Monday, December 24, 2007

The phenomenon of radical Islam, or Islamism. Part I

first of 3 parts

Reform vs. Islamism in the Arab World Today
By Menahem Milson*.

The events of September 11, 2001 stirred global interest in Islam: What is this religion, in whose name these terrorists claimed to be acting? The televised images of Muslim masses thronging streets across the Muslim world to celebrate the destruction of the World Trade Center have made this question all the more pressing.

This paper is designed to introduce the reader to the phenomenon of radical Islam, or Islamism, and to place it in its proper historical and religious context. Following a general introduction to the topic, the first half of the paper presents an outline of modern developments in Islamic thought and behavior in the context of historical developments in the Arab world, focusing on the Salafiyya in Egypt, the Wahhabiyya in Saudi Arabia, and their common progeny among the non-state terror organizations. The second half of the paper looks at the jihadist ideology of Islamism. It analyses the two fundamental concepts of jihad (holy war) and shahada (martyrdom), both in traditionally normative Islam and in the Islamist lexicon. Finally, the paper describes some of the Arab critics of Islamism, their ideas for reform, and their place in the general framework of modern Islamic thought.

Introduction: What is Islamism?

The terms "extremist Islam," "militant Islam," "radical Islam," and "Islamism" are synonymous. [1] None, however, are used by these Muslims to refer to themselves; they simply use the term "Muslims" or, in certain contexts, mujahidun, that is, "warriors of jihad." They call their movement "the Islamic Awakening" ( al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya ), "the Jihad Movement," or simply al-Da'wa, a term that can be translated as "the call [to Islam]" or "the propagation of Islam."

The subject of this paper is the Islamic extremism that is directed outward, against non-Muslims. To be sure, extremist Islam is not only directed outward against those whom they see as infidels, but is equally concerned with Muslim society itself, desiring the establishment of a "truly" Muslim society. And according to the Islamist doctrine, no society can be truly Muslim if it does not make jihad – war on the enemies of Islam – its first priority.

Those aspects of extremist Islam that are directed inward – however significant they may be in and of themselves – are beyond the scope of this paper. When we hear of Muslims' strict observance of the Ramadan fast, abstinence from wine and spirits, and imposition of the veil upon Muslim women – we may view this as religious fanaticism, but not as an issue of concern. Similarly, the harsh punishments meted out in accordance with Islamic law in Saudi Arabia – such as stoning convicted adulterers, flogging those who drink alcohol, amputating the hands of thieves – arouse revulsion and horror in Western countries and generate protests by human-rights organizations, but are not perceived to be a threat to world peace. But 9/11 is an entirely different matter. It is its hostility and belligerence towards non-Muslims that makes Islamism a global problem.

It should be noted that Muslims have not always treated non-Muslims in this manner. If we review Islam's 1400-year history we find ample examples of periods in which non-Muslims were treated with tolerance, as well as times of hatred and persecution. [2] In this paper, we will focus on the situation today.

A further restriction of the scope of this paper is warranted by the fact that Islam has by now spread all over the globe. While a generation ago the Islamic world was considered to stretch "from Indonesia in the East to Morocco in the West," nowadays there are 1,300,000,000 Muslims living in innumerable communities worldwide, with millions in Europe and North and South America. The paper will therefore focus on "the heartlands of Islam," that is, the Arab world. Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, was an Arab, and he revealed God's word – the Koran – in Arabic. The early conquests of Islam were carried out by Arab armies. The language of prayer of all Muslims throughout the world is Arabic. All these factors have forged an inseparable and multi-faceted bond between Islam and the Arabs. Although the Arabs constitute less than a quarter of the world's Muslims today, their role in Islam is crucial. Hence, an Islamic doctrine authored and disseminated in Arabic will ultimately affect all Muslims.

Bin Laden and the Poet of Jihad: Viewing Radical Islam in Context

All too often the debate on radical Islam and terrorism is hampered by a lack of familiarity with the relevant historical and religious context. The following example is a case in point.

On February 16, 2003, a sermon written and delivered by Osama bin Laden was posted on an Islamist website. The sermon, which generated much interest in the media, contained a few lines from a poem that were particularly curious and, perhaps, also rather alarming:

"O Lord, when death arrives, let it not be upon a bier covered with green shrouds

"Rather, let my grave be in the belly of an eagle, tranquil in the sky, among hovering eagles."

Various commentaries appeared in the media by experts in various fields – such as Middle East specialists, intelligence experts, experts on counter-terrorism, and so on – who proposed different interpretations. Some suggested that these words hinted at an imminent aerial attack, along the lines of 9/11, with the eagle symbolizing the hijacked airplane containing suicide terrorists. Others maintained that the eagle symbolized not the attack itself but the target of the attack – not the aircraft, but the United States. Some termed this sermon "Bin Laden's testament" based on an apparent reference to the expressed desire for burial in "the belly of an eagle."

These interpretations, however, are way off the mark. When we at MEMRI translated the sermon in full, it became apparent that bin Laden was referring neither to an American eagle nor to a hijacked airplane. The poet quoted by bin Laden yearns to die a hero's death as a shahid (martyr) on the battlefield and to be consumed by an eagle, which would then bear him up to heaven, where he would reach the throne of Allah. The eighth-century Arab who authored the poem was a member of a fanatical militant sect of Islam. [3]

Osama bin Laden's choice of this quotation for his sermon highlights an essential characteristic of extremist Islam: identification with the early generations of Islam. Contemporary Islamism cannot be understood without knowledge of its roots in early Islam. Modern-day Islamists regard the days of the Prophet Muhammad and of his immediate successors – the era of Islam's far-reaching conquests – to be the exemplary era in Islam and the source of their inspiration. Indeed, even in mainstream Islam all Muslims are required to follow the tradition of the Prophet and to seek guidance in the conduct of his companions and successors. The Islamists, however, focus on one particular aspect of that tradition – jihad, "fighting for the sake of Allah."

The Historical Development of Islamism

Islam and the West in the Modern Age: Political Crisis and Religious Reaction

Islamism, as we know it today, is a phenomenon of modern history. Paradoxically, both Islamism, the extremist brand of Islam, and its counterpart, the reformist trend, emerged in response to the challenge presented by Western culture and power to the Arabs and the other Muslim peoples.

This challenge was the product of the military and political superiority of Europe over the Muslim states, and especially the Ottoman Empire. Napoleon's 1798 invasion of Egypt reflected this superiority and heralded the process of Western conquest of and influence in the Arab and Muslim world.

In order to fully appreciate the significance of Western conquest and influence, as experienced by the Muslims, we must take into account the Muslim view of Islam and its place in the world. From its inception, Islam was not merely a religion, but also a political community, the nation of Islam ( ummat al-Islam). Muhammad was not merely a prophet communicating the word of God, but a political leader. Hence, any victory by the army of a Muslim state over non-Muslims is perceived as a victory for Islam itself.

According to Islam, Allah promised the Muslims victory and superiority over all other religions worldwide. Allah validated this message with the military victory of the Muslims, under Muhammad's command, at the battle of Badr, in Ramadan of 624 CE. At Badr (some 300 km north of Mecca), 300 Muslim warriors vanquished the 950-strong army of the Quraysh tribe, in a military feat which played a crucial role in shaping the Islamic consciousness.

This victory was not an isolated event. Rather, it was the harbinger of an impressive series of victories that led to the rise of the Muslim empire, stretching from India to the Atlantic Ocean. Thus, the notion of Islamic superiority became engrained in the Muslim religious consciousness. One could, of course, argue that this was an illusion; nonetheless, it was a belief that was to remain unshaken for many centuries.

This implicit notion of Muslim superiority was seriously shaken during the 19th century, when the Ottoman Empire suffered a series of defeats at the hands of the Russians, and when various Muslim-ruled lands fell under non-Mulim rule: Algeria and Tunisia were conquered by the French, Egypt and the Sudan by the British, and the majority of the Balkan countries achieved independence from the Ottomans. In World War I, the Ottoman Empire was totally defeated by Christian powers, and subsequently, in 1924, Turkey's reformist secular leader Kemal Ataturk abolished the caliphate. To Muslim eyes, it appeared that history had deviated from its predestined course. [4]

Consequently, Muslims in the modern world suffer from a pervasive malaise resulting from the contrast between the Islamic belief in their God-given supremacy and the state of backwardness, poverty and impotence of the Muslim countries.

It was the disturbing recognition that Muslim power was inferior to that of Europe, the West, or Christendom (however the "other side" is perceived) that shaped the outlook of modern Muslim intellectuals, whether extremist or moderate. The question that faced – and continues to face – Arab intellectuals and political leaders was how the Arab peoples could regain their rightful place in history.

Al-Afghani, Abduh, Reformism and Radicalism

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the most prominent intellectual leaders of Islamic reform were Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839–1897) and Muhammad 'Abduh (1849–1905), who jointly called for pan-Islamic unity against the colonialist European powers. They also called for internal reform in an effort to purge Islam of "harmful foreign accretions."

Afghani and 'Abduh formulated the maxim that has since been espoused by all Muslim apologists: "There is no fault in Islam; the flaw lies with the Muslims." According to them, when Muslims return to the original, pure Islam, all the ills of Muslim society will disappear. Afghani and 'Abduh directed much of their criticism against Sufism (Islamic mysticism), which they considered to be a deviation from orthodox Islam and a source of degeneration and backwardness.

The inherent rationale of their opposition to Sufism merits explanation. Whereas Sufism requires its adherents to adopt a position of complete reliance on Allah ( tawakkul ), the reformists considered the quietistic approach of Sufism to be a source of social decay and an obstacle to reform. [5] In their opposition to Sufism, the modern reformists, including Afghani and 'Abduh, drew upon the teachings of the great medieval Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328), who had denounced the Sufis as deviants from Islam. It should be noted that contemporary Islamists view Ibn Taymiyya as their mentor, and call him Sheikh al-Islam al-Akbar ("the great teacher of Islam").

It was Afghani and 'Abduh who bequeathed to 20th-century Islamic thought its characteristic features:

  • An attitude of ambivalence towards the West – hostility and admiration.
  • A tendency to apologetics – "There is no fault in Islam; the flaw lies with the Muslims." Furthermore, every worthwhile Western idea can be found in the Koran and the Hadith – if these are properly read and interpreted.
  • Muslim society will regain its original power and prosperity once Muslims return to the ways of the "the pious forefathers" ( al-salaf al-salih ) – the Prophet Muhammad and his companions.
  • Strong opposition to Sufism, as previously discussed.
  • Emphasis on the vital role of the Arabs in effecting Islamic reform.

These are the traits of the Salafi movement, which calls for amending Islam in accordance with the example of the first Muslims, al-salaf al-salih.

Despite their cooperation of many years, Afghani and 'Abduh were quite different from each other in both personality and orientation. Afghani was a revolutionary and a political propagandist who stressed the need for pan-Islamic political unity in order to fight European colonialism, while 'Abduh preached pragmatic internal reform. Abduh's concern with internal reform became particularly marked after his appointment in 1899 to the highest clerical post in Egypt, that of state mufti.

Muhammad 'Abduh was an example of a moderate reformist. In his commentary on the Koran and in his book on theology, he attempted to interpret Islam in a way that suited the modern world. Inter alia, he called for banning polygamy in Islam, basing his arguments on his interpretation of the relevant verse in the Koran. [6] Unfortunately, 'Abduh's progressive interpretation met with limited success, and to this day polygamy is legal in all Arab countries except for Tunisia.

Equally unfortunately, 'Abduh's moderate enlightened approach has proved to be of less appeal to most of his followers and the Muslim masses than the defiant political activism of his erstwhile mentor and collaborator Afghani.

'Abduh's closest disciple in his later years, the Syrian cleric Rashid Ridha (1865-1935), continued to develop and promote Salafism, while steering it in a direction quite different from that of 'Abduh, whom he claimed to be following. Ridha emphasized political aims: anti-colonialism, Islamic solidarity and Arab unity, and, of course, opposition to the Jewish "invasion" of Palestine.

Notable among Rashid Ridha's disciples were Hajj Amin al-Husseini, later to achieve notoriety as the Mufti of Jerusalem who collaborated with Nazi Germany, and 'Izz al-Din al-Qassam, a Syrian cleric who moved to Palestine in 1920 after fleeing from the French authorities in Syria. There he organized a group of Muslim fanatics who randomly assassinated Jewish and British "infidels," and he was ultimately killed in an encounter with British soldiers in 1935. His name has been adopted by the armed units of Hamas, the 'Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and has been given to the Qassam missiles, which are fired from the Gaza Strip at Israeli towns.

Another disciple of 'Abduh, Sheikh 'Ali 'Abd al-Raziq, who taught at Al-Azhar University during the 1920s, developed a very moderate stance, calling for fundamental and far-reaching reform and even broaching the crucial question of relations between religion and political power in Islam. In his book, Islam and the Foundations of Government (1925),'Abd al-Raziq argued that the link between religion and politics in Islam was not essential, but rather, was a phenomenon unique to the days of the Prophet Muhammad. The publication of his book sparked an uproar among Egypt's religious establishment; 'Abd al-Raziq was dismissed from al-Azhar University and banned from teaching anywhere, and his "heretical" book was removed from the shelves.

While 'Abd al-Raziq's path of moderate reform was, unfortunately, blocked and silenced, the extremist orientation of Salafism, as preached by Rashid Ridha, gained momentum. The Muslim Brotherhood movement, founded in Alexandria, Egypt in 1928, promoted the rejuvenation of Islam in the spirit of Salafism. The Muslim Brotherhood, under the motto "Islam is the solution" ( al-Islam huwa al-hall ), called for Islamic law to be adopted as the law of the land and for Egypt to be transformed into an Islamic state. It was vehemently hostile to the British, the Egyptian authorities, and the Jews.

Parenthetically, it should be noted that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has played a major role in disseminating Islamic extremism: the Palestinian Hamas movement, founded in Gaza, is one of its offshoots. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's deputy, was in his youth a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, before joining the Egyptian Islamic Jihad movement.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

1 comment:

Muslims Against Sharia said...

Many people talk about the need to reform Islam. Now you can stop talking and start helping.

With the help of our readers we went through the Koran and removed every verse that we believe did not come from Allah, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate. However, it is possible that we missed something, and we could use your help. If you find verses in the reformed version of the Koran that promote violence, divisiveness, religious or gender superiority, bigotry, or discrimination, please let us know the number of the verse and the reason why it should be removed. Please email your suggestions to

When we finish editing process, we would like to publish Reform Koran in as many languages as possible. If you could help with translation or distribution of the Reform Koran, please email us at If you could provide financial support, please visit our support page.

In Memoriam of Aqsa Parvez.

Post a Comment