Television, radio and other media keep banging and bawling on about Islamic jihadists, Islamic extremists, and Islamic fundamentalism to such an extent that these lexical expressions have become buzzwords in the post 9/11 world. These connotations are ample enough to portray Islam as a religion that fundamentally promotes belligerence or jihad and subversion. But a question seems to crop up as to whether Islam as a religion is synonymous with terrorism? Or is it a fallacy to establish a latent nexus between Islam and extremism?

By Sehar Mushtaq

At the very outset, it seems quite appropriate to briefly dilate upon the universal message of Islam, and the concept of ‘Jihad’ in Islam.

Islam as an egalitarian Abrahamic religion

Islam is an egalitarian religion like its predecessor Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Christianity. It succinctly believes in equality for all, without any regard to race, colour or creed. Its magnanimous nature is confirmed by the general amnesty granted by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon Him) at the conquest of Makkah. The basic source of authentic religious directives is only Quran and Sunnah (the practices of the Prophet Muhammad). The Quranic injunctions and Sunnah should be in complete harmony and need to go hand in hand. Any idea or practice having root outside these two original sources can be considered as opinion of a scholar but cannot be strictly Islamic.

Concept of Jihad (war) in Islam

Jihad is not what many Western scholars believe it to be. Nor is it the religious concept which has been adopted and practiced by many fundamentalist Islamic jihadists. The word “Jihad” does not mean “holy war” but its literal meaning is “struggle” in the way of God against evil. But it does not mean struggling with weapons: Rather the greater Jihad is to struggle against oneself to refrain from evil and do right. Jihad with the sword is the last resort and only permissible in case of self-defense and against oppression and persecution. There is no idea of Jihad as fighting with non-Muslims for a compulsive conversion to Islam or to make the whole world an Islamic state.

The same has been corroborated by Quranic verses “There Shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] religion” (Quran 2: 256). This clearly rules out the idea of fighting to convert non-Muslims.

According to Muhammad Abu Zahra, an Egyptian scholar of Islamic Law, “War is not justified … to impose Islam as a religion on unbelievers or to support a particular social regime. The Prophet Muhammad fought only to repulse aggression.” Another verse in Quran confirms the idea of fighting in self defense “And fight in way of Allah with those who fight with you but do not transgress [limits]. Indeed Allah does not like transgressors” (Quran 2: 190). These limits are of conduct of war that are shown in practice of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon Him) and the four Caliphs of Islam, i.e. killing of non-combatants and beheading of corpses was prohibited.

Jihad as a misunderstood injunction

The often quoted verse from Quran as justification of war against unbelievers by Western scholars as well as fundamentalists is “Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolators wherever you find them, take them and besiege them and prepare for them every ambush”( Quran 9:5).

Actually, this divine injunction was time specific, and context based. Dr. Abdel Haleem, Director of Center of Islamic Studies at SOAS University of London, states that it is imperative to give consideration to verses 1-15, should we need to understand the meaning and order of the above-cited verse. The actual situation or scenario for this directive is that the polytheists who were under obligation to obey a certain ‘treaty’ signed between them and the Muslims, committed breach of the agreement. Thereby, they were determined to convert Muslims back to paganism at that particular time: Thus the above-quoted verse is not a general argument against “idolators”. Another renowned Islamic scholar in Pakistan, Javed Ahmed Ghamidi, has interpreted the same situation. He is of the opinion that these orders were for a particular people of the Prophet Muhammad’s time as punishment from God. Those divine orders about war against the infidels are not valid anymore and seem to have lost their practical significance. According to him, the only valid justification for armed Jihad today, is against oppression and persecution, which can be proclaimed by some government, but not by any belligerent group such as ‘Taliban’ and ‘al-Qaida’. To reiterate, no group or person is authorized to proclaim Jihad according to Islam. It is then clearly laid out in the Quran that armed struggle (Jihad bil Saif) is permitted as a last resort and that too by decision of organized legitimate government, because it is question of putting at risk life, property and honor of the whole nation. Thus today’s armed groups using the concept of Jihad as a justification for violent struggle is wrong, plus, their conduct of war also proves that they are not following Islamic tradition and teachings, as suicide and beheading are prohibited in Islam. This clearly means that these groups have a particular school of thought, which is against the true essence of Islam as a peaceful religion.

Where does the problem lie?

The problem with religion is that it is very sensitive given the fact that human beings attach strong emotions to it. This makes religion manipulatable and vulnerable to be used as a tool by various interest groups. The language of Quran is Arabic, which Muslims in many countries are unable to comprehend. Thus they rely on exegesis and interpretations by various scholars. Moreover, as per the second source of Islam, Sunnah, the practices were recorded by the Prophet’s companions and then imparted to generation after generation. This is human activity and humans are prone to weaknesses, and therefore create room for differences. This difference of opinion gave rise to various schools of thoughts and sects, making the situation complex. While some Islamic schools of thought, i.e. Hanafi and Mutazi’la put emphasis on use of reasoning for interpretation, traditional and orthodox Muslim schools, i.e. Ashari, Hanbali, Malaiki, challenged this by calling it innovation in Islam and this in turn discouraged the Ijma (Consensus of scholars) and Qiyas (Reasoning by analogy). Unfortunately these differences then did not remain limited to difference of opinion but was rather used to turn against each other. This then allowed the political elite and certain groups to use these emotions to stir people against each other and fulfill their vested interests. Selling a particular narrative then surpassed the sincere effort to interpret Islam as per the requirement of changing times and in the light of Quran and Sunnah.

Are other religions immune to extremist tendencies?

Religious extremism is not only an Islamic problem; every major religion in the world have had witnessed such tendencies. The incidence of extremism can be witnessed by alluding to Crusades of Europe, radical Jewish in Israel (like the Kach and Kahane Chai political parties), extremist Sikhs and Hindus in India (BJP). Thereby, extremism based on religion and resultant terrorist activities is not a recent phenomenon in the annals of history of mankind. It can be surmised to be as old as organized religion itself.

What could be done to fight this extremism?

Religious extremism is not incurable for the human race. It just requires sincere and exhaustive efforts to deal with. With growing religious fundamentalism in Muslim societies and increasing concern in Western societies of its potential impact, the responsibility rests on both Muslims as well as the West to join to handle this problem.

The first and foremost responsibility lies with the Muslim world to confront and combat this malice. Unfortunately, many in the Muslim world have taken refuge in blaming the West for all their problems and have focused less on correcting themselves. There are certain things to be done by Muslim governments if they want to save their societies from growing intolerance.

First of all, it is the responsibility of governments of Muslim countries to collectively pay serious attention to how to figure out whether the problem is only that of religious differences amongst the Muslim sects or if it is the outcome of a wrong interpretation of Quranic injunctions on Jihad (war). Moreover, poverty and lack of education make people to fall prey to fundamentalists. Therefore, governments should pay earnest attention to curb these problems.

Secondly, students in the Muslim world must be taught about all major religions of the world so as to promote interfaith- and intersect-harmony and mutual respect among varied factions in society. Likewise, governments should encourage all religious scholars from different school of thoughts to engage in dialogue instead of using them to advance their vested interests and prolong political power.

Thirdly, greater responsibility lies with religious leaders and scholars who just come up with fatwas (Islamic rulings) against or in favour of anything and become satisfied that they have fulfilled their responsibility. The problem is that the ruling (fatwa) issued by a scholar belonging to one particular school of thought on ‘Jihad in Islam’ usually generates more schism among the religious factions. Hence, there is eventually less room for the scholars of other schools of thoughts. This further generates feelings of hatred, malice and ill-will against the others. Therefore, it is advisable that there should be independent council of Muslim Scholars representing all school of thoughts who should debate the problem at hand before issuing a ruling.

Finally, it is not secularism that ends such problems until and unless the attitude towards each other is changed. Therefore, an implementation of the true teachings of Islam, promotion of tolerance and dialogue, discouraging sectarian, religious discrimination in society can have an impact.

What should the West do to undermine the wave of terrorism and extremism in the Muslim world and elsewhere in the world? Before answering this question, it sounds quite germane to point out that the Western nations have opted military option to combat religious extremism and terrorism in Islamic countries while ignoring the root causes of this malady. Although it is true that use of military becomes indispensible in certain cases, but it is not the only available option. If military intervention were the only solution then Iraq and Afghanistan should have been peaceful countries today. What we see is quite the opposite.

It seems plausible that the West should look at the picture from another angle and redefines their policies and should pressure these governments to end sectarian and religious discrimination towards their population. In this regard NGOs, development agencies and governments can play a role by pressing the Muslim governments in certain countries to refrain from such discriminative policies. Moreover, they should help the Muslim countries to fight poverty and ensure education for all to combat this thinking, as social inequality is one of the structural reasons for terrorism and sectarian crises.

Finally, I would like to add here that religion is a very sensitive topic, especially in the Muslim world. Therefore, it should be carefully discussed in the media. Media should play its role constructively and positively in this critical situation because it does have impact on public opinion. Discriminatory and racist programs and discussions run the risk of pushing more traditionalist Muslims towards radicalism and can generate feelings of oppression. Likewise, other media outlets, civil society and experts should criticize sweeping racist statements put forward in the public. Media can promote interfaith harmony by broadcasting programs which involve debate among scholars of different religions.

To round off the topic, I would like to quote Mark Twain who is reported to have said that:

In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.”

Therefore, it is high time to get out of blame game and East-West debate and do whatever we could from an individual to a collective level, before terrorism, intolerance and extremism become unflagging threats.

Sehar Mushtaq has a master degree in Philosophy of Political Science from Punjab-Lahore University, Pakistan