A Conversation With Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah

Thursday, June 4, 2015
Abdallah bin Bayyah

President, Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies

Hamza Yusuf

President, Zaytuna College

William F. Vendley

Secretary-General, World Conference of Religions for Peace

Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah discusses religiously-motivated radicalization and the ways in which Muslim communities can mobilize to counter violent extremism.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative.

VENDLEY: Well, good afternoon, everyone. And welcome.

We are also delighted to be here.

I’m Bill Vendley and it’s going to be my great privilege to be our moderator what is going to be I think a marvelous opportunity for discussion with one of the truly great Islamic scholars of the world, and a second personality, who happens to be a student or mentoree, in some traditions we would say a disciple of the great Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah.

I’m going to introduce both of our guests briefly. And one can find far more elaborate information on them on the Internet if you’re interested.

I’m then going to mention the simple rules for our proceeding this afternoon so that we have a way to work together to enjoy this wonderful opportunity.

And then third, I’m going to start with two or three questions and after Shaykh Abdallah has had a chance to make initial responses to those questions, we’ll open up the floor.

And you, I think, all know the procedure, but let me remind us. This is for attribution, it will be filmed; and therefore, be aware that a helpful way to proceed would be to indicate by your interest in a question by putting your name tag in that position.

If you’re acknowledged, turn on the mic, clearly state your name and organization and then proceed directly to the question that you would like to raise.

If you have a point that is precisely to what has just been said, no guarantee that you can be recognized, but an attempt will be made if you signal with two fingers that you’re simply in the flow of that conversation, don’t want to deviate from it, but want to continue it. No promise that I can manage that as well as we would like, but the attempt will be made.

Simple road rules.

Let me go to his eminence Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah. He currently serves as president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. He’s also one of the co-moderators for Religions for Peace, the organization that I serve as the secretary-general of.

He was born in Mauritania; perhaps important to understand him somewhat more fully is that he was born into a home of great Islamic scholarship. His own father was a very great scholar, so he was nursed as a boy in an Islamic home and had the good fortune to have a great scholar as a father.

He’s held numerous, very senior positions in the government of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. He’s a member of the Dublin-based European Council for Fatwa and Research and additionally he founded the Global Center for Guidance and Renewal.

By knowledgeable people all around the world, he’s ranked as one of the most outstanding scholars. Many would use the term he is a scholar’s scholar. So even those scholars who would disagree with him on one point or the other would preface their disagreement by saying contra the great scholar Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah. So even those who might disagree acknowledge the eminence of him and his positions.

One final point. When President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly September 24th of last year, he had the unusual — or included the unusual item of citing a religious leader. The religious leader that he cited, felt import to cite among all the gathered heads of state was his eminence Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah.

The next day when the U.N. Security Council convened, they again felt it would be helpful if Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah would join them. And these are very atypical recognitions, I think, within the international community.

I need to add just one sentence, two sentences. I’ve observed Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah in the presence of religious figures, religious personalities, many Muslim, but many non-Muslims, and he is regarded as a person of great simplicity, great learning surely, but a very deep and profound life of surrender to God, love of God as he knows that in his own tradition.

So we’re very honored really to have him with us, Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah, and we look forward to this so very much.

Let me turn quickly to you, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. You, too, have a very distinguished background. Let me mention to all here that one of the very distinguishing marks about your own background, as I mentioned, your long period of apprenticeship, including living in the home of Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah as a student. You have gone on from there to be the president, co-founder, and senior faculty member of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California.

What I draw to our attention is that Zaytuna is a brick in the road, if you will, for the building of an authentic capacity for Islamic jurisprudence here in the United States so that Muslims who are American Muslims have the institutions, the competencies to interpret Islam in very authoritative ways here in the United States. You have many other distinguished achievements. You too have been cited as one of the most influential Muslims. But let that suffice as an invitation for you as well.

So welcome, both, to you.

Now I’d like to get us started. And I’d like to raise up to two or three questions to Shaykh bin Bayyah. And we’re fortunate that Shaykh Hamza Yusuf will be translating for us.

Shaykh bin Bayyah, I invite you to reflect on anything that I raise or to largely disregard it if you feel that’s more useful, and that could well be the case.

First question I would like to bring into focus is the very serious issue of violent extremism. We’re all struggling and certainly none more than the Muslims, the good Muslims within the Islamic community, with the challenge of religiously motivated, in many cases, religiously justified — at least that’s the claim — violent extremism. Al-Qaida, ISIL, Boko Haram are virulent examples.

In government circles and in many academic circles, there’s great focus upon what is termed the need for a counter narrative. We’re all familiar with this. The word “counter narrative” means counter to a violent narrative. However inadequate that term may be for religious communities, Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah, help us to understand how Islam can mobilize her own deep resources to countering violent extremists. Thank you.

BIN BAYYAH (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): First of all, in the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate, and present, peace be upon our Prophet Muhammad and all the other messengers.

Distinguished attendees and specifically my brother Mr. Vendley, who is the general director of the Religions for Peace, so we have a strong relationship for some time and we work in the same field, which is the field of peace, so I greet all of you and I respect and appreciate your presence. And I also welcome you and your presence.

My fear is that I don’t live up to your expectations. But despite that, I’ll see myself as a co-participant in a conversation that hopefully it will reach some kind of beneficial outcome.

One of the things that Dr. Vendley didn’t mention was I was born in a very small village in the eastern province of what’s now known as Mauritania. I was born 80 years ago. And at that time, I was considered one of the French blacks, and then I became part of the Mauritanian colony of France. And then after that, I became a citizen of an independent state that was called the Islamic Republic of Mauritania.

But that little village stayed the same throughout all of these periods. And it was 45 miles from the border of Mali. And not far from where I grew up, we’ve seen these terrorist groups. The problem of geography is a big problem and it’s something that is very difficult to change. So the place now that I’m coming from is called the Middle East. They also live this dilemma of geography.

Another measurable problem is this extreme historical memory. They try to take a past that is long gone and tried to restore it to a presence that is completely different from that past. So all of these wars that you hear about and these conflicts, they’re really historical problems.

The Shi’a and the Sunni, it’s a problem that arose 1,400 years ago, and the Jews and the Arabs in Palestine and Israel is 2,000 years old. All of this historical weight that we’re carrying, all of this, we’re dealing with it in these inefficient ways or, you know, difficult, problematic ways.

So there’s all these movements that foolishly play with these historical problems that they’re carrying around, based on these fantastic idealisms that they conceptualize in their minds. So they attempt to bring forth these things in the worst of ways, in an environment that is totally inappropriate for what they’re attempting. This is a major problem.

Is religion the cause? Is this conflict, is this clash between modernity and between this historical legacy, is this at the essence?

Not that long ago, you had a major economic crisis. Some of them, they accuse Adam Smith and his invisible hand as the source of the problem. And some of them said, no, the problem is the central bank and the way it has created these bubbles and manipulated the economy. But what’s the real exact cause that engendered that crisis?

So in the face of this human problem, which is also an ideological problem, that has created this really shocking condition and ignited these crises, trying to get to the root cause here is what we’re concerned with.

So looking at this, now we enter into the problem of religion, to answer my friend’s question, Dr. Vendley. Religion is like an energy. You can make with that energy a bomb that is devastating in its effects. You can also make with the same energy things that are beneficial, agriculture, building, other things. You can build beautiful gardens, bringing things to life, making the earth green where it’s bare and really bringing things to life.

So the problem is in religiosity, but also really the craft or the practice of being religious. Maybe Adam Smith wasn’t to blame, but the way that his ideas were implemented, maybe that’s really what’s to blame.

Religion also is something at its root it’s peace and benefit, that’s its function. This is our belief as adherence of a religion.

And we also believe that this is actually at the roots of our religion. And if the methodology of implementing this is actually sound and practiced appropriately, then conviviality between people is not only possible, but it’s realizable in the best of manners.

So now if you’ll allow me to talk a little bit about what I’m attempting to do in the Forum for Promoting Peace. It’s attempting to reassess these concepts, these religious concepts that people have and really restore a correct understanding of them by focusing on the historical contexts that these concepts arose in and then the application of the rulings and the concepts in the environments that they were in.

So for instance, the jihad, the environment that it arose in and the fact that it was really an attempt at getting to peace in violent circumstances. And so, what does it mean today? Was it founded upon a call to peace or a call to war? So what we do is we try to provide from within the religion, from the matrix of the religion itself, those texts that prove that actually this was the original intention of the religion.

So in essence, what we’re trying to do is reassert these original understandings of these concepts. So we’re trying to establish a sound relationship between religion and between the modern conditions that we find ourselves in.

So we want to demonstrate that religion is like a river, that it flows, but it’s also affected by the ground upon which it flows. It accepts all the different environments that it flows in. It’s the same water, that it’s a call to peace and a call to life.

So these are some of the efforts that I’m involved in. And my friend Dr. Vendley has also participated in this. And I see some other people like my friend Sayyida Aisha al-‘Adawiyya and others.

So we have put forward these views with, you know, within our capacity. So we’ve actually called hundreds of scholars from around the Muslim world to engage in this process to get to these results.

We’ve also we’ve invited youth that are capable of spreading these ideas amongst the community.

And also, we had women, we asked the women also to participate so there was female participation in the forums that we’ve held.

The problem is more a communication problem than it is actually a problem of rooting these truths in the tradition itself. That part is the easier part because there’s plenty of things that enable us to do that. But the problem is, how do we get this rootedness in the tradition for these concepts out to much larger audiences?

So these are basically some highlights that I don’t want to overextend at this time or belabor the points, but these are some highlights just of what I’m trying to do. It’s really about trying to reformulate these same principles in a language that makes sense for people today, that these realities are the realities of our religion, but they’ve been neglected and misunderstood for a long time.

And at essence really, it’s an attempt to call people back to peace which should be the foundation of any society, but also peace instead of war and then life instead of death.

YUSUF: Can I add one thing?

VENDLEY: First of all, please do. Yes.

YUSUF: Yeah, I just want to say, you know, one of the things that when Shaykh Abdallah, you know, he talks a lot about the fact that a lot of Muslims live in the past. The Islamic past was quite glorious. I think people that are familiar with the history of it know about the, quote-unquote, “golden age of Islam” and these things.

One of the interesting things about the Arab world is that there has never been a successful science fiction program on Arab television. It’s very difficult for the Arab people to imagine the future because there really is an attempt to restore the past.

But what Shaykh Abdallah, one of his points is that the religious tradition of Islam is an extremely sophisticated tradition. The religion is very simple for common people, they can understand it with great simplicity. And historically, this has been the reality.

But the actual level of his knowledge in Islamic legal theory is extremely sophisticated. Historically, there were many, many scholars like Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah. Today, there’s actually very few, which has to do with the destruction of many of the great learning institutions of Islam, the fact that those institutions have become very ossified in their traditions. They’re no longer creative.

He talks a lot about Toynbee’s concept of a creative minority and restoring a creative minority to the Islamic world because the Islamic world has been stuck in a really ossified past. Many of you read the U.N.’s report on the Arab world and the fact that translations from some of the scientific and modern thinking that’s happening in the rest of the world are actually very impoverished in the Muslim world. Many of the scholars have no access.

Shaykh Abdallah is one of the few scholars that I’ve met in the Sunni tradition that has read Western philosophers. He understands where the West has come, the history of the West. And so it enables him to understand the world in a way that many of these provincial minds that are in the Middle East have failed to do. And this is — it’s a serious crisis that they have.

But one of the things that he argues is that, for instance, jihad at the time that it was — it was a world without any — there were no international covenants, there were no — most places, there were not ambassadors, that it was a conflictual time when people were fighting each other.

So understanding that context and why these rules were there, many, many modern Muslims have failed to understand that in another context the rules completely shift. And this is one of the things that he highlights.

VENDLEY: Do you want to give three or four sentences of what you’ve just shared to Shaykh Abdallah?

While that translation goes forward, let’s open it up. This is the right moment to invite all to reflect with Shaykh Abdallah. And so I see people beginning to put up their — OK, Dr. Azza Karam, I see you and I see others. Keep your cards up and I welcome your questions.

Please, Dr. Karam.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for this opportunity. And thank you for the wisdom that is being shared by Shaykh bin Bayyah, but also by Dr. Yusuf.

Quick question, two questions actually, one for Shaykh bin Bayyah and also one for Dr. Yusuf. And I will say it in Arabic for Shaykh bin Bayyah and I’ll translate it.


I have asked him, why is the problem one more of communication of the solid knowledge and ideas and why does it seem relatively easier to transmit much-less-rooted ideas? Why are — why is violent thinking easier to transmit?

VENDLEY: And would you identify yourself and your organization, please?

QUESTION: Yes, absolutely. My name is Azza Karam and I serve as the senior adviser on culture for the United Nations Population program. I was one of the coordinators of the report that Dr. Yusuf mentioned on the Arab human development.

Dr. Yusuf, if I may ask you a question relative to what you said. Is it more the case that there are few learned minds who are capable of transmitting information through time and space, or is it more the case that there is a relative bigger silence of the huge number of minds that know the real information or that have different kinds of information? In other words, is it really that there are such few centers of knowledge, including intellectual? Or is it more that there’s a greater silence in the mainstream? Thank you.

YUSUF: Thank you.

VENDLEY: OK, so the question first. Do you want to — OK, let’s and then you’ll translate.

YUSUF: I’ll translate. Yeah.

VENDLEY: OK. So Shaykh?

BIN BAYYAH (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): The problem of communicating these ideas, it’s multifaceted.

YUSUF: Shaykh speaks fluent French.

BIN BAYYAH (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): So right now, the main source of mass communication is the journalistic source. And journalistic sources, what leads bleeds, what bleeds leads, they’re more interested in agitation than they are in tranquilizing.

So they’re happy with war. They don’t like when things aren’t happening. So this is a problem in communication.

And also, the problem also is in those who are communicating. So you know, there’s a problem and I’m going to specify the Arab world because it’s very important that people distinguish when they look at the Muslim world it’s monolithic. They have to distinguish between the Arab world, and even the Arab world has many different aspects, but there’s places like Indonesia and Malaysia, they have their own problems and other things are working. So you can’t just make blanket statements about the region.

So unfortunately...

YUSUF: Well, he didn’t say unfortunately, I’m saying unfortunately. But he said that the most of the intellectual leaders in the Muslim world, and particularly in the Arab world focus on rights obviously related to the grievances and they put this at the forefront of their thinking and their approach. Whereas peace gets a secondary position and so there’s always the focus on, you know, as the slogan says “no peace without justice.”

BIN BAYYAH (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): But we believe that peace is actually the first right, the first human right. If we want to go to war until all the rights are established and all the wrongs redressed, then as far as I can tell we’ll just annihilate ourselves. The last rights up to the last man, this is a dilemma, it’s a dilemma.

We believe that we have to change this discourse and recognize that peace is what will pave the road to achieving those rights and life itself. We’re not denying grievances, we’re not denying the rights of people. Citizens have rights, citizens have rights to have their wrongs redressed. These are sound rights, we all believe in them. But we don’t think that the road to war or the road of war is the sound road to achieving those rights.

So let us really put forward a philosophy of peace, a philosophy of, you know, an alternative to this other approach because it’s a sounder approach. Thank you.

YUSUF: Again, you know, you can make a blanket statement about the Arab world. The Arab world is an extremely complex world, like all worlds are. There are many intellectuals in the Arab world that are extremely well educated and quite brilliant. Morocco has a number of very serious philosophers that have thought deeply about the problems in the Arab world. And the same could be said for Egypt. Iraq was a source of a lot of this. The Syrian educational system was one of the better educational systems in the Arab world.

So what I was really talking about was the religious schools. We know there are many Arab doctors in America that did their medical training initially in the Arab world to a very good level. The same is true for other areas.

But one of the major problems in the Arab world and one of the reasons why I personally — why we focused on establishing a liberal arts college is that the liberal arts, this idea of creative thinking, of well-rounded thinking, many — for instance, in the Arab world, many of the Arabs have a very romantic view of history. They don’t really — look on these figures that come and they change the world like Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi and there’s a lot of people that wait for this. And you hear it a lot in the khutbas and these things.

And so really that’s what I’m talking about. The religious discourse has ossified. It’s neglected to study, for instance, the humanities to a large degree. It’s neglected — it’s interesting that a lot of these terrorists come out of scientific backgrounds. They’re very often engineering backgrounds. They see the world in terms of engineering problems and solutions — if we just eliminate these rulers everything’s going to be fine — and don’t recognize a lot of the sophistication that’s necessary to grapple with these problems.

One of the interesting things to me about the Islamic tradition is that poetry is a prerequisite for interpreting the Koran so that scholars traditionally had to study the Jahili poets, which teaches about nuance, about multiple possibilities in language. And what we’re doing now in the Muslim world is a lot of literalist and people that are taking these texts to mean only one thing and that’s the thing that they understand it to mean. So in that way, I would agree.

And then the other thing, I think there are people that speak out. I think they don’t get a lot of airtime. And there are many, many — people always ask me, why don’t the Muslims condemn this stuff? And I said, you know, I’ve been condemning it for the last 15 years since 9/11. You know, I don’t really, you know — my kids kind of ask my wife who’s that guy that just came over, you know, because I’ve been traveling around the world for the last 15 years condemning this.

We held a major conference in Turkey. We held a major conference with Shaykh Abdallah. They had a major conference about Somalia where the Shaykh actually brought the Somalis to Qatar [CORRECTION: This conference was held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates]. And yet, CNN was invited, they didn’t cover it. So a lot of these things, it’s just a fact that there are many, many people condemning these things in the Muslim world.

The Muslims have been the greatest victims of terrorism — we all know that — amongst educated people. But if you ask the average American out there, they’re unaware of that fact. They think all Muslims are terrorists. So we have a problem on both sides of the ocean in the Muslim world and here also. It’s not that the voices aren’t there, but the voices aren’t given the opportunities they have.

But I really do believe that the educational system — and one of the major problems is the Arabic language itself because it’s a very difficult language, it takes a long time to master. And the pedagogy for teaching Arabic has really eroded in the Arab world, so a lot of Arabs don’t have the linguistic capacity, even though they go through the educational system, to — you know, to really, I think, create that creative minority.

And these are my personal opinions after years of living in the Arab world.

VENDLEY: Thank you both.

Now, there are four cards up. What I’m going to propose is that I address two people, they share their questions, we give Shaykh Abdallah the chance to reflect as he chooses on those questions, and then we’ll choose the other two people and invite them to share.

So let me start with you, Homi, and also you on this side, just to repeat your questions and Shaykh Abdallah will listen to both, respond as he wishes, and if we have time we’ll go to the two who have their name cards raised on this side of the room.

So let me start with you, please, to share your question. Thank you.

QUESTION: My name is Homi Gandhi, I represent Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America. Thank you for a brilliant presentation on the main issue involved. I appreciate that very much. I think some of the points which I was going to make has been already made by Hamza Yusuf, that we are trying to communicate to the people at large.

My question is that after communicating at various levels, it is not reaching to the mainstream. Something is wrong. I know that CNN and the press is not involved in participating in that particular — transmitting the message. But we have to find an alternative means. If the plan a doesn’t work, we have to start looking at plan b, because there’s a lot of work has been done by the Islamic scholars in identifying what is a jihad, what is fatwa.

Just to give you an instance, people still...

VENDLEY: Maybe just a question.

QUESTION: Just a question.

VENDLEY: Yeah, time is — yeah.

QUESTION: For an example, the fatwa. Anyone today remembers fatwa in the mainstream is for Salman Rushdie, fatwa against Salman Rushdie. No one knows any other fatwas which are being given a chance to. So can you please describe how we disseminate that information alternatively?

VENDLEY: Very good, thank you very much. And pardon me urging us along. Let’s turn to the other questioner and then pause after that. So please.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you so much, Shaykh bin Bayyah and Hamza as well. My name is Rula Jabreel, I’m an author and foreign policy analyst.

Shaykh bin Bayyah, when you say the road to the war is not sound and the road to rights, it’s better to focus on the road to rights. In the Middle East, especially in the Arab Muslim world since the last, I would say, four decades there have been ruled with an iron fist by dictators and police states who used any violence to suppress their own people. Do you think advocating or promoting peaceful under those regimes will absolutely lead to the formation of peaceful transition or eventually less radicalization? Can we be — is it possible to be tough on extremists without being tough on tyrant? And are they two sides of the same coin?

Thank you for pushing you to talk about politics, but unfortunately this is politics.

VENDLEY: No, no, thank you. Thanks to both of you. Let’s let the question finish being translated. And there were two comments, yeah?

YUSUF: Yeah.

VENDLEY: So to Shaykh bin Bayyah, please, yeah.

YUSUF: He said he appreciates the question, it’s an important one.

BIN BAYYAH (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): How do we communicate this? And we ourselves, we experience this inability, this incapacity to do that.

For example, I have over 20 propositions, I have over 20 propositions that I’ve put forward at this last conference in Abu Dhabi. In an attempt to spread the idea of peace, I spoke about fatwa and the problem of fatwa.


YUSUF: And also, he doesn’t know about Dennis Kucinich, but he proposed a ministry of peace in these places where there’s a lot of war.

BIN BAYYAH (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): So right now in Central Africa, they’ve created a ministry of reconciliation, so we should have that in Iraq.

I also proposed that these countries take some small portion of their budgets to promote peace. They have huge war budgets, but their budgets for peace are nonexistent. And also, proposing to have satellite channels that really put forward these ideas. So we believe that the current media and the current ideological strains that are out there, they don’t promote the idea of peace.

It’s going to take a great amount of work and it’s not easy work. And I invite all of you to participate in this work.

YUSUF: We don’t — he said, I don’t put up any barriers and I don’t have any obstacles. I invite everybody and it’s just calling people to life.

BIN BAYYAH (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): If you’ll allow me to use a proof or a testimony from religion. The prophet Suleiman said that three things, if they’re in a person, their faith is complete. That you’re truthful with yourself, you’re objective with yourself and spreading peace around the world. And then also, helping people, even if you’re in dire straits.

YUSUF: He said, I thank you and I did, I spoke about fatwa. And the Shaykh is a mufti at a very high level. He was also a judge in an Islamic court. He said, I’m very concerned about the things that you’ve raised.

BIN BAYYAH (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): My sister Rula, so this relationship between a peaceful approach and the fact that you’re living under dictatorial circumstances, so we can’t accept this binary that either it’s extremism or extreme response or dictatorship, that these are the only two alternatives.

We have to put forward religious, but also humanistic philosophy that if it spreads amongst people it will enable people to live amongst each other peacefully.

I’ll give you one example. Gadhafi, everybody considered him a dictator. Once you got rid of Gadhafi, all over now you have terrorism and death and destruction. Nobody’s going to defend Gadhafi, but what we need is some type of solution to the mentality of — you know, this human mentality towards — we have to find a class of people, a group of people that will understand this, that this binary is a false binary, either this or that. So we’re looking for a good alternative.

YUSUF: You know, one of the things just to add to that is one of the things that the Shaykh talks about is that even though these situations in the Muslim world are very difficult and he’s dealt with them at the level of the government because he was vice president at one time, he’s been in several ministerial positions — he said, I don’t defend dictators.

BIN BAYYAH (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): But there’s a, you know, the idea of a polity based on mutual consent.

So for instance, there’s places in the Gulf states where you have a type of mutual consent. In those situations, you can’t categorize them in the same category of other places because it’s a different relationship between the population and between the rulers.

They need to also have more engagement with their populations so they are more involved in decision-making and things like that. They should do that. But this idea of, OK, let’s remove them as well and then have anarchy in those places is another — it’s a crazy idea.

The Western description of these problems might not be the solution for the whole region. So this surgical procedure that some of the Western countries have been involved in, it might not be the right approach to the patient.

What we really need to engender are people that can think more deeply about these problems to come up with appropriate solutions.


YUSUF: He said, you know, we’ve gone to the moon and yet we can’t solve the problems down here on Earth.

VENDLEY: Thank you very much.

Our colleague Homi Gandhi wanted to continue this discussion, but with his permission I move to the two of you with your cards up on this side of the room. Please offer your questions.

I may not be able, simply for time reasons, to get here. We’ll do the best we can. So at least offer the questions.

Irina, just a time check. We are scheduled to conclude at 2. Is there any elasticity in that schedule?

OK. So we’ll go directly to the two of you, see how we do and possibly get around the room. Yeah, please.

QUESTION: Sheryl Olitzky from the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. Thank you very much for today.

Given the name of the organization, it’s probably obvious that we involve women, and we believe that women navigate the world through relationships. I was — it peaked my interest to hear you mention women and I was wondering if you could help me understand, are you doing anything special with women? And are you doing anything at the grassroots level with women?

VENDLEY: Thank you. The next questioner, please.

QUESTION: Ahlan wasahlan, my name is Jonathan Golden, I direct the Center on Religion, Culture and Conflict at Drew University in New Jersey. And before I myself got into the area of peace work and interfaith relations spent many years actually as an archaeologist and I learned that the past can actually be a very dangerous place. And this was referred to actually in both of your presentations.

And so one of the things that was said earlier was that we need to understand laws and traditions in context.

The other thing that the Shaykh had said was that the easier part of the problem is situating the values in the roots of the traditions. But for me, the challenge is that too often I find myself being asked to explain the darker, the more violent and hateful messages that are also there, you know, in the scripture and in all of our traditions.

So how do we explain that?

BIN BAYYAH (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Concerning the women, we have a sound tradition from our prophet’s life where the prophet said that women are the other halves of men, that they’re equal halves. And so there can’t be any serious activity without the other half being engaged in it.

And working right now with the Emirate government on creating a learning institution really to prepare female leadership so that the women have a stronger voice.

YUSUF: He said that just about the points that you’ve raised, he said it’s true what you’re saying that there are these things. And the problem of exegesis and hermeneutics is a religious problem because you have on the one hand you have certain texts that have certain statements that you were referring to. And then on the other hand you have statements that are very different.

And he said...

BIN BAYYAH: Context.

YUSUF: ...the context of these have to be understood. And then how — what is the appropriate response in any given circumstance? This is the challenge that faces scholars that have the burden of appropriate interpretation.

And one of the things that I’d add is that what the Shaykh constantly talks about is that the Koran is not like a statute law. It’s closer to a basic constitutional type of approach and that in any given circumstance you don’t have any statute law that’s applied. It’s the circumstances that will derive the responses and that response has to be based on people that are working at a very high level of interpretive capacity. And without that, you get a lot of the problems.


YUSUF: He’s actually written a lot about this topic. And he has some extremely — his books are written at a very high level. Even people that have Ph.D.s in Islamic studies often have a difficult time reading his books because he’s really rooted in a legal, philosophical approach to the Koran, which is actually in line with the tradition itself. So he’s very much in line with the classical tradition.

This tradition has been sidelined and a new narrative has emerged that has always been around in the Islamic tradition, but it was marginalized to a great degree and so they had very little effect on the Muslim civilizations, which is why, for instance, for centuries Iraq, the scholars didn’t know that churches should be destroyed or that the Muslims in Afghanistan didn’t know the Bamiyan Buddhas needed to be destroyed, like these scholars never worked that out in 1,400 years.

And it’s these enlightened people that have come who finally realized what these texts actually mean. This is the type of problem that he’s dealing with.


YUSUF: But what you’ve brought up is actually at the root and it’s foundational to his approach at really trying to make sense of these, what would appear to be, contradictory approaches. But the Muslim tradition has a long tradition of harmonizing the two and recognizing how to make them both work without oppressing and without harming others.


YUSUF: He said that when Jesus upturned the tables of the moneychangers at the temple, it doesn’t negate the fact that he was calling to peace.


YUSUF: He said as you like.

VENDLEY: Thank you for your willingness.

There are three with questions, signaling they want to ask their questions. May I ask, starting with you, Daisy, and then just moving up the table, each of you, just because of time, a sort of succinct, direct sharing of question and then we’ll invite the Shaykh to do the best he can.

Let’s see how it goes, OK? And kindly understand my respect for all. There are more coming. Let’s start with the three of you and see where that takes us. And should we not get everyone, then accept apology in advance. But we’ll do our best.

Daisy, please.

QUESTION: Thank you. As-salamu alaykum, Shaykh bin Bayyah and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. Thank you for your eloquent translation.

It gives me great hope, Shaykh bin Bayyah, to hear that you are working on reassessing the concepts that have been misused by the terrorist groups and extremists.

We have been shocked and awed to see how successful these people have been in the recent years on recruiting people. So we did our own research and found out that they don’t only misuse one concept of Islam, they actually misuse almost eight core concepts of Islam. And they are jihad, al-wala' wa-l-bara',  takfir, hijra, salafi, dawlat islamiyya, bay’ah, istimta’, and istita’ah.

So I’m very pleased to hear that you will be reassessing some of these concepts and I’d like to know if you plan on actually reassessing of these concepts.

The reason I’m asking this question is because we are putting this information together in a community guide for parents, for community leaders to show how these concepts have been misused side-by-side. And if you work is going to include this, we would love to include your reassessing of these concepts into our work because you have credibility and you are considered to be an eminent scholar and it will lend a lot of weight to that.

Thank you very much.

VENDLEY: Thank you, Daisy.

Next, please.

QUESTION: As-salamu alaykum, Shaykh bin Bayyah, Shaykh Hamza. My question is in regards to, how do you envision, if at all, addressing the sectarian strife in the region in terms of some non-Shi’a? Do you have a solution? What are your visions for what can be and what should be in the region regarding this issue?

VENDLEY: Just wait until the translation completes, please.

And next question, please.

QUESTION: Thank you, gentlemen. Troy Mack, Drew University.

Just very quickly, and somewhat similar to the preceding questions, in responding to Ms. Karam’s questions, you, Shaykh, you specifically mention citizenship in the category of citizens working populations.

Likewise to my colleague’s question, I’m just curious on your thoughts, the concept of citizen itself is a fairly recent phenomenon. How do you understand the category of citizenship in your own scholarship, in your own understanding of reconciling the contemporary concept of citizenship and its duties and obligations to that which you see within the religion and these explicitly religious categories as well.

VENDLEY: Thank you very much.

Three very large questions, Shaykh Abdallah.


BIN BAYYAH (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): So all of these concepts that you mentioned, we have actually been engaged with them for a long time and written a lot about this, all of them.

We haven’t finished all of the writing about these things, but all of them have introductory addresses, we’ve addressed each one of them. There’s going to be some brochures available that address some of these very issues, that are going to be available.

And we’re happy to help you in whatever capacity that we can.

And the second question about this sectarian conflict between the Sunnis and the Shi’as, it would be fallacious of me even to suggest that I could solve this problem because it’s not just a problem of belief or a legal problem, it’s actually a very complex political problem as well.

So it has to do with who yields power in the region and from that you get a lot of complications.

Before 50 years, they were living this history. So 60 years ago, all the Sunnis prayed behind Kashif al-Ghataa’, one of the great Shi’a scholars in Jerusalem, but that’s not possible today.

So we call everybody to act based upon reason and intelligence because war is of no benefit to anybody except warmongers and armaments traders.

And also, the question about citizenship, I argued many years ago that the citizenship based on Jürgen Habermas’s understanding is actually very, very close to the traditional Islamic view because it’s based on a contract. A people, residents of a society have rights and responsibilities as members of that society.

In Islam, it does not go back to any tribal affiliation, it doesn’t go to color. Even religion, it doesn’t go to religion.

YUSUF: He recommends that if you look at what’s called the Constitution of Medina, which was the original conceptualization of the prophet’s life, about relationships between religions, and the Shaykh said that it was never considered abrogated by scholars so it’s actually one of the possibilities of relationships between subjects or citizens.

So the ulama, they actually acknowledged it, but they neglected it historically as a possibility. The idea of conviviality amongst free people, whether Muslims, Christians, Jews, even Hindus and other groups according to two of the — or secular, even, people, which is the Maliki and the Hanafi.

So he believes that this is the most appropriate approach to a multicultural environment in the modern world.

 BIN BAYYAH (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): The sharia is not something that is alienated from the interests of — it’s not these blind commands. It always looks at the conditions that people are in. It looks also — the sharia has always acknowledged that times change, conditions change and also categories change.

We have a real serious problem with literalists and literally minded people on this subject. But that has never been mainstream Islam, it’s always been a relegated minority amongst scholars.

I thank all of you for your patience and listening. And I hope that I’ve put forward something beneficial to all of you and that I didn’t disappoint whatever hopes you had in coming here.


VENDLEY: To the three people who had their cards up, we apologize. I think under other conditions we could camp out here for a long time, refresh ourselves and come back and listen again. So apologies there.

To our two remarkable guests, to you, Shaykh bin Bayyah, to you and your remarkable leadership, and Shaykh Hamza, as both a student of Shaykh bin Bayyah and now yourself a teacher, we thank you both.

Let me say that I have had the pleasure of being with Shaykh Abdallah with thousands of young Islamic students and have heard him speak to young students thirsty for the meaning of their own tradition, and sharing somewhat similarly, but of course wonderfully adapted to that particular audience.

And I recall the Shaykh saying to them you will always find conflicting interpretations within every tradition and this is normal, but if you need a key, the key is always that the default position is peace and it’s the same message, because the tradition itself is peace and, therefore, a text can’t be interpreted against the tradition itself.

So that wisdom I observed being shared again this afternoon with a great richness. But it’s a pleasure to have been one invited to observe young people studying with a master about their own tradition in ways utterly contemporary to our days.

So Shaykh bin Bayyah, we thank you and we’re grateful for your contribution to Shaykh Hamza’s brilliance as well.

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