After learning about the assassination of Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti—along with 40 other civilians—in a suicide attack against his mosque in Damascus earlier today (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/03/2013321174113479353.html), I was absolutely shocked. This was a figure that was enshrouded in controversy, given that he was both one of the most eminent scholars of the Sunni Muslim world but also one of the pillars of support for the Assad regime. His extension of legitimacy to the crimes committed by the Baathist regime against its own people cannot be excused or defended. However, the reaction to his death—although understandable given his association with a murderous regime—has been absolutely appalling. Declarations justifying the bombing of a mosque, the murder of 20 civilians, and the assassination of a religious figure strike me as simply contributing to the hatred which has engulfed Syria.
As much as I disagreed with Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti for his major support of the Assad regime, it should be pointed out that his political stance was predicated upon a clear understanding of classical Sunni theology, as can be gleaned from the Aqeedah al-Tahawiyya which asserts that “It is impermissible to rebel against any of the leaders or the administrators of public affairs, even if they are oppressive. We also do not pray for evil to befall any of them or withdraw our allegiance from any of them. We also do not pray for evil to befall them any one of them or withdraw our allegiance from them. We consider our civic duty to them concordant with our duty to God and legally binding on us, unless they command us to the immoral [not referring to the perpetration of injustice]. We pray for their probity, success and welfare.” This doctrine can also be found in many other places throughout various Sunni doctrinal and legal texts, which developed within a specific historical context and for particular reasons. Nevertheless, the perspective that it is absolutely impermissible to rebel against tyrannical rulers has become a core belief of traditional Sunni Muslims, a group to which Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti belonged. This doctrine has obviously been applied selectively, invoked continuously by clerics in Saudi Arabia to forestall any critique of the kingdom there, but completely ignored in the case of Syria where revolution and uprising are strongly encouraged.
There is certainly a broader issue at play here than simply the opinion of one elderly cleric, no matter how much I disagreed with him. If you have an issue with clerics supporting the government in their respective countries, it would be prudent to engage with this idea which dominates much of the discourse about rebellion in Sunni Islam (who can ever forget the Grand Mufti of Saudia Arabia declaring that Imam Husayn [A.S.] was justly killed for rising up against Yazid??) rather than looking at al-Buti as a particularly diabolical or evil individual. If past religious scholars have been willing to legitimate the murder of the grandson of the Prophet (SAW), why wouldn’t they view the murder of lesser people as justified? This is precisely the issue at stake, which completely transcends the opinions of Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti, Shaykh Ahmad Hassoun or others. As many scholars have noted, the Sunni world is at a crossroads in its history, challenging the legitimacy of the above mentioned doctrine for the first time. It remains to be seen whether or not it will be overturned altogether. This is a complex debate which is deeply rooted within the theological and legal understandings of the faith and is ultimately an issue which can only be resolved among the scholars. Our Shi’i and Ibadi brothers and sisters have also grappled with the issue of rebellion vs. quietism in various ways, but I won’t get into that now. It’s simply an issue that needs to be brought to the fore when considering why Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti held the views that he did.
This event also sets a dangerous precedent for the assassination of clerics with whom one disagrees. There exist many religious figures throughout the Islamic world—Sunnis, Shi’is and Ibadis—who hold views that differ vastly from one another on a variety of matters. Some of these views are bound to contradict or offend the worldviews of other individuals in the Islamic world. The solution is to engage critically with these perspectives, not to use violence. As Shaykh Muhammad al-Ya’qoubi asserted: “People should not be killed because of their opinions.” I do not mourn Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti because I was particularly fond of his views or an admirer of his religious knowledge, but only that his death underscores the transformation of Syria into a land of murder and destruction, where the logic of violence and retribution prevails over reconciliation, peace, and justice.
I firmly believe that it is necessary to understand that only God can determine the ultimate fate of al-Buti and all others who have supported this regime. This is a matter which depends upon the inner reality of things which are not discernible to any human being. Since when did human beings become the arbiters of anyone’s salvation or damnation? Only the Supreme Judge can exercise that authority. For our part we should only say: inna lilla wa inna ilaihi rajji’un (We are from God and unto Him we shall return).
“Justice is not necessitated by love. We do not treat people justly because we like them or are partial to them. If that were the case, there would be no need to command justice, since people are naturally just to those they favor. We need to be commanded with justice when dealing with those we have no favorable feelings towards. Justice is necessitated by nothing other than our shared humanity. We must be just towards all human beings, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, or gender. Justice is the greatest means of ensuring human dignity and human rights. Justice is what people ask for and expect from each other, regardless of their affiliations, loyalties, affections, and prejudices”–Shaykh Sami al-Majid, Professor of Shari’ah at Muhammad ibn Sau’d University in Riyadh
“It is remarkably difficult to avoid falling under the spell of our own intellectual heritage. As we analyze and reflect on our normative concepts, it is easy to become bewitched into believing that the ways of thinking about them bequeathed to us by the mainstream of our intellectual traditions must be the ways of thinking about them. … The history of philosophy, and perhaps especially of moral, social and political philosophy, is there to prevent us from becoming too readily bewitched. The intellectual historian can help us to appreciate how far the values embodied in our present way of life, and our present ways of thinking about those values, reflect a series of choices made at different times between different possible worlds. This awareness can help to liberate us from the grip of any one hegemonic account of those values and how they should be interpreted and understood. Equipped with a broader sense of possibility, we can stand back from the intellectual commitments we have inherited and ask ourselves in a new spirit of inquiry what we should think of them”—Quentin Skinner, “Liberty before Liberalism,” pp. 116-117