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Vigilance Against Sectarianism: The Case of the Alleged Makkah missile attack

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This is a transcript of a Jumuah khutbah delivered by Imam Dr. Rashied Omar at Claremont Main Road Masjid today, Friday 11th November 2016.

A recent claim by Saudi Arabia that they intercepted a ballistic missile launched by Yemeni Houthi rebels, on the 27th October 2016, in the area of Makkah, has further inflamed the already precarious global sectarian conflict between Sunni’s and Shi`as.  The Houthis, who were founded as a Zaydi Shi`a revivalist movement, have vehemently denied the allegation that they targeted the Holy City of Makkah with a scud missile, and have instead claimed that they had aimed to bomb the King Abdul Aziz airport in Jeddah.

In this khutbah, I firstly, call for an immediate ceasefire that would end the wanton loss of life and enable all sides in the Yemeni conflict to work towards a political solution in the region. Secondly, I examine the veracity of the Saudi allegation, and thirdly, I make a passionate plea for South African Muslims not to allow sectarian conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere to be exported into our local community.

It might be useful to begin by briefly reminding ourselves of some of the immediate causes and costs of the war in Yemen.

Causes and Costs of the War in Yemen

Yemen is by far the poorest country in the oil rich Middle East with almost half of its population living on less than $2 per day. According to the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, more than 80% of Yemeni’s are in need of humanitarian assistance, 50% are unable to meet their food needs, 70% have limited access to clean water and sanitation, and in some areas acute malnutrition is severe.  A few elite families, with active support from Saudi Arabia, have ruled the country for decades. After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States of America, President Ali Abdullah Saleh who had ruled Yemen for over three decades became a key ally in the so-called war on terror.

Yemen became one of the most notorious countries from which the US launched their drone strikes. Emblematic of this was the infamous September 30, 2011 predator drone strike that killed a popular US Imam, Anwar Al-Awlaki in the Jawf province of Northern Yemen.

Yemen’s dire economic situation, coupled with political authoritarianism, led to large sections of the population who were inspired by the Arab Spring in 2011, to rebel against the regime. In February 2012, President Saleh was deposed and replaced by his vice-president, President Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.  Hadi aligned himself even more closely with the US war on terror and its chief ally in the region, Saudi Arabia. In October 2012, a US drone strike killed three people in a Houthi neighbourhood in the mountainous region of Sadah in northern Yemen. This resulted in thousands of people taking to the streets to protest against US drones and the longstanding economic and political grievances of the Houthis, was further inflamed.

In September 2014, the Houthis, in alliance with ousted President Saleh supporters, seized the capital city Sana`a and advanced towards the country’s second-biggest city, Aden in the south. The Houthis captured large parts of Yemen and forced President Hadi into exile in Saudi Arabia. In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition responded with airstrikes in order to stop Houthi advances and reinstate Hadi into power.

During the past two years of open warfare in Yemen, United Nations estimates place the number of people killed at 10 000, with two thirds of them being innocent civilians. Thousands more have been maimed and over one million children, women and men have been displaced.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has accused parties on both sides of the conflict, of killing civilians. In early October 2016, however, the world was outraged by the news that a Saudi airstrike on a funeral in Sana`a killed 140 people and injured dozens more. The Saudi’s initially denied the allegations, but the unequivocal evidence and mounting international pressure forced them to admit that they had mistakenly bombed the funeral and they then offered to compensate the victim’s families. By late October 2016, international opinion had shifted strongly against the brutal Saudi coalition led airstrikes in Yemen. This is the immediate background against which the Saudi allegation that the Houthis launched a missile attack aimed at the holy city of Makkah emerged.

The Veracity of the Saudi Allegation that the Houthis Targeted the City of Makkah

It is important to note that the allegation that the Houthis launched a ballistic missile aimed at the Holy City of Makkah is based on a sole statement issued by the Saudi Arabian Press Agency. Official spokespersons for the Houthi’s have countered by claiming that their scud missile was not targeting the Holy City of Makkah but rather the King Abdul Aziz Airport in Jeddah. Bringing into question the veracity of the Saudi claim does not condone the attempt by the Houthis to bomb the Jeddah airport.
Rather, my intention is to place the Saudi allegation in a broader context in which such a claim may be deliberately used to inflame Sunni-Shi`a sectarianism.

An Australian journalist, Michael Brull, has tried to reconcile the opposing Saudi and Houthi claims and has come up with an interesting hypothesis.  Brull argues that the Saudi claim that the missile was intercepted in the Makkah area may well be true, but that its target may have been the Jeddah airport and not the Holy City of Makkah itself, since the trajectory of both targets from Southern Yemen has to pass through the Makkah area or region, which is fairly large. According to Brull the Houthi counter claim that they aimed their scud missile at the Jeddah airport is consistent with the Saudi report that the missile was intercepted in the area of Makkah.

While most of Saudi Arabia’s allies and pro-Saudi Muslim groups are simply uncritically accepting the claim by the Saudi government, there has thus far been no independent verification.

How should responsible Muslims respond to this serious allegation?
The most primary source of Islamic guidance, the Glorious Qur’an, has very clear guidance in this regard. In surah al-Hujurat (The Inner Apartments) chapter 49 verse 6, Allah, the Sublime, proclaims:
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آَمَنُوا إِنْ جَاءَكُمْ فَاسِقٌ بِنَبَأٍ فَتَبَيَّنُوا
أَنْ تُصِيبُوا قَوْمًا بِجَهَالَةٍ فَتُصْبِحُوا عَلَى مَا فَعَلْتُمْ نَادِمِينَ

“O Believers! If an iniquitous person comes to you with any news,
Verify it and ascertain the truth,
Lest you harm people unwittingly,
And afterwards you become regretful for what you have done.”

In the above verse of the Qur`an, Allah the Sublime commands us to be scrupulous in investigating any news that is brought to us, so as to make sure of its authenticity, and especially to verify the reliability of the source of the information. The import of the above verse is general: no one should rush into action on the basis of a piece of information that has not been verified. Such rash action invariably leads to committing an injustice against an individual or an entire community, and subsequent regret.

Given that the above Qur’anic ethico-moral principle requires that any news be verified, fair-minded human wisdom teaches us that the first casualty in any war is the truth. As such, fair-minded Muslims should be at the forefront of calling for an independent commission of inquiry into the allegation that Yemeni Houthis attempted to bomb the holy city of Makkah.

Moreover, the Glorious Qur’an, in surah al-Hujurat, chapter 49 verses 9 and 10, exhorts Muslims who are not party to a conflict to make peace and reconcile between two groups of Muslims who transgress against each other.
وَإِنْ طَائِفَتَانِ مِنَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ اقْتَتَلُوا فَأَصْلِحُوا بَيْنَهُمَا
فَإِنْ بَغَتْ إِحْدَاهُمَا عَلَى الْأُخْرَى فَقَاتِلُوا الَّتِي تَبْغِي حَتَّى تَفِيءَ إِلَى أَمْرِ اللَّهِ
فَإِنْ فَاءَتْ فَأَصْلِحُوا بَيْنَهُمَا بِالْعَدْلِ وَأَقْسِطُوا إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُقْسِطِينَ
إِنَّمَا الْمُؤْمِنُونَ إِخْوَةٌ فَأَصْلِحُوا بَيْنَ أَخَوَيْكُمْ وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُرْحَمُونَ
If two parties among the believers fall out and fight each other,
make peace and reconcile between them. And should one of them commit aggression against the other, then you should all fight against the transgressing party until it complies with the command of God by returning to peace and reconciliation. Then if the aggressing party returns then make peace between them with equity and act justly,  for God loves those who act justly and evenhandedly.
The Believers are a single brotherhood and sisterhood,
so make peace and effect reconciliation between two contending brothers and sisters. And act with God conscious restraint
if indeed you desire God’s Mercy and Compassion. (Q49:9-10)

I recognize that such a course of action has already been attempted, with several peace talks ending in failure, but I believe that there is no other option except to pursue peaceful negotiations again and again until it succeeds. The daily killing, maiming and suffering of innocent Yemenis should spur us on to work tirelessly towards this goal of a peaceful settlement of the deadly conflict with urgency.

The safeguarding of human life is one of the supreme objectives of Islam (maqasid al-shari`ah). The Glorious Qur’an is replete with references concerning the sanctity of human life (Q6:151; Q17:33; Q25:68). This emphatic position is affirmed by the following instructive hadith tradition from the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). `Abd Allah ibn `Amr relates that he saw the Prophet (pbuh) circumambulating the `Kabah and saying:

“How good you are and how good is your very air and fragrance.

How great is your sanctity. I swear by the One in whose hand is Muhammad’s soul, the sanctity of a believer’s life is greater to Allah than your sanctity is, his blood and his wealth, and to think nothing but good of him”.
(Sunan al-Nasa’i Hadith Number. 39871)

In the above hadith our beloved Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) advises us to value the sanctity and sacredness of human life as even more than that of the holy Ka’bah itself. Close to ten thousand Yemeni children, women and men have already been killed and more innocent lives are being lost every new day. Sadly the innocent lives lost have not moved the global ummah into action to stop the war.

Recognising the Provocation in the Saudi Allegation

It is palpable that sectarian agendas are behind the provocative claim by the Saudis that the holy Ka`bah is under attack. This was the expressed view of one of the leading Pakistani Sunni `alims, Pir Ijaz Hashmi Shah, president of Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP) who criticized the Saudi’s for spreading false propaganda in order to get sympathy for their bombing in Yemen.  The only side that clearly benefits from this allegation is the Saudi monarchy, who is able to garner emotive-support from the global Muslim ummah and distract from their war crimes they are committing in Yemen. This was evident from the emotional responses the allegation has evoked from pro-Saudi Muslim `Ulama’ Councils across the world.  For example, in a statement in response to the allegation released by the Australian National Imams Council they unabashedly proclaimed the following:

We urge all Muslims and Muslim countries to stand in solidarity and support with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for their ongoing care, role and protection of the sacred places of Makkah and Madina and stand strongly with the Kingdom against any attack on the Muslim sacred sites.

Other pro-Saudi groups have been even more brazen in claiming that this latest attack on the Ka`bah is proof that the Shi`as are a deviant group who have for centuries harboured the goal of destroying the holy Ka`bah. These voices of intolerance often claim to be speaking in defense of ‘ahl-al-sunna wal jama`ah’, and orchestrate a campaign of hate against Shi`as or so-called Shi`a sympathisers.

In this regard, it is instructive to note that there is no consensus (ijma`) among Sunni scholars, both classical as well as contemporary that declare the Shi`as outside of the fold of Islam. It is this lack of consensus (ijma`) that also restrains the Saudi’s from preventing Shi`as from performing the `umrah and hajj to the holy city of Makkah.

Moreover, the Houthis are Zaydi Shi`as who have historically been closer to Sunni’s than the Ja`fari (twelve) Shi`a branch who are currently predominant in Iran. One of the most recent attempts by Muslim scholars to denounce sectarianism and affirm Shi`asm both Ja`faris and Zaydi’s as being legitimate schools within the House of Islam is the Amman Message of 2005. It is my considered view that this document provides a framework for mitigating against the growing menace of Muslim sectarianism.
Non-Sectarianism and the Amman Message (Risalatu `Amman)

In July of 2005, a historic gathering of the foremost Muslim scholars in the world took place in Amman, Jordan. This unprecedented gathering which represented 50 different countries including South Africa, brought together 200 leading scholars including Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the late Shaykh al-Azhar, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, Shaykh Ali Goma`a, Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah, Mawlana Taqi Usmani, Ayatullah Ali  Hosseini Sistani and Ayatullah Ali Husseini Khameni. This representative gathering of the foremost contemporary Muslim scholars issued a three-point declaration. First, it recognized eight legal schools of thought as legitimate madhahib in Islam. These included all four Sunni legal schools as well as the Shi`a Ja`fari, Shi`i Zaydi and `Ibadi schools. Second, it forbade Muslims from excommunicating adherents of any of these eight recognized Muslim legal schools. And third, it outlined the preconditions for the issuing of religious edicts (fatwas), so as to prevent the circulation of illegitimate edicts (fatwas).

The Amman Message in particular calls upon Sunnis and Shi`as to rise above differences that separate them and to emphasize the commonalities that unite them as a single ummah. The Amman Message binds Sunni and Shi`a Muslims not to declare each other as infidels (kafir).

Last but not least, the Amman Message calls for immunizing our communities against sectarianism through education. It encourages institutions, organizations and individuals to educate Sunnis and Shi`as about the actual history and evolution of Sunni-Shi`a relations.

It is noteworthy that Shaykh Ebrahim Gabriels undersigned and endorsed the Amman Message on behalf of the South African `ulama. This is clearly indicated in the official list of endorsements published in the online version of the Amman Message, see here: I have not come across any formal denunciation of the Amman Message from either the United `Ulama Council of South Africa or the Muslim Judicial Council.

I urge each one of you, if you who have not already done so, to consult this document and study its contents.  More importantly, I call upon our local `ulama to disseminate this message and provide the necessary leadership to curb the growing trend towards religious sectarianism in South Africa.

Vigilance Against Sectarianism

South African Muslim leaders have a particularly onerous challenge of remaining vigilant against those who wish to export their sectarian conflicts from the Middle East into our local environment. Religious sectarianism is both a symptom and a cause of an extremist mindset or worldview which is the antithesis of wasatiyyah i.e. the middle way as advocated by the Glorious Qur’an (2:143). In other words, extremism breeds and feeds on sectarianism.

If religious sectarianism is left to flourish, the conditions become ripe for extremist views and actions to take hold. Our beloved Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) understood the above Qur’anic imperative and worked tirelessly against tendencies of extremism prevalent amongst even some of his own followers.

He is reported to have repeatedly proclaimed: “The extremists will perish.”(Sahih Muslim). In another prophetic tradition (hadith) the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) advises us as follows: “Beware of extremism (ghuluw) in religion, for it is extremism in matters of religion that has destroyed those before you.”

It is thus crystal clear that religious extremism (tatarruf) has no virtue in Islam and has been unequivocally condemned by both the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Hence, if extremism feeds and breeds off sectarianism, then we should be equally guarded against the growth of religious sectarianism.

I am convinced that the vast majority of Muslims are not supportive of the current trend of sectarianism being fomented by certain individuals. Muslim scholars and leaders in particular, have the especially difficult challenge and responsibility of not allowing misguided individuals who act in a thoroughly reprehensible and depraved way to undermine the middle way of Islam (wasatiyya).

Prayer for the People of Yemen

In conclusion, please join me in a special prayer for the suffering masses of Yemen:

Ya Rabb al-Nas – O Lord of all Humankind

The people of Yemen are in urgent need of You, so pour down upon them your Mercy and Compassion
We pray for this war torn country where thousands have died and millions are at the brink of famine

We pray for relief from poverty, political corruption and war

Ya Rabb al-Shifa’ – O Lord of Healing

Comfort the hearts of the suffering people of Yemen
Grant them relief from the fear of death and persecution, and grant them the courage, strength and perseverance to continue to strive for peace with justice
We ask for your assistance so that aid convoys may reach those in need and that the people of Yemen receive access to food, clean water and medical supplies

Ya Rabb al-Quwwa – O One who is All-Powerful and Irresistible in Might

At this difficult time in their history, we pray for hope and healing over the troubled nation of Yemen
We pray that this humanitarian crisis will awaken consciences, lead to a change of heart, and inspire all parties to strengthen their resolve for justice, reconciliation and peace
O Allah guide all of us and our leaders to fashion a more just and caring world.
Allahumma anta al-Salam 
God Thou art peace

wa minka al-Salam
and Peace emanates from Thee

fa hayyina Rabbana bi al-Salam
Allow us to live and subsist in peace
We ask this in all of Your beautiful and holy names,
Lord of all Humankind

Allahumma Amin

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