Dr. Ali Azzali: Education is never a neutral process

Greetings, Doctor Ali Azzali. How are you? Thank you for accepting our interview. Let’s start by getting to know you? Can you share your story with us? Especially your story of being a Muslim. How did the travel starting from Italy ended up in Cape Town?

Assalamu alaykum wa rahmatullah. First of all, I would like to thank you for inviting me. As for my story, I was born in Parma into a Catholic family in 1971. My first encounter with Islam happened when meeting a great Italian intellectual, Prof. Claudio Umar Amin Mutti. I remember that my heart spoke to me when I first met him; I somehow understood that he had what I was looking for. With him I accepted Islam and became a Shadhili Darqawi murid at the age of 20. He then introduced me to the spiritual teaching of Shaykh Abdaqadir as-Sufi who, at the time, was doing an amazing work of Da’wa in the West. After completing my studies at the University of Parma, I was involved in different projects in many parts of the world, from Albania, to Bosnia, Malaysia, Scotland, Morocco, Turkey, Spain and then South Africa, where I have been living since 2005.

You were with Abdulkadir Sufi for years. Between 1990 and 2000 his works were popular in Turkey. He is a very special and very unusual Sufi Sheikh. However, there are a lot of conspiracy theories about him. And we would like to listen to about Sheikh Abdulkadir from you.

Shaykh Abdalqadir is a great teacher and scholar; I certainly would not define him as an unusual shaykh. His silsila is undisputed and follows the line of the Shadhili-Darqawi tariqat. When Shaykh Mahmud Efendi met him in 1995, he immediately invited forty of his murids to be lodged in his dergah in Fatih and I was one of them. We stayed for two weeks where we prayed and ate with the great Naqshbandi master.

At the time, Shaykh Abdalqadir visited Istanbul at the invitation of Dr Erbakan to whom he gave his full support. What was happening in Turkey was extraordinary. We met all the great shuyukh of the city; amongst the other I must mention Shaykh Mahmud Esad Coşan. The most memorable event was a public meeting where the Shaykh addressed the issue of the Caliphate in an extremely crowded auditorium. The other speaker at the event was the French Muslim philosopher Roger Garaudy.

The uniqueness of Shaykh Abdalqadir can be identified in his profound knowledge of the Western tradition and his understanding of the contemporary political situation and the role of finance. I remember one of the first times I met him he told me that the “Maschere Nude” (Naked Masques) of Luigi Pirandello were like a treatise on the nafs. His teaching can seem “unusual” because his disciples are mostly from the West, where a tendency to reduce every legitimate spiritual path into a sort of “innocuous spiritualism” is very incumbent, therefore his teaching has often seemed harsh and unusual in a sense. He always stressed the importance of Shariat, Tariqat and Haqiqat in a time when Sufism in the West was often disjointed from the Shariat. He taught us that Islam is based on the model of Madinah, therefore the perfect community has been at the heart of his teachings since the beginning. In fact, he has mostly been criticised for his involvement in politics. At the same time, he wrote and commissioned the translation of very important classical works on the dîn and tasawwuf, texts that led thousands of people to embrace Islam all over the world. I would like to mention, amongst many others, the translation of Al Muwatta’ by Imam Malik and Ash-Shifa by Qadi Iyad.

As for the conspiracy theories, Shaykh Abdalqadir would say: “We throw peanuts to the monkeys”…

What I can say is that, when I first met him, he urged me to disregard the teachings of René Guénon (‘Abd al-Wahid Yahya) because of his affiliation to freemasonry. When we visited Istanbul in 1996, we held a Moussem at the Halveti Jerrahi dergah in Fatih. At the core of the sohbet of Shaykh Abdalqadir, after the night of dhikr, was the role of Masonry and of Emmanuel Carasso in the plot against Sultan Abdul Hamid Khan. At the time he also published a very meaningful essay titled: “The Return of the Caliphate”, where he unveiled the real causes that led to the dethroning of the last great Sultan.

You are a historian who studied ancient Rome as an academician. Abdülkadir Sufi’s recent works under the name of Ian Dallas, The Entire City and The Engines of the Broken World have been based on Ancient Rome and the emphasis on referring Rome in order to understand today is understandable in a European and American perspective but why is ancient Rome important for the people living in Muslim lands?

Understanding Rome means to understand the foundations of the modern political system. The Roman Republic has been the model for the creation of the modern State and Constitutions. Such a “gestalt” (form) can be traced in almost every modern political structure, from the East to the West. Furthermore, as Niccolò Machiavelli has taught, the study of the History of Rome constitutes a paradigm of the cycles of history as described also by Ibn Khaldun in his Muqaddima. For those reasons, in the past the world’s political elites received an education based on the study of Latin and the history of Rome. The same Mehmet Fatih, when he delivered his speech after the conquest of Constantinople, claimed the title of Roman Emperor and revealed a profound knowledge of the history of Rome. In the end, human actions repeat themselves, therefore the saying: “Nihil novi sub sole” (nothing new under the sun) could epitomize the reasons why classical studies are so fundamental in order to understand the political situation in which we find ourselves.

It is our responsibility, as Muslims, to be able to understand the world’s situation in order to expand the deen of Allah and protect our brothers and sisters. By studying the History of Rome we are able to understand the arcana imperii (the secret of the State) and therefore able to act effectively, avoiding all the traps set up by the propaganda of the Western media.

We’re in a very fast-changing world. Now you’ve got the artificial intelligence affecting the world system and politics, and there are many technological changes like social media. When you look at the world, what are the issues we as Muslims cannot identify and solve?

The main risk that humanity is facing globally is to be reduced to a sort of ant-hill, as Ernst Jünger foresaw in the last century. The fast acceleration of technological progress in the last decades has increased the level of control on both the individual and social level. The main principle of contemporary education is efficiency. The new generations are trained to give fast answers, but they are unable to ask the important questions of life.

Our Lord, in Surah at-Takwir, reminds us:

“So where, then are you going?” (81, 26)

The consequence of it is the emergence of armies of unaware slaves, incapable of questioning the situation. In a recent movie, Blade Runner 2049, the director depicts a dystopian society completely shaped and ruled by technique. In this gloomy scenario, where even the personal identity of the individual is put under question as a technical artefact, a miracle sparkles an awakening in the main character. Belief in the Unseen is what keeps us humans even in the darkest situations.

You’re teaching at Dallas College. As an important example in the field of education for Muslims in the world can you give us some information about Dallas College in Cape Town? What was the process of its birth? What have you accomplished?

In order to answer this question, please allow me to borrow the words of one of our best lecturers, Hajj Abdullah Luongo, who passed away in 2012:

“In 2004 a small private college was established in Cape Town South Africa. It was to be a college of leadership, a place where young people of all races who had a sufficient capacity and an innate desire to want to excel, to truly make a difference and take on responsibility to make a new kind of world, could come to be educated. It was not for those vast masses that only see education as a ticket to getting a job, not to mention that all too often in today’s world that the ticket may not get you in. This new college intended to restore the original purpose of a liberal arts education: to prepare young men to be the leaders for the future. In an age of world domination where credit-based capitalism, operating behind the veil of liberal democracy, has brought everyone, those from Developed Countries to Third World countries, to the brink of total melt-down, a new nomos is urgently required and, moreover, men and woman able to take the leadership required to rescue the people and the very eco-system we all live within”.

Today the predominant cognitive model is emancipated by any ethical dimension, aimed exclusively at strengthening skills and problem solving. It doesn’t concern itself with the formation of character and the fundamental question of life. The process of learning has become a “loading of files” according to the utilitarian principle of the maximum benefit with minimum effort.

What gets lost in this process is the relationship between knowledge and life.
The principle of performance has reduced the process of learning to a competition that doesn’t leave sufficient time for critical reflection. The subject becomes therefore a passive container to be filled with anonymous contents.

The complete separation of the ethical dimension from the process of learning has fostered a cult of enjoyment utterly separated from any search for the meaning of life. “Why not?” is the question that the actual neoliberal system whispers through its organs of propaganda. “Why not enjoying to the point of death?” — It’s the new law.

The experience of the limit, a necessary foundation for any real knowledge, has lost its meaning. In the face of this question it is necessary to keep alive another question:

“How to reintroduce in the process of education the traumatic but positive experience of the limit, of the form?”

Nietzsche warned:

“The desert grows, and woe to the one who conceals the desert within him”.

Our time is the son of a terrible collusion between the revolutionary-libertarian movement of the ’60s and the financial capitalism responsible of the actual crisis.

Faced by such situation, the school must keep at its core the centrality of education as a transformative process and resist the perverted law of the “Why Not?”

What to do?

What knowledge do we need? The knowledge about human transformation. All the cultures have known human transformation; all traditions have myths, the essence of which is the process of human metamorphosis. Such a transformation goes through different stages and it is intrinsic to the human nature. This fact is not recognized by modern psychology. Psychology focuses on the pre-phallic (see Freud), genital stages. That can be considered as a larval stage, that is, pre-transformative. Our education is based on the caterpillar stage and it ignores the butterfly stage.

The real knowledge implies that there is an incubation of another life (butterflies) from a larval stage of development.

The official culture doesn’t recognise this seeking impulse and doesn’t know how to respond to it and therefore we have a culture of worms, caterpillar: a larval culture.

We don’t have enough trust in that transformation. Nothing in our culture validates that, despite its encyclopaedic aspirations.

Real education always takes place by moving against the stream. School must be a place where it is still possible to think critically. It must act as a place of resistance against a social discourse aimed at generating conformism, passive adaption and the silencing of critical thinking.

The best prevention is that culture and humanistic culture offers a point of resistance. That’s the core of our work at Dallas College.

How do you relate liberal arts to the classical Islamic education? Is there a difference or do they overlap?

When we speak of Liberal Arts College we refer to an educational model with an emphasis on undergraduate study in the liberal arts and sciences. Liberal arts colleges are distinguished from other types of higher education chiefly by their generalist curricula and small size.

We must remember that education is never a neutral process. Speaking of the great pedagogist Paulo Freire, Richard Shaull wrote:

“There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

The aim of our institution is not to form Imams, but to produce a new generation of Muslims ready for leadership at both national and international level equipped with a profound knowledge and understanding of the deen, as well as the world. We believe that the purpose of education, first and foremost, lies in the formation of character.

In this regard, Shaykh Abdalqadir , in a speech given at Dallas College spoke about futuwwa as its foundational principle:

“Futuwwa, defined as youth and chivalry, is really a composite of such virtues as generosity, munificence, modesty, chastity, trustworthiness, loyalty, mercifulness, knowledge, humility, and Iman. It is a station on the path to Allah, and also signifies that one has made altruism and helping others one’s second nature. It is an important, indispensable dimension of good conduct and a significant aspect of humanity. Derived from fata’ (young man), futuwwa has become a symbol of rebelling against all evil and striving for sincere servanthood to God.”

We have been sending our graduates into the world, not only fully equipped to understand the new evolving social nexus and the devolving political instruments of their time, but also with an eloquence to express themselves in leadership as well as a quite global expertise of communication. This aim is achieved using a combination of Politics, Language and Media and Islamic Knowledge.

When you mention “the experience of the limits” do you use it in the context of tasawwuf? How it can be part of education in a positive way?

When we speak of “experience of the limit”, we refer to a reaction to the actual tendency to break every taboo in the context of a highly capitalistic society.

The crisis of the school reveals nowadays the crisis of that formative process that we call “education”. Schools risk becoming not the public place where individuals are formed in terms of character and vision of the world, that place has been mostly taken today by the television and Internet, outside the field of culture, in a way that is completely dominated by the hedonistic drives of capitalism.

It is in fact through the media that the discourse of the capitalist has spread its illusion.

This new totalitarianism is expressed through the hypnotic seduction of the objects of enjoyment offered unlimitedly by the market.

We live in the time of commodity fetishism. According to the discourse of the Capitalist, human life would find its satisfaction, happiness and salvation in the acquisition of goods in ever-increasing amounts. The new consumer item is presented by the market as a solution to the problem of existence, to its inherent pain.

Those goods, in primis narcotics, that the market offers boundlessly, can never give real satisfaction, but rather it creates a new emptiness and addiction.

What the economists define as accelerated obsolescence of gadgets has become the rule for human relationships. Even love is moulded on the model of a fridge or a iphone. The cult of the new has become the rule.

The malaise of youth is not caused, like in the past, by the opposition between dreams and reality, but it must be identified in the absence of dreams.

The pathologies of this disease are evident in our society: depression, apathy, drug addiction, technology addiction, anorexia, bulimia, pornography, etc. An anti-love for the gadget has taken the place of the love for the other. Only the body remains, lost in his solitary search for a destructive and autistic enjoyment.

You have intense feeling towards Turkey. I know you came to Turkey a few times and you love it. We would like to hear your observations and memories in Istanbul and Turkey, especially those of with Sheikh Abdülkadir when you came together in 1996.

I have been to Turkey several times and I always felt deeply connected to the country and its people. Sultan Mehmet Fatih, in his famous speech mentioned above declared that the conquest of Constantinople by the Osmanli army was the revenge of Troy over the Greeks, because, according to the tradition, Aeneas’ descendents were the founders of Rome. And recently a Kadiri-Rifa’i shaykh from Tarsus, who was visiting South Africa, told me that the wolf of Turan and the wolf of Romulus are the same animal, stressing an affinity between the two peoples. In Ankara, the mausoleum of Hacı Bayram-ı Veli was built significantly next to the Temple of Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome.

My connection with Turkey was strengthened on the Laylatu’l Miraj of 2012 when I met Shaykh Ömer Efendi ar-Rifa’i in Ankara. His profound knowledge of the Path of tasawwuf, his adab and his love for the Prophet (saws) and His family made a huge impression on me. The purity of his teaching and of his transmission has been like a medicine. The quality of his disciples is also a proof of the validity of his work in our time. During the recent failed coup he called all of his murids in Ankara to march toward the city where they held a public dhikr in the night to support the legitimate government. He said to his disciples: “Don’t be scared, we die only once”. That, in my opinion, is real tasawwuf.

European Muslim minorities, especially convert minorities, face many problems. In a non-Muslim society, there are serious issues like liberal oppression which is disguised under the name of integration. Do you think Muslims will be able to protect themselves by remaining minority? How can they contribute to the ummah?

When I accepted Islam in 1992, in my city there was only a small prayer room in a poor area. The worshippers were mostly students from Arab countries and a few workers from North Africa. Now, if I’m not mistaken, there are three mosques in Parma. Islam has spread in Europe at an impressive pace.

We faced many difficulties at the beginning. I remembered that every time I would have gone to mosque for Jumu’a, the Italian police would stop me trying to dissuade me in a very illiberal way.

The question of integration is very complex and ambivalent and should not apply to indigenous Muslims. Islam is a filter that purifies a civilization from what is against the revealed laws. The Osmanli were aware of it, for that reasons, when they conquered a country, they would leave in place those local laws (the Qanun) that were not conflicting with the Shariat. In Europe the indigenous Muslims should maintain their identity and not assume other peoples’ identities. Islam is not an enemy of the West; we should not fall into the American trap and accept the idea of “Clash of Civilizations”, but should rather try to speak the language of the people. One of the prophecies about Judgement day is that before the end of the world, the sun will rise in the West and there is a twofold meaning in this. We must also keep in mind the famous hadith: “No one is born without being born according to the primordial nature (fitrah) of Islam. Then his parents make him a Jew, a Christian and a Mazdian”. If we will be able to deliver the message of Islam in the language of the people, and by language I mean not just a mere literal translation but according to the Weltanschauung of that specific nation, there will be a European Islam like in Bosnia or Albania.

As for the modern idea of integration that has been promoted by philanthropists/financiers like George Soros globally, it should be refused as it is based on an idea of “ecumenism” that unites all religions under the common umbrella of the capitalistic way of life. The universal doctrine of Human Rights is set above and against the validity of religions. But for us:

“The only deen with Allah is Islam”.

Qur’an 3, 19

While finishing is there anything else you would like to add or say?

I would like to conclude by saying that Turkey will have a major role to play in the establishment of Islam in Europe. For us Turkey is like a lighthouse in the darkest night. Thank you.

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