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Moderate in the Extreme -Ruth Nasrullah

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A while back I wrote on my Houston Chronicle blog about whether or not Islam can be “reformed.” The post was written for non-Muslim readers, and in it I argued that Islam cannot change along the lines of the Protestant Reformation. I met with harsh criticism from some self-described proponents of liberal thought, who accused me of being fundamentalist, which they saw as unyielding and unfair. Because Christianity has been “reformed” and Judaism has been “reformed,” these readers felt that I was being inappropriately rigid by adhering to the guidelines of my faith.

They cited so-called progressive Muslims as proof that Islam can be modified to suit the modern western world. There’s a tremendous irony in this which is lost on them. They deem themselves liberal by virtue of their insistence on empirical evidence and fluidity of law and morality as it changes to “fit the times.” Their religion is the here and now and they therefore deem themselves generous and open-minded. In fact their world view is quite closed-minded and intolerant. They reject a bigger picture of the universe, one that allows an understanding that the world is greater than that which our senses can behold. Because my faith allows for miracles and divinity I am in fact more open-minded than those who accuse me of repression and intolerance.

A column by Sr. Asma Khalid (appended below), a Cambridge University student, does a good job of reflecting on how that irony plays out in the sphere of public thought. She notes how many Americans and Europeans demand to hear the voice of “moderate” Muslims, yet don’t recognize what a true moderate Muslim is. When they see a Muslim who walks the straight path they call him orthodox. She notes:

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“The public relations drive for “moderate Islam” is injurious to the entire international community. It may provisionally ease the pain when so-called Islamic extremists strike. But it really creates deeper wounds that will require thicker bandages because it indirectly labels the entire religion of Islam as violent.”

Daniel Pipes is an avid fan of so-called moderate Islam. He insists on the idea that a moderate movement is out there just waiting to break free of their unfriendly brethren and join the world of watered-down and secularized religion. The truth is that he does just what Sr. Asma notes – by lauding the moderate Muslim, he paints Islam as dark and evil. Such opinions are dangerous stuff of which we must be mindful. Enjoy the article.


Christian Science Monitor
Why I am not a moderate Muslim By Asma Khalid
I’d rather be considered ‘orthodox’ than ‘moderate.’ True orthodoxy is simply the attempt to piously adhere to a religion’s tenets.Last month, three Muslim men were arrested in Britain in connection with the London bombings of July 2005. In light of such situations, a number of non-Muslims and Muslims alike yearn for “moderate,” peace-loving Muslims to speak out against the violent acts sometimes perpetrated in the name of Islam. And to avoid association with terrorism, some Muslims adopt a “moderate” label to describe themselves.I am a Muslim who embraces peace. But, if we must attach stereotypical tags, I’d rather be considered “orthodox” than “moderate.”

“Moderate” implies that Muslims who are more orthodox are somehow backward and violent. And in our current cultural climate, progress and peace are restricted to “moderate” Muslims. To be a “moderate” Muslim is to be a “good,” malleable Muslim in the eyes of Western society.

I recently attended a debate about Western liberalism and Islam at the University of Cambridge where I’m pursuing my master’s degree. I expected debaters on one side to present a bigoted laundry list of complaints against Islam and its alleged incompatibility with liberalism, and they did.

But what was more disturbing was that those on the other side, in theory supported the harmony of Islam and Western liberalism, but they based their argument on spurious terms. While these debaters – including a former top government official and a Nobel peace prize winner – were well-intentioned, they in fact wrought more harm than good. Through implied references to moderate Muslims, they offered a simplistic, paternalistic discourse that suggested Muslims would one day catch up with Western civilization.

In the aftermath of September 11, much has been said about the need for “moderate Muslims.” But to be a “moderate” Muslim also implies that Osama bin Laden and Co. must represent the pinnacle of orthodoxy; that a criterion of orthodox Islam somehow inherently entails violence; and, consequently, that if I espouse peace, I am not adhering to my full religious duties.

I refuse to live as a “moderate” Muslim if its side effect is an unintentional admission that suicide bombing is a religious obligation for the orthodox faithful. True orthodoxy is simply the attempt to adhere piously to a religion’s tenets.

The public relations drive for “moderate Islam” is injurious to the entire international community. It may provisionally ease the pain when so-called Islamic extremists strike. But it really creates deeper wounds that will require thicker bandages because it indirectly labels the entire religion of Islam as violent.

The term moderate Muslim is actually a redundancy. In the Islamic tradition, the concept of the “middle way” is central. Muslims believe that Islam is a path of intrinsic moderation, wasatiyya. This concept is the namesake of a British Muslim grass-roots organization, the Radical Middle Way. It is an initiative to counter Islam’s violent reputation with factual scholarship.

This was demonstrated through a day-long conference that the organization sponsored in February. The best speaker of the night was Abdallah bin Bayyah, an elderly Mauritanian sheikh dressed all in traditional white Arab garb, offset by a long gray beard.

The words coming out of the sheikh’s mouth – all in Arabic – were remarkably progressive. He confronted inaccurate assumptions about Islam, spoke of tolerance, and told fellow Muslims an un­pleasant truth: “Perhaps much of this current crisis springs from us,” he said, kindly admonishing them. He chastised Muslims for inadequately explaining their beliefs, thereby letting other, illiberal voices speak for them.

I was shocked by his blunt though nuanced analysis, given his traditional, religious appearance. And then I was troubled by my shock. To what extent had I, a hijabi Muslim woman studying Middle Eastern/Islamic studies, internalized the untruthful representations of my own fellow Muslims? For far too long, I had been fed a false snapshot of what Islamic orthodoxy really means.

The sheikh continued, challenging Mr. bin Laden’s violent interpretation of jihad, citing Koranic verses and prophetic narrations. He referred to jihad as any “good action” and recounted a recent conversation with a non-Muslim lawyer who asked if electing a respectable official would be considered jihad. The sheikh answered “yes” because voting for someone who supports the truth and upholds justice is a good action.

The sheikh, not bin Laden, is a depiction of true Islamic orthodoxy. The sheikh, not bin Laden, is the man trained in Islamic jurisprudence. The sheikh, not bin Laden, is the authentic religious scholar. But to call him a moderate Muslim would be a misnomer.

Asma Khalid is pursuing her master’s degree in Middle Eastern/Islamic studies at the University of Cambridge in England.

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19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. Amad

    April 24, 2007 at 1:09 AM

    ASA, Interestingly and co-incidentally, this entry fits in quite well with the lecture by Sh. Yasir on ‘Progress with Progressives’.

    I love Dr. M’s twisting of the word to a more appropriate ‘pro-regressive’. Really, what it implies is a regression in Islam. Regressing it to the level of faiths before us that had been undone by the hand of man. And now we have our own who wish to rewrite Islam.

    To claim to ‘reform’ what is perfect can mean only one of two things: either (a) the reformation is a farce or (b) the perfection is a farce. For Muslims (b) is tantamount to disbelief, which really leaves us to choice (a).

  2. inexplicabletimelessness

    April 24, 2007 at 1:11 AM

    As salaamu alaikum,

    Great points mentioned in your analysis and the article. May Allah reward you for sharing sister Ruth! :)

    “They reject a bigger picture of the universe, one that allows an understanding that the world is greater than that which our senses can behold. Because my faith allows for miracles and divinity I am in fact more open-minded than those who accuse me of repression and intolerance.”

    So true!

    May Allah guide us all, ameen.

  3. Abdul-Quddus

    April 24, 2007 at 2:02 AM

    The Qur’aan itself states that true Muslims are the components of a justly balanced nation. translates the ayaah (2:143) as “a middle nation.” It’s kind of absurd to claim that Islaam needs reform when it’s criterion itself states that the religion was and is perfected by an omniscient and omnipotent God!

    The progressive Muslims of today claim to harbour a perspective that extends beyond literalism. Actually, they see the literalists as rejecting the bigger picture by strictly adhering to seventh and eighth century thought. These progressive Muslims themselves want to reinterpret Islam to suit their lives today.

  4. Abdul-Quddus

    April 24, 2007 at 2:02 AM

    “Where are the moderate Muslims?” Many who ask this question know little of Islaam. By moderate, they really mean tolerant and less Islaamic. When beseeching a moderate Muslim, actually, they are demanding compliance. Malleable is the correct word.

  5. Abdul-Quddus

    April 24, 2007 at 2:06 AM

    And it was Marmaduke Pickthall that translated the ayaah (2:143) as “a middle nation.” I’m in a hurry. Sorry for that. Ma-asalaama.

  6. Moiez

    April 24, 2007 at 10:12 AM

    Asalaamualaikum,
    its funny how when they do bring a muslim into the news that usually they are the ones who do not know what they are talking about, I think ive only seen once a knowledgable muslim brother who they aired for maybe 1 min because he was giving them the right answers. And we all remember the guy on sky news.

  7. Affad Shaikh

    April 24, 2007 at 3:21 PM

    Two things:

    I think extremists when using “moderate” do so because to them there really is not “moderate” Muslims- wasnt it Joe Kaufman who said on record there were no moderate muslims or it could have been Steven Emmerson, either way they are both right wing extremist with their own agenda- to marginalize and delimitimigize the Muslim community.

    However, unfortunatly when we go out into the community and listen to everday Americans, they use the terminaology that is put out there by these extremists and filtered through the media. What happens is that these people sincerely believe there is a distinction between good Muslims who are moderate and the “extremists”.

    I agree with the sister in her article, I admit I might have fallen into the trap she did on numerous occuasions. But the thing is when I go out into the community and speak to non-Muslims they are shocked and think where are the Muslims like you- and they say I represent “moderate Muslims” when in fact I dont think I represent anything of the sort aside from the American Muslim community.

    So its important to look at that aspect- and by doing so we can also take this “reform debate” out of the hands of the idiots who trumpet themselves as “reformers” who ever heard of non-practicing anybody’s trying to reform anything- no I think the conversation needs to be taken out from under them and reframed into how Islam can and has functioned in any society that it has come into contact with that is the core to the reform debate- these extremists believe Islam is not compatible with Western society.

  8. AnonyMouse

    April 24, 2007 at 5:50 PM

    As-salaamu ‘alaikum wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatu,

    Masha’Allah, a great post on a very relevant subject… so very, very true… far too many of us, I think, have also fallen into that same trap!

  9. abu ameerah

    April 25, 2007 at 12:34 AM

    Oh God. More on “Islamic Reform”…

    (sigh)

  10. john kactuz

    April 28, 2007 at 2:27 AM

    For once I agree with you, but only to the extent that Islam cannot change. If it changes, and becomes “moderate,” it isn’t Islam. Islam without the hate and violence isn’t Islam. Also, if you are a Muslim, and you are honest, you must recognize that terror and Islam are not only associated, but linked in the womb. Wasn’t it your prophet that said “I am make victorious with terror”? Didn’t he send out dozens of expeditions to plunder, enslave and murrder? Or maybe the words in the ahadith aren’t clear? Or maybe Muslims preder to ignore these things (and then wonder why Islam is associated with violence).

    This old infidel is offended by the hate, violence and oppression that comes from Islam. I am even more offended by the denials and lies from Muslims about their own writings.

    Take, for example, the old sheikh mentioned above. The problem is not Muslims “inadequately explaining their beliefs” as he said, but their actions. I don’t really care what the Quran or Muslims say, I want Muslims to stop spreading hate, oppressing others and killing. Is that too much to ask? And oh yes, the word “jihad” means “holy war”. Check out any Muslim site, moderate or otherwise, and you will see the context almost always means “war against unbelievers” (except when explaining the word to stupid infidels).

    I would like to offer some advice: Don’t bother to try to counter Islam’s violent reputation with “factual scholarship” because you will lose the argument – the radicals have the Quran and ahadith on their side.

    As far as I am concerned, the “radicals” are the ones that kill while the “moderates” make excuses and pretend that these things have nothing to do with Islam.

    Well, thats it for today. I spend about 3 hours today reading Tabari, volume 28 – about the man you write ‘pbuh’ after his name. It was one expedition after another. Raids, killing, enslavement and so on. Sure, he did some nice things, but what about the rest? Why did Allah always come through with a new revelation just in time for for the prophet to get… well get what he wanted? Why did Allah grant so many exceptions for his prophet? Isn’t that kind of suspicious?

    Asma, there is no hope. I will not give an inch and Muslims will be Muslims. You can, at least, take comfort in the fact that I am not violent. I do not kill, torture, rob and rape, unlike certain people. I do not threaten people and I do not try to silence anybody. Even so, Muslims think people like me should be made to shut up.

    What do you think, lady? Does what I have written here offend you? Is it all lies? Do you think I made it up? Do you want me to lie? Do you want a world where people can be silenced for saying what they think? Consider these things.

    John kactuz

  11. Surma

    April 28, 2007 at 9:10 AM

    Mr. John , I never killed anybody , never tortured anybody or I am not a violent and I am a muslim .So, how would u define me?

    You may not kill anybody or never be violent but u do have one thing that is u have “hatred “.When a person keeps hatred inside of him , should we call him a great person ?Do u consider urself a great person ?You are preaching something that u don’t even practice by urself !! so pathetic !!

  12. Hassan

    April 28, 2007 at 9:39 AM

    john kactuz, correct me if I am wrong, you seem a person who is pacifist and anti-war. Is that the case, are you against wars that America has waged?

  13. a brother

    April 28, 2007 at 12:02 PM

    Mr. Kactuz:

    Yes, there are a very small minority of extremist, misguided Muslims that do very wicked, evil, and vile things. HOWEVER, there have been many, many condemnations, repudiations, and criticisms from Islamic scholars (including through fatwas), and lay people alike saying that what they are doing is totally, 100% haraam (impermissible), unIslamic, unethical, immoral, etc. These very misguided, extremist Muslims have been said to have deviant, evil, unIslamic beliefs that are totally incompatible with the true message of Islam by these various Islamic scholars that have denounced these extremists. With all due respect, you would have to be blind, ignorant, or a combination of both to not know that these extremist, misguided Muslims have been severely repudiated and refuted to the utmost by many Islamic scholars. Some of these Muslim scholars have said that these misguided Muslim extremists are the “khawarij,” and therefore have even insinuated or flat-out articulated that Muslims have a duty to kill and destroy them. And ironically, many of these same Islamic scholars that I have been talking about, are often themselves called “extremists,” “terrorists,” “terrorist supporters,” “evil,” and many times “Wahhabi” terrorists, or any combination of these by mainstream non-Muslim Americans, non-Muslim so-called “experts” and other westerners.

  14. Umm Reem

    April 28, 2007 at 12:06 PM

    John: ““I am make victorious with terror”?”

    The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Allah made me victorious by awe…”
    there is a difference…

  15. Amad

    April 28, 2007 at 12:44 PM

    John, it seems that you have been thoroughly brainwashed by Jihadwatch or some other Islamophobic outfit out there. So, either (a) your interest is only to flame this thread and then take glee in ‘getting back’ at Muslims or (b) you are sincerely interested in having a serious discussion.

    For (a), I am sorry I can’t help you. There are enough of your types all around that it is getting relatively boring.

    For (b), I would ask you to start by reading this book: Holy Wars…Crusades…Jihad by Jalal Abualrub or ask intelligent questions. You cannot start to question history without first reading the history of Christian-oriented bloodbaths during the Crusades. Once you are a little more educated than your internet-read of Tabari, I am sure we will be able to engage you in a more intellectual fashion.

  16. a brother

    April 28, 2007 at 1:34 PM

    Mr. Kactuz:

    I have a follow up point. I had articulated that there are obviously many, many Muslim scholars (and lay people alike) that have severely, totally and unequivocally denounced Muslim extremists, calling their actions evil, unIslamic, immoral, going against the religion of Islam, etc.

    I have something to ask you, and other non-Muslim critics of Islam and/or Muslims.

    Have you or your reverends or priests or rabbis EVER condemned or critiqued the 1995 massacre of around 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, committed by Serbian Christians?

    Have you or your reverends or priests or rabbis EVER condemned or critiqued the many, many, many despicable, evil, and heinous massacres, killings, rapes, and general ethnic cleansing that have been committed by the Russian Christians against the Muslims of Chechnya, for over 300 years?

    Have you or your reverends or priests or rabbis EVER condemned or critiqued the Jewish Israeli killing, massacres, and destruction of Lebanon in the summer of 2006 that resulted in over 1,000 innocent Lebanese Muslim civilians being slaughtered? Have you or your reverends or priests or rabbis ever condemned or critiqued for that matter, the invasion of Lebanon by the Jewish Israelis in 1982 that resulted in the killing of around 20,000 Lebanese Muslim civilians? Or the despicable massacre, and rape of around 2,000 or so innocent Muslim Palestinian civilians in Sabra and Shatilla, committed by the Christian Lebanese Phalange, with the very direct support, encouragement, and help of the Jewish Israeli military, including by the certified zionist Israeli war criminal, Ariel Sharon?

    Have you or your reverends or priests or rabbis EVER condemned or critiqued the many, many heinous, barbaric massacres, killings, and ethnic cleansing committed by the Jewish zionist/Israelis in Palestine, against the native Muslims for over 50 years? Have you or your reverends or priests or rabbis EVER condemned or critiqued all of this murder, evil, and mayhem as many, many Christians (especially, but not exclusively, the dispensationalist Protestant ones) and Jews say is done in the name of Judeo-Christian “zionism?”

    Have you or your reverends or priests or rabbis EVER condemned or critiqued the Judeo-Christian American (and other Judeo-Christian western coalition “partners of the willing”) 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, that has resulted in the repulsive, evil, and barbaric murder of at least 500,000 innocent Muslim Iraqi civilians? (note – these Iraqi civilian estimates were reported by very highly esteemed, well respected, well educated western non-Muslim physicians and scientists, and they have stressed that these estimates are on the low end) On a similar note, have you or your reverends or priests or rabbis ever condemned or critiqued the 1990s western “Judeo-Christian” zionist-centric American-UK embargo of Iraq that resulted in the killing and genocide of at least 500,000 innocent Iraqi civilians (some say up to one million), including MOSTLY children? (as reported by many western non-Muslim humanitarian organizations and officials, including former UN officials who had resigned directly as a result of what they had termed a “genocide”)

    Mr. Kactuz, I believe that we Muslims should definitely, without a doubt, look into the mirror, to totally be honest and frank with ourselves, including the good and the bad, but at the same time, should not Christians, Jews, Judeo-Christians, zionists, or westerners ALSO do the same? It is my opinion that most Christians, Jews, Judeo-Christians, zionists, or westerners that are always saying how bad, evil, or violent Islam or Muslims are, are NOT at all looking in the mirror.

  17. Yusuf Smith

    April 29, 2007 at 8:29 AM

    As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

    I converted to Islam three years (and a couple of months) before 9/11 and I noticed that the community sh. Bin Bayyah is associated with were doing a lot of work before then. They were trying to steer people away from sectarianism and were attracting British Asians who were sick of Bareilawi/Deobandi politics and needed religious guidance in English and not Urdu. They were very active and commonly appeared in the English-language Muslim media, particularly Q-News. This has, of course, grown vastly since then with the rise of the Internet and blogs.

    Shaikh Hamza Yusuf said in one of his lectures that the western colonisers and their Muslim clients did away with traditional Islamic education in the Muslim world by infiltrating or suppressing the madrassas. The last one, he said, closed in Marrakesh in the early 1960s. This is a major reason why the moderate, traditional path is unpopular and has less of a profile than the Shi’ism promoted by Khomeini, the type of “Salafism” promoted by the Saudis and the type kept afloat by anger at the Saudis and distrust of any scholar who is not anti-government. I am uneasy about the government-funded “Radical Middle Way” programme in the UK, because it makes the movement look like part of a government attempt to control the community by funding one group of (mostly middle-class) Muslims without addressing any of the community’s problems or grievances. There is a long history of movements losing credibility once they are shown to have government or intelligence community backing.

  18. Yusuf Smith

    April 29, 2007 at 8:33 AM

    By the way, I would advise that comments from the likes of John Kactuz are suppressed here. They add nothing, and only serve to side-track discussion, as has happened with this thread. I advised a brother recently that I did not read the comments on his blog, because they are usually full of garbage from blindly hostile non-Muslims, and that I moderate them out on my own.

    Agreed, Br. Yusuf. If Mr Kactuz posts anything that resembles what he posted before, then we will be sure of his intentions. At that point garbage will go where all garbage should go… to the trash-bin. -MM

  19. Abu Bakr

    April 29, 2007 at 3:00 PM

    It is no coincidence that the orientalists have chosen to translate into English works such as Tarikh al-Tabari while neglecting and deliberately ignoring other works which shed light on the life of the Prophet. In fact, they have deliberately tried to marginalize sources like Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim which Muslims regard to be authoritative and superior in authenticity to the works of the Sirah. Al-Tabari, on the other hand, intended to gather in his history all the claims that are made and related, true, false, and fabricated.

    For the orientalists to rely on such narrations, actually to cherrypick the narrations which seem to cast Islam and its teachings in the worst light, while knowing full well that Muslims do not accept such narrations as authoritative is indicative of their desire to distort the image of Islam. I highly encourage you to read Dr. Muhammad Mohar Ali’s 2-volume work “Biography of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) and the Orientalists” found in PDF form here:

    http://islamhouse.com/books.php?page=eb4558ad6c717572901492e304d07531

    http://islamhouse.com/books.php?page=59872249b8c6abc16ab0c0cc944ffdf6

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