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A genealogy of radical Islamic theory and practice

A genealogy of radical Islamic theory and practice

Date Published: 
Tuesday, 8 February, 2011

A very interesting and thoughtful paper that makes some key points regarding terms such as 'Islamist' and 'radical Islam'. Worth reading.

In the following paper, I will attempt to give a brief overview of the development and content of radical Islamic thought and describe the different forms in which this type of thought is expressed. In order for any long term counter-terrorism strategy to be effective, it would be self-defeating to focus mainly on the terroristic and violent aspects which are but the symptoms of an underlying movement. Acts of terror constitute one outlet of radical Islamic thought, but what is often overlooked is the propagation (da’wa ) and preparatory activities for jihad of such groups within Islamic and non-Islamic societies. Whilst not of an immediate threat, I aim to show how da’wa activities can function as the front organization of jihadist movements and that this activity poses challenges to the legal infrastructure and the very ethical fabric of democratic societies.

Within the ideological framework of those dubbed ‘radical’ , and I will return to this typology shortly, the choice for terrorist acts is mainly a strategic choice, that has more to do with timing and opportunity than with ideological constraints on the use of violence. With the same ease as some parties choose to impose their agenda through violent means, others choose to give expression to their radical thoughts by undermining society from within the legal structure of that society. Both views however, emanate in principal from the same conceptual framework in which violence is by no means prohibited. Furthermore, the division between ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ is not clear cut either in theory or in practice, and this can be reflected in covert moral, financial or other support given to radical jihadist organizations by organizations that are commonly seen as moderate. No legal or political long term counterterrorism strategy can therefore do without an understanding of the ideas that give rise to these phenomena.


1.1 Islam, Muslims and Shari’ah law .

There is, as with every religion, a great divide between the religious-political-legal implications of the canonical texts, and the religious, if not spiritual experience of the everyday person. When it comes to Islam I always call this the “Catholicization of Islam” by which I mean the following. As someone who has grown up in an almost exclusively Catholic part of the Netherlands and who has attended exclusively Catholic schools, I was always struck by the nature of the religious experience of the self professed Catholics. As I saw it, a Catholic is someone who is in church during Christmas, a birth, a death and perhaps during a baptism, but for the rest has no or very limited knowledge of Catholic liturgy, bible exegesis or even the rudimentary principles of faith, and depends for his understanding of right and wrong on principles common to all cultures. His association with Catholicism as a creed is mainly symbolic and quite often, rather obscure to himself as well.

When I began debates about Islam and Shari’ah with my Muslims students I found the same pattern; a general and severe lack of knowledge, but unlike Catholics, a deep identification with Islam as the founding principle of their identity and the object of their loyalty. Perhaps this is due to their experience as a migrant, but research indicates this is a universal element in Muslims attitude towards religion. I have no doubt that the majority of people who identify themselves as Muslim do not wish to change every society into an Islamic society ruled by Shari’ah law. To many it seems ‘being a Muslim’ has more to do with their family, their traditions and customs of their country of origin than with Islam as a belief system. The question however, is whether or not these people are truly aware of the requirements posed on them and their societies by Shari’ah law. As the writer Sam Harris stated:

“Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance."

Whilst this paper will not be able to answer this question, it will show that there is a large section of Islamic thinkers who would agree with this statement and which hold that the majority of the Islamic world is essentially in a state of unbelief, thereby pointing to the divide between the experience of religion and the actual principals and requirements of that religion.

What constitutes a Muslim? Is the Catholic who performs the minimal level of religious duties but goes about his daily business without bothering with religious dogma truly a Catholic? I would say no. More importantly, the Islamic writers, jurists and ideologues we will be discussing disagree as well.

This has to do with the nature of Islam itself. Oftentimes it is wrongly assumed that Islamic law (Shari’ah) is a part of Islam but not the same as Islam; that one could even have an Islam without the Shari’ah. In the words of the eminent scholar Joseph Schacht however Shari’ah is:

“[..] the epitome of Islamic thought, the most typical manifestation of the Islamic way of life, the core and kernel of Islam itself. [..] Theology has never been able to achieve a comparable importance in Islam [..]it is impossible to understand Islam without understanding Islamic law.”

Of course, one can argue that Islam is what a Muslim says it is, and that therefore any definition of Islam should be left to Muslims themselves. But this is too simple and it negates the attraction that the clearly defined dogma of Islam and indeed radical Islam has on believers. Generally speaking, of the three major monotheistic religions, Islam is perhaps the most legalistic and at the same time the most static. It “represents an extreme case of ‘jurists law’.“ While Judaism certainly is equally rich in terms of the volumes of legal discussion dedicated to the contents of its scriptures, Judaism, through the Talmudic tradition has institutionalized the concept of debate and doubt, whereas Islam, especially in its Sunni variety, has for the largest part of its history been marked by the denial of the ability of independent reasoning (itjihad) and replaced it with an emphasis on imitation (taqlid).  This reluctance for transformation and adaptation notwithstanding, “ the Shari’ah is a product of articulations of legal discourses and institutions to varying patterns of society and politics [..] Contrary to the insistence on unity and perpetuity, the Shari’ah has in fact displayed considerable variation over time and place.”

Of course the question of application of those laws is a different question. Since Shari’ah is the ‘core and kernel of Islam itself’, however, I find it difficult to believe that Islam is what a Muslim says it is. And it is for this reasons that terms such as ‘jihadists’, ‘Islamists’, ‘political Islamists’ or ‘radical Muslims’ are deceiving. For jihad, politics and the implementation of Islamic edicts and requirements in society are part and parcel of Shari’ah law and thus of Islam itself.

When one studies the works of jurisprudence (fiqh) on which the Shari’ah is built, one can see that the Shari’ah incorporates all major fields of law: public, private, criminal, commercial, family law, the law of war and peace treaties, laws pertaining to rituals and religion and laws designed to constitute a political framework for the application of Shari’ah itself. It is “an all-embracing body of religious duties, the totality of Allah’s commands that regulate the life of every Muslim in all its aspects” Rather than being an optional part of the religion of Islam, the Shari’ah is the core of Islam and its principles, norms, values and regulations have been laid down for all interested persons to read. The idea then that Islam is what a Muslim says it is, is therefore in my view, and more importantly, in the view of those ‘radicals’ we are about to analyze, simply not true. The degree to which a modern day Muslim can deviate from established legal tradition, adapt his own jurisprudence to the requirements of modern times is the subject of ongoing debate.

To make an analogy; if one looks at the constitution of say the United States, one would find that its laws have been steeped in tradition, are accompanied by centuries of more or less uniform jurisprudence and legal practice. To make a radically new interpretation of its laws is always possible, jurisprudence is after all a human endeavour. The legitimacy and authority of such a new interpretation, however, are challenged by the established tradition and practice and thus have to overcome formidable obstacles if they want to become the new standard of interpretation. The ongoing debate about the right to bear arms being a point in case. If this is true for manmade laws, it is all the more true for divine law, and this is exactly the point brought forth by the radical Islamic jurists.