By Monia Ghanmi
Many Tunisians are celebrating the re-opening of Zitouna Mosque’s Scientific Commission headquarters after more than 50 years of closure.
Students flocked to the school on April 3rd to pursue religious education in an environment reportedly free from extremism or exaggeration. Many subjects, such as Sharia law, the biography of the Prophet, and morals and creed, are expected to be taught.
“Four hundred out of a total of 5,000 mosques in the country are now under Salafist control,” said Minister of Religious Affairs Noureddine Khadami. “If we succeed in establishing sound Sharia sciences, we will ensure that the country will be fine, with citizenship realised and human rights respected,” he said.
The decision to re-open the mosque comes as part of a plan aimed at countering religious extremism led by Salafists since Tunisia’s revolution last year.
A Tunis court on March 19th ruled to allow the revival of teaching at Zitouna Mosque after hearing arguments from representatives of the Association of Zitouna Mosque Alumni, the Maghreb Centre for Unity and Development and the Tunisian Association for the Preservation of Mosques.
Zitouna Mosque is one of the most prominent moderate Islamic landmarks in the Muslim world and has been a symbol of tolerance, rejection of violence, and women’s rights. Among those who have professed these liberal Muslim values from within its walls are Tahar Ben Achour, Tahar Haddad and Ibn Khaldoun.
“Thank God that the historical injustice that has been imposed on this mosque was removed at exactly the right time,” said Aymen Rifaài, a student. “This will help disseminate Tunisia’s religious culture which is characterised by moderation, openness and rejection of extremism among all Tunisians – especially young people.”
Another student, Rawya Mechi, said that her knowledge of “religious culture is limited because of the secular trends of the former regime, which was keen on banning religious lessons”. She now hopes to make up for what has been missing.
Likewise, Ala Chelli said that restoring religious teaching to Zitouna Mosque was important to counter religious extremism and interpretations that are inconsistent with today’s Tunisian society.
“It will help spread moderation and openness among young people,” he said. “It will also be an impregnable barrier in the face of extremist attempts led by extremist religious groups. It’s a new victory for Tunisia’s Islam, which is the Islam of reason, openness and peaceful coexistence.”
In Khadami’s view, “Mosques shouldn’t be used as a political forum, but as a place where imams preach tolerance and respect of others.”
Khadami recommends vigilance to protect the sanctity of Tunisian mosques in the future.
“We will pay attention to the appointment of imams,” he said. “From now on, they have to have a certificate of competency, preferably in Islamic fiqh. They should have general knowledge of humanities, openness to other religions, and should be known for following a strict code of ethics.”