Conversations with a Religious Shaykh

Yemen Update 36 (1995):7,11

The following interview was published in the Yemen Times, September, 1994.

The increasingly religious orientation of Yemeni politics does not escape anyone. As a result, religious scholars and clergymen are a more visible influence and role in society, but particularly in politics. This new atmosphere is visible in Ta'izz, as it is in many parts of the country. By far, the spiritual and religious leader of Ta'izz is Shaykh Nasir Muhammed Al-Shaybânî. Shaykh Nasir, 49, is the father of seven children. A highly respected scholar, he is the author of over a dozen books on various aspects of religious thought and public life. He is also a preacher in the largest mosque in Ta'izz City.

Shaykh Nasir is the Vice Chairman of the Board of Islamic Theologians, Yemen's highest religious authority. Yet, he is a very simple man who moves around freely and without armed guards, as do most so-called religious leaders. Dr. 'Abd al-Azîz Al-Saqqâf spoke to Mr. Al-Shaybânî last week and filed the following report.

Q: What exactly is the purpose of the Board of Islamic Theologians?

A: The Board is a gathering of religious scholars and theologians from all over the country. It serves as a reference point for giving answers to questions on religious matters. It is also a forum for discussion in various issues as religious commandments are needed to explain the do's and don't's of our modern civilization. The Board also plays a critical role in homogenizing attitudes and positions across the country, thus blocking any dissent or diverting stands. We also provide advice to the political leadership on various issues.

Q: Would you say that your Board has failed in doing exactly what you said in the recent political differences. I remember the president had his own religious scholars backing him, and the then-vice president had his own group. How do you explain that?

A: I think the problem was not with the advisors, it was with the advisee. The religious scholars had worked very hard to bring the two sides together to what we saw as the right path. I remember following our meeting with the then-vice president in Aden, I told him, "God bears witness we have advised you and tried to show you light but you would not listen."

Q: Some political parties are demanding the full application of Islamic shar£'a in Yemen's system. What does that mean?

A: First of all, let me say that no political party can claim that it is pursuing the Islamic (read, right) path while the others do not. No one can excommunicate the others in Islam.

Second, even if we claim to be applying Islam as a system, very little will change in Yemen. Our society adheres to Islamic tenets as much as possible. Except for minor superficial steps, very little will change.

Q: How do you see the role of religious preachers and clergymen in politics?

A: Let me insist that all people, whatever their profession, have the right to participate in politics. That includes, obviously the religious scholars. Then, I would like to say that the scholars have a larger responsibility than others because they are seen as role models. Unfortunately, some will contend with far less than their real role, and they would agree to become servants of the politicians. In answer to your question, I see the role of clergymen in politics as advisors and guides to the politicians and the general public.

Q: Do you see an inherent conflict with the West?

A: Not at all. I think part of the problem is that we scared the West with what is not in our religion. Look at the violence, look at the terror, and look at the destruction carried out in the name of Islam. So what do you expect the West should think of Islam and Muslims after all the damage we have done. Even then, I am not trying to be apologetic, but the West should not judge Islam by the shortcomings of the people who profess it. I think we have basic, common and shared objectives which we could implement together. We need to work harder to understand each other and help each other. Islam is a logical and rational religion. We should focus more on this aspect, especially in our dealings with non-Muslims. Then we can strike a harmonious and mutually-beneficial relationship.

Q: Shaykh Nasir, you are the chairman of the Fund-Raising Committee for Ta'izz. How much money was raised and where did it go?

A: I think we have raised a total of YR 100 million in Taiz. Some 30% of this in cash, and the rest is in kind. I am sure the money has gone to the war effort and in helping alleviate the suffering of our people in the aftermath of the war.

Q: Is Ta'izz a pro-Islâh governorate given that it was the largest party according to the last parliamentary elections?

A: Many people thought Ta'izz was captive to the socialists. The elections proved them wrong. I think the people of Ta'izz voted for the Islâh in the lst election because they were fed up with the other two parties which they had known in the past. I think this is the basic explanation. I am sure that the future holds other surprises.

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