Muslims vs. ‘Outlaws of Islam’

Islamic Voices Lead Fight Against Extremists

WASHINGTON — On the occasion of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, the president of Egypt delivered a message for the faculty and imams of Al-Azhar University, the oldest Islamic theological school in the world: Religious freedom is God’s gift, and mosques must preach this respect for others.

“Our Lord created this world for nations, not just for one nation; for religions, not just one religion; and for sects, not just for one sect,” said President Fatah El-Sissi.

Nearly a year ago, the president, who has a long reputation as a pious Muslim, called on the clerics of Al-Ahzar to engage in an effort to “revolutionize” their theological teachings on Islam and reform and update their curriculum for the modern era.

The Dec. 22 speech at Al-Azhar in Cairo was part theological meditation and part exhortation to clerics, saying there has been in Islam a collective failure to preach and practice respect for others of different faiths. El-Sissi told the clerics that he had reflected for many years that the “real liberty” God gave man was the ability to choose him or not, and he expressed doubt that using physical or psychological force on someone to change his religion would please God. Reminding them that “what divides us, destroys us,” he encouraged the body to wish the nation’s Christians “happy holidays” and share in their joy.

“If you do not think so, it’s a tragedy,” he said. “If you think that this is not a part of your religion, it’s a problem.”

President El-Sissi is not alone in the Islamic world in rallying scholars and religious leaders in the work of renewing Islamic faith and teachings in the 21st century. Many Muslim leaders and scholars are engaged in the renewal of Muslims and their faith against the fundamentalist religious currents in Islam that are fueling jihadist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaida and political Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood.


Combating Terror

Throughout the year, Abdullah II, king of Jordan and well-known champion for the rights and dignity of the Middle East’s Christians, has warned that the world and Islam face a mortal threat from extremists, who must not be opposed simply on the battlefield, but defeated in the battle of the mind and heart.

“We are facing a third world war against humanity, and this is what brings us all together,” said Abdullah II, who has added status in the world of Islam, as the Hashemite royal family claims direct descent from Islam’s founder, the Prophet Muhammad, through his favorite daughter, Fatima. At a November media conference in Kosovo, long before the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., Abdullah II declared that Europe and the Islamic world are threatened by those Muslims who have made themselves the “savage outlaws of religion, devoid of humanity, respecting no laws and no boundaries” by joining Daesh, al-Qaida and other groups that use terror in the name of Islam.

The Jordanian king has framed the battle by referring to the threat as the resurgence of a violent sect that emerged within Islam shortly after Muhammad’s death and required an enormous effort to defeat: the Khawariji, or “outlaws of Islam.”

Robert Reilly, a Catholic veteran of Cold War diplomacy and an authority on Islamic extremism, told the Register that the Khawariji sect — much like Daesh and other jihadists known today as “Takfirists” — was “a puritanical splinter group” that killed Muslims on the basis that they were not true followers of Islam and, therefore, “apostates.” In fact, one of its many victims was Caliph Ali in 661, whom the Khawarijites assassinated on the basis that the caliph’s willingness to negotiate with a Syrian ruler made him an apostate deserving of death.

“It took a very long time for Muslims to extirpate this violent group,” Reilly said. Muslim leaders and scholars, including King Abdullah II and President El-Sissi of Egypt, he noted, have been “frank enough to say this is a war within Islam.”


Lack of Awareness

Unfortunately, most Americans and people in the West are not aware of Muslims who are fighting to save their faith from either being corrupted or defined by violent jihadists, explained Reilly.

Western leaders such as President Barak Obama, after the San Bernardino attacks, have said ISIL is a “cult of death” that does not represent Islam, but wants to start “a war between America and Islam.” But Reilly said they have failed to point out or support the Muslim leaders and voices that have been leading the spiritual war against the extremists, and as a result, their message has increased — not decreased — suspicion in the public against Muslims.

The reality is that there are leading figures in the Islamic world who have been calling for reform already and are working for that goal.

“We have to stop guessing what constitutes the true Islam or abdicating the decision to those who speak loudest,” Stephen Ulph, an expert on jihadist and Islamist ideologies and reformist movements in Islam, told the Register.

Ulph said Western media narratives tend to miss the truth on Islam and terrorism. The narratives fall, instead, into two extreme categories: the one being a crude interpretation that ISIS is “true Islam” and the other that ISIS and similar groups have nothing to do with Islam.

“Instead, we need to understand that it is a spectrum,” he said of the faith of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims. When it comes to that spectrum, jihadists and groups like ISIS occupy the extreme end of what Ulph described as the “far right” of Islam. The “far right” is typified by the Salafist movement in Islam, which casts aside more than 1,500 years of Islamic development and inculturation for a fundamentalist envisioning of seventh-century Islam. Ulph is director of The Reform Project and the Almuslih site (“The Reformer”), which features the work of Arab-Muslim reformist scholars and makes them accessible to both English and Arab-language audiences. One of the contributors has called for Muslims to look at the Catholic Church’s experience with aggiornamento at Vatican II as an example for updating texts and teachings in the modern era.

“We must stop writing off all Muslims as being the same; we must stop listening to some current of Muslims who claim that there is a standard, unchanging Islam or Muslim ‘type,’” Ulph  said. “And in that spectrum, we have to identify those elements from within the tradition that are capable, as many Muslims rightly believe, of co-existing with the rest of humanity and human experience and knowledge.”


Reviving Religious Debate

At Almuslih, progressive Arab-Muslim leaders, Ulph explained, are endeavoring on several fronts to “de-isolate” the Islamic tradition and renew it for the 21st century. They seek to show the cultural and historical context of traditional Islamic practices (e.g. the potential Byzantine origins of the hijab and Sharia jurisprudence); de-isolate that tradition from other theories of knowledge (epistemology); restore understanding that the sacred texts of Islam do not oblige Muslims to form “Islamic” states (as explained by Shaykh ‘Al ‘Abd al-Rziq); promoting indigenous Islamic traditions as having equal status with Arab traditions; and refocusing the spiritual emphasis back on the individual Muslim as opposed to the collective.

“Because, fundamentally, we will have to actively — proactively — choose for ourselves, as do the Arab-Muslim progressives, the type of Islam that we can accommodate and indeed celebrate,” he said.

Reilly said he shares the view of a number of the Almuslih Muslim intellectuals and scholars that Islam was weakened theologically when the more Hellenistic-informed school, the Mu’tazila, lost the battle for dominance in Islam with the Ash’arite school by the 10th century and began its decline in influence until disappearing by the 14th century.

Reilly, who argues this thesis in his book The Closing of the Muslim Mind, said the Mu’tazila belief that the Quran was God’s word, but created in time — similar to the Christian view of the Bible — makes it easier for Muslims to argue that certain verses are restricted to the context of Muhammad’s time and no longer apply. The Ash’arite view that the Quran is uncreated and existed with Allah outside of time, he added, makes that more difficult to argue.


Classical Islam

But Caner Dagli, an associate professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and former adviser to the king of Jordan, said that the impact of the Mu’tazila-Ash’arite debate on reason and science in the world of Islam was overstated. He noted that jihadists reject the mainstream Ash’arite view in Islam and the traditional theological schools that had to collate and distill the authentic hadith (sayings or stories of the Prophet) for Muslims. The Ash’arites, he said, still embraced the importance of reason, but rejected what it saw as an overreach of philosophy into areas proper to revealed theology.

Dagli, who is a signer of the “Common Word” declaration by Muslim scholars and religious leaders, said what Islam in the modern world needs is a renewal of traditional Islam, which produced its Golden Age and became spiritually diverse as it inculturated itself in societies from West Africa to Southeast Asia, developing beautiful libraries and shrines to its saints and mystics.

Dagli and a group of other scholars and translators recently produced The Study Quran, which includes Sunni and Shiite (two main divisions of Islam that split in the eighth century) commentary and legal opinions, as well as commentary from the Sufi mystical tradition. The idea was to give both Muslims and non-Muslims “the deep picture” about what Muslims believe, or have believed, through the ages — as well as to expose and discredit the “incoherent” claims of ISIS and other extremists, who pick and choose their verses with no regard to context or tradition.

“What I want this to do is to be able to cultivate a sense of classical Islam,” Dagli said, and impart a “literate, nuanced and sophisticated reading,” which is as necessary to the Quran as it is to the Bible.



But Dagli said calls for Islam to have a Reformation-type event were inapt, given that Christianity’s Reformation was followed by an age of extremism, with massive slaughters of Christian against Christian, all justified in the name of religion.

“What do people want? A return to Calvin’s Geneva?” he said, noting that the famed Christian reformer introduced a harsh legal regime by reviving the long-defunct Mosaic Law and its punishments.

The problem, Dagli pointed out, is that Islam has already had its Reformation event: Salafi Islam, an anti-intellectual variant of Islam that arose in the 18th century, rejecting more than 1,000 years of Islamic religious development, and gave birth to the even more extreme Wahhabism, the official Islam of Saudi Arabia and the only version of Islam allowed to be practiced there.

“What we need is a counter-reformation,” he said.

The problem is that Islam faces a challenge from Saudi Arabia and others — who, “with the support or tacit approval of the United States,” are spreading their Salafist faith and destroying the indigenous version of Islam in the process.

“They want to eliminate other versions of Islam,” Dagli said, because they see other versions as heretical. The Saudis have also destroyed 99% of the Islamic shrines and monuments to its founders and saints, as well as its Christian artifacts — some of which had existed for more than 1,000 years. The Hashemites, King Abdullah’s family, had protected these holy places until 1925, when the Saudis overthrew them by conquering the Hejaz, the Hashemite kingdom encompassing Mecca and Medina.

“I can tell you story after story where the Salafis came in and bullied everyone and drove [them] out,” he said.


Countering Saudi Extremism

Dagli noted that President Obama is calling on Muslims to fight extremism within their own community and reject “those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect and human dignity,” when the source of that extremism is the U.S.’ strategic ally in the Persian Gulf. He added, when it comes to who chops off more heads and limbs — one of the features of Daesh that has horrified people in the West — there is no contest: Saudi Arabia leads the pack. He said the U.S. could do more by threatening to remove any kind of aid or assistance if Saudi Arabia does not stop its proselytizing.

In fact, a New York Times profile of Tasheen Malik, who murdered 14 people in San Bernardino with her American husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, showed she grew up in Saudi Arabia, where her Pakistani family renounced their Barelvi version of Sunni Islam.

According to Reilly, the Sauds rule close to 30 million people in their kingdom but have spread their extremist faith by using billions of dollars in oil wealth to build mosques, train clerics and supply the theological content in order to destroy the native Islam elsewhere.

“Indonesia is one place in the world where Islam came peacefully,” Reilly noted. “It has a more pacifist Islam, and there have been attempts to radicalize it.”

Although President Obama has said that Muslims must “confront, without excuse,” the extremist ideology of jihadists, Reilly said Muslims trying to uphold their faith, or renew it, against extremists are at a severe financial disadvantage, and the U.S. has done nothing to even the playing field, as it once did with instruments like Voice of America when the threat was Soviet communism.

Asked Reilly, “Why aren’t we supporting their side? Why don’t we help these people?”