June 2, 2015 Special Dispatch No. 6063

Former Imam Of Mecca's Grand Mosque: There Is No Escaping Reform To Bring Islam Back To Its Path Of Tolerance

June 2, 2015
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 6063

In a February 22, 2015 article in the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh, Sheikh 'Adel Al-Kalbani, the former imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, attacked the extremism of the Islamic State (ISIS) and groups like it. He said that it takes more than mere words, condemnation, and even fatwas to halt the spread of ISIS's ideas and prevent young people from joining its ranks - it requires reform in Islam that will restore its original tolerant character.

Stating that Islam is fundamentally tolerant and that the Prophet and his Companions were lenient with those who disagreed with them, Al-Kalbani added that today the Muslims are shackling themselves to the strict interpretations by "unrivaled leading scholars" and see any other interpretation  as deviation from the straight path. Such strict interpretation, he said, serves extremists, who go so far as to behead those who disagree with them.

Al-Kalbani then called on clerics to step up their da'wa efforts and to spread the ideas of moderateness and acceptance of others, and to vary their approach in ways "that are appropriate to the spirit of the times but do not contradict the original spirit of Islam."

It should be mentioned that, in two articles he published in August 2014, Kalbani went even further in condemning organizations like ISIS and the ideology that gives rise to them. He said that ISIS is "a true product" of Salafi thought, and criticized Muslim clerics and Muslim society for failing to acknowledge this. He stated further that the call to blindly reenact the path of the Prophet Muhammad and of the forefathers of Islam stems from a faulty grasp of the essence of this path, and that Muhammad himself had rejected blind adoption of the perceptions of the past and blind following of the path of his predecessors, choosing instead a rationalistic approach appropriate for a changing reality (See MEMRI Special Dispatch No.5872, "Senior Saudi Salafi Cleric: 'ISIS Is A True Product Of Salafism,'" November 4, 2014).


Sheikh 'Adel Al-Kalbani (Source:

The following are excerpts from Kalbani's recent article. [1]

"Our sons and daughters, and our young people in general - in Saudi Arabia in particular but also in all other Muslim countries - are entrusted first of all into the hands and the responsibility of the clerics, sheikhs, and preachers, since they are the most well-versed in the culture in light of which the Prophet taught his Companions.

"Some [of these clerics] have defended the so-called 'ISIS' on different pretexts, such as the difficult situation of the Ummah and the divisions in it... but on the other hand, many have condemned [ISIS]. Those who seek vengeance [against ISIS] even boasted [that it will be rapidly be disposed of], but it has become apparent that the fangs of the Arab armies cannot even [bring themselves to] scratch the face of their enemy, whose identity has been known for a long time. Quite the contrary - their warships, fighter jets, and bombs remain cooling and safe [in their places].

"In light [of the many] contradictions, and the distortions that have come to the point of losing sight of the truth... we must not focus on ISIS's actions, nor on the extent of its negative impact... What is needed [instead] is action to counter [ISIS's ideas], not [merely] words to counter it. It is clear to anyone with eyes in his head that ISIS bases its crimes on shari'a texts and on the words of unrivaled [leading] clerics - so what's the problem? Is [the problem in] ISIS's understanding of the texts of the Koran and Sunna and the words of the reliable clerics of the Ummah, on which all Sunnis rely?

"In order to bring back groups of youths who are convinced that the path of ISIS and other groups like them is correct, and who join them, it is not enough for us to condemn and repeatedly express our opposition to the actions of these groups. It is also not enough to issue a fatwa to deter ISIS and its supporters. They know that after the fatwa is issued, the muftis go off to bed and roll themselves up in their blankets and sink into a profound slumber, dreaming sweet dreams in which Islam is victorious while the evil armies of ISIS, and of the West - which established, exploited, and guided it - are defeated.

"Our small children are led - by [their own] doubt, by flowery speeches, and by Hollywood-style action - to the lands of strife and the hotbeds of killing, torture, arrests, and abductions - while we condemn, excoriate, scream, and say that [ISIS's actions] are not grounded in Islam. Our screams and condemnations could actually have a negative effect, because some understand from them that we are defending the imaginary enemy created by ISIS... and depict the clerics, muftis, and preachers as agents of this enemy...

"It is clear to me that it is impossible, or nearly impossible, to clear the field of all [extremists], but I am convinced that we are capable of reducing their evil and stopping the [spread] of their ideas by returning to Islam's tolerance, in word and action. It is the same tolerance that, whenever any [Muslim] preaches it, we accuse him of apostasy or bid'a [forbidden innovations in Islam] or of collaborating [with enemies] and eliminating [Islam], and when we compromise, we are accused of ignorance and of being wrong. Islam's tolerance and acceptance are expressed, inter alia, by acceptance of the other without exclusion or bias, and by opening our eyes to the broad reality [with room for everyone] and to the tolerance of the religion that was followed by our righteous ancestors.

"As for us, we make the broad narrow [i.e., are narrow-minded where we can be lenient], and use judgment when it corresponds to our inclinations and reject doing so whenever we wish. We clarify the words of our clerics and imams in great detail, as befits the status of people and names that we consider our [sole] sources of authority - [meaning that we consider] any [statement] by anyone else to be mendacious and deviating from the straight path, even if they rely on the same source, and even if this opinion is shared by most of the scholars who are not among the unrivaled leaders. In this way, we are actually providing ISIS and groups like it with an excellent excuse to cling to and implement their views.

"Day and night, we speak, write, and say that we must be tolerant regarding disagreements, and that we must expand the discussion of the various [perceptions] so that Islam is worthy of the saying of the Prophet: 'This religion is strong, and therefore study it without rigidity.' But our reality differs from our words, and in every dispute we are short tempered and cast doubts on the character of every reformer.

"If we walk a rocky [i.e., rigid] path in many of our views and fatwas, then we will undoubtedly serve those whom we fight and whom accuse of extremism. When people encounter an extremist path, they split into two groups: one that opposes [this path] and discounts everything in order to anger those they call extremists, intentionally disputing them even when they are right; and the other that see this extremist path and [its] fatwas - which presume to represent the one truth and attributes deviancy, ignorance, and rebelliousness to anyone disagreeing with it - as a [valid] path that can be relied on [even when it] deviates from Islam's tolerance and moderateness...

"As long as we are witness to many events in which fanaticism for the religion and for the honor of the Prophet goes so far as to raise swords and cut off heads, then faithful guidance and instruction in the straight path [must be provided for young people] in order to give rise to compassion...

"Perhaps the Companions of the Prophet disagreed, in his presence, on understandings of the text, and the Prophet affirmed each one's understanding of it, even if they were contradictory. Therefore, there is no escaping the path of correction, which will present [the true] image of Islam, compassionate towards all. Then there will be no more excuses, and the truth will not become mixed up with lies, and the youth will not be confused and act rashly...

"Those upon whom Allah bestowed knowledge or status should increase their efforts and redouble their da'wa many times over. They must vary their approach in ways that are appropriate to the spirit of the times but do not contradict the original the original [spirit of Islam]."

[1] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), February 22, 2015.

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