Islam: Moderation Versus Extremism
By Maulana Waris Mazhari
(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand)
Islam is a religion of moderation. It stands for the middle-path. It opposes every form of excess and extremism. Its principles and laws are based on a natural system of balance, appealing across cultural, ethnic and geographical boundaries. Some commandments of the Quran and the Prophet’s practice on the same issues appear, on the face of it, to be, in some cases, particularly forceful, and, in other cases, unexpectedly soft and flexible. This is because these Quranic verses and Hadith statements have their own particular background and context, addressing particular persons or groups. This is in accordance with the wisdom and demands of the Islamic missionary imperative and the needs of the law. As the noted jurist Allama Shatibi notes in his book Al- Moafaqat:
‘When you ponder on the principles of the shariah you will find that they stand for moderation. If you perceive them as leaning towards a certain extreme, you should know that this is in opposition to another existing or expected extreme. Thus, generally speaking, the aspect of forceful stressing [in some principles of the shariah] is related to the need for warning, or in order to instill fear, with regard to those people whose religion is faulty or who are lax in matters of religion. [On the other hand] is the aspect that inclines to grace, flexibility and hope, which is with regard to those who are overwhelmed by extremes and fears [in matters of religion]’ (Al-Moafaqat: 167/3).
The Quran refers to those who truly follow Islam as the ummat-e wasat or ‘the community of the middle-path’. As the Quran puts it, ‘Thus, have We made of you an ummat justly balanced, that ye might be witnesses over the nations, and the Messenger a witness over yourselves’ (2:143). Numerous Quranic commentators have interpreted the term ummat-e wasat to mean ‘the moderate community’ (ummat-e muatadal).
The Quran and the Hadith very clearly and explicitly warn against extremism in matters of religion. They refer to extremism by such terms as ghulu, tanattu’ and tashaddud. In the Quran God says, ‘Do not commit excess in your religion.’ According to a report in the Sahih Ibn Majah, the Prophet Muhammad is said to have remarked ‘O People! Save yourselves from excess in religion, because earlier communities were destroyed […] due to excess in religion’ A similar hadith report is contained in the Sahih Muslim. Further, the Prophet is quoted as having said, ‘Do not be harsh unto your own selves or else this harshness will be made binding on you. A certain group enforced such harshness upon itself. The remnants of this group are [now to be found] in churches and monasteries’.
Instead of harshness and extremism, the Prophet enjoined moderation on his followers. As he put it, ‘Adopt the path of moderation’ (aleikum hadiyan qasidan), repeating this sentence three times to stress his point very clearly, after which he added, ‘He who adopts the path of extremism will be subdued.’ This hadith is contained in the Sahih al-Bukhari. In his own life the Prophet himself always followed the middle-path. He is said to have declared, ‘Adopt the path of moderation [and] you will reach your destination.’
Extremism can take different forms, but all of them entail crossing or trespassing the acceptable boundaries or limits—irrespective of whether this is in matters of religion or in any other affair. On the occasion of his farewell pilgrimage the Prophet asked his companion Abdullah Ibn Abbas to collect some stones in order to pelt the devil at Mina. The latter selected small stones and gave them to the Prophet. Taking the stones from him, the Prophet said, ‘Yes, this sort of stones. You should save yourself from extremism in religion.’ From this incident one can gauge how, using this very small example, the Prophet wanted to warn his followers to abstain from extremism in religious matters—so much so that he advised his companion to use small, not massive, stones for the ritual.
Extremism in religious matters is closely and inextricably linked to the personal and social conditions and contexts of those who articulate or uphold such understandings of their faith. A person who is immoderate in his personal and social life is most likely to be immoderate or extreme in his religious views. The religious or intellectual perception of an individual is deeply influenced by his own actions and behaviour patterns. This is why the Quran and the Hadith place such stress on the proper training of a person’s personality so that he develops a balanced and moderate character that is reflected in all aspects of his life.
Once, when the Prophet Muhammad learned that some people had decided to fast continuously, to abstain from marriage, to give up eating meat in order to control their lust, or to renounce sleeping on beds as part of their worship he was so enraged that his face turned red. Then, providing them his own example, he advised these people to adopt a moderate lifestyle and thereby seek to acquire God’s acceptance. This suggests that a moderate personality, one that Islam seeks to develop, leads one to seek to fulfil the rights of God and of human beings, including of one’s own self. Thus, the Prophet declared, in a hadith contained in the Sahih al-Bukhari, ‘Your body also has rights over you. Your Lord also has rights over you. Your guest also has rights over you. Your wife and children also have rights over you. That is why you should fulfill the rights of the Lord of the rights.’
Basic Factors for Extremism in Matters of Religion
A basic factor for excess and extremism in the name of religion is a literal interpretation of religious sources, plus what can be called exaggerated egoism. A person or community that has a strong enmity with another person or community is often led to a form of bloated egoism, which is a terrible disease, that goads it to seek to destroy or dominate the other person or community. For this purpose this person or group takes the help of its religious traditions, texts and sources, interpreting them in order to serve this agenda and to create hatred against the ‘other’. This has also happened many times in the Muslim case, when such individuals and groups have upheld a very literalist interpretation of certain Quranic verses and hadith narrations that suit their mentality and purpose, while conveniently ignoring other Quranic verses and hadith reports that elaborate on and clarify the ones that they focus on. In this way, they have sought to project their own literalist interpretations as normative, seeking to rally people behind them.
Another basis for extremism is the tendency to project minor details of religious law as foundational pillars of the faith and to insist that people must abide by these at all times. The ongoing sectarian strife among Muslims today, as in the past, is, in a sense, a result of this narrow-minded approach. The chaos that it has created in Muslim society has further emboldened elements who thrive on creating strife in the name of Islam. It has also greatly heightened radicalism and intolerance in Muslim societies.
One crucial aspect in this regard is the marked tendency to ignore the spirit of Islam and the higher aims or purposes of the shariah (maqasid-e shariah). Islam, the Prophet is said to have remarked, is an easy religion (al-dino yusrun). It has lifted from us burdens that we cannot bear. The Quran explicitly states, ‘On no soul doth Allah place a burden greater than it can bear’ (2: 286). It is an accepted principle of Islamic jurisprudence that with change of place and time certain commandments of the shariah must also correspondingly change. The shariah, in fact, facilitates ease if in a certain matter difficulty arises. This is the meaning of the fiqh principle al-mashaqattu tajlebo al-tasir. This principle is a central aspect of Islamic jurisprudence. Ignoring this principle can lead to the religion of ease turning into a religion of difficulty and making it appear as burdensome and problematic for people. In turn, this provides further ammunition to the opponents of Islam. It also leads to increasing irreligiousness or distance from religion among many Muslims themselves, providing arguments or excuses for those who are in any case lax in religious matters.
A major issue, the ignoring of which has led to considerable strife and conflict in the name of Islam, is the principle of gradualism in Islam. The deviations that are apparent in numerous Islamic missionary and revivalist movements is often precisely because of ignoring this principle. The case of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan is an apt example in this regard. The Taliban were able to establish a government in Afghanistan for a while, but, because they adopted an extreme position on minor issues of the details of the shariah and because they ignored the Islamic principle of gradualism in seeking to establish an Islamic society, they soon degenerated into a ‘danger—not just to non-Muslims but also to many Muslims themselves. Similar movements in countries such as Egypt and Algeria met with the same fate, and for precisely the same reason, because of which their activists had to suffer long spells of imprisonment and torture.
A Classical Example of Extremism in Religion: The Khawarij and Other Such Groups
Despite Islam’s stress on moderation and the middle-path there have been, since earliest times, numerous individuals and groups among Muslims who have taken to excess and extremism in religious matters. This led to considerable chaos and bloodshed among Muslims, giving Islam a bad name. The underlying causes of such tendencies were mostly political, but Islam was used as a means to justify their ideology and actions. Throughout Muslim history, Islam has been marshaled or appealed in order to seek legitimacy for a range of social movements, and in many such cases Islam has been wrongly deployed and incorrectly interpreted to suit various conflicting political agendas.
The first two or three centuries after the demise of the Prophet witnessed the emergence of a bewildering number of movements and groups, each of which claimed Islamic legitimacy for itself, the most prominent being the Khawarij (or Kharajites), the Mutzalities, the Qadriya, the Murjiya, and so on. All of these were decidedly extreme and imbalanced in terms of ideology and interpretation of Islamic sources. Some of them regarded as kafirs those Muslims who committed heinous sins, while others regarded such sins as having no bearing at all on one’s faith. Some of them believed that human actions were wholly determined or predestined by God. Others claimed that humans were fully autonomous.
Nature, however, abhors extremism. So does humanity in general, as well as every pro-human religion. This is why all these extremist groups soon became extinct, and today have no traces left. Among these groups the most extreme were the Khawarij. They appeared to be very pious Muslims, giving great stress to the externals of worship, eating, appearance and so on. They claimed that their ideology was based on the Quran, and for every matter they sought to provide Quranic sanction. Because of this, many simple-minded people were taken in by their claims. However, their ideological deviation was extreme, and they considered almost all other Muslims as kafirs and even apostates, whose blood, they believed, deserved to be shed. Imam Ali very clearly indicated their faulty method of reasoning and their gross misinterpretation of Islamic teachings. The Khawarij, as indicated above, claimed to base their ideology on the Quran, but with regard to this claim Imam Ali very rightly pointed out that, ‘The Quran is the Word of God, but it speaks through the mouths of human beings.’ The general Muslim society could not tolerate the extremism of the Khawarij, and so this movement soon came to an end.
A Contemporary Case of Extremism in Religion: Al-Qaida and Similar Groups
The extremism that is a marked feature of several present-day Islamist revivalist movements bears a clear similarity to that characteristic of numerous extremist groups of the past, particularly the Khawarij. They share, in many senses, a common ideological bent and even methods of operation. To illustrate this, consider the fact that the Khawarij based their ideology on, among others, a literalist and narrow perception of the following Quranic verse:
If any do fail to judge by (the light of) what Allah hath revealed, they are (no better than) Unbelievers (5:44).
The Islamist movements that emerged in the early twentieth century and after adopted a very literalist stance with regard to this verse, using it to go so far as to declare proponents of democracy as kafirs. A key Islamist ideologue who propagated such an extremist stance was the Egyptian Syed Qutb, who repeated this claim in many of his books, appearing to suggest that Muslims who supported democracy believed that God’s laws were subordinate to those of their own countries. The problem arose because of Qutb’s literalist interpretation of this Quranic verse, an interpretation that obviously comes into contradiction with another Quranic verse, which says, ‘On no soul doth Allah Place a burden greater than it can bear’ (2:286). If this former verse is addressed to Muslims in general it would imply that they must struggle to convert the entire world into dar al-islam or the ‘abode of Islam’, but this is neither possible nor in accordance with God’s will.
Extremism and excess in religion have now become a prominent feature of many contemporary Islamic groups and movements. Sectarianism, a form of such extremism, abounds unchallenged, and is reflected in the corpus of writings that these movements have produced, each branding other Islamic groups as irreligious, deviant or even as infidels. One can cite very few instances of different Islamic groups working together—and these few are mainly political, their objective being political gain of some sort. Take, for instance, the case of Islamic groups in India. The Indian Barelvis explicitly declare the Deobandis to be kafirs and deviants. Likewise, most Deobandis consider the Shias to be infidels. But when it comes to seeking political benefits from the government or to staging demonstrations in the streets on issues relating to Muslims these groups come together for a few hours. For some time now, the Vice-President of the Deobandi-dominated All-India Muslim Personal Law Board has been a noted Shia scholar. In actual fact, however, all this is no unity at all. Rather, it is simply another form of hypocrisy. If these groups really want to promote intra-Muslim unity, they should organize a grand meeting of their leaders and unanimously pass a declaration or perhaps even a fatwa declaring that they consider each other as Muslims not just for political purposes but also in matters of religion. They should jointly denounce and rescind the hundreds of fatwas that have been so far issued by each of these groups declaring the others as kafirs. However—and not surprisingly—nothing of the sort has happened to date. If this is how they relate to their co-religionists (albeit of different sects), one shudders to imagine how they will deal with people of other religions!
In our religious circles, in our madrasas and so on great stress is given in the name of Islam to the externals of Muslim identity, on the keeping of the beard, on wearing a cap or donning a burqa, on avoiding imitating people of other religions in matters of external appearance, and on abstaining from what they regard as frivolities, such as music and photography. On the other hand, they pay scant regard for what is lawful (halal) and what is unlawful (haram) in their personal dealings, for lofty morals, for decent behaviour with their subordinates, and so on. It was with reference to similar hypocritical behaviour of the Pharisees that Jesus commented that they make such a fuss about a mosquito falling into a cup of water and thereby supposedly polluting it while they turn a blind eye when they themselves swallow down a whole camel!
The ideological and practical excess and extremism that is such a characteristic feature of numerous contemporary Islamic movements and circles has, needless to say, caused these to lose the confidence of many thinking people. These movements seek to compensate for the absence of a longstanding role for Islam in collective, including political, affairs almost immediately, although this is actually a task to be attempted only gradually. Ignoring the Islamic principle of gradualism has brought about results entirely opposite to what they had intended. It has wrought chaos and strife within the ranks of those who claim to be engaged in jihad, as the Pakistani case, for instance, so tragically indicates.
To repeat a point made earlier, Islam advocates moderation, and exhorts its followers to adopt the middle-path in all matters—personal, collective as well as religious. Extremism and excess in any sphere, including religion, is against Nature, and Islam is the religion of Nature par excellence. Such extremism can only produce negative results—results entirely the opposite of what its proponents claim they seek to bring about. In every case, it is sure to cause the destruction of a people. As the Prophet Muhammad is said to have remarked, in a hadith contained in the Musnad Ahmad, ‘Downfall is certain for every [form of] extremism.’
Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at the National Law School, Bangalore