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franciscan - September 2003

The Society of Saint Francis, 2003

Does Extremism have Islamic Legitimacy?

by Asaf Hussain

Since the tragedy which occurred in the USA in September 2001, global concern has focussed on Islam, to discover whether Islam is or is not related to terrorism.  The concern was legitimate but the fact should be stated from the outset:  Islam is related neither to terrorism nor to extremism.  So why was such an assumption made?

The assumption was made for at least two reasons.  First, because all those who bombed the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001 were Muslim.  Second, as later investigations revealed, because the organization which instigated this atrocious act was Al Qaeda - a fundamentalist organization led by another Muslim, Mr Bin Laden.  It was therefore assumed by many observers that Islam had something to do with it.  But such an assumption was jumping to the wrong conclusion, as will be explained.

The term "fundamentalism" applied here is a misnomer.  It can refer to any believer of any faith going back to the fundamentals of their faith.  The problem lies in the interpretation of those fundamentals.  So the question arises:  would Islam legitimate terrorism?  Was such an interpretation correct?

A correct interpretation must follow certain criteria.  Two Islamic criteria are:  First, it must have Quranic legitimation and not emanate from any other source.  Many quoted the Quran, but were the scriptures correctly used?  One of the simplest means pseudo-fundamentalists have is to pick a verse and state it out of context to suit their purpose.  But there may well be another verse which imposes constraints upon it; therefore cross referencing is essential.  Second, any interpretation should follow the major principles of the Quran, about which there is no debate, since this is a strong injunction.

One such principle is that Islam does not allow the killing of innocent persons.  Further, if in any action of war an innocent person is killed by accident or unintentionally, that is another matter.  Here the principle of Niya (intention) is absolute.  In the 9/11 tragedy the premeditated intention was to kill innocent people.  That alone puts 9/11 beyond the pale of Islam and makes it a terrorist action.  Then, too, Islam believes in Adl (absolute justice), so interpretation involving action in regard to human beings must be free of prejudice.  Interpretations of the faith have to be judged according to such absolute principles.

There were, of course, many reasons why Muslims had been fooled into the legitimacy of such actions.  Initially, there had been no priesthood in Islam.  But priesthood became a profession because mosques needed prayer-leaders and a problem arose for Islam as the system became institutionalised.  This was developed by another institution itself not legitimated in Islam, namely Sultanism (monarchy). Sultanism appeared on the Islamic scene after the death of the prophet Muhammad and his four companions (known as the Khalifa al-Rashidun - the rightly guided ones) who succeded him over the Islamic state.  After that, the Ummayyad dynasty took over; and since then both the Sultans and the priests (created to legitimise Sultanism) have had a long history of manipulation and violation of Islamic principles.

Islam originally recognised only the authority of the scholars (Alims derived from Ulema) and these were not clergy.  Their pursuit was Ilm (knowledge).  The acquisition of knowledge is sanctioned in the Quran and refers not only to religious knowledge but to other fields.  This is because Islam pays equal weight to both Din (religion) and Dunya (the world). But the institutional clergy ignored Dunya and were out of touch with global socio-political realities.  It was not surprising that the Shaykh al-Islams (priests) appointed by the Sultans spread Jahilliyyah (ignorance) in the Muslim world, reflecting the contemporary condition there.  The spread of Jahilliyyah was further reinforced by following Taqlid (ways of the past) and not Ijtihad (independent reasoning) which Islam advocates.

Nor is it surprising that the contemporary Muslim world does not produce knowledge as it did from the 8th to the 14th century, which was known as the golden period of Muslim history. In those times, anyone who would reflect the true Alim (scholar) was like Ibn Rushd (known as Averroes) 1126-1198 who, born in Cordoba, was an Islamic judge by profession and also a competent physician and philosopher.  His commentary on Aristotle was read for 500 years in Europe.  But such Alims do not exist in the contemporary Muslim world.

Some Muslims, consequently, became fundamentalists going back to the fundamentals of Islam, because the contemporary Muslim world was bereft of knowledge and the priests had created so much confusion resulting in the many contradictions.  The whole Muslim world was suffering an identity crisis, not knowing how to define who was a Muslim, while Muslims labeled each other Munafiqs (hypocrites) etc.

Fundamentalists assert that their interpretations possess the sole truth and that all others are false.  When Muslims had taken this stance, they easily slipped into extremism.  The result was that terrorism emerged in the name of Islam.  In fundamentalist interpretations, dogmatism becomes the hallmark;  in extremism, violence is its hallmark.  Both have debased Islam.

So many different false interpretations existed that they all became sects with followings.  Sectarianism destroyed the unity of Islam emanating from its concept of the Ummah (community of believers).  This is a contradiction in a religion which believes in One God, One Prophet and One Quran.  In the 18th century Abd al-Wahhab of Saudi Arabia, 1703-1791, created another sect which came to be known as Wahhabism.  This made for further schism, not only against the Shiites but among the Sunnis themselves.

Let me illustrate how this schism was brought about.  The Sunnis emphasized the cultivation of the inner depths of Islam in terms of Ishaq (spiritual love) of Allah.  Wahhabism placed emphasis on the Taqwa (fear) of God.  Wahhabi influence spread to South Asia and influenced other sects like Deobandis, Ahl-e-Hadith etc.  In the Middle East it had influenced other sects and their followers were known as Salafis.  The important point to be noted here is that such sectarian interpretations had replaced mainstream Islam which believed, as stated above, in One God, One Prophet and One Quran, with its ideal of unity - One Community.

Wahhabism also gave its own interpretation to major Islamic concepts like Jihad (struggle), which could mean striving for good things; and defined it (Jihad) with one meaning only, that is, killing, even of innocent Muslims and non-Muslims. It labelled the latter as Kaffirs and justified terrorism.

Islam had a very clear cut basic structure.  First, every Muslim must have Iman (faith). Iman defines a Muslim's relation with Allah on a vertical level which comprises the five pillars; namely, Shahada (belief in One Allah); Salah (prayers); Sawm (fasting); Zakat (alms giving) and Hajj (pilgrimage).  But the vertical dimension must lead to the horizontal levels in the arena of human existence.  Iman must lead to Amal (Islamic action).  This was the basic paradigm of Islam.

So, secondly, what is the nature of the action?  It is to establish the Ummah (the Community of Muslims) which Sectarianism destroyed.  And thirdly, once the community of believers is established, what is its first mandate?  It is to establish Adl (Justice) in society.  Lastly, if Adl was not established there are many ways to implement it, for instance, through Jihad (struggle) which does not have to use violence or terrorism.  But the meaning of Jihad, as stated above, has been distorted by the Fundamentalists.  Instead of directing Jihad towards the pursuit of Ilm (knowledge), eradication of poverty, helping the old, living in harmony with other communities and through knowledge making global contribution to the world, Jihad became a permission to kill those holding views different from the Fundamentalists themselves.

This brief exposition shows Islam as a religion of Salam (peace) and Ishaq (love) - of God and, by extension, of His creation.  Because the Sects have hijacked these principles, Islam has been equated with extremism. f

Asaf Hussain teaches at the Institute for the Study of Indo-Pakistan relations and is currently engaged in the study of Islamic Fundamentalism.

His books Islamic Fundamentalism in Britain and Islamic Fundamentalism in Pakistan are about to be published.


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