Muslim scholar Salem Abdel Galil – Photo via Egypt today
Sheikh Salem Abdel Galil, a prominent Egyptian Muslim scholar and former deputy minister for proselytization at Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowments, sparked a far-reaching controversy this week after he described Christians as unbelievers. He made the comment while explaining a Quranic verse during an episode of his TV program, Muslims Ask. Following the incident, Abdel Galil has been barred from preaching and is scheduled to appear before a court, accused of slandering a religion
The whole episode may seem relatively innocent in a region where radical groups like ISIS regularly butcher people, including Christians. Abdel Galil’s views, however, shed light on the opaque relationship between some mainstream religious teachings and the prevailing ills of our societies bred by sectarianism and radicalism.
Sheikh Abdel Galil described Christians as “unbelievers” and their beliefs as “corrupted,’ because they do not believe Mohamed is a Prophet. He also criticised Muslim scholars who disagree with his views, as misleading Christians, claiming that Christians should not believe those scholars, and should stop thinking God will accept them as faithful in the afterlife. He also stressed that describing Christians as such is not an incitement to violence against Christians, adding that Christians are “kind” and “human,” and should be treated fairly.
What Sheikh Abdel Galil has said is not new. Other Muslim scholars have defined those who reject the Prophet Mohamed, including followers of other monotheistic religions, as non-believers, on the basis that any religious community considers those who reject their faith as infidels. He later apologised if he had offended Christians’ feelings, but maintained his views on their infidelity. Despite his apology, his views are problematic for various reasons:
For a start, scholars like Sheikh Abdel Galil consider accusations of infidelity as an exclusive right of Muslims, not others. These scholars are clearly displaying they have a one-track mind that expects the followers of other monotheistic faiths, such as Judaism and Christianity, to accept that their beliefs are “corrupted.” At the same time, these scholars believe such monotheistic faiths should not defend their own faith, attack Islam, or label it as equally “corrupted.” Those scholars cannot understand how their views open the door to others to shower Muslims with similar invective, and create a climate in which hatred and bigotry thrive.
Secondly, Sheikh Abdel Galil’s insistence that Christians need Muslim scholars to validate their faith is not just absurd, but it is audacious too. It reflects an arrogant sense of dominance and power over non-Muslims, who are only treated kindly out of generosity, not out of equal position. He also seems to have no sense of time scale. Islam appeared nearly six centuries after Christianity. The idea that Christians would abandon their belief in the divinity of Jesus, just because another prophet appeared hundreds of years after is, at best, very naïve.
Thirdly, Sheikh Abdel Galil fails to understand how the slippery road initiated by his teaching could vindicate radicalism. He thinks his patronizing words, such as “Christians should be treated fairly” are enough to stop the hatred against them, or enough to deter radical youth from butchering others under the pretext that they are infidels. His insensitivity to the plight of Egyptian Christians, especially after Palm Sunday’s bombing, is remarkable. When confronted with that point during a different TV interview, he was dismissive, claiming that radicals also targeted him ___ as if that somehow makes his insensitivity more acceptable.
In short, scholars like Abdel Galil have recklessly reduced the differences between mainstream Islam and radical groups such as ISIS into tactical, not ideological, ones. Both Abdel Galil and ISIS see Christians and Jews as unbelievers or infidels; they only differ from ISIS on how those unbelievers should be treated. Such recklessness indirectly vindicates ISIS, and pushes non-Muslims to flee the Middle East.
Scholars such as Abdel Galil seems to be stuck in a medieval nostalgia and conquest mode, behaving as if Islam is still the new faith that once swept the Middle East dominating Christianity and Judaism. Such a mindset appeals to the comfort zone of some Muslim scholars. It helps them glamorize Islam from a position of superiority, instead of pitching the case for Islam in a competitive modern environment, in which followers of all religions respect one another. This conquest mode, unfortunately, is the soft interlock linking some mainstream teachings with radical ideologies.
In contrast, other Muslim scholars have moved away from such medieval nostalgia, and view Islam from a progressive stance that matches current realities. For example, Dr. Abdalla El Naggar, a member of the Islamic Research Centre, said that religion aims to unite people and it is not permissible for anyone to invalidate the faith of another because, in the end, God is the only Judge of all of us.
The stark difference between Abdel Galil and Naggar defines the struggle for the soul of Islam in today’s challenging times. It is time for our scholars to abandon their obsession with blasphemy. Many challenges face Muslims today; the faith of others is not one of them. The era of medieval dominance of one faith over others has gone. We must not allow religion to be used as a time machine enacting harmful regressive ideas that can only ruin our current fragile societies.