Literary CornerViewpoints and Positions (1/2) [Archives:2005/850/Culture]

June 13 2005

Abu Alkalmah Al-Tayyibah
Undoubtedly, Islam has returned to play a pivotal role in the political arena of this region, in particular and to influence the political arenas even outside the Moslem World. Whether one views this as positive or negative depends on many factors, but nevertheless it is an inevitable phenomenon that needs to be analyzed objectively and constructively to determine if indeed there is health and hope in finding religion back into the mainstream of political life in a world that has, for all intents and purposes, thought that religion will take a backseat in the lives of modern civilization. Needless to say the phenomenon has also not altogether disappeared in the bastions of Western Civilization and indeed the leading role player in the international arena has decided to embark on a not so clear religious platform of fundamentalist Christianity triggered by an upsurge in evangelical extremism, the bounds of which have yet to be clearly drawn.

In the Islamic World, the periods of colonialism and imperialism were important determinants in tightening the reigns on religious political activism and the colonialists did all that was possible to prevent any serious political institutionalism of Islam in the areas that succumbed to colonialist rule. Yet, it should never be forgotten that in most of the Islamic “countries”, where colonialism prevailed, the movements for independence were almost always triggered by Islamic religious leaders, who still hailed from traditional Islamic thought and culture and it was evident in these movements that Islam was still a very strong mobilizer of mass revolt against evil status quos or exploitative international regimes driven by greedy military industrial complexes and rapidly advancing war machines.

This aura also led to the development of more militant and extreme renditions of Islam that were not necessarily radical or revolutionary, but rather sought to project Islam as a static and even reactionary yearning for the establishment of a crude Islamic order that could not adapt to the rapid changes and developments the human experience has belatedly produced in the material and social sciences. The Taliban Movement in Afghanistan and the extremist Salafi Movements elsewhere are a reflection of this latter trend in its most extreme renditions.

The scholar and Islamic jurisdictional expert, H. E. Mr. Ahmed Yahya Al-Shami may be little known outside of Yemen, but is one of the most enlightened Islamic scholars of Yemen, with a very clear perception as to how religion should take part in the political life of people. He is a product of a wide scope religious academic upbringing that exposed the scholar to many different sectarian renditions of Islam, although he is strongly regarded as a reflection of the Zeidi school of Shiite Islam.

Furthermore, he does not hide his interest in the political role that Islam can constructively play in activating people politically and views political involvement as a prerequisite to sound religious adherence and a responsibility imposed on all faithful Moslems. Yet, he insists that this should not mean the imposition of Islamic political philosophy on the society, relying on the Quranic verse: “Let there be no compulsion in religion; rational consciousness has become clearly distinct from faulty thought” (The Holy Qur'an, Surat Al-Baqara, II/Verse 256). Accordingly, in this excellent book on the collected thoughts, statements and interviews of the author, during the period 1990-1994, one can see how Mr. Al-Shami has conjured up an enlightened political philosophy that sees Islam as a force of reason, not extremism; a philosophy of peace and not violence and radical militarism; social interaction not religious, sectarian or factional strife; and more important, cultural enhancement and not rejection of the strides that humanity has made in the different scientific and social fields.

What prompted the inclusion of this interesting book on enlightened Islamic political activism is the recent apparently uncalled for violence that has erupted in the Northern Governorate of Sa'ada and the mistaken allegations, sometimes officially endorsed, that the Al-Haq Party (or Party of Truth) founded by Mr. Al-Shami is the instigator of the violence there.

Some background information:

Modern religious activism in Yemen started in the Early 1970s, when the fundamentalist Salafi school was allowed to establish “Qur'anic teaching schools” throughout the country. Funded by external Wahhabi and Salafi institutional support, as well as budgeted allocations from the Government budget, this movement rapidly was able to implant roots in many areas of Yemen. Thus by the time of the unification of both the former Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the former People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) in May 1990, this movement has developed a strong grass roots base and an equally strong political momentum. However, with the unification of Yemen, came the introduction of democracy, which included the adoption of political pluralism. The Salafi establishment in Yemen, like all the socio-political movements in Yemen openly declared itself a bona fide active political movement that openly sought to have its niche in the political structure that was to evolve in the unified state firmly established. The bountiful resources were there and the many years of nurturing of a grass roots constituency indeed has made the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah) a party to be reckoned with. However, the Islamic dogma adopted by the Islah and the various Salafi images it took on (from extreme to relatively cognitive political coexistence, as the political environment would dictate) drove many others to seek religious political associations that presented a distinct alternative to the less transparent political agenda of the Salafi Movement, and to preserve the general tolerant coexistence that has existed in Yemen between the different sects found in the country for centuries. With the opportunity provided by the adoption of political pluralism, other religious inclinations sought to also establish their presence in the political arena. Mr. Al-Shami, a renowned Islamic scholar, with a long record of honest and effective service in the judicial bench had an understanding of this need to introduce a more enlightened rendition of Islamic political thought and thus project Islam as a dynamic political philosophy that can keep pace with the modern strides in civilized social, political and religious interaction in society. With the support of many of the traditional Islamic scholastic informal orders that still managed to have their strong influence within Yemeni society, and which also are recognized, to a certain extent, by the Government as having important political influence, Mr. Al-Shami introduced his political party into the political arena. Within a relatively short period and relying on autonomous local modest financing sources, the Party of Truth was able to develop a strong organizational framework and to entice many young people to seek their religious fulfillment through a different institutional framework than that which was solely provided by the Salafis.

This success was not to be greeted with enthusiasm by the rival Salafi alternative and to a certain degree by the Government, which regards the former as a strategic ally, and the Al-Haq Party was as much as possible marginalized and taken to be as a force that needs to be confined.

Next week, we will go deep into the thoughts of this remarkable religious and political leader and see if indeed the political philosophies of Mr. Al-Shami and his enlightened institutional approach to the political activism deserves the criticism recently directed against it.