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Exclusive'In Islam, peace is a virtue to be earned without exception'

Top Sudan cleric: There is no general Islamic opposition to salaam with Israel

After Sudan’s leading scholars ruled against normalization, their peer Abdel-Rahman Hassan Hamed assessed that Islamic principles are more flexible, and wrote a fatwa backing ties

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Sudanese cleric Sheikh Abdel-Rahman Hassan Hamed issuing a fatwa in support of normalization with Israel (video screenshot)
Sudanese cleric Sheikh Abdel-Rahman Hassan Hamed issuing a fatwa in support of normalization with Israel (video screenshot)

Last month, amid reports that Sudan could soon normalize relations with Israel, the northeast African Arab country’s leading governmental agency in charge of interpreting Islamic law issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, saying ties with the Jewish state remain forbidden.

But in good Talmudic tradition, a senior cleric from a rival group of Islamic scholars thought his colleagues were mistaken and issued a fatwa arguing the exact opposite.

“They issued their fatwa. I found it to be problematic and not in keeping with Islamic principles, which are more flexible in nature. And so I thought to issue a fatwa that does reflect this flexibility that is inherent in Islamic principle,” Sheikh Abdel-Rahman Hassan Hamed told The Times of Israeli in a recent exclusive phone interview.

“It is an effort to issue a fatwa on the basis of present realities,” he said of his religious ruling, issued earlier this month. “When circumstances change, it is the responsibility of the mufti to look at the situation as it is, and to evaluate it without any preconception — to face reality. That is what we did.”

Hamed, who heads the Sudan Scholars Organization’s fatwa department, said that Islamic law doesn’t know the modern political concept of “normalization.”

“From an Islamic standpoint, the terms that are relevant are sulh [treaty or armistice] and salaam [peace],” he said, speaking in Arabic through an interpreter.

“As a general principle, from an Islamic standpoint, there is no opposition to sulh or salaam with Israel. On the contrary, sulh and salaam are virtues that are to be earned, without exception.”

On Monday, a breakthrough in US-brokered effort to get Khartoum to normalize relations with Jerusalem seemed closer than ever, as US President Donald Trump announced that he would remove Sudan from the the US terrorism list. His move, announced on Twitter, appears to presage a forthcoming deal in which Sudan would agree to establish diplomatic ties with Israel in exchange for massive financial aid.

Whether or not to normalize ties with Israel has been a matter of vehement debate within Sudan’s transitional government, with its military wing, headed by Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan, said in favor but Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok opposed.

The government-sponsored Islamic Panel of Scholars and Preachers, known as Fiqh Council, which ruled in September that Islamic law prohibits ties with Israel, advises the government on religious matters but its views are not legally binding, according to the US State Department. “Muslim religious scholars may present differing religious and political viewpoints in public,” according to its 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom.

That’s exactly what Hamed did in his fatwa, which was first made public by the Arab Council for Regional Integration, a group fighting the taboo of contacts with Israel exists in the Muslim world.

“First, normalization is a peace contract. Peace contracts and declarations of war are legitimate policy issues that are unrelated to Islamic doctrine,” he declared in his ruling. Rather, questions of war and peace are decided by the political leaders based on the national interest, he argued.

Sudanese pro-democracy supporters celebrate a final power-sharing agreement with the ruling military council, August 17, 2019, in the capital, Khartoum. (AP Photo)

“If the ruler sees weakness among the Muslims, as is our case these days, especially in this country, where we are suffering from famine, fragmentation, strife and internal wars… and if he sees it is in our interest to forge peace, then he must do it,” he went on.

Sulh with Israel would the same as sulh with the US, Russia or China, as these countries have occupied and fought wars in Muslim territories as well, the senior cleric posited. “The lands of Islam are all considered as one. Some believe Palestine has extra sanctity. Yes, Jerusalem is holy, but all the countries of Islam have the holiness of Palestine.”

According to Joseph Braude, the president of the Center for Peace Communications, which supports the Arab Council, Hamed’s fatwa is significant because he is not a fringe player in Sudan.

“His organization of clerics is a credible non-government rival to the state-backed Islamic Fiqh Council, which ruled against normalization a week before this fatwa,” Braude told The Times of Israel this week. “Hamed has been a courageous critic of the hardline Islamist trend that prevailed in Sudan for decades. This fatwa is a logical extension of those longstanding views.”

In our interview, Hamed said that parts of the media and some “remnants of the previous regime in Sudan” opposed his pro-Israel fatwa but that by in large it was well-received by the congregants of his mosque.

“It was welcomed and appreciated by the worshippers as a fatwa that is based on reason and logic. It seemed to them to be a sensible fatwa and there was no problem with it,” he said.

Here is a full transcript of our conversation, slightly edited for clarity.

The Times of Israel: What inspired you to issue this fatwa?

Abdel-Rahman Hassan Hamed: The impetus came from the fact that the government asked the Fiqh Council to issue a fatwa on this question. They issued their fatwa. I found it to be problematic and not in keeping with Islamic principles, which are more flexible in nature. And so I thought to issue a fatwa that does reflect this flexibility that is inherent in Islamic principle.

Are these long-standing beliefs or did you recently arrive at the conclusions expressed in the fatwa?

It is an effort to issue a fatwa on the basis of present realities. When circumstances change, it is the responsibility of the mufti to look at the situation as it is, and to evaluate it without any preconception — to face reality. That is what we did.

In your fatwa, are you merely arguing that normalization with Israel is not necessarily a violation of Islamic law, or are you suggesting that, under the current circumstances, it would actually be a good thing?

First of all, normalization is a term that doesn’t exist in the vocabulary of Islam. It’s a contemporary concept. From an Islamic standpoint, the terms that are relevant are sulh and salaam.

In general, Islam supports peace, as it is a religion of peace. But the issue with Israel is the question of land, the question of occupation. This makes the issue exceptional.

As a general principle, from an Islamic standpoint, there is no opposition to sulh or salaam with Israel. On the contrary, sulh and salaam are virtues that are to be earned, without exception.

The situation more specifically with Israel today is that there is occupation. And occupation means an exceptional circumstance, and it takes in turn an exceptional circumstance on the Islamic side to lead to a way to make peace with Israel, even with the occupation ongoing.

However, if Israel wants a complete and full-hearted peace, then it would restore the rights of the people whom it is occupying. Then there would be no restraint whatsoever, or special circumstance necessary, from an Islamic perspective.

In your fatwa, you briefly mentioned the concept of sanctity of land, arguing that Palestine is no holier than other occupied Muslim lands. Can you elaborate on that? After all, the al-Aqsa mosque is considered the third-holiest site in Islam, and Turkey, for example, continues to stress that Jerusalem was the Muslim’s first qibla [direction of prayer].

Holy sites indeed have a special status in Islam: Mecca, Medina, and the Haram al-Sharif [the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City]. There is no doubt that they have a special status.

Once we move on from the issue of holy sites, of course every state has to defend its territory. But what has the highest value in Islam is the sanctity of human life. The defense of human life, that’s what Islam places the highest value in.

Muslims pray at the Temple Mount during Ramadan (courtesy, Atta Awisat)

Do you personally, taking into account the current geopolitical situation and regardless of your interpretation of Islamic law, think it would be a good idea for Sudan to follow in the footsteps of the UAE and Bahrain and establish diplomatic ties with Israel?

This ultimately depends on the country’s leadership. The question is whether the leaders, taking into consideration all circumstances, judge whether it’s best for the country to go in this direction, so as to protect this country — or rather, what’s left of this country — and protect its interest. From our standpoint, there is no problem in doing that.

What kind of feedback did you receive after you published the fatwa, from your congregants, the government, the Palestinians?

It was welcomed and appreciated by the worshippers as a fatwa that is based on reason and logic. It seemed to them to be a sensible fatwa and there was no problem with it.

Among the remnants of the previous regime in Sudan, there were those, including in the high echelons of the clerical establishment, who sought to inflame people’s emotions. And when emotions are set ablaze, reason vanishes. And that led to [negative] kinds of reactions.

Sudanese students burn an Israeli flag as they demonstrate against the Israeli airstrikes in Gaza outside the UN headquarters in Khartoum, Sudan, December 29, 2008.(AP/Abd Raouf)

There were even some elements in the media that also tried to inflame passions against us — that sort of thing can happen. But for the most part, I found there to be support for [my fatwa] and I haven’t really seen many problems.

No intimidation, no threats?

No. Even those in the clerical establishment who opposed the fatwa expressed their views respectfully, saying, Ok, this cleric exercises his ijtihad [independent reasoning] and he has his position, but we differ with his position. There was no expression of opposition that was not respectful.

Would you like to visit Israel? Would you consider coming here if Sudan normalized relations? And if so, which places would like to see the most?

I was in Jordan not long ago, together with a group of other clerics. And the option was presented to us to visit the al-Aqsa mosque. I was interested, but there was opposition within the group. So unfortunately that was prevented. In principle, would I like to visit the al-Aqsa mosque? The answer is, why not?

What about Tel Aviv or Haifa?

When one visits a country and thinks where one might go, there have to be sentiments that connect one to a specific place. If you were going to Sudan, you might think you’d like to go to certain historic sites, or see relics of the ancient past. As for Tel Aviv, we don’t really have associations with or sentiments about these places for the time being.

Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.

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