(Adapted from the ending chapter of the author’s recently published book Exploring Islam in a New Light: An Understanding from the Quranic Perspective, iUniverse, 2008)
Now We have caused the Word to reach them, that haply they may pay heed. —Quran, 28:51
Now hath come unto you from God Light and a Profound Book. —Quran, 5:15
Muslims once led the world in science, mathematics, literature, art, morality, and justice. What has happened to these great people, and how can they recover ? — from: www.ProgressiveMuslims.org
Like Bernard Lewis, Muslims should wonder what has gone wrong with them. Once the torchbearer of human progress and civilization, Muslims have reduced themselves to a global underclass. Name any area of progressive human activity; it is not difficult to pinpoint their failure or stark underperformance in that area as a community. In recent years, months, and days, Muslim “fundamentalists” or extremists excel in one thing – terrorism and violence. The recent spate of terrorist attacks, and sectarian violence and atrocities has probably no parallel in modern history. Hardly a day passes by when we do not hear of a bomb blast or some form of violence taking place in some corner of the globe – India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, or some part of the developed world - with a toll of human life and immense human suffering. It is lamentable but undeniable that Muslim extremists are orchestrating much of this violence. No doubt, by doing so they are tarnishing the image of Islam, and making Muslims in general despicable in the eyes of other communities.
Indeed it may not be an exaggeration to say that the biggest threat to peace and security facing the world today is not “the clash of civilizations”, but the rise of religious fanaticism and extremism among some people who claim to be Muslims. To be sure, fanaticism is not confined to Muslims alone, but is found to exist in other religious groups, too. But what we are finding among Muslims looks much worse in magnitude. In recent years such fanaticism or extremism expressed in overt violence appears to have been on the rise, in part reflecting frustration with, and reaction to, what they deem to be hostile policies and activities of Western countries such as the United States and its NATO allies, and Israel especially in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Palestine. The ongoing “War on Terror” waged by the West is having some undesirable toll in terms of alienating many Muslims.
Many scholars have characterized religious extremism among some Muslims as “Islamic” fundamentalism or “Islamic” militancy, or simply, “Islamism”. Though the self-proclaimed Muslims perpetrating acts of intolerance and violence and fostering a climate of militancy are giving a negative image of Islam itself, it will be wrong to equate their activities with having anything to do with Islam. Islam as professed by the Holy Quran is far above their professed ideology of intolerance and violence. Hence, and since “fundamentalism” has come to be used in a derogatory way, “Islamic fundamentalism” or “Islamic militancy” or, for that matter, “Islamism” is, in a way, an inappropriate term to use, or a contradiction in terms. As Ahmed Mansour (in his Penalty of Apostasy: A Historical and Fundamental Study, English translation by Mostafa Sabet) notes:
A religion should be judged by the teachings of its holy book, not by the actions and the opinions of its followers. […] If, for example, we were to judge Christianity as presented by the opinion of Christian scholars in the medieval era of Europe, or by the actions of Christian people throughout the ages, we must conclude that Christianity is a terrible religion. Yet we know that Jesus was a peace-loving person who preached peace and love.
Religion has been a living, nourishing and driving force for humankind. However, human understanding, perception or interpretation of what constitutes religion has been different from person to person and even from time to time for the same person depending on the level of his understanding and knowledge. We also need to concede the fact that some versions of religion have embraced spurious ideas or elements that really do not belong to proper religion. Such factors—differences in human understanding of religion and infiltration of non-religious ideas into religion—precisely explain the existence of different religions on earth, and of different versions of the same religion originating from the same source or the same prophet. Thus while religion has been an essential instrument for spiritual and social development of man and has had a beneficial effect on human civilization at large, religion as understood and practiced has often also had a negative and deleterious effect on cultural, social, political and economic developments of particular religious groups. For example, the wrong fatalistic attitudes fostered and cultivated among Muslims, which are not part of religion but wrongly attributed to religion, are largely to blame for their lack of initiative and drive for their own development. There are also wrong notions of jihad (holy war) spread among extremist Muslim groups, which are leading some of them to implant bombs in cars and drive and explode them, and leading even some of them to become live exploding human bombs, for barbarously killing and injuring innocent people. And why after all should one religious or ethnic group be after the blood of another religious or ethnic group in any part of the world? Are fanaticism, bigotry and intolerance what religion teaches us?
The Rise of Muslim Fanaticism
As noted scholar of comparative religions Karen Armstrong points out, the militant form of religion labeled as “fundamentalism” is not unique to the Muslim faith. It is a global fact and has surfaced in every major faith in response to the problems of our modernity. Such fundamentalism tends to distort the religious tradition, and accentuate its more aggressive aspects at the expense of those that teach tolerance and reconciliation. As examples of the exponents of Muslim fundamentalism, Armstrong cites the names of twentieth-century Islamic writers and political activists Abul Ala Mawdudi, the founder of the Jamaat-i Islami in Pakistan, and one of his ardent followers Sayyid Qutb of Egypt, who at one time joined the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. Mawdudi encouraged religious fanaticism and extremism by advocating the punishment of renegades or apostates by death, and by declaring Ahmadiyas renegades from Islam, even though the Quran nowhere speaks of punishing renegades or apostates in such a manner, and even though the Quran gives man the freedom of choice in matters of religion (18: 29; 76: 3). Mawdudi also disregarded the clear directions of the Quran for tolerance and no coercion in religion. His writings provided the inspiration for the passage of highly problematic “blasphemy” and “hudud (or rigid shariah) laws” that have led to many human-rights violations committed against religious minorities, especially the Ahmadiyas of Pakistan, and women. In 1953, because of writing a seditious pamphlet against Ahmadiyas, which led to rioting, he was sentenced to death by the martial law authorities, which then held sway in Pakistan, but under public pressure, this sentence was first commuted to life imprisonment and then totally withdrawn. About Qutb, Armstrong notes:
The violent secularism of al-Nasser had led Qutb to espouse a form of Islam that distorted both the message of the Quran and the Prophet's life. Qutb told Muslims to model themselves on Muhammad: to separate themselves from mainstream society (as Muhammad had made the hijrah from Mecca to Medina), and then engage in a violent jihad. But Muhammad had in fact finally achieved victory by an ingenious policy of non-violence; the Quran adamantly opposed force and coercion in religious matters; and its vision—far from preaching exclusion and separation—was tolerant and inclusive. Qutb insisted that the Quranic injunction to toleration could occur only after the political victory of Islam and the establishment of a true Muslim state. The new intransigence sprang from the profound fear that is at the core of fundamentalist religion. […] Every [subsequent] Sunni fundamentalist movement has been influenced by Qutb. (See her Islam—A Short History, Random House Inc., New York,Modern Library Paperback Edition, 2002, pp. 169-170.)
Though Armstrong did not see the existence of “a militant, fanatic strain” of fundamentalism in Islam, and though Muslims who represent mainstream and moderate Islam are admittedly peace-loving and law-abiding, an evidently fanatic and militant version of “Islam” called Wahhabism surfaced in the Middle East during the eighteenth century, and spread throughout the world over the years. Mawdudi and Qutb basically followed and espoused this Wahhabism. This is “a radically ultraconservative and puritanical ideology”, based on a strictly literal interpretation of the Quran and the Hadith, which was aggressively promoted by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and his followers and vigorously championed by the Saudi Kingdom after it had been founded in 1932. Armstrong notes that because the Ottoman Sultans did not conform to his true vision of Islam, Abd al-Wahhab declared that they were apostates and worthy of death. Reza Aslan, author of No god but God, notes that King Ibn Saud and Abd al-Wahhab entered into an unholy alliance. They, in addition to destroying the tombs of the Prophet and his Companions, including those pilgrimage sites that marked the birthplace of Muhammad and his family, were guilty of killing any Muslim who did not accept their uncompromisingly puritanical version of Islam. And Abd al-Wahhab was guilty of publicly stoning a woman to death in a village wherefrom the stunned, shocked villagers expelled him. Among other things, they banned music and flowers from the sacred cities and outlawed the smoking of tobacco and the drinking of coffee. Under the penalty of death, they forced men to grow beards and women to be veiled and secluded, even though the veiling and secluding of women had not been the case in the Prophet’s time. The Wahhabis—the most fanatic of Sunni Muslims—were also guilty of massacring two thousand Shiite worshippers when they were celebrating Muharram in Karbala. Even in modern times, the Wahhabi-inspired fundamentalists were responsible for the slaughter of tens of thousands of Algerians.
In Egypt, modern Muslim thinkers have been subjected to Wahhabi-instigated and often government-supported killing, torture and harassment, including banning of their works. Recent notable examples are the stabbing and maiming of Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz, the assassination of human rights defender Farag Foda, the arrest and incarceration of the Ibn Khaldun Center’s head Saad Eddin Ibrahim, and of many of his colleagues, and the court ruling of apostasy on the Cairo University Professor Nasr Abu Zayd, which called for divorcing of his Muslim wife, a ruling that led the couple to seek exile in a foreign country. Al-Azhar University Professor Dr. Ahmad Mansour and his followers who follow only the Quran and reject the traditions also became victims of harassment, persecution and torture at the hands of the Wahhabi followers in Egypt.
In the tradition of Ibn Taymiyyah, the Wahhabis call for rigid adherence to shariah as literally found in the Quran and the Hadith. But they encourage only outward piety; they discourage and suppress Muslims’ inner search to know and experience God and their quest and endeavor for spiritual development and real wisdom (marefat). Muslim Sufis and saints have been the targets of their persecution and torture. In their zeal to enforce puritanical Islam, they have flagrantly flouted the finer and more fundamental human values enshrined in the Quran and they committed horrendous crimes against humanity. They blocked human thinking urging blind imitation of past traditions (taqlid), discouraged studies of science, fine arts and culture and created hurdles in the way of human progress and modernization. In his recent book The Great Theft: Wresting Islam from the Extremists, distinguished Islamic scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl provides a detailed critique of the narrowly defined, archaic, inherently incoherent, and essentially extreme, intolerant and militant, and fundamentally perverted nature of this ideology’s interpretation of Islamic teachings.