Reclaiming the Path of Moderation in Islam

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Fundamentalists are gaining momentum across the Muslim world, but their conception of Islam relies on a flawed reading of the Koran.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE L ast week, Islamists blocked the construction of the first Hindu temple in Islamabad, Pakistan. The project was meant to symbolize tolerance in an age of radicalism. Instead, controversy has turned it into an emblem of dogmatism in the Muslim world. The Pakistani government’s decision to withdraw its support from the temple project is but a symptom of a wider trend. While fundamentalist clerics fought against the Hindu temple in Pakistan, a Turkish court revoked Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum, paving the way for its conversion into a mosque. A few hours later, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the deportation of Protestant missionaries, accusing them without evidence of “threatening Turkey’s public order.”

In every corner of the Muslim world, religious and ethnic minorities find themselves attacked by a pack of obdurate fanatics. Hiding behind the convenient veil of religious fervor, those who mistake orthodoxy for devotion have gained tremendous influence in political circles. As the rising tide of Islamic nationalism threatens the survival of Middle Eastern pluralism, a return to sound Koranic principles may well be the best way to defeat pseudo-religious fundamentalists.

In 2015, the leading scholar Mohammad Hashim Kamali published a seminal work on Islamic jurisprudence, The Middle Path of Moderation in Islam. In fewer than 300 pages, the book examines a series of Koranic concepts that underpin the history of Islamic thought. Among these central ideas is Ikhtilāf, or reasoned disagreement. As Kamali aptly remarks, the Koran teaches believers that “religious diversity is divinely willed, which inspires, in turn, coexistence with, and tolerance of, others as a spiritual and not just an ethical imperative.” Naturally, skeptics will object that Islam can be interpreted in a wide variety of ways, many of which refute Kamali’s pacifist pluralism. To respond, Kamali presents an erudite and comprehensive review of textual evidence, burying his opponents under a mountain of citations while explaining the context in which more-controversial passages have to be read.

Islam is an all-encompassing religion that blurs the line between temporal and divine power. As the Catholic intellectual Richard John Neuhaus once wrote, classical Islam considers that “the most fundamental error of Western liberalism is the distinction, even division, of sacred and profane” — resulting in what the influential Egyptian thinker Sayyid Qutb termed “hideous schizophrenia.” Beyond a set of metaphysical claims, Islam proposes a way of life, a culture, and a political project. It is also a religion of jihad, that is, of spiritual conquest. Unlike Judaism, Islam places a central emphasis on the conversion of unbelievers.

Time and again, the Koran invites believers to “fight [the enemies of Islam] until there is no persecution” (al-Baqarah 2:193), and to “fight in the way of God against those who fight against you” (al-Baqarah 2:190). But these endorsements of defensive warfare, of which terrorists make extensive use, all belong to a specific part of the Muslim corpus: the story of the Prophet Mohammed at war. In times of conflict, Islam does seem to endorse certain forms of violence that can, if interpreted along literalist lines, justify murderous actions committed against supposed enemies and perceived persecutors.

But the matter at hand is entirely different. Turkey is not at war with its minuscule Protestant minority, and Pakistan has nothing to fear from the very few Hindus residing in Islamabad. In times of peace, and in countries where Islam reigns supreme, these controversial verses simply do not apply. Instead, conventional Islamic jurisprudence ought to be respected. And this distinction explains why the work of Kamali and other brilliant Muslim intellectuals is absolutely crucial. In an age when extremists masquerade as theologians, rigorous Islamic scholars are much-needed to expose the characteristic dishonesty with which Islamists neglect the complexity of texts whose message they claim to defend.

In times of peace, Islam simply does not require the spiritual conquest of unbelievers to be coercive. On the contrary, the Koran is filled with exhortations to “refuse compulsion in religion” (al-Baqarah 2:256). In al-Kāfirun 109:1–6, the prophet reaches out to non-Muslims and defends religious diversity:

O you who disbelieve, I worship not that which you worship, nor do you worship that which I worship. . . . For you, your religion, and for me, mine.

Elsewhere, we find evidence that religious differences are divinely willed, and have to be treated as such:

Had your Lord so willed, all who are on earth would have believed. Would you then force people to become believers? (Yūnus, 10:99).

And again:

Say (O Mohammed): The truth is from your Lord. Let him who will, believe (in it), and let him who will, disbelieve (al-Kahf, 18:29).

In short, just as the prophet refuses to impose the precepts of Islam upon peaceful non-believers, so ordinary Muslims aspiring to emulate his legacy should defend respectful disagreement, participate in inter-religious dialogues, and deliver the Koranic message with wasaṭiyyah, that is, with moderation. In fact, the Islamic tradition frequently compares spreading the word of Allah to a kind of invitation, as in al-Naḥl 16:125: “Invite the way of your Lord with wisdom and fair exaltation, and hold discourse with [non-Muslims] in the finest manner.” This profound respect of religious differences lies at the heart of Islam’s spiritual conquest. For conversions to mean anything, Muslims are to use the word of God with tact and care, not with violence and fury.

In this sense, as British historian Thomas Arnold argues in his magnum opus The Preaching of Islam, while the Koran is ambivalent when it comes to the limits of acceptable behavior in wartime, the idea that Islam is normally “spread by the sword” is both historically and theologically inaccurate. Naturally, saying as much need not mean that Islam is unambiguously pluralist in its approach to religious diversity. Instead, Kamali and others have tried to show that fundamentalists who justify their discriminatory, exclusionary, and ultra-nationalist policies with religious zeal would do well to (re-)read the texts to whose authority they appeal. After all, if self-professed Islamic nationalists want to lead the Muslim world into another golden age, they should remember that the first Islamic Golden Age happened during a period of unparalleled tolerance, a time when Muslim scholars read Aristotle and partnered with Christian and Jewish thinkers to embark on shared intellectual journeys. But we should not be too optimistic. Ultimately, the likes of Erdogan care very little about Islam — and very much about power.

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