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Fundamentals, Islamists and the West

Imadaldin Al-Jubouri considers how some Muslim fundamentalists justify their aggressiveness – by misreading the Qur’an, among other things.

Since September 11 2001, the West has faced a series of attacks, from New York and Washington to Madrid and London. Why did this confrontation reach the big cities of the West? Who authorised al-Qaeda to act in the name of Islam? Why do Islamic fundamentalists take such a narrow view of the concept of ‘jihad’, limiting it to ‘fighting’ only? Is it just political frustration with the West? How can we put an end to this conflict? And ‘who is to blame?’ as the Economist asked in the early days. To find some answers, as well as considering Western involvement in the Muslim world, we have to examine the roots of Islamist thought.

According to fundamentalist Islamist thinking, there are three essential fundamentals and four important rules of which Muslims must be aware. The three fundamentals are common to most Muslims. The four rules however are particular to the Islamists, and show how they differ from mainstream Islam.

The three fundamentals are as follows:

A. The Lord is Allah, who has created everything that exists in the universe. Muslims must worship Him, other than whom Muslims have no god. In His words:

“And among His signs are the night and the day and the sun and the moon. Prostrate not to the sun and the moon, but prostrate to God, Who created them, if it is Him ye wish to serve.” (41 :37).

B. Islam is submission to Allah in His Oneness, complying to His commands [‘the pillars’] with obedience, denouncing polytheism and its adherents. The pillars of Islam are five:

1. The testimony of faith: ‘There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is the Messenger of Allah.’

2. Performing the five daily Prayers.

3. Giving out Zakat [alms].

4. Observing the fast during Ramadan.

5. Performing the pilgrimage to Mecca.

C. Acknowledgement of the Prophet Mohammed (570-632 CE), the son of Abdullah (d. 570), the son of Abd al-Mutalib (497-578), from the Arab tribe of Quraish. The Arabs are of the posterity of Ismail (Ishmael), the eldest son of Ibrahim (Abraham), who lived in the middle of the second millennium BC. He and his son restored the original monotheistic worship at the Kaaba in Mecca.

As for the Islamists’ four important rules, these are:

1. To recognise there are monotheists who are not Muslims.

2. To recognise that there are polytheists, both Muslim and non-Muslim.

3. To fight them all, without making a distinction between one group and another.

4. The polytheists of today are worse than those encountered in the early days of Islam. [For the purpose of this essay, a ‘polytheist’ is anyone who supplicates any saint or spirit other than the one God.]

Fundamentalists, the Qur’an and Jihad

In The Fundamentals of Islam Imam Mohammed al-Timimi tells us that the first rule is to know that the monotheistic disbelievers, whom the Prophet Mohammed fought, acknowledge God as the sole Creator, the Provider and the One in Whose hand is the disposal of all affairs. Yet simple belief in God was not enough to qualify them to be Muslims: they should have dedicated all acts of worship to God alone. This is proven by God’s words:

“Say: ‘Who is it that sustains you (in life) from the sky and from the earth? Or who is it that has power over hearing and sight? And who is it that brings out the living from the dead and the dead from the living? And who is it that rules and regulates all affairs?’ They will soon say ‘Allah’. Say, ‘will ye not then show piety (to Him)?’” (10:31).

Concerning the second rule, the polytheists asserted that they did not call on the idols; rather they approached them only to seek nearness to God and intercession through them. But the Islamists argue, intercession is of two kinds: annulled and confirmed. Annulled intercession is to seek from other than God for needs that only God can fulfil. Confirmed intercession is to seek from God. The intercessor of whom God approves is the one who is honoured by the privilege to intercede, while the one who is interceded for should be he whose utterances and actions are pleasing to God. Intercession for such a one is granted only with the leave of God.

In short, intercession should be sought from God alone, because confirmed intercession is restricted to Him. Whoever seeks it from other than God commits shirk[the sin of polytheism], and therefore defeats his own purpose and renders himself bereft. God accepts only pure belief in His Oneness, and permits intercession only for those who uphold monotheism as their creed. This is mentioned in several Qur’anic verses, among them:

“Who is thee can intercede in His presence except as He permitteth?” (2:255).

The third Islamist rule relates to the Prophet Mohammed’s time. He appeared among people who were divided in their religion. Some of them worshipped prophets, messengers and pious men, and some worshipped trees and stones, while others worshipped the sun and the moon. Mohammed fought them all, without making a distinction between one group and another. This was in application of God’s words:

“And fight them until there is no infidelity, and religion is professed for Allah.” (8:39).

The fourth rule of the Islamists relates to our own time. The polytheists of today are, it is claimed, worse than those at the time of Mohammed. Those who existed in the early period of Islam used to attribute partners to God in times of ease, but used to address themselves with earnest supplication to God alone in times of difficulty. But the polytheists of today attribute partners with God in times of both ease and difficulty. Therefore, we see for example that many of those who worship pious people and at the shrines of spiritual masters are sincere in calling on them as well as on God, and seeking help from them during times of both ease and hardship. Some of them become even more sincere in their polytheism when they experience harder times. Today, pagans are persistent in their polytheistic ways, begging and beseeching gods or the pious dead. Of them God says:

“Say: ‘See ye then? The things that ye invoke besides Allah, can they, if Allah wills some affliction for me, remove His affliction or if He wills some Mercy for me, can they keep back His Mercy?’. Say: ‘Sufficient is Allah for me!’” (39:38)

Differences In Interpretation

Throughout the history of Islam, each Islamic school, movement or party has used some verses from the Qur’an to support its attitude. Thus is the case with the fundamentalist Islamists. Regardless of whether they are right or wrong to employ the word ‘fight’ as above, the main problem is using the holy Qur’an, as each group understands it, to justify their thoughts and actions. For instance, Maulana Maududi (1903-1970) tended to take the Qur’an literally. In his address to a conference of Jamaat Islami on 30 December 1948, he said: “The Qur’an clearly states that witnessing to the Truth in a manner that would leave mankind with no justifiable ground to deny it, is the only purpose behind constituting you as a distinct Umma (community) named Islam.” In this way, he called for universal jihad, and interpreted the words of the text accordingly.

In The Illusion of Triumph, Mohammed Heikal believed Asian Muslims read the Qur’an literally, “while Arabs were more inclined to interpret it.” On the contrary, I believe the problem is not with the language, rather with the ideas behind the interpretation. Otherwise, what can we say about the Dhahrites when they interpreted the Qur’an literally in the first century of Islam? To them, references to the ‘hand of God’ and the ‘throne of God’, meant literally that God had a body and a place to sit. In other examples, the Mutazilites and Asharites interpreted some Qur’anic verses metaphorically, while Hanbalis took it literally. Most Muslim philosophers, especially Averroes (1126-1198) followed the principle of syncretism to reconcile religion and philosophy through religious texts, literal or interpreted.

Averroes divided Sharia [law] into two types, Apparent and Interpreted. The first was appropriate for the great mass of Muslim humanity, who took religious texts literally without any interpretation. The second was appropriate for scholars, who should interpret Sharia texts according to certain protocols. This latter process should not, however, be declared to the masses. The early Muslim scholars therefore did not talk openly of interpretation, except among themselves. Averroes stressed that the teachings of the two groups should remain isolated from each other and never be mixed up. Instead, any discussion of the subtleties of the proper interpretation of a question should not be held in public, since ordinary people would be unable to grasp such subtleties and might therefore fall prey to doubts and suspicions, possibly followed by blasphemy and diversion from the teachings of Islamic Sharia.

Thus, between interpretation and commentary, hidden or literal, there are various views concerning the Qur’an. When the Caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib (600-661) sent his cousin Abdullah ibn Abbas (619-687) to negotiate with the Kharijites, he said: “Do not dispute with them by the Qur’an, because it has many expressions, you say and they say, and so on; but debate with them by the Sunna (the Prophet Mohammed’s words and deeds), which they cannot escape from.” This is also the key point concerning the Islamists’ aim to revive the period of the Prophet Mohammed and his four successors as the purest era of Islam. Besides, that was the only time when Islamic authority was established by consultation.

Historical Differences

Although Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) started the revival movement and called for a return to the pious predecessors’ ways, he was not a modern reformer. Maybe this was because his religious movement was in central Arabia, placing him far from modern European knowledge and sciences. Maybe not! His followers, the Wahhabis, were against modern science. They instigated many invasions and killed a lot of Muslims to establish their own Islamic State, in order to practice ‘the true Islam’. Therefore they were criticised by the great religious reformer Mohammed Abduh (1844-1905), and the renowned scholar Mohammed Kashif al-Ghita (1873-1952), and other Muslim scholars and thinkers. Thanks to King Faisal ibn Abd al-Aziz (reigned 1964-1975), the life of the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia was modernised.

Since the 1930s, the Muslim Brotherhood has played an important role in political life, both in Egypt and in the Arab world as a whole. Nevertheless, militant Arab nationalists were more active than the Brotherhood, whether during the struggle against Western colonialism and Zionism, or through national governments. Even the clashes between the Brotherhood and the national governments always ended against them: eg the assassination of their founder Hasan al-Banna in 1949 by King Farouk’s secret police. They retreated from political life after the attempted murder of President Nasser in 1954. Their distinguished leader and thinker Sayyid Qutb was executed in 1966 on a charge of plotting to overthrow Nasser’s regime.

However, various hard-line groups separated from the Brotherhood, such as al-Jamaa al-lslamiyah (The Islamic Society), al-Takfir wa al-Hijrah (Excommunication and Emigration), Hizb al-Tahrir al-lslami (Islamic Liberation Party), and the al-Jihad movement. The latter assassinated Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat in October 1981. The attack was led by first lieutenant Khalid al-lslambouli. In his reply to the question: “Why did you decide to assassinate President Sadat?” he gave three reasons:

A. Egypt’s laws were not in accordance with the teachings of Islam and its Sharia.

B. Sadat had made peace with Israel.

C. Sadat had arrested and humiliated Muslim scholars.

The movement’s ideologue was Abd al-Salam Frarj, while blind preacher Omar Abd al-Rhman was the spiritual leader who authorised the assassination. Abd al-Rhman went to live in the United States, but was jailed in connection with the first attack on the World Trade Center, in 1993.

The struggle to establish an Islamic State naturally brought fundamentalist Islamic movements into conflict with secular regimes in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Algeria, Tunisia and other Arab countries, especially during 80s. Despite the fact that Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in Iran in February 1979 was ostensively against the West, he concentrated mainly on the Shi’ite world, leading to a clash with Muslim countries like Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

When Soviet troops entered Afghanistan in December 1979, the interests of US foreign policy and of the fundamentalist movements coincided strongly. The former wanted to defeat Soviet power indirectly, while the latter believed in jihad to fight the infidel in Afghanistan and establish an Islamic State. Ten years later the Mujahedin (‘holy war fighters’) won the war with American weapons, Arab oil money and Pakistani strategic support. When the Mujahedin extended their jihad against corrupt Muslim rulers propped up by the US, the spark against the US was lit.

The spark, not surprisingly, flared rapidly into a full confrontation between the West, represented by the US, and different Islamist groups lead by the al-Qaeda network. I use the phrase ‘not surprisingly’ because the confrontation between the US and the fundamentalist Islamists was only a matter of time. Their alliance in Afghanistan was not built on a solid foundation; rather, two contradictory minds gathered around a temporary mutual interest. Then, in the name of law and legitimacy, the US led the war against Iraq in 1991. And in the name of religious duty, al-Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center in 1993. So in 1995 the US bombed Somalia, and the next year al-Qaeda attacked the US military in Riyadh, in Dhahran in Saudi Arabia. On August 7, 1998, the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were attacked. After twenty days, the US bombed sites in Sudan and Afghanistan. Obviously, each time civilians were killed. The worst was on 9/11, where nearly three thousand people died. In retaliation, the US destroyed al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime in the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001.

Modern Consequences

Nevertheless, the confrontation carries on. It’s nourished by the US occupation of Iraq since April 2003, and by the Palestinian-Israeli crises. To call Iraqis ‘Mujahedin’ or ‘insurgents’ or any other name reflects our opinion about them; but the fact is that there is military resistance against the Western occupation, especially since this occupier came on false grounds in an illegal act. Moreover, tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians died within two years of the occupation.

To face an ideological conflict with military power makes the situation worse. The Soviet troops in Afghanistan and American forces in Vietnam are clear examples of this. To divide the whole world into two camps; ‘with us’ or ‘with the terrorists’, as President George W. Bush said in his speech to both houses of Congress, the American people and the world, nine days after 9/11, is to reflect a unilateral view more than to proclaim global justice [see also Issue 52 concerning this]. Moreover, there is still no agreed definition of the word ‘terrorism’. For instance, Palestinians have been living through an ordeal since 1948, with Prime Minister Sharon using American weapons to kill Palestinians in order to prevent any attack on Israeli people – so who is the terrorist?

To legislate more restrictive laws certainly helps national security, but does not solve the underlying problem with terrorism. Since the problem is not religious or social, but political, therefore we should have a political solution. And this we may reduce to six main points:

1. Genuine political reform in the Muslim world.

2. Establishing a viable Palestinian State.

3. End the occupation of Iraq.

4. Stop support for corrupt Muslim rulers.

5. Stop using massive Western power against any Islamic country.

6. More contact with moderate Islamic groups.

In addition to these points, we need the true will to build a good future between the two worlds of the West and Islam. In Unholy War John Esposito writes: “The Muslim world is no longer ‘out there’. Muslims are our neighbours, colleagues, and fellow citizens, and their religion, like Judaism and Christianity, rejects terrorism.” Educated people on both sides should close the gap created by the wrong ideology of the extremist Islamists and the wrong policy of the right-wing conservatives in the White House.

© Dr I.M.N. Al-Jubouri 2006

Imadaldin Al-Jubouri has written several books in Arabic and English, including his History of Islamic Philosophy.

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