The power of a dangerous idea: From Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi to the Arab spring, faith is inspiring the new peaceful protest
The names Yahya Shurbaji and Ghiyath Matar might mean little to people outside Syria. Inside the country, however, they are considered heroes by many, having helped to inspire, organise and mobilise the non-violent protests against the despotic regime of Bashar al-Assad before being arrested, detained and, in the case of the 26-year-old Matar, tortured and killed in custody by Assad’s secret police in September.
In Daraya, the suburb of Damascus where they lived, Shurbaji and Matar pioneered the tactic of distributing roses, dates and bottles of water to young soldiers sent by the government to open fire on unarmed demonstrators. The former earned the sobriquet “the man with the roses”; Matar was nicknamed “Little Gandhi”.
What are the roots of this non-violence? In 1966, the Islamic scholar and philosopher Jawdat Said, born in Syria in 1931 and a graduate of al-Azhar University in Egypt, published a book called The Doctrine of the First Son of Adam: the Problem of Violence in the Islamic World. It was the first book to be published by a scholar associated with the modern Islamic movement that explicitly advocated a philosophy of non-violence. Said wrote his book as a counterblast to the writings of his contemporary Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian radical Islamist theorist who is today considered to be the ideological forefather of al-Qaeda and modern Muslim militancy.
The Doctrine of the First Son of Adam revolves around Quranic teachings on the subject of non-violence and, specifically, the story of Cain and Abel, sons of Adam, in which the latter refuses to defend himself against the former even though he ends up losing his life. The Quran tells the story of how the two sons of Adam presented a sacrifice to Allah:
It was accepted from one but not from the other. The latter said: “Be sure I will slay thee.” “Surely,” said the former, “Allah doth accept of the sacrifice of those who are righteous. If thou dost stretch thy hand against me, to slay me, it is not for me to stretch my hand against thee to slay thee: for I do fear Allah, the Cherisher of the worlds. For me, I intend to let thee draw on thyself my sin as well as thine, for thou wilt be among the Companions of the Fire and that is the reward of those who do wrong.”
When confronted with an aggressor, Said argued, Muslims should react “like Adam’s firstborn son, who did not defend himself against the attacks of his brother”. The non-violent conduct displayed by the God-fearing Abel is, in Said’s view, “a position to be aspired to by all mankind, and adhering to it is one of God’s commandments”.