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Jul 28th 2005
From The Economist print edition
The men of learning against the men of violence
OVER the few days before the attack on London of July 7th, something historic was happening in the world of Muslim theology. After some careful deliberations in the air-conditioned comfort of a hotel in Jordan's capital, Amman, the world's leading Muslim scholars—over 170 of them from 35-odd countries—made a series of pronouncements designed to affirm their own authority, soften differences and deal a blow to advocates of terror.
The things these august gentlemen decided on may sound arcane to non-Muslims. But for the hosts, including Jordan's King Abdullah, the agreement was an encouraging first success in what will have to be a long ideological war against readings of Islam that lend support to violence.
In several ways, the muftis and professors agreed to minimise their own (previously sharp) differences and work together to promote what they regard as “good theology” over some superficial, violence-promoting interpretations of Islam that have circulated, electronically and in print, all over the world. Among the scholars' main conclusions is that nobody who accepts Islam's basic beliefs should be denied the label of Muslim. A statement of the obvious? Far from it, because a hallmark of virtually all the shrillest voices in Islam is that they reject the Muslim credentials of anybody who disagrees with them. As an example of a Muslim thinker who rejects anybody less extreme than himself as an apostate, many would cite Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian who is one of the leaders of al-Qaeda.
Equally important, the scholars announced a sort of “mutual recognition” agreement between Islam's eight main schools of legal interpretation: four Sunni ones, the two main Shia traditions, the Ibadis of Oman and the small but prestigious Zahiri school. While these schools' leaders will never concur on everything, they recognised each other's authority in their respective communities—and resolved to deny authority to anybody who purports to be a scholar but lacks the training.
At least in theory, this implies a degree of mutual respect between rival versions of Islam that has not been seen since the Fatimid empire a millennium ago. More practically, the pronouncement should act as a restraining influence in Iraq, by denying Sunni Muslims any right to attack their Shia compatriots as heretics.
As an instance of bad theology being used to ignoble ends, many scholars cite the notorious fatwa, or religious ruling, issued in 1998 by Osama bin Laden and his comrades from Egypt, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It cited some of the gorier lines from the Koran—“slay the pagans wherever you find them, seize them, beleaguer them, lie in wait for them with every stratagem”—to justify attacks on “Crusaders” (ie, westerners) and Jews. More traditional readings of the Koran would argue that these lines refer to a specific situation—when the Prophet and his companions faced a surprise attack from adversaries who had torn up a treaty—while the more emollient passages of the Koran, urging tolerance, state a more general rule. The precise meaning of the Koran's so-called “sword verses” is hard to discern. But moderate scholars make a plausible case when they argue that only well-grounded theology can cure the effects of the bad, extremist kind.
Still, how much will the Amman decisions resonate with ordinary believers in the so-called Arab street, where many may still be more impressed by al-Qaeda's spectacular actions than the careful thoughts of the greybeards? A lot, insists Abdallah Schleifer of Cairo's American University. “The ordinary Egyptian is troubled by the sight of Sunni Muslim fighting Shia Muslim in Iraq, and this will help to clarify his thinking,” he says. “It will also be a blow against the bad effects of store-front religion—extremism spread by ignorant, self-appointed preachers.”