Muslim scholars use Ramadan to push an Islamic renewal

Aya Batrawy
Associated Press

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates — During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Muslims are called on to reflect on their faith as they conduct their daily fast. This past month, some clerics and scholars reflected on ways to reform the religious discourse in Islam to keep up with modern-day challenges and oppose extremism.

A popular Egyptian religious figure used his daily TV show to talk about ways to renew interpretation of Islam’s holy book, the Quran. The United Arab Emirates hosted a series of Ramadan mosque lectures by dozens of clerics, including many from al-Azhar, Egypt’s premier Sunni Muslim center of thought and learning, and a popular American sheikh, who warned that renovation is needed in Islam after centuries of neglect in thought left the Muslim world in disrepair.

On one level, the religious reform effort — known in Arabic as “tajdeed,” or “renewal”— is aimed at drawing the faithful away from extremism at a time when militant violence has escalated in the region with the spread of the Islamic State group. A common theme among renewal-minded clerics is a call for greater emphasis on tolerance of others. On another level, the movement faces a struggle in revamping how the faith is practiced without altering its foundations.

Talk of change rose to the fore in January, when Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi called for a revolution in Islam, saying outdated interpretations made the Muslim world a source of destruction. He urged government clerics and the 1,000-year-old al-Azhar to carry out this change.

On Tuesday, he broached the subject again, saying “tolerance is disregarded by extremist interpretations” of Islamic texts.

Critics of el-Sissi have accused him of using this effort to purge religious institutions of his Muslim Brotherhood opponents and control another arm of the state’s levers, in this instance a religious institution that is already weighed down by bureaucracy and government meddling.

But he also has strong regional support from the oil-rich emirate of Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s seat of government. The UAE’s counterterrorism lectures, organized by Abu Dhabi’s Islamic Affairs authority during the month of Ramadan, which ends Friday, drew more than 300 speakers, many of them from Cairo’s al-Azhar.

Among the best known speakers in the lectures was an American from California, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, who converted to Islam almost 40 years ago. He is a founder of Zaytuna College in Berkeley in 2008, the first accredited Muslim college in the United States.

Speaking to a crowd of mostly young professionals of various ethnic backgrounds in the UAE, he acknowledged that “our scholars have not responded properly” to current challenges quickly enough. He urged a return to the core tenet of mercy in Islam.

People in the audience asked him questions ranging from how Muslims should react to the U.S. Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision to whether “Catcher in the Rye” was appropriate summer reading material for a ninth grader.

Speaking to The Associated Press later, the 58-year-old Yusuf described Islam as a house that has been neglected and is in need of renovation.

“The water taps aren’t working, the plumbing’s not working. The house is in disarray. It’s derelict,” he said. “The house is dilapidated. You don’t destroy it, you don’t set it aside. You renovate it.” He said Muslims should not oppose even strong reforms, nor feel that everything needs to be changed.

“Because of the urgency of the situation, some people are waking up … and thinking we better do something,” he said.

In his sermon at an Abu Dhabi mosque, Sheikh Maher Amer, a scholar of Shariah at al-Azhar, underlined traditions of tolerance between Muslims and Christians.

Al-Azhar has come under criticism, even from some supporters of the Egyptian president who call its teaching methods outdated and its efforts at change slow.

Amer defended the institution, saying “all the sons and daughters of Islam, Arabs and Westerners, come to learn at al-Azhar, to learn its moderate and peaceful doctrine.”