At a time when every possible effort is being exerted to end inter-Arab doctrinal, ideological and political differences, an Azharite sheikh sparked a crisis by speaking irreverently of three Muslim sects. Instead of trying to strengthen solidarity and understanding among them, he seemed to undermine any chance of possible rapprochement. People in the sheikh’s position should be discreet enough to look before they leap and to weigh their words well before speaking.
Untimely and unjustifiable
A prominent Azharite sheikh stirred emotions recently when he publicly discredited the validity of three Muslim sects, which are considered the backbone of socio-political structures in many Arab countries, especially Syria and Lebanon. Sheikh Ahmed Taha Rayan’s fatwa elicited very angry strictures from the Druze, Isma’lia and Alawi sects, whose followers insisted that killing the sheikh is the only decent reply to his disrespect of their beliefs. Approximately two months ago, Sheikh Rayan, a professor of comparative fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] in Al-Azhar University, appeared in [sic - on] an Arab satellite channel and fiercely criticized the principles of the three sects which he described as inconsistent with the teachings of Islam. The Alawi sect demanded a formal apology for Al-Azhar and the Egyptian Foreign Ministry notified the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Sheikh Tantawi of the political tension created by Rayan’s fatwa. Tantawi refused to offer an apology and referred the issue to the rector of Al-Azhar University, who referred the issue in turn to the Legal Affairs Department to look into it. Meanwhile, the satellite channel steered clear of this quagmire by apologizing to the Alawi sect. It passed the buck to the sheikh, affirming that his views do not reflect the beliefs or the policy of the channel. The Alawi sect attached this apology to its complaint and demanded a similar apology from Al-Azhar, arguing that its members should be aware of the responsibility of belonging to this prestigious religious institution.
Lapse of judgment
During his interview Sheikh Rayan sent shockwaves among the audience when he bluntly stated that the three sects couldn’t be classified as Muslim sects. He claimed that its followers don’t observe all the fundamental ordinances which Muslims observe. It is very difficult to account for this pathetic lapse of judgment, especially from a man known for his discretion and tolerance of religious differences. It was also very unreasonable for one person to install himself as the paramount judge of other people’s consciences and religious beliefs. The flood of phone-ins to the live show partook [sic] of fury and bitterness, as Alawis from different parts of the world phoned in to contest the sheikh’s unsparing fatwa. Realizing that he unconsciously stepped into [sic - on] a landmine, the sheikh tried to mitigate the severity of his words, arguing that it was not possible to generalize, but it was too late. He already aroused emotion by his glib generalities. One caller said: "Had the speaker been an average person, this ill-informed opinion could have been tolerated. But an Azharite sheikh cannot be forgiven for this folly."
Expatriate Alawi sect followers in Australia, who felt gravely insulted by the sheikh, organized a huge conference where they called for wreaking vengeance on Sheikh Rayan for his irreverence. Another group of Alawi expatriates issued a statement refuting the argument of the sheikh by explaining that they observe all the rites ordained [sic - enjoined] on Muslims. In an effort to politicize the issue, they highlighted that Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad was a follower of the Alawi sect, thereby threatening to stir an acute political crisis. The Foreign Ministry was aware of the tension this issue might spark, especially at the time when the Syrian people voted for Al-Assad to maintain [sic] a new term in of office. Obviously, Sheikh Rayan’s discretion failed to serve him right this time. Over centuries, Al-Azhar maintained a neutral stand regarding the doctrinal differences among Muslim sects in order to avoid the possibility of sectarian seditions. On the contrary, it tried to highlight the common ground they share to prove that they have more similarities than dissimilarities. The reaction of the Alawis may be drastic, but the followers of any sect would have reacted similarly if they had seen their beliefs publicly discredited the such a disrespectful way.