Since 9/11 Muslims have been trying to win back the middle ground. Whilst this battle has not been helped by the spectre of extremism, significant, but unheralded, gains have been made.
The post 9/11 era for many Muslims has been hallmarked by an ideological tussle between extremism and the middle ground.
Dubbed by English intellectual Shaikh Abdul Hakim Murad as the “radical middle way”, the voice of moderation has seriously attempted to take Islam out of Usama Bin Laden’s cave to focus on its core classical values of tolerance and compassion.
This struggle, however, has not been helped by the Madrid train bombings of 2004, the 7/7 July London bombings, the Mumbai attacks of 2009, the Alexandria bombing this year, continuing Iraqi suicide missions, ongoing Nigerian xenophobia and Somalia’s fanatical Al-Shabab.
The point is that due to the media hullabaloo generated by Islamic extremism, Islam’s movement to the centre has hardly been noticed. Those of the Prophetic middle way have often found their utterances drowned out by more sexy headlines concerning terror.
One such post-9/11 project was the Amman Message, which was launched by the Royal Ahl-ul Bait Institute of Jordan in 2004. Endorsed by Jordan’s King Abdullah, and overseen by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, the Amman Message stated that Islam categorically rejected “extremism, radicalism and fanaticism”.
Calling for a centred Islam imbuing classical tradition, it acknowledged the validity of Islam’s different schools of thought – including the Shi’ah – and condemned the extremist notion that those disagreeing with you were unbelievers fit for the sword.
The Amman Message re-asserted the strict academic pre-conditions for the issuing of fatwas, or juridicial opinions in Sacred Law. The killing of civilians, as promoted by groupings such as Al-Qaedah, enjoyed no legal precedent in Islamic history.
The Amman Message was endorsed by over 500 scholars, including Shaikh Ibrahim Gabriels of the Muslim Judicial Council, and the United ‘Ulama Council of South Africa.
In 2007, the Royal Ahl-ul Bait Society issued its Common Word document. Stating that Islam and Christianity shared at their core the twin ‘golden commandments’ of loving God and neighbourliness, it called for peace and harmony between Muslims and Christians worldwide.
The document had support from 460 Islamic organisations and received positive responses from the Pope, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, the Archbishop of Cyprus, the Baptist World Alliance, the United Methodist Church, the Lutheran World Federation and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Whilst 600 or so articles were written about the Common Word document, and conferences were convened in its name at institutions such as Cambridge and Yale, I doubt whether news of its existence ever went much further than the halls of academe.
The question of why such a historic reconciliation of the divine imperative, and such a bold statement against religious extremism, never penetrated further into the public space remains an open one.
But for those accusing the Amman Message and the Common Word documents of being shallow gesture, recent developments – again largely unheralded – have again pointed to the determination of Islam’s leadership to divest itself of extremism since 9/11.
In May 2008 the chief mufti of the Indian Deobandi movement, Maulana Habibur Rahman, issued an edict against terrorism. He ruled that those who used the Qur’an to justify terrorism were liars.
Founded in 1866 in the small town of Deoband in the Uttar Pradesh region, the Deobandi movement is hugely influential – even in Europe, Africa and the US where many Muslim Asian minorities reside.
The Deobandi movement also controls the thousands of Darul ‘Ulums or madrasahs in the Indo-Pak region, some of which have fed directly into Afghanistan’s Taliban and Pakistan’s jihadist militias.
To announce its fatwa against terror, the Deoband institution convened a conference in Delhi attended by over 30,000 scholars. It was heralded as the biggest gathering of beards ever seen in India.
The conference agreed that there was no connection between jihad and terrorism. Glorying in violence was declared an Islamic abomination, and terror was deemed as one of the greatest challenges facing Muslim societies.
Significantly, scholars of varying Islamic persuasions at the conference bound themselves to the fatwa – a historical gesture, as it meant that the anti-terrorist legal brief enjoyed the weighty authority of thousands of Indo-Pak scholars.
A further death knell to extremism was sounded in March last year when 15 prominent jurists met in Mardin, Turkey, to recast a famous fatwa by the 14th century scholar, Ibn Taimiyyah.
Mardin is the region where Ibn Taimiyyah, regarded as the wellspring of modern fanaticism, was born. His famous ‘Mardin Fatwa’, dealing with Muslim communities under non-Islamic rule, has been used by movements such as Al-Qaedah to justify their jihad.
Directed by Shaikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, an international jurist and former Mauritanian vice-president, the Mardin summit agreed that Ibn Taimiyyah’s fatwa had been incorrectly understood due to a typographical error made over a century ago.
The background to Ibn Taimiyyah’s juridicial opinion was that Mardin had been over-run by the Mongol hordes. He had been asked about the status of the Muslims of Mardin, now ruled by non-Muslims.
Ibn Taimiyyah had ruled that the Muslims of Mardin did not lose any of their rights under the subjugation of the Mongols, and as long as they were free to practice their religion, were not obliged to emigrate.
Ibn Taimiyyah deemed that Mardin was neither part of the Muslim world, nor part of the non-Muslim world. Mardin was a composite of the above, and as such, represented a third socio-political category.
In other words, the Dar us-Salam, the realm of Islam, now became the Dar ul-‘Ahd, the abode of truce or safety.
According to Shaikh Bin Bayyah, the elephant in Ibn Taimiyyah’s room was a substitution of two letters in a single Arabic verb that completely changed the meaning of the fatwa. He had located the original manuscript in Damascus to confirm this.
Ibn Taimiyyah had originally penned that “Muslims living (under Mongol/non-Muslim rule) should be treated according to their rights as Muslims, while non-Muslims living outside the authority of Islamic law should be treated according to their rights”.
The changing of the Arabic word “yu’amal” (should be treated) to “yuqatal” (should be fought) in a 1909 edition of the fatwa became the clarion call of extremist movements everywhere. It became the justification to assassinate of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat in the 1970’s, and the juristic raison d’etre for Al-Qaedah’s terror.
The Mardin conference ruled on the basis of the corrected version of Ibn Taimiyyah’s fatwa that the mediaeval division of the world into an abode of Islam and an abode of Unbelief could no longer apply.
The conference further ruled that anyone using the fatwa to justify violence was in error and that no individual or group could declare war or jihad on their own. Muslims now lived in a pluralistic world where mutual rights had to be respected.
It is evident that Ibn Taimiyyah, as controversial as he might have been on other matters, expressed a nuanced and insightful position on minority issues seven centuries ago. Today there is a scarcely a country in which Muslims do not live as minorities, and as long as they are not oppressed, their host countries are places of safety and security.