Mufti ‘Ali Jumu’a, and Religious and Political Toleration in Egypt

Nov 10

Ray Ibrahim, writing in the Middle East Forum, suggested that because the Mufti of Egypt, ‘Ali Jumu’a, had in the weeks preceding the massacre in Maspero, reiterated core Islamic teachings about the falsehood of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, he must also believe that Muslims should fight Christians until they are all subdued, in accord with what, according to Ibrahim, is the Quran’s “plain teachings” as set out in Quran 9:29.  In short, Ibrahim suggests that it is contradictory for Jumu’a to cite the Quran’s condemnation of the Trinity and then claim (as he lukewarmly does) that peaceful coexistence is required, despite the falsehood of Christian theology in light of the Quranic verse Ibrahim cites.

 Essentially, Ibrahim fails to understand the difference in Islamic thought between theological doctrine and legal doctrine, and the relationship of both to revealed text.  Theology, in Islamic thought, deals with ontological realities that pure reason tells us are either necessary, impossible or possible. Legal doctrines are not ontological realities but are instead matters of divine command that, from the perspective of pure reason, are all in the realm of the possible.  This means that in order to determine divine law, one must investigate divine speech, in particular, its commands.  Because theological doctrines, in particular with respect to God who is the necessary being according to Muslim theologians, doctrines concerning God must be consistent with reason.  According to the Muslim theologians, then, the Trinity is false both on grounds of pure reason and revelation.

Plain meaning in Islamic hermeneutics, however, only establishes a probable conclusion, something the theologians call a zahir.   (Of course, I’m sure Muslim theologians would say that revelation’s clear condemnation of the  divinity of Jesus places it beyond plain meaning into a much higher register of certainty.) This is important because interpretation of Quranic legal verses generally involves interpretation of plain meaning, and accordingly, does not produce  conclusive answers.  For one thing, one must take into account other verses as well as whether the intent of a verse such as 9:29 is to apply generally to all Christians, or only those who lived at the time of the Prophet, or those who are fanatically and violently hostile to Islam.  This means, contra Ibrahim, that there is no contradiction from the perspective of Islamic heremeneutics to affirm the Quran’s condemnation of Christian teachings regarding the divinity of Jesus while at the same time limiting the scope of the applicability of 9:29.  Of course, that does not mean that all Muslims would agree with such a reading, but the point is simply that one cannot glibly claim that Shaykh ‘Ali Jumu’a is dissembling when he claims that Islam, despite its rejection of Christian theology as heretical, nevertheless commands Muslims to respect Christians and treat them well.  For more on modern theological understandings of kufr, and the difference between theological kufr and legal kufr, and the consequences of this distinction for peaceful co-existence between Muslims and non-Muslims, see my forthcoming piece “‘No Salvation Outside Islam”: Muslim Modernists, Democratic Politics and Islamic Theological Exclusivism.”  For more on the Islamic hermeneutics, see my article “Is Historicism a Viable Strategy for Islamic Law Reform?

To conclude, ‘Ali Jumu’a gave a khutba (a Friday sermon) in the wake of the Maspero Massacre in which he re-affirmed the importance of ensuring security for Egypt’s Copts.  For sure, he does not understand the language of citizenship, and one can choose to criticize it from that perspective, e.g., calling Copts “dhimmis,” but he is hardly the only person in Egypt who lacks a profound understanding of citizenship.  I daresay plenty of Copts too think only in religious, communitarian terms.  That is the legacy we as Egyptians have inherited, and both Muslims and Copts must work together to overcome religious communitarianism and build a common sense of citizenship.  This would be a fair criticism of ‘Ali Jumu’a, but to accuse him of dissembling is nonsense.  Another point where the mufti can be criticized is that he did not need to respond to statements of certain Coptic priests who claimed that the Quran supports the divinity of Christ.

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