Muslim clerics must reject notions of non-Muslim inferiority (COMMENTARY)

Muslim pilgrims pray around the holy Kaaba at the Grand Mosque ahead of the annual haj pilgrimage in Mecca on September 21, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Ahmad Masood *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-RUMI-COLUMN, origianlly transmitted on Dec. 16, 2015.
Muslim pilgrims pray around the holy Kaaba at the Grand Mosque ahead of the annual haj pilgrimage in Mecca on September 21, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Ahmad Masood *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-RUMI-COLUMN, origianlly transmitted on Dec. 16, 2015.

Muslim pilgrims pray around the holy Ka’bah at the Grand Mosque ahead of the annual hajj pilgrimage in Mecca on Sept. 21, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Ahmad Masood
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-RUMI-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Dec. 16, 2015.

(RNS) After the Paris attacks and mass shooting at San Bernardino, the debates on Islam have predictably intensified, feeding hysteria and Islamophobia.

While the hate rhetoric is alarming, it is important to note that aspects of Muslim theology and jurisprudence constructed during the early years of the Islamic empire influence the wider belief system of extremists. And while most Muslims are not radicalized, they are exposed to extremist views that center on the radical notion of Islamic totalitarianism.

Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, Pakistan’s foremost progressive scholar of Islam, recently stated that the root cause of terror being committed in the name of Islam was “the religious thought” — both preached in madrassas (religious seminaries) and “propagated through political movements.” Ghamidi’s candid views were not acceptable to the clerics, who found ample space in Pakistan’s public spheres. In 2009 he was threatened and his associates attacked, and since 2010 he has been living in Malaysia.

READ: Saudi Arabia announces 34-state Islamic military alliance against terrorism

As per Ghamidi’s analysis, a few doctrines shape the extremist mindset:

  1. Polytheism, atheism and apostasy, committed anywhere in the world, are punishable by death. And through this, the clergy — and the militias they inspire — appropriate the power to punish. This is how the Islamic State terror group sources “legitimacy” to reshape its dominion, and by any means.
  2. Only Muslims have the right to govern, and every non-Muslim government is illegitimate. Non-Muslim inferiority is intrinsically linked to the idea of Muslim supremacy and consequently the need to subjugate. Islamic extremists hold the overthrow of non-Muslim governments to be necessary and permissible whenever possible.
  3. Muslims across the globe should be under the rule of a single Islamic government — the Khilafat, or caliphate.  This notion occupies a central place in the radical mindset. Even today’s Muslim nation-states, numbering 56, have no legitimacy in the radicals’ eyes.

For all the Islamophobia poisoning the well, one cannot deny the swell of seminaries and clerics preaching such ideas today. The genesis of these concepts is linked to the expansion of the Arab Empire from the seventh century onward. The experiences of the Prophet Muhammad in defending his movement, and a few related Quranic verses, are cited as the rationale for such supremacist discourses. Over time, however, Muslims have favored a more nuanced, contextual interpretation of both the Quran and their prophet’s life. The popular mood currently, however, favors a cherry-picked and literal reading, divorced from time and place, and it is used to legitimize violence.

My own country, Pakistan, is a case study in the mal-effects that these ill winds generate.

In the wake of jihad in support of the Afghan resistance against the Soviet Union, radical ideologies mushroomed. Transnational movements and groups such as al-Qaida, and now ISIS, mastered the employment of violence in the garb of Muslim resistance. Ironically, this has served only to endanger the lives and identities of Muslims globally.

READ: American mosques trying to protect bodies and spirits from hate

Ghamidi believes that without counternarratives, the situation will worsen — not just in the Middle East, but wherever Muslims live and practice their faith. However, it remains to be seen how such measures can be taken when governments of the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, actively preach and export the same literalist doctrines –Wahhabism and Salafism — across the world. In a recent Freedom House report, Saudi textbooks were analyzed. Among other dangerous narratives, the textbooks taught young Saudis to “condemn and denigrate the majority of Sunni Muslims who do not follow the Wahhabi understanding of Islam, and call them deviants and descendants of polytheists.” Such ideas underlie ISIS’ vicious targeting of Muslims — who account for over 90 percet of those they have killed.

The official textbooks, written under the tutelage of a theocratic monarchy, also say that Shiite and Sufi Muslims are heretical and that these groups should be seen as polytheists. Similarly, Muslims must hate Christians, Jews and other “unbelievers” — and that the “Jews and the Christians are enemies of the (Muslim) believers.” Mainstream schools in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere teach that the “spread of Islam through jihad is a religious duty.” During the 1980s, such ideas were also imparted to Pakistani and Afghan children, and some of these textbooks continue to be used. Ironically, the University of Nebraska produced and supplied these textbooks, to further the cause of jihad against the Soviets.

Raza Rumi is a scholar in residence at Ithaca College, NY and a fellow at Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. Photo courtesy of Raza Rumi

Raza Rumi is a scholar in residence at Ithaca College and a fellow at Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. Photo courtesy of Raza Rumi

READ: Priest who survived ISIS: ‘My interfaith work saved my life’

Colonial scars, alongside fresh, neo-colonial wounds, have wreaked havoc in the Middle East. Today, Syria, Iraq and Libya are states only in name. Twentieth-century Middle Eastern states were artificially carved and ruled by dictatorships that prevented the emergence of democratic institutions — and in such a social and political landscape, the simplicity of the extremists’ message became a panacea. And yet for Muslim leaders, scholars and intellectuals, this can present no opt-out clause — their focus must remain on challenging popular narratives and conspiracy theories that pollute the minds of millions. That ISIS does not represent the Muslim corpus is a truism. However, it must also be accepted that popular discourses in Muslim societies often encourage hate.

Muslim leaders must reform religious and jurisprudential doctrines regarding non-Muslim inferiority, the global caliphate and capital punishments, and recognize that this will better equip them to deal with the complexities characterizing the world today. Blaming others for persistent problems is an easy path to take — but that will serve only to entrench Muslims deeper in the quagmire.

(Raza Ahmad Rumi is a Pakistani policy analyst and journalist who is a scholar in residence at Ithaca College in New York)

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Raza Ahmad Rumi


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  • Very revealing article about the troubles in the Muslim world.

    I once worked with an Iranian who was a cheerful person and studying in the field of engineering. He told several of us fellow employees that he was ‘taught to hate Jews’ when he lived in Iran. I thought how sad that was. He didn’t say how he was taught that attitude, but he never acted according to that teaching. That he would admit such an experience would indicate that he knew how bad it was.

    Conservatism seems so heartless, especially in a religious context. What a terrible shame that is.

    I think it’s necessary to say that ‘Christianity, most especially the liberal-minded, is the brightest light of good works and loving attitudes the world has ever known’.

    Eventually, everybody will catch on that just about any ‘liberal-mindedness’ is the best and most happiest attitude to have.

  • A trenchant essay, well argued and sourced. I especially appreciate the framing of Javed Ghamidi’s criticism as the scalpel behind the dissection. I challenge through whether Salafi or Wahabi understanding of sharia are “literal.” They are instead historically fixed and fossilized. In taking the humanly-composed law of the past as divine, are they not (in terms of Islamic theology), committing idolatry? Why grant them the status of “literalism” at all? Christian fundamentalists don’t read the Biblical text “literally” either–they read it through a very particular set of assumptions. Why say this for Sunni fundamentalists, when there is an equally long Sunnah tradition of pluralistic modalities of interpretation and practice (Ghamidi, Fundamentals of Hadith Interpretation, pg 24)

  • It would be the wiser path to avoid publicly advocating Aqeedah issues unless having received the appropriate level of training & learning from knowledgeable scholars

  • Agree with Rumi–as a Muslim, I see this as real problem, and so do trustworthy scholars. The way Saudi translations bastardize the beautiful opening chapter of the Koran is a shame. (They insert a polemic against Jews and Christians that is not there in the Arabic original.) And, unfortunately, some Muslim preachers have taken other passages out of context and are feeding laypeople prejudice and disrespect toward Jews and Christians. It worries me greatly that Muslims who can’t speak Arabic or lack good scholarly advice are being fed this line. There are many reputable scholars with knowledge of the Koran and Hadith who teach a very different understanding of how Muslims should relate to other People of the Book. Imam Magid Muhammad, Khaled Abou El Fadil,

  • We should note that Islam is not exceptional in claiming to be exceptional. If the rest of the world wants to tell Muslims that they should reject the inferiority of others, religions like Christianity, ideologues like Capitalists, and those whose national identities belong to Western nations must do the same.

  • Even the Islamic Fundamentalism we see today has much more modern roots than its adherents and many outside of the religion are willing to admit to.

    The extremism of Saudi Arabia was largely a reaction to encroachments of Revolutionary Iran into political spheres of influence and the siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. Essentially the Saudis trying to out fundamentalist its Iranian rivals.

    Most of the Middle East aspired towards secular nationalism from the end of WWII to the late 1970’s of the variety seen in the Shah, Nasser, and Baathists. Even the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt was primarily nationalist in nature during that period. Their existence in an autocratic state being a function of their relative harmlessness to the military control.

    Islamicism exists today because it is used by dictators as the panacea for colonial/post-colonial issues, to address political anger. Dictators use it to divert dissent outwards, to save their skins.

  • A survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center released 12/15/15 found that a large majority of white evangelical Protestants, as well as smaller majorities of older Americans and those with less education, said Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its believers.

    Overall, Americans split evenly on the question of whether Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other religions, with 46% saying it is more likely to do so and 45% saying it was not, the Pew poll found.

    Islam is not more violent than medieval Christianity or Biblical Judaism. But the wide spread separation of Church and State that is normal in Europe and North America; which has kept religion out of political and military conflicts between different nations, has not yet become the rule in Muslim lands.

    Until Islam is fully depoliticized, and somewhat privatized, as Christianity and Judaism are in the U.S.A., political movements will use religion to motivate violent acts…

  • Rabbi Maller,
    ” …the…separation of Church and State…has not yet become the rule in Muslim lands. ”

    It desperately needs to, but how is that ever going to happen?

    There doesn’t appear to be any great men or mystics in the Muslim world today capable of ‘shaking things up’ to make that happen. Muslims should pray for such things.

    Only Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi made the comment that ‘Islam needs a revolution’. Could he be such a shaker-upper?

  • Very stimulating discussion. Actually, there is a lot of debate among Muslims about what the relationship between Islam and the state should be. If you want to start a lively discussion, just voice your personal opinion on the issue and sit back and watch the fun. Worth looking at polling data from Gallup, Pew, etc. A lot of people say they want politics to reflect religious values, which doesn’t sound so different from the US. Views on the proper role of Islamic law also differ. (Interesting factoid: the world’s largest Islamic organization–Nahldatul Ulama in Indonesia w/30-40 million members–has repeatedly opposed efforts to make Islamic law part of the constitutional framework. )
    There are a lot of reformist Islamic voices out there, but in many Middle Eastern countries they face legal pressure and/or death threats for speaking up. Fatteh Al-Sissi is no religious reformer, however–he’s a military dictator.

  • Kristin,
    ” There are a lot of reformist Islamic voices out there… ”

    And I bet those reformist voices are getting tired of all the ‘death stuff’ that goes on in the Islamic world. Why is anyone interested in so much death anyhow?

    Just read that the guillotine was last used in France around 1977. Islam will one day cease all of this beheading stuff but it’ll take a long time probably.

    The Bibles’ Paul wrote that we should follow after the things that make for peace and the things where we can help one another. Sounds great and it will be important one day.