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Newsletter October 2006  -   the Message Continues ... 7/62

 

 

 

 

 

The perception of Islam today by many non-Muslims is that it is a 
fanatical and violent religion. That is a superficial view which ignores 
the fact that there are two models of Islam, one that is uncompromising 
and extremist in its views and another that is tolerant, moderate and 
humanistic.
--Al-huda Editor
 
 
Tolerant and Intolerant Islam
.....on how extremism emerged in the contemporary world.
 
 
As early as the first century of the Muslim calendar, Islam has known 
radical sects who demanded blind adherence to their rigid reading of the 
articles of faith, side by side with mainstream Islam, whose adherents
eschew violence and extremism and do not profess to hold a monopoly on 
Truth. The phenomenon began with the emergence of the Khawarij 
(Seceders) in 660 AD, (the middle of the first Hejira century), a sect 
which preached a dogmatic interpretation of Scripture and practiced a 
version of excommunication by branding those who did not adopt its 
teachings as heretics. This was the first such sect but by no means the 
last, and throughout the history of Islam the quiet of religious life 
was broken many times by marginal groups who tried to impose their 
extremist views on the majority by violent means. A comprehensive 
history of these groups has been compiled by my friend, Professor 
Mahmoud Ismail Abdul Razzaak, in an authoritative reference work 
entitled "The Secret Sects of Islam." The author devotes special 
attention to the Qarmatians, who carried away the Black Stone of the Ka' 
bah and kept it in a remote area in the east of the Arabian Peninsula 
for over a century.
 
Alongside the groups and sects whose members insisted on a literal 
interpretation of holy texts and laid down strict rules governing all 
aspects of life, there was the general trend represented in the main 
Sunni schools (the most important being the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafite and 
Hanbalite, and their offshoots, Al-Laith and Al-Tebarry), as well as the 
Shiites, who are split into a number of sects. The most important Shiite 
sect is the Imammeya, or Ithna'ashariyya, (i.e. Twelvers), so called 
because they accept as imams twelve of the descendants of Ali ibn-Abu 
Talib (according to their belief, the twelfth imam, who disappeared 
about 874 AD, is still living and will return). Within this general 
trend there emerged prominent proponents of deductive reasoning, like 
the great jurist Abu Hanifa, who accepted just over one hundred of the 
Prophet's Hadiths as apostolic precept, as well as uncompromising 
champions of tradition, like Ahmed ibn-Hanbal, whose book, Al-Musnad, is 
a compilation of over ten thousand Hadiths. The conservative ibn-Hanbal 
served as the bulwark of orthodoxy and tradition against any 
intellectual endeavor, and for a time exerted a considerable hold on 
public imagination. Although his influence eventually waned, in its 
heyday tradition reigned supreme and very little room was left for 
reason. The two main disciples of ibn-Hanbal were ibn-Taymiyah and 
ibn-Qaiym Al-Juzeya, who, like their mentor, allowed no scope for reason 
or independent thinking, but insisted on a dogmatic adherence to the 
Hadiths as authoritative sources of all matters spiritual and temporal, 
laying down strict guidelines to govern every aspect of everyday life.
In addition, the world of Islam was the scene of a battle of ideas 
between Abu Hamid Al-Ghazzali (Algazel), a strict traditionalist who did 
not believe the human mind capable of grasping the Truth as ordained by 
God, and Ibn Rushd (Averoess), who championed the primacy of reason. The 
exponents of these two schools waged a bitter battle in which the first 
salvo was fired by Al-Ghazzali with his book, The Incoherence of the 
Philosophers. Ibn Rushd answered with his brilliant treatise in defense 
of rationality, The Incoherence of the Incoherence. But despite his 
spirited defense, the outcome of the battle was clearly in 
Al-Ghazzali's  favour, and the great majority of Islamic jurists adopted 
his ideas, interpreting the precepts of Islamic law by appeal to the 
authority of tradition and spurning deductive reasoning altogether. 
Islamic jurisprudence was dominated by the Mutakallimun, or dialectical 
theologians, who asserted the primacy of tradition (naql), as advocated 
by Al-Ghazzali, over that of reason ('aql), as advocated by Ibn Rushd. 
But though Ibn Rushd's ideas were rejected by the Muslim world, they 
took root strongly in Europe, particularly France, which embraced his 
vision of the primacy of reason wholeheartedly.
 
Thus Muslims can be said to have known two different understandings to 
Islam, as it were, one based on a rigid, doctrinaire interpretation of 
holy texts and the violent repression of free thought, the other on a 
moderate and tolerant understanding of Scripture which allowed for the 
acceptance of the Other. The first was espoused by the secret sects 
(limited in number and influence) which emerged in remote areas of the 
Arabian Peninsula and can best be described as the Bedouin model. The 
second took hold in the more intellectually vibrant climate that
prevailed among the peoples descended from ancient civilizations in 
places like Egypt, Iraq, Turkey and the Levant, which I call the 
Egyptian/Turkish/Syrian model of Islam.
 
Until the mid-eighteenth century, this was the model adopted by most 
Muslim communities outside the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. But 
that was before the rise of Wahhabism, a puritan revival movement 
launched by Mohamed ibn-Abdul Wahab from Najd, where he was born in 
1703. In 1744, he forged an alliance with the ruler of Al-Dir'iyah, a 
tribal chieftain by the name of Mohamed ibn-Saud, who became his 
son-in-law. The alliance led to the first incarnation of the Saudi 
state, which, by 1804, had expanded to control nearly one million square 
metres of the Arabian Peninsula. It was a short-lived incarnation, 
lasting only until 1819, when Mohamed Ali's son, Ibrahim Pasha, led a 
military expedition which destroyed Wahhabi power and razed the capital 
of the first Saudi state, Al-Dir'iyah, to the ground.
 
Mohamed Ali's decision to send first his son Tousson then his son 
Ibrahim Pasha, known for his military skills, to destroy the first Saudi 
state had implications going far beyond the political or military 
ambitions of one man. It was in fact an expression of a 
cultural/civilizational confrontation between the two models of Islam, a 
confrontation the enlightened Egyptian/Turkish/Syrian model decided to 
take to the heartland of the obscurantist, extremist and fanatical 
Wahhabi model. Mohamed Ali, who was extremely impressed by the European 
model of development and saw no contradiction between the mechanisms by 
which it had come about and his Islamic beliefs, believed the Wahhabi 
understanding of Islam stood as a major obstacle in the way of the dream 
he had nurtured since coming to power in 1805 (and until he abdicated in 
favor of his son Ibrahim in 1848) to place Egypt on a similar road to 
development.
 
Years after the defeat inflicted on them by Ibrahim Pasha (who captured 
their leader and sent him to Egypt, then to Istanbul where he remained 
until his death), the Saudis reemerged as a political force in the 
eastern region of the Arabian Peninsula. Basing themselves in Riyadh, 
they began to meddle covertly in political affairs. This placed them on 
a collision course with the al-Rashid family in Ha'il, and the two sides 
were soon locked in battle. The Saudis, under the leadership of Abdul 
Rahman, father of the founder of the current Saudi dynasty, King Abdul 
Aziz, were defeated in 1891. Abdul Rahman fled to Kuwait with leading 
members of the House of Saud, where they remained in exile until 1902. 
During this period, they were the guests of Sheikh Mubarak al-Sabbah,
who played an important role in the formation of the young Abdul Aziz. 
Born in 1876, Abdul Aziz, who came to be known as Ibn Saud, was 
encouraged in his dream to recapture Riyadh by the ruler of Kuwait. In 
1902, Ibn Saud (Abdul Aziz) seized Riyadh and waged a 30-year campaign 
to assert his dominion over the Arabian Peninsula. In 1925 he entered 
first Mecca then Medina, and, in September 1932, the 56-year old 
proclaimed himself king over the Kingdom of Najd and Hejaz, later to 
become the first kingdom named after its ruling dynasty, Saudi Arabia.
 
Concomitantly with the birth of the new kingdom, which officially 
adopted the doctrine of Wahhabism, came the discovery of vast reservoirs 
of oil under its deserts. This provided the Wahhabis with a virtually 
endless source of funds which they used to propagate their model of Islam.
 
Three decades after the creation of Saudi Arabia and the discovery of 
oil, many things had changed in the world:
 
One, Saudi Arabia had built up a huge fortune that enabled it to further 
the cause of Wahhabism not only within its own borders but throughout 
the Arab and Muslim world. Its efforts proved successful, as many once 
moderate Muslims were gradually won over to the harsh version of Islam 
preached by the Wahhabis.
Two, beginning in the 'sixties, Egypt suffered a reversal of fortune at 
all levels, including a decline in its general cultural climate, 
allowing Wahhabi influence to infiltrate the venerable institution of 
Al-Azhar. The defeat of June 1967 opened the door wide to groups which 
espoused the Saudi understanding of Islam and who translated their 
radical views into political action, often at the point of a gun. Three, 
in the context of the Cold War, the West in general and the United 
States in particular adopted a number of misguided policies towards the 
region, including turning a blind eye to the spread of Wahhabi influence 
in the Arab and Islamic world, and even occasionally supporting radical 
groups inspired by the Wahhabi doctrine to achieve their own political 
ends, such as ending the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
The assassination of President Anwar Sadat by an extremist group was a 
wake-up call which alerted the world to the growth and spread of the 
Saudi-backed Wahhabi model of Islam and the retreat of the Egyptian / 
Turkish / Syrian model. A succession of similar events attested to the 
dangerous spread of this model in most societies with a Muslim majority, 
in Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, Pakistan, Afghanistan 
and Indonesia. On the morning of September 11, 2001, a group of fanatics 
belonging to the Wahhabi brand of Islam launched attacks on New York and 
Washington that illustrated how the members of this sect view the Other 
in general and Western civilization in particular.
 
For the average European or American unfamiliar with some of the facts 
presented in this article, it is easy to believe that Islam, violence 
and terrorism go hand in hand. But those who have a more thorough grasp 
of the issue know that this perception of Islam has taken hold only 
because a puritanical, fundamentalist model of Islam, which was marginal 
and ineffectual before oil wealth put it on the map, has managed, thanks 
to petrodollars, to make the world believe that its interpretation of 
Islam is Islam. The doctrinaire version of Islam propounded by the 
Wahabbis had no followers among the Muslims of the world before the 
expansion of Saudi influence following the oil boom. Millions of Muslims 
in Egypt, Turkey, the Levant, Iraq, Indonesia and throughout the world 
remained immune to the appeal of the fanatical, violent and bloody 
message of what was a small and obscure sect bred in the intellectually 
barren landscape of the eastern Arabian Peninsula. All that changed with
the massive influx of petrodollars into the coffers of Saudi Arabia, 
which used its new-found wealth to propagate the message of its 
home-grown Wahhabi sect with missionary zeal. Hence the emergence of 
militant Islam as a force to be reckoned with on the world stage, a 
force that now represents a dangerous threat to world peace, to humanity 
and to Islam and Muslims. Half a century ago, the Muslims of Egypt, 
Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey were models of tolerance who believed in 
a gentle and enlightened Islam that could, and did, coexist peacefully
with other religions and cultures. Following the decline in living 
standards they have suffered since at the hands of despotic and corrupt 
rulers, they have become easy prey for the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
 
The perception of Islam today by many non-Muslims is that it is a 
fanatical and violent religion. That is a superficial view which ignores 
the fact that there are two models of Islam, one that is uncompromising 
and extremist in its views and another that is tolerant, moderate and 
humanistic. It is also a nave view that can lead to dangerous decisions 
like the ones which informed the West's policies when it turned a blind 
eye to the spread of Wahhabism and established close links with radical 
Islamic movements like the Taliban in Afghanistan.
 
Finally, there is no need to point out to the neutral reader that the 
existence of Qur'anic texts which can be used to evidence the violence 
of Islam is unimportant, because there are enlightened interpretations 
of the same texts which link them to specific circumstances and events. 
At the end of the day, any text, even if it is divine, requires a human 
agency to interpret it, and the real test is how the mind elects to 
interpret it. Moreover, there are also many Qur'anic texts which 
proscribe the use of violence and aggression against those belonging to 
other faiths and creeds, and calls on Muslims to treat them fairly and 
humanely. But texts should not be the focus of debate here, not least 
because this would allow extremists on the other side to justify their 
use of violence by invoking Old Testament texts exhorting believers to 
violence, notably in the Book of Joshua, son of Nun.
 
What needs to be done at this stage is to champion the cause of 
enlightenment by supporting moderates and promoting the humanistic 
understanding of Islam that once prevailed among the vast majority of 
Muslims. Efforts in this direction must go hand in hand with a counter 
offensive against the rigid, doctrinaire, even bloodthirsty, version of 
Islam that first appeared among isolated communities separated from the 
march of civilization by the impenetrable sand dunes of the Arabian 
desert. Geographical isolation coupled with a narrow tribal outlook is a
lethal mix that cannot possibly shape a humane and tolerant perception 
of the Other. The time has come for the Saudi government to part ways 
with Wahhabism and to realize that the alliance between the House of 
Saud and the Wahhabi dynasty is responsible for the spread of 
obscurantism, dogmatism and fanaticism, poisoning minds with radical 
ideas opposed to humanity, progress, civilization, cultural continuity 
and pluralism, the diversity of opinions and creeds that is one of the 
most important and enriching features of human life.

 

 

 

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