rebuild these shrines and ensure that the ideology of justifying their destruction, as we saw by Daesh in Mosul and other likeminded groups in Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Mali, Libya and others is condemned by the Muslim community and international organisations. We need better international conventions and mechanism to specifically protect and preserve places of worship and hold perpetrators accountable.

SHAFAQNA – How do you envision interfaith relations?

YOUSIF AL KHOEI – For me interfaith relations are vital for many reasons. The main being is they offer genuine insights into the religious beliefs of faiths. These insights form the basis of understanding and respect. Interfaith relations in my view are not about proselytizing but discovering common ground and learning to appreciate the uniqueness of all faiths. It also has practical implications for our communities; we come together in times of difficulty and crisis to avoid polarisation and hatred. Our interfaith work in prisons, for example, ensures that there are better accommodation of all faiths who are together in a confined place.

We are also introducing the training of imams to include the understanding of the basic tenants of other faiths and are opening a major centre for training Imams in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq, where students of theology will study other traditions as well the four Sunni schools of Islam.

In Baghdad, we have set up an Iraqi Council for Interfaith Dialogue which brings together all faiths in Iraq and defends the rights of religious minorities.

SHAFAQNA – How would you address indoctrination? What can be done to eradicate radicalism in the world?

YOUSIF AL KHOEI – Indoctrination thrives on ignorance. Those who indoctrinate rely on the ignorance individuals who, as much evidence has shown, lack proper understanding of the basic teachings of Islam. Allow me to elaborate. It is true that radical groups such as Daesh are seemingly well versed in Islamic scripture but their actions still betray profound ignorance of the Islamic tradition. There is a difference between having access to vast amounts of knowledge and understanding that knowledge. Google search engine, for example, is undoubtedly the possessor of more knowledge about Islam than millions of Muslims. But is Google capable of generating an Islamic ruling by its own accord? No! Google search engine while having access to unlimited information about Islam is incapable of fathoming the content of writings on Islamic law or theology. The vast majority of radicals operate similarly to search engines. They may be able to recall facts about Islamic history and memorise long chapters from the Quran, but they are certainly incapable of grasping the content of ideas and forming an intelligent opinion on theology or law. This is why one notices that all radicals repeat the same rhetoric as if reciting the same formula dictated to them by the same source.

SHAFAQNA –  Muslims have often claim that Islam to be the religion of peace, while others have argued it is the religion of justice. What do you say?

YOUSIF AL KHOEI – The Islamic tradition offers both. Its teachings offer much more than peace and justice. It is quite problematic to reduce the great and vastly rich tradition of Islam to one or two categories. Some would argue that justice can only be implemented when peace is established. So the two are not separate but interdependent.   

SHAFAQNA –  Saudi Arabia and Wahhabi clerics have long made a case against shrines, arguing that it equates to idolatry. Can you clear this matter for our readers and explain the principle of intercession.

YOUSIF AL KHOEI – Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab’s ideology is recent and no older than two or three centuries. Its founders sidestepped centuries of Islamic learning and scholarly opinion in order to advance arguments rooted in ideologies of hate and intolerance. The arguments for intercession are well known and do not require further clarification. But I will say this: For well over twelve maybe thirteen centuries all Muslim societies, empires, scholars, jurists, theologians, and spiritual masters accepted without hesitation the visitation of shrines and intercession as acts of devotional piety. It is laughable that a puritanical group who insist on literal readings of Islamic scripture and who are woefully ignorant of Islamic history, want to lecture the rest of the Muslim world about devotional piety.

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