Islam: The Middle Way

We find in Allah’s book at the beginning of ayat 43 of Surat al-Baqara a phrase which means:

“In this way we have made you a middlemost community…”

an “ummatan wasata”. The great commentator of the Qur’an, al-Qurtubi, along with many others, says that the word wasata, “middlemost”, means just and balanced, taking the middle way between two extremes, neither falling short nor going to excess. And in Sahih Bukhari we find the hadith in which the Prophet (saw) said words which mean: “…always adopt a middle, moderate, regular path whereby you will reach your goal.” And he (saw) emphasised this in the well-known incident when he addressed three Companions, one of whom spent the whole night in prayer, another who fasted all the time and one who insisted on being celibate. He told them, “Look at me. I have more fear and taqwa of Allah than any of you but I fast and break my fast, I pray and take my rest and I marry women. Anyone who dislikes my sunna is not with me.” It is absolutely clear that in everything he did (saw) he was the most balanced and moderate of men and in virtually every situation would himself take the middle way and encourage all those with him to do the same. I have started by going right back to the root sources of Islam concerning this matter – the Book and

Sunna themselves – to demonstrate that Islam is by very definition non-extremist, that extremism has no place whatsoever within the context of Allah’s deen.

This has demonstrably been the case throughout Islamic history and it has been so often borne out by the harmonious juxtaposition, under Islamic governance, of so many belief systems and cultural forms in so many different parts of the world for so many centuries as to show beyond doubt that it is the normal state of affairs wherever and whenever Islam is properly and comprehensively implemented. This is in stark contrast to what has happened in many of these places once Islamic governance was replaced by other political systems. It was very well expressed by one of the great ulama of Islam – ironically one who has been adopted as an authority by people who truly can be called extremist – the prominent student of Ibn Taymiyya, Ibn al-Qayyim, who said,

“There is nothing that Allah has commanded us to do except that Shaytan comes to us in one of two ways – either by encouraging us to fall short and abandon it, or encouraging us to go to excess in it. The deen of Allah lies in the middle between those who abandon action and those who are extreme and excessive. It is like a valley between two mountains, guidance between two sources of misguidance, a praiseworthy way between two ways that are blameworthy.”

I am labouring this point at the beginning of this talk for two reasons. Firstly to disassociate Islam from any behaviour that truly is extremist in nature – and I will address this directly later on – and secondly, equally importantly, to state unequivocally that any behaviour that genuinely falls within the parameters of authentic Islamic practice definitely cannot be called extremist. It is necessary to say this is because the word “extremism” is being bandied about everywhere at the present time in connection with Islam, in such a way that the normal, orthodox behaviour of ordinary Muslims is now frequently being considered extremist by many non-muslims. In one recent case in Britain, for instance, a young Muslim nurse who had not previously worn a headscarf but then started to do so was reported because of that for displaying extremist tendencies and subjected to intensive interrogation by the intelligence services. Another example was in an English school where 90% of the pupils are Muslim. Posters with Arabic calligraphy on them were put up on some walls and that was considered by government inspectors to be a sign of extremism.

The truth is that there is a lamentable ignorance on the part of most non-muslims about what ordinary Muslims actually do and believe, even on the part of people, who have every reason to be better informed. This has made it very easy to level the accusation of extremism at Muslims who are in fact doing no more than fulfil the basic tenets of their deen and makes it appear to ordinary non- muslims that ordinary Muslims are extremists. For instance most of us spend at least an hour and a half altogether in the performance of our five daily prayers and many considerably more than that. To the vast majority of the agnostic members of our overwhelmingly secular society this seems an inordinately large amount of time to set aside each day for religious worship. For a Muslim it is absolutely normal. And we have just come to the end of Ramadan. For most people the thought of going without food or drink for nineteen or so hours every day for a whole month is inconceivable. Yet millions of Muslims of all ages take it in their stride as a matter of course and benefit greatly by it. It’s just that it does seem extreme to many people today.

This would not really matter if it were not for the fact that our governments talk about the “threat of extremism” and declare their determination to “defeat extremism at all costs”. However, because extremism is never clearly defined, it is, as we have seen, all too easy to apply the label of extremist to ordinary Muslims who are doing no more than simply going about their daily lives. How are non- muslims supposed to know what is extremist and not extremist where Islam is concerned? Many Muslim men wear long beards and most Muslim women cover their heads. As I said, this is sometimes seen as extremism. I was once on a plane returning from here to London and a couple of dark-skinned, bearded men got on chatting together in Punjabi. A number of passengers said they would not fly with them on board and eventually they were removed by the Spanish police. They were, of course, just run of the mill British Muslim holidaymakers but they were viewed as being dangerous extremists. This happened again recently when another inoffensive young Muslim man was unjustifiably bundled off a flight at the behest of an hysterical fellow passenger for saying “insha’allah” to someone on his phone. No, this allegation of extremism has very real and immediate consequences for an ever-increasing number of ordinary, law-abiding Muslims.

The point I am getting at by all of this is that by turning a totally undefined extremism, directly tied to Islam, into the public enemy number one of this time, there is a very real danger of all Muslims being labeled extremists. This is something that affects both Muslims and non-Muslims. When a Birmingham Muslim mother of three was asked about a speech the British Prime Minister gave about extremism last year she said, “I have a question for David Cameron: does he think it’s OK to be a practising Muslim? The idea of extremist Islam has not really been defined. I am a practising Muslim and follow the way of Islam; does that mean I fall into it?” Her enquiry asks this question on behalf of millions of other Muslims. And regarding the perception of non-muslims about this we need go no further than a recent British government report which says that public perception of Islam is conditioned by: “Lack of understanding of Islam – insensitive use of language and perceptions of Islam and an ill- informed assumption that Islam’s teachings are inherently extremist. Media coverage of extremist fringe groups increases this…”

So why, when Islam is by definition non- extremist and categorically a balanced middle way, is it so now so easy to accuse ordinary Muslims of being extremist. What has happened is that in the last fifty years or so the fulcrum of what is balanced human behaviour has shifted dramatically. Up until beyond half way through the last century the moral landscape of the vast majority of the human race was, as it had been for centuries, firmly based on attitudes largely derived from Divinely revealed texts. My grandparents, for instance, who were by no means prudish or moralistic or religious, would have been far more at home in the moral world inhabited by the vast majority of Muslims than that advocated by the liberal orthodoxy of 2016. In fact they would see several things that are now propagated as normal balanced human behaviour as extreme deviance. The fact is that what is now considered normal by many of the general run of 21st Century people was very far from being viewed as median and balanced even as little as half a century ago.

No, balance and moderation in human behaviour lie in holding to the Sunna of the Prophet @ not in adopting what is now being sold to us by politicians and the media as moderation. We must ignore their definitions and forget trying to please them. They will never be pleased with us until we have completely abandoned our deen. And we must instead focus on pleasing our Lord and living within His parameters, clearly laid out for us in the example of the first community. That is our middle way; that is the middle way. And the way of the Prophet (saw) and his Companions (r), is a broad highway, allowing great diversity and difference of opinion, from the strict adherence to the letter of the law of Ibn Umar, to the ijtihad and broad interpretation of Ibn Abbas, from the rigour of Umar ibn al-Khattab to the gentleness of Abu Bakr. All of them fell within the balanced middle way that is Islam. And this brings us to what was said by Ibn al-Qayyim that I quoted earlier: that the true extremists are those Shaytan misguides into abandoning the deen or going to excess in it.

The abandoners of the deen, who are definitely extremists in the eyes of ordinary Muslims, are certainly not seen as such by the moral arbiters of this time, in fact they are viewed as liberated representatives of the present orthodoxy, applauded upholders of the enlightened, amoral ethos of the world today, where virtually any discrimination at all on any grounds is condemned as wrong. What is now considered balanced and moderate Islam in the eyes of many non-muslims and an unfortunately increasing number of people who consider themselves to be Muslims is nothing but the opposite extreme, tafrit, abandonment of action and deen; Islam as a set of vague principles, not a set of clear legal parameters – so-called Muslims who differ from their fellow citizens only by name and certain cultural practices.

The other extreme, however – those who go to violent excess in the name of Islam – are seen as extremists by both Muslims and non-muslims alike. And to look at these deviant people, I would like to borrow freely from a khutba my son Shaykh Habib delivered on the subject. I feel justified in doing this because of an exchange I had with our beloved shaykh when I saw him in Cape Town in April. Shaykh Habib had come up in the conversation and I said to Shaykh Abdalqadir that he says what I would like to say but says it better. Like a flash came the shaykh’s verbal riposte: “No, he says what you should say but you would say it worse!” Among other things this showed me that our shaykh is definitely well on the road to recovery!

Shaykh Habib said that the extremists such as al-Qa’ida, ISIS and those influenced by them, limit the scope of the deen and place it inside the narrowest of parameters. They turn the deen from something organic and alive and make it into something black and white, something not found in real life but just in the pages of their books and the rigid contours of their inflexible minds. Everything and anything they learn of the deen is divorced from circumstance and removed from its historical context and the global and social realities of our time. Their literalist interpretations, lacking both knowledge and wisdom, are simply transplanted into their own lives and environments. They are like an untrained heart surgeon who cuts the heart from one body, but has no concept of how to keep it alive and insert it and attach it to the body of the person who needs it. So all he ends up doing is killing them completely.

And that is what we see with ISIS and their ilk. The true implementation of the Qur’anic ayats they wrongly use to justify their appalling crimes is to be found in the actions of the Prophet (saw) not in the rigid confines of their own minds. What did the Prophet  do when he entered Makka? Did he kill all those idolaters who had fought against him and opposed him for the previous twenty years and driven him out of Makka? No, instead he granted them unconditional amnesty. He knew that Allah’s words were to be read and understood in conjunction with the Divine instruction: “Fight in the Way of Allah against those who fight you, but do not go beyond the limits. Allah does not love those who go beyond the limits.” There are limits and those limits are known from the example of the Prophet and his Companions. It is to them that the Muslims must look for guidance.

These extremists have taken certain ayats out of context and have insisted upon their literalist unrestricted interpretation of them, a mindset not uncommon in this age of excessive information and insufficient knowledge. There are a whole host of internet alims whose studies of the deen are limited to an unguided, uncontextualised reading of texts and treatises. They are aided and abetted in their task of perverting Islam by the liberal and neo-conservative media in which the values and truths of the deen are continually being attacked and criticised. Because of this many psychologically vulnerable young Muslims are seduced by an extremist ideology that in reality owes virtually nothing to authentic Islamic knowledge, certainly not to that balanced, middle way, which has always been the true path of Islam. The extremists leave the true deen and create a new deen with new parameters, venturing into uncharted areas that are far removed from the Sunna of the Prophet (saw), and making a mockery of the great tradition of genuine Islamic teaching that has been preserved and kept alive for us throughout the centuries by the great awliya and ulama of every generation.

Although the extremists at both end of the spectrum always come up with specious fiqhi justifications for the positions they take, the root cause of what they do in every case is in reality to be found in psychological imbalance not religious doctrine. Many who abandon the deen by compromising to an unacceptable extent with kufr do so out of a desire to give unchecked free rein to their physical appetites. Others do so out of an overwhelming wish to conform to dominant social norms; in other words it is concern for what other people think of them rather than what is pleasing to Allah and his Messenger that dominates their beings. Those who go to the other extreme and adopt the path of violence are very often people with a frail sense of their own identity and act as they do out of the need for self-aggrandisement. Others take that path in order to indulge deep- seated impulses of aggression and cruelty.

The only cure for these serious imbalances lies in people integrating the whole deen into their lives, more specifically in consciously including the element of ihsan into their implementation of it. It is essential for all Muslims to make purification of the heart an integral element of the daily practice of their deen, for them to take on the path of tasawwuf. Imam al-Ghazali confirmed that it was obligatory for every Muslim to do this and Shaykh Shadhili said that failure to do so would lead to dying in a state of grave wrong action without realising it. The behaviour of all these extremist groups certainly bears that out. As the Prophet @ told us in a seminal hadith: “In the body there is a lump of flesh. If it is healthy the whole body is healthy; if it is corrupted the whole body is corrupted. It is the heart.” So if the heart is right there can be no question of the unbalanced attitudes that lead to extremist behaviour. And if there is extremist behaviour it must mean that the heart of the perpetrator is not right. The business of tasawwuf is precisely to set the heart right.

This is not the time or place to talk at length about tasawwuf. In fact it always seems ironic to me that so much has been said and written about a matter whose reality can no more be described in words than, say, the taste of honey. You can be as eloquent as you like about it but in the end only the actual experience of tasting it will let you know what it really is. One thing, however, as Shaykh Abdalqadir has made clear to us again and again in recent times, is that the reality of tasawwuf always appears outwardly in the form of elevated behaviour. In one definition we find: Tasawwuf kulluhu adab – tasawwuf is all about good behaviour. Another says that the real meaning of tasawwuf is: “Noble behaviour shown by noble people in a noble moment.” Ibn al-Farid said:

It refines the character of its companions and by it those who lack resolve are guided to resolve. Someone whose hand did not know how to give becomes magnanimous, and someone unforgiving becomes forbearing when enraged.

Explaining this verse Shaykh Ibn ‘Ajiba said: Evil character is replaced by good character and laziness is replaced with energy and vigour. Avarice and miserliness are replaced by generosity and open-handedness. Anger, rancour, rashness, and violence are transformed into forbearance, sound heartedness, tranquillity, deliberateness and gravity. Fear, anxiety and dismay are changed into courage, certainty and independence from everything but Allah. Doubt and confusion are transformed into certainty and calm. Excessive management and choice are changed to contentment, submission and serenity under the blows of fate. Pride and love of elevation, rank and leadership are replaced by humility, peace of mind, love of obscurity. Love of this world, greed and improbity are replaced by doing without, contentment and scrupulousness. Wealth is with Allah rather than anything other than Him. Esteem for the wealthy and forming alliances with them are replaced by turning away from them and making do without them; and boasting about connection with them is replaced by being satisfied by one’s knowledge of Allah. Disdain and disparagement of the poor is replaced by exalting and elevating them, and being near to them and love for them.

In other words all those dangerous defects of the nafs that find their disastrously negative expression in extremism are transformed by tasawwuf into at worst harmless foibles and at best actively positive characteristics. The thing is that these qualities of character engendered by the practice of tasawwuf, by the active implementation of all three elements that make up the deen of Allah, are in no way abstract. They have an immediate and dynamic effect in and on the lives of all who embody them and come into contact with them. Imam Sulami listed just some of the ways this happens:

  • They bring joy to the lives of their companions and meet their needs in every way they can.
  • They overlook injustices which they themselves suffer but are resolute in seeking justice for other people.
  • They avoid finding fault with their companions and overlook any mistakes they make.
  • They are slow to take offence and are very careful not to cause it.
  • They are rigorous with themselves regarding the practice of their own deen but are careful not to impose the same rigour on their companions.
  • They are generous and open handed.
  • They are easy-going with their companions.
  • They permit their companions to use their things as if they were their own.
  • They are hospitable and invite people to eat with them.
  • They make sure that their friends and neighbours have what they need.

This is the true picture of Islam in action and it is a million miles away from the crazed atrocities perpetrated in the name of Islam by the extremists of ISIS and al-Qa’ida and their criminal followers. It is by the extent to which we embody these qualities, or our failure to do so, that our implementation of Allah’s deen must be measured. We are brought back time and time again to the hadith of the Prophet (saw): “I was only sent to perfect noble qualities of character.” Of course it goes without saying that we must live within the broad legal parameters mapped out for us so clearly in the Book and

  • They are satisfied with little for themselves but desire a lot for others.
  • They are always truthful.
  • They keep their word and protect what is entrusted to their safekeeping.
  • They love to share in the joy of their companions.
  • They think little of themselves and their own good actions.
  • They seek good company and avoid bad company like the plague.

Sunna, but it is through our interaction with one another and with the society that surrounds us that our deen is expressed and transmitted. We must never lose sight of the fact that Allah only created us to worship Him; that the sole purpose of our existence on this earth is to worship our Creator; that and that alone is what our deen is all about. The noble qualities of character spoken of by the Prophet (saw) play a vital part in that worship, are an integral aspect of it. They are in essence a reflection of the Divine Names and Attributes, the very means by which the Light of Allah is made available to other human beings. This is really what we have to offer to our fellow human beings. This is the real outward manifestation of the truly balanced middle way that is Islam.

Allah tells us in Surat ar-Rahman:

He erected heaven and established the balance
so do not transgress the balance. 55:7-8

The balance has been transgressed. The world we live in is in a state of dangerous imbalance. States of natural balance have been disastrously overstepped in every sphere of human activity and behaviour. The only possibility of restoring balance lies, as Muslims, in our hands.

Allah bears witness that there is no god but Him
as do the angels, and the people of knowledge, upholding the just balance.
There is no god but Him,
the Almighty, the All-wise
The deen in the sight of Allah is Islam. 3:18-1

Shaykh Abdalhaq Bewley
Granada, July 2016