Friday, April 30, 2010

What is the context of Muslim Extremism?

Abdul Hakim Murad

The extreme has broadened, and the middle ground, giving way, is everywhere dislocated and confused. 

And this enfeeblement of the middle ground is in turn accelerated by the opprobrium which the extremists bring not simply upon themselves, but upon committed Muslims everywhere. For here, as elsewhere, the preferences of the media work firmly against us. ..when a fringe Islamic group bombs Swedish tourists in Cairo, the muck is instantly spread over 'militant Muslims' everywhere.  

If it is ever to prosper, the 'Islamic revival' must be made to see that it is in crisis, and that its mental resources are proving insufficient to meet contemporary needs. The response to this must be grounded in an act of collective muhasaba, of self-examination, in terms that transcend the ideologised neo-Islam of the revivalists, and return to a more classical and indigenously Muslim dialectic.  

It is true that we frequently hear the Quranic verse which states that "God does not change the condition of a people until they change the condition of their own selves." But never, it seems, is this principle intelligently grasped. Nothing could be more hazardous, however, than to measure such moral reform against the yardstick of the fiqh without giving concern to whether the virtues gained have been acquired through conformity (a relatively simple task), or proceed spontaneously from a genuine realignment of the soul.

And as the Blessed Prophet never tired of reminding us, there is little value in outward conformity to the rules unless this conformity is mirrored and engendered by an authentically righteous disposition of the heart. 'No-one shall enter the Garden by his works,' as he expressed it.

Meanwhile, the profoundly judgemental and works - oriented tenor of modern revivalist Islam (we must shun the problematic buzz-word 'fundamentalism'), fixated on visible manifestations of morality, has failed to address the underlying question of what revelation is for. For it is theological nonsense to suggest that God's final concern is with our ability to conform to a complex set of rules. His concern is rather that we should be restored, through our labours and His grace, to that state of purity and equilibrium with which we were born. 

To make this point, the Holy Quran deploys a striking metaphor. In Sura Ibrahim, verses 24 to 26, we read:  

Have you not seen how God coineth a likeness: a goodly word like a goodly tree, the root whereof is set firm, its branch in the heaven? It bringeth forth its fruit at every time, by the leave of its Lord. Thus doth God coin likenesses for men, that perhaps they may reflect. And the likeness of an evil word is that of an evil tree that hath been torn up by the root from upon the earth, possessed of no stability. 

According to the scholars of tafsir (exegesis), the reference here is to the 'words' (kalima) of faith and unfaith. The former is illustrated as a natural growth, whose florescence of moral and intellectual achievement is nourished by firm roots, which in turn denote the basis of faith: the quality of the proofs one has received, and the certainty and sound awareness of God which alone signify that one is firmly grounded in the reality of existence. The fruits thus yielded - the palpable benefits of the religious life - are permanent ('at every time'), and are not man's own accomplishment, for they only come 'by the leave of its Lord'. Thus is the sound life of faith. The contrast is then drawn with the only alternative: kufr, which is not grounded in reality but in illusion, and is hence 'possessed of no stability'.

It is against this criterion that we must judge the quality of contemporary 'activist' styles of faith. Is the young 'ultra', with his intense rage which can sometimes render him liable to nervous disorders, and his fixation on a relatively narrow range of issues and concerns, really firmly rooted, and fruitful, in the sense described by this Quranic image?  This ephemerality of extremist activism should be as suspicious as its content. Authentic Muslim faith is simply not supposed to be this fragile; as the Qur'an says, its root is meant to be 'set firm'.

The Islamic world is passing through a most devastating period of transition. A history of economic and scientific change is being squeezed into a couple of generations. For instance, only thirty-five years ago the capital of Saudi Arabia was a cluster of mud huts, as it had been for thousands of years. Today's Riyadh is a hi-tech megacity of glass towers, Coke machines, and gliding Cadillacs. This is an extreme case, but to some extent the dislocations of modernity are common to every Muslim society, excepting, perhaps, a handful of the most remote tribal peoples.  

Such a transition period, with its centrifugal forces which allow nothing to remain constant, makes human beings very insecure. They look around for something to hold onto, that will give them an identity. In our case, that something is usually Islam. And because they are being propelled into it by this psychic sense of insecurity, rather than by the more normal processes of conversion and faith, they lack some of the natural religious virtues, which are acquired by contact with a continuous tradition, and can never be learnt from a book.  

One easily visualises how this works. A young Arab, part of an oversized family, competing for scarce jobs, unable to marry because he is poor, perhaps a migrant to a rapidly expanding city, feels like a man lost in a desert without signposts. One morning he picks up a copy of Sayyid Qutb from a newsstand, and is 'born-again' on the spot. This is what he needed: instant certainty, a framework in which to interpret the landscape before him, to resolve the problems and tensions of his life, and, even more deliciously, a way of feeling superior and in control. He joins a group, and, anxious to retain his newfound certainty, accepts the usual proposition that all the other groups are mistaken.  

This, of course, is not how Muslim religious conversion is supposed to work. It is meant to be a process of intellectual maturation, triggered by the presence of a very holy person or place. Tawba, in its traditional form, yields an outlook of joy, contentment, and a deep affection for others. The modern type of tawba, however, born of insecurity, often makes Muslims narrow, intolerant, and exclusivist. Even more noticeably, it produces people whose faith is, despite its apparent intensity, liable to vanish as suddenly as it came. Deprived of real nourishment, the activist's soul can only grow hungry and emaciated, until at last it dies.  

Read more by Abdul Hakim Murad: 

On The Essence of Islam's Theology of Gender


Born Timothy J. Winter in 1960, Abdal Hakim studied at the prestigious Westminster School inLondonUK and later at the University of Cambridge, where he graduated with first class honours in Arabic in 1983. He then lived in Cairo for three years, studying Islam under traditional teachers at Al-Azhar, one of the oldest universities in the world. He went on to reside for three years in Jeddah, where he administered a commercial translation office and maintained close contact with Habib Ahmad Mashhur al-Haddad and other ulama from HadramautYemen.

In 1989, Sheikh Abdal Hakim returned to England and spent two years at the University of Londonlearning Turkish and Farsi. Since 1992 he has been a doctoral student at Oxford University, specializing in the religious life of the early Ottoman Empire. In 1996, he was appointed University Lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge.

Sheikh Abdal Hakim is the translator of a number of works, including two volumes from Imam al-Ghazali Ihya Ulum al-Din. He gives durus and halaqas from time to time and taught the works of Imam al-Ghazali at the Winter 1995 Deen Intensive Program in New HavenCT. He appears frequently on BBC Radio and writes occasionally for a number of publications including The Independent and Q-News International, Britain's premier Muslim Magazine.

He lives with his wife and children in CambridgeUK.


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