Radical Reform in Islam: Shaykh `Abdullah Al-`Alayli

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Beirut has been commemorating the 100th birthday of Shaykh `Abdullah al-`Alayli. This cleric, dubbed the “red cleric” by his reactionary enemies, was the first cousin of my grandfather. We grew up admiring him from a distance as he rarely mingled with the family in social gatherings. The few times we met him he left a great impression: he seemed very wise and very modest given the renown that surrounded his personality. We heard from my mother a lot about him: that he persistently supported the educational pursuits of my late mother (first in law school and later in doctoral studies at St. Joseph University, at a time in the 1940s and 1950s when many families did not think that university education was suitable for women, and when many Muslim families distrusted Christian missionary schools and colleges). And when my mother and father fell in love while working together on the staff of the Lebanese parliament, al-`Alayli stepped in to support the marriage of this Sunni Beiruti woman to a Shia man from South Lebanon. Al-`Alayli put his progressive thought into practice in his own family. And when we were young children, we kept pestering my mother with questions about differences between Sunnis and Shia. One memorable afternoon, she got frustrated with us and took us to visit Shaykh `Abdullah.

We all remember that day well. We entered his modest apartment on the edge of Ashrafiyyah (his house and his library would later be ransacked by Phalanges militiamen but he would later observe that the ignorant men stole his newest books while they ignored his old rare books and manuscripts), to find him in his usual attire: a robe. We sat very close to the floor while my mother transmitted our questions to him. He then went on to deliver a rather long lecture about the origins of the Sunni-Shi`it conflict and the theological debates (many parts of the lecture were not comprehensible to my ears but I do remember part of it – or I later understood it when I remembered it – especially about the differences in the interpretation of the Qur’anic verse, “The hand of God is over their hands,” and the personification of God). He concluded the lecture by assuring us that the differences were rather minimal.

Al-`Alayli was a child prodigy who excelled in school in the Arabic language at a very early age and was sent to al-Azhar where he also excelled. He published his first book when he was only 24: it was about linguists under the title of, “An Introduction for the Study of the Language of the Arabs” (1938). His theory about the roots of Arabic words demolished established conventions and made him an immediate authority on Arabic.

Al-`Alayli was an unusual cleric who did not believe that clerics should be confined to the study and teaching of religion (he didn’t even do that). Instead, he got involved in the political matters of the day, and authored a book on Arab nationalism (the Pan-national Constitution of the Arabs) where, for him, Arabic defined Arab nationalism, and not religion. He published series of pamphlets (under the heading J’accuse in Arabic) on political matters which raised the ire of the French colonial authorities. In the later 1940s, he participated with Kamal Jumblatt in the formation of the Progressive Socialist Party, but would later split when the party did not transcend the sectarian leadership of Jumblatt, and when Jumblatt split with Nasser in the early 1950s.

Al-`Alayli was a socialist and a secular. He didn’t believe that religion should play a public role in people’s lives. He was a fierce critic not only of the understanding and teaching of religion, but also of the teaching and writing of the Arab language. Al-`Alayli was a critic who wanted to oversee a radical transformation within the religious establishment in Lebanon (and beyond). In 1952, he came very close to implementing his vision when he ran for the post of the Mufti of the Lebanese Republic. He lost by six votes. Sa’ib Salam and other reactionary political figures in Lebanon launched a nasty campaign against a cleric they accused of wanting to introduce communism in Lebanon.

In the 1960s, al-`Alayli withdrew from political life and devoted his time to a comprehensive multi-volume dictionary. He wanted a dictionary that would – unlike contemporary and even classic dictionaries – begin by going to the etymology of words. He never was able to complete this work especially after the Phalanges thugs ransacked his home and scattered his index cards which he kept in neatly stacked boxes of Gandour “biscuits” (they are crackers really but are referred – after the French – to as biscuits in Lebanon.) Yet, al-`Alayli did not sit through the Lebanese civil war.

His most daring work was his volume, “Where is the Error” in which he proposed a radical reinterpretation in Islam. The publication in 1978 was quite dramatic, and the Saudi government quickly moved to ban the book not only from Saudi Arabia but also from all Arab countries. Copies were confiscated and the distribution of the book went to the underground world. The book contains many revolutionary ideas including the ban on accumulation of wealth, the compatibility of Islam and socialism, and the secular understanding of marriage in Islam. Al-`Alayli also considered that the wealth of oil can’t be monopolized by a royal family. Those ideas triggered strong reactions and denunciations from the clerics of the Saudi regime.

Al-`Alayli is being rediscovered more than a decade after his death. Even the same Saudi newspaper that in the past had called him an atheist communist (like Okaz) later started to cite his views against the radicals against whom the Saudi regime is now launching a war. Okaz, however, would not dare to cite his views that were condemning of the Saudi regime. In Beirut, the views of Al-`Alayli are becoming widely known and Dar Al-Jadid republished his classic works (but not his important “Where is the Error”).

In the context of 1950s and 1960s, in the age of Nasser, the agenda of radical reform in Islam was accepted and promoted. Nasser relied on the progressive head Shaykh of al-Azhar, Mahmud Shaltut, who implemented the most progressive vision of reform since the times of Muhammad `Abduh. But all talk and writings about Islam hit a brick (or Chinese) wall: the Saudi regime buys off religious establishments throughout the Arab world, and indeed the world at large, in order to thwart any radical reform in Islam. Ironically, Western governments arm and support the Saudi regime, while they lament the absence of reform in Islam.

Dr. As’ad AbuKhalil is a Professor of Political Science at California State University, Stanislaus, a lecturer and the author of The Angry Arab News Service. He tweets @asadabukhalil.


"first - you father was a friend of the diplomat that was the go between for the Republicans & Yasser Arafat during the hostage crisis"
now you have lineage to clerics
'the first cousin of my grandfather"
I am beginning to suspect that you are of Lebanese Aristocracy, sir.
And here I am being all familiar & all too common in my attitude to one of your status.
All I can say is ...
"who knew"
"who knew"
You never can tell -
I met Attilio Lewis Ferrer in the waiting room at the Dr.'s surgery, he is a descendent of The Nights Templar & Roman Catholics Sainthood. His father was an Italian diplomat stationed in Egypt after WW2.

I am an Atheist. But I could respect and even admire some religious people. Looks like `Abdullah al-`Alayli was one of such people.

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