Robin Yassin-Kassab

The Sultan’s Shaikhs and Salafis

with 6 comments

Update: Syria’s tame mufti Hassoun has said there is no truth to the news which I repeat below, that Buti, Hassoun and other clerics met with the minister of Awqaf and decided to cancel taraweeh prayers. I heard the false report from someone in Syria. Obviously a rumour was circulating.

When I lived in Syria in the 1990s people would speak very respectfully about Shaikh Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti, a Damascus-based cleric and a traditionalist. I could never quite understand why. I attended his mosque once after an American bombing run on sanctions-starved Iraq; on that occasion Buti blamed the deaths in Iraq on ‘a lack of love between the Muslims.’ Perhaps some of the congregation imagined this was a veiled criticism of the Arab leaders. People called al-Buti honest and fearless.

I had a conversation with someone who taught archeology at Damascus University. This academic arranged a debate on human origins, the scientific versus the religious view. The debate went very well until Shaikh Buti arrived, with entourage. The cleric encouraged noisy religious chanting until the debate had been entirely disrupted, at which point he declared ‘this is a victory for belief over unbelief’ and had himself carried away on the shoulders of his admirers. A great victory indeed.

Throughout the Syrian uprising, Buti has told Syria’s Muslims to trust the regime that is murdering them. He has repeatedly condemned peaceful demonstrations for dignity and rights. He has accused the protestors who set out from Friday mosques of not knowing how to pray. I accuse Buti of not knowing how to think, or feel, and of having no moral sense. Yesterday, following the most savage massacres yet perpetrated by the regime, Buti released a ‘fatwa’ cancelling the taraweeh prayers which are held every evening during Ramadan. The truth could not be clearer: this ‘honest, fearless’ cleric is even willing to cancel prayers when he is ordered to by the state. He is to religion what Dunya TV and Syria Comment are to objective reporting; what the shabeeha are to domestic security. Many of Syria’s Christian leaders, meanwhile, have taken the most unChristian step of joining in state propaganda against unarmed Syrian citizens even as these citizens – of all sects – are tortured, maimed and humiliated.

Buti is a traditionalist, someone so sunk in stale books that he fails to notice the real world in front of him. As such, he’s a lot better than the modernist Salafis who have recently proliferated in the hothouse made by Saudi money and rapid urbanisation, deracinated Muslims whose ugly, intolerant, rule-based version of religion strips away Islam’s history, philosophy, mysticism and morality. Salafists preach obedience to the ‘wali al-amr‘ – whoever is in power. As a result they contributed absolutely nothing to the struggle against Mubarak’s regime in Egypt. But now that Mubarak has fallen, Salafis seek to profit from the new situation. Last Friday, along with the reactionary Muslim Brotherhood, they hijacked a rally in Tahreer Square, where they chanted against a secular, civil state and emitted such diplomatic slogans as ‘We’re all Osama.’ Given that people claiming allegiance to bin Laden have recently burnt and blown up Egyptian churches, such declarations of loyalty are far more intimidating to Egyptians than they are to foreign imperialists.

Religion as practised and understood by very many people in the Arab world today is, unfortunately, a hindrance to the revolutionary movement, either because it serves as a tool of power or because it is an expression of ignorance, arrogance and fear.

Tariq Ali wrote the poem below in response to the Brotherhood/ Salafi demonstration in Tahreer.

Patience exhausted

You emerged from the shadows

To tell us what was forbidden and why.

You spoke loudly and clearly,

Each chant a whiplash:

God is Great!

The laws of God transcend democracy!

Liberals and secularists are the scum of the earth!

Copts too!

And uncovered women!

And leftists, trapped on the wrong side of history,

Their rage impotent, their numbers miniscule!

We Brothers represent the will of God!

Who told you?

Why did you believe him?

Was it the will of God that your leaders collaborate with Mubarak?

What of your rivals at home who claim the same?

And your noisy neighbours, each with their preachers in tow?

The Sultans in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh?

The Ayatollahs in Qom and Karbala?

The godly warlords in the White House?

The Pope in the Vatican?

The Rabbis in the Jerusalem Synagogue?

Their God is great too, is he not?

The Book teaches us there is only one God,

Omnipotent, indivisible, all-seeing.

Why does He speak in so many different tongues and voices?

Is He trying to please all at the same time?

Both Israel and Palestine?

Both oppressor and oppressed?

Leave Him alone for the moment,

Tell us what else you believe in?

How will you deal with our exploiters

starting with those inside your ranks?

Does the sun belong to you alone?

Is your God a neoliberal?

Must the poor live off charity for ever?

Why are our people despairing?

How long will you chain their freedoms?

Whose side are you really on?
Tariq Ali

31 July 2011

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 1, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Posted in Egypt, Syria

Tagged with ,

6 Responses

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  1. Robin,

    I agree with the message your trying to put through in the article but disagree with some points, more on accuracy.

    1) Al-Buti & the ministry of religious endowments denied the rumour that they issued any statement or held a meeting to discuss the possibility of cancelling taraweeh prayers.


    2) Much of the provocative chanting in Tahrir square was not orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood or even many Salafi groups (e.g. Hizb an-Nour) but instigated mainly in the Salafi zone and by the likes of Hazem Shoman, who is known for being provocative.


    Also, something on Hazem Shoman

    3) Salafis are not homogeneous but are varied – some are indeed submissive to repressive rulers but others believe in armed confrontation and believe nation states, in Muslim majority countries, to be non-Islamic (Kufr). Also, the label ‘modernist’ is problematic, though I understand why you used it. Overall, Salafis adhere to a given creed but differ in some details (e.g. the boundaries of belief/disbelief) and also its application. For example, Usama Qoosi, an Egytpian Salafi preaches that there is no reason to reject the idea of a Coptic as head of state. This position was declared as heretical by other Salafis.


    August 1, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    • You’re right about the taraweeh. I saw that, and updated the post.

      And I agree with your information on Salafis too.

      Robin Yassin-Kassab

      August 1, 2011 at 7:43 pm

  2. Thanks Robin. Just wanted to note, the first youtube video (new Egyptian channel ‘Al-Tahrir) shows an interview with Essam Aryan, who is one of the Brotherhood’s senior leaders. Essam Aryan makes an important point that those attending this rally at Tahrir Square were in no way in unison. There were groups present representing individual from a certain neighbourhood or a local mosque and each carried their own banners and demands. I believe this is all predictable and healthy, it is important to have this transparency and openness in discussing these issues, Mubarak was only toppled a few months ago – if some Salafis want to preach and show their strength, then why be alarmed. Currently people are organising and everyday a new party or group appears. I’m actually more suspicious of the ruling military council, the state’s security apparatus and big capital interests, the social capital they’ve built hasn’t just disappeared. Of course, they’ll attempt to manipulate the newly emerging political landscape and that includes all groups, regardless of ideologies.


    August 2, 2011 at 3:41 am

  3. This piece was a quick ‘blog’, not a long, considered overview. I’ve written a long essay on egypt which will be published in the first issue of ‘the critical muslim’ – in the shops late september. I even interview Essam al-Eryan. Of course the SCAF has more poweer than Salafis. But, for a variety of reasons, I don’t like either Salafis or the ikhwan. I don’t trust them as far as I can throw them. I wouldn’t like to live in a society run by either of them. I don’t like the idea of a aprty or president in power that thinks it has God’s authority behind it. I don’t like the way most people mistake sharia for the word of God. I don’t like the escapism of Islamism, or its frequent deals with power. I don’t like the looming power of Saudi Arabia behind these groups. Yes, there are all kinds of Islamist, and they must be allowed to operate freely in a democracy, but if they gain too much power thay will destroy the democracy. As the old dictators fall, I think it’s time to attack Islamists – verbally not physically. It’s time to argue against them.

    Robin Yassin-Kassab

    August 2, 2011 at 11:55 am

  4. Nice poem indeed..I got some additional remarks and questions regarding religious leaders and the people who think that Syrian regime protects them from extremists, days ago Sherif Shehada said on Al arabiya channel that the Syrian regime (he said Syria cause they always call them selves ‘Syria’)couls also start TV channels to make Shiia revolt in the Gulf states . Everyone knows that the Gulf states are ruled by sunns and Shiaa will never get any power positions..The channels he mentionned were sectarian salfist channels indeed, but…How come the regime did not care, did not say a word, all this time about the ugly sectarian thoughts they were spreading, and only protested when these channels sided with the Syrian revolution against the regime?? (details here http://bit.ly/r4z2hJ )


    August 10, 2011 at 4:14 pm

  5. Reblogged this on Sulthony’s Blog and commented:
    I’m indonesia and this kind of report is not found in my country

    sceptic minded

    February 24, 2012 at 3:20 pm

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