Issues of moderation and extremism in Islam

Naturally, the initial years in Mecca were the times when the religion was being gradually revealed and being solidified.

Mar 11, 2016

Some Muslim thinkers say that the teachings of the prophet during his ‘Meccan years’ are universal and those Quranic verses revealed to him during that era, too, are universal. They have overarching importance on the Medinan verses which were contextual in nature. How do you evaluate their stand?

Naturally, the initial years in Mecca were the times when the religion was being gradually revealed and being solidified. The verses revealed there were the essential, foundational and constitutive verses of the Quran that constitute Islam, that lay down the foundation of Islam. Then when Muslims faced attacks and had to take refuge in other cities, still pursued by their die-hard enemies, God started giving them instructions how to face these new contextual situations. So, clearly, any sincere Muslim would set more store by the original and constitutive, foundational verses of the Quran and follow them and, not worry if some other verses that came during the war contradicted them.

We must restore primacy to our Meccan verses, by reorganising Quranic verses in a meaningful way, chronologically, in accordance with their date and time of arrival. Had the Bedouins of Arabia been educated people, they would have done the same. But they had no concept of books and compilation of verses and editing. Also, possibly, due to the circumstances of the last few years of the Prophet’s life and the challenges ahead, they may have developed a sense of Islam being more of a political ideology and pushed behind the fact that the Prophet was a mystic to begin with and the job of prophethood had come to him as a reward for deep mystical practices in trying circumstances.

How should one understand those literal Quranic verses that came to guide the Prophet Muhammad during wars that are imposed on him. If those verses are very much contextual and not universal in nature, what is the status of those verses today? Are they not interpreted to feed intolerant ideology? Are they considered to be abrogated by the more universal ones?

Some of the Medinan verses, too, talk of compassion and avoiding excess in war, and being kind to prisoners and cattle and trees and crops and justice to people whose area Muslim warriors are passing through. They also talk of pluralism, of fighting to safeguard worship places of all other religions. So these verses can still be considered of universal, eternal significance, as they are of a piece with the original Meccan Quran.

However, verses that are of violent, xenophobic, intolerant, exclusivist, hateful nature, should be treated merely as of historical nature. Muslims will need to evolve a consensus around this. It will take time, but first the principle should be agreed upon and the process should begin. We should be able to say that these verses do not apply to us any more in the present times. How do you view the issues of moderation and extremism in Islam? You often call for moderation, what precisely do you mean?

One of the key instructions of God and the Prophet was moderation in matters of religion: God said in the Quran, “O People of Scripture! Do not go to extremes in your religion.” (al-Nisa’ (Women), 4:171 & al-Ma’idah (The Tablespread), 5:80) And the Prophet said repeatedly: “Beware of extremism in religion, for it destroyed those before you.” (Ahmad (nos. 1851 & 3248), Nasa’i, Ibn Majah, Hakim & others - cf. Sahih al-Jami’ al-Saghir of M.N. al- Albani, no. 2680 and Silsilah al-Ahadith al-Sahihah of M.N. al-Albani, no. 1283.)

But extremism has been endemic in Islam, present almost from the beginning of Islamic history. Muslims fought among themselves and quite vehemently even before the collection of Hadith and codification of Syariah, over a hundred to upto 300 years after the demise of the Prophet (pbuh), but they now consider them divine. Muslims have still not found an antidote to militant verses in the Quran that are now available to anyone with access to internet. Considering all verses of Quran as providing eternal guidance undermines the universality of essential, constitutive verses. Calling Hadith and Syariah divinely inspired and fundamental elements of Islamic faith is irrational and, to me, a sign of extremism. Saying that it is a Muslim’s primary religious duty to help establish God’s sovereignty on earth and impose “divine” Syariah Laws is only a way to deepen extremism which goes against the basic tenets of Islam. The idea of Jihad against kuffar and hijrat (emigration) to the so-called Islamic State is preposterous at a time when millions of Muslims are marching almost barefoot to Europe, the socalled DarulHarb, seeking refuge.

Muslims will just have to abandon the generally accepted current theology that leads to violence and supremacism and evolve a new theology, a coherent theology of peace and pluralism, consistent in all respects with the teachings of Islam, and suitable for contemporary and future societies. We will need to revisit all our literature, even popular fiction and romance, and explain to our youth that we are living in a multicultural, multi-religious world today where self-segregation is just not viable. Even Saudi Arabia, which teaches in its schools the worst forms of intolerance, xenophobia, supremacism and exclusivism, has to deal with the world and, of course, with all religious communities. We received very good advice from Pope Francis recently which is consistent with several verses in the Quran. Find the best interpretation of Qur’anic verses, not just read it literally.

ISIS may be militarily defeated tomorrow and even go out of existence. But this will not solve the problem of Muslim radicalisation. If our madrasas and educational institutions continue to prepare the ground for self-segregation and militancy, expounding the current theology, mixed with narratives of victimhood and marginalisation, Islam will continue to be hobbled, Muslims will continue to struggle to fit in the way of life in the contemporary world.

Moderate, progressive Muslims must urgently evolve and propagate an alternative theology of peace and pluralism while refuting the theology of violence and supremacism.

Unfortunately, the task is not so easy. For hundreds of years now, major Muslim theologians have been engaged in creating a coherent theology of intolerance and violence in order to expand the Islamic reach. They have conclusively made the lower form of Jihad, i.e., warfare, compulsory for all able-bodied Muslims.

Luminaries of Islam have established a theology which primarily says that Islam must conquer the world and it is the religious duty of all Muslims to strive towards that goal and contribute to it in whatever way they can. Clearly this is no longer just a Muslim concern. The world must come together to defeat extremism in Islamic theology. As God and the Prophet (pbuh) have repeatedly exhorted, we Muslims should consistently strive towards moderation in all respects. The Prophet called us an ummat-e-wast, a balanced, centrist, moderate community; let us strive to meet this goal of moderation in every respect.

What are the comprehensive reforms you propose to modernise Islamic religious education?
This is the most important subject with far-reaching consequences. However, the answer cannot come in an interview like this. An entire overhaul of our educational system is required. But, first of all, we will have to set some ground rules. First of all, what is this education for? You know the madrasa students who used to come for our Education-For Peace Projects on identity used to sing songs like zindagishuruhotihaiqabrmein, and Babri masjid wahinbanayeige. (Life begins in the grave, and we will rebuild the Babri mosque at the same spot.” We will first need to decide if these are the kind of kids we want to produce who can be easy prey to terror ideologues as happened in Pakistan. After all, Taliban of Pakistan are literally students of madrasas. Or do we want to produce the kind of students who will go on to become great Sufi masters, philosophers, scientists, doctors, engineers, writers, as they did in the five-century-long golden era of Islam, before the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258? This is nothing less than an existential question for us. It can only be resolved through free brainstorming on our forum. Once we have developed a consensus, we can take the matter forward.--

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