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Moderation And Extremism On Islamic Terms

March 9, 2013 in Islam with 0 Comments

Sometimes we feel we are losing the war of words. As new concepts and coinages colonise the Muslim mind, we are left playing catch-up. Defining terms is a function of power, hence the feeling of helplessness in the face of familiar words being “redefined”. Wisdom is required to be flexible to genuine progress while maintaining the integrity of our religious discourse; after all, scripture-based religion necessitates a keen awareness of the meaning of words and the intent of speakers.

Unethical media/political usage of certain words has evoked a variety of strange reactions. They have mastered the art of using words laden with value judgements (connotations) yet devoid of precise meaning (denotation), such that they can even be strung together to great effect. Upon this method, “extremist radical fanatic” means no more than “bad bad baddie”. Then we have some Muslims trying to reclaim these negative terms by casting aside their baggage. On the other hand, some reject ostensibly positive labels such as “moderate” because people with problematic agendas have promoted them under this banner. If anything, these are the names we need to reclaim!

So what is a “moderate”, and what is Islam’s approach to this concept? To speak of Islam’s “approach” is to assume that its scriptures have spoken of the concept, not leaving us to react at a later time. Do we need to consider “moderation” as a RAND-y agenda, or is it the sort of lifestyle that takes a bit of Islam, but not too much (like being a “moderate drinker”)? Is the “moderate” someone who cancels any religious teaching which critics find unpalatable?

Balance

The aim of this brief article is to draw attention to some of the keywords in our Islamic tradition and contemporary discourse for both sides of this equation. By so doing, we can aspire to perfecting our individual and collective religiosity, directing it to be both faithful and sustainable, while avoiding the pitfalls of those who have gone before.

Middleness

Among the most prominent words used to describe Islamic moderation is wasatiyya. Note that our concern is “Islamic moderation” as a universal value, not “moderate Islam” as modified religion. Leading institutions such as al-Azhar proudly declare themselves to be wasati in nature. The noun wasatiyya is inspired by the verse which falls right in the middle of the longest chapter of the Quran: {And thus have We made you a middle nation (ummatan wasatan) that you may be witnesses unto mankind…} (2:143). To translate it, I am drawn to the simplicity of “middleness”, with the sense that the right course is always found passing between extremes. A more political-style translation would be “centrism”.

One may also link this concept to that of being “mainstream” as opposed to being out there on the fringes. This type of extremism (i.e. being distant from the middle) is spoken of in Arabic as tatarruf. As we know, there is only one “straight path” which we pray constantly to be upon in our ultimate journey; but it is a path wide enough to accommodate most of our differences. Those who claim that they are the path are often in reality at its fringes, in danger of falling off. Meanwhile, the majority are somewhere in the middle, some more middle than others.

Balance

Another keyword is tawazun, which means to keep things in “balance” and in due “proportion”, inspired again by verses such as: {And the heaven He raised, and established the balance (mizan); that you transgress not in the balance} (55:7-8). As elaborated by key contemporary theorists such as Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, as well as leading scholars before him [see e.g. Imam Ghazali’s theory of sound character in the section of his Ihyaʾ published as On Disciplining the Soul], Islamic centrism is based upon balancing between aspects which, if taken in isolation or allowed to overtake their opposites completely, would constitute an extreme.

Islam itself provides just balance between the needs of body and spirit as well as those of individual and society. It balances wisely between revelation and reason, and the concerns of this life and the next, and so on. Therefore, a person who leans excessively in one direction would be considered to have lost his or her balance. They may also be guilty of selectivity, like those who “believe in part of the book” (2:85).

Moderation

Perhaps the word most closely related to this English term is iʿtidal. It comes from the same root as doing justice (ʿadl), the frequent exhortation of the Quran. This concept – taking things in due measure and shunning excessiveness (ifrat) or laxity (tafrit) – is best understood by considering its opposites, which in fact are words used by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to describe the phenomenon of extremism as it appeared in his lifetime or showed its warning signs [see Islamic Awakening Between Rejection and Extremism, Chapter 1]:

a) Ghuluww – in a hadith reported by Ahmad, al-Nasaʾi and Ibn Majah: “Beware of excessiveness in religion. Those before you were destroyed by excessiveness in religion.” In a subtle indication, the Prophet (PBUH) showed approval at the small pebbles collected by Ibn ʿAbbas during the Hajj: “Yes, with such [do stone the pillars]. Beware of excessiveness in religion.” [Ahmad, al-Nasaʾi, al-Hakim] In the Quran, the Christians are exhorted not to go to excesses in religion (4:171, 5:77).

b) Tanattuʿ – “Ruined are the hair-splitters.” [Muslim] This hadith refers to going too deep into matters which a person is not required to know, let alone engaging in wasteful argumentation where there is lenient and tolerant scope in the Shariʿa. An illustrative example is the Israelites’ calf and their repeated questioning which delayed the fulfilment of duty (Q 2:67-71).

c) Tashaddud/tashdid – closely related is the problem of being overly strict on one’s self or others. Imam Ibn Kathir, in his commentary upon the verse mentioning monasticism (Q 57:27), cites a hadith reported by Abu Yaʿla: “Do not be strict upon yourselves, lest God be strict upon you. Indeed a people were strict upon themselves until God was strict upon them, and you see their remains in the hermitages and monasteries.”

Hence the frequent Prophetic directives to give due rights to the body, mind and soul, and to the family and society, as well as to the Creator. Thus we are to enjoy the good things of this life in moderation, shunning extravagance and wastefulness; we are to enjoy God’s dispensations as well as hastening to fulfil His commands. By establishing this balance, we will reach our destination safely, with the help of Allah.

More broadly, we are entrusted with the duty of resetting the balance in this world according to divine guidance, which requires us to change what is within ourselves and our “middle nation” so that we be indeed “witnesses unto mankind” (Q 2:143).

By Sohaib Saeed of 1st Ethical Trust

Sohaib Saeed writes on behalf of the 1st Ethical Charitable Trust, which encourages British Muslims to benefit wider society, thereby fostering improved social and religious cohesion.

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