The Concept and Basis of Religious Extremism

From “Islamic Awakening: between Rejection & extremism” (Yousuf Al Qardhawi) Chapter 1: Part: 3

A correct expose and definition of – and an insight into – extremism is the first step toward outlining the remedy. There is no value for any judgment or exposition not based on genuine Islamic concepts and the Shari’ah, but on mere personal opinions of individuals. The Qur’an says in this respect:

{If you differ in anything among yourselves, refer it to Allah and His Messenger, if you do believe in Allah and the Last Day.}

Throughout the history of the Ummah there has always been an ijma (agreement) that referring differences between Muslims to Allah (ﷻ) and to His Messenger means referring them to His Book, the Qur’an, and to the Sunnah of the Prophet (ﷺ).

Without such authentication based on Shariah, the Muslim youth – who are accused of “extremism” will never pay any attention to the fatawa of this or that Muslim scholar, and will deny and refuse to accept such accusation. Furthermore, they will themselves accuse others of ignorance and of falsification.

It is reported that al Imam Muhammad ibn Idris al Shafi was accused of being a rafidi. Outraged by such a cheap accusation, he defiantly read a verse of poetry which is paraphrased as follows: “If love for all ahl al bayt is rejectionism, let the humans and the jinn bear witness that I am a rejectionist.”

A present-day proponent of Islam said, on hearing that he had been branded a reactionary: “If adherence to the Qur’an and Sunnah is reactionism, I wish to live, die, and resurrected as a reactionary.”

In fact it is very important to define accurately such common terms as “reactionism,” “rigidity,” “extremism” “bigotry,” etc., so that they may not constitute ambiguous concepts which can be hurled randomly by one group of people against another, or be interpreted differently by  various intellectual and social forces whether on the extreme right or left. Failure to define and comprehend “religious extremism” and to leave the issue to the whimsical desires of people   will lead to discord among Muslims. The Qur’an says:

{If the Truth had been in accord with their desires, truly the heavens and the earth and all the beings therein would have been in confusion and corruption!}

Two Important Observations

I would like at this point to draw attention to two important observations.

First: The degree of a person’s piety as well as that of the society in which he lives affects his judgment of others as far as extremism, moderation, and laxity are concerned. A religious society usually produces a person sensitively aversive to any deviation or negligence, however slight it may be. Judging by the criteria of his own practice and background, such a person would be surprised to find that there are Muslims who do not offer ‘ibadah during the night or practice siyam. This is historically obvious. When examining the deeds and practices of people, the nearer one gets to the time of the Prophet (ﷺ), his companions and the Tabi’un the less worthy seem the deeds and practices of the pious among the later generations. Hence the gist of the saying: “The merits of those nearest to Allah are but the demerits of the righteous.

This reminds one of what Anas ibn Malik (رضی الله عنه) used to tell the Tabi’un of his contemporaries, “You do things you consider trifling. But during the time of the Prophet (ﷺ) these same actions were seen as mortal sins.”

The same attitude was expressed by A’ishah (رضی الله عنه), who used to recite a line of verse by Labid Ibn Rabiah, the well-known poet, which laments the disappearance of those people who provided exemplary patterns of righteous living, thus leaving people to the mercy of the stragglers, whose company is as contagious as a scabby animal. Moreover, she always wondered how Labid would have felt had he lived to witness the practices of a later generation. ‘Aishah’s nephew, ‘Urwah ibn al Zubayr, also used to recite the same line of verse and wonder how both Aishah and Labid would have felt had they lived in his own age.

On the other hand, a person whose knowledge of and commitment to Islam is little, or who   has been brought up in an environment which practices what Allah (ﷻ) has forbidden and neglects Shariah, will certainly consider even minimal adherence to Islam a kind of extremism. Such a person – who quite often pretends godliness – would not only question and criticize, but would even deny the validity of a certain practice. He would also accuse those who are committed to Islam, and initiate arguments on what is haram and what is halal. His attitude would, of course, depend on his distance from the fundamentals of Islam.

Some Muslims – those who are influenced by alien ideologies and practices – consider adherence to clear-cut Islamic teachings concerning eating, drinking, beautification, or the call for the application of Shariah and the establishment of an Islamic state as manifestations of “religious extremism.” For such a person, a young Muslim with a beard or a young girl wearing hijab are both extremists! Even the commanding of the common good and the prohibition of evil are regarded as forms of extremism and interference with personal freedom.

Although a basis of faith in Islam is to believe that our religion is right and that those who do not believe in it are wrong, there are Muslims who object to considering those who take a religion other than Islam as kuffar, considering this as extremism and bigotry. This is an issue upon which we must never compromise.

Second: It is unfair to accuse a person of “religious extremism” simply because he has adopted a “hardline” juristic opinion of certain fuqaha. If a person is convinced that his opinion is right and that he is bound by it according to Shariah, he is free to do so even if others think that the juristic evidence is weak. He is only responsible for what he thinks and believes, even if – in so doing – he overburdens himself, especially since he is not content with only limiting himself to the categorical obligations required of him, but seeks Allah’s pleasure through supererogatory performances.

People naturally differ on these matters. Some take things easy and facilitate matters, others do not. This is also true of the Prophet’s companions. Ibn ‘Abbas, for instance, facilitated religious matters, while Ibn ‘Umar was strict.

In view of all this, it would be enough for a Muslim to support his conviction with evidence    from one of the Islamic madhahib, or with a reliable ijtihad, based on sound evidence from the Qur’an or Sunnah. Therefore, should a person be labeled an extremist because he adopts a law derived by one of the four great jurists of Islam – al Shafi’, Abu Hanifah, Malik, and Ahmad ibn Hanbal – and commits himself to it because he differs from that which various scholars – especially the contemporary – expound? Do we have any right to suppress another person’s choice of ijtihad, especially if it relates only to his personal life and behavior?

A great number of Muslim jurists contend that a woman should wear a dress that covers the whole of her body with the exception of her face and hands. The exception of the hands and face is based upon this Qur’anic verse:

{that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what [must ordinarily] appear thereof.}

They further emphasize this by supporting it with ahadith, events, and traditions. Many contemporary ulama, including myself, favor this verdict.

On the other hand, a number of eminent Muslim `ulama argue that both the face and the hands are awrah and must be covered. They cite evidence from the Qur’an, hadith literature, and established traditions. This argument is advocated by many contemporary ‘ulama: especially in Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states. They call upon every Muslim woman who believes in Allah (ﷻ) and the Hereafter to veil her face and wear gloves. If a woman believes in this and considers it part of the teachings of Islam, should she be branded an extremist? If a man persuades his daughter or his wife to abide by this, should he also be looked upon as an extremist? Do we have the right to force anyone to abandon what he/she believes to be Allah’s injunction? Are we not, in this way, asking him/her to seek the anger of Allah (ﷻ) in order to satisfy our whims and in order to avoid being accused of “extremism”?

The same could also be said of those who adhere to hardline opinions pertaining to singing, music, drawing, photography, etc. These opinions do not only differ from my own personal ijtihad in these matters but also from the ijtihad of many renowned `ulama. However, such opinions remain in tune with the views of a number of early and contemporary `ulama.

However, much of what we criticize in those whom we brand “extremists,” such as wearing a short thawb instead of shirt and trousers, or refusing to shake hands with women, which   may be considered “excessive,” finds its evidence in usul al fiqh and the traditions of the Ummah. In that capacity they have been accepted, advocated, and propagated by some of our contemporary `ulama. Consequently, some devout young Muslims have responded to this in the hope of Allah’s mercy and in fear of His punishment.

We should not therefore, condemn the practice of any Muslim or accuse him of “extremism” if he adopts a hardline opinion based on juristic judgement through which he seeks Allah’s pleasure. We have no right to force him to abandon his opinion or ask him to follow a line of behavior which is contrary to his convictions. Our duty is to appeal to him with wisdom, argue with him patiently and nicely, and try to convince him by citing evidence in the hope that he may change his mind and accept what we believe to be the truth.


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