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The defeat of extremist ideology

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    Xestan SENIOR MEMBER

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    The defeat of extremist ideology

    S Iftikhar Murshed
    Sunday, September 02, 2012
    From Print Edition

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    In 1897, a few months after he had written The Devil’s Disciple, which established him as a playwright, George Bernard Shaw warned: “Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” More than a hundred years later, this has proved hideously true in the experience of Pakistan.

    The perpetration of violence with a clear conscience is a delight to ideologues who distort the teachings of religion. This was what Chief of the Army Staff Ashfaq Pervez Kayani had in mind when, during his speech at the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul on August 13, he said that a person who imposes his views on society is an extremist, but when this is effected through the barrel of a gun, he becomes a terrorist.

    He had no doubt that “the fight against extremism and terrorism is our own fight,” and, unless the challenge was met head-on, the country would hurtle towards the jagged edge of the precipice, and possibly even civil war. The gravest threat to the country’s security thus emanated from within.

    This was the blunt assessment of a man who does not believe in camouflaging his thoughts in phrases of shallow rhetoric. The media response was immediate and several major newspapers carried articles on the need for combating the ideology of extremism. But the analysts merely scratched the surface, and did not endeavour to expose the distortions of sacred texts by extremist outfits.

    The Encyclopaedia of Islam records that when the Egypt-born theologian, Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, died on October 18, 1505, “his reputation as a scholar and the aura of godliness which were already his during his lifetime, then reached its zenith; his clothes were bought as if they were relics.” A 1983 study credits him with the authorship of 981 works which emphasised that “everything is based on the Quran.”

    About three-and-a-half centuries after Suyuti’s death, 19th-century reformer Jalal al-Din Afghani, lamented: “every Muslim is sick, and the only remedy is the Quran.” What he never envisaged was that the text of the holy book would be misinterpreted and its doctrinaire emphasis on peace and non-aggression obscured by the ideology of violence. If this mindset is to be defeated, the starting point must be a definition of the Quranic worldview and the indispensible principles for the interpretation of its ordinances.

    The first revelation allowing Muslims to fight came immediately after the Holy Prophet (PBUH) migrated to Medina in 622. The permission was conditional, and restricted to fighting only in self-defence (The Quran, 22:39). It had nothing to do with the propagation of the religion, as explained in the next verse: “For, if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, (all) monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques – in (all of) which God’s name is abundantly extolled-would surely have been destroyed (ere now).”

    All passages of the Quran relating to war lay the same stress against aggression, and this is elaborated by Al-Baydawi (d. 1291), who is considered “the soundest and most authoritative commentator of the Quran.” War in self-defence is further restricted to “those who fight against you” (2:190). Thus, only combatants can be fought, and civilians must not be harmed. Furthermore, the damage inflicted on the aggressors must never be excessive and always proportional to the harm they have caused (2: 194). Terrorism and the use of weapons of mass destruction are, therefore, strictly prohibited.

    Despite this, extremist outfits such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), have been able to craft an ideology which is sharply at variance with Islam’s emphatic renunciation of aggression and violence by: (i) de-contextualising Quranic passages, particularly those relating to war; (ii) relying on the fanciful doctrine of abrogation to justify violence; and (iii) misconstruing the allegorical passages of the scripture.

    These are the three elements that have, singly and collectively, resulted in the perversion of the religion’s tenets. The Quran sternly condemns those who “...distort the meaning of the (revealed) words, taking them out of context...” (5:41). It stresses, and all commentators agree, that its ordinances are consistent (4:82, 39:23), and, therefore, can only be correctly interpreted against the background of its entire text.

    This implies that verses of the Quran on a particular subject, regardless of where they occur, explain and reinforce each other. Isolating any of the passages, therefore, invariably results in the distortion of its message. Thus, the pronouncement: “(It has been revealed) in this manner so that We might strengthen thy heart thereby-for We have so arranged its component parts that they form one consistent whole” (25:32).

    The doctrine of abrogation is derived by some theologians from the verse: “Any message which We annul or consign to oblivion, We replace it with a better one...” (2:106). The word “message” (ayah) in this formulation relates to the earlier scriptures as is obvious from the passage immediately preceding this verse, which declares that the Jews and the Christians will never accept any scripture subsequent to their own.

    However, ayah is also used in a more restrictive sense to denote any of the 6,247 verses of the Quran because they invariably contain a message. This has resulted in the faulty assumption that some of the earlier Quranic pronouncements were annulled by subsequent ones during the twenty-three years that the process of revelation lasted.

    But the verse on which the doctrine of abrogation is based was revealed in Mecca – i.e., in the first thirteen years of the Prophet’s ministry, and all classical as well as modern analysts concede that there was no annulment of any Quranic verse during this period. They are also uncertain which, and how many, of the passages were subsequently cancelled.

    Furthermore, implicit also in this controversial concept is a presumption of Divine fallibility. The implication is that God made His commandments known, but then had second thoughts, and amended His earlier pronouncements.

    Lastly, the Quran itself affirms the permanence of its commandments: “And convey (to the world) whatever has been revealed to thee of thy Sustainer’s writ. There is nothing that could alter His words...” (18:27).” It is from this verse that the illustrious scholar, Abu Muslim al-Isfahani (d. 322 H), based his rejection of the abrogation doctrine.

    Abrogation theologians have been responsible for the erroneous interpretation of the Quran. The doctrine has been exploited by Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, such as the TTP, to formulate its violent ideology. They have extracted individual passages of the Quran to justify suicide bombings and other terrorist acts on the ground that the conditional permission to fight in self-defence had been cancelled by subsequent revelations.

    The third element on which the ideology of extremism is built is the misinterpretation of Quranic allegories. The Quran describes itself as “a divine writ containing messages that are clear in and by themselves” and “others that are allegorical” (3:7). This key phrase, which occurs only once in the entire Quran, is indispensable for a correct understanding of its text. It is intriguing that the holy book itself predicts in the same verse that some of its allegorical pronouncements will be distorted even by believers “whose hearts are given to swerving from the truth...”

    In ancient Greece, Sophocles had once prayed for the time when society “would be delivered from the wild beast of passion that devours” the human soul. In Pakistan it is the grotesque monster of religious extremism that is like a parasite sapping away the lifeblood of the nation. The military operations in Swat, South Waziristan and other tribal regions have been partially successful, as is evident from a 24 percent decline in terrorist attacks. But far more important is the defeat of the ideology of extremism. This is a disease that can only be remedied, as Jalal al-Din Afghani said, through the Quran.

    The writer is the publisher of Criterion quarterly. Email: iftimurshed@ gmail.com

    The defeat of extremist ideology - S Iftikhar Murshed