Stretching from north Africa to east Asia, many Muslims are engaged in a life-and-death tussle with extremists who are bent on extinguishing the diversity of opinions within the Muslim community. Atrocities perpetrated by so-called Islamists grab the headlines: Boko Haram and slavery markets, the genocide of minorities and videotaped executions of westerners by Islamic State (IS) militants.
In addition to these atrocities, more mundane human rights violations are routinely carried out by theocratic regimes in Saudi Arabia and Iran. But what about the rest of the Islamic community? Why have their voices remained unheard?
There exists Islams, not Islam
Incorrect generalisations and minimisation of Muslims are offered up in explanation of every new terrorist atrocity. However, the reality is different from this perception: there exists more than one Islamic faith.
Islam is an umbrella term, which covers multiple differences within the religion. While Muslims hold similar beliefs concerning Allah, the prophet Muhammad, and the holy Quran, a wide diversity exists when it comes to the details and interpretation of religious doctrines. Tunisian Muslim scholar Abdul Majid al-Sharafi described this phenomenon as the “municipality of Islam”.
Diversity of opinion is not a recent feature of Islam; evidence of broad shades of opinion can be traced back to its origins. But today the global Salafist movement, funded greatly by the Saudi regime and other sources, has great mosques, institutes, universities and schools. Its strong organisation and powerful media outlets enable them to publicly occupy most of the Muslim world and parts of Muslim communities in the west.
The Quran and terrorism
The Quran is typically cited as the ultimate source of terrorism and extremism among Muslims. This inaccuracy is based on cherry-picking selected verses; favourable words are accentuated while contradictory verses are ignored.
The reality is that the Quran – like the Bible and many other sacred books – uses religious language that is open to multiple interpretations. Many verses that could be seen as motivating violence can also be found in the Bible.
Muslims, like Jews and Christians, have a variety of interpretations of these texts. The word “jihad”, for example, is understood by Sufist Muslims as an esoteric term for fighting the evil instincts inside the human soul to gain ethical virtue.
Muslim scholars are also not in agreement on the authority of the holy text. Salafists claim that the apparent meaning of the Quran must be followed. Other schools of thought believe that this very simplistic view collides with the long historical distance between the revelation of the Quran and today, which makes the interpretation of the Quran difficult and requiring great expertise.
Many Muslim scholars, such as Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid, Muhammad Arkoun, Abdol Karim Soroush and Mujtahid Shabistari, believe that the Quran is not the words of Allah directly, but rather is the expression of Muhammad from his spiritual experience. For Muslims, this opinion opens the door for criticism of holy text and allows them to not obey parts of the Quran that are considered historical and not belonging to the core of Islam.
The same situation exists in dealing with Islamic history and tradition. For example, many Muslims do not consider the Islamic conquests that occurred after Muhammad as a religious action and criticise them strongly.
Is sharia law dangerous?
When people hear the term sharia law, what springs to mind are images of beheading, stoning, lashing and amputations in the name of Islam. While these do form a small part of sharia, again there exists a wide diversity of interpretations of sharia law among Muslims.
Sharia law includes the religious lifestyle of Muslims in both personal and social spheres. A significant part of it is acts of worship, personal status law and other regulations, including dietary restrictions concerning food and drink.
Sharia’s most controversial element is the Islamic punishment law, which not all Muslims agree on. Some Muslim sects like Ismailism believe that sharia law is no longer valid. For them, sharia is just the ethical principles of Islam, which are mostly the same as other religions.
Many other scholars, not just today but even in the first centuries of Islam, believe that wide sections of sharia are not essential parts of Islam and can be disregarded – just as happened with the Jewish Torah, which is not dissimilar to its Islamic equivalent. The traditional Shi'ite opinion is that their imams have banned the political and juridical parts of sharia, and no-one has the authority to revive these laws today.
What is agreed is that an overwhelming majority of the Muslim population has nothing to do with terrorism. However, they are under pressure from small but powerful extremist groups and religious regimes. The silent majority of Muslims therefore shouldn’t be blamed for these people; they are instead victims of radical Islam themselves.
Islam should not be considered from the perspective of fundamentalism as, in the end, this will strengthen the extremists’ position. Rather, it should be understood by opening a dialogue, supporting and co-operating with the moderates who offer a different understanding of Islam.