What Defines Moderate Islam?
by Stephen Schwartz
Having devoted several columns in TCS to the demand voiced among non-Muslims, as well as some Muslims, for an "Islamic Reformation," I now turn to a question that, although appearing simple, is anything but, at least for Westerners: how to define a "moderate Muslim."
The issue was highlighted for me by my visit, two months ago, to Bosnia-Hercegovina, the place where I first encountered living Islam. I do not approach Bosnian Muslim or general Balkan Muslim issues as an amateur or "wannabe" expert. I first went to the former Yugoslavia in 1990; I speak Bosnian and Albanian and lived and worked in Sarajevo and in Kosovo.
I was alarmed during my recent trip to see a resurgence of "street Wahhabism" among young people and others easily swayed by superficial influences. I wrote about these problems in The Jerusalem Post and the Jamestown Foundation's Terrorism Monitor. But I stressed that Bosnian Islam has a pluralistic, secular, European, and pro-American character and leadership.
This was apparently insufficient to quiet the anxieties of some "experts" on Islam who have never set foot in Bosnia. I was amazed to be confronted by the claim, by a non-Muslim, that Bosnian moderation has no basis in Islamic tradition, and that the absence of such means the country will always be susceptible to extremist infiltration.
In reality, whether or not moderation has a theological grounding in Islam is one of two issues; the more important in the long run, but the less pressing with regard to the situation in Sarajevo. The appeal of Wahhabism in Bosnia has little to do with the history of Islam or its theology, and everything to do with poverty, hopelessness, and the failure of Europe and the United Nations to effectively assist in the reconstruction of the wartorn country.
At the same time, although the influence of Wahhabism in Bosnia is a product of deprivation and desperation, there is much less of the former than of the latter. That is, Bosnia, although more economically disadvantaged than many other Muslim societies, has yet to produce very many radical Muslims. One may therefore dispense with the shibboleth, beloved in Washington, that in countries where extremism is widespread, mainly in the Arab world, the general cause is political. If the Gulf states, with their notably high standard of living, produce many terrorists, while Bosnia, which remains devastated, produces almost none, then the fault is in people's heads, not their stomachs.
But the question is still, then, posed: how can I be certain that Bosnia will not fall victim to radical Islam, if Islamic thought is not completely recast according to the "criticism" of its 14 centuries of civilizational experience, that is so often put forward these days, by Westerners, in an inquisitorial manner?
Here again, the tree of logic branches out, because this question contains various implications I do not accept.
First, I am not a behaviorist of the belly or of the book. I do not believe people become extremists either out of hunger or because they read controversial words. Moderate Islam has always existed; but it is not and will not be defined by the purging of texts or precedents from the Qur'an or other elements of its theology, which are harsh to Western ears, and which some Westerners wish to blame for terrorism. Radical Islam does not exist because of scriptural wording, but because of powerful political and financial interests, which owe their influence to the continued indoctrination of Muslims in a particular interpretation of Islam. The radical jihad does not exist because of the concept of jihad, but because of its use. And the defeat of the radical jihad will come not by excising the word, concept, or historical experience represented by jihad from Islam, but by defeating the radical interpretation of jihad and the interests behind it. That should be obvious.
A brief digression is in order here. In one of my recent TCS columns, I wrote that some critics of Islam as a whole tradition "demand a revision of the Muslim holy book, Qur'an, even though no Protestant ever sought to revise the Christian scripture." Various correspondents wrote to "correct" me by pointing out that there are separate Catholic and Protestant (and other) recensions of the Christian Bible, which recognize varying texts as canonical. Well, of course; there are different versions of the Bible, which is a collection of texts from different hands, and there are also different anthologies of the hadith or oral sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, which also come from different sources. Shia Muslims follow their own canon of hadith. But nobody ever said the condemnation of the Jews for their alleged guilt in the death of Jesus -- of which we were all recently reminded by Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ -- should be written out of the Gospels to absolve Christians of anti-Jewish prejudice. It is equally absurd to think that radical Islam may be done away with by deleting sections of Qur'an, or simply by throwing out certain hadith.
Moderate Islam is defined existentially, in the same way moderate Christianity is defined existentially. To begin with the latter first, some Christians who had been brought up to believe that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus acted as righteous Gentiles in the Holocaust, and saved the lives of Jews they may have thought they should despise. Similarly, Bosnian Islam needs no canonical revamping of the faith to demonstrate its moderation, and should not need to provide evidence to reassure Westerners of its nature. In the 1992-95 war Bosnian Muslims experienced the brutal slaying of a quarter million of their people, the rape of 60,000 women, the expulsion of half a million from their homes, and the destruction of every mosque in two thirds of the country, down to their foundations. Yet aside from rare exceptions, they did not engage in terror, did not turn to radicalism, and did not respond to the main Wahhabi appeal launched after the conflict, when the country was flooded by Saudi missionaries and mosque-builders. That should prove the strength of their moderate tradition; but to those for whom Bosnians still represent a "Muslim threat," no evidence of moderation would be satisfactory.
Some also insist that it is simplistic to blame Wahhabism alone for the present offensive by radical Islam. That is because they do not grasp the nature of Wahhabism or the solution to it. Wahhabism abolishes the tradition of pluralistic interpretation of Qur'an, the hadith, and Islamic law for which the religion was always previously known. To discuss the issues that have been forced on Islam by the terrorists, such as jihad, Muslims must first reclaim the right to discuss the religion on its own terms. That means ending the Wahhabi monopoly on discourse. When I published an exposé of the "Wahhabi Qur'an," in which statements that might be applied negatively to Jews and Christians were printed as if they unquestionably assailed those faiths, I was accused of diverting attention from the original malice allegedly present in the text. But Islamic pluralism, and Islamic moderation, embody the unchallengeable presumption that Qur'an, the hadith, and Islamic law are and always were open to differing interpretations. (Debate over textual interpretation is not the same as ijtihad, or originality in legal judgments, but that should be taken up elsewhere.) Wahhabism, which dominates mosques in the United States no less than in the Saudi kingdom, wipes out such a diversity of views, and replaces them with a single totalitarian dispensation.
The enforced uniformity of Wahhabism must be overthrown; then, with the restoration of Islamic pluralism, every verse in Qur'an, every hadith, and every precedent in Islamic law can be analyzed anew. I believe much can and will be reaffirmed as a foundation for moderation. But it is doubtful that Muslim tradition will be reordered according to the dictates of simplistic and bigoted non-Muslim demagogues. It is peculiar to me, in this context, that the long-standing recognition that Islam is divided between a fundamentalist minority and a nonfundamentalist majority seems to have disappeared from the minds of many Westerners; to them, as to the Muslim radicals, there is only one Islam. Some Western propagandists work overtime to convince the world that fundamentalist Islam is the only expression the faith ever produced, or that because Qur'an has not been expurgated, Muslims will always turn in that direction. Such analysts of the past think little of the future; removing controversial parts of Qur'an or any other part of Islamic tradition would only make them forbidden fruit, and even more attractive as weapons of radicalization.
As I pondered these issues, and as the days of the sacred month of Ramadan went by, a real hero of Islamic moderation came to mind, along with news arriving in one of those bizarre coincidences that is more disconcerting than illuminating. I had just completed editing an essay on shari'a in Saudi Arabia, which will appear in print early next year. Therein I described the Wahhabi abolition of the four traditional schools of Sunni shari'a, known as Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii, and Hanbali, and their replacement by a warped and arbitrary institution of pseudo-Islamic law, which traditional Muslims call la-madhhab or lawlessness.
In discussing the denial of religious rights to non-Wahhabi Muslims in the kingdom, I had written, "A case study in religious persecution involves the fate of the Maliki sect and its leader, Syed Mohamed Alawi Al-Maliki, son and grandson of teachers at the Great Mosque in Mecca. Unlike his forebears, he, along with other Malikis, is barred from preaching in the Great Mosque at Mecca or at the Prophet's Mosque in Medina -- a privilege extended to the Maliki school for more than a thousand years until the twentieth century Saudi conquest. Al-Maliki has suffered extraordinary attacks from the regime and its adherents, who accuse him of apostasy and Sufism -- the Islamic spirituality that is rigorously forbidden in Saudi Arabia."
Almost at the moment I finished editing these lines, I received word from the kingdom of the death of Syed Mohamed Alawi Al-Maliki on Friday, October 19, 2004, in Mecca. He was young, having been born in 1947, and only a year older than I, and succumbed to diabetes.
Syed Mohamed Alawi Al-Maliki was the author of more than 100 volumes on Islam. He was a leading representative of the Hejazi tradition in Arabia -- that is, of the culture of Mecca and Medina before its takeover by Wahhabism, of which he was a lifelong opponent. For these reasons, he was dismissed from a professorship at the religious university of Umm ul-Qura in Mecca. He was arrested and deprived of his passport, and, therefore, the right to leave the kingdom. But he had visited Indonesia, Morocco, and South Africa where he had taught the self-discipline of Sufism to many believers. He also had Sufi disciples in the U.S. At the end of last year, he appeared at the Convention for National Dialogue sponsored by the Saudi authorities in Mecca.
As reported in the Dubai Gulf News another independent voice heard at that Convention, Dr. Sami M. Angawi, spoke the forbidden truth: "The root of the problem lies in the single interpretation of religious matters... For a long time, we have only had a single opinion on religious matters, from a group of people who think along a single direction... That there is only one interpretation is wrong... My main objective is to allow a diversity of opinion on every level, and different schools of thought, starting from mosques, education, and the media," he said. "The two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina have always allowed diversity in opinion. For 1,400 years, we had a diversity of opinion and interpretation. This diversity started to slowly fade out about 50 years ago, until there was only one school of thought left." Dr. Angawi pointed out, "The Prophet told us to follow our hearts after listening to a wide range of advice. When you have only one advice, you have no choice. Today the problem is that young people are not given a choice. They are taught one school of thought." Angawi is also a hero; he is an architect and artist who has exposed to the world the Wahhabi vandalism of ancient Islamic architecture in the Saudi kingdom Syed Mohamed Alawi Al-Maliki never showed anger to his Wahhabi oppressors. He answered them with a superior knowledge of Islam, and even of their own doctrinal misrepresentations, and so was silenced. For some time I had been warned not to write too much about him; not to call attention to him in the Western media, as he would attract further malign scrutiny. But now he is beyond harm.
Descriptions of his burial were contradictory. I am informed that Wahhabi clerics refused to authorize a special funeral for him, but his followers were allowed to organize a service in the Grand Mosque of Mecca. That a leading Hejazi imam could have a funeral in the Grand Mosque of Mecca was considered a kind of miracle, and was described by one of my informants in the kingdom, who must maintain anonymity, as "a very spiritual event." Crown Prince Abdullah and Prince Sultan, the defense minister, appeared and praised him. Thousands upon thousands of mourners packed the streets leading from the Grand Mosque to the graveyard where he was interred. As these words are published, at the end of Ramadan (which came on November 14), nothing has appeared in English-language Arab media about him.
Syed Mohamed Alawi Al-Maliki struggled against fundamentalism, as a defender of Islamic tradition, by his example of patience and study, by the word and the pen. He did not bend and did not break. He was a true Muslim moderate. There are more like him, waiting in Arabia for the end of Wahhabism. And neither corrupt rulers, not terrorist criminals, nor ranting ideologues, Muslim or otherwise, but men and women like him, hold the destiny of the faith of Muhammad in their hands.