From Issue: 976 [Read full issue]


In Islamic law, terrorism (hirabah) is considered cowardly, predatory and a grand sin punishable by death. Classical Islamic law explicitly prohibits the taking or slaying of hostages or diplomats even in retaliation against unlawful acts by the enemy. Furthermore, it prohibits stealth or indiscriminate attacks against enemies, Muslim or non-Muslim. One can even say that classical jurists considered such acts to be contrary to the ethics of Arab chivalry and therefore fundamentally cowardly.

It would be disingenuous, however, to propose that this classical attitude is predominant or even that familiar in modern Arab-Muslim culture. What happened to the civilization that produced such tolerance, knowledge and beauty throughout its history? A lot has happened. The Islamic civilization has been wiped out by an aggressive and racist European civilization. Colonialism and the expulsion of Palestinians happened. Numerous massacres against and by Muslims happened. Despotic and exploitative regimes have taken power in nearly every Muslim country. Most important, however, a dogmatic, puritanical and ethically oblivious form of Islam has predominated since the 1970s. This brand of Islamic theology is largely dismissive of the classical juristic tradition and of any notion of universal and innate moral values. This orientation insists that only the mechanics and technicalities of Islamic law define morality. Paradoxically, it also rejects the classical juristic tradition and insists on a literal reinterpretation of all Islamic texts.

Fundamentally, this puritanical theology responds to feelings of powerlessness and defeat with uncompromising symbolic displays of power, not only against non-Muslims but also against Muslim women. It is not accidental that this puritanical orientation is the most virulent in flexing its muscles against women and that it is plagued by erotic fantasies of virgins in heaven submissively catering to the whim and desire of men.

This contemporary orientation is anchored in profound feelings of defeatism, alienation, frustration and arrogance. It is a theology that is alienated not only from the institutions of power in the modern world but also from its own heritage and tradition.

The extreme form of this puritanical Islam does not represent most Muslims today. But there are two ways in which contemporary Muslim culture, Arab or non-Arab, inadvertently feeds these extreme trends. First, since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the onslaught of colonialism, Islamic intellectuals have busied themselves with the task of "defending Islam" by rampant apologetics. This produced a culture that eschews self-critical and introspective insight and embraces projection of blame and a fantasy-like level of confidence and arrogance. Second, Muslims got into the habit of paying homage to the presumed superiority of the Islamic tradition but marginalize this idealistic image in everyday life.

The reality of contemporary Muslims is unfortunate. Easy oil money, easy apologetics, easy puritanism, easy appeals to the logic of necessity have all but obliterated the incentive for introspection and critical insight. Arab and Muslim organizations in the U.S. are right to worry about hate crimes and stereotypical projections of Muslims and the Islamic religion.

The problem, however, is that Muslims themselves responded to the challenge of modernity by stereotyping and then completely ignoring their own tradition. It is not surprising that some extremists have taken this tendency to its logical and heinous extreme.

Compiled From:
"What Became of Tolerance in Islam?" - Khaled Abou El Fadl