Sheikh Wahbah al-Zuhaili on International Relations: The Discourse of a Prominent Contemporary Islamist Scholar (1932-)

By Sami Emile Baroudi
Submitted to Session P4187 (Questioning the Moral in Islamic Education: Modernity and the Reconfiguration of Islamic Knowledge, 2015 Annual Meeting
Intl Rltns/Aff
All Middle East;
Islamic Thought;
In recent years, radical and violent Islamist movements – such as al-Qaeda and its offshoot the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – have seized the spotlight. A corollary of this preoccupation has been the proliferation of studies on the political thought of radical Islamist figures such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin-Laden. By contrast, scant attention has been paid to the thought of moderate contemporary Sunni Islamic scholars. This paper attempts to rectify this situation by focusing on the international relations discourse of a prominent Syrian Islamic thinker Sheikh Wahbah al-Zuhaili (hereafter Zuhaili). It focuses on Zuhaili’s three main treatises on international relations: Athar al-Harb (The Consequences of War) (1962), al-‘Alaqat al-Duwaliya fi al-Islam (International Relations in Islam) (2011) and al-Islam wa al-Qanoun al-Duwali al-Insani (Islam and International Humanitarian Law) (2012). Zuhaili was chosen for three main reasons. First, he presents a fairly detailed and systematic treatment of international relations from an Islamic point of view, while consciously seeking to relate his views to prevalent western notions, especially regarding war, diplomacy and the role of international law and international norms and conventions. Second, Zuhaili asserts repeatedly that concord – rather than conflict – is the foundation of relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, thus setting himself apart from radical Islamists. Third, despite being renowned in the Arab world and the academically acclaimed quality of his writings, his works have not been translated yet into English; and his discourse has not been subjected to a systematic and critical reading that places it in its proper historic and ideational contexts, while relating it to the main traditions in studying international relations (primarily Realism and Liberal Internationalism). By shedding light on Zuhaili’s thought, the paper argues that radical Islamist ideology is at the periphery of contemporary Islamist conceptualizations of international relations while the epicenter is held by mainstream Islamists such as Zuhaili – and the better known Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and the late Lebanese Shia cleric Sayyid Mohammad Hussein Fadlullah – whose perspectives on international relations are fairly compatible with prevalent western views, especially those emanating from the Realist school.