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How fundamentalism holds back Muslims


The word fundamentalism is often misused in the West – it is used for every Muslim whose chin is densely bearded, whose dress is the hijab, whose resistance to U.S. bloodlust is spirited.   This is the misuse that the ultra-modernist Muslims equally apply, and it is the very misconception that keeps them at odds with the Muslim society they wish to modernize.

Their simple-mindedness can surely do little to tackle fundamentalism, a tradition that was minor only in the first several centuries of Islam. This tradition has since nourished and flourished and has come to practically define a religion whose past is a model of moderation. Fundamentalism, contrary to popular belief, is not a recent phenomenon.

Right from the birth of Islam in the Seventh Century, there were always individuals who took the Words of Allah so literally that they ignored the change of time. In the third decade of Islam such literalism exemplified itself in the opposition that Abu-Bakr Al-Swiddiq, the first rightly guided caliph, encountered when he decided to compile the Qur’an into a single book.

Following the demise of the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) in 632 A.C., Abu-Bakr led the Battle of Yamama that robbed the Muslims of a great deal of men who had memorized the Qur’an firsthand from the Prophet. Abu-Bakr feared that if such geniuses continued to die, the Qur’an would eventually disappear. The long-term preservation of the holy text could no longer be guaranteed by the parchments, scapular and leafstalk of date palms on which it had been written during the Prophet’s lifetime. 

As soon as he revealed his intension to compile the Qur’an, Abu-Bakr encountered strong opposition from some honorable companions who argued that the Prophet had neither attempted to compile it during his lifetime, nor did he call for its compilation. To them, nothing could be done in Islam that had no precise precedent in the Prophet’s life, regardless of unprecedented challenges.

Such rigidity was easily out-reasoned and out-powered initially. As centuries rolled along its influence started to grow. By the High Middle Ages a grown number of rigid literalists would successfully convince the rest of the Muslims that any pursuit of knowledge other than religious education was a distraction from the pursuit of the house of the hereafter, differently known as al-Jannah, Heaven, Paradise, among other names. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamed talked about this madness quite vividly in his address to the 10th Summit of the Organization of Islamic Conference in Putrajaya in 2003:

But halfway through the building of the great Islamic civilisation came new interpreters of Islam who taught that acquisition of knowledge by Muslims meant only the study of Islamic theology. The study of science, medicine etc. was discouraged…Instead they became more and more preoccupied with minor issues such as whether tight trousers and peak caps were Islamic, whether printing machines should be allowed or electricity used to light mosques. The Industrial Revolution was totally missed by the Muslims…This is what comes from the superficial interpretation of the Quran, stressing not the substance of the Prophet’s sunnah and the Quran’s injunctions but rather the form, the manner and the means used in the 1st Century of the Hijrah. And it is the same with the other teachings of Islam. We are more concerned with the forms rather than the substance of the words of Allah and adhering only to the literal interpretation of the traditions of the Prophet.

Such hardcore literalism has reincarnated today in the form of Salafism, or Wahabism, or what Ugandans have come to know as the Tabligh. This movement has asserted and propagated its narrow interpretation of Islam and has gained immense influence on the followers of the world’s fastest growing religion.

Salafism, to be fair, should be credited for fighting acts of polytheism and other contaminants that have often crept up in the practice of Islam worldwide. And that’s not all. Whereas Islam reached Uganda in the first half of the Nineteenth Century, various vital Islamic practices like praying in congregation and wearing the hijab did not become widespread until young graduates from Salafi universities in the Middle East returned to the country in the 1980s and formed the Tabligh Movement.

Though they used divisive – and sometimes violent – approaches to convey their message, the Tabligh undoubtedly revived Islam in several ways. They seized mosques and constructed new ones and therein established learning programmes locally known as darasa. In these darasas thousands of men and women learned the basics of their religion, from the pillars of prayer to the nullifiers of fasting and from reciting the Qur’an to performing pilgrimage.

Besides mosque lessons the Tabligh established new madrasahs (schools) and dominated existing ones to impart the knowledge of the Qur’an and the Sunnah (traditions of the Prophet). With assistance from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait these schools multiplied student enrollment, producing religious teachers whose contribution to conveying the knowledge of Islam to their home districts is far-reaching. In strengthening devotional matters, or ritual acts of worship generally referred to as ibadat – prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, and many others – the Salafis have surely done a great job.

In civil transactions, or muamalat, however, most Salafis espouse a narrow and rigid interpretation of religion that breeds backwardness and regression. Their views on politics, women and the media may suffice to illustrate the extent of the tragedy.

A distinguished Ugandan Salafi teacher discourages Muslim participation in secular politics on grounds that the process is not founded on the Sharia, or Islamic doctrine, and that it lacks precedent in the life of the first three generations of the earliest Muslims. His view is the general position of Salafis worldwide, with a notable exception of Egypt where they eventually formed a political party – Al-Nour Party – and contested in elections following the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

The Salafi teacher says he has never voted and would never, arguing that no Muslim candidate or even Muslim party that comes to power through democratic means can establish Sharia in Uganda. His passion for Sharia, let me be clear, is far from fundamentalism – it is purely mainstream Islam. No serious Muslim disputes the Qur’an when it declares itself the supreme source of legislation to which all laws must conform: “And whosoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed, such are the disbelievers.”(5:44). This should inform the ultra-modernist Muslims that their dismissal of Sharia serves only to discredit them as ignorant heretics, or as foreign agents planted to undermine Islam from within. Their wild actions have strengthened fundamentalists and put genuine moderates on the defensive.  

But whereas Sharia is an undisputed component of (moderate) Islam, the idea that Muslims should not participate in the politics that is not founded on Sharia is simplistic and fundamentalist. Non-Sharia politics is so dominant in the present world that to shun it is to subject one’s self to subjugation by others.  Hundreds of millions of Muslims live in countries that are defined by their Western-influenced secular ways of governance – political parties, parliaments, constitutions, elections, and many others. It is through these arrangements, dirty and corrupt as they may be, that decisions are made, resources are allocated, and destiny is determined. Islam cannot be so shortsighted to bar its followers from participating in determining the direction of their country on the basis of the secularity of the means. Former President Idi Amin Dada was a secularist who did not establish the Divine doctrine in Uganda, but he emancipated Muslims from the marginalisation that had become their perpetual condition.

Besides allocating prime chunks of land to the deprived minority Muslim community, Amin laid the foundation for the establishment of the Islamic University in Uganda. This university, in collaboration with other schools which Amin directly or indirectly helped to set up, has rendered obsolete the song that Muslims didn’t go to school. If Sharia seeks to address injustice, Amin achieved an objective of Sharia without enforcing Shraia: he emancipated a section of the population that successive governments had suppressed and oppressed.  

In Turkey, Islamists have similarly maneuvered the prevailing secular establishment to lessen the suffocation that Islam has suffered since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk imposed secularism on the country in 1923. Ataturk and his ultra-modernist successors embarked on one of the most aggressive anti-Islam campaigns in modern history; abolishing the Caliphate, closing Islamic courts, replacing the Turkish Arabic script with the Latin script, outlawing polygamy, and banning the veil in universities and government institutions.

The sustainability of this anti-Islam order, however, faces uncertainty in the face of relentless efforts that the governing Justice and Development (AK) Party has mounted. Though the pro-Islam administration is yet to succeed in its campaign to abrogate the anti-hijab law, it has rendered the law so impotent that female students nowadays attend universities in full Islamic attire. In fact, secularists have argued, without completely being unreasonable, that Racep Tayyib Erdogan’s government has a covert intension of ultimately re-Islamizing the country. Whatever its plans may be, the current administration constitutes the greatest relief to Islam and Muslims in Turkey since the abolition of the Caliphate nine decades ago.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt similarly feels it can bring about pro-Islam change through participating in secular politics.  Islamists in Tunisia and elsewhere have equally embarked on the same approach. They understand the world in which they live and have devised appropriate means to sail through it. They derive inspiration from the first century of Islam, but they don’t allow themselves to get stuck in the past.

They have resisted pressure from the fundamentalists who confront modern challenges using means that were appropriate only in the Medieval Age. Fundamentalists, in the words of Sheikh Abdul Aziz Dabbagh, “are so heavily fettered in [the] shackles of rigidity and misology (hatred for reason, logic and enlightenment)” and are not ready “even today to reconcile the changed realities with the permanent divine law and have thus failed in regulating their life in the world of perpetual change.”

Stuck in the age of the first three generations of Muslims, fundamentalists proudly quote a statement attributed to an eighth century preeminent scholar, Imam Malik ibn Anas, which says, “The latter part of this ummah (Muslim community) will not be rectified except by that which rectified its first part.”

This, in the eyes of the literalists, means sticking to the “form, the manner and the means” used in the seventh and eighth centuries. Absurd indeed is their interpretation. Imam Malik’s reported statement, like the Prophet’s warning on bid‘ah (innovation), was never a denunciation of innovation as such; it was a denunciation of innovation in ritual acts of worship, such as prayers, fasting, pilgrimage, and the like. In such devotional matters a worshiper is obliged to follow the instructions of the Qur’an and the Sunnah (traditions) of the Prophet to the letter, entertaining no addition, subtraction, or alteration.

No such imitation, however, is instructed, or even preferred, in other aspects of Islam, in other aspects of life. The Prophet himself is reported in the book of Sahih Muslim to have told his companions who carried out artificial fertilization of date palms, “You know better of your worldly affairs.” Indeed, in non ritual acts of worship, which the Prophet referred to as worldly affairs, Muslims of every generation should know better how to go about them even though they may derive some lessons from the life of their predecessors.

If the Medieval Age is totally different from the Information Age, it follows that the ideas of the former cannot be blindly applied in the latter. Highly learned Islamic scholars of the pre-modern era made their wonderful contributions to the interpretation and understanding of Islam. But their views cannot be unquestioningly recycled and reapplied in the present world. Present-day Islamic scholars shall be relevant if they think and generate new knowledge – the knowledge of Islam that captures modern realities.

They must think, and think deeply, research and interpret religion in a manner that takes into consideration the ever-changing realities of the world. This is what Islam refers to as ijtihad, a tradition that literalists discouraged and discarded, ushering in the intellectual regression for which the Muslim world has since been known.      

The Wahabis (Salafis) claim that ijtihad, or independent reasoning, has since been revived at the hands of Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab, the founder of Wahabism, and that Wahabism is founded on reasoning. Born in the central Arabian region of Najd in the eighteenth century, ibn Abdul-Wahhab, there is no question, was an outstanding reviver of Islam who waged war on acts of polytheism and innovations that had contaminated much of the Muslim world.

Though he largely followed the Hambali School of Islamic jurisprudence, ibn Abdul-Wahhab rejected the blind imitation of any of the four schools of Islamic thought. Instead, he compared notes and used his judgment (reasoning) to choose for himself and for his followers what he considered to be the most authentic version of Islam as laid down in the Qur’an and the Sunnah and as practiced by the companions of the Prophet, the followers of the companions and the followers of the followers of the companions famously referred to as salaf as-salih, or the righteous predecessors.

Such an investigation that leads to the literal imitation of the Prophet and the earliest generations of Muslims is required in ritual acts of worship, including salah (prayer) about which the Prophet said (in Sahih Bukhar), “Pray as you have seen me pray.”

If ibn Abdul-Wahhab denounced the blind imitation of the four schools of Islam, he promoted the blind imitation of the Prophet and the righteous predecessors. He was therefore an imitator par excellence. His Wahabi movement cannot represent ijtihad (reason) when it seeks to reproduce the seventh century in the modern age. If such imitation is necessary in devotional matters such as prayer and fasting, it often leads to regression if applied beyond that scope. Imitators like ibn Abdul-Wahhab have managed to revive Islam in the spiritual aspect and failed to revive it in the material respect. 

His imitation must have strengthened, rather than lessened, the non-spiritual problems of the Muslim community, including economic stagnancy and technological backwardness. His definition of knowledge ignored any knowledge outside Islamic theology.  In his Fundamentals of Islam, ibn Abdul-Wahhab defined knowledge as “knowing Allah, knowing His Prophet, and knowing the religion of Islam with textual proofs”.

Such a narrow understanding of knowledge must have accelerated the speed at which the Muslim world fell behind the West in every aspect of material development: technology, military, economy, and others. His obsession with the primitivity of the seventh century could not allow him to realize that Islam needed a material renaissance as much as it needed a spiritual revival. Wahabism is detached from the world. 

Commenting on the 66th Verse of Chapter Five of the Quran that states, “And if only they (the People of the Book) had acted according to the Torah, the Gospel, and what has (now) been sent down to them from their Lord (the Qur'an), they would surely have gotten provision from above them and from underneath their feet,” Sayyid Qutb observes in his book, In the Shade of the Qur’an:

As such, the Islamic way of life combines, in absolute coherence, work for this world and work for the Hereafter. Hence, man does not need to waste his life on earth in order to win a better life in the world to come, nor does he waste the latter in order to fulfil the former. Reaping the best of the two is by no way contradictory…

In Islamic philosophy, and the Islamic systems based on it, the world to come is not offered as a substitute for this life, nor is the latter to be preferred to the former. Both can be achieved in the same effort…Islamic principles and the Islamic way of life do not offer belief, worship and a high standard of piety and morality as a substitute for work, productivity, and development in man’s material world...we would like to emphasise that it is most important to achieve harmony between faith, piety and implementation of the Divine method in practical life on the one hand and work, productivity and the fulfilment of man’s mission on earth on the other.

It is this harmony which ensures the fulfilment of God’s promise to the people of earlier revelations, and indeed to all communities, that they will have abundance from above and from beneath, and that they will be forgiven their sins and admitted into gardens of bliss in the Hereafter. Thus, they have paradise on earth and paradise in Heaven.

The resolve with which the Ugandan Salafi scholar deters Muslims from participating in secular politics reflects his failure to understand the world he lives in. The same failure prompts him to persuade Muslims to shun television, arguing that the medium shows couples kissing. The sheikh ignores the information function of the facility and ignores the centrality of information in development. I believe he would declare the internet haram if he learnt that the network contains pornographic sites.

Such are the solutions preferred by fundamentalists: far from seeking to minimize the shortcomings of a useful facility, they denounce it completely and deprive humanity of the vast benefits it serves. In any case, the companions of the Prophet excelled without television or internet. Fundamentalism is void of reason.

If the salaf as-salih, or the righteous predecessors to whom fundamentalists claim allegiance, were as simple-minded as these literalists, Islam would not have moved an inch. Muslims shall have to put their brains back to use if they are to regain their past dignity that gave way to their present disgrace. To emphasize this point I will end with a quotation, again from the famous sheikh, Abdul Aziz Dabbagh, whose Sufism may not appeal to me but whose emphasis on reasoning I find convincing. In his preface to Muhammad Tahir-ur-Qadri’s treatise, Ijtihad, Sheikh Dabbagh says:
The Muslims have been exercising ijtihad in every age. They rose to the pinnacle of glory through this scientific method of reasoning. And they suffered when they stopped doing it. It is nothing but fulfilling the day-to-day requirements of life within the framework of permanent principles. Within this framework change is not only permissible but advisable. The conditions of life are always changing and the constitution of the state and machinery of the government have got to be revised and brought up-to-date from time to time. Without this sound legislative exercise we simply cannot cope up with the ever-growing and everchanging demands of life. We must bear in mind that progress is a change that brings the system nearer to perfection. It is change which, while preserving the values achieved, adds to them and raises them to a higher level.