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Ghariani embodies image of Muslim Libya in post-Gadafi era

Source : Middle East Online | 17 Apr 2012

While Libyans were fighting to oust leader Moamer Gadafi last year, the new National Transitional Council named Sheikh Sadeq al-Ghariani in May as the top religious authority and judge of what is forbidden or permitted under Islam.

The Tripoli-based scholar and author of 32 books was among the first to speak out against Gadafi's regime after it launched a violent crackdown against a popular uprising in February 2011 in the eastern city of Benghazi.

And when Gadafi was captured and slain last October, the grand mufti ruled the former strongman to be an "infidel," unworthy of prayers.

"The role of the mufti is to provide guidance and counsel," Sheikh Ghariani said in between solemn meetings with citizens seeking answers on how to settle disputes out of court.

Interim government spokesman Nasser al-Manaa says of Sheikh Ghariani that "these days show that many Libyans stand by his words," adding that the authorities themselves will seriously consider any proposal he makes.

No such compass guided the nation during the final years of Gadafi's four-decade rule. A self-proclaimed Arab, African and Islamic leader, Gadafi had a touch-and-go relationship with Islam.

He replaced the Gregorian, solar-based calendar with the Muslim lunar calendar in everyday affairs and declared the Koran should be translated into every language. But he also abolished Dar Al-Ifta, the office for religious edicts, fatwas, and crushed Islamists posing a political threat.

Dar Al-Ifta was formally reinstituted in Tripoli after rebels seized the capital last August.

Indefatigable, the septuagenarian Sheikh Ghariani hosts a weekly TV talk show fielding calls on a range of topics, from how to split inheritances to what is halal (permitted) and haram (forbidden) in Islamic sharia law.

Yet he is modest about his role.

"If no one comes to him (for advice), he approaches no one (with advice)," said the graduate of Cairo's Al-Azhar, the highest centre of Sunni Muslim learning, who issued his fatwas from Benghazi during the 2011 revolution.

Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring last year, a long-running debate on the thorny constitutional question of whether Islam should be "a" source of legislation, or "the" source, has come to the fore across the region.

In August, the NTC issued a provisional declaration that Sharia would be the "primary source" of legislation, raising concerns in the West about religious tolerance and women's rights.

The mufti clarifies: "We are not saying Islam should be the only source of legislation... What we are saying is that any law that contradicts Islam is invalid."

"Laws created by men are acceptable on the condition that they are not in contradiction with the Koran and Sunna (teachings of the Muslim prophet Mohammed)," he said, adding that 90 percent of the laws on the books pose no problem.

Hence, the longstanding bans on selling alcohol and pork and of licencing brothels will never be revoked.

But there are some laws promulgated under Gadafi that fly in the face of the holy book, including one that allows a person to claim unoccupied property, and one that permits charging interest on loans.

As for politics, Sheikh Ghariani has already issued edicts on the importance of qualified people running for office but declines to define which school of Islamic jurisprudence he draws on for his fatwas.

"Islam is one," he stressed.

Libya is a Sunni Muslim society in which many citizens describe themselves as middle-of-the-road moderates who reject violence.

But the Sufi sect, which practises a mystical form of Islam and has played a historic role in the affairs of the North African nation, now finds itself in conflict with Qatari- and Saudi-trained Salafist preachers who consider it heretical.

The mufti warns that all groups -- whether the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists or Sufis -- are vulnerable to radical elements in their ranks seeking to sow chaos.

While downplaying fears Salafist extremists are gaining momentum in post-Gadafi Libya, he said they are a minority and taking advantage of the security vacuum left after Gadafi.

"Such people are a very small segment (of society) and have surfaced now because of the lack of security and stability," he said in reference to scattered cases of zealots entering mosques by force to preach.

"If there were a strong grip on security and everyone who committed a crime faced justice, these people would never have come out, and we would never have heard of them."

At the request of the interim government, he ruled against the desecration of tombs after an attack by Salafists against a cemetery in Benghazi left the graves of World War II heroes gutted.

He also opposes the demolition of Sufi shrines, which have been attacked, and issued an edict to that effect in March after a stand-off between people in the town of Zliten and armed Salafists seeking to destroy a shine there.

The mufti's position on women reflects view held widely in his society.

Interim leader Abdel Jalil sparked an outcry last year, especially among women rights activists, when he said his country would overturn a Gadafi-era ruling restricting polygamy.

Libya's personal status laws -- which regulate such matters as marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance -- are already based on the Koran and will probably remain the same or similar in future, he said.

When asked whether a man would need his wife's permission to take a second wife -- a requirement under Gadafi that was rarely put into practice -- he said no, because of a woman's "jealous nature."

"Polygamy is legitimate and there is no controversy in this," he said, arguing it is better than to take a lover and bring illegitimate children into the world and makes men shoulder the responsibility for their offspring.

However, at the same time, he said "we want women to play a strong role in the upcoming phase of elections."

While his views may be as jarring as fingernails on a chalk board to most Western and some Arab feminists, they cause few ripples in Libya, where religious observance underpins every social norm.

"Islam governs all aspects of life, not only Zakat (alms) and Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) -- two central tenets of Islam -- but the moment from which a Muslim is conceived to the moment he is buried," says the mufti.


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