Islam’s “Heart of Darkness”

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ 

The following was written by Shaykh ‘Abd al-Hakim Murad Timothy John Winter. 

Wahhabism, the hardline ideology at the core of current terrorism, has cut deep wounds in Islam, and helped alienate young UK Muslims.  Can a British version of Islam break free of its influence?  Reaction in Britain’s Muslim community to the 07th July bombings was swift and seemingly unanimous.  “These killings had absolutely no sanction in Islam,” said a conference of imams convened at the London Central Mosque, while the British Muslim Forum delivered a fatwa that classified the London bombings as hirabah, an Islamic legal term denoting aggravated violence against the innocent.  All implicated in the crimes were to be “excluded from the Muslim community and places of worship until their repentance has become manifest”. 

The loud unanimity of the leadership has done much to assuage the fears of other communities.  Yet the arguments are not at an end.  The leadership has issued decree that is the nearest thing Islam has to excommunication.  Yet it has not so clearly given an answer to a pressing question: why should some apparently devout young men regard their terroristic acts as sanctioned by religion? 

One explanation is that Western crimes against Muslims, such as the Iraq sanctions and the subsequent invasion, have been so provocative that a Muslim radical backlash was entirely predictable.  This makes some sense; but only as psychology, not theology.  Another theme prominent in the Muslim reaction is that Islam is not the only world religion currently afflicted by lunatic fringes.  The London bombers simply represented a Muslim version of this tragic, omnipresent distortion.  Again, such observations are not unhelpful.  Yet as a serious religious explanation, they do not satisfy.  They resemble a self-exoneration through finding like faults in others, a moral vice stoutly condemned in Islamic ethics.  Muslims still need to offer to the outside world a clear diagnosis that explains how such an aberration could emerge.  Given that the use of terrorism for “Islamic” political ends has been steadily increasing since its emergence a quarter of a century ago, it is time that more Muslims question themselves. After all, the saints and the prophets, despite their perfection, are endlessly self-critical; as the founder of Islam said: “I seek God’s forgiveness 70 times each day.”  Fortunately, this picture of a Muslim community enmeshed in a mentality of hurt innocence is not quite accurate.  While Muslim leaders may often reach for a language of self-exoneration in public, behind the scenes, and in publications and conferences intended for insiders alone, there is a growing disquiet and a passionate debate. 

This debate juggles two intimately related themes. First, the established leaders of the religion are aware that the radicals are not listening to them.  Each Muslim country has its authoritative scholars, often led by a mufti, who will rule on controversial issues.  To become a mufti, a scholar must have received an ijazah, an elaborate certification of teaching competence, from a comparably certified figure.  The radicals, like the London bombers, and Usamah ibn Muhammad ibn Ladin, have no such qualifications.  According to the traditional system they should be bound by the rulings of the muftiyyun; yet they refuse to submit. 

The classically authorised scholars denounce terrorist acts, which they generally stigmatise as hirabah.  However over the past decade, these men have been increasingly denounced by the radicals as weaklings and stooges.  From al-Qa’idah’s perspective, the religion’s leaders have failed to realise that America’s “evil empire” can only be halted when Western civilians, terrified by urban mayhem, vote against their governments’ expansionist policies. 

There is a second crisis that is now distressing the traditional leadership.  This takes the form of a profound doctrinal disjuncture.  al-Qa’idah sympathisers regard the traditional Sunni muftiyyun and a’immah, not only as politically spineless, but as heretical.  Mainstream a’immah, including those trained in the UK’s 16 Muslim seminaries, follow traditional Sunnism, while al-Qa’idah is rooted in Wahhabism, the eighteenth-century reform movement of central Arabia.  Strict Wahhabis consider the theology and piety of mainline Sunnism to be kufr, disbelief.  Hence Wahhabi radicals have not hesitated to kill Muslims, including senior scholars; indeed, Muslims have always been al-Qa’idah’s principal victims. 

Wahhabism represents a sort of Islamic Reformation: scripturalist, literal-minded, hostile to the veneration of saints and to philosophical theology.  Hence Wahhabi zealots are no more likely to heed the voice of the muftiyyun than, say, Oliver Cromwell would have been responsive to the entreaties of the Pope as his Puritan armies laid waste to Ireland. 

A revealing example of this dysfunctional Islam is supplied by Usamah ibn Ladin’s 1998 fatwa, where he urged Muslims to “kill the Americans and their allies, military and civilians, in any country where this is possible”.  The fatwa lacks any reference to the classical methods of Islamic law, and simply takes its cue from a Qur’anic verse that runs “slay the idolators wherever you find them”.  Classically this passage is taken to refer to Arab idol worshippers, a category now extinct; but the Wahhabi method allows ibn Ladin to disregard the views of the classical schools, and impose his own meaning on the text.  The sanctity of civilian life, affirmed by orthodox jurists, is not even mentioned.  The fatwa stands in flagrant violation of the orthodox ijma’, consensus.  But from his drastically reformed perspective, his followers alone are the true believers, and the consensus may simply be disregarded. 

Muslim leaders have often been coy about publicly acknowledging the role of this schism in the current crisis.  Sometimes this is because of physical threats: in Pakistan or Iraq, it is now possible to be murdered for criticising Wahhabism.  Sometimes, more innocently, it is because of squeamishness about recognising that the seamless garment of Islam has been so disastrously torn.  On other occasions, institutions and states may be nervous of publicly venting their anger at Wahhabism for fear that the cornucopia of Saudi donations might suddenly end. 

Wahhabism was generally loathed in the Islamic world when it made its first appearance in the eighteenth century.  The collapse of Ottoman power during the First World War allowed it to assert itself and, amid scenes of shocking massacre, the Holy Cities were annexed.  In the late twentieth century, the explosion of oil wealth allowed Saudi Arabia to export this same puritanism to the outside world. 

It is in the context of Wahhabi theology that Usamah ibn Ladin and his admirers operate. Saudi Arabia thus finds itself in the difficult position of maintaining a moderate, pro-Western international profile, while simultaneously supporting a doctrinal system that is easily seized upon by the angry and disaffected as a justification for mass murder. After the 11th September attacks, the Saudi authorities worked hard to rein in and monitor their missionary infrastructure, even banning Saudi charities from operating abroad. 

Saudi Arabia is struggling to temper its Wahhabi inheritance; but it is still quietly regarded by the Muslim leaders of my acquaintance as the heart of darkness in the current crisis.  On a recent visit to Bosnia, I learned how the impoverished Muslim community is working hard to establish colleges from which Wahhabism is excluded, as part of a reaction against the often-fierce intolerance of Bosnian Muslims who have benefited from Saudi largesse by training in Wahhabi schools. 

Even more revealing is the case of Indonesia.  This large Muslim democracy offers little comfort to theorists of fundamentalism.  Yet a recent conference at the Islamic University in Jakarta heard detailed accounts of how Saudi-backed groups were crucial in shaping the ideology of the terrorists charged with the Bali bombing of October 2002. 

Among alienated and confused young Muslims in the United Kingdom, there is also a Wahhabi influence.  One Muslim bookseller tells me that mainstream Islamic bookshops cannot compete with the radical alternative, since Saudi organisations supply the radical shops with books free of charge.  No less troubling to established mosque leaders is the tendency of some young British Muslims to study in new Wahhabi colleges in Pakistan and elsewhere. 

The picture is complex, but it does suggest that the medicine for terrorism must be supplied from within the Muslim community, and within the theological resources of Islam.  Sociological explanations outline circumstances, but cannot disclose the religious underpinnings of these aberrations, or offer a counter-argument.  Legislation, and any other form of government interference, are unlikely to put an end to the problem; and may make it worse.  It is clear that only Muslims can heal this wound. 

Fortunately, serious moves are under way to challenge the extremists on religious grounds.  The most recent was an ecumenical conference in Jordan, held between 04th and 06th of July, at which the assembled leaders of Sunni and Shi’ah Islam issued a joint statement banning the key Wahhabi practice of considering other Muslims to be unbelievers.  The immediate context for the conference was Wahhabi violence against Shi’ah and other non-Wahhabi communities in Iraq; but the problem was acknowledged to be global. 

In the United Kingdom, an increasingly educated Muslim community is now developing a religious identity that has little time for zealotry.  The unanimity and temper of the community’s response to the recent outrages point to the progress that has been made in the 15 years since the Salman Rushdie debacle.  The community is discussing itself in increasingly mature novels, plays, films, and poems. Perhaps this maturation will be accelerated by the recent horrors, and in our lifetime we will see orthodox British Muslims travelling to Saudi Arabia and other troubled lands, offering not only formal theological advice, but an alternative and more convivial style of engaging with modernity.


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