The sheikh and his progeny
A few days ago, two prominent Libyan mosques and shrines were wrecked by radical fundamentalists. Some of the background issues come together in the family history of a single man.
He was a physical wreck when I first met him over 20 years ago but I had heard the tales, dating back to the mid-1980s, when he was at the height of his physical and political powers. He was renowned for the steel arms capable of breaking a lamb’s thigh bone – a feat he had been pleased to demonstrate – and detested for the iron fist with which he governed his region in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya.
A bad road accident forced him to retire. He was left a cripple, able to hobble only with a stick, to sit on the low divans of Libyan salons only with difficulty, having to refuse each time an offer of help.
Once seated, his bad leg stuck out straight, uncrossed, forcing him to adopt a less formal demeanour than, I suspect, he would have liked.
We first spoke when we were both guests at another man’s house. The rest of the company had risen to perform the sunset prayer. We two were left in a corner on our own. His political CV went unmentioned. Instead, he made it a point to speak in English (a mark of academic prestige then) and to tell me that he had an M.A. in Islamic Studies from Benghazi’s Qar Yunis University (more prestigious in that subject than Tripoli University).
As he spoke, the ironic smile, straining for nonchalance, with which he had regarded the bowing and kneeling men, sweetened into a twinkle. He was establishing himself – with someone who, unlike the other men in the room, could actually understand what it meant – as a man of learning, both secular and religious. Perhaps, too, it had been a long time since he had last boasted freely.
Much remained unspoken. His father was renowned for his traditional religious learning – a sheikh of religion – having studied, like his brother, at perhaps the major Islamic centre in western Libya: the Zliten mosque of Sidi Abd As-Salam Al-Asmar, one of the two attacked in recent days.
In one sense, the son had followed in his father’s footsteps. In another, he had broken away. The Al-Asmar mosque had offered a traditional curriculum, at a time when even future administrators studied there. (In pre-modern Muslim societies, Islamic studies performed an educational role analogous to that offered by undergraduate European studies and MBAs in the EU today.) In Benghazi, the curriculum was modern and modernising: its graduates would not necessarily form part of the religious field but could feel empowered, in the name of social and religious reform, to criticise it.
Father and son belonged to a small tribe that drew its prestige, historically, from another kind of religious identity: mediation between conflicting larger, more powerful tribes; teaching the Quran and issuing legal documents; but also performing other roles, more questionable according to Islamic orthodoxy, within the folk religion of the semi-arid zone.
In time, that small tribe itself produced men who, with their religious training, were critical of folk religion (rather like priests who are critical of festas). Whereas, however, the elder sheikh saw his role as restricted to the field of religion, the son, like other men of his generation, threw himself into activity where religious authority borrowed from secular learning and political activity.
No doubt, he was aware that other members of his tribe believed that he had damaged their traditional prestige by his association with Gaddafi’s regime. And word probably reached him that not a few saw his road accident as something to thank God for.
Such sentiment he might have expected. I’m not sure he anticipated, however, that following the beginning of the Iraq war, two of his sons would have secretly left Libya to join Al-Qaeda.
It may have come as a shock. Despite what appears to be a common religious motif, Salafism (the particular kind of radical fundamentalism espoused by these sons) scoffs at the authority of both traditional Islamic learning and modernising reformism.
To be called an “intellectual” by a Salafist is the supreme insult (they don’t bother with the addition of “so-called” that Maltese scoffers are fond of), while traditional scholars are rejected as ‘partial’ Muslims, because they pay service to the Word with mere words, not total, self-sacrificing deeds. “Jihad” is reinterpreted as needing no interpretation, no mealy mouthed subtleties, distinctions and legal qualifications (of which Islamic tradition is full). Salafism refuses true Muslim identity to anyone but fellow travellers.
Indeed, the Salafist attack on the Al-Asmar mosque constituted a significant symbolic attack on Libyan religiosity. International reports identified the mosque with Islamic mysticism but its cultural significance is much broader. For many ordinary people, no visit to Zliten, even for a day, is quite complete without “visiting” Sidi Abd As-Salam, who is also a symbol of Islamic orthodoxy. (I was told his nickname, Al-Asmar, the dark one, is a reference to the nights the 15th century saint regularly spent in prayer and Quranic recitation.)
A brief family history is a telegraphic way of illustrating how a single Muslim society can encapsulate an abiding concern with social criticism and conflicting ways of performing it. The Salafist recourse to withdrawal and violence suggests that, so far, they are losing the arguments.