Donate to RNS

In Islam, ‘moderate rebels’ are extremists

(RNS) 'Moderate rebels,' a term often used to describe certain factions of anti-government fighters in the Syrian civil war, is an oxymoron as far as the Quran is concerned.

Protesters opposing Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi take part in a protest demanding that Morsi resign at Tahrir Square in Cairo on July 1, 2013. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Suhaib Salem
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-NASSER-OPED, originally published on Jan. 4, 2017.

(RNS) What on earth is a moderate rebel, anyway? Someone with 1.8 children who enjoys gardening, has a nice house in the suburbs, sometimes can’t find the television remote and who also just happens to want to topple the standing government through weapons supplied by foreign powers? 

It’s a term that is used often to describe certain factions of anti-government fighters in the Syrian civil war.

But from an Islamic perspective, there’s no such thing as a “moderate rebel.” It is an oxymoron. Rebellion against a government is an act of extremism by definition in Islam. Rebellion falls under what the Quran terms as “spreading disorder.” The Arabic word for it literally means to sever ties of relationships between friends, families and communities, or between the government and its subjects. It can be committed by individuals as well as by governments. Today, we know of it as terrorism. The Quran equates it with murder, more often than not because it usually involves murder.

 The prophet of Islam warned his followers against future Muslim leaders who would deprive them of their rights. On being questioned by Hudaifa bin al Yaman about what Muslims at that time should do, the prophet replied: “Listen and obey, even if the ruler lashes you and takes your wealth. Even then obey.”

He further explained that as long as Muslims are permitted to pray, they must neither fight their rulers nor disobey them. Here, the prophet did not speak of fasting or other religious practices, but only the most fundamental requirement in Islam: prayer, i.e.: basic freedom of conscience. On the philosophy behind this command, he explained: “Listen to them and obey them, for on them (the rulers) are their responsibilities and on you are your responsibilities.” Even if prayer is forbidden, he advocated migration rather than fighting the ruler, as the Quran teaches

In Britain, Prince Charles highlighted in a Christmas message how the prophet of Islam exemplified this teaching perfectly. During the 13 years of bitter persecution in Mecca, on account of which his own wife of 25 years, Khadijah, died, Muhammad never rebelled against the Meccan rulers, preferring to migrate from religious persecution, than take up arms. 

Indeed, he twice sent his followers to Christian Abyssinia, praising their king for his religious tolerance. When pressed by some of his companions in Mecca to take up arms and fight against his oppressors, Muhammad refused, stating that such was an act of desperation, not one of patience and trust in God.

Later, when he was forced to migrate to Medina on the night several tribes attempted his assassination, he migrated 280 miles north to Medina, and even then was not free from persecution. The Meccan rulers sent to the Medinite tribes a letter that commanded them “to fight or expel him.” If they did not, the letter warned, “we shall come to you in full force and kill your fighters and enslave your women.” It was only at this stage that God permitted Muslims to take up arms in self-defense, once their prophet was no longer a Meccan citizen. It was a war against another city-state.

When we look at the aftermath of the “Arab Spring” that rocked the world in 2011, we can begin to understand why Islam does not permit rebellion against a standing government: because the consequences of rebellion are all too often, far worse. In all countries bar Tunisia, the result has either been little change (Morocco and the Persian Gulf), further tightened military dictatorship and repression (Egypt) or large-scale social collapse, often through foreign interference (Syria and Libya).

Instead of armed rebellion, the prophet taught that the “best jihad” (righteous struggle) one is permitted with a tyrannical ruler is to “speak justly.” To raise one’s voice, not one’s sword. 

Of course, what is really meant by “moderate” rebels is that they are not extremists in their practice of religion. This doesn’t wash in Islam. If you are willing to trample on societal peace and security, decimate a nation’s infrastructure and destroy millions of families for your cause — even if it be for notions of “democracy” — then you are an extremist, for that cause. That is, after all, the definition of extremism — wrongly putting value on your cause above everything and everyone else.

At the time of the Arab Spring, the caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community was among the few to state that such “revolutions” were un-Islamic – a greatly unpopular view at the time, but one that Muslim leaders are re-adopting after witnessing the catastrophic consequences of the Arab Spring.

In this vein, after yet another Ahmadi mosque was attacked in Pakistan, resulting in the death of another Ahmadi, the caliph of the community told the faithful recently that their only response to such atrocities is prayer and patience, as the Quran commands, with no Ahmadis having the right to take the law into their own hands.

Despite the wealth of Islamic commandments against rebellion, large swaths of Muslims across the globe still supported the Arab Spring, and many continue to support the rebels in Syria – notwithstanding the clear terrorist element among the vast majority of them. 

This should not, however, come as a surprise. I keep reading that we live in a “post-truth” world. Given that the Quran refers to itself as Al-Haqq – the “Manifest Truth” – “post-truth” has, for me, a different connotation. It refers to a Muslim world that pays only lip service to the Quran, knowing that something is in direct contravention to its teaching, but not really caring; interested more in sectarian squabbles and geopolitical maneuvering rather than in establishing peace — the ultimate aim of the Quran.

(Tahir Nasser is a physician, an Ahmadi Muslim and a regular contributor and commentator in British media. Find him on Twitter: @TahirNasser)

Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!