Rasha Awad

The simple, devout Muslim understands that his religion commands what is good, beautiful and merciful, and forbids all that is evil, ugly and cruel. So when he sees a human being beheaded, or stoned to death, or women sold in slave markets and shared out among the fighters like so many spoils, or humans killed or persecuted merely for practising another religion,

or even if they are Muslims for their dissenting opinions, or human beings scourged with whips or others severed of their hands and feet in public squares, or others burnt alive, or when he hears an old man whom they term ‘a scholar and jurist’ urging the people to obey a corrupt and oppressive ruler who has decimated, tortured, murdered, starved or impoverished his people and threatened them with the wrath of God if they march out in protest against him with the claim that ‘obedience to the ruler is a form of worshipping God’, when he sees the girl he has married at the age of nine, or pickaxes bursting into museums destroying its statues and antiquities on the grounds that they are idols, when he sees terrible acts like this that make his conscience instinctively shudder without any prodding, he ‘seeks refuge from God from accursed Satan’ and out of some innate confidence about his religion proclaims: “this Islam did not command!”

The most dangerous characteristics of this ‘Islamist mindset’ is the fetishism of the past

But the major challenge facing the well-meaning Muslim angered by such atrocities committed in the name of his faith, is that those who perpetrate these deeds say, with the same confidence about their religion, “Islam has commanded this!” And they adduce evidence from the Qur’ān and the Sahīh of al-Bukhārī and Muslim and other books termed sahīh,[1] demonstrating thereby the legitimacy of their actions as being in accordance with the methodologies of the jurists and the interpretations of the Qur’ān, as an integral part of the ‘Islamic tradition’ with its aura of alleged sanctity.

We therefore find many Muslims with a modern education and who have not organised themselves into Salafist groups indoctrinating them in ‘dark part of the heritage’, and from which ISIS and its sisters have emerged, unconsciously subjecting themselves to it! This is because there is an ‘Islamist thinking pattern’ that steals into their minds through the sermons of imams, preachers and ‘political Islam’ groups. It is a kind of thinking that has been termed in modern Islamic Studies ‘The Islamist mindset’, a mentality of repetition, tradition and acquiescence that has dominated Muslims for almost 10 centuries. We haven't enough room here to detail the historical circumstances that led to the decline of rational tendencies in the Islamic world – for example in the thought of the Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) that suffered a dramatic defeat – and the ascendancy of the ‘Salafist mindset’. What is important is that this is a historical fact, the result of which is that Muslims today, in general and to varying degrees, are under the control of this mindset’s characteristics, which are:

  • the wholesale disabling of the sense of history in dealing with some of the texts of the Qur’ān;
  • total surrender and compliance to certain interpretations of the Qur’ān and to the narratives of the Prophet’s hadith, the sīra and Islamic history;
  • the condemnation of mere speculation concerning the accuracy and reliability of these human interpretations and narratives, to the point that they have become themselves equivalent to the Qur’ān in sanctity or even outstripping it!
  • a firm belief that the Muslim’s loyalty to his religion and his embodiment of the teachings of Islam cannot be achieved other than through a blind imitation of the deeds of a people that lived more than 14 centuries ago, who are termed the ‘Companions’ or the ‘Virtuous Predecessors’– ignoring entirely the vicissitudes of history.

The most dangerous characteristic of this ‘Islamist mindset' is the fetishism of the past, whereby the model for all that is good and prosperous lies in the past and not in the future.

We need to keep to the description of this mindset as an ‘Islamist mentality’ and not an ‘Islamic mentality,’ in that the former indicates that the mode of thought arising from this mentality is merely an ideological inclination that is linking itself to Islam but which cannot legitimately represent Islam at all. The latter term indicates that there is some inevitable link between Islam as a religion and that closed-off mentality. But this is not the case, in my view, since there are rational Muslims who have understood Islam as a message of mercy, justice and tolerance and who, inspired by the purposes and ethics of Islam, have established that ‘true Islam’ requires  one to combat terrorism and backwardness, not take part in them or glorify them as ISIS does.

Are the Qur’ānic texts addressing a particular historical era, or are they to be applied literally in our modern age?

What I would conclude from this is that ‘ISIS and its sisters’ are the product of a ‘traditional mode of thinking’ that has long dominated Muslim lands and practiced oppression and excluded other modes of enlightened rational and humane thought. The most important pre-condition for victory over ISIS and its ilk is a project of enlightenment and Islamic rationality. It is not enough to raise a eyebrows at what ISIS does or what the Taleban and al-Qaeda before them perpetrated, one must proceed to the criticism of the ‘traditional mindset’ that they definitely and clearly hail from, and crystallise an alternative mode of thinking weighted towards peace, freedom and tolerance. This is no easy task when we consider that the traditional mindset is propped up by educational institutions and political and social forces that have an emotional status in the hearts of the masses.

It is true that Islam did not order the terrorism and backwardness that we are seeing and which is practiced in its name, but the challenge ahead is to prove this fact via a strong logic that can defeat the likes of ISIS intellectually and morally and deprive it of its legitimacy to the generality of Muslims. This can only be achieved by consecrating a new mode of thinking that does not fight shy of difficult questions, such as the following:

- Are the Qur’ānic texts that which command to fight the infidels and the People of the Book (that is, the Jews and Christians), and which license the possession of slaves, addressing a particular historical era, or do they transcend time and are to be applied literally in our modern age?

- Are the Muslims to believe that everything in the Sahīh of Bukhārī, for example, constitutes the actual sayings of the Prophet Muhammad? Or that this book, which was written more than two hundred years after the death of the Prophet, is merely a human endeavour, much like all the modern works of jurisprudence and biography, and into which the words and concepts of their cultural and social surroundings have seeped? And that it is therefore entirely legitimate to subject it to criticism and reject elements therein that conflict with intellect and, at times, contradict the very Qur’ān itself?

Is it not the case that ‘they have their Islam and we have ours’?

- Are Muslims living now to imitate everything the Companions of the Prophet did in the conduct of their political, economic and social affairs over 1,400 years ago? Or is it their duty to have faith in the spiritual and ethical content of Islam, and grasp its universal purposes? As for the independent juridical reasoning of the Companions, this does not constitute an authority binding upon Muslims across centuries since they were simply human beings who understood Islam and applied it according to the facts of their historical circumstances. In conducting their political, social and economic affairs they embodied the experience and level of knowledge of the age in which they lived and thus only embodied and Islam mixed with these experiences and levels of knowledge which are specific to them and not to us. So with respect to political, social and economic dealings, is it not the case that ‘they have their Islam and we have ours’?

It is the evasion of systematic answers to such questions that is the main reason for all the horrors we are seeing being unjustifiably ascribed to Islam.

‘Islam did not prescribe terrorism, hatred or animosity to freedom and progress’ – such is the sound and noble premise that is to mark the point of departure for the process of establishing the ‘new mode of thinking’, by which Muslims will engage with their religion and their history, and the new ‘philosophical religiosity’ that will turn the mind of the religious Muslim to a continuous search for Islam’s universal meanings and values through contemplating the ultimate ends and purposes of Islam. This is to be done through extracting Islam’s spiritual and ethical content rather than immersing oneself in molecular, juridical rulings or attempts to clone historical phenomena with all of their circumstantial details.

It was the defeat of philosophy and rationality that was the greatest disaster of the cultural history of the Muslims. A resurgence of Muslim societies cannot take place without a rehabilitation of philosophy and rationality. This in turn cannot be achieved without engendering a courageous enlightenment to confront methodically the intellectual and cultural impasse facing the well-intentioned Muslim. Merely leaping blindly into this impasse and avoiding these difficult questions will mean that, even if ISIS is militarily defeated, it will resurge anew.


[1] Collections of hadīth considered ‘sound’ (sahīh) and therefore of normative authority.