Society must first seek to understand principles of Islam before attempting to apply them, according to one of Mauritania's top imams.
The Mauritanian Ulema Training Centre in Nouakchott specialises in producing religious scholars. The centre has become a bulwark of Islamic principles against extremism and efforts by terrorists to distort the image of Islam.
Cheikh Mohamed El Hassan Ould Dedew, the president of the facility, has engaged in spiritual dialogues with scores of jailed religious extremists and heard countless religious justifications for violence. The respected religious scholar sat down with journalist Raby Ould Idoumou of Magharebia.com to discuss the true meaning of jihad and how he hopes the centre will help young people achieve a better understanding of Islam.
Ould Idoumou: How does the centre prepare preachers and religious educators to combat extremism?
Mohamed El Hassan Ould Dedew: There's no doubt that the scholar or imam is at the heart of enlightenment in Islamic societies. The imam is extremely important to instilling a moderate religious culture. The centre aims to train pious, loyal scholars so that they may spread across the land carrying the flame of light and guidance, God willing, with a moderate approach.
There is a central role for imams in countering extremism. Hopes are pinned on these scholars to enlighten society, by embodying the teachings of tolerant Islamic Sharia and disseminating the Prophet's guidance in its bright image, not that of extremist groups.
Ould Idoumou: Young people across the region are susceptible to recruitment by extremist organisations. Do they misunderstand jihad?
Ould Dedew: As far as jihad is concerned, it is the peak of Islam and the harshest test to win paradise. Its worth was proven by the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him). God Almighty has called for it...Jihad is a form of worship.
Jihad means to exert effort to elevate God's word and defend His religion.
Jihad is established by arguments from the Qur'an. It includes jihad of the soul, to prevent it from committing sins. The combat form of jihad in particular has specific grounds, the most important of which is when Muslims are attacked.
Contrary to what many people believe, if injustice or stark aggression is committed against anyone... a Muslim's defence of that person would be jihad, because Muslims are required to eliminate injustice towards the oppressed. In this case, they would engage in jihad even if the victim were not Muslim.
Muslims defend every true cause, and it's a duty for Muslims to seek what would benefit people and spread piety, goodness and tolerance.
Ould Idoumou: What about the terrorists who kidnap and kill civilians, especially foreigners, yet claim to be devout Muslims?
Ould Dedew: Non-Muslims who enter Muslim states with visas – Sharia agreements – have a right to protection. Under the Islamic Sharia, they may not be harmed in any way.
If anyone attacks them, he would have no covenant with God and the Prophet (PBUH) and will never see paradise. The Prophet said that in Sahih Al Bukhari.
Punishment regarding this issue is severe…There are several hadiths about not attacking parties to these agreements or killing them because they are under the protection of God and His Prophet. In Islam, they may not be attacked in any way. Those who attack them commit a sin and are unjust, and have made themselves liable to punishment in this world and the afterlife.
And if money is taken in return for releasing them, that money is "haram".
Ould Idoumou: Extremists are now attempting to impose Sharia by force in some countries in our region. How is this possible?
Ould Dedew: Many people are confused. They think that applying the Islamic Sharia only means enforcing the penal code. In fact, penalties are preceded by many rules in Sharia: holding prayers, paying zakat, consolidating the pillars of Islam, establishing Islamic dealings and creating Sharia courts.
Penalties are not the Sharia; they are just part of its application.
The concept of applying Sharia must push us to establish a civil state in which justice and equality are established. After that, we can look at the issue of penalties for those who committed a clear crime.
The application of penalties is one of four issues in Sharia left to guardians. This is not to be decided by the public or individuals, not even Islamic groups. It is an issue for the state.
Here we remember that when the Prophet (PBUH) established the Islamic state in Medina, he didn't start with the penalties. Rather, their implementation was mentioned only in rare cases in hadiths, when the people concerned were proven to have committed crimes.
Ould Idoumou: You have conducted spiritual dialogues with young Salafists. What advice would you offer young Muslims today?
Ould Dedew: Young people must realise that knowledge precedes work. They have to learn what the Prophet (PBUH) received from God before they can engage in the application of Sharia.
Sharia can only be understood with long learning and persistence … they have to first learn what Sharia means.
Before young people try to apply Sharia from a narrow point of view, they should go through several stages.
First, they have to learn from the Prophet (PBUH) to "save those who believe". Second, they must act under what they have learned, to "do good works, and exhort one another to truth". Third, they must preach, or "exhort one another to truth". Fourth, they must be patient on the road of truth: "exhort one another in endurance".
These are the duties of young people and the duties of everyone in the nation.
"In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful. By the declining day, Verily Man is in loss, except those who believe and do good works, and exhort one another to truth and exhort one another to endurance."