Qatari Islamic Intellectual Dr. Gasem Sultan In An Interview with Ikhwanweb

Qatari Islamic Intellectual Dr. Gasem Sultan In An Interview with Ikhwanweb

– A revival project should deal with three areas:   thought and feelings, necessary relations, and projects.

– We need to reconsider the whole realm of ideas which we have created for Muslim societies in view of its role in leading to either good or evil.

 Reality tells us that the Arab future seems to be promising, and that it has opted to solve its own problems.  However, this is taking place slowly.

– We can not change the external world unless we change it internally.

– The process of creating a decision maker in the Islamic case nearly lacks the true knowledge needed to create the external world.

– Until now, the Islamic movement is unable to reexamine its path and form a clear vision of its future in a scientific and objective manner.

– Comprehensive reassessments at the levels of ideas, relations, projects, and achievements are the core steps to be taken during the revival phase.

– Islamic awareness, as a whole, is still sending different educational messages, calling for dialogue and moderateness at times, and for exclusion and contempt at other times.

– The westernization wave is being countered today with an identity strengthening campaign which can succeed only through increasing awareness over the importance of the revival project and our identity.

Intellectual and educational issues represent the biggest obstacles in the path of uplifting a nation and building its civilization. Nations are built and their level of civilization and advancement are measured based on their intellectual base which, unfortunately, the Islamic and Arab Nation have suffered a collapse in followed by the downfall of their caliphate, power, and distinction.  

Unfortunately, only a few of our intellectuals have been alert to this point, including the Qatari Islamic intellectual Dr. Gasem Sultan who laid down a serious project plan for uplifting the youth of the Islamic Nation in a group of books which he wrote as part of the revival project.  For this purpose, we held the following interview with him in an attempt to understand the renaissance concept and its mechanisms which he seeks to spread in our Muslim societies.

Although he shocked us in his interview with Al-Haraka (The Movement) newspaper in terms of how he addressed some intellectual issues, particularly the problems in the renaissance vision of the Islamic movement, this first shock is the first indication of an awakening.

Text of the interview

Ikhwanweb: Dr. Gasem Sultan wrote a group of books on drawing up “The Renaissance Project” plan.  What is the motive behind your direction towards and focus on the renaissance issue to the extent that is transformed into a project?

Dr. Gasem Sultan: The revival project has been and continues to be the chief concern for all those concerned with the welfare of the nation.  Since, until now, this revival hasn”t been realized all of us are called on to contribute to it. This is the general reason. The specific reason springs from the view shaped- after reviewing and assessing previous literature and efforts- of the availability of a scope for contribution in this pioneer project. This scope is the part of the project which I am working on.

Observing the Islamic case for more than 30 years, one has witnessed phases bearing high hopes in which the world seemed to be embracing Islam the same way one has witnessed relapses in which the world seemed to close all its doors in the face of Islam. Between these phases all kinds of psychological fluctuations had been taking place.

Reflecting on these observations, one reaches that “We can not change the external world if we can”t change the internal world, the world of our ideas and feelings, because the first signs of our soundness is the reexamination of ourselves, where we”ve been right and where we”ve went wrong. Is there a possibility that in the next decade we regenerate the same problems and same phenomena because our psychological and mental structure will be formed out of the same input and thus produce the same responses? Or will we able to shape the future to a certain degree in compliance to the Prophet Mohamed”s (peace be upon him) hadith (saying): “Tie your camel then rely on God,” (i.e. do your best and leave the results on God).    Can we carry out the “do our best” project in order to reform what human effort can possibly reform, then rely on God to take care of the rest?

One also discovers, through these reflections, that there are severe disorders in the mindset of the decision maker at various levels in the Islamic case. I”m not talking about the Islamic case as “movements, organizations, currents, and independents,” but as an entire nation including political and social leaders and all active agents in the Muslim Nation.

If we look into the structure of Islam, we will find creed and monotheism at its base followed by other creed-related concepts. Then there is another level of worship which is based on creed and which supports the third level of the structure composed of the morals preached by Islam.   Finally, there is the outer structure which includes the areas of politics and economy, sociology and media, education and health, law and domestic security system of the state, system of social justice; the complete group of systems that manage the external affairs of life.

Looking at the knowledge of Muslim youth in the past stage- not just superficial knowledge but the solid understanding which leads to a certain extent of ability to make judgments in different areas- we will find that the amount of focus in Muslim youth literature was, in general, on the subjects of creed, worship, and morals, while other subjects such as politics, economy, sociology, philosophy, law and defense, were almost completely neglected. Even when such areas were addressed, historical approaches were used that do not relate to our reality today.

As for the process of shaping the decision maker in the Islamic case, again the areas required for creating external life are almost completely neglected.  Thus, there”s an awareness of religion and identity reflected in umrah (lesser pilgrimage), pilgrimage, worship, digging of wells, building of mosques, and enthusiasm for religion, but not reflected in wise decision-making that can steer life back into the direction of religion. This is because the steering tools for life are in the outer structure, as we discussed, and not in the three levels which represent the foundation.  Managing life”s affairs requires understanding this outer structure and a firm grasp of its tools.

Muslims are ambitious to see the sahwa (awakening) transform into a renaissance.  However, we believe that in order to see this transformation there is a gap that must be bridged through the decision- maker”s mastery of the tools for judgment for a decision-maker without a true understanding of politics, economics, sociology, and the dynamics of human competition will be out-of-date in terms of his approaches.  His case is similar to a person who talks about religion without knowledge of the fundamentals of jurisprudence, reading a text and then giving a fatwa (legal opinion issued by Islamic scholars) claiming that he is knowledgeable of Islam.  Is mere Islamic knowledge really sufficient for giving fatwa and making judgments or shouldn”t the person also be aware of and possess the full tools of the science of shari”a (Islamic legislation)?  The same applies to the fields of life, which are equal in importance.

We always pray to Allah to grant us a good life and a good hereafter.  We have given so much effort to the Hereafter, but as for this life, it has become far from our reach, from what is apparent.  So we need to fill this gap, the gap of awakening to the basic actions required for breaking into this life and making some useful change.

Ikhwanweb: What are the most important mechanisms for the renaissance project that you have been adopting and calling for?

Dr. Gasem Sultan: The revival project requires dealing with three big areas:  thought and feelings, necessary relations required for the success of renaissance projects, and projects that serve the aims of the renaissance; individuals, institutions, and governments are only agents.  Each of these three areas requires certain action.  The first mechanism of our action is based on an intellectual endeavor that rearranges the realm of ideas and encourages and keeps in touch with the agents in this area. The second mechanism is encouraging participation in the building of relations based on the two golden rules of Islam, “Verily, this brotherhood of yours is a single brotherhood (The Prophets: Verse 92)” and “help ye one another unto righteousness and pious duty (The Table: Verse 2),” with no other conditions. So any person seeking the nation”s welfare must find its members willing to help as much as they can. The third mechanism is encouraging and supporting projects that serve revival aims through moral support, experiences, and by linking them together as much as we can while avoiding discrimination between members of the nation.

Ikhwanweb: What are the most important problems facing the contemporary Islamic movement, in your opinion? What, in your view, could be the solution?

Dr. Gasem Sultan: First, in its subconscious, the Islamic movement has assumed absolute correctness and made its human ijtihad (intellectual efforts for understanding and practicing Islam) as if it were a holy religion.  When a disagreement occurs with others on the basis of right and wrong, it will be easily solved. But when it is on the basis of belief and weak belief or disbelief, the consequences, which are more than one can possibly count, are tragic.

Second: Until now, it is unable to reexamine its path, assess its situation, and form a clear vision of its future in a scientific and objective manner solely relying on a discourse of lifting morale, which is a very important tool but unless it is backed by a discourse of strategy for productive action it could lead to disaster.

Third: The high degree of sensitivity and lack of deliberation upon hearing any contrary view whether coming from a friend or foe.

Fourth: The separation created between theoretical and practical work and their placement in a state of contradiction instead of integration while we are taught in Islam that knowledge should lead our speech and deeds.

These problems aren”t necessarily found in a single movement, but they are the problems of the Islamic case in general.

Ikhwanweb: The Islamic movement is too busy with religious reform to construct external life. Isn”t this supposed to be its role, anyway?

Dr. Gasem Sultan: This is one of the biggest problems facing the Islamic case. Among the books I”ve been preparing on leadership tools, one particularly discusses the concept of tazkia (self-purification) and sulook (behavior) due to the many contradictions of life that lead one to different directions.  For example, a person may read a hadith of the Prophet (pbuh) giving preference to the person who mixes with people and endures their misconducts over the one who avoids mixing with others.   Then he reads another book on self-purification calling for the necessity of isolation or minimal mixing with people, as it leads to several harms. Which direction should the person take?  Here, the Tawfiqiyyah School steps in saying:  “It is the path in-between.”  However, the lay person doesn”t easily understand the concept of middle paths; he only understands extremes. Thus, we end up with big empty spaces between those who completely turn to the world and pay no heed to the hereafter and those whose concern for the hereafter isolates them from worldly life.

The problem is that many matters of life have become mixed with doubts, whether in the economic or social domains.  Every good has become accompanied with smoke.  On the one hand, the believer is cautioned against involvement in life to avoid the harm of the smoke while on the other hand he is required to construct life on the foundation of religion and lead human societies.   How can he avoid it and lead it at the same time?  This issue has become complex in the Muslim mindset. Thus, it needs a simple healing answer that ordinary people can understand.

Ikhwanweb:   It seems that you have a few remarks on the idea of “Islamic organizations” and the extent of their effectiveness as they continue to work in a traditional manner?

Dr. Gasem Sultan:  The Islamic case launched its project with certain assumptions in mind. When the Islamic Caliphate (the pan-Islamic state) collapsed, the project’s aim was to restore it in a smaller form in terms of structure and composition. 

As Islam is a comprehensive system, it set out to establish comprehensive organizations that would fill the vacancies the Islamic Caliphate had left. This logic was acceptable at that time was that because the second assumption was that hollowness would ensue unless the Islamic project occupied it by spreading out in all fields of life, thus restoring the Islamic state first, then the Islamic Caliphate later on.

These initial ideas actually clashed with the fact that in reality there wasn”t any hollowness on the domestic, regional or international levels. There was, in fact, a central state, and wherever it would be it would clash with this existing body which is what happened.  These bodies, with their structures and literature, collided with the firm reality to end up paying a very high cost. Their energies were consumed in this conflict followed by their drainage in areas such as Afghanistan and others. Then they were directed towards violent activities where they were completely consumed. Then, in the areas of their work they were besieged.  This tells us that we need to reconsider these assumptions upon which the project was launched.

When the project moved to the regions of the Muslim world, these assumptions and their products moved with it. Unless these assumptions are solid enough and reexamined, they will produce the same problems they had in the past.

I’m calling for a reconsideration of these assumptions; to identify which ones are valid so we can keep and which ones aren’t so we can cancel.  More focus should be given on the required areas for action, for today there is what is called practical experience.  If I had been living at the time of Hassan Al-Banna I would”ve said:  “This is a possible solution,”  but after 80 years passed since the establishment of the project, isn”t it reasonable that we seriously reconsider these ideas which we have considered as part of religion or as divine revelation.  I believe that not even the founder of the project saw it that way.  Rather it is the followers who have given it this attribute.   This reconsideration should not only be limited to ideas, because based on these ideas organizational institutions were established, external reality was shaped, and, in turn, responses to this reality were formed.  So ideas as well as their outcomes should all be reexamined.

Personally, I don”t believe that there is only one ideal solution. But there are solutions that can be tried out. We may offer a solution now that seems logical and possible but if it doesn”t work out, those following us should review, cancel, or modify it.  The choice is up to them.   In the end, they are all man-made attempts to find the ideal method for dealing with reality and since it is a human effort, then it is liable to be reconsidered, even if it was supported by shari”a texts because the Quran can be interpreted differently.  And if so is the case with the Quran, then how would it be with the Sunna?  Any individual, organization, or government can support his claims with a group of verses, hadiths, and interpretations. 

We need to reconsider our whole realm of ideas which we have created for the Muslim societies since it is what leads to either good or evil. We also need to reconsider our realm of relations which we”ve established in terms of discourse and communication and determine whether they will lead us to a good or disastrous end.  I am not addressing individuals, but the Islamic project because it is the essence. We have a long list of projects among which some have cost us hundreds of millions. Which ones are really necessary, which ones are helpful, and which ones are only additional improvements?

This complete reconsideration of ideas, relations, projects and achievements should be our core action during the revival phase if we want to move on to a new world.

In the end, the past solutions have done their job and produced their outcomes, but repeating them in the next two decades, I believe, will be a crime against ourselves and against Islam as a project, religion, and a mercy to all mankind.

Ikhwanweb: Do you think that the Islamic movement- in its current situation- is able to construct a project that will uplift the nation and restore its glories?

Dr. Gasem Sultan: In its current situation, I see it is a part of the problem rather than part of the solution.  My answer may seem harsh, but it could be contemplated and verified.  I know that some who will read this will refuse the words “in its current situation” and consider the one who says it as denying the goodness in all the great efforts made.  But this does not concern me, for I am addressing the rational who are able to differentiate between the words of a concerned loving heart from those of an ill-hearted person.

Ikhwanweb: When do you think will the continuous clash between the Islamic movement and the different governments stop? Do you believe that this situation is disintegrating the nation”s efforts?

Dr. Gasem Sultan: When both parties review their assumptions about themselves and the other side and when the conflict inside the single nation transforms from belief versus disbelief (between two Muslim parties) to good versus better for the nation. When people of a nation are brought up on the claim that their party, sect, group, or government is the absolute truth and that others are a serious threat, when these concepts are instilled in their souls, it will become impossible for them to reach out, communicate with others as one nation, or practice any form of fruitful cooperation.  So, every one should reconsider how they educate those who fall into their circles and reexamine the outcomes of their education.

Ikhwanweb:  The Arab mind suffers several complexes.  How do you observe them and how can they be treated?

Dr. Gasem Sultan:  There are many challenges that need to be tackled but the way to tackle them is through identifying rather than hiding them; by letting the minds defy them in an atmosphere free of intellectual intimidation until the right view becomes apparent as scum naturally disappears, and whatever benefits people remains.  Moreover, you cannot control people”s beliefs.  So freedom of opinion and allowing the debate wheel to spin is a good and big step towards curing mental complexes.  In the Holy Quran we find there was space for discussing even Satan”s arguments.

Ikhwanweb:  In your opinion, do you think the Arab and Islamic lag goes back to military or intellectual factors?

Dr. Gasem Sultan:  It first goes back to ideological factors; because nations are first defeated internally (intellectually and psychologically then this is reflected on the political, economic, military, and social conditions of the nation).  Then, from there, a tough enemy invades it to fully eradicate it.

Ikhwanweb: You have repeatedly talked about the problem of Muslims” understanding of creed and shari”a and their mixing between the two concepts. Can you clarify this point?

Dr. Gasem Sultan: Creed is what separates the believer from disbeliever.  It declares the state of belief of a person

Shari”a is- according to one of its definitions- the law governing the world; it arranges the laws that guarantee justice to both the believer and disbeliever as it organizes coexistence and secures rights. 

When one views people from the same looking glass, concluding for example that since Allah says to the Christians, “Certainly you have made an abominable assertion,” referring to their creed, then it is permissible to kill them because they are disbelievers while ignoring the shari”a laws that ordered us to deal with them kindly and justly, then he has falsely interpreted religion and its teachings.  

Ikhwanweb:  How do you assess the realms of ideas, things and persons Muslims are living in today?

Dr. Gasem Sultan: The realm of ideas is suffering from irregularity; from the exaggeration of minor matters, the simplification of major matters, and assumptions of almost absolute correctness.

The realm of persons or relations mostly remains narrow-minded and factional.

And the realm of things or projects still suffers the absence of priorities.

Ikhwanweb:  How do you perceive the relation between a Muslim between calls for dialogue on the one hand and calls for exclusion on the other?

Dr. Gasem Sultan: Islamic awareness, as a whole, is still sending different educational messages; sometimes dialogue and moderateness and other times exclusion. Although the concept of dialogue itself needs to be reviewed, all forms of communication are types of dialogue whether they are violent, moderate, or calm. So which one of them are we talking about?  Then who are we holding the dialogue with; the domestic, regional, or international other?  Then what level of people are we speaking to; the ordinary people, intellectuals, or politicians?  Then what topics will we discuss; religion, politics or economy? Then what is the agenda of our dialogue or what are the issues that we will discuss? We must first determine all the above in addition to the ones who are most qualified for holding dialogues from among us depending on these factors.  It is our duty to carry this out professionally and skillfully if we want it to bear fruit. However, Islamic action in this domain has usually been more reactive than strategic.

Ikhwanweb: The Arab Region is facing a fierce westernization campaign through the spread of negative phenomena.  How do you think this campaign can be confronted?

Dr. Gasem Sultan: The westernization campaign is being countered today with an identity strengthening campaign which can only succeed by increasing awareness over the importance of the renaissance project and our identity in entering international competition. The more the society is involved with the concept of a strong identity, without excessiveness, the stronger its immunity will become.

Ikhwanweb: How do you see the Arab future under the current conditions?

Dr. Gasem Sultan: Many signs indicate that the Arab future is promising and that it is opting to solve its own problem.  But this is occurring slowly and the threads of change have not become visible for every eye.  But they exist and seem to be more so in surrounding countries than in the central ones.