The Myth of Moderate Islam
by Patrick Sookhdeo
The funeral of British suicide bomber Shehzad Tanweer was held in absentia in his family”s ancestral village, near Lahore, Pakistan. Thousands of people attended, as they did again the following day when a qul ceremony was held for Tanweer. During qul, the Koran is recited to speed the deceased”s journey to paradise, though in Tanweer”s case this was hardly necessary. Being a shahid (martyr), he is deemed to have gone straight to paradise. The 22-year-old from Leeds, whose bomb at Aldgate station killed seven people, was hailed by the crowd as ” ˜a hero of Islam”.
Some in Britain cannot conceive that a suicide bomber could be a hero of Islam. Since 7/7 many have made statements to attempt to explain what seems to them a contradiction in terms. Since the violence cannot be denied, their only course is to argue that the connection with Islam is invalid. The deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Brian Paddick, said that ” ˜Islam and terrorists are two words that do not go together.’ His boss, the Commissioner Sir Ian Blair, asserted that there is nothing wrong with being a fundamentalist Muslim.
But surely we should give enough respect to those who voluntarily lay down their lives to accept what they themselves say about their motives. If they say they do it in the name of Islam, we must believe them. Is it not the height of illiberalism and arrogance to deny them the right to define themselves?
On 8 July the London-based Muslim Weekly unblushingly published a lengthy opinion article by Abid Ullah Jan entitled ” ˜Islam, Faith and Power’. The gist of the article is that Muslims should strive to gain political and military power over non-Muslims, that warfare is obligatory for all Muslims, and that the Islamic state, Islam and Sharia (Islamic law) should be established throughout the world. All is supported with quotations from the Koran. It concludes with a veiled threat to Britain. The bombings the previous day were a perfect illustration of what Jan was advocating, and the editor evidently felt no need to withdraw the article or to apologise for it. His newspaper is widely read and distributed across the UK.
By far the majority of Muslims today live their lives without recourse to violence, for the Koran is like a pick-and-mix selection. If you want peace, you can find peaceable verses. If you want war, you can find bellicose verses. You can find verses which permit only defensive jihad, or you can find verses to justify offensive jihad.
You can even find texts which specifically command terrorism, the classic one being Q8:59-60, which urges Muslims to prepare themselves to fight non-Muslims, ” ˜Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies’ (A. Yusuf Ali’s translation). Pakistani Brigadier S.K. Malik’s book The Quranic Concept of War is widely used by the military of various Muslim countries. Malik explains Koranic teaching on strategy: ” ˜In war our main objective is the opponent’s heart or soul, our main weapon of offence against this objective is the strength of our own souls, and to launch such an attack, we have to keep terror away from our own hearts…. Terror struck into the hearts of the enemies is not only a means, it is the end itself. Once a condition of terror into the opponent’s heart is obtained, hardly anything is left to be achieved. It is the point where the means and the end meet and merge. Terror is not a means of imposing decision on the enemy; it is the decision we wish to impose on him.’
If you permit yourself a little judicious cutting, the range of choice in Koranic teaching is even wider. A verse one often hears quoted as part of the ” ˜Islam is peace’ litany allegedly runs along the lines: ” ˜If you kill one soul it is as if you have killed all mankind.’ But the full and unexpurgated version of Q5:32 states: ” ˜If anyone slew a person ” ” unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land ” ” it would be as if he slew the whole people.’ The very next verse lists a selection of savage punishments for those who fight the Muslims and create ” ˜mischief’ (or in some English translations ” ˜corruption’) in the land, punishments which include execution, crucifixion or amputation. What kind of ” ˜mischief in the land’ could merit such a reaction? Could it be interpreted as secularism, democracy and other non-Islamic values in a land? Could the ” ˜murder’ be the killing of Muslims in Iraq? Just as importantly, do the Muslims who keep quoting this verse realise what a deception they are imposing on their listeners?
It is probably true that in every faith ordinary people will pick the parts they like best and practise those, while the scholars will work out an official version. In Islam the scholars had a particularly challenging task, given the mass of contradictory texts within the Koran. To meet this challenge they developed the rule of abrogation, which states that wherever contradictions are found, the later-dated text abrogates the earlier one. To elucidate further the original intention of Mohammed, they referred to traditions (hadith) recording what he himself had said and done. Sadly for the rest of the world, both these methods led Islam away from peace and towards war. For the peaceable verses of the Koran are almost all earlier, dating from Mohammed’s time in Mecca, while those which advocate war and violence are almost all later, dating from after his flight to Medina. Though jihad has a variety of meanings, including a spiritual struggle against sin, Mohammed’s own example shows clearly that he frequently interpreted jihad as literal warfare and himself ordered massacre, assassination and torture. From these sources the Islamic scholars developed a detailed theology dividing the world into two parts, Dar al-Harb and Dar al-Islam, with Muslims required to change Dar al-Harb into Dar al-Islam either through warfare or da’wa (mission).
So the mantra ” ˜Islam is peace’ is almost 1,400 years out of date. It was only for about 13 years that Islam was peace and nothing but peace. From 622 onwards it became increasingly aggressive, albeit with periods of peaceful co-existence, particularly in the colonial period, when the theology of war was not dominant. For today’s radical Muslims ” ” just as for the mediaeval jurists who developed classical Islam ” ” it would be truer to say ” ˜Islam is war’. One of the most radical Islamic groups in Britain, al-Ghurabaa, stated in the wake of the two London bombings, ” ˜Any Muslim that denies that terror is a part of Islam is kafir.’ A kafir is an unbeliever (i.e., a non-Muslim), a term of gross insult.
In the words of Mundir Badr Haloum, a liberal Muslim who lectures at a Syrian university, ” ˜Ignominious terrorism exists, and one cannot but acknowledge its being Islamic.’ While many individual Muslims choose to live their personal lives only by the (now abrogated) peaceable verses of the Koran, it is vain to deny the pro-war and pro-terrorism doctrines within their religion.
Could it be that the young men who committed suicide were neither on the fringes of Muslim society in Britain, nor following an eccentric and extremist interpretation of their faith, but rather that they came from the very core of the Muslim community and were motivated by a mainstream interpretation of Islam?
Muslims who migrated to the UK came initially for economic reasons, seeking employment. But over the last 50 years their communities have evolved away from assimilation with the British majority towards the creation of separate and distinct entities, mimicking the communalism of the British Raj. As a Pakistani friend of mine who lives in London said recently, ” ˜The British gave us all we ever asked for; why should we complain?’ British Muslims now have Sharia in areas of finance and mortgages; halal food in schools, hospitals and prisons; faith schools funded by the state; prayer rooms in every police station in London; and much more. This process has been assisted by the British government through its philosophy of multiculturalism, which has allowed some Muslims to consolidate and create a parallel society in the UK.
The Muslim community now inhabits principally the urban centres of England as well as some parts of Scotland and Wales. It forms a spine running down the centre of England from Bradford to London, with ribs extending east and west. It is said that within 10 to 15 years most British cities in these areas will have Muslim-majority populations, and will be under local Islamic political control, with the Muslim community living under Sharia.
What happens after this stage depends on which of the two main religious traditions among Pakistani-background British Muslims gains the ascendancy. The Barelwi majority believe in a slow evolution, gradually consolidating their Muslim societies, and finally achieving an Islamic state. The Deobandi minority argue for a quicker process using politics and violence to achieve the same result. Ultimately, both believe in the goal of an Islamic state in Britain where Muslims will govern their own affairs and, as the finishing touch, everyone else’s affairs as well. Islamism is now the dominant voice in contemporary Islam, and has become the seedbed of the radical movements. It is this that Sir Ian Blair has not grasped. For some time now the British government has been quoting a figure of 1.6 million for the Muslim population. Muslims themselves claim around 3 million, and this is likely to be far nearer to the truth. The growth of the Muslim community comes from their high birth-rate, primary immigration, and asylum-seekers both official and unofficial. There are also conversions to Islam.
The violence which is endemic in Muslim societies such as Pakistan is increasingly present in Britain’s Muslim community. Already we have violence by Pakistani Muslims against Kurdish Muslims, by Muslims against non-Muslims living among them (Caribbean people in the West Midlands, for example), a rapid growth in honour killings, and now suicide bombings. It is worth noting that many conflicts around the world are not internal to the Muslim community but external, as Muslims seek to gain territorial control, for example, in south Thailand, the southern Philippines, Kashmir, Chechnya and Palestine. Is it possible that a conflict of this nature could occur in Britain?
Muslims must stop this self-deception. They must with honesty recognise the violence that has existed in their history in the same way that Christians have had to do, for Christianity has a very dark past. Some Muslims have, with great courage, begun to do this.
Secondly, they must look at the reinterpretation of their texts, the Koran, hadith and Sharia, and the reformation of their faith. Mundir Badr Haloum has described this as ” ˜exorcising’ the terrorism from Islam. Mahmud Muhammad Taha argued for a distinction to be drawn between the Meccan and the Medinan sections of the Koran. He advocated a return to peaceable Meccan Islam, which he argued is applicable to today, whereas the bellicose Medinan teachings should be consigned to history. For taking this position he was tried for apostasy, found guilty and executed by the Sudanese government in 1985. Another modernist reformer was the Pakistani Fazlur Rahman, who advocated the ” ˜double movement’; i.e., understanding Koranic verses in their context, their ratio legis, and then using the philosophy of the Koran to interpret that in a modern, social and moral sense. Nasr Hamid Abu-Zayd, an Egyptian professor who argued similarly that the Koran and hadith should be interpreted according to the context in which they originated, was charged with apostasy, found guilty in June 1995 and ordered to separate from his wife.
The US-based Free Muslims Coalition, which was set up after 9/11 to promote a modern and secular version of Islam, has proposed the following:
- A re-interpretation of Islam for the 21st century, where terrorism is not justified under any circumstances.
- Separation of religion and state.
- Democracy as the best form of government.
- Secularism in all forms of political activity.
- Equality for women.
- Religion to be a personal relationship between the individual and his or her God, not to be forced on anyone.
This tempting vision of an Islam reformed along such lines is unlikely to be achieved except by a long and painful process of small steps. What might these be and how can we make a start? One step would be, as urged by the Prince of Wales, that every Muslim should ” ˜condemn these atrocities [the London bombings] and root out those among them who preach and practise such hatred and bitterness’. Universal condemnation of suicide bombers instead of acclamation as heroes would indeed be an excellent start.
Mansoor Ijaz has suggested a practical three-point action plan:
- Forbid radical hate-filled preaching in British mosques. Deport imams who fail to comply.
- Scrutinise British Islamic charities to identify those that fund terrorism. Prevent them receiving more than 10 per cent of their income from overseas.
- Form community-watch groups comprising Muslim citizens to contribute useful information on fanatical Muslims to the authorities.
To this could be added Muslim acceptance of a secular society as the basis for their religious existence, an oath of allegiance to the Crown which would override their allegiance to their co-religionists overseas, and deliberate steps to move out of their ghetto-style existence both physically and psychologically.
For the government, the time has come to accept Trevor Phillips’s statement that multiculturalism is dead. We need to rediscover and affirm a common British identity. This would impinge heavily on the future development of faith schools, which should now be stopped.
Given the fate of some earlier would-be reformers, perhaps King Abdullah of Jordan or a leader of his stature might have the best chance of initiating a process of modernist reform. The day before the bombings he was presiding over a conference of senior scholars from eight schools of Islamic jurisprudence, and, amazingly, they issued a statement endorsing fatwas forbidding any Muslim from those eight schools to be declared an apostate. So reform is possible. The only problem with this particular action is that it may have protected Muslim leaders from being killed by dissident Muslims, but it negated a very helpful fatwa which had been issued in March by the Spanish Islamic scholars declaring Osama bin Laden an apostate. Could not the King re-convene his conference and ask them to issue a fatwa banning violence against non-Muslims also? This would extend the self-preservation of the Muslim community to the whole non-Muslim world.
Such reform ” ” the changing of certain fairly central theological principles ” ” will not be easy to achieve. It will be a long, hard road for Islam to get its house in order so that it can co-exist peacefully with the rest of society in the 21st century.
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo is Director of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity.