Understanding Moderation, Extremism, and Reverse Extremism in the Teachings of Islam

By Sheikh Salman Al-Oadah at IslamToday.net

At the present time, the word “extremism” is probably the most incessantly repeated word on the tongues of journalists, writers, and politicians. It is likely that the events of September 11 are what put it in the forefront of popular terminology, for such terminology gives expression to inner feelings and makes up for a lot of talk and lengthy explanations. Extremism is a derived word, and it seems that those who use it mean by it a person who stands far off to one side of the center.

This maze of terminology is a major cause of people not being able to see eye to eye. It is what turns dialogues into screaming matches where no one listens to anyone else. This is especially true for the word “extremism,” because it is an attempt for the one using it to define things from his or her own perspective.

For example, you as a person most likely consider yourself a moderate. Moderation is itself a symbol for balance and virtue and is a sought after quality in everyone’s estimation. Virtue is the middle ground between two extremes of vice. This was Aristotle’s view and it has been upheld by the scholars of Islam like al-Ghazali, Ibn Taymiyah, Ibn al-Qayyim, and others. It is one of the meanings of “the middle nation” mentioned in the Quran:

وَكَذَٰلِكَ جَعَلْنَاكُمْ أُمَّةً وَسَطًا

Thus We have made you a middle nation…

[Surah al-Baqarah 2:143]

If you consider yourself to be a person who represents this noble value of “moderation” then it follows necessarily that you categorize the positions of others accordingly – this one is on the right, that one is on the left, this one is on the far left, that one is an extremist, this one is not an extremist…

This type of outlook might come across as an exaggeration of one’s own perspective and an overestimate of its value, since it makes the individual’s viewpoint the criterion for all judgment and estimation. It might also be seen an attempt to dictate to others how to think without giving them any say in the matter.

There are some people who are naturally disposed, intellectually and psychologically, to balance and moderation. This is a very valuable quality for a person to be blessed with. Scholars have always considered integrity to be the highest virtue, and this quality is typified by harmony and balance between a person’s impulses so that no single impulse can override another. This is achieved under the control of reason, so that when it is achieved, there is balance between the dictates of reason and the person’s behavior.

In contrast to these people are others who are inclined to have one aspect of their personality overpower all others, anger for instance or lust. They can maintain no balance between reason and impulse. Sometimes reason exercises an authoritative control over their impulses and sometimes it is the other way around. This loss of balance can make these people come up with ways of thinking that are far from moderate.

A person’s temperament has a direct effect on the choices, both intellectual and practical, that such a person will be disposed to make unless that person is checked by some stronger outside influence. The result of this is that you find a person’s views, choices, and overall way of life to be related to each other, since they all come from one source.

Fortunately, most people fall within the sphere of justice and moderation when it comes to their everyday dealings. This is the way people are made. The sphere of moderation is by no means narrow; it is in fact a general framework encompassing many broad categories of people. It remains to be said that this natural moderation that most people enjoy is no more that the ability to accept the truth and be affected by it. This type of preparedness is of no benefit, however, unless it has the effects of divine guidance impressed upon it.

For this reason, we see that in the Quran and Sunnah, revelation is likened to rain and a person who is open to guidance is likened to good soil. Even more specifically we see a simile of a humble heart and fertile ground and of a heedless heart and barren land.

Allah says:

أَلَمْ يَأْنِ لِلَّذِينَ آمَنُوا أَن تَخْشَعَ قُلُوبُهُمْ لِذِكْرِ اللَّهِ وَمَا نَزَلَ مِنَ الْحَقِّ وَلَا يَكُونُوا كَالَّذِينَ أُوتُوا الْكِتَابَ مِن قَبْلُ فَطَالَ عَلَيْهِمُ الْأَمَدُ فَقَسَتْ قُلُوبُهُمْ وَكَثِيرٌ مِّنْهُمْ فَاسِقُونَ

Has not the time arrived for the believers that their hearts in all humility should engage in the remembrance of Allah and of the truth that has been revealed to them? And that they should not become like those who were given the scripture before, who as ages passed, their hearts became hard? For many among them are rebellious transgressors.

[Surah Al-Hadid 57:16]

Right after this Allah says:

اعْلَمُوا أَنَّ اللَّهَ يُحْيِي الْأَرْضَ بَعْدَ مَوْتِهَا قَدْ بَيَّنَّا لَكُمُ الْآيَاتِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَعْقِلُونَ

Know that Allah gives life to the Earth after it is dead. We have made the signs clear for you, so that perhaps you may understand.

[Surah Al-Hadid 57:16]

Ibn Kathir, in his commentary on the Quran, says:

فيه إشارة إلى أن الله تعالى يلين القلوب بعد قسوتها، ويهدي الحيارى بعد ضلتها، ويفرج الكروب بعد شدتها

In this verse is an indication that Allah softens the hearts that have been hardened, and that he guides those who are bewildered after they have strayed, and that he eases distress after it had been severe.

Abu Musa al-Ash’ari relates that the Prophet, peace be upon him, said:

 مَثَلُ مَا بَعَثَنِي اللَّهُ بِهِ مِنَ الْهُدَى وَالْعِلْمِ كَمَثَلِ الْغَيْثِ الْكَثِيرِ أَصَابَ أَرْضًا، فَكَانَ مِنْهَا نَقِيَّةٌ قَبِلَتِ الْمَاءَ، فَأَنْبَتَتِ الْكَلأَ وَالْعُشْبَ الْكَثِيرَ، وَكَانَتْ مِنْهَا أَجَادِبُ أَمْسَكَتِ الْمَاءَ، فَنَفَعَ اللَّهُ بِهَا النَّاسَ، فَشَرِبُوا وَسَقَوْا وَزَرَعُوا، وَأَصَابَتْ مِنْهَا طَائِفَةً أُخْرَى، إِنَّمَا هِيَ قِيعَانٌ لاَ تُمْسِكُ مَاءً، وَلاَ تُنْبِتُ كَلأً، فَذَلِكَ مَثَلُ مَنْ فَقِهَ فِي دِينِ اللَّهِ وَنَفَعَهُ مَا بَعَثَنِي اللَّهُ بِهِ، فَعَلِمَ وَعَلَّمَ، وَمَثَلُ مَنْ لَمْ يَرْفَعْ بِذَلِكَ رَأْسًا، وَلَمْ يَقْبَلْ هُدَى اللَّهِ الَّذِي أُرْسِلْتُ بِهِ

What Allah sent me with of guidance and knowledge is like abundant rain that falls on the land. Some of the land is pure and rich, so when the rain hits it, it produces abundant grass and pasture, and where this land is free of growth, it takes in the water so that Allah benefits the people with it. They drink it, give it to their animals, and use it in agriculture. Other land, however, is flat and barren, neither retaining the water nor producing pasture. The first type of land is like the one who possesses understanding of the religion and benefits from what Allah had sent to me, so he learns it and teaches others. The other land is like the one who pays no heed and refuses to accept the guidance that Allah has sent to me.

[Sahih Bukhari, Book 3, Number 79]

This leads us to the conclusion that true balance and integrity is built upon two foundations:

  1. Adhering to the truth that comes from Allah and His Messenger, peace be upon him, and applying the revealed teachings to all the problems of life, great and small.
  2. The innate quality in a person that predisposes him to accept this truth.

Revelation is the light and the person ready to accept its guidance is the lamp from which that light shines. According to one interpretation mentioned by Ibn Kathir, this is why Allah says:

مَثَلُ نُورِهِ كَمِشْكَاةٍ فِيهَا مِصْبَاحٌ الْمِصْبَاحُ فِي زُجَاجَةٍ

The parable of His light is like a niche within it a lamp…

[Surah al-Nur 24:35]

Revelation is the rain, and the person who has willingness to accept it is like good, fertile ground. This simile can be found in other texts besides the ones we have mentioned. This means that divine revelation from the Quran and Sunnah is the proper standard of judgment. The people who carry the Law in this manner are, in every generation, the balanced and moderate people. This is clear from the following hadith:

يحمل هذا العلم من كل خلف عدوله ينفون عنه تحريف الغالين وتأويل الجاهلين وانتحال المبطلين

This knowledge is carried in each generation by the people of just moderation who reject the spurious interpretations of the ignorant, the claims of those on falsehood, and the distortions of the fanatics.

[al-Tamhid 1/59]

This is clear and to the point, and there are many texts like it. This shows that the people of justice, balance, and moderation who are guided by the light of the Quran and Sunnah are the mainstream to which all others are to be brought back.

Fanaticism of any kind is the exception that makes the rule. This is why the Prophet warns against fanaticism. Ibn Abbas relates that the Prophet, peace be upon him, said:

يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِيَّاكُمْ وَالْغُلُوَّ فِي الدِّينِ فَإِنَّهُ أَهْلَكَ مَنْ كَانَ قَبْلَكُمْ الْغُلُوُّ فِي الدِّين

O people, keep away from fanaticism in religion, for those who came before you were only brought to destruction by their fanaticism in religion.

[Sunan ibn Majah, Book of Rites, Number 3029]

The Companions of the Prophet, peace be upon him, were the just and balanced moderates who were a witness over mankind. Those who go to extremes or fall into fanaticism must be brought back to the way of the Companions, as well as those who fall into antipathy and carelessness.

Extremism in an Islamic framework means deviance in understanding Islamic teachings or in applying them, in spite of the fact that some of these extremists might present their arguments from an Islamic standpoint or be motivated by religious feelings. Islamic history provides us with the example of the Khawarij, the first and possibly severest extremist group in Islam. They were neither convinced nor satisfied with the understanding and application of Islam exhibited by the Companions, preferring to split the fabric of Muslim society, go off on their own, and then turn against the rest of the Muslims violently. Their origins stretch back to a disturbed individual who criticized the justice of the Prophet, peace be upon him, saying to him, “Muhammad, be just!” This was the beginning of a sect that would consider itself select, that would believe itself to be true, sincere, and pure, and that would deem all others to be oppressors and deviants far from the straight way.

However, it would be a mistake to always give the Khawarij as the example of extremism. This will give people the impression that extremism is a Muslim commodity. It must not go unnoticed that there is Jewish extremism out there presently taking the form of major and official political parties and organizations that boast about their fanaticism and feel no shame in making public their hostile and threatening demands against their opponents, not to mention the systematic fanaticism that has become an official part of Jewish politics and that is the common denominator underlying the full spectrum of Jewish opinion. No different is the Christian extremism that shows itself in hundreds of Christian groups and organizations throughout the United States and their tens of millions of members.

The events of September 11 provided these people with the opportunity to come out in the open with the enmity that they harbor against Islam and the Muslims. Some of them have demanded the obliteration of everything Islamic. Others have demanded the destruction all places sacred to Muslims. Many official voices have been raised accusing Islam itself for what happened, declaring it to be an evil and loathsome religion.

This goes for the official policies that have brought about in the United States a special style of dictatorship just for the Arabs and Muslims, excluding them from the laws that protect the general public and denying them the rights possessed by the rest of the population. This course of action is itself a repugnant form of extremism. Even more extreme are the exaggerated abuses of power being exhibited by the allies, their flagrant disregard of human rights, their aggression against the Afghani people, and their casual approach to bloodshed. The only difference is that this is the extremism of the powerful who do not need to justify their actions.

Then there is the extremism of the secularists in the Muslim world who persist in trying to apply Western experience – or to even fully transplant Western society – to the Muslim world. Worse than this are those among them who adopt belligerent policies borrowed from the Communists to besiege religious people in all sectors of society and deny them access to the media, employment, social positions, and political power.

The reactions and counter-reactions that ensue from this have no limits. Extremism breeds extremism. The best environment to spread extremist ideas is one where the people are oppressed and denied their natural human rights. This denies them the opportunity to be calm and emotionally stable. It puts strain on their personal lives, their religious lives, their family lives, and their financial dealings.

Extremism – by which we mean transgressing the bounds of justice as defined by divine revelation and deviating from the natural disposition inherent in the human being – is without doubt a problem of crisis proportions. The history of civilization provides us with numerous examples of this extremism, while the Message of Islam can be seen as the ideal way of dealing with it. Nevertheless, we are not here to react to the West and exchange accusations with it and the rest of the world. We are in no need of such a battle which could scarcely bring us any benefit. What is important is that we realize how much we need to develop the understanding of the Muslims on an individual level, so we can all recognize extremism that takes us outside the framework of Islam. It may also be good for us to realize that the West both produces extremism and exports it. It may be that some of us are its consumers. At the same time, we must be aware that extremism has not reached crisis proportions when it is restricted to a few groups; however, the security of the world is threatened when it becomes the official law enjoying its own legitimacy. This is what we see coming from within political circles and institutions with executive power in the West, and this may have far-reaching effects. The Jews would probably be chosen as the best candidate in the world for such a description if the peoples of the world were given the freedom to decide matters for themselves.

There is a need for us to broaden our intellectual sights and not just let the West define for us what extremism is. We must become cognizant of the fact that extremism goes beyond the realm of Law and turn into the message of a civilization capturing the minds of people all over the world and neither the West nor the East can fully contain it.

Here we must realize that the West is going through a time of crisis, and even though we may be suffering something of the same, we must be ready to get beyond our problem. This can only be achieved by a commitment to clemency, moderation, and balance and spreading the correct teachings of our religion that puts an end to all contradictions and instability.

(www.faithinallah.org / 21.04.2012)

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