Islam, Muslims and Extremism
By Maulana Waris Mazhari
(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand)
Critics claim that Islam conduces to, or explicitly preaches, extremism and mindless violence. Some radical Islamist movements, that are a product of local circumstances as well as certain international political developments, are undoubtedly engaged in extremism in the name of Islam. This is particularly unfortunate in that it gives Islam a bad image as well as provides ample ammunition to Islam’s critics. Lamentably, Muslim leaders, especially the ulema and other religious figures, are so enraged and offended by this unjustified criticism of Islam that they are simply not ready to admit that radical Islamists are indeed misusing the fair name of Islam to engage in extremism, which is readily apparent across the Muslim world and even elsewhere.
It is imperative, however, that serious and committed Muslim scholars and activists critique and condemn the politics of extremism in the name of Islam. What is the best way for them to do so, especially since these radical groups claim to base their ideology, politics, and practice on the Islamic scriptures?
No ideology or movement based on it can survive long if it is founded on extremism, because extremism is an un-natural method of seeking to achieve one’s goals. If extremism is the very basis of a movement, the movement is bound to fail in the long run as extremism inevitably leads to chaos, disruption and strife. In other words, extremism is its own negation and nemesis.
Islam places great stress on morality. In a hadith report recorded in the Muwatta of Imam Malik, the Prophet Muhammad is said to have declared: ‘I have been sent to the world to establish the pinnacle of morality.’ Accordingly, the Quran places great stress on social ethics, which includes perseverance, mercy, forgiveness, avoidance of conflict, justice, and benevolence. The Quran exhorts Muslims to be patient and steadfast and not to unnecessarily enter into conflict with others. It repeatedly calls upon Muslims to tolerate difficulties and things that they may dislike, and speaks of heaven as reward for those who remain steadfast.
The bases of non-violence are patience, steadfastness, and tolerance. If steadfastness and patience are abandoned, violence takes over. That is why, according to a hadith report, the Prophet is said to have commented that when faced with oppression and injustice, to wait for succor is the best form of worship. The Prophet was ordered by God to seek to avoid conflict, as far as possible, with his enemies. The Quran and the Hadith are replete with exhortations addressed to the Muslims to abide by justice and goodness in relations with others. Thus, for instance, the Quran says:
‘Nor can goodness and evil be equal. Repel [evil] with what is better: then will he between whom and you was hatred become as it were your friend and intimate. And no one will be granted such goodness except those who exercise patience and self-restraint—none but persons of the greatest good fortune’ (41:34-35).
The Quran instructs the Prophet to be soft and kind towards others thus:
‘It is part of the mercy of God that you deal gently with them. Were you severe or harsh-hearted, they would have broken away from about you: so pass over [their faults], and ask for [God’s] forgiveness for them’ (3:159).
The Prophet always chose gentleness over harshness, as is apparent from numerous references in the books of Hadith and history. For instance, instead of wishing him ‘peace be unto you’ (asalam aleikum) many Jews would say to him ‘death be unto you’ (as-samu aleikum). Once, angered by this, the Prophet’s wife Ayesha said to them, ‘The curse and anger of God be upon you.’ At once the Prophet corrected his wife and said, ‘O Ayesha! God is gentle and loves gentleness, and He gives to gentleness what He does not to harshness’.
The Prophet always sought to avoid confrontation, if that were at all possible, no matter how crucial the issue, even if it concerned the basic foundations of Islam. Thus, for instance, in his time the Ka‘aba was not structured on the same pattern as Abraham had originally set it, but, in order to avoid confrontation, the Prophet did not rectify it. Likewise, the Prophet had to suffer immense persecution in Mecca in the first thirteen years of his prophethood, but yet he never raised a finger against his opponents. Then, after he migrated to Mecca, he entered into a peace treaty with the Jews and pagans of that town.
Compared to medieval Europe, relations between different communities were far less strained in several parts of the medieval Muslim world. The influence of Islamic teachings was undoubtedly a major factor for this. Thus, in Muslim Spain the Jews prospered, economically as well as intellectually. When the Muslims lost control of Spain in the late fifteenth century, both the Spanish Muslims and Jews were subjected to horrendous persecution by the Church and the Christians. At this time it was the Muslim Ottoman Empire that came to the rescue of the Spanish Jews, who sought refuge in different parts of that empire. Even such a brazen advocate of American imperialism as the Jewish scholar Bernard Lewis has acknowledged this fact.
However, and despite this tradition of which Muslims can justly be proud, the fact of extremist thinking in some influential Muslim circles today cannot be denied. Certain local factors as well as international political developments have given this tendency a great fillip, but this should not be used as an excuse to deny the existence of this tendency or to deny the role of Muslims themselves in fomenting strife and conflict or to place the blame for this lamentable state of affairs entirely on others.
Today, certain radical groups who call themselves ‘Islamic’ are playing havoc with the lives of innocent people, non-Muslims as well as Muslims. They are engaged in thoroughly uncalled-for violent acts in the name of Islam while considering themselves ‘lovers of Islam’. They seek justification for their actions in Islam itself. It is thus very natural that many non-Muslims, and even some Muslims as well, are bound to develop negative feelings, even revulsion, for Islam based on the wrong claims and heinous acts of these radical self-styled ‘Islamic’ groups.
Among the various factors for the emergence of violence in the name of Islam is what I consider the very serious carelessness of the Muslims themselves. Here I wish to deal with two aspects of this question, the first of which relates to the matters internal to the Muslims, and the second which relates to relations between Muslims and others.
Muslims have always been divided on the basis of sectarian affiliation. This is not a new phenomenon. These various sects, which number in their dozens, are divided on the basis of some minor issues, but mostly their differences relate to different claims about the past. These latter have become a major source of heated contestation and strife among Muslims today. Sometimes, this even leads to killings on a massive scale, as happens occasionally in countries like Pakistan. We must admit that many Muslims simply have no tolerance for Muslims of other sects, leave alone for people of other religions. Lamentably, Muslim religious leaders have made no serious efforts to unite Muslims, who are miserably divided against each other on the basis of sect and jama‘at. They have done precious little to end sectarian hatred and strife, which are causing such damage to Muslims in general.
The generally pathetic status of Muslims at the global level has led to pervasive and widespread despondency and the perception of being oppressed by others. In turn, this has led to emotionally surcharged feelings of revenge, which underlies the appeal of what is called ‘Islamic awakening’ among large sections of the Muslim youth. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that much of what passes of as such ‘Islamic awakening’ is simply a expression of this desire for revenge for the oppression that Muslims in different parts of the world have suffered or perceive themselves as having suffered. In a very simplistic manner, its advocates have sought to convince other Muslims that this ‘Islamic awakening’ is tantamount to, or synonymous with, reviving the ‘Golden Age’ of Islam and the revolutionary traditions of the pious predecessors. Muslim scholars and others who dare to critique their claims are branded as ignorant about Islam and even as agents of the West.
Consuming even a little alcohol is prohibited in Islam because this might well lead to addiction. Likewise, Islam forbids even the slightest form of extremism because it can lead to people becoming addicted to it. The Prophet Muhammad is said to have declared that if even a bit of something is addictive it is forbidden or haram in Islam. This is a very meaningful statement. Relating it to the present-day phenomenon of extremism and violence, one can confidently assert that all forms of extremism and uncalled-for violence, no matter how slight, are sternly forbidden in Islam. This issue can be further understood in the light of another instance. Some ulema have issued fatwas and statements allowing for Muslims to engage in suicide bombings in the particular context of occupied Palestine, although suicide is considered wholly forbidden or haram in Islam. However, allowing for suicide bombings in the case of Palestine rapidly led to some Muslim groups taking to, and considering, suicide bombings to be the most effective means of taking on their opponents. Some radical so-called Islamists now boast that while the West has atom bombs, they have an even more deadly weapon in their arsenal—human bombs. And so this phenomenon of suicide bombings has rapidly spread from the narrow confines of Palestine, where they were deployed to target the Zionist oppressors, to various other parts of the world, including Muslim countries, where, such as in Pakistan, they have now become an almost daily occurrence, causing the death of thousands of innocent Muslims themselves and enormous destruction, including of schools and even of Islamic institutions.
Extremism is a bottled-up genie, which, once allowed out of the bottle, refuses to go back again. It has now become imperative for Muslim religious and political leaders and activists to seek to push back this genie into its bottle. They must openly and explicitly condemn the chaos and strife that is being caused in various parts of the world in the name of jihad. It is not enough, as is today generally the case, for our leaders to simply claim that Islam is a religion of peace and that it is opposed to terrorism. These sort of abstract and general statements are clearly insufficient to make any dent whatsoever in the prevailing situation. For this to happen, our leaders must readily denounce, in very clear and explicit terms and by specifically mentioning their names, the organizations, movements and individuals that are promoting what the Quran condemns as ‘strife in the world’ (fasad fil- arz) in the name of jihad. They must clearly declare that such elements are not the mujahids they claim to be, but that, in fact, they are rebels. In this way, one hopes, the popular support that such elements who spread chaos in the name of jihad will decline and they can be socially ostracized.
Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.