My decision to join Quilliam Foundation has required a great deal of thought and months of discussion with Quilliam’s Managing Director, Haras Rafiq. I had to think deeply about past decisions that Quilliam (QF) as an organisation has made that I haven’t necessarily supported and also about the core ethos of the organisation. I have come to the conclusion that QF shouldn’t be defined by controversial decisions of the past but by the values upon which the organisation is founded upon. It may not be coincidence that al-Hakim al-Jishumiyya al-Bayhaqi (a Hanafi Mu’Tazili jurist from the 12th century) in his book ‘Satan’s Epistle’ asks: “if Satan were given the chance to speak on the Day of Judgment, whom would he pay tribute to?” Al Bayhaqi concludes that Satan would end up praising and thanking every Muslim who adapted ideas that attributed to God things that were irrational, unjust or hideous. Al Bayhaqi could very well be speaking about current times. The prevailing dominant reading of Islam is one that upholds aspects that are irrational, immoral and vulgar, emptying Islam of its ethical content. Ever since the death of the Prophet (pbuh) and his close companions there has been a perpetual tussle between two camps within the Islamic tradition, the rationalists and anti-rationalists and unfortunately, due to mainly political-economical factors, the latter now have a stronghold on who represents Islam. The very troubles we see facing the Muslim community today are symptomatic of this tension. For me, the last few years in particular have brought to light a ‘religious’ minority of Muslims whose interpretation of Islam is anti-rationalistic and at odds with basic ethical principles. These protagonists have a disproportionate stronghold on the religious community and merely provide lip service to a rational Islam. For example, they proclaim that Islam is a rational religion whist also arguing that the killing of apostates is Islamic. Any interpretation of Islam to be congruent with reason must recognise universal human rights and the freedom to leave or join any religion. To truly claim Islam is rational, the traction of reason must run through the entire Sharia. Early Islamic scholars like the Hanafi Maturidi/Mu`tazila had kept this spirit alive until their influence was lost.
My convictions are very much in line with the Hanafi Maturidi school of thought. In particular, that human reason, unaided by scripture, can arrive at what is morally right and wrong. This position has provided the rationalist schools with an essential tool to guide the Sharia when arriving at ethical rulings. When classical Maturidi scholars were faced with a problematic Hadith they would override its ‘authority’ since it was at odds with reason. In opposition, the anti-rationalist traditionists regarded this way of approaching scripture as an ‘innovation’ and believed that all answers were to be found in the Sunna, namely in the Hadith (narrations of the Prophet (pbuh)). The very same problematic Hadith would be considered authentic simply based on its chain of narration by the traditionalists. For me, this is one of the reasons why interpretations of Islam are now plagued with unethical views. That said, the Maturidi position must not be mistaken for the view that it’s a free for all, reason works within a framework outlined by the values promoted by the Qur’an. Another way of expressing this is that our ethos should be more Qur’an focused rather than Hadith focused. Over centuries the Hadith, to our detriment, has acquired the same epistemic position as the Quran. And so my so-called outspoken views criticising ‘Islamic’ positions on the basis that they contravene reason is not alien to the Islamic tradition, as some have suggested, but is really an attempt to reconnect to a forgotten rationalist heritage of the Islamic tradition. A tradition that goes back to the wife and the companions of the Prophet (pbuh), such as Aisha and Umar (may God be pleased with them), who rejected alleged Hadith if they conflicted with sound principles, rationale or lead to objectionable conclusions. Famously Aisha (may God be pleased with her) rejected a narration by a companion saying women like dogs broke the prayer, on the basis of comparing women to dogs, and this was well before any notion of feminist thinking influenced Hadith scholars!
This facade of rational double-talk is striking to say the least and challenging these views comes with a price. It comes as little surprise that these self-proclaimed protectors of the faith regard the questioning of positions such as apostasy killing, stoning adulteress etc. akin to accusing Islam of being flawed or placatory to the West. Those that speak out against this status quo are side-lined, fervently attacked and smeared; ever since I started being critical even I have been on the receiving end of such attacks.
This was particularly heightened when I appeared on a BBC Panorama documentary and I explicitly condemned apostasy killings and argued that it was dangerous and dishonest to blame foreign policy for violent extremism (an argument entirely at odds with the dominant narrative).
Consequently, I have been on the receiving end of threats of violence, I have been smeared as a government stooge and as a neo-con. The fact that I had never received any government funding and was critical of foreign policy wasn’t even taken into consideration. Rather than debate the issues I had raised they attacked the alleged ‘motive’ I had for making such remarks. Of course this tactic is nothing new with extremists, who like to denounce others and avoid debate at all costs. Why?
Extremism, in all its forms, is intellectually a weak position and deep down they know it. But it’s not always to do with intellectual dishonesty as psychology plays a part too. Why is there so much resistance to change? Well in a climate where anti-Muslim sentiments are worryingly growing it is understandable that any type of criticism is frowned upon and is regarded with suspicion and treachery. However, what is overlooked is that Islam holds to the primacy of justice even over the duty of unity. The Qur’an emphatically instructs us that we should bear witness to justice and testify to the truth, this is even against our own families, not to mention fellow Muslims. Critical introspection, a forgotten virtue, is necessary for Muslims to be faithful to the true message of their faith. Again, the ‘vanguards’ of Islam (hiding behind the dogma of unity) want to obstruct such thought, divert our focus away from crucial problems and want to blame the ugly actions of Muslims on the West alone – all part of the creation of a victimhood mentality. A victimhood complex transforms Muslims into a state akin to that which opium does to users: sedated and merely going through the motions. If we are true to the Qur’anic teaching, then we will diagnose that extremism and acknowledge that this phenomenon has a grip on the activist religious community and on religious leaders, who claim to speak on behalf of Islam today.
In fact, the two most important strands of thought that have infected Muslim minds like a virus are: Puritanism – a literal reading of scripture that is divorced from ethics e.g. Wahhabism, which has had a disastrous impact on Islamic education. The other problem is Islamism, although for some time I was unconvinced of this term. Islamism is deemed as Islam with a modern political appendage but if Islam in origin is political, then the term is nothing more than a distinction without a difference. Islam has a political dimension, and to claim it doesn’t, means distorting Islam by ignoring something that is inherently part of it. It is my view that Islam does not have a divinely ordained system of governance, but has political value and is descriptive not prescriptive in nature. Islamism, understood as Islam that is apolitical, is at odds with my understanding of Islam inclusive of a political dimension. For this reason, I regarded the very term defunct. Having said this, I have come to realise that there is a nuance to the discussion that I have overlooked up until recently and it was only when Majid Nawaaz pointed out that Islamism is a politicized Islam that seeks to impose its understanding on others then the penny dropped. This is a distinction that holds ground. This type of politicised reading of Islam is ultimately totalitarian and intolerant and is at odds with the Islamic tradition in its entirety.
Over the last twenty years I have seen the effects that these two trends have had on Muslim minds and it comes as no surprise that Muslims born and brought up in the West travel to join ISIS. The theological stage was set for many years and the ideology of ISIS is one that presents a great challenge to the Muslim because ISIS is not ultimately the problem, but is the symptom of the problem. To merely condemn ISIS is not ethically sufficient we must strike at the heart and condemn the very toxic theology that gives rise to such entities like ISIS in the first place. Ultimately, if Islam is its tradition, its history and its interpretation then we are in desperate need of Islam’s own Enlightenment. An important part of that work is countering extremism and it is for that very reason that I have decided to join the Quilliam Foundation.
 Khalid Abou El Fadl, The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books, p. 191