Little Kingdom, Big Impact for Peace

by David L. Johnston

Readers on this PCI website will no doubt know about the 2007 Common Word letter addressed to the Pope and all Christian leaders and originally signed by 138 of the world’s most respected Muslim scholars from all traditions. It was Rick Love who coordinated the conference at Yale University that provided a forum for Christian and Muslim scholars to discuss this historic document. Its basic premise, you will remember, was that at the heart of both traditions lies the call to love God and neighbor.

What you may not know is the role played in this by Ghazi bin Muhammad, cousin to King Abdullah II of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. As the author of the Common Word letter, he worked closely with Rick on this conference (see the book he co-edited with Miroslav Volf on the Common Word). Prince Ghazi, “Chief Advisor to the King on religious and cultural issues,” is a powerful man. He directs the religious endowment committee that manages the third holiest site in Islam, the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. He also chairs the Board of Directors of The Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought which, among other projects, publishes every year a glossy document called, “The 500 Most Influential Muslims.”

If that intrigues you, read two of my recent blogs on this subject – what Prince Ghazi’s influence tells us about the dynamics of contemporary Islam and the nature of power itself, and about what the ranking of these Muslim leaders tells us about Prince Ghazi and the King’s Islamic ideology.

My point here is that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (“Hashemite” points to its direct descent from the Prophet), small in both population and wealth, has had an inordinate amount of influence in the Muslim world during the first decade of this century. Actually, Jordan’s size was likely an asset if combined with two other factors: its neutrality and its legitimacy as associated with Muhammad’s clan, the Hashim. In any case, they were able to bridge what had been unbridgeable chasms among Muslims up until then.

Let me explain. In the wake of the appalling terrorist attacks in the US, Spain, UK and Indonesia, there was a good deal of soul-searching among Muslim leaders, both political and religious. Terrorism, they realized, is in part fueled by the ancient heresy of the Kharijites, who turned against the fourth caliph Ali and in the end assassinated him. They believed only they followed the “true” Islam and that other Muslims were in fact kuffar (plural of kafir, meaning unbeliever) and therefore legitimate targets for killing.

So King Abdullah II called together some of the most influential Islamic scholars in 2005 and asked them to answer three questions:

1) Who is a Muslim?

2) Does a Muslim have the right to call another Muslim a kafir?

3) Who has the right to issue legal rulings (fatwas) and what qualifications must they have?

You can read the resulting document, called the Amman Message, issued by 170 Shia and Sunni scholars from 40 different countries. It lays the foundation for the most basic yet comprehensive consensus issued by Muslims for over a thousand years. It was ratified by several international Muslim bodies the next year, culminating in its endorsement by the International Islamic Fiqh Academy of Jeddah. “Fiqh” is “applied Islamic law.” It’s the collection of writings from each of the four main Sunni schools of law. But here, in the heart of Saudi Arabia known for its harsh sectarian rhetoric, they were explicitly recognizing the legitimacy of the Shia Twelver School (which is followed in Iran and most of Iraq) as well as three much smaller schools. Here’s how the text expresses this point:

“The essence of the Amman Message, which was issued on the Blessed Night of Power in the year 1425 H. and which was read aloud in Masjid al-Hashimiyyin, is adherence to the Schools of Jurisprudence and their fundamental methodology. Acknowledging the Schools of Jurisprudence and affirming discussion and engagement between them ensures fairness, moderation, mutual forgiveness, compassion, and engaging in dialogue with others.”

As you might have guessed, it was this amazing centripetal force that also led to the signing of the Common Word document. What I want to emphasize here, however, is the movement for intra-Muslim reconciliation central to the above statement, particularly between Shias (about 15% of all Muslims) and Sunnis (85%).

Shia/Sunni tensions go back to the beginning of Islam in the seventh century. The first four leaders (caliphs) to succeed Muhammad were his closest followers (“Companions”), but the fourth, Ali, was from Muhammad’s own clan (Hashim) in the ruling tribe of Mecca, the Quraysh. Actually, Ali, the first man to convert to Islam, was both cousin and son-in-law to him. The Shia historically were “the partisans of Ali,” meaning they believed that leadership in the Muslim umma (community) should come from the family of the Prophet. In time they developed other doctrines that clashed with the mainstream Sunni ones.

Apart from two famous exceptions – the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt between the tenth and twelfth century and the Safavid Empire (far beyond the borders of today’s Iran) from the sixteenth to the eighteen centuries – the Shias lived as minorities and could often be harassed and even at times persecuted. They were the ones who developed the notion of taqiya, “dissimulation,” meaning that it’s OK to lie and say you’re Sunni if it means saving your life or protecting your family [keep this in mind when you read in anti-Muslim literature that Islam condones lying, especially to the face of non-Muslims].

In recent history the single event that most inflamed Sunni/Shia relations was the war in Iraq. Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, had ruled with an iron fist a country that was 60 percent Shia. When the Americans and British toppled him, the resulting democratic polity was naturally dominated by the Shia.

Enter the terrorist from Jordan, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, with a string of attacks on Jordanians, Iraqis and Americans. Shortly after settling in Iraq he merged his small organization with al-Qaeda and pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Yet besides the gruesome executions for which he became known (like his beheading of the American hostage Nicholas Berg), Zarqawi nursed a virulent hatred of Shias. He is the one believed to have masterminded the blowing up of the golden-domed Shia mosque of Samarra in 2006, which marked the beginning of the vicious sectarian war in Iraq that has slowed down but not yet ended. He was killed by two massive bombs on his hideout two months later.

Let me end with the words of an influential American Muslim woman, Sheila Mousaji. She’s an attorney from Saint Louis, Missouri and founder of a monthly journal called The American Muslim (now only online). Actively involved in interfaith dialogue around the US, she has also turned to the problem of Shia-Sunni relations, a hot issue here too.

In a recent post on an American Shia website, “Sunni-Shia unity is a must to stop Shia genocide in Pakistan,” she writes. “This week in Pakistan there were two incidents of violence against Shia Muslims. Twenty-two were killed in a Taliban bus attack. It is heartbreaking that there are still any individuals calling themselves Muslims who can believe that there is any possible justification for such acts at any time, but even more particularly during the month of Ramadan. Our prayers are with the victims and their families. Those who carried out these acts bring shame on the entire Ummah. Somehow we have to find a way to stop this senseless violence.”

Then a good part of her article is devoted to hopeful signs of reconciliation between the two factions of Islam and, above all, she highlights the Amman Message, quoting it in its entirety.

This shows again how much was accomplished by the little kingdom of Jordan to reconcile Muslims to each other and Muslims to Christians. No doubt official pronouncements by top leaders won’t immediately reverse centuries of mistrust and grudges. Nor will they easily overcome conflicts mixing with other political and social factors. Yet this kind of effort has proven effective in laying the groundwork for the kind of grassroots work that must necessarily follow.