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Interview with Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller

Cape Town, South Africa
Drivetime Show, 22 October 2001



Introduction of show, the Sheikh and details of his CV...

VOC: Sheikh, I know you’re not too keen on personal questions, but I’m very curious to know what was your reason for relocating to Jordan?

SK: I moved here in 1979 just after I became Muslim (in 1977) and went on to finish my degree. Basically I moved here because of the principle of the Hijra. I wanted to find something more than I had in a non-Muslim country by moving to a Muslim one. And I did…

VOC: Any particular reason for zoning in on a place like Amman in Jordan?

SK: Originally because of the closeness of the dialect to classical Arabic. I also needed to learn Arabic.

VOC: Do you have a school or zawiya in Jordan?

SK: Yes, we have a zawiya, a room next to our house. Shafi’i and Hanafi fiqh are taught there and we have lessons in English and Arabic as well as lughat ul-‘Arabiyya—Arabic grammar and syntax. We also teach Ash’ari ‘aqida (tenets of belief) and have classes in traditional Islamic spirituality, in tasawwuf.

VOC: And Sheikh, looking at your approach of coming from the west into the heartlands of Islam—I’m not going to say the east—are there any murids (followers of your path of spirituality) from the west who’ve come to your zawiya to learn?

SK: We’re in contact with quite a number of people who’ve taken the path of  the tariqa. The particular school of thought we teach is the Shadhili tariqa (Sufi order). There are probably five or six hundred murids, of whom many, if not most, have visited us here. There are easterners and westerners, those who speak Arabic and those who speak English.

VOC: So, if a person were to come to Amman with not much knowledge of Arabic they would be able to sit in your majlis (gathering) and be able to understand what’s going on?

SK: Yes, we teach two nights a week in English and two in Arabic­—and one in a sort of mixture.

VOC: Sheikh Nuh, what is the response of Arabs when they see that here is man from America, a so-called Westerner, teaching them about Islam?

SK: Each one probably has his own response.  Knowledge is recognized as knowledge, and ignorance as ignorance, and if you want to know whether a person is knowledgeable or ignorant, you just have to listen to him for a few minutes and you can usually tell.

VOC:       Sheikh, let’s get on … at Voice of the Cape we have been trolling in international waters, as it were, to try and get a take on the World Trade Centre bombing…what traditional Islam says about this…what’s your personal take on the WTT bombing?

SK: As you probably know in order to give a fatwa (edict) about something, there have to be a number of conditions that exist in the ‘alim (scholar) who is giving the fatwa, especially in political matters.

The first is that his information is not simply at the level of what one can glean from journalistic reports because, as we all know, journalism is an instrument in the hands of those with political and military aims. And so he (the ‘alim) has to have access to the kind of information people in the intelligence business have access to, not merely journalistic commentary and analysis which is often merely for mass consumption.

Secondly, he has to be able to speak freely—there have to be no consequences if the ‘alim has an opinion for something or against something. And thirdly, he should be in an otherwise neutral country in order to give a reasonable ruling. And because of the need for each of these conditions, I have to disqualify myself from giving a fatwa about the WTT bombing.

However, we can say some things about it and I have written a small piece on Masud Khan’s web site called “Making the World Safer for Terrorism.” Basically it boils down to the fact that “noble” aims have been stated for bombing the World Trade Centre and for bombing Afghanistan. However, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and one may not kill civilians, because it is not moral, regardless of what one’s aims are. Islam most certainly does not support the killing of civilians. This is absolutely haram.

And so, we can’t say that one bad act deserves another….killing civilians is not moral and will never be. In other words, reciprocal atrocities do not make for a moral outcome. This is my basic opinion on the matter.

VOC: Sheikh, let’s go on a slightly different tack. A problem that we seem to be having in South Africa with regards to the situation (particularly Afghanistan) is that you hear voices saying, “support these people, support those people” just because they happen to be Muslim without looking at the moral credentials of whatever party they want to support. Do you think that in the Islamic world today we have to be a lot more honest about whom we sometimes are?

SK: With reference to whom we are, or to those in Afghanistan?

VOC: Basically with reference to whom we are as well as to Afghanistan. That we have to blindly defend Muslim nations or communities regardless of their human rights records…this kind of mentality.

SK: As you may have inferred from my previous remarks, the depiction of the Taliban and of the Northern Alliance is a journalistic one, this is how the news reaches us. Here, it depends on whom you ask. Misinformation is a weapon used by both sides in a military conflict. If you listen to the ambassador of the Taliban everything he says seems reasonable, if you listen to Western news media, obviously interested in justifying what the West is doing in Afghanistan, you get quite a different story.

So what I think that needs defending in Afghanistan is national sovereignty. If we say we are nations and we have a right to pass the laws that we think are just, then we have to recognize that wherever you go in the world if you enter a country you have to agree to abide by their laws. So in Afghanistan, if there is a certain rule of law that exists, we have to acknowledge their national sovereignty, otherwise we’re hypocrites.

If they have done something that is against another member of the world community then the World Court and the United Nations have to settle the dispute. It’s a question of the law of nations and of recognizing real national sovereignty—or, is it a question of the law of the jungle? The law of the jungle obviously needs no comment…

VOC: Most certainly. Now Sheikh, what interests us at the foot of Africa, geographically distant from what’s happening, is how what’s happened has been perceived in Jordan and the Arab world in general? The reason I ask this is because we saw CNN images of Palestinians celebrating at the news of the planes having crashed into the twin towers in New York.

SK:  Well, in the Arab world like in most other parts there are people who are very intelligent, people of average intelligence and people who have little intelligence. Amongst those with intelligence –and certainly the tragedy of the WTT was a saddening event—it was generally realized by everyone that it was a tremendous setback for Muslims and an aberration, far from what anybody would have understood as Islamic in any of the past ages of Islamic greatness.

As President Bush has said, it was a twentieth century phenomenon. The idea that terrorism is halal is an idea that does not have a great deal to vouch for it, certainly not in traditional Islam.  And this, I think, is the reaction that has been seen in Jordan and elsewhere in the Islamic world.

VOC: And Sheikh, the other big question that is being asked here (in South Africa) is whether the current situation is having any bearing on the Palestinian crisis which is just across the river from where you are sitting? We hear about new peace moves. Has this got anything to do with what's happening in Afghanistan. People are beginning to make these links.

SK: That's what we saw in the news here. On the day of the tragedy and thereafter we saw the Israelis celebrating. Noam Chomsky has drawn attention to the word "terrorism" being used as a license to kill almost anything and anyone. This is a huge setback for Palestine because it gives the seeming justification to do anything to Muslims and to depict Muslims in a very bad light and to permit all sorts of things against them.

The ruling that American weapons were prohibited against the civilian population of Palestine was revoked only four days before the tragedy occurred. And so this is a sort of carte blanche for state terrorism…Of course the WTT bombing has been a tremendous setback for the Palestinians, there's no question (about that).

VOC: As you sit there, very briefly, are you optimistic that something good can happen for the Palestinians? Or is the situation going from bad to worse?

SK: I don't know what the future may hold. However, there is a consensus throughout the world amongst everyone associated with the Israelis and the United States that there should be two nations in Palestine, that they should return to the 1967 borders, and that there should be sovereignty for each.  And that Israel and Palestine should have peace and respect for each other within their own national boundaries.

Anything that can facilitate the implementation of this consensus will be beneficial. This is not something I'm pulling out of my pocket, but something plain to whoever looks at the press in Europe and throughout the world, and anywhere people are not Israeli, or worried about being re-elected in the United States' political process.

We hope that this consensus can lead to a just and lasting peace. And if it serves as a wake up call to see what's happening, then it will be a good thing that we may hope for something positive.

VOC: Insha-Allah. And Sheikh Nuh, we go to another question. Samuel Huntington talks about a clash of cultures. We've heard certain commentators saying that if you look at the real problems vis-a-vis Islam and the rest of the world, it's rather a clash of ignorance. What's your reading of this?

SK: It's no question that it's a clash of ignorance. There are horizons each culture has. They're based on epistemology: what they judge to be knowledge and what they judge to be ignorance. Certainly, the Muslims have another dimension that people who don't subscribe to a religion do not possess. This is the point that there is an afterlife and a next world waiting for us…that there are consequences for our actions and that there is an ultimate good.

Consequently, I don't think that the bases for agreement between a Christian country and a Muslim country are that far apart. We all believe in one God, we all believe that there will be a judgement, and we all believe that there will be consequences. No one believes that killing civilians is halal, or just, or is right. No one's religion condones it.

So if we're talking to Godless people who only recognize the law of the jungle, it's very difficult to avoid a clash—whether we call it a clash of ignorance or of civilizations. If we're talking to a people who recognize an ultimate God and objective, natural moral law and the Divine Recompense for actions in this life, certainly, there is room for agreement.

Here we have to underscore the point of national sovereignty. Meaning that if some country doesn’t agree with our Western interpretation of the way things should be, of the sort of things that should be sold in the market place, and of other questions of law…we can't go in and impose our laws upon the people of that country.

I think the principles are fairly well understood here, and that if there's international law that has teeth, one power can't stomp over all the others as soon as it wishes for something that the others have, or wishes to change something that they do. So if there's international law, and a law-like interpretation of conflicts, there need not be any conflict. And Allah knows best.

VOC: Right Sheikh, and of course this leads on to another question. When one talks about ignorance, do you think that this syndrome of Islamophobia—racism against Islam—that seems to have reared its head since the WTT bombing; do you think that we have to blame ourselves to a certain extent for this? That we have failed to really tell the world what Islam is about? What is your reading of that?

SK: Of course, we have to propound traditional Islam, and we haven't yet had much of a forum to do so. Ask anyone who's had their finger on the pulse of what's been happening, particularly in the late 1970's and 1980's. Muslims in every country throughout the world know that the money has mainly been coming from Saudi Arabia, and that scholarships have been coming from them as well. For every word that anyone else speaks, for any other viewpoint that anyone else has, they produce ten. 

Moreover, everyone knows that they have a rather extreme interpretation, that of Wahhabism, which is radically different from all previous centuries of traditional Islamic practice and learning. It's different in fiqh, in that it doesn't emphasize the four traditional madhhabs, but rather emphasizes the ijtihad (or “juridical reasoning”) of just about anyone who thinks he’s qualified to make ijtihad. The bombing of the WTT is a direct result of ijtihad from people who are not qualified to make it. These people are essentially vigilantes, whose ijtihad leads to them to believe they can slaughter “generic Americans”, and who don't care if 6,000 human beings have to perish. This is a direct outcome  of their personal whims, which they call "ijtihad."

It is pure Wahhabism. It is the result of the oil money that has flooded every single country where there are Muslims, in order to put this view across. No one wonders where it came from. I think that the Western intelligence agencies know it, and that some of the journalists know it as well.

     The fact is that traditional Islam has been derailed in the twentieth century, especially during the 1970's and 1980's with all the Saudi-Wahhabi oil-money and the consequences of educating people at “Wahhabi U.” in Medina. Mainstream Sunni Islam has been derailed so completely in the last half of this century that nobody any longer realizes that this is what has happened. Of course, it is our obligation to tell people what's been going on.

What happened to the WTT Centre is the result of a splinter faction of a splinter faction of Islam. It doesn't have anything to do with what any Muslim would have understood, even 150 years ago, as traditional Islam. It's ‘amal bi la ‘ilm or “extreme religious practice without any knowledge” of what religious practice should be. As a result, there is no baraka or “blessing” in it. Rather there is only disaster and calamity in it, for Muslims and non-Muslims. It should be identified as such. After all, we can only tell things as they are. It's not a propaganda effort. It's merely telling people what has happened.

VOC: Sheikh, to get a bit philosophical—do you think that this so-called “self-ijtihad” of the extremists is a good example of a person’s nafs or “ego” overwhelming their angelic essence—would you agree with that kind of perspective?

SK: Islam is submission to the laws of Allah Almighty and the sunna of His Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). The Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) was a man of clemency, a man of peace. He was a man whose entire struggle to overcome idolatry in the Arabian Peninsula saw only 250 people killed on all sides, altogether, in all of the wars.

This was the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) and there’s no question that the Wahhabi call, with its new Twentieth Century facelift, termed Salafism, is an appeal to the ego. A person will say: “I’m a man, and Abu Hanifa is a man.” Well, we can see you’re not a woman, but what other resemblance do you bear to him or any other of these great scholars?

Of course, people don’t like to submit: they don’t like to say if there’s a jihad, it can only be declared by a competent authority; not by some “shopping bag ‘alim” who has a bunch of books that he totes around with him, and opens them up to manifest his “knowledge” to people. This is a parody of ‘ilm, and is a parody of ijtihad. Only a person whose nafs is riding squarely on top of him, and he is its donkey, will be fooled by such claims.

It goes without saying that in traditional Islam we have spirituality. The horizons of traditional Islam are far, far more comprehensive than “can we get this piece of dunya back, or, can we get that piece of dunya over there…” Much broader. People who espouse extremism don’t make remembrance of Allah except a little…This is obvious: if you sit with these people you can tell what your heart feels like afterwards, it’s not the same as after making ‘ibada (worship) or doing a good act or anything useful. What we see at large in the world are clearly but the consequences of this.

VOC: Sheikh Nuh, our next question. One of our local ‘alims in Cape Town said the other day on this radio that mainstream Ahl-u-sunna Islam had to develop a culture of resistance to ignorance and extremism. Would you agree with this idea?

SK: Islam is already against ignorance and extremism. And we do have to take a look at what we already have in traditional Islam. I agree one-hundred percent. There doesn’t have to be a revival of anything in particular except the Islamic culture that we already have. Take the works of Imam Ghazali, for example. The baraka only left people of knowledge when the students of traditional Islam ceased to carry the Ihya ‘Ulum ad-Din (“The Revival of the Sciences of Religious Knowledge”) around with them under their arms. This is no secret. I think that the traditional Islam that has been known for centuries is sufficient. Ignorance and extremism is already rejected by it.

VOC: And of course, Sheikh, you would agree with the opinion of most responsible ‘ulama that Islam is then in no need reformation. At the turn of this century and the previous this was a strong message and I think even during the 1940’s there were scholars propagating the idea that the Din had to be reformed, modernized…you would say that this is nonsense?

SK: Absolute nonsense. This is what may be referred to as the derailing of traditional Islam. It goes off the tracks in many places and in many mosques precisely because of these reformers. Islam doesn’t need to be reformed at all. The traditional Islam that we’ve known and that our forefathers have known has the answer to every question. The answer as to how Muslims are supposed to deal with non-Muslims is with mutual respect. Islam is not a religion of violence or contempt towards people of other religions.

VOC: Sheikh, do you think that Muslims have to be a lot more confident about whom they are. What I mean is do you think that Muslims are still suffering from an inferiority complex as a result of the breaking up of the Ottoman Empire and the colonial carving up of the Muslim world?

SK: There is something of that. We’re in a historical period of political weakness. This is obvious to everyone. As Muslims we should take advantage of this as the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) took advantage of the early Muslim’s period of political weakness to spread the message of Islam (da’wa) as widely as possible. Because when there is no strong political entity behind it, people are less afraid of something—and if they’re less afraid they can be talked to. So we should be making da’wa to them. If everyone in America became Muslims tomorrow, a great, great many political problems would be obviously solved in the Muslim world. So we should be emphasizing da’wa.

VOC: Most certainly.

SK: One has to make hay while the sun shines.

VOC: And Sheikh Nuh, the final question…are you a prisoner of hope for the immediate future of Islam?

SK: I am hopeful. Anyone who wants to understand everything about what’s going on in this world or the next only has to read the Qur’an. He will understand why Allah Most High has created good people, why He has created wicked people, and why He has created everything in this world and in the next. Everything is part of Allah’s grand purpose. It’s impossible to read the Qur’an without being hopeful.

If we have patience with the tests that come to us, then we have a reward from Allah Most High and it’s better for us. If we see atrocities that do not agree with how Allah Most High has told people to behave, and we say, “This is an atrocity, this is a foul and wicked deed”, then in relation to us that evil becomes a good because we have a reward from Allah for believing that it is evil, and we have a higher degree in Paradise.

So, in relation to the believer nothing is “bad”, since nothing can harm him: if he believes that it is bad and is a sin, he has a reward for his iman (faith) in condemning that which the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) taught and defined for us as being evil. Evil cannot touch the mu’min (true believer) if he is a mu’min. We have to return to fundamentals and increase our belief in the eternal verities of faith. We have to read the Qur’an and know that this is the truth from Allah Most High. If we understand this, then outward appearances, be they of success or failure, we will know the inward meaning of them.

We are sitting in a room in which we’re undergoing an examination, and soon we’ll stand up and leave the room and get our marks. This is the reality and the meaning of this world: that there is heaven and hell, and we are not responsible for making things happen in this world that are beyond our control. We’re only responsible for our own adab (conduct) before the Divine in relation to these things, and to do that which Allah Most High has asked us to do.

Allah Most High in His mercy has made this conditional upon our own capacity, for He has said, “fattaqullaha ma stata’tum”—“Have as much taqwa of Allah as you are personally able to,” and He doesn’t require anything more or less than that. So everyone has to use all of their capacities and talents, and “None of you believes until he wishes for his brother that which he wishes for himself,” which Imam Nawawi has said means one’s non-Muslim as well as Muslim brothers.

And so we wish for them, for every non-Muslim in the world, exactly what we would wish for ourselves…to enter into the joys of Islam in this world and perpetual bliss in the next by following the commands of Allah. This is why the soul that is between our two sides was created in each of us: to know Allah Most High, and be on a good standing with Him. That He may make us the locus of his generosity forever and ever.

When one does this, one’s heart is at peace and this peace is what Islam has to offer the world. I think this is already clear to everyone who has any faith, certainly clear to you, Shafiq, and all of the Muslims who may be listening to this. I am only saying it to remind myself, and to anyone else who needs a reminder, Allah Most High willing.

VOC: Sheikh Nuh Ha Mim Keller unfortunately time has run out on us…we must honor the time you set aside …it has been a great pleasure…

SK: Alhamdulillah, it was my honor to speak to you and your listeners.


VOC: Insha-Allah, and it’s been a great pleasure listening to you…sitting at your feet and hearing your words of wisdom. And insha-Allah, we hope to hear more from you…Jazak Allahu bi Khayr, shukran jazilan for taking time out to talk to us, Sheikh.

SK: Jazak Allahu Kulla Khayr, was-salam ‘alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatu.



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