This conversation began in the sparsely furnished but cavernous office of Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar, in ‘medieval’ Cairo, that part of the city which showcases Egypt’s Islamic heritage. It continued with other sheikhs of the world’s oldest university and the highest seat of Sunni theology over cups of scalding oversweet cinnamon-favoured Turkish coffee. In between, there was a detour by way of evenings spent with smart, young, educated Arabs in Jeddah, the gateway to Mecca, symbol of global Islam.
A 2008 file photo of an Indian para-military soldier standing guard during a remembrance ceremony of the 2001 Parliament attack. Pic/AFP
The common thread that ran through this conversation was Islam’s response to jihadi terrorism. Is causing death and destruction in the name of Islam justified? Does Islam prescribe punishment for terrorists? Should Muslims protest if a terrorist is made to feel the pain he/she inflicts on others?
I met Sheikh Tantawi three months after the December 13, 2001 terrorist attack on Parliament House. A parliamentary delegation had by then visited Cairo to sensitise the Egyptian Government about the facts of the case, especially Pakistan’s role in the attack, and present dossiers that I had helped prepare. The Egyptians didn’t need much convincing: their embassy in Islamabad had been blown up by jihadis on November 19, 1995.
The Grand Sheikh, in a grey gelabeya and a white wrap-around turban, was surprisingly well informed about the attack on Parliament House and when I popped the question — what does he have to say about the attack? — sputtered in rage. “Terrorism is aggression against innocent men, women and children,” he said, waving his hands to indicate rejection of any contrary suggestion.
“In the name of Islam I reject and condemn the aggression against innocent people, regardless of whatever side, sect or country the aggression comes from,” he added, spacing out the words so that my interpreter would not miss out on any. Islam, he said, “shows no mercy to such aggressors (as those who attacked Parliament House).”
Later, an Al Azhar sheikh who is acknowledged as a scholar of sharia’h explained to me what the Grand Sheikh meant by “no mercy”. It is often claimed, he said, that apostasy and murder — apart from adultery — are the only crimes that invite the death penalty under Islamic law. “But capital punishment is not meant to apply only to change or renunciation of faith,” he said, adding, “it is also meant to punish acts such as treason, joining forces with the enemy, and sedition.”
Another sheikh, who is often denounced by Islamists for not endorsing the “martyrdom” of Palestinian suicide bombers, stressed the need to mete out harsh punishment to terrorists. “At the end of it all, yes, eternal punishment for the crimes we commit in this world are in Allah’s hands,” he said, and then asserted, “but we should not forget that there is a place for punishment in this world as well.”
He should know. Islamic Egypt had no compunctions about sending Sayyid Qutb, the chief ideologue of Islamism, to the gallows on August 29, 1966 for “plotting to overthrow the state”. Earlier, Hassan al Banna, founder of Muslim Brotherhood, the mother of all jihadi organisations, was shot dead by the mukhabarat in February, 1949, for encouraging armed insurrection. Now Mohamed Morsi and his Ikhwan mentor are on death row.
What emerged from these and other conversations with scholars in Al Azhar, whose knowledge of Islamic theology is impeccable and whose faith in Islam is unquestionable, is in sharp contrast to what is claimed by those who rush to defend terrorists.
Harsh punishment, all of them said, serves as “a deterrent for those who harm innocent people or threaten to destabilise the foundation of society”. Two crimes in particular, they insisted, should fetch the death penalty: Intentional murder and fasaad fi al-ardh (“spreading mischief in the land”). It was also pointed out to me that unlike Christianity, Islam prescribes capital punishment for “those who threaten to undermine authority or destabilise the state”.
Scholars of Islam have variously interpreted fasaad fi al-ardh and, over a period of time, “spreading mischief in the land” has come to mean a variety of crimes or deviant behaviour that “affect the community as a whole, and destabilise society”. Some of the crimes that come under the rubric of fasaad fi al-ardh are treason, apostasy, terrorism, land, sea or air piracy, rape, adultery, and homosexuality.
Ahmed and his friends, whom I met through a common friend in Jeddah, are more informed about the world of high finance than Islamic theology. But they are devout Muslims who chose to return to Saudi Arabia than stay on in the US after their graduate studies in some of the top business schools.
And their views on terrorism run contrary to popular notions of Saudi Arabia as a seething mass of Osama bin Laden clones. “We have been taught, and we believe, that Islam forbids inciting terror in the hearts of defenceless people, the destruction of buildings and properties, the bombing and maiming of innocent men, women, and children,” Ahmed said, adding, “Islam does not subscribe to the view that a political cause can be advanced or assisted by such immoral acts.”
Perhaps they were echoing the views of Sheikh Abd al-Aziz bin Abdallah Aal al-Sheikh, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, head of the Saudi commission of senior Islamic scholars and the supreme Islamic authority in the kingdom that lives by the unflinchingly strict code of Wahabi Islam. Asked for his views on Islamist terrorism, including hijacking of aircraft, attacks against security personnel and suicide operations — like the one on Parliament House — he described them as “illegitimate” and “having nothing to do with jihad in the cause of Allah.”
After the public execution of three terrorists, who had been found guilty of bombings, killing security personnel and using a car seized from an expatriate Indian, on an April Friday, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Maiman, a well-known Saudi religious scholar, added another definition to fasaad fi al-ardh: Such crimes, he said, “are called acts of corruption in Islam, and the Quran has warned people against indulging in them”.
We should be grateful that in secular India, terrorists are not decapitated or crucified in full public view.
The writer is a senior journalist based in the National Capital Region. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta