Sheikh Osama Al-Rifai and the hadith of Iftaa (1)

I explained in an article last week – “The struggle for the position of mufti between the Syrian regime and the opposition” – that the opposition Syrian Islamic Council’s move to appoint a new mufti is a smart move from a political and symbolic point of view, but it is problematic from a religious and practical point of view, for two reasons: the first: its representation, whether in terms of his election or In terms of his exercise of his duties as an expression of the “Syrian Arab Republic,” and the second: within the limits of his role as a mufti, how he exercises it, and his relationship to the jurisprudential legacy and the scholarly tradition of jurisprudence. I will dedicate this article to the first matter, while devoting another article to the second matter.

Sheikh Osama Al-Rifai addressed – in what he called “The Ifta’ Hadith” – 5 themes, including:

  1. The reasons for his appointment as a new mufti by the Syrian Islamic Council.
  2. The importance of the presence of a mufti on what he called “Syrian land”, and the effect of the way the mufti received his position on his performance.
  3. The function of the mufti and some stories related to the performance of some of the mufti of the “Syrian Land” (the stories of the former Mufti Abu Al-Yusr Abdeen and Imam Al-Nawawi were mentioned).
  4. And some directions and advice related to Syrian refugees, and that one of the conditions of supplication is abstinence from sins in the context of calling for their aid.
  5. A general mention of detainees and women, and that he extends his hand to all components of the Syrian people (he mentioned a story by the Syrian Christian politician Faris al-Khoury).

On the level of practice, how will Al-Rifai prove – in practice – that he is a representative of all the Syrian people of the “Republic”? Especially since one of the challenges of the new position is for Al-Rifai not to turn into a mufti for his group and for the people of northern Syria and its factions and formations represented in the Syrian Council that elected him. But the auditor in the hadith of the fatwa does not deviate from this, and we do not know from his experience in the presidency of the Syrian Council what explains this as well.

This first speech comes from Al-Rifai after he was called “the Mufti of the Syrian Arab Republic.” He was speaking from the opposition lands outside the regime’s authority, and he tried to base his legitimacy on two things:

the first: “The regime has abolished the position of Mufti,” and therefore the Syrian Islamic Council called for this step.

The second: Historic legitimacy, and that “the history of our country and all Muslim countries has always been fragmented,” and that his election “put things back into place” as they were historically in Syria, and he mentioned some stories in this. It is remarkable that he did not explicitly mention issues of state identity and sectarian dimensions to abolishing the position, which are issues that the Syrian Council and others previously stated.

As for the first thing here, it means that the Syrian Council’s move is a “reaction” to Assad’s decree requiring the abolition of the position, and this assumes two issues:

First: The legitimacy of the new mufti is based on the regime’s abolition of the position of the mufti, and not according to a founding vision of the opposition in light of its struggle with the regime to represent and defend Islam, especially since the position of “the Mufti of the Republic” is a political position and part of the post-colonial state apparatus, and then the Mufti was an employee Governmental since the inception of the position until now.

the second: Implicitly acknowledging the legitimacy of the former regime’s mufti, which means that the appointment of a new mufti is a reaction to the regime’s abolition of both the former mufti and the position, which confirms that the opposition’s move to appoint a mufti is essentially a political step.

The designation of the “Mufti of the Syrian Arab Republic” implies that the name represents the “republic” in an attempt to extract the symbolic character from the Assad regime on the one hand, but at the same time it is a reflection of religious thinking obsessed with the idea of ​​the state and trying to inspire its powers to organize the affairs of the Syrians, including the religious issue on the other hand. But we are not, in fact, faced with mere symbolic issues; The designation has legal and practical requirements on which the legitimacy of the position will depend, whether on the level of vision or practice.

On the level of vision, the “Ifta Hadith” imposes – as a republican position – an explanation of how the new Mufti will face the main challenges after this position has moved from the regime to the opposition, and if its legitimacy is based on the regime’s abolition of the position, and that there is a political will to change the identity of the Syrian state As a “Sunni” state, what is the new Mufti’s plan to preserve this threatened identity? Was it once he was appointed mufti that identity was preserved?

On the level of practice, how will Al-Rifai prove – in practice – that he is a representative of all the Syrians of the “republic”? Especially since one of the challenges of the new position is for Al-Rifai not to turn into a mufti for his group and for the people of northern Syria and its factions and formations represented in the Syrian Council that elected him. But the auditor in the hadith of the fatwa does not deviate from this, and we do not know from his experience in the presidency of the Syrian Council what explains this as well.

As for the second issue that establishes the legitimacy of the new mufti, it was represented in two points: the first is that he places himself in the context of the history of the fatwa in Syria, and the second is that the independence of the mufti is achieved through his election by specialists on the other hand.

With regard to the first point, the summary presented by Al-Rifai of the history of the fatwa in Syria seemed short and very general. It is not an accurate history of the establishment of the position of fatwa, which first arose during the time of the Ottoman Empire, nor is it a scholarly talk about the “function of the fatwa” as established in the literature. The specialist is from the jurisprudential heritage, nor is it an honest presentation of the history of the position in the shadow of post-colonial countries, especially since we have various models here; A country like Qatar does not have a general mufti of the state, not even an official fatwa council, and countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and the UAE in which the function of the “General Mufti” is held by a collective fatwa council, that is, there is no general mufti, and there are many countries in which the mufti is appointed by the President of the Republic, as in Egypt And Tunisia and others, in addition to the fact that the history of the position of the mufti in Syria itself was subject to developments. The former Mufti of the Republic, Sheikh Ahmed Kaftaro, came by election in 1964 and remained in his position during the rule of former President Hafez al-Assad until the death of Kaftaro himself (2004 AD).

With regard to the second point, he stated that he was elected by the Syrian Islamic Council and the Syrian Ifta Council, and that “in these two councils are the nation’s senior scholars and jurists who are reliable from a religious point of view.” Far from the fact that the Syrian Ifta Council is a branch of and affiliated with the Syrian Council, it has been overlooked that the Syrian Islamic Council is – in fact – an expression of blocs divided between the Muslim Brotherhood (represented by the League of Syrian Scholars), the Salafis (represented by Hay’at al-Sham), and the Zayd Group (Headed by Al-Rifa’i) representing a traditional Sufi orientation, and a group of individuals. Hence, the council’s decisions and their ramifications are the result of this quota that imposed itself on the Syrian Ifta Council, which is branching from it, and in which the previous blocs were represented, and led – for example – to the fact that a merchant and an engineer were members of the Ifta Council along with other unknown members In jurisprudence and scientific production, the people of knowledge are few, and this will have its consequences in any election process.

This means that Al-Rifai’s previous speech about “the nation’s senior scholars and jurists…” is a transmitted speech and does not represent the actual reality, especially since the criteria for “those who are considered religiously reliable” are a non-scientific process, that is, they are related to the parties and the balances of active forces in the north of Syria or the previous one in the revolution. Or a thorn, otherwise a number of members of the Ifta Council are not famous, neither scientifically nor popularly. This leads us to the fact that some of the opposition bodies themselves lack real and transparent election mechanisms, and are not based on the criteria of science or the scholars and the specialization that al-Rifai is talking about (the preachers and storytellers are not among the people of reputable knowledge), and this would affect the nature of the fatwas issued by these The councils, which will influence the new mufti later on as well, because they will be syncretistic between all these components (Salafi, Brotherhood, Sufi traditional and individualist).

In order to avoid reducing the issue of the independence of the Mufti to the means of his assumption of office (election or appointment), it is necessary to distinguish between two types of legitimacy that the position of the Mufti requires – in principle – under the post-colonial state:

  1. Legal legitimacy related to being part of the state apparatus, and sometimes it is affiliated with the Ministry of Justice (Justice) as in Egypt, or the Ministry of Awqaf as in Syria after the decree of 2018, and there are other models, especially if we go back to an early period in the era of the Ottomans, who developed the position of Mufti (Sheikh al-Islam) in their time.
  2. Scientific legitimacy represented in his competence and acceptance within the scientific community (locally and internationally) as a jurist; This is only granted to a person by the conditions of precise specialization (in jurisprudence) and scientific production (scholarship), in addition to the popular acceptance that he obtains by practicing fatwas and contributing to solving problems and presenting jurisprudence in calamities (Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, for example, imposed himself on large segments of people in contracts The latter, although he did not have any official position).

These considerations are not available to the Syrian Islamic Council; Especially if we look at the fatwas presented by his Fatwa Council since its establishment in 2017 until now, some of which have sparked widespread controversy, such as the fatwa on honor killings, in which I explained in previous articles that the Council violated the same doctrinal doctrinal tradition, and the fatwa on marriage with the book in Europe. Yes, the Syrian Council enjoys influence over a limited geographical scope (especially in northern Syria, where the active forces on the ground are represented in the Council).

In fact, the new mufti faces many challenges, the most prominent of which are two issues:

First: The previous combination that brought him to the position of fatwa, the discrepancy between the orientations of the members of the Syrian Council will complicate the task of the Mufti, as happened in the Ifta Council of the Syrian Council and some of its controversial fatwas. In order to correct the loopholes in his election process, a transparent election law must be arranged so that there is a scholarly body (not a group of sheikhs and preachers), in accordance with the criteria considered in the scientific tradition, away from the diabolical and partisan groups. It lacks legal and legal frameworks.

the second: His conservative personal nature, and the dominant consensual feature on him that prevents him from taking decisive and principled positions sometimes, which leaves negative effects in the public arena, especially after he was called the “Mufti of the Republic”, which is different from his previous situation, and he will be forced to reconsider how he manages the relationship with his group The Syrian Council, the Association of Sham Scholars, and the Syrian opposition political bodies, and he has now headed a number of these entities, and this is a problematic matter based on conflicting interests.

The consociational characteristic of the Sheikh can explain why he was in a position of consensus among those with Salafi, Brotherhood and traditional orientations and independent individuals in the council that elected him. Compatibility. Thanks to this characteristic, it is rare for Al-Rifai to find a clear position on Salafism jihadism, for example, or any of the existing political components. He was also silent about the issue of the kidnapped from non-Islamic civil organizations in Ghouta, for example, and towards the issue of trying to expel some Syrians from Turkey. Indeed, the Syrian Council Presiding over him and after being named a mufti, he undertook the populist campaign against the authors of an educational course for children, simply because it contained “illustrations” that were considered a “crime” and a “grave mistake”; Although the course’s owners withdrew the course and apologized for the error that could be interpreted, knowing that the course supervisor was a member of the Syrian Council and was dismissed for considerations that were said to be related to quotas.

The Mufti cannot remain silent in the face of such controversy raised by the cartoons that led some of them to infidels and led others to file a lawsuit against the authors of the course in the areas of influence of the Council and the Mufti, on charges similar to the charges of the Assad regime such as contempt of religion and insulting sanctities, and this raises the question about How to manage the relationship between the Syrian Council, the Ifta Council, and the position of the Mufti, in addition to the fact that the Mufti must step down from the presidency of the Council that elected him, in order to preserve his independence on the one hand, and to prevent conflict of interests on the other hand, and to prevent the accumulation of influence in the hands of one person on a third hand with the large number of The positions he holds!

Rather, the consensual Rifai launched an attack – through a series of speeches in Damascus before the revolution – on Sheikh Muhammad Abdo, Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and the symbols of Islamic reformism, accusing them of Freemasonry. He also criticized international trends regarding women and gender, and it seems that the Sheikh’s problem is with openness, whether it is in a reformist formula. Islamic or in the form of international legislation, for Al-Rifai represents the conservative traditional current (socially and intellectually), and this conservatism does not reflect Islamic jurisprudence, because jurisprudence is often more spacious than Al-Rifai’s narrow perceptions that are closer to preaching and popular perceptions, and therefore he does not seem to have a problem with the most Conservation of it, in contrast to openness trends.

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