Among Muslims over the last fifty years, groups espousing religious violence have spread, of various authorship and political and organisational clout. I shall here take a look at the phenomenon from another angle: the relationship of the Islamic faith to violence in general.


THIS PERSPECTIVE has not been sufficiently examined since it has been dealt with for the large part on the basis of personal antipathy towards the groups. These religious organizations and gatherings were therefore dissected according to their organizational structure and the leaders and shaykhs of their various trends. A moral and ethical stance was then adopted against them in place of a religious and intellectual response, with the exception of some attempts made by Dr. Farag Fouda, who did not go philosophically deep enough to discuss the the metaphysical position of these people and their psychological and ideological perceptions of religious faith. The same goes for the attempts of Al-Sadiq Nehom in his books Islam Against Islam and Islam in Captivity, attempts that were more profound than the late Farag Fouda. Similarly, we have the writings of Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, Saeed Al-Ashmawy, Ali Al-Wardi, Abd Al-Karim Soroush, Adnan Al-Rifai, Sayed Al-Qimni and others, and finally there were some attempts to understand Islam philosophically, such as in the writings of Abed Al-Jabri, George Tarabishi, Hassan Hanafi, Salama Musa, Zaki Najeeb Mahmoud, Ali Shariati and others.

None of these discussed Islam’s position on violence in a specialized and focused manner to the level of dedicated books, even if they wrote chapters and articles on this aspect that did not include all the dimensions of the story (history – politics – economics – philosophy – science and so on). 

None discussed Islam’s position on violence in a specialized and focused manner

I cannot claim to provide the definitive answer to this issue now, but I would like to draw attention to it because of its extreme importance. The reason, in my opinion, that led to the victory of extremists and the prevalence of violent groups is not merely a matter of the levels of support and funding they received, or the emotional affection of Muslims for them and the ignorance of the majority of these Muslims. For there is another cause that has yet to receive the proper focus: the incapacity and shortcomings of intellectuals to examine Islam’s position on violence in a comprehensive manner, due to the significant dilemma they suffered in saying that Islam, at its very origin, was indeed political, and that the state founded by the Messenger and the Madinan Qur’an actually exudes just that truth. 

The matter is not limited to the actions of the Companions and the Followers[1] in their invasions and conquests, nor to the major upheavals and civil wars that followed on the death of the Messenger, nor to the characteristics of the politically unformed desert Arabs who understood the language of force more than the language of coexistence and dialogue.

What has taken place over the past fifty years, in responding to, and combating, religious violence has worked on two tracks:

The first track is the security angle – a materialistic vision that tends to believe that the causes of violence are linked to exploitation, poverty, and the worship of authority. One should keep in mind that this security perspective is mainly held by politicians, since these cannot yet conceive how to deal with the concept of religious violence outside the realm of security, conspiracy and the attempts by these groups to exploit the poor and the youth. Consequently, in struggling against these groups, they focus on aspects such as funding, support, and organizational structure, employing a superficial rhetoric to give the impression that they understand the true nature of the religion and are working in accordance with its precepts, so as to present themselves as being close to the masses, and thereby block the way for attempts to pronounce takfir on their political authority and convince the majority of this. In addition, to reinforce this idea, they place their reliance on loyal clerics and Islamic trends that are not anti-authority. Such was the policy of the Sadat and Mubarak regimes in Egypt, as well as the Gulf and Syria regimes, who were the most affected by the activity of those groups during this period.

The second track is the point of view of intellectuals. Theirs is a rational vision, but it is one that is strongly divided between a religious current and a non-religious current, and even the religious current is divided on the one hand into official religious institutions that describe violent groups as Kharijites[2] who do not know the ‘true Islam’, thus projecting onto these groups all the texts that forbid secession and command obedience to the ruling authorities, and other thinkers who engage in ‘deeper’ interpretation of the texts on violence, considering them to be historical, and argue instead that the texts indicating tolerance are to be considered ‘absolute’.

The security angle is a materialistic vision that tends to believe that the causes of violence are linked to exploitation, poverty, and the worship of authority

Still others talk of modernity and the revival of the values of the Messenger’s era as represented in the Meccan Qur’an and the texts forbidding aggression found in the Medinan Qur’an. The non-religious current is also divided into radical atheists – who want to abolish Islam altogether and write it off as merely a myth whose time has expired, and a non-religious ‘co-existence’ current that believes in the epistemological rupture with religion but nevertheless does not seek to abolish it. Some of these last argue that this rupture can go on to establish an alternative approach for mankind that will form a substitute for religion in the future.  These are also themselves divided as to the likely results of this perception: some say the new approach is an intellectual one, others that it is a scientific one, while others do not rule out the emergence of another religion altogether that will combine the two; most of these are deists.

In other words, the views of thinkers can be divided into four trends:

The first trend contains those who call for a return to the perceptions of the first predecessors before disputes arose – that is, the principles and values of the era of the Messenger and the four caliphs, prior to the additions of narrations and hadiths made under the Umayyads and the Abbasids. These confine themselves to the scope of ‘critiquing the heritage’, and believe that reviving the values and principles of the era of the Messenger will be sufficient to reform the religion. As for the texts of violence, they tend to ‘interpret’ their deeper significance and confirm the texts that call for tolerance.

The second trend calls for a new version of Islam that is  compatible with modernity, science and the realities of the modern world. These do not preoccupy themselves with critiquing the heritage and are not concerned with the history of Muslims, but rather focus on the need for any religion, whatsoever it may be, to be compatible with the modern era. The majority of this current are non-religious, and a small Muslim group that has embraced the culture of modernity.

The third trend combines the two: it critiques the heritage in order to address Muslim believers and set up a competition to the shaykhs concerning Islam. At the same time, they hold that the principles and values of the Prophet’s era are suitable for modernity as opposed to features of that, meaning that living in the desert in an ancient bedouin society does not itself hold any importance. The most important thing is that these religious principles are suitable for establishing a civilized society, along with faith in the values and philosophies of the present era and at the same time confirming that mankind has developed and has need for a new thought that marches in step with the stage it has reached along history’s course. Most of these are Muslims, along with a small group of non-religious or believers in other faiths concerned with intellectual Islamisation.

The fourth trend believes that no Muslim has the ability to attain to modernity, coexist with the times, critique his religion properly, or be influenced by the course of history in order to achieve any change, and that therefore the solution is ’to abandon Islam forthwith’. This trend, of course, is non-religious but it appears to me that a large part of these are radical ideologies of the Left and the Right, and their position on Islam is more political than doctrinal or philosophical.

These religious principles are suitable for establishing a civilized society, along with faith in the values and philosophies of the present era 

I have much criticism for the followers of the fourth trend for their ignorance of the origins of mankind’s religious experience and its basic quest for the sacred, while their religious texts, doctrines and fatwas are no more than ‘interactions’ with this sacred. What I mean by this is that religion is rooted in the human soul, and this fact was understood by the German philosopher Feuerbach[3] the author of The Essence of Christianity and the Origin of Religion. He argued that religion may be defined as any belief that is sacred to its owner, even if this is not a theological belief which means, according to Feuerbach, that an atheist may be religious, but in a different way. Feuerbach was known for being an atheist and the most famous and first Enlightenment philosopher to publicly declare his atheism. Yet he explained that he was an atheist only vis-à-vis the gods of religions, and considered himself a believer in another way that we do not know. This is what Dr. Hassan Hanafi concluded in his famous reading of Feuerbach as one of the most celebrated philosophers of the modern era.

The adherents of the fourth trend failed to understand the influence of Muhyi al-Din ibn Arabi, Jalal al-Rumi, al-Hallaj, Ibn al-Faridh, and Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani in the belief-system of the Sufis in particular, and in the beliefs of many sheikhs in general. This influence is associated with the happiness and pleasure that comes from personal religiosity and its presentation of solutions to social crises, such as, for example, the death of parents and other family relatives. An individual turns to religion from the loss of a happiness, and can be subject to opportunist shaykhs taking advantage of death events in particular to spit their political and superstitious poisons among the common folk. Thus, as I mentioned, many features of superstitious belief and political religiosity become absorbed by the Muslim at events of death, mourning, and the loss of loved ones. 

Similarly, anyone who practices morality in the belief that this is the basis of religion feels a sense of pleasure unmatched by anything else, since he is convinced that there will be a reward for his actions and that nothing he does of goodness, righteousness and benevolence will be in vain. Sufistic believers, in particular, who dance and listen to music and songs experience great pleasure, and their spirituality soars. Should one dismiss all of this and demand naively that as long there is ISIS and al-Qaeda to represent the ‘true face’ of Islam one had best leave the religion altogether? I would respond by saying that such a demand lacks an understanding of religious faith, the way religiosity manifests itself and the sheer diversity and experience of people in their relationship to their religion.

I would personally consider myself closest to the third trend, but would add that I do not believe that there are forms of religion that are suitable for preaching, since I hold that religion represents an endless connection between the Creator and the created, and that it can therefore draw benefit from all the experiences of history and schools of jurisprudence – known and unknown. Even if you attain to a certain understanding of your faith, you have actually only attained to a partial understanding of religion, not a monolithic one suitable for all others. Consequently, the values and principles I declare and the knowledge I repeatedly call for, are not to be binding on others, and the only things we should all come together on is the ‘existential religion’ that I expounded in my book Religion and Reason, and that each of us has the freedom to practice his faith any way he wants, on condition that it does no harm to anyone by word or deed.

But if you only knew just how difficult the path is to this condition!

[1] See Glossary under Tābi‘ī.

[2] See Glossary under Khārijite.

[3] Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach (1804-1872) was a German anthropologist and philosopher who developed what he called the “true or anthropological essence of religion”, treating of God in his various aspects “as a being of the understanding”, “as a moral being or law”, “as love” and so on. His book The Essence of Christianity may be read online here.

Main image: Extremists at the Red Mosque in Islamabad torch video cassettes, music CDs and DVDs in their call for applying Islamic Law.

Ludwig von Feuerbach: ‘religion is any belief sacred to its owner, even if is not theological’