Notwithstanding its stated agenda, ISIS has managed to put the conversation on Islam right at the centre of the global discourse. From celebrities to con artists to apologists and Muslim scholars, all have their two cents to share on Islam. Mr Ali A.Rizvi in his ‘Open Letter to Moderate Muslims’ published in The Huffington Post has called for ‘reforming’ Islam. He writes that Muslim moderates inadvertently defend ISIS when they attempt to defend Islam against allegations of violence and backwardness- because ISIS follows most closely and literally the contents of Islam’s most sacred texts. Moderates are at pains to explain away ISIS’s actions as ‘unIslamic’ through interpretation and contextualization of the sources of Islam. Given the accessibility of information in this day and age, religion is no longer shrouded in sacred mystery. Once the awareness of the sources of religion explicitly sanctioning violent practices spreads, Rizvi argues, sustaining faith in the indubitability and infallibility of the Quran would be difficult.
There is a problem at the heart of Rizvi’s thesis: for starters, he presumes that faith in Islam survives and thrives because its adherents are unaware of its actual content due in part to the unfamiliarity with Arabic and inaccessibility of information about its literal content. In one fell sweep Mr Rizvi declares all faithful Muslims to be largely unaware of the violent and diabolical contents of their religion- which, if brought into the light of day, will expose the degenerate ethos of their religion and put its naive believers to abject shame.
Most Muslims as a matter of faith do in fact take their religious sources quite literally, yet do not conclude from it what ISIS does. Moderates like Reza Aslan who call for a liberal reinterpretation and metaphorical/allegorical reading of religious content are but few. And yet these billions of faithful and several hundreds of trained Islamic scholars who take the Quran and hadith quite literally hold firmly to the conviction that Islam is indeed ‘a religion of peace’. How do they arrive at this generalization in the face of the actual literal texts of Islam that seem to imply everything but that?
The problem with both Rizvi’s thesis as well as ISIS is that both have lost sight of the ‘middleness’ that defines Islam. Muslim moderates too, when they put modernist interpretation over the letter of the Quran to explain away violent meanings the extremists may derive, lose sight of this. The essence of Islam is ‘adl’ and ‘tawazun’: (balance and middleness). The sources of Islam have contents endorsing the use of force such as in the sources Rizvi cites in his article- however, these very same sources also contain teachings that command and celebrate peacemaking, justice, kindness, upholding of rights among other things. Looking at it purely quantitatively, the latter far outweighs the former. The balance between these two sets of teaching is to be found in order to develop the true Islamic worldview which mediates between the two. This poised, comprehensive understanding does not need the prop of reinterpretation, but understands that religion defines for us the extremities- conduct in warfare through teachings of firmness and courage against the enemy in war and strife, as well as, on the other end, teachings on forbearance and kindness and mercy at all other times.
As a teacher on Islam, I often feel the need to explain to my students the apparent discrepancy between the examples of Prophet Muhammad (SAW)’s forgiveness and mercy like the one at the Conquest of Makkah in which he declared general pardon, and the instances when retributive justice and execution of penal law or punitive measures were carried out. The two instances stand for and delineate the two extremities of what our responses to wrong can range from. The former stands for Ihsan (unconditional good, more than what is justly due) and the latter for Adl (absolute justice). While the latter is a necessary element a society must be based on, the former- Allah tells us- is the superior virtue. The variation in the Prophetic example leaves it to his followers to decide when and in what circumstances each of the two is to be chosen as our response. Wisdom is to be able to make that choice correctly, depending on the nature and gravity of the situation one needs to respond to, the context and the likely consequences of our choice.
To glean this holistic, seasoned vision is what Islam calls ‘hikmah’ (wisdom). When ‘hikmah’ is absent, the resultant understanding is superficial, errant, flippant and unfair. That is precisely the mistake both ISIS and Rizvi’s ‘Open Letter’ have made.
Another vital insight is that law and commandments exist for and are bound by core ethical principles and values. Penal laws do not operate detached from the ethical base and moral foundation. The laws of Islam have to be understood holistically as guardians of the values that are the very heart of the matter. Dissociated from the ethical content, they seem to be the brutal and barbaric edicts that ISIS and Rizvi make them out to be.
The Quran says, ‘So give good tidings to My servants; those who listen to the Word, and follow the best (meaning) in it: those are the ones whom Allah has guided, and those are the ones endued with understanding.’ (39:17-18) Innumerable Quranic verses and ahadith are very explicit- whether taken literally or figuratively- about the doing of good, delivering justice, making peace, holding firm to what is true, keeping promises, being kind and gentle etc. It is injustice to the Quran to pick out a few of its verses revealed in specific circumstances - which are to be applied in those specific circumstances within certain conditions, and take them to represent the entire ethos of the Islamic religion, eclipsing its much larger content on humane and egalitarian values. If these values were put at the core and followed as zealously as the letter of the law is feverishly applied by fanatical groups, Muslim societies today would come to epitomize the highest and worthiest in human civilization. With reference to these much more numerous and substantive contents of Islam, would following the very literal teaching of the Quran and sunnah engender anything but universal justice and goodness? Rizvi’s premise is clearly one-eyed. It does not hold ground.
Yet another problem is when Mr Rizvi calls for an Islamic Reformation on the pattern of the Jewish and Christian Reformation in the secular modern West. He is impressed with the fact that Christians and Jews can reject the violent contents of their scriptures and still retain faith and be considered part of their religious communities. There always have been serious doubts and questions about the authenticity and credibility of the contents of these scriptures even from within those religious traditions, and this takes away the concept of their infallibility. Yet there has been no such challenge of any serious proportions to the authenticity of the Quran’s content. The Quran begins hence: “This is the Book about which there is no doubt, a guidance for those conscious of Allah.” (2:2)
The call to ape the secular reformation model is fundamentally problematic as it reeks strongly of eurocentrism built on the neo-imperialist belief of the inherent superiority of the Western model. Karen Armstrong has taken issue with those in the developed West who criticize ISIS while failing to understand the dynamics and lessons of history that have led to the rise of groups like ISIS. She writes, ‘Many secular thinkers now regard “religion” as inherently belligerent and intolerant, and an irrational, backward and violent “other” to the peaceable and humane liberal state – an attitude with an unfortunate echo of the colonialist view of indigenous peoples as hopelessly “primitive”, mired in their benighted religious beliefs. There are consequences to our failure to understand that our secularism, and its understanding of the role of religion, is exceptional... when we look with horror upon the travesty of Isis, we would be wise to acknowledge that its barbaric violence may be, at least in part, the offspring of policies guided by our disdain.’
The broken lens Mr Ali A.Rizvi views the world from is a tainted one. This takes away from him credibility as a well-meaning reformist offering prescriptions and fixes for the ailing Muslim world. The prescription for reforming Muslim society lies within Islam’s own ethos.