BY HAMZA A. BAJWAReply
An Islamic college accused of teaching extremist doctrine has hit back dismissing the article in The Times newspaper as immature and unfounded and describing it as a classic example of an Islamophobic report that incites to violence and hatred.
Hawza Ilmiyya in London, a Shiite seminary, labelled Sean O’Neill’s report as totally biased, erroneous and shocking, that was done to "provoke tension in different parts of society between Muslims and non-Muslims" and which has since led to the institution receiving threatening phones calls and death threats.
The article entitled: "Muslim students ‘being taught to despise unbelievers as filth’", claimed that anonymous students from the college were disturbed and worried over a medieval text being taught that apparently described non-Muslims as "filth" and likened them to dogs and pigs.
But the college has rejected the portrayal of its academic environment as a "hotbed of religious intolerance and extremism" as going against the very ethos upon which it was established in 2002 - "to train religious scholars and Imams to serve the growing needs of the Muslim community in Britain".
Mohammad Saeed Bahmanpour, the Director of Studies at the college, said that neither he nor any of his students had ever learned to "despise" anyone.
"We do not even despise Sean O’Neill who has written this sensational and confusing report," he said.
Dr. Bahmanpour told The Muslim Weekly that staff and students at the college were suspicious of the claim made in the report that a group of students had expressed "worries" over the text in question. He believes it was something Sean O’Neill had "completely made up".
Dr. Bahmanpour said that after receiving the contentious text he confirmed that it was unknown and had never been taught, which prompted Sean O’Neill to visit their website where he eventually found an alternative source for his story - text from the 13th century scholar al-Muhaqqiq al-Hilli.
Dr. Bahmanpour also said that the word rendered as "filth" in the article was a "misinterpretation of the text".
"The word used there [in al-Hilli] is a very familiar word for the Muslims and that is najas. We have in the Qur’an [the verse]: "Innama mushrikoona najas [Verily the polytheists are najas]". And no one has interpreted this verse from the Qur’an to mean that mushrikoon (polytheists) are ‘filth’. The same term is used in the book [of al-Hilli] so whatever we say about najas here we say about najas in that book.
"The text in question discusses ritual impurity which is something completely known to followers of most religions, especially the Jewish faith which is very close to Islamic faith in this respect.
"If you touch their kosher [meat], the kosher cannot be eaten because it has become ‘ritually impure’. And I don’t think they regard all others as ‘filth’."
He added that pork and wine were ritually impure for Muslims, but no Muslim regarded them as "filth".
"This was a very important distinction, and I am sorry to say that this distinction has not been understood and covered in the report.
"Moreover, I explained to him [O’Neill] that most current authorities on Shiite law, including Ayatollah Khamenei, who is named in the report, do not subscribe to this view and we have made this abundantly clear to our students."
Dr. Bahmanpour also highlighted that al-Hilli was "a very very well known scholar" whose works were also taught in other universities, where it was considered a necessary source for teaching Shi’ism.
"He is not a type of infamous scholar, so I’m sure this is going to raise some concern amongst other Shiites."
Director of MA in Islamic Studies at Exeter University, Dr Sajjad Rizvi, confirmed that he and his colleagues likewise made reference to al-Hilli’s works and described The Times article as an "entirely silly piece". He further said that according to the dominant Shiite jurisprudential view, the Shi’a had to follow a contemporary view; although a classical opinion could be studied, it has "no validity for a belief".
"Al-Hilli’s opinion could not be valid in today’s era," he said.
Dr. Bahmanpour also disputed accusations that the college is exposing its students to "very literalist interpretations of the Qur’an" and who are "hard-line traditionalists who do not allow academic freedom". He said that this was refuted by their policy where it was made compulsory for the students to take a BA degree course accredited by Middlesex University.
"Most of that curriculum is actually dedicated to Arabic. The other part of the curriculum is used to teach students how to read classical text.
"They do 3-days on our BA course and 2-days on our Hawza Ilmiyya course."
The course also covered a wide range of subjects which made it "impossible for students to be taught extremist doctrine".
He emphasised that the college had no hidden agenda and that the academic staff and students of the seminary have been at the forefront of inter-religious and interfaith dialogue. But warned that those who demonise institutions such as Hawza Ilmiyya were "unwittingly playing into the hands of extremism" and "stifling the voice of moderation in the Muslim world".
"We expect the assistance and the help of all peace-loving citizens of this country, as well as the British government and the media, as we believe we are champions in the fight against bigotry and the voice of reason and moderation. If you are in favour of good race relations, if you want to see better ties between the Muslim community in Britain and members of other faiths, we would invite you to come to our college to see for yourself that everything we do and teach is transparent and that we make every attempt to bridge the gap, rather than destroy the bridges, between the faiths."
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