At the 2015 United Nations General Assembly in New York, Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah (President, Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies) addressed the White House Leadership Summit on Countering ISIL and Violent Extremism. His key point is emphasising the critical need for the scholars of Islam to be at the forefront in the struggle against groups like Daesh by correcting misunderstood concepts and transforming mentalities. See below for the full video and transcript of Shaykh Abdallah’s address.
The ship of humanity is in perilous waters: our human abode is threatened by fire, therefore our current situation calls for urgent collaboration. Today, human kind is in dire need of the Ark of Noah. In keeping with our Prophetic tradition, our central concern is how to rescue this sinking ship. We are attempting to extinguish the fires that have engulfed our human abode; hence, we are merely firefighters and lifesavers. We must all cooperate and complement each other’s roles in accordance with our levels of responsibility. The function of clerics and religious actors in such circumstances is, in the manner of firefighters, to douse the flames of fanaticism that burn in people’s hearts and minds. A firefighter does not ask who started the fire or why, but rather “how do we put it out?” Therefore, at the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies based in Abu Dhabi, we have prioritized “how” over “why.” I disagree with Immanuel Kant when he says he believes that justice comes first, as I support Thomas Hobbes, who put peace first. This is not to diminish the importance of justice but to recognize that peace provides opportunities and openings for restoring rights in ways that war can never provide. Speaking of philosophers, I would agree here with Friedrich Nietzsche, who believed that when civilizations fall ill, the philosophers are its physicians. Our civilization is currently suffering from sickness, and we are prescribing a treatment.
From the earliest periods, the task of religious scholars and jurists was to protect the scripture, preserve its purity, and ensure the soundness of its interpretation as well as the validity of its application. Without doubt, however, this scholarly task is always fraught with the twin dangers of tyranny and extremism. Nevertheless, scholars were and continue to be – at least many of them –engaged in these tasks, while constantly facing hardships and evolving conditions. It is appropriate here to pray for mercy on the souls of the scholars who have been assassinated by extremists in recent years in places such as Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Nigeria, and, only two months ago in Mali, where one scholar sacrificed his soul adding to this procession of slain scholars striving for peace.
This critical task of the scholars is exactly what we have undertaken at the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. We are engaged in transforming mentalities and correcting misunderstood concepts. For example, in 2010, we corrected the Mardin Fatwa used by many extremists who invoked it in their writings and practices. We identified a century-old typographical error that had distorted the original meaning. When we debated the extremists, we brought forth, from the Dhahiriyyah Library in Damascus, the only existing manuscript which revealed the truth of our statement and the forgery of their falsehood. We are working to correct misunderstood concepts such as those relating to jihad, the idea of statehood, as well as allegiance and disavowal (wala wa al-bara)so that we may weave a tapestry of peace and not participate in a call to conflict. In this way, we are healing a historical memory filled with chronicles of conflict and war by illuminating examples of peace through such means as The Hasan bin Ali Peace Award, named after the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of God upon him), who stopped the first civil war in Islam. We bestowed the first award upon Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, a 90 year old notable scholar from India, who has dedicated more than six decades of his life promoting peace.
Ladies and gentlemen, our work does not conflict with economic and political strategies; rather, it complements those strategies that engender environments of peace and harmony in our societies.
We are continuing to work for peace, both through intellectual discourse and through practical applications in the field. Concerning the former, we are co-sponsoring a conference that will focus on the rights of peoples of faiths other than Islam in Muslim-majority countries; our partner in this conference will be the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Endowments in the Kingdom of Morocco. We launched this initiative in 2012 with a symposium in Nouakchott, Mauritania, and then another in Tunisia, and it will culminate in a declaration of the rights and responsibilities of citizens, whether they are Muslims, Jews, or others; this declaration derives from the Constitution of the State of Medina. Concerning the latter approach of applications in the field, we have had two meetings with Nigerian scholars and will continue to work with them. The first meeting occurred in Abu Dhabi with the participation of 20 scholars from Nigeria; in the second meeting, we jointly convened an interreligious gathering with my friend Dr. William F. Vendley of Religions for Peace, generously supported by the United Arab Emirates. I also discussed the prospects for peace with my two friends, Cardinal John Onaiyekan and the Sultan of Sokoto, his eminence Sa’adu Abubakr. Soon, we will also host a meeting aimed at bringing about peace in Central African Republic; this will be done in collaboration with The King Abdallah Bin Abdal Aziz Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue.
God willing, we shall continue along this path, and we extend our hand to anyone with good intentions who seeks peace, regardless of their affiliations and whether they come from within the abode of Islam or from without. We invite all to an alliance of cultural and educational strategies that can address the perils of war and violence and the madness of this moment in time, which an Iraqi poet of a century ago seemed to identify when he wrote,
“Surely we are living in a time of such extremes:
One not driven mad by it, cannot be deemed sane.”
Ladies and gentlemen, we invite you to exert your energies in the pursuit of peace through peaceful means; we invite you to rely upon ethical ways and rational approaches that by their very nature will attract our youth, and to present religion not as an adversary but a means to peace; we call upon you to redirect a portion of these vast expenditures on war towards programs promoting peace.
In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, religion is like nuclear power: it can promote prosperity and success, and stimulate economies when it is used for peaceful means. On the other hand, it can result in destruction when enlisted for militant ends. But religion in its origin is a power for peace, love, and harmony. And yet it can be misused by those who do not grasp its purpose, whether they are well intended or otherwise, and the result is destruction and chaos.
We ask the One who is Exalted and Omnipotent to send down tranquility and peace upon the peoples of this earth. Finally, I call upon all of us not to despair of one another and to remind ourselves of the counsel of Jacob to his sons, as revealed in the Holy Qur’an when he said, “My sons, go and seek out Joseph and his brother, and do not despair, for none despairs of God’s grace save a disbelieving folk.”