Islam is More than Just the Muslims

One of the most important things I learned throughout my studies is that religion as a concept and discipline is much greater and more expansive than what practitioners make it out to be. This is certainly true for Islam and Muslims. From the perspective of a believer, the origin of religion is the Absolute and the Limitless. However, what we come to call religion is nothing more than our own human (i.e. limited) interpretation of this Absolute and Divine phenomena. Our understanding will always be, therefore, partial and of the current moment.

As I reflect on this concept as it relates to Islam and Muslims specifically, a few things come to mind that I think help instill a little humility in all of us who claim to follow it:

  1. In the Islamic tradition, all acts of worship are concluded with some sort of prayer that asks for the act to be accepted. One would think that the mere act of worship itself is a good sign. You did it and therefore should be rewarded! However, if we focus on our own humanity for a moment, we see that our efforts are always fallible and therefore open to deficiency. As we engage in devotional acts, therefore, we conclude with a hope and prayer that they are pure and worthy of reward. This serves as a reminder that we should rely ultimately on the Almighty, not our human efforts.
  2. The entire edifice of Islamic law (Sharia) is essentially man-made. The Sharia is nothing more than the jurists’ best guess of what is being asked of us by God. This is why every legal opinion that is offered (typically referred to as a fatwa) ends with the statement, “and God knows best.” This is a very humbling notion. One can study their entire life, use all the intellectual and scholarly tools they can muster, and still there is the possibility that their deductions could be wrong. Humility aside, this is also an important reminder that our deductions are just that, ours, and in no way speak to the entire potentiality embedded in the Divine texts.
  3. Islam is a religion of initiation, not ordination. There is no ecclesiastic class that serves as the official interpreter of things religious. Rather, easy access to the club of Islam is offered by way of participation in the various chains of transmission (sanad/asānīd), which connect one to the past in an unbroken, direct chain. Everyone is invited to be initiated and everyone, therefore, has the same potential to gain from Islam as much as they want. Therefore, we cannot negate another person’s experience with their faith nor their personal relationship with God. This is ultimately the reason why coercion of faith is an anathema to Islam (eg. Quran 2:256 & 18:29). So while there is an established level of normative orthodoxy (which regulates outward action), the potential of internal experience and faith are limitless.

I find these three points humbling and liberating at the same time. While I take great joy in the scholarly and academic pursuit of the sciences of Islam (I have dedicated twenty years of my life so far to it!), I am humbled to know that this represents a minority of what Islam actually offers. While my launching point within Islam is normative Sunni orthodoxy, I am liberated by the notion that the experience of Islam can present itself in ways unknown to me and open to anyone and everyone.

The threat of extremism of any kind is that it mistakes human interpretation for absolute truth and by so doing pushes people away from religion and divides communities. In other words, it makes people arrogant and restricted, not humble and liberated. Which would you rather be?

A Framework for Understanding Violence and Extremism within the Family of Islam

Since I first confronted the subject of violence and extremism as a research topic about two years ago, I noticed that there was no coherent framework dealing with extremism arising from within the “family of Islam.” It has been difficult to wrap my head around this topic due to a lack of clear definition of terms, boundaries, etc. What follows is my own developing framework to this issue.

  1. To begin, it is important to define orthodoxy in Islam. Orthodoxy for me is another word for normative Sunni Islam and my operating definition of this term follows the outline of the recent Chechnya Conference held in 2016. This is an academic definition meaning that if one wanted to study Sunni Islam professionally at a licensed, credited seminary, the above would be the framework for such studies. This also means that most Sunni Muslims (i.e. those under the overarching umbrella of Sunnism, even if culturally) might be unaware of these distinctions, which in no way diminishes their Sunnism. To understand this better, I suggest reading “The Big Tent of Islam”, and an appendix of the book found here.
  2. The definition of orthodoxy is very different than the definition of “Islam”, which is a general and broad concept as defined by the Amman Message. In other words, the sphere of Sunni Islam is narrower than the sphere of Islam. I adhere to both definitions, but this framework is focused on defining the spectrum of extremism from the perspective of Sunni Islam specifically, not Islam generally.
  3. Based on the previous two points, I deem the extremists discussed below to be “Muslim”, albeit in grave moral error, and do not subscribe to the perspective that they are outside of the folds of Islam as argued here.
  4. This last point is in no ways an attempt to lessen the seriousness of extremism, but rather an opportunity to link extremist groups to the larger intra-Islamic phenomena of khārijism, which can provide Muslims with great insight and precedent in dealing with this specific problem.
  5. Given the last 4 points, I think of contemporary Islamic extremism as a spectrum beginning with Wahābism and culminating in the rise of ISIS. This does not mean that every step on this spectrum is itself violent, but every step is a march towards extremism and therefore away from orthodoxy.
  6. Overall, my interest in this subject matter is more practical than academic. This means that I am focused on prevention (i.e. soft power) and therefore training and education as tools for prevention. My goal is to help build more effective, measurable training programs for civil society and religious leaders to prevent further conflict. I believe countering violence and extremism is the role of law enforcement and not within my skill set.
  7. Part of my practical interest in this subject matter means that I am keen on identifying the following three points in each level of the spectrum:

a) Methodology – The way of thinking and the operating system extremist use to interpret religion and the world around them.

b) Issues – Based on this methodology one can generate the issues that such a way of thinking produces. While in theory this could be endless, I tend to focus on top-level issues that serve as the umbrella for the rest. I will often use analytical tools to help me articulate these top-level issues, especially when focused on the extremist conversation online.

c) Methods of Influence – Here I trace the actual ways and organizations used to perpetuate these themes throughout history and geography.

Spectrum of Extremism in the Family of Islam

What follows is a skeleton of my working framework to the spectrum of extremism within Islam (meaning that many of the points under methodology-major tenants-methods of influence are a work in progress):

  1. Wahabism


– Rejection of Ash‘arism (i.e. Sunni theology).

                        Major Tenants/Issues

-Popularizing the split in tawḥīd of Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328).

                        Methods of Influence

-Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab (d.1792) and followers.

  1. Salafism


-Rejection of the authority of the schools of law (i.e. madhāhib).

                        Major Tenants/Issues

-An attack on ḥadīth as the substrate for the rulings of the Sharī’a.

                        Methods of Influence

-Nasir al-Din al-Albani’s (d. 1999) ḥadīth project.

-Abd al-‘Azīz bin Bāz (d. 1999) and followers.

  1. Extreme Salafism


-Rejection of Sufism.

                        Major Tenants/Issues

-Suppression of spiritual practices in Islam.

                        Methods of Influence

-Misuse of the concept of bid‘a (innovation).

  1. Takfirism


-Claims of absolute ijtihād.

                        Major Tenants/Issues

Jāhiliyya of the Umma.

                        Methods of Influence

-Sayyid Qutub (d. 1966).

  1. Extremist Organizations


-The aforementioned become organized with claims of grandeur.

                        Major Tenants/Issues

-Top-down approach/ḥākimiyya as a method to use political tools for religious gains.

                        Methods of Influence

-The plight of the Muslim world, loss of political strength and unity.

  1. Terrorists


-Pure violence.

                        Major Tenants/Issues

-Using justifications that the previous chain of thinking provides, Muslims become fair game.

                        Methods of Influence

-Fear, killing, suicide bombings.

Top-Level Themes

These are themes that I have found to be most discussed and therefore require immediate attention. I am actively working with various teams to disseminate responses in different formats to these themes.

  1. Takfirism – labeling other Muslims as disbelievers.
  2. Jāhiliyya – claiming Muslim society has fallen into disbelief writ large.
  3. Ḥākimiyya – An argument against established political rule being un-Islamic and therefore in need of replacement.
  4. Jihād – Argued by extremist to be a perpetual struggle with no end.
  5. Dār Islām/Dār Ḥarb – medieval geo-political classifications misappropriated for the modern context.
  6. Tamkīn – top-down change, rather than grassroots change.
  7. The Saved Group (al-firqa al-nājiyya) – a specific Prophet text used to justify “their group” as the one, true group of Muslims.
  8. Split of Tawḥīd – a heretical argument by Ibn Taymiyya that makes monotheism a two-fold step, thus allowing one to slip into disbelief easily.