An Interview with Sheikh Awn Al-Qaddoumi
By Dr Halla Diyab for LIBERTY Blog
Sheikh Awn Al-Qaddoumi is not only a charming 32 year old young Muslim scholar and preacher with thousands of followers all around the world, but is also a popular television celebrity in Jordan, who hosts a lot of television programs on Islam. Sheikh Awn founded the Ma’arij Institute to teach Islamic Studies in Jordan; and currently is pursuing his MA at the Islamic University of Lebanon.
He can grab your attention not only because of his pleasant and easy going personality for a Sheikh who leads prayers and preaches in the mosques, but also because he is so humble. I asked him whether he defines himself as a Sheikh or an ‘aalim’ (religious scholar) and what the difference is. He believes he is a medium to pass the Islamic knowledge he gained through studying Islam to people throughout his Dawah work (Islamic preaching).
As a Muslim polymath scholar, Sheikh Awn completed several years of training and studied several spectrums and fields of Islamic scholarship. The rank or the position of the Islamic scholar is measured by the knowledge he has on the subject of Islam. Sheikh Awn views his Islamic devotion more so as his identity and how he perceives his life. He started practicing Islam in his teenager days, and started wearing according to Islamic Sunnah by choice.
When I asked Sheikh Awn whether he thinks Muslims of today rely more often on Sheikhs than on proper scholars and whether it is enough for anyone who grows a beard and wears Islamic clothes to act and be seen as a Sheikh even if he does not have the scholarly knowledge? He replied:
“I think media contributed to creating a stereotypical image of Islamic scholar or Sheikh which produced or developed different perspectives towards this image and the way it is perceived. We are facing challenges in the current Islamic discourse, mainly because the personal interpretations of Islamic jurisdiction. Absence of adequate education and the lack of Islamic knowledge, and there is a weakness in diligence. But there are still very moderate Islamic voices and Islamic preachers who are all over the world, and can be easily accessed by people”.
“Televaislamism” & The Influence Of Muslim Scholars
Post 9/11, the Middle East media witnessed the rise of large number of Islamic broadcasting through TV channels which mainly featured Sheikhs, or Imams devoting their Islamic scholarship to television broadcasting. So, do you consider that there is a phenomenon which I will refer to as “Televaislamism” which is similar to “televangelists” of the Christian ministers who devote a large portion of their ministry to television broadcasting. The involvement of Muslim preachers in media, especially those who lack the Islamic knowledge or scholarship, is an insinuation of aggrandizement by such Muslim scholars.
“The Islamic scholarly narrative can have a philosophical and jurisprudential depth to it, and sometimes it can be hard to be understood on common level. Social media has pioneered abbreviations and other simple ways of expression, the few words of twitter and Facebook’s short posts have gradually become not only ways of virtual communication, but also a source of information and news. Based on my ten-years of experience working in Middle East media, television does not produce Muslim preachers, but rather television stars and celebrities similarly to politics and art celebrities to promote certain ideas and views among its audience. However, the Islamic scholarly work produces scholars who are qualified source of Quranic jurisprudence”.
The exaggeration among the influence of the scholars eliminates the personal initiatives or self-development of Quranic reading or Islamic understanding. No one can deny the significance of Muslim scholars and Imams in helping young Muslims to understand the Quran, and the prophetic tradition, but the exaggeration in creating a holy aura around the scholars, and the sheikhs. Muslims gradually become skeptical of what they understand out of their own reading of Quran, and Islam. They also become more reliant on the personal interpretations of the Sheikhs which might be based on their mathhab (school of thoughts), or even a political agenda they are advocating. So who draws the line between following the Sheikh or following the religion? What is the dividing line between the personal interpretation of Quran and Sunnah and the jurisdiction?
“Muslims need to follow God (Allah), not to follow an Imam or Sheikh. Islam is the common frame for God’s rules designed for Muslim’s way of worship, lifestyle, and devotion to the Islamic doctrine. There is a difference between Islam as a religion, and the Islamic devotion. We acquire devotion because of certain circumstances or as a reaction to something we go through. If we understand the difference between these two (religion and devotion), we will understand many of the problems we are facing today in respect to extremism, prejudice, intolerance and sectarian conflict”.
Sheikh Awn believes there are psychological reasons which lead to terrorism, and it is a moral problem when it comes to ignorance or lack of Islamic knowledge.
Political Islam & Muslim Brotherhood
The Arab spring witnesses the rise of Sheikhs and Muslim scholars in politicalizing Islam. In its efforts to prevent politicizing the Islamic discourse, Egypt regulates Friday sermons in mosques, unlicensed Sheikhs in Egypt are not allowed to lead Friday prayer, and preaching in the mosque is limited to that of Al-Azhar graduates who hold a permit from the Ministry of Endowments. How does Sheikh Awn perceive these legislations? Does he see in them an intrusion of the government and an attempt to control the religious discourse, and freedom of expression?
“Islam is politicalized under the influence of governments on one hand, and the influence of political parties and opposition movements”.
Sheikh Aw thinks:
“it is important to maintain the independency of the Islamic narrative from other bodies. Muslim preachers should advocate peace, community-cohesion, and tolerance, not to serve or promote a certain political agenda so Muslims and non-Muslims can live together in peace”.
Nonetheless, the Middle East governments have developed concerns about Islamic preaching, but countries like Jordan, UAE, and Egypt are empowering moderate scholarly voices to prevent the vulnerable Muslim youths from joining ISIS. Do you think those state’s efforts are working? Should Muslim scholars, especially the moderate ones be part of government policy when it comes to media, education, social media, and religious institutions?
“Muslim scholars (ulama’), and preachers should have a thorough understanding of the current challenges we are facing as Muslims in the Middle East region and worldwide, and raise the awareness of young people, especially the vulnerable ones of the main principles and ethos of Islam to combat the extremist narrative and stop the bloodshed and barbaric killings in the name of religion. Islamic scholarship should be accessible to the general public and not only to those who are specialized in religious or Islamic studies”.
In his college days Sheikh Awn worked closely with the Muslim brotherhood in Jordan on few Dawa activities. Muslim Brotherhood, “ikhwan” who steers controversy after the fall of the former Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, something which led the UK to commission “an internal government review into the philosophy and activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and the government’s policy towards the organisation.” Sheikh Awn did not only depart from this acquaintance with the Muslim Brotherhood, but in 2011 he published a book “Hasan al-Banna and the Missing Link” in which he criticised their ideology, and depicts the problems they have as an Islamic party, so what triggered this transition?
“I realized through time that Muslim brotherhood has a lot of twists in their ideology which changed it’s form from an Islamic Dawa movement into a political Islamic party. There is so much of self-interest into it as a party”.
Women & Islam
Unlike the stereotypical image of Sheikhs and Imams, Sheikh Awn is women-friendly, pleasant, and accommodating. So does he, in his own way, reshape and change the stereotypical perceptions about being a Muslim sheikh?
“My devotion never restrains me from communicating with women, as long this communication is within mutual respect and decency. I was also specialized in the prophetic tradition at the hands of female scholars of the Islamic sciences, including Sharifa Fatima Alsanosi in Libya, Sheikha Adiba Siraj al-Din in Raqqa in Northern Syria, and Dr. Amina Badawi”.
Sheikh Awn is a father to two girls; Mariam and Fatima, and his wife is a teacher and translator with an MA in English Literature. Sheikh Awn’s mother is helping him manage “Al Hawr’aa”: a new institute for Islamic Studies for women in Jordan and his youngest sister runs the programs and activities department in the Institute. Bearing this background information in mind, it is unfair to generalize that conservative and devoted Muslim Sheikhs prefer to keep women invisible in the shadow. Some Muslim men go too far, and even do not refer to their wives with their names, they call her by the name of her eldest son, “Um X or Um Z”. So why this secrecy when it comes to women in today’s Islam, while Prophet Muhamad’s wives and daughters were all known with their fore names: Khadijah the first wife of Prophet Muhammad, Fatima, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad and the wife of Imam Ali and Aisha the wife of Prophet Muhammad who also held an important place in narrating the hadith. Muslim women were part of the Islamic legacy, so what happened?
“This is not Islamic, but a product of traditions and psychological reasons. Mariam (Marry) the mother of Issa (Jesus) was mentioned by her forename 30 times in the Quran; even there is a whole Chapter in the Quran that is titled based on her name; Mariam”.
“Quran chronicles many women, there is a reference to Asiya, the wife of Pharaoh who reigned during Moses’s time (known in Arabic as Asiya bint Muzahim), and for Muslims she is considered one of the greatest women of all time. There is also Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba (Yemen) who appears in the Quran, and her visit to Prophet Solomon. There is also the story of the first women who embraced Islam at the time of Prophet Muhammad during first five years of the rise of Islam, their number reached almost 50; a number so close to the number of first men who embraced Islam. These women acquired a leading role in Islamic Dawa during the time of Prophet Muhammad. Some practices against women which we witness today, have more cultural and individual reasons to it, than something based on the role, rank of women in the Islamic history or the Quranic discourse”.
Al-Ghazali & Al Habib Abu Bakar Bin Ali Al Masyhur
Islam is not only a faith but also a way of life for Sheikh Awn. Encouraged by his father; Dr Moein Al-Qaddoumi, a prominent economist in Jordan, and the author of several books, Awn developed his research interests in Islamic scholarship under the influence of leading Muslim scholars. Who had the big influence on him?
“I was hugely influenced by the Muslim theologian Al-Ghazali who contributed to the development of a methodical view of Sufism, and its integration in mainstream Islam. I was also influenced by Jamā‘at at-Tablīgh (which is an Islamic movement based on the principle of the work of the Prophets) whom I met with in Bangladesh over a conference. Sheikh Noah Qudah the Grand Mufti of Jordan had a big influence on my Islamic scholarship, and also the Yemeni Islamic scholar, Al Habib Abu Bakar bin Ali Al masyhur and Habib Umar bin Hafiz”.
Social Media & Internet Islam
Sheikh Awn is very present on social media, his YouTube channel has thousands of viewers, and he also has thousands of followers on twitter and his Facebook page. Although social media is crucial today for Islamic Dawa, and communication with Muslim youths; however the openness of the online world is like a minefield, and it requires a lot of caution of what the Muslim preacher or Sheikh should post or circulate as his interpretation can be twisted, politicalised or misinterpreted. But the rise of the social media questions whether there is “internet Islam”, which had radicalized many young people on the internet?
“There is an urgent need to develop grass roots projects to involve Muslim youths and to channel their energy into more positive and effective activities. We need to empower the understanding of Islam through Islamic scholarship and research not through the internet”.
ISIS & Islamic Extremism
Today, there is a big challenge facing Muslim scholars with the rise of the barbaric ISIS who beheads innocent people in the name of Islam. How have Muslims reached to this stage? Is there a big failure on the part of moderate Muslim scholars to communicate their message, and why?
“The recent situation we are facing in the Middle East is a result of long years of underlying problems, and if we aspire for a better future, we need to go over our differences”.
Sheikh Awn was not specific in identifying the wrongs of the past that lead to the current dire circumstances the Middle East is facing today. He avoided explaining what the problems in the past were. So I had to ask him another question to get a specific answer to the point I raised. The fact that there is a Muslim tolerant scholar like you, so how has the same religion and doctrine that produced someone like you, produces radical and fanatic Imams who legitimize ISIS killings and beheadings? So how is the extreme narrative developed out of the Quranic jurisprudence? Do they depart from what is written in the Quran and the Sunnah? Or is it a matter of personal interpretations?
“There are psychological reasons that lead to radicalism and extremism. Muslims are influenced and products of their environment and surrounding. Muslim sheikhs and Imams should not reflect their personal views, preferences or emotional reactions to their interpretation of Islam which might lead to twists in the name of the religion. Islam is moderate, and it is mentioned in the Quran (Thus We have made you [true Muslims – real believers of Islamic Monotheism, true followers of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his Sunnah) (Quran, Al-Baqra Verse No:143). So moderation or monotheism is in the essence of Islamic faith. Moderation in Islam is the norm, and extremism is the exception”.
What is his word to the young Muslims who joined ISIS and behead innocent people in Syria and Iraq?
“It is forbidden for a Muslim to hurt a soul, because blood and souls are sacred and we are not allowed to transgress them. We need to solve our problems not via violence but via dialogue”.
Islam & The World Peace
Talking about Islam as a religion of peace, and how Muslims during the Prophet Muhammad’s time lived in peace and harmony with non-Muslims, and the Prophet Muhammad was married to a Christian woman; Maryam al-Qubtiyyah, so had Islam not been the religion of peace, it would not be a legacy that still influences, and empowers Muslim for generations. Can Islam inspire peace? How can Muslims evoke the spirit of peace and tolerance instead of sectarianism, bloodshed, and death?
“In Islam we regard God (Allah) by 99 names which are listed in the Quran. “Source of Peace and Safety” in Arabic (Al salam) is one of the names of Allah, even the promised paradise for Muslims has been referred to as the place of peace (And Allah invites to the Home of Peace) (Quran, Yunus Verse No:25). It is reported that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said, ” you shall not believe until you love one another. May I inform you of something, if you do, you love each other. Promote greeting amongst you (by saying As-salamu `alaikum to one another)”. Muslim scholars should empower and evoke the spirit of peace not violence and sectarianism”.