A Critique of Religious Extremism
By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan
(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand)
According to a repot contained in the books of Hadith, once, during a battle, a Muslim received a grievous injury on his head. The next morning, the man needed to have a bath, but for him to do so was dangerous, for it could make his wound ever more severe. He turned to some of his fellow Muslims and asked them what he should do. They answered that since water was available he could not escape the rule of having a bath. He followed their instructions, but, as a result, his condition worsened and he died. When the Prophet Muhammad learned of this, he was extremely sad, and announced, ‘They have killed the man. May God destroy them.’
The issue of whether or not the wounded man was obliged, according to Islamic law, to have a bath or not was one that involved ijtihad or the application of reason on the sources of Islamic law. It is evident from this story that the Prophet was greatly angered at the decision that the men made. This indicates that making mistakes in ijtihad is excusable only to a certain extent. In ordinary circumstances, such mistakes might be forgiven, but in very sensitive matters, such as those that involve people’s life and death, it is better to abstain from offering any ijtihad-based opinion. To do so, and, further, to insist on one’s opinion, is inexcusable. It is an indication of the loss of faith.
The above mentioned hadith report concerns an error of ijtihad that involved damage to a single individual. Naturally, an error of this sort, but on a larger scale, such as that which causes harm to a large number of people, is even more unforgivable and much more serious.
If a Mufti gives a wrong fatwa in response to a query as to whether or not one should face in the direction of the Kaaba while bathing, there is no danger of this causing any damage to anyone’s life. But a wrong fatwa about whether or not Islamic laws require a badly injured person to bathe is of a different sort, for it can seriously endanger the person’s health. The two sorts of issues are not the same. In the first case, a person who makes a mistake in his ijtihad will be rewarded by God for his good intention in engaging in ijtihad, but a mistake made in the second case is an inexcusable crime. On issues on which the very fate and lives of individuals and communities crucially depend, it is incumbent on Muftis to remain silent till the very end. If, finally, they have to speak out, they should do so bearing in mind that they would have to be answerable for the opinion before God. This matter relates to the issue of violence and extremism as well.
In a hadith report attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, he is said to have advised his followers not to be harsh with regard to their own selves. Else, he said, they would be dealt harshly with. He added that a particular community was harsh on itself, and then God was also harsh with it. The remnants of that community, he said, were those who lived in churches and monasteries.
The extremism that this hadith report refers to is not related just to religion or a certain form of world-renouncing and extreme monasticism. Rather, it relates to all aspects of human life. It applies to all cases where the middle path is abandoned and replaced with extremism.
The extremist lives in his own world. He knows only what he believes and wants. He is like the person who imagines that a road is empty and drives his car at full-speed. Naturally, such a person can never be successful in achieving his goals. The key to success in this world is the middle path, the path of balance, which is the opposite of extremism. Extremism may be said to be an attitude or a life-style that is contrary to God’s plan of creation. Contrarily, following the balanced way or the middle-path is the means to live out one’s life constructively, and in accordance with that plan. Naturally, then, extremism has no room in Islam, if Islam is properly understood.
God dislikes extremism. Those who take to the extremist path finally end up making extremism part of their very understanding of religion. The generations that follow them then feel obliged to follow precisely that path, wrongly believing it to be mandated by God. They are made to believe that if they turn their backs on extremism they would be less committed to their religion, as they understand it, than their forebears were.
As in matters of religion, extremism with regard to other issues must also be avoided. Take, for instance, the case of the struggle for the political and economic rights of a community. For this purpose, there are, broadly, two ways of acting. One is peaceful struggle; the other is violent agitation. Peaceful struggle and activism is the best path. The violent or extremist path would only invite unnecessary suffering for the community. If it is presented as something mandated by religion, it will turn into a precedent that others will be tempted to follow, even if it does not produce the required results, because people might start believing that not adopting an extremist posture is tantamount to straying from the faith or that it is synonymous with cowardice.
Extremism, including religious extremism, indicates a profound blindness to reality and to existing opportunities. It indicates that one is ruled by emotion, instead of by reason. It indicates haste and impulsiveness, instead of far-sightedness and gradualism. It indicates a total disregard for one’s own or one’s community’s limits. It is analogous to a man who takes burning coals in his hand in order to gauge their heat, or one who uses his head as a hammer in order to break a boulder. Action of this sort clearly trespasses the set limits, and those who take to this path can never succeed in this world.
If properly understood, Islam is the very opposite of terrorism and has nothing to do with it. The word ‘Islam’ is derived from the root s-l-m, which means ‘peace’. Hence, Islam, correctly interpreted, is a religion of peace. Naturally, a religion that describes itself as a religion of peace can have no relation with terrorism, if that religion is interpreted in the right manner. In the Quran the Prophet Muhammad is referred to as rahmat al-il alamin, or ‘mercy unto the worlds’. He is thus a source of mercy for all of humankind, and not just Muslims alone. Naturally, then, his teachings can have no room for terrorism at all.
In a report recorded in the books of Hadith, it is said that every morning, before the fajr or morning prayer and after completing the tahajjud prayer, the Prophet Muhammad would beseech God, saying, ‘Oh Allah! I bear witness that all humans are brothers of each other.’ This being the case, how can anyone kill his innocent brethren? All men and women are brothers and sisters unto each other. Hence, they must have love and concern for the welfare of all. This is precisely what Islam, if correctly interpreted, requires of its followers.
According to another hadith report, the Prophet Muhammad is said to have declared, ‘All creatures are part of God’s family.’ This is a wonderful expression of true universalism. It clearly announces that all of humankind, irrespective of religion or community, belongs to the same family of God. In this way, this hadith report is a declaration of the slogan about the world being a global village which we are today so familiar with.
Given Islam’s clears teaching about all creatures being members of God’s family, it is ironical that some Muslims care nothing about killing innocent people, and that too in the name of Islam. This must be considered to be wholly un-Islamic. When conflicts arise between Muslims and other communities, violence is not the right approach, for it gives rise to terrorism. As the Quran instructs us, ‘Reconciliation is best’. This means that the proper way to solve conflict is not through violence, which leads to terrorism, but, rather, through peaceful discussion and dialogue. One must adopt constructive, not destructive, approaches to conflict resolution.
According to another hadith report, God gives in return for gentleness what He does not in the case of hard-heartedness. This report relates to the consequences of one’s behaviour or approach. If we have a dispute or conflict with someone, fighting him or her will not solve it. In contrast, the only way to do so is through peaceful dialogue and exchange of views. This is what Islam itself demands of us.
Islam, properly understood, does not teach us to hate others. To hate others can be said to be haram or forbidden in Islam. Let me cite an instance in this regard. The Prophet was born in Mecca, and it was there that he announced his prophethood. Thirteen years later, he shifted to Medina. There were numerous Jews living in Medina at that time. One day, he saw a funeral procession and stood up, as a sign of respect, as it passed. One of his followers pointed out that this was a funeral procession of a Jewish man. In other words, he indicated that the Prophet had stood up as the procession had passed despite the fact that the deceased was a Jew, not a Muslim. In reply, the Prophet responded, ‘Was he not a human being?’ That is to say, are not Jews also human beings? This clearly indicates that we have to respect everyone, in their capacity of being creatures of God, including Jews. This shows that terrorism has no place in Islam, if Islam is properly understood.
Terrorism can be defined as illegitimate violence to have one’s demands met. Therefore, those who label terrorism as a jihad are making a mockery of Islam. Jihad can only be declared by a regular government or state authority, not by ordinary citizens. Today, terrorism takes, broadly, two forms: proxy war and guerilla war. I can say with full confidence that both of these forms of terrorism are haram or forbidden in Islam. Proxy war is illegitimate in Islam because Islam requires that a declaration of war be explicitly made before war can be actually waged, while a proxy war, by definition is one that is unannounced and engaged in indirectly, by using local agents. Likewise, guerilla war is also forbidden in Islam, because such a war involves civilians taking up arms against an established government in the name of jihad. It cannot be considered as a legitimate jihad because the right to declare jihad, as I mentioned earlier, rests only with the state authorities.
Let me conclude this essay by reflecting on the on-going violence in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which some self-styled Islamist groups claim to be a legitimate Islamic jihad. The violence that continues to rage in the state is, clearly, a combination of proxy war and guerilla war, and so is absolutely haram or forbidden, according to Islam. People often complain that the media is being unfair by describing this terrorism in Kashmir as ‘Islamic terrorism’, thereby giving Islam a bad name. But, the question is, when people who call themselves Muslim are themselves engaging in terror in the name of Islam, by what other name should the media refer to this violence? It is for Muslims to desist from this un-Islamic violence and from giving Islam a bad name by claiming terrorism to be Islamically-legitimate jihad.
(This is a translation of a section in Maulana Wahiduddin Khan’s Urdu book Islam Aur Intiha Pasandi [‘Islam and Extremism’] [Positive Thinkers Forum, Bangalore, n.d., pp. 54-58]), plus, in slightly edited form, of an article by Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, titled ‘Islam Aur Dehshatgardi Ek Dusre Ki Zadd’ (‘Islam and Terrorism Are Polar Opposites’, in Farooq Argali (ed.) Islam Aur Dehshatgardi (‘Islam and Terrorism’, New Delhi: Farid Book Depot, 2003, pp. 85-88).
The Delhi-based Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, a noted Islamic scholar, is a prolific writer. For more details, see http://www.alrisala.org