Orthodox and Radical Islam
Before I go any further, I must define the terms used in the title above:
Orthodox: following or conforming to the traditional or generally accepted rules or beliefs of a religion, philosophy, or practice. Or a person: not independent-minded; conventional and unoriginal. (OED).
Radical: (1) (especially of change or action) relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough and (2) characterized by departure from tradition; innovative or progressive. (OED).
The use of the word “progressive” in this context is, in my opinion, ambiguous because this is another word (along with “radical” in particular) that is misused very badly by English speakers to the point of inverting it’s meaning.
I apologise for my pedantry here, but there is a serious point: if words are used with other than their proper meaning then the reader’s (or hearers) understanding will be shaded by the true meaning of the words (no matter how inappropriately used). Furthermore, when speaking across cultures then what I (or you) may mean by their use and what someone else construes their meaning to be may be very different.
This is often a problem when discussing concepts such as “freedom”, “peace”, “tolerance” and “equality” (to name but a few) with Muslims who often have radically (there’s that word again!) different understandings of such concepts to non-Muslims.
Thus the excuse for my pedantry is the intent to avoid ambiguity, misunderstanding and misconstruction of my meanings.
(Okay, enough of the English lesson already – let’s get to the meat of the matter.)
If you do an internet search for “Radical Islam” you will unearth a plethora of sites touching on the subject.
Wikipedia defines “radical Islamism” as referring to: Islamism, Militant Islam, Islamic fundamentalism, Islamic extremism.
“DiscoverTheNetworks.org” defines “Radical Islam” as “radical Islam is a militant, politically activist ideology whose ultimate goal is to create a worldwide community [d]etermined to achieve this new world order by any means necessary, including violence and mass murder…” i.e. terrorism.
Wikipedia points up the problem neatly since it links radical Islamism to Islamic fundamentalism,
Fundamentalism: a form of a religion, especially Islam…, that upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture. (OED).
As can be seen from the correct definitions “fundamentalism” and “radicalism” are (or should be) opposites not (near) synonyms.
The question then arises what is (truly) “radical Islam(ism)” and what would be “orthodox Islam”? This is a very hard question to answer, if only because several different groups of Muslims lay claim to various parts of the terminology as it is commonly used.
The way I am choosing to approach this is to pose the parallel question “who are the real radicals amongst the Muslim community and who are the orthodox?”
It is easier to define orthodox Muslims – largely because this term has generally not been abused for social or other purposes by either Muslims or non-Muslims.
From the above definitions, orthodox Muslims are then defined as those adhering to the traditional teachings of Islam – as set out in the Islamic canon of Koran, Hadith, Sunnah and Sharia – and practised through history (tradition is a matter of history after all).
We then have to determine the beliefs of the orthodox Muslims, which beliefs then define orthodox Islam.
Mohammed’s Companions – the Sahaba.
It would be true to say that the “Sahaba” (the “companions” of Mohammed) are almost universally held up as the most pious and righteous of Muslims. As such the attitudes and beliefs of these Marvellous Muslims can be held to define Islamic orthodoxy.
What does history tell us of them?
A detailed discussion of the Sahaba would be many articles in itself, but anyone who is familiar with Islamic history (even that according to the Islamic sources) would agree that:
the Sahaba took Mohammed and the Koran seriously and literally;
they completely believed in the “rightness” of Islam/Mohammed and the “wrongness” of everyone who didn’t so believe;
they killed non-Muslims in raids to capture booty, including sex-slaves;
they killed non-Muslims in wars to expand Islamic territory and hegemony;
the Sahaba used murder as a terror and silencing tactic against those who insulted Mohammed;
they forced Jews and Christians to become Dhimmis;
they compelled conversion of “polytheists”.
In no case did Mohammed speak against their actions, indeed most if not all had his explicit backing and thus (implicitly) Allah’s as well. Thus the Sahaba knew they were “al-Muttakoon” – “the righteous”, who are frequently praised in the Koran and called “superior” to all others.
This list is not comprehensive and on the plus side there is evidence of members of the Sahaba treating dhimmis well and enforcing their rights even against Muslims, but neither does that offset (much less compensate for or excuse) the behaviours listed above.
It will quickly be deduced that the Sahaba were “fundamentalist” as well as orthodox Muslims, thus we can say that orthodox Islam is fundamentalist in nature.
The Islamic Canon.
From the foregoing we can see that the interpretation of the Koran used by the Sahaba was what we would commonly call “fundamentalist” (or even “extremist”) in nature. At the time of the Sahaba the rest of the Canon was not in existence, therefore the question is whether or not the rest of the Canon supports or rejects the orthodoxy of the Sahaba when considered in toto.
I will restrict myself to the Sunni sources since somewhere between 85 – 95% of all Muslims are Sunni – and again a detailed exegesis would be far too lengthy for this short article.
The major hadith collections (Bukhari, Muslim, ibn Majah, abu Dawud, an-Nasai, Tirmidhi) all written in the 9th century A.D. support the orthodox position – for example some 98% of Bukhari hadith on jihad refer to sword-jihad (i.e. violence) against unbelievers of various sorts – despite the rather contradictory nature of the hadith themselves. What I mean here is that the majority of the hadiths on a given subject support orthodoxy.
The Sirat (Biographies of Mohammed), particularly the earlier ones of ibn Ishaq (known in the recension of ibn Hisham, who died 833 A.D.) and Tirmidhi (d. 923 A.D.) also support the orthodox position – indeed some of the most gruesome tales of the Sahaba come from the Sirat.
Sharia law (aka “Allah’s laws”) is of less relevance for two reasons: firstly it only applies to areas in which Muslim rule is consolidated and secondly as it appears today we have the evolved forms that generally date from periods substantially later than the rest of the Canon. It is perhaps worth noting that of the four major Sunni schools (Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Shafi) the Hanbali school is less discriminatory against non-Muslims subjects of the Muslim state. That said, Sharia law also (generally) supports orthodoxy – which should not surprise us, since Sharia law formulations can be considered as codifications of orthodox belief and practice.
A final set of works worthy of consideration are the major Sunni Tafseers (Koran commentaries) such as al-Tabari (10th century A.D.), Qurtubi (13th century), ibn Kathir (14th century) and al-Jalalayn (16th century). They too support the orthodox position as do such modern Tafseers as Shafi (19th century) and Maududi & Qutb (20th century).
Contemporary non-Muslim writers speak of the brutality of the Islamic expansion in the 7th century. The armed Islamic expansion into Europe was only finally halted at the second battle of Vienna in 1683. The Muslim conquest of India was particularly bloody and brutal (and this from the Muslim records). All of which supports this aspect of Islamic orthodoxy over a millennium or thereabouts.
Surviving non-Muslim subjects of the Islamic state were treated as Dhimmis; this, apart from relegating them to a third-class status (ranking below Muslim women and male Muslim slaves), also enforced a separate identity on them, the Muslims keeping themselves both separate from and socially “above” the Dhimmis.
Again, I am not stating that orthodoxy was universally upheld in all aspects over all that time, far from it. But the various elements were upheld in various periods and a rule of thumb is that periods of laxity (or “hypocrisy” in the language of the Koran) were followed (and preceded) by periods of rigour.
– – –
Thus we may characterise the orthodox Muslims as being (and I’ll concede the charge that what follows is somewhat simplistic):
violent – including terror-tactics and suicide attacks;
intolerant of other beliefs – with a partial exception for Judaism and Christianity;
I am sure that I do not have to point out that the list of characteristics above are those (amongst others) of Muslims who are often termed “radical”, “extremist”, “Islamist”(etc.) today.
If the “radical/extremist” Muslims are actually the orthodox, who then are the true radicals?
This is a group that is much harder to define – except by negation: if we know who the orthodox are then we know whom the radicals are not.
This leads to the ironic conclusion that “radical” Muslims are really what are termed “moderate” or “mainstream” Muslims by most commentators. It is they who have the radical new interpretation of Islam as “the religion of peace”, it is they who re-interpret the Koran (and thus Islam) in terms utterly foreign to the Tafseers and it is they whose interpretations are a-historical. (I’m assuming here that the “moderates” really are “moderates”, rather than orthodox Muslims practising Taqiyya.)
A further irony is that the Koran itself terms such Muslims as “Munafiq” – i.e. “hypocrites”.
This leads to the point that if a “moderate” Muslim starts to take his/her Islam seriously they accept these teachings and become “true-believers” – i.e. orthodox (“extremist”, “radical” etc.) Muslims – in other words the “moderate” subsumes into the “radical” Muslim (to use the commonplace and inaccurate terms).
There are plenty of examples of moderate-Muslims-turned-murderous-jihadists stories in the Press. Some writers have even termed this phenomenon “sudden Jihad syndrome” or “SJS” for short which is apt in terms of effect, but the cause is simply the adoption of orthodox Islamic beliefs – as the jihadists often state plainly by citing verses of the Koran in support of their actions, whether against non-Muslims or “moderate” Muslims.
You may by now be wondering as to the point of this piece. Simply:
don’t be fooled by the use of labels such as “moderate”, “radical”, “extremist”, “fundamentalist” etc. into believing that (e.g.) so-called “radical Islam” is somehow a new and radical interpretation of Islam that has arisen as a response to poverty, deprivation etc. or that “moderate Islam” is the traditional ancient (i.e. orthodox) form either. Rather, the opposite is true.
And don’t take what I say as necessarily being accurate (I sincerely think it is, but that’s not the same thing) – look at the sources, look at history, become educated about what is and is not orthodoxy in Islam.
And then decide if I am right or not.