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How Rwanda became an oasis of liberal Islam

Sheikh Salim Hitimana has fought to preserve a moderate and pluralist spirit

1 June 2019

9:00 AM

1 June 2019

9:00 AM

 Kigali, Rwanda

To most outsiders, Rwanda is still synonymous with genocide. Nearly a million killed in 100 days; almost three quarters of the Tutsi population dead. The country’s attempts to rebuild have been much commented on, but something else is overlooked: Rwanda has become an astonishing oasis of tolerant Islam and, in many ways, an example to the West.

In Rwanda, there is an Islam which stands firm against the petrochemical ‘Gulf Stream’ of Wahhabi finance, despite lacking the huge wealth that Muslims in the Arab world enjoy. It also refuses to yield control to the neo-fundamentalists of the Muslim Brotherhood now backed by Qatar and Turkey. This independence and liberalism are embodied by the spiritual leader of Rwandan Muslims, Sheikh Salim Hitimana. He is the Mufti of Rwanda, and as such he issues fatwas (religious edicts) on Islamic issues and is defender of the faith.

We meet in his offices at the Al Quds Mosque in Kigali, which is busier than at any time in the country’s history. ‘Before the genocide, there were perhaps 200,000 Muslims in the country, and no Rwandans wanted to enter Islam,’ he says. During the genocide, Muslims stood out for refusing to take sides and for risking their lives to shelter those under attack. ‘People started to think: who are those people? Why don’t those people commit genocide like us? People became attracted to join us.’ The country’s Islamic population has grown fivefold, he says, to more than a million.

What kind of religion have Rwandan converts joined? ‘I think Pakistan and many other Muslim majority countries have been hijacked by thinking which is not, basically, Islamic,’ he says. ‘In Rwanda we take Islam from our prophet, from our Quran. Which says: if you want to, you can convert to Islam; if you don’t, that is your freedom. Nobody can touch that freedom.’


The Mufti wants to preserve an Islam that adheres to scripture, without the new politicised elements of sartorial — and therefore social — control. ‘I introduced a religious fatwa against the niqab in 2016,’ he says proudly. ‘We saw that niqab abroad, but in Rwanda we have stopped it. Everything you have to practice here must be mentioned in the Quran.’ There’s nothing Islamic, he says, about the niqab — and Rwandan Muslims, he believes, do not have to look radically different from the rest of the population.

Rwandan Islam has followed the Shafi’i school of Islamic thought, which differs greatly from the harsher Hanafi, found in Pakistan, and Hanbali, found in Saudi Arabia. To understand Islam, it’s crucial to understand these distinctions.

Rwanda’s Islam has preserved much of the moderate and pluralist spirit. That is not to say that the fundamentalists who prey on failed states haven’t tried to turn this Islam in their direction. After the genocide, Saudi Wahhabi forces began to circle. They opened schools, as they did in post-war Yugoslavia: the usual means of Wahhabist exportation.

The Mufti himself was trained in Libya by scholars in the Shafi’i tradition, and realised that this more liberal model of Islam needs muscular protection. ‘In Rwanda, we learned that the result of division is genocide. That’s why we have set up these systems. We don’t allow any kind of thinking which can enter our society and divide us. That is why we don’t allow anyone to come to our country and teach about Islam without consulting the Rwandan Muslim community.’

The Saudis aren’t used to being outsmarted in this way: most countries have a blind spot for infiltration of Wahhabism, especially if it comes wrapped in money. ‘We control every minbar [pulpit],’ says Hitimana. Today, no preacher can enter Rwanda and start preaching in any of the country’s 675 mosques. Instead, they go through an intense three-month period of academic and religious testing before being certified as a qualified cleric. Every sermon by every preacher is pre-approved by the Mufti and central powers at the Rwandan Muslim Council.

In Britain, there has been much talk about ‘preachers of hate’ whom the government has struggled to deport. In Rwanda, any deviation from Shafi’i principles and clerics are immediately barred, and their minbars shut down until they fall into line. Anti-Semitism is banned, the Mufti tells me, because ‘our basic Islam does not allow anyone to discriminate against other people.’ It’s often said that Islam’s problem is the lack of a hierarchy — no bishops, no excommunication — leaving it open to extremist infiltration. In Rwanda, there is a strict hierarchy, and it works.

Israel’s right to exist, he says, is defended in the Quran. ‘We have our land: Rwanda. God created Arabs, they have their land. He has created Pakistan, [he] has created Israel, and Jews must have their land. When you interpret the Quran — “ya bani Isra’il” — what does it mean?’ The children of Israel, I say. ‘Yes! He has named them for their nation, a name related to their land.’

I came here as part of a delegation from the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation and Visual History Archive. The idea was to hear from genocide survivors, and to document and learn from their testimony. I ended up learning about my own religion, and how liberal Islam — or, as millions of Muslims would put it, normal Islam — can flourish if the right protections are put in place by the right leaders. Protections enforced by Muslims themselves.

At a time when many European countries are struggling to protect both liberalism and religious tolerance, Rwanda’s achievement offers hope.


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