The struggle for Islam's soul

Terror in the UK - Most Muslims abhor violence, yet the terrorists are a product of a specific minds

At about the time the bombs were going off in Lon-don, bulldozers were demolishing sacred historic sites in Mecca and, in Delhi, a group of women was demonstrating against an "inhuman" fatwa ordering a rape victim to renounce her husband. Three seemingly unconnected violent acts. But they weave a thread highlighting a question we Muslims just cannot ignore: why have we made Islam so violent?

Within hours of the London atrocity, Muslim groups throughout Britain condemned the bombing, declaring in unequivocal terms that such acts had nothing to do with Islam. "Religious precepts," declared the Muslim Council of Britain, "cannot be used to justify such crimes, which are completely contrary to our teaching and practice." The eminently sensible Imam Abdul Jalil Sajid, chairman of the Muslim Council for Religious and Racial Harmony UK, announced: "No school of Islam allows the targeting of civilians or the killing of innocents. Indiscriminate, senseless and targeted killing has no justification in Islam." The tenor of these statements is: these are the acts of pathologically mad people; Islam has nothing to do with it.

But Islam has everything to do with it. As Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, director of the Muslim Institute, points out: "The terrorists are using Islamic sources to justify their actions. How can one then say it has nothing to do with Islam?"

It is true that the vast majority of Muslims abhor violence and terrorism, and that the Koran and various schools of Islamic law forbid the killing of innocent civilians. It is true, as the vast majority of Muslims believe, that the main message of Islam is peace. Nevertheless, it is false to assume that the Koran or Islamic law cannot be used to justify barbaric acts. The terrorists are a product of a specific mindset that has deep roots in Islamic history. They are nourished by an Islamic tradition that is intrinsically inhuman and violent in its rhetoric, thought and practice. They are provided solace and spiritual comfort by scholars, who use the Koran and Islamic law to justify their actions and fan the hatred.

As a Muslim, I am deeply upset by the attacks, the more so now I know they were the work of British Muslims. But, as a Muslim, I also have a duty to recognise the Islamic nature of the problem that the terrorists have thrown up. They are acting in the name of my religion; it thus becomes my responsibility critically to examine the tradition that sustains them. The question of violence per se is not unique to Islam. All those who define themselves as the totality of a religion or an ideology have an innate tolerance for and tendency towards violence. It is the case in all religions and all ideologies down through every age. But this does not lessen the responsibility on Muslims in Britain, or around the world, to be judicious, to examine themselves, their history and all it contains to redeem Islam from the pathology of this tradition. The terrorists place a unique burden on Muslims. To deny that they are a product of Islamic history and tradition is more than complacency. It is a denial of responsibility, a denial of what is really happening in our communities. It is a refusal to live in the real world.

The tradition that nourishes the mentality of the extremists has three inherent characteristics. First, it is ahistoric. It abhors history and drains it of all humanity and human content. Islam, as a religion interpreted in the lives and thoughts of people called Muslims, is not something that unfolded in history with all its human strengths and weaknesses, but is a utopia that exists outside time. Hence it has no notion of progress, moral development or human evolution. What happened in Mecca earlier this month illustrates this point well.

During the past 50 years the holy cities of Mecca and Medina have suffered incalculable violence. More than 300 historical sites have been levelled systematically. Only a few historic buildings remain in Mecca - and these are about to be demolished. "We are witnessing now the last few moments of the history of Mecca," says Sami Angawi, a Saudi expert on the Islamic architecture of the Holy City. "Its layers of history are being bulldozed for a parking lot." Angawi, who has fought to conserve the historic sites of the Holy City for more than 25 years, has no doubt what is largely to blame: Wahhabism, the dominant religious tradition of Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabis, he says, "have not allowed preser-vation of old buildings, especially those related to the Prophet". Why? Because other Muslims will relate to the history of the Prophet, and they will then see him as a man living in a particular time and space that placed particular demands on him and forced him to act in particular ways. The Wahhabis want to universalise and eternalise every act of the Prophet. For them, the context is not only irrelevant but dangerous. It has to be expunged.

What this means is that the time of the Prophet has to be constantly recreated, both in thought and action. It is perfect time, frozen and eternalised. Because it is perfect, it cannot be im-proved: it is the epitome of morality, incapable of growth.

Second, this ideal tradition is monolithic. It does not recognise, understand or appreciate a contrary view. Those who express an alternative opinion are seen as apostates, collaborators or worse. The latest cause celebre of Islamic law in India demonstrates what I mean.

Imrana Bibi, the 28-year-old wife of a poor rickshaw puller in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, was raped by her father-in-law. The religious scholars of Deoband, an influential seminary with Wahhabi tendencies, issued a fatwa: her marriage is nullified, her husband is forbidden to her for ever, she will have to separate for life from him and her five children. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board endorsed the "punishment". When Imrana Bibi herself, along with women's rights groups, complained about the double injustice, the clerics at Deoband declared: "She had a physical relationship with her father-in-law. It does not matter whether it was consensual or forced. She cannot live with her husband. Any Muslim who opposes our fatwa is not a true Muslim and is betraying Islam."

So no complaint or opposition is allowed. A perfect tradition can only produce perfect fatwas. And those who are seen as betraying Islam can themselves become subjects of other perfect fatwas. As a tradition outside history, it does not recognise the diversity of Islam. The humanist or rationalist tradition of Islam, or the great mystical tradition, thus appear as a dangerous deviations. In Bangladesh the Wahhabis and Deobandis are terrorising and burning the mosques of the Ahmadiyya sect, which does not see the Prophet Muhammad as the last Prophet, and insist that Ahmadis should be declared "non-Muslims". In Pakistan the Sunnis are killing Shias because they do not see them as legitimate Muslims. Ditto in Iraq. In Algeria the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) openly declared that the entire "Algerian nation" was deviant and should be killed. As for Saudi Arabia, you cannot even take a commentary or translation of the Koran into the country that does not follow the prescribed line.

Notice also that this tradition has a very specific view of sin. A perfect tradition must lead to perfect Muslims, who do not and cannot commit sin. Those who commit sin _ that is, disagree or deviate _ cannot be Muslims. Those outside this tradition are sinners and have to be brought to the Straight Path. The victims of sin themselves become sinners who have to be punished.

Third, this tradition is aggressively self-righteous; and insists on imposing its notion of righteousness on others. It legitimises intolerance and violence by endlessly quoting the famous verse from the Koran that asks the believers "to do good and prevent evil deeds". The Bali bombers justified their actions with this verse. The Islamic Defenders Front, based in Indonesia, frequently burns and destroys cafes, cinemas and discos - places it considers to be sites of immoral or immodest behaviour. The hated religious police in Saudi Arabia are on the streets every day imposing a "moral code" (mainly on women). In Pakistan, the religious scholars succeeded in banning mixed (male and female) marathons.

Just where does this tradition come from? Much has been said about the "modern" nature of this tendency. It has been argued, for example, that it is a recent phenomenon, a product of "instrumental modernity". This is plain nonsense. It can be traced right back to the formative phase of Islam.

The Prophet Muhammad was succeeded by four caliphs who are known as the "Rightly Guided" because of their close friendship and relationship with the Prophet. Muslims regard the period of their rule in idealised terms - as the best that human endeavour can achieve. However, this was also a period of dissent, wars and rebellions. Three of the four Rightly Guided caliphs were murdered. One particular set of rebels, responsible for the murder of Ali, the fourth caliph, was known as the Kharjites. The Kharjites were a puritan sect which believed that history had come to an end after the revelation made to the Last Prophet. From now on, there could not be any debate or compromise on any question: "The decision is God's alone." They were prone to extremist proclamations, denouncing Ali as well as Othman, the third caliph, and pronouncing everyone who did not agree with their point of view as infidel and outside the law.

The Kharjites developed a radically different interpretation of what it means to be a Muslim. To be a Muslim, they argued, is to be in a perfect state of soul. Someone in that state cannot commit a sin and engage in wrongdoing. Sin, therefore was a contradiction for a true Muslim - it nullified the believer and demonstrated that inwardly he was an apostate who had turned against Islam. Thus anyone who did any wrong was not really a Muslim. He could be put to death. Indeed, the Kharjites believed that all non-Kharjite Muslims were really apostates who were legitimate targets for violence.

Although the Kharjites were eventually suppressed, their thought has recurred in Islamic history with cyclic regularity. They led several rebellions during the Abbasid period (749-1258), which is conventionally seen as the Golden Age of Islam. The influence of their thought can clearly be seen on Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328), the great-grandfather of Wahhabism, and one of the most influential political scientists of Islamic history. Kharjite thought is also evident in the ideas of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-87), the founder of the Wahhabi sect. It shaped the outlook of Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), chief ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood. Today we can see their clear influence not just on those who subscribe to the Bin Laden doctrine, groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and al-Muhajiroun, but also on certain mainstream organisations.

Like their predecessors, the neo-Kharjites have no doubt that their identity is shaped by the best religion with the finest arrangements and precepts for all aspects of human existence; and there can be no deviation from the path. Those who do not agree are at best lesser Muslims and at worst legitimate targets for violence. In their rhetoric all is sacred, nothing secular and retribution is the paramount duty. "Since they have left humanity and history out of the equation," says Dr Najah Kadhim, director of Islam21, a global network of Muslim intellectuals, "they have no conscience. No notion of guilt or remorse. Since the idea that they are perfect is part of their psychological make-up, they can do anything with impunity." Injustice and violence are inbuilt in their thought and tradition, which, under certain circumstances, is transformed into undiluted fascism. We saw this most clearly in the case of the Taliban.

So it just won't do to say that these people are "not Muslims", as the Muslim Council of Britain seems to suggest. We must acknowledge that the terrorists, and their neo-Kharjite tradition, are products of Islamic history. Only by recognising this brutal fact would we realise that the fight against terrorism is also an internal Muslim struggle within Islam. Indeed, it is a struggle for the very soul of Islam.

In that struggle, all Muslims have to examine their words, deeds, motivations and interpretations of Islam. The traditional exegesis of the Koran - the traditional rhetoric used by gentle, bushy-bearded, kind old mullahs who wouldn't hurt a fly - nevertheless is formed from the same building blocks as that slippery slope on which pathological mindsets are created, where Islam is used to justify the unjustifiable. And it leads to equivocal arguments by which many defend or seek to explain the indefensible.

Yet this struggle, as Dr Siddiqui points out, "cannot be shaped on the lines of 'the war on terror'". The "war on terror" feeds the monster what it most desires: violent reaction to sustain the cycle of violence. "This is why Iraq has now become a breeding ground for the neo-Kharjite philosophy," he argues.

The war on terror, in fact, cannot be a war at all. It has to be a reasoned engagement with the politics of tradition. If Islam has been construed as the problem, then Islam is also the essential ingredient in the solution.

"The best way to fight the Kharjite tradition is with the humanistic and rationalist traditions of Islam," says Dr Kadhim. "This is how they were defeated in Islamic history. This is how we will defeat them now." If Muslims do not take on the challenge, they cede the initiative to those who have misconceived the problem and accepted a military strategy that is no solution. And that will make us all prey to more violence.

Ziauddin Sardar's Desperately Seeking Paradise: journeys of a sceptical Muslim is published by Granta (£8.99, paperback)