Good Muslim, Bad Muslim

Article excerpt

Of all the world's religions, Islam is the most argued about and misunderstood. Over the next 20 pages, in a wide-ranging investigation, we ask who Muslims are and what they want. Is political Islam compatible with western secularism? Will wars within Islam shape the future of the world? To begin, the controversial Islamic thinker Tariq Ramadan argues for a new understanding of what it means to be a "moderate" Muslim

The dust from the collapse of the twin towers had hardly settled on 11 September 2001 when the febrile search began for "moderate Muslims", people who would provide answers, who would distance themselves from this outrage and condemn the violent acts of "Muslim extremists", "Islamic fundamentalists" and "Islamists". Two distinct categories of Muslim rapidly emerged: the "good" and the "bad"; the "moderates", "liberals" and "secularists" versus the "fundamentalists", the "extremists" and the "Islamists".

This categorisation was not new. Literature produced during the colonial era, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially by orientalist scholars in Britain and France, depicted Muslims in the same binary manner. "Good" Muslims were those who either collaborated with the colonial enterprise or accepted the values and customs of the dominant power. The rest, the "bad" Muslims, those who "resisted" religiously, culturally or politically, were systematically denigrated, dismissed as the "other" and repressed as a "danger". Times have changed, but the old mindsets and simplistic portrayals continue to cast a shadow over today's intellectual, political and media debate about Islam. One reason why so many Muslim thinkers, activists and reformers today try to avoid the label of "moderate" is the perception of having sold out on their religion to the west and its suffocating terminology.

So what exactly are we discussing? Religious or theological practices? Political positions?

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Proclivity towards violence? Animosity towards the west? What do we mean when we brand someone a "moderate" Muslim?

Underlying the contemporary debate about, and the search for, "moderates" is a confusion of categories. Islam, it is claimed, draws no distinction between religion and politics; thus it is permissible to use the most general descriptive terms without distinguishing religious conceptions and practices from political programmes and actions. To adopt such a reductive perception of Muslims, and the "Muslim world", is to brush aside the most elementary descriptive and analytical principles that we would ordinarily apply to fields as diverse as theology and law on the one hand, and social sciences and political theory on the other. Given the acknowledged complexity of this rather sensitive subject, we must instead begin by ordering our priorities: first, the question in religious terms. Can we speak of moderation as opposed to excess in the way Muslims practise their religion? And how are we to categorise the diverse theological trends that coexist within Islam?

The theme of moderation in religious practice has been a constant in Islamic literature from the very beginning, during the Prophet Muhammad's life in the early 7th century. In the Quran and the Prophetic traditions that accompany it, Muslim women and men are called upon to exercise moderation in all aspects of their religious life. "God desires ease for you, and desires not hardship," the Quran reminds us, and Muhammad confirms: "Make things easy, do not make them difficult." Often cited is the example of easing the obligation to fast during the month of Ramadan for travellers, as a way of cautioning believers against excess. Such methods, from the very beginning, have been employed by most Islamic scholars to understand the Quranic quotation describing the Muslims as the "community of moderation".

During the first so-called Islamic century (or 8th century), two interpretations of religious practice sprang up: ahl al-'azima, which applied the letter of the law to teachings, without taking either context or the need for "ease" into account; and ahl ar-rukhas, which considered not only these factors, but also the need for flexibility vis-a-vis the social context of the day, not to mention instances of need (haja) and necessity (darura). …