A turning point for moderate Islam

In an age of stark ideological cleavages, Muslims are living through a battle of ideas over the meaning of religion in the modern world

Fitzroy Morrissey

Islam has always been marked by differences of opinion. Muhammad himself is said to have predicted that, after his death, his community would split into 73 sects, only one of which would be saved. In every age since, Muslims have competed to be that “saved sect”, the one that stays truest to the message of the Qur’an.

This is as true of our own time as any other. In an age of stark ideological cleavages everywhere, Muslims have been living through their own battle of ideas over the meaning of Islam in the modern world. The key faultline in this struggle is the question of the relationship between religion and politics. On the one side stand the Islamists; on the other, the moderates. I briefly discussed this split in last month’s Standpoint in the context of the Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE. Recent events—including the horrific terror attacks in Nice and Vienna, Peshawar and Kabul—further underline the importance of understanding it.

Islamism, simply put, makes Islam into a political ideology. For the Islamist, the fundamental Islamic doctrine that Allah alone is God means that Allah alone is sovereign, meaning that His law—the Shari’a—is the only valid law. In the Islamist view, the alternative to Islam is not Christianity or Judaism, but liberal democracy or socialism.

This is a highly exclusivist doctrine that brooks no compromise with other worldviews. In the view of Sayyid Qutb, the influential Muslim Brotherhood ideologue executed in 1966, any political system that is not Islam constitutes jahiliyya—an Arabic term connoting barbarism, ignorance and unbelief—and “Islam cannot accept or agree to a situation which is half-Islam and half-jahiliyya”. The Islamist’s duty, then, is to overturn the jahili society through revolution.

If this is the goal, then the Islamists differ over how to achieve it. For jihadists like Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS), the direct heirs of Qutb, the surest way to revolution is through violent jihad. “We believe that jihad in the path of Allah,” runs the thirty-fifth article of Al-Qaeda’s creed, “is the sound legal avenue that empowers the Muslim community to resume an Islamic way of life and to establish a rightly-guided caliphate on the prophetic model.” “Participationists” such as the Muslim Brotherhood or the Jamaat-i Islami in South Asia, by contrast, advocate participation within the established order in the hope of gradually transforming it from within. In the words of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an influential advocate of the participationist approach, “one must not hurry to do something whose time has not come or pick the fruit before it has ripened”. Nevertheless, their goal remains, as a recent King’s College London report on the “Islamic Movement in Britain” puts it, “a comprehensive transformation within mainstream social and political structures” across the world.

Though it attracts the most media attention, this political form of the faith is highly contested in contemporary Islamic thought. At the forefront of the Islamic anti-Islamist movement is the Muslim World League. Described by Reinhard Schulze, author of the definitive work on the subject, as “presently the most important international Islamic organisation”, the Muslim World League was established by a group of Muslim scholars in Mecca in 1962. Its original aim was to develop an Islamic counter-narrative to the pan-Arab socialism of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser was the leading regional opponent of the Islamists, and some of the League’s leading lights in the early days were prominent advocates of political Islam. Among the members of its first Constituent Council were the influential South Asian Islamist ideologue Abul-A’la Mawdudi—the founder of the Jamaat-i Islami, Sa’id Ramadan—the son of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna, father of Tariq Ramadan, and a leading Brotherhood activist in his own right, and Abu’l-Hasan al-Nadvi, the Indian scholar who introduced the Islamist concept of jahiliyya to Sayyid Qutb.

In the decades that followed, the League’s leadership continued to propagate key aspects of the Islamist ideology. In 1980, for instance, its then Secretary General Muhammad Ali Harakan delivered a speech in which he repeated the Islamist trope that Islam was under attack from “Zionism, Communism, Freemasonry, Qadianism [Ahmadi Islam], Bahaism and Christian Missionaries”. As recently as 2005, a Jamestown Foundation report described the League’s stance as “often radical and vehemently anti-American”.

Over the last few years, however, the League has moved decisively away from this position, adopting a strongly anti-Islamist stance rooted in what current Secretary General Muhammad al-Issa calls al-itidal al-islami—“Islamic moderation”. “The religion of Islam,” al-Issa explained in a recent interview, “has nothing to do with the political Islam that extremists are peddling nowadays”, for Islamism is “a new creation that distorts the meanings and purposes of [religious] texts to push partisan, extremists goals”. Muslims living outside the Muslim world, he insisted in another interview, ought “to respect the constitutions, laws and cultures” of the countries in which they live, and follow locally trained  imams whose values are aligned with the local culture. Nor should any effort be made, he argued, to defend those “false” Muslims “who have harmed Islam with their radicalism, their extremism, and sometimes their violence, including their terrorism”. Consistent with this, the League was swift to condemn the recent terror attack at Notre-Dame de Nice. “This crime,” al-Issa declared, “represents only its perpetrator. Islam totally disavows itself from it, and considers this atrocious crime the result of a terrorist ideology fueled by extremist concepts and terrorist propensities.”

Hand in hand with this anti-Islamist standpoint, the League has also committed itself to religious dialogue, embracing what the late, lamented Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called “the dignity of difference”. “There is nothing better than dialogue,” says al-Issa. “Through objective dialogue, things become clear.” In September of last year, the League signed the “Paris Agreement for the Abrahamic Family” with French Christian groups—an agreement, al-Issa explained, based on the values of at-tafahum wa’l-mahabbah—“mutual understanding and love”—and which embraced the inclusivist notion of Judaism, Christianity and Islam as three “Abrahamic” religions descended from a common ancestor. In the same spirit, al-Issa has also met with a diverse range of religious representatives in the last two years, travelling to Moscow to meet Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, visiting the headquarters of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City, and hosting US evangelical leaders in Jeddah and Bishop Morcos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Riyadh. He also paid a commemorative visit to Auschwitz organised by the American Jewish Committee.

The League’s new stance can be explained in part by its location in Saudi Arabia, which has pursued an aggressively anti-Islamist policy under reforming Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Just last month, the Kingdom’s Council of Senior Scholars designated the Muslim Brotherhood a “deviant” terrorist group, charging it with promoting civil strife, accusing Muslim societies of living in jahiliyya, and neglecting Islamic doctrine in its pursuit of power.

Yet the League’s position is also representative of a broader trend across the Muslim world. In August 2016, following the rise of Islamic State, an international conference of over 200 Sunni scholars met in Grozny, Chechnya, to determine the boundaries of Sunni Islam. The ideologies of IS, the “Salafi-takfirists” (those who label non-Salafis as unbelievers) and other extremist groups, the conference concluded, were driven by “the distortions of the over-zealous, the forgeries of the fabricators, and the misinterpretations of the ignorant”, and constituted a “dangerous deviation” from the authentic Sunni approach. The influential Indonesian organisation Nahdlatul Ulama—founded in 1926 to defend traditional Islam against Salafism—has likewise adopted an assertively anti-Islamist stance. In the view of its Secretary General, Yahya Cholil Staquf, “it is the spread of Islamist extremism and terror that primarily contributes to the rise of Islamophobia throughout the non-Muslim world”. In a similar vein, the UAE’s official Fatwa Council has expressed its “complete support” for the Saudi decision to proscribe the Muslim Brotherhood, while the Baghdad-based Global Imams’ Council has just announced its adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s widely recognised definition of anti-Semitism—in direct contrast to the Islamists’ fondness for anti-Jewish tropes.

Of course, as the recent terror attacks demonstrate, the ideology of Islamism has not gone away. As the French scholar Gilles Kepel notes in his recent book Away from Chaos, though Islamic State has been defeated militarily in the Middle East, the Islamists have bounced back from setbacks before, and preventing others from falling under their spell will depend in part on the successful reconstruction of Iraq and Syria. Nevertheless, if the direction of travel of the Muslim World League and other leading Islamic organisations is anything to go by, there are promising signs that Islamism is being decisively excluded from the Muslim mainstream. At a moment when French President Emmanuel Macron claims that Islam is a state of “crisis”, we would do well to remember the literal meaning of that word—not a state of disrepair, but a turning point in the progress of a disease.   

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