Acts of wanton violence are contrary to the teachings of Islam and, in Islamic ethics, the end does not justify the means. Leading South African Muslim scholars such as Dr Rashied Omar of Notre Dame University in the United States, remind us that religious extremism has no virtue in Islam.
Extremism is condemned by the prophet of Islam (peace be upon him), who is reported, in one tradition, to have declared thrice: “The extremists shall perish.” Only a very small minority of Muslims in the world are extremists and such extremism grew in response to the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the brutality of Western armies in Muslim countries.
Is there an understanding of Islam, perhaps a progressive Islam, in which extremism has no place? This is thorny. Muslims the world over feel that their future is under threat. Conspiracy theories abound, narrating imaginary attempts to undermine Islam from within and without. Any attempt to rethink norms in conservative pockets of Islam is bound to elicit suspicion, even resistance and violent reaction.
But honest and objective questions are long overdue. In many Muslim societies today, practices that have nothing to do with Islam or that may even be contrary to the values of Islam are reproduced as though they were articles of faith. Killing or kidnapping innocent people is contrary to the values of Islam.
The starting point is that any progressive school of thought in Islam has to begin from premises that are recognisably Islamic. Such a progressive mode would remain in line with the teachings of the Qur’an, recognising the progressive nature of these primary sources – unlike the frighteningly conservative interpretations seen in some parts of the world.
Key to this understanding is the recognition that we live in a pluralistic society and that harmonious coexistence is possible.
The development of an organic, progressive Islamic discourse is not going to be an easy task. For a start, the political realities of many Muslim countries, where authoritarian regimes work hand in glove with reactionary religious forces to perpetuate the status quo, make it extremely difficult for progressive voices to be heard. The culture of hate speech, intimidation and slander are the norm.
Despite the brutality of occupying forces such as those of the West in Iraq, the Islamic-extremist response of senseless killings and kidnappings with horrific endings cannot go unchallenged. Such brutality is often in violation of what Islam commands during conflict. In such a context, the emergence of a progressive current may seem impossible, but free speech and open intellectual engagement, with real respect for religious differences, could make dialogue less hazardous than it is today.
A related and even more contentious issue is the need for Muslims to discuss openly issues such as gender equality, racism, class and power. Because so many conservative Muslim scholars regard these concerns as external to Islam and alien to the corpus of traditional Islamic discourse, the issues are cast as secular or Western, even anti-Islamic.
The problem faced by progressive Islamic thought today is that the ossification of self-critique in the Muslim world has led to a drop in respect for differences between Muslims. The oppositional attitudes of the West and Islam have further entrenched the cultural, religious and ideological divide between them. Lost in all this are the minorities in the Muslim world who are not trained as scholars of Islam and are thus not qualified to speak on matters Islamic.
The progressive current, if it is to emerge at all, will have to burst the banks of conservative dogma. The progressive current must show that extremism has no place in Islam.
Imraan Buccus is a research fellow in the school of social sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and academic director of a programme on political transformation