Where is moderate Islam? Does it exist? If so, then where? Is it rooted in true Islam or just wishful thinking?
- “Islam is a Religion of Peace”
- “Muhammad is a man of Peace”
- “The Qur’an is a book of Peace”
How can we know if these statements are true?
We frequently hear from politicians in the public sphere and individual Muslims and Islamic organisations, that Islam is “a religion of peace”, that it is “tolerant of other faiths and beliefs” and that it is “in favour of democracy, equal rights and freedom of speech.”
The media reports the connection between certain Islamic groups and violence, terrorism, and inequality for women. But it also claims that the vast majority of Muslims are peace-loving, lawabiding and that there is nothing in Islam that is against the values of British society.
In public debate and media language, the distinction has emerged between “radical’ and “moderate’ Islam. Adherents of the former are called “fundamentalist’ and “Islamist’, while the latter, the moderates, are said to represent mainstream, true Islam. How can we begin to understand these distinctions and how do we know how many British Muslims are represented in each of them?
A 2001 survey revealed how Muslims in Britain viewed themselves:
15% said they were radical in that they followed a literal understanding of the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad. 70% described themselves as nominal – that is, they followed Islamic traditions and their cultural adaptations. 15% saw themselves as liberal – they were happy to follow the West and assimilate fully into British culture.
What is the situation today?
The Sunday Telegraph on 19 February 2006 carried a YouGov survey report that revealed:
- 40% of British Muslims identified with Islamic radicalism.
This was post 7/7, and, for whatever reason, shows that radicalism is on the increase in Britain. It may be that new immigrants are swelling the numbers of radical Islam, but it is certainly true that many British Muslims are being won over to a more Islamist position. It is reasonable to conclude that between 2001 and 2006 converts to the “radical cause’ came from the group previously identified as nominal. Liberal Muslims are perhaps less inclined towards radicalism, as they have, for all intents and purposes, broken with all traditional forms of Islam. If this is the case, then it shows that today, as in the past, moderate Muslims find it hard to withstand pressure from those who are intent on a more literal approach to Islam.
To grapple with these issues it is necessary to understand the Qur’an’s teaching and the practice of Muhammad in relation to a number of issues of concern to those who wish to uphold Western British society: jihad, democracy, freedom of religion and speech, the equality of women, and sharia.
The assertion that Islam is a “religion of peace’ draws us, in particular, to the teaching of Islam on violent jihad. It is said by many Muslim apologists that the word “Islam’ itself means “peace’. However, it is widely accepted that this is misreading of the Arabic word, and that “Islam’ means “surrender’. If there is any connection with “peace’ here, it is that “peace’ which comes from total surrender and slave-like servitude to an absolute deity as expressed in the Qur’an and Islamic traditions. The peace of Islam, therefore, is the peace and protection afforded to those who convert to Islam or in the case of Jews and Christians, those who accept a humiliating, second-class status in an Islamic society known as Dhimmitude.
According to former professor of Islamic History at Al-Azhar University, Cairo, Mark Gabriel, “There are at least 114 verses in the Qur’an that speak of love, peace and forgiveness, especially in the Surah titled “The Heifer'”(Surah 2:62, 109).’ But Gabriel goes on to explain that in the light of the later verse found in Surah 9:5 (the “sword verse’), these former “tolerant’ verses have been abrogated or annulled. This is according to the Islamic teaching of naskh in which the later revelations of the Qur’an cancelled out the former verses wherever there is a contradiction. (Islam and Terrorism by Mark Gabriel)
It is commonly understood that the earlier Meccan Surahs are more tolerant, corresponding to the earlier phase of Muhammad’s life when his teaching focussed mainly on purely religious issues such as belief in one God and the rejection of pagan idolatry. He hoped to persuade Jews to accept him as the prophet of monotheism in line with the Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament, and for the Christians to accept him as the apostle of God, somewhat analogous to the apostles of the New Testament.
However, there was resistance from both groups who clearly saw that Muhammad’s teaching was at odds in major respects with the Scriptures as they knew and understood them – not least, the final and absolute authority Muhammad claimed for himself. The Medinan Surahs become more and more strident, imposing social, political and military imperatives on the Muslim community, until finally, the Qur’an became replete with teaching of hate, destruction, death and servitude to all who resisted Islam, either on the battlefield or in their personal faith. A well-respected authority on Islam, himself a radical, Sheikh Muhammad Ezzat Darwazei, counts between 500 and 700 jihad verses in the Qur’an. It is important to remember that these “sword verses’ abrogate earlier verses apparently advocating peace and tolerance. The nature of this violent teaching can be seen by the following sample:
The Medinan sword verse:
Surah 9:5 ” But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay those who join other gods with Allah wherever you find them; besiege them, seize them, lay in wait for them with every kind of ambush…”
Sword verse against Christians and Jews:
Surah 9:29 “…Make war upon such of those to whom the scriptures have been given as believe not in Allah, or in the last day, and who forbid not what Allah and his apostle have forbidden … until they pay tribute…”
Methodology of sword verses:
Surah 47:4 ” When you encounter the unbelievers, strike off their heads, until ye have made a great slaughter among them…” Surah 8:38-39 ” Unbelievers … And fight them on until there is no more Tumult or oppression, and there prevail Justice and faith in Allah.”
Recompense for those who die in Jihad:
Surah 4:74 “Let those who fight in the cause of Allah who sell the life of this world for the hereafter To him who fighteth in the cause of Allah, whether he is slain or gets victory, Soon shall we give him a reward of great value.”
Surah 47:4-6 “…But those who are killed in the way of Allah, He will never let their deeds be lost… and admit them to Paradise.”
The life of Muhammad is sacred to Muslims who are expected to follow his example in all things. An examination of Muhammad himself shows that not only did he believe in violence but personally practiced it. During his life Muhammad sanctioned 29 actual battles and planned 39 others. He also sanctioned deaths of Jews, Christians and those who criticised or opposed him.
When one reads such Quranic advocacy of violence and death to pagans, Christians and Jews, and the offer of spiritual reward to those who carry such things out, one understands the strength of the radicals who only need to appeal to such texts, as well as the example of Muhammad himself, to pursue and impose “true Islam’.
No compulsion in religion?
What are we to make of the violent teaching found in the Qur’an in the light of the oft-quoted Surah 2:256, “There is no compulsion in religion’?
As has been mentioned, we must ask whether this verse is considered mansukh (abrogated). But, even if that is denied by some Muslim apologists, the context of the verse shows that it does not promise freedom to non-Muslims, but only a measure of tolerance for a time. The following verse reads, “Allah is the Protector of those who have faith” and begs the question concerning how to treat those who reject Allah. Since they don’t have Allah’s protection, it is argued that these unbelievers do not deserve protection from Islam.
Does moderate Islam exist?
This question does not address the individual Muslim, as it is patently clear that many Muslims do not wish to acknowledge openly or to follow these “sword texts’ and that many Muslims in Britain, and across the world, are peaceful and law-abiding. But the issue is: does a correct understanding of the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad as we know it ultimately require that all Muslims believe and support such teaching?
Responses to “sword’ passages
When individual Muslims are questioned about the “violence’ in the teaching of the Qur’an and in the example of Muhammad himself they usually respond in one of the following ways: Affirmation: As we have seen, we could expect 40% of British Muslims to affirm all or some Quranic teaching on violence. Denial: Some out of ignorance, wishful thinking, or deceit, deny that these verses are actually in the Qur’an.
Interpretation: Some teach that these verses were historical, situational and geographical, only applying to 7th century Arabia and proximate nations.
The key question is: What is the basis for a moderate interpretation of these verses advocating and commanding violence against non-Muslims?
Some deny that the “sword verses’ ever had any place in historic, mainstream Islam, and that centuries of Islamic tradition and authoritative teaching proves that this is the case. They claim that Western ignorance and prejudice perpetuates misinterpretation of these texts. But, these same people do not seem to be able to provide any convincing evidence of this “vast body of Muslim opinion’ within mainstream and historic Islamic tradition.
Some seek to reform Islam from within, trying to find a more acceptable and modern approach to it in keeping with Western ideals of freedom and tolerance. But the difficulty here is one of authority. Who has the authority to reject Quranic texts or reinterpret them? Surely to do so would be to deny the very basis of Islam and thus be a denial of Islam itself.
Moderate Islam and Sufism
Sufism is often cited as an example of moderate Islam. Sufism is characterised by “inner piety’ and, as “a religion of the heart’, is said not to advocate violence or political extremism. However, while it is true that Sufis draw their beliefs and inspiration from Mohammad himself, Sufi mysticism, with its quest for union with the divine, is regarded by its critics either as fundamentally un-Islamic or a sectarian departure from the purity of Islam. This is borne out by the fact that Sufis only officially comprise 3-4% of modern day Islam, although it is claimed that their influence is considerable both among Sunnis and Shi’ites.
Ruth Kelly recently gave support to the moderation of Sufism when she rejected the hitherto welcome role of the Muslim Council of Britain as the official voice of Islam in Britain. She was the main speaker at the launch of the Sufi Muslim Council in the House of Commons on 19th July 2006. But the problem is that Sufis do not and cannot speak for Islam in general. It is more influential as a religious tendency within Islam than it is as an official representative of Islam itself.
The Sufi Muslim Council claims that 80% of British Muslims are from a Sufi tradition (http://www.guardian.co.uk/religion/Story/0,,1824131,00.html ). That claim is hard to reconcile with the YouGov findings that 40% of British Muslims are sympathetic to Islamist ideals. The contradiction can be resolved in one of two ways. First, Sufism is not, in the final analysis, capable of asserting its “moderation’ on the rest of Islam. Or, second, Sufism is not essentially moderate after all. The history of Sufi groups, such as of Naqshbandi, Qadiri and Sanusyia, reveals clear signs of a lack of moderation.
The future of “moderate Islam’
The problem with finding and promoting moderation within Islam is that the most “natural’ reading of Islamic texts, as well as much influential historical interpretation of these, provides fuel for the radicals. Considerable fear is generated by the radicals who threaten many would-be moderates with the charge of apostasy and its harsh consequences which, very often, means death. Muslim solidarity, a strong force in its own right, is exploited by radicals who point to social injustice, the plight of the Palestinians, racism and the cultural estrangement of Muslims, in a bid to radicalise their fellow Muslims. This is how British Muslim youth are being successfully recruited to Islamism in colleges and universities, as a former radical, Ed Husain shows in his autobiography The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left.
Perhaps the real issue in all this is not discussion about “moderate’ or “radical’ Muslims, but the nature of Islam itself. Until this is explored and addressed, it seems the situation is not set to improve. That there are many moderate Muslims, there can be no doubt, but as to the existence of historical, mainstream moderate Islam – where’s the evidence?