Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Moderate Muslims & Moderate Islam

By Jacob Thomas

On 22 January, 2011, The Wall Street Journal published a review of two new books on “the War on Terror.”[1] The reviewer, Michael B. Mukasey[2] entitled his review: “America’s Most Wanted: Two new books about the war on terror say that Osama bin Laden has achieved his goal — and we haven’t.”

Near the end of the review, Mr. Mukasey remarked:

“Finally, consider Mr. Bergen’s assertion that ‘mainstream Islam’ is rejecting al Qaeda and that the 9/11 attack was ‘un-Islamic,’ a judgment that fails twice over, including once on his own evidence. If by “mainstream Islam” Mr. Bergen means moderate Islam, there is no such thing. There are many moderate Muslims, but there is simply no body of doctrine within Islam that provides a principled basis for condemning the 9/11 attacks.” (Source)

I would like to add some further thoughts on his observation that “If by ‘mainstream Islam’ Mr. Bergen means moderate Islam, there is no such thing. There are many moderate Muslims, but there is simply no body of doctrine within Islam that provides a principled basis for condemning the 9/11 attacks.”

Moderate Muslims

The term “Moderate Muslim” is a Western construct and has no equivalent phrase in contemporary Arabic. The use of it by Westerners reflects their assumption that there surely must exist Muslims who differ with their radical brothers in the faith who hanker after imposing Islam’s legal system known as Shariah.

I prefer to use the terminology that is current in the contemporary Arab-Muslim world describing non-Islamist or salafist thought such as “reformist”,” “secular” or modernizing”. For instance, Arabic-language websites such as routinely post articles that boldly and critically interact with classical Islam. These thinkers and writers dream of a humane version of Islam that is compatible with the modern world would arise. However, the verdict of the last 1400 years does not substantiate that hope!

Throughout history, the Muslim world has witnessed attempts by Muslim intellectuals to bring about a synthesis between Islamic doctrines and human reason. For example, during the 9th century, they were known as the Mu’tazilites of Baghdad. Their views were popular for some time but eventually, the strict school of Sunni Islam prevailed. Theological and juridical thoughts were frozen for almost a thousand years. In Arabic, this is known as the “The Closing of Bab al-Ijtihad.” Any attempt to follow in the footsteps of the Mu’tazilites was regarded with suspicion and as a move in the direction of Irtidad (apostasy)![3]

Then, early in the 19th century, reform movements began to appear in Egypt, as a result of influences arising from French and the British presence in the land. Reformers realized that the great gap separating their Muslim world from the advanced civilization of Europe was reflected in backwardness in all aspects of their mundane lives. While admiring Europe’s technological achievements, they were less interested in its cultural heritage. That heritage, which was Judeo-Christian, had played a major role in European progress.
During the 20th century, nationalism reared its head all over the Middle East and led to further attempts to reform Islam. The creation of the secular Turkish Republic out of the shambles of the fallen Ottoman Empire was seen by some of the area’s reform-minded Muslims as a legitimate way to modernize Islam. It was followed by other independence movements in the Arab world. Muslims and Copts in Egypt, Christians and Muslims in the Levant, joined their efforts to achieve independence from Britain and France.

At the end of WWII, nationalism continued to be a dominant force in the Muslim world until the mid-1960s and it led to war with Israel. Those nationalistic aspirations were deflated, however, when the Arab armies were defeated by Israel in the June 1967 war. That “hazima” (utter defeat) allowed for the return of the Muslim Brotherhood to the political scene, with its slogan: Al-Islam Hua al-Hall,” i.e. Islam is the Solution! We are witnessing today a tug-of-war between nationalist and Islamist forces in such places as Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and the Gaza strip in Palestine.

The terminology of “Mainstream” or, “Moderate Islam” is still open for discussion. I am in full agreement with Mr. Mukasey’s assertion that “If by ‘mainstream Islam’ Mr. Bergen means moderate Islam, there is no such thing.” Here are the facts:

A study of the sacred texts of Islam and its history reveals that there is no such thing as “Moderate Islam.” From its earliest days, Islam was beset with internal divisions and conflicts that were solved through violent means. The first four caliphs (leaders of the Islamic Umma after the passing of Muhammad in 632 A. D) are called, Al-Khulafa al-Rashidoon, i.e. The Rightly Guided Caliphs. Their era (632-661) was marred by a series of assassinations. Umar, the 2nd caliph was murdered in 644, and was succeeded by Uthman who was assassinated twelve years later. Then Ali, cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, was murdered by one of his own disgruntled soldiers!

The list of horrors that mar the history of Islam is long. The martyrdom of Husain, the son of Ali, and leader of the Shi’ites, took place in 680, at Karbala, Iraq. Seventy years later, the Umayyad Caliphate, responsible for the killing of Husain and his entourage, ended in a blood-bath! The founder of the new Abbasid caliphate is known in history as al-Saffah,” i.e. the “butcher.” His successors who built their capital in Baghdad on the Tigris River, owed their success partly to the cooperation of elements of the Persian population of the empire. However, soon after the Abbasids had consolidated their power, they put to death several Persian leaders.

It is not only history that proves Islam to be a violent religion, but its sacred texts as well. When the Muslim scholar, Ibn Hazm, dealt with the subject of the status of Dhimmis in Al-Andalus (Arabic name for Spain) he referred to the words of the second caliph, Umar and then quoted from the Qur’an as a basis for that oppressive rule:

These are the Rules and Regulations that were imposed by ‘Umar ibn-al-Khattab on the Christians of Syria, after conquering their land. The purpose of these rules was to make them submissive and contemptible. Christians were in no way to exhibit any sign of their unbelief, or anything forbidden in Islam; since Allah, the supremely Glorified and Honored, had said:

And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is all for Allah. But if they cease, then lo! Allah is Seer of what they do.” Qur’an Surah Al-Anfal 8:39 Pickthall’s Translation

This document is a reminder that the claim of Islamic tolerance is not supported either by their actions or by their holy book, the Qur’an. There is no way around the hard fact that Chapter 8, verse 39, quoted above, specifically commands the believers to fight Christians and Jews. This chapter was “revealed” in Medina, and its 75 verses are replete with the subject of war and booty. For example, the late Saddam Hussein, when mounting a campaign against the Kurds in northern Iraq, code-named it “Al-Anfal” as if to secure a Qur’anic warrant for his horrible crime against fellow-Sunni Muslims!

I had dealt at length with the “Pact of Umar” in an article that was posted on this website on 9 February, 2009: “The Onerous Rules & Regulations Imposed on the People of the Book.”

Personally, I feel very strongly about this subject. My roots are in Eastern Christianity, and my forefathers lived under the onerous rules of Dhimmitude for centuries. They were regarded by the Arab conquerors as hard-headed and obstinate, since they clung to their faith and their way of life, notwithstanding the awful restrictions placed on them. Their Muslim overlords could not understand my forefathers’ unwillingness to join them and accept the claims of Islam! Thirteen hundred years of Dhimmitude were punctuated, quite often, with severe persecution.

Eventually, the stigma of “Dhimmi” that had burdened the Eastern Christians was lifted, thanks to the Allied forces that brought to an end the 400 year old colonial rule of the Ottoman Empire in the Levant. However, the years of freedom from Dhimmitude did not last long. After the British and the French left the Middle East, the Christians hoped that Arab nationalism would bring them peace, justice, and equality. It didn’t take long before persecution returned to shatter their hopes. The rise of Islamic Salafism meant that gradually, the remnant of the Eastern Christian communities of the Middle East would bear the brunt of discrimination including covert as well as overt persecution.

One may regard the civil war in Lebanon that raged from 1975 to the early nineties, as an attempt by the Muslims to rob the Christian population of the special status it had enjoyed during the presence of the French mandatory power (1918-1946). The plight of the Christians in Iraq and Egypt has worsened lately. During the 2010 Christmas season a Christian church was attacked by Islamists in Baghdad, followed one week later by the New Year’s Eve attack on the Coptic Church in Alexandria. They stand as two examples of Islam’s intolerance of non-Muslims.

In closing, I would like to quote some pertinent observations from Ephraim Karsh’s book, “Islamic Imperialism: A History.” Mr. Karsh is Professor and Head of the Mediterranean Studies Programme, King’s College, University of London. His book is published by Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2006.

In his Introduction to the book, Professor Karsh writes:

The worlds of Christianity and Islam, however, have developed differently in one fundamental respect. The Christian faith won over an existing empire in an extremely slow and painful process and its universalism was originally conceived in spiritual terms that made a clear distinction between God and Caesar. By the time it was embraced by the Byzantine emperors as a tool for buttressing their imperial claims, three centuries after its foundation, Christianity had in place a countervailing ecclesiastical institution with an abiding authority over the wills and actions of all believers. The birth of Islam, by contrast, was inextricably linked with the creation of a world empire and its universalism was inherently imperialist. It did not distinguish between temporal and religious powers, which were combined in the person of Muhammad, who derived his authority directly from Allah and acted at one and the same time as head of the state and head of the church. This allowed the prophet to cloak his political ambitions with a religious aura and to channel Islam’s energies into ‘its instruments of aggressive expansion, there [being] no internal organism of equal force to counterbalance it.’”

As we see, the perennial problem of Islam resides in the fact that right from its beginnings politics was intimately wedded to the faith. In fact, Islam as a religious faith would not have achieved any success had Muhammad not immigrated to Medina, where he became both Prophet and Ruler. His triumph over his enemies in Mecca was a military victory. In 630, he entered the holy city as a Fateh, i.e. a Conqueror. This explains why Muslim historiographers called the expansion of Islam throughout the world al-Futuhat, i.e. Conquests. The Ottoman sultan that conquered Constantinople in 1453 is known as Muhammad al-Fateh, i.e. the Conqueror!

Professor Karsh continued:

Whereas Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, Muhammad used God’s name to build an earthly kingdom. He spent the last ten years of his life fighting to unify Arabia under his reign. Had it not been for his sudden death on June 8, 632, he would have most probably expanded his rule well beyond the peninsula. Even so, within a decade of Muhammad’s death a vast empire, stretching from Iran to Egypt and from Yemen to northern Syria, had come into being under the banner of Islam in one of the most remarkable examples of empire-building in world history. Long after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the abolition of the caliphate in the wake of World War I, the link between religion, politics, and society remains very much alive in the Muslim and Arab world.” Pp. 5, 6


[1] Osama bin Laden, By Michael Scheuer, Oxford, 304 pages, $19.95
The Longest War, By Peter L. Bergen, Free Press, 473 pages, $28

[2] Mr. Mukasey served as attorney general of the United States from 2007 to 2009 and as a U.S. district judge for the Southern District of New York from 1988 to 2006. He is a lawyer in private practice at the New York office of Debevoise & Plimpton.

[3] One author who has been very helpful in pinpointing the basic problem that faces Muslims today was Dr. Zaki Naguib Mahmoud. In a book, published by Dar al-Shurooq, in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1973. Al Ma'qool wa'l Lama'qool fi Tirathina al-Fikri (The Rational and the Irrational in Our Cultural Heritage) he wrote:

“Finally, in our survey of the Islamic cultural heritage, we reach the great figure of Al-Ghazzali (died in 1111 A.D.) He represents a powerful reactionary force in the history of Islamic thought. Al-Ghazzali’s influence on the Arab-Muslim mind and culture was to freeze them in a mold that led to stagnation. In his book, Ihya’ ‘Uloom al-Deen (The Revival of Religious Knowledge), Al-Ghazzali defined every utterance a Muslim makes and every step he must take in order to guarantee the orthodoxy of his Islam. Everything is spelled out for the Muslim: how to eat, sleep, travel, fellowship with one’s wife and child, etc. No room is left for any spontaneity in the Muslim's life. Al-Ghazzali closed the door of philosophy on the Muslims and it remained closed for eight hundred years!” (My summarizing translation of a lengthy list of duties taken from pages 345-350 of the Arabic text of Dr. Mahmoud’s book dealing with the impact of Al-Ghazzali on the Arab mind)

Zaki Naguib Mahmoud (1905-1993), one of the leading figures in modern Arabic philosophy. Well known for his emphasis on scientific knowledge, and by his pro- analytic and logical positivist philosophy, in his first phase, and for a combinatory scientific/Islamic view in his second phase.

For more information on the life and works of Dr. Zaki Naguib Mahmoud please consult this page.