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How to define a "moderate Muslim."

Sacrificer           unknown
Sacrifice code       wfor0403
Sacrifice date       25 march 2009

How to define a "moderate Muslim."

The issue was highlighted for me by my visit, two months ago, to
Bosnia-Hercegovina, the place where I first encountered living Islam.
I do not approach Bosnian Muslim or general Balkan Muslim issues as
an amateur or "wannabe" expert. I first went to the former Yugoslavia
in 1990; I speak Bosnian and Albanian and lived and worked in
Sarajevo and in Kosovo.

I was alarmed during my recent trip to see a resurgence of "street
Wahhabism" among young people and others easily swayed by superficial
influences. I wrote about these problems in The Jerusalem Post and
the Jamestown Foundation's Terrorism Monitor. But I stressed that
Bosnian Islam has a pluralistic, secular, European, and pro-American
character and leadership.

This was apparently insufficient to quiet the anxieties of
some "experts" on Islam who have never set foot in Bosnia. I was
amazed to be confronted by the claim, by a non-Muslim, that Bosnian
moderation has no basis in Islamic tradition, and that the absence of
such means the country will always be susceptible to extremist

In reality, whether or not moderation has a theological grounding in
Islam is one of two issues; the more important in the long run, but
the less pressing with regard to the situation in Sarajevo. The
appeal of Wahhabism in Bosnia has little to do with the history of
Islam or its theology, and everything to do with poverty,
hopelessness, and the failure of Europe and the United Nations to
effectively assist in the reconstruction of the wartorn country.

At the same time, although the influence of Wahhabism in Bosnia is a
product of deprivation and desperation, there is much less of the
former than of the latter. That is, Bosnia, although more
economically disadvantaged than many other Muslim societies, has yet
to produce very many radical Muslims. One may therefore dispense with
the shibboleth, beloved in Washington, that in countries where
extremism is widespread, mainly in the Arab world, the general cause
is political. If the Gulf states, with their notably high standard of
living, produce many terrorists, while Bosnia, which remains
devastated, produces almost none, then the fault is in people's
heads, not their stomachs.

But the question is still, then, posed: how can I be certain that
Bosnia will not fall victim to radical Islam, if Islamic thought is
not completely recast according to the "criticism" of its 14
centuries of civilizational experience, that is so often put forward
these days, by Westerners, in an inquisitorial manner?

Here again, the tree of logic branches out, because this question
contains various implications I do not accept.

First, I am not a behaviorist of the belly or of the book. I do not
believe people become extremists either out of hunger or because they
read controversial words. Moderate Islam has always existed; but it
is not and will not be defined by the purging of texts or precedents
from the Qur'an or other elements of its theology, which are harsh to
Western ears, and which some Westerners wish to blame for terrorism.
Radical Islam does not exist because of scriptural wording, but
because of powerful political and financial interests, which owe
their influence to the continued indoctrination of Muslims in a
particular interpretation of Islam. The radical jihad does not exist
because of the concept of jihad, but because of its use. And the
defeat of the radical jihad will come not by excising the word,
concept, or historical experience represented by jihad from Islam,
but by defeating the radical interpretation of jihad and the
interests behind it. That should be obvious.

A brief digression is in order here. In one of my recent TCS columns,
I wrote that some critics of Islam as a whole tradition "demand a
revision of the Muslim holy book, Qur'an, even though no Protestant
ever sought to revise the Christian scripture." Various
correspondents wrote to "correct" me by pointing out that there are
separate Catholic and Protestant (and other) recensions of the
Christian Bible, which recognize varying texts as canonical. Well, of
course; there are different versions of the Bible, which is a
collection of texts from different hands, and there are also
different anthologies of the hadith or oral sayings of the Prophet
Muhammad, which also come from different sources. Shia Muslims follow
their own canon of hadith. But nobody ever said the condemnation of
the Jews for their alleged guilt in the death of Jesus -- of which we
were all recently reminded by Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the
Christ -- should be written out of the Gospels to absolve Christians
of anti-Jewish prejudice. It is equally absurd to think that radical
Islam may be done away with by deleting sections of Qur'an, or simply
by throwing out certain hadith.

Moderate Islam is defined existentially, in the same way moderate
Christianity is defined existentially. To begin with the latter
first, some Christians who had been brought up to believe that the
Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus acted as righteous
Gentiles in the Holocaust, and saved the lives of Jews they may have
thought they should despise. Similarly, Bosnian Islam needs no
canonical revamping of the faith to demonstrate its moderation, and
should not need to provide evidence to reassure Westerners of its
nature. In the 1992-95 war Bosnian Muslims experienced the brutal
slaying of a quarter million of their people, the rape of 60,000
women, the expulsion of half a million from their homes, and the
destruction of every mosque in two thirds of the country, down to
their foundations. Yet aside from rare exceptions, they did not
engage in terror, did not turn to radicalism, and did not respond to
the main Wahhabi appeal launched after the conflict, when the country
was flooded by Saudi missionaries and mosque-builders. That should
prove the strength of their moderate tradition; but to those for whom
Bosnians still represent a "Muslim threat," no evidence of moderation
would be satisfactory.

Some also insist that it is simplistic to blame Wahhabism alone for
the present offensive by radical Islam. That is because they do not
grasp the nature of Wahhabism or the solution to it. Wahhabism
abolishes the tradition of pluralistic interpretation of Qur'an, the
hadith, and Islamic law for which the religion was always previously
known. To discuss the issues that have been forced on Islam by the
terrorists, such as jihad, Muslims must first reclaim the right to
discuss the religion on its own terms. That means ending the Wahhabi
monopoly on discourse. When I published an exposé of the "Wahhabi
Qur'an," in which statements that might be applied negatively to Jews
and Christians were printed as if they unquestionably assailed those
faiths, I was accused of diverting attention from the original malice
allegedly present in the text. But Islamic pluralism, and Islamic
moderation, embody the unchallengeable presumption that Qur'an, the
hadith, and Islamic law are and always were open to differing
interpretations. (Debate over textual interpretation is not the same
as ijtihad, or originality in legal judgments, but that should be
taken up elsewhere.) Wahhabism, which dominates mosques in the United
States no less than in the Saudi kingdom, wipes out such a diversity
of views, and replaces them with a single totalitarian dispensation.

The enforced uniformity of Wahhabism must be overthrown; then, with
the restoration of Islamic pluralism, every verse in Qur'an, every
hadith, and every precedent in Islamic law can be analyzed anew. I
believe much can and will be reaffirmed as a foundation for
moderation. But it is doubtful that Muslim tradition will be
reordered according to the dictates of simplistic and bigoted non-
Muslim demagogues. It is peculiar to me, in this context, that the
long-standing recognition that Islam is divided between a
fundamentalist minority and a nonfundamentalist majority seems to
have disappeared from the minds of many Westerners; to them, as to
the Muslim radicals, there is only one Islam. Some Western
propagandists work overtime to convince the world that fundamentalist
Islam is the only expression the faith ever produced, or that because
Qur'an has not been expurgated, Muslims will always turn in that
direction. Such analysts of the past think little of the future;
removing controversial parts of Qur'an or any other part of Islamic
tradition would only make them forbidden fruit, and even more
attractive as weapons of radicalization.

As I pondered these issues, and as the days of the sacred month of
Ramadan went by, a real hero of Islamic moderation came to mind,
along with news arriving in one of those bizarre coincidences that is
more disconcerting than illuminating. I had just completed editing an
essay on shari'a in Saudi Arabia, which will appear in print early
next year. Therein I described the Wahhabi abolition of the four
traditional schools of Sunni shari'a, known as Hanafi, Maliki,
Shafii, and Hanbali, and their replacement by a warped and arbitrary
institution of pseudo-Islamic law, which traditional Muslims call la-
madhhab or lawlessness.

In discussing the denial of religious rights to non-Wahhabi Muslims
in the kingdom, I had written, "A case study in religious persecution
involves the fate of the Maliki sect and its leader, Syed Mohamed
Alawi Al-Maliki, son and grandson of teachers at the Great Mosque in
Mecca. Unlike his forebears, he, along with other Malikis, is barred
from preaching in the Great Mosque at Mecca or at the Prophet's
Mosque in Medina -- a privilege extended to the Maliki school for
more than a thousand years until the twentieth century Saudi
conquest. Al-Maliki has suffered extraordinary attacks from the
regime and its adherents, who accuse him of apostasy and Sufism --
the Islamic spirituality that is rigorously forbidden in Saudi

Almost at the moment I finished editing these lines, I received word
from the kingdom of the death of Syed Mohamed Alawi Al-Maliki on
Friday, October 19, 2004, in Mecca. He was young, having been born in
1947, and only a year older than I, and succumbed to diabetes.

Syed Mohamed Alawi Al-Maliki was the author of more than 100 volumes
on Islam. He was a leading representative of the Hejazi tradition in
Arabia -- that is, of the culture of Mecca and Medina before its
takeover by Wahhabism, of which he was a lifelong opponent. For these
reasons, he was dismissed from a professorship at the religious
university of Umm ul-Qura in Mecca. He was arrested and deprived of
his passport, and, therefore, the right to leave the kingdom. But he
had visited Indonesia, Morocco, and South Africa where he had taught
the self-discipline of Sufism to many believers. He also had Sufi
disciples in the U.S. At the end of last year, he appeared at the
Convention for National Dialogue sponsored by the Saudi authorities
in Mecca.

As reported in the Dubai Gulf News another independent voice heard at
that Convention, Dr. Sami M. Angawi, spoke the forbidden truth: "The
root of the problem lies in the single interpretation of religious
matters… For a long time, we have only had a single opinion on
religious matters, from a group of people who think along a single
direction… That there is only one interpretation is wrong… My main
objective is to allow a diversity of opinion on every level, and
different schools of thought, starting from mosques, education, and
the media," he said.

"The two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina have
always allowed diversity in opinion. For 1,400 years, we had a
diversity of opinion and interpretation. This diversity started to
slowly fade out about 50 years ago, until there was only one school
of thought left."

Dr. Angawi pointed out, "The Prophet told us to follow our hearts after listening to a wide range of advice. When you have only one advice, you have no choice. Today the problem is that young people are not given a choice. They are taught one school of thought." Angawi is also a hero; he is an architect and artist who
has exposed to the world the Wahhabi vandalism of ancient Islamic
architecture in the Saudi kingdom. Syed Mohamed Alawi Al-Maliki never
showed anger to his Wahhabi oppressors. He answered them with a
superior knowledge of Islam, and even of their own doctrinal
misrepresentations, and so was silenced. For some time I had been
warned not to write too much about him; not to call attention to him
in the Western media, as he would attract further malign scrutiny.
But now he is beyond harm.

Descriptions of his burial were contradictory. I am informed that
Wahhabi clerics refused to authorize a special funeral for him, but
his followers were allowed to organize a service in the Grand Mosque
of Mecca. That a leading Hejazi imam could have a funeral in the
Grand Mosque of Mecca was considered a kind of miracle, and was
described by one of my informants in the kingdom, who must maintain
anonymity, as "a very spiritual event." Crown Prince Abdullah and
Prince Sultan, the defense minister, appeared and praised him.
Thousands upon thousands of mourners packed the streets leading from
the Grand Mosque to the graveyard where he was interred. As these
words are published, at the end of Ramadan (which came on November
14), nothing has appeared in English-language Arab media about him.

Syed Mohamed Alawi Al-Maliki struggled against fundamentalism, as a
defender of Islamic tradition, by his example of patience and study,
by the word and the pen. He did not bend and did not break. He was a
true Muslim moderate. There are more like him, waiting in Arabia for
the end of Wahhabism. And neither corrupt rulers, not terrorist
criminals, nor ranting ideologues, Muslim or otherwise, but men and
women like him, hold the destiny of the faith of Muhammad in their


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