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‘The Islamic spectrum’: from radical to moderate

NASHVILLE (BP) — A range of news items from ISIS beheadings to Muslims buying Christian church buildings illustrate the “competing streams” within Islam and the divergent theology of moderate and radical Muslims.

“There are and have been competing streams, ideologies within Islam from the earliest moments,” Islamic studies professor J. Scott Bridger of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told Baptist Press. While all forms of Islam run counter to the Christian Gospel of salvation through Christ alone, “some of them are subversive to democracy” and do not provide for freedom of religious expression.

All Muslims believe in God and the prophet Muhammad, and they advocate such practices as fasting during the month of Ramadan and giving to the needy. But beyond that, various groups of Muslims hold divergent theological and ethical systems — and they all find passages in the Quran that reflect their approach.

On the violent end of the Muslim spectrum, ISIS militants in Syria and Iraq released a video Oct. 3 showing the beheading of British aid worker Alan Henning. He was the fourth westerner beheaded by the Islamist group on video.

Non-violent Muslims have purchased at least two buildings in Louisville, Ky., that once housed Baptist churches to turn them into mosques, according to a Kentucky Baptist Convention news release. Dozens of church buildings in the United Kingdom have similarly been turned into mosques, the release stated.

Interpreting Muslim texts

Bridger, director of Southern Seminary’s Jenkins Center for the Christian understanding of Islam, noted that different groups of Muslims assign different levels of authority to various Muslim texts, resulting in their varying religious practices.

The Quran is not the only source of authority for Muslims, Bridger said. There are also the biographies of Muhammad known as Sira; collections of traditions and sayings, known as Hadith, attributed to the Muslim prophet; and a large body of scholarship that developed over the centuries that many Muslims consider authoritative. Included in this scholarship are works containing legal decisions by Muslim jurists reflecting on the Quran and Hadith that came to be known collectively as Sharia law. In some Muslim majority nations, the dictates of Sharia are codified into law.

“There’s an extended canon in Islam,” Bridger said of the religion’s authoritative texts. “You don’t have one canon that’s closed, to use [Christian] language. There’s this open-ended canon in terms of sources that Muslims draw from.”

An evangelical scholar on Islam who asked to remain anonymous because of his work in Muslim countries told BP in email comments that the difference between moderate or liberal Islam and radical Islam lies in Muslims’ approach to Islamic texts, though all regard the Quran as their ultimate source of authority.

“There is a fundamentally different hermeneutical approach between the two ends of the Islamic spectrum. For radicals, the words of the Quran, Hadith and legal texts are to be taken literally. They believe that Allah gave them those texts for all time, with universal and timeless relevance. So when the Quran says to slay the pagans wherever you find them — or for that matter, says a man can take four wives — then quite simply Allah means that Muslims can follow those injunctions for all time. Hence the ISIS phenomenon,” the scholar said.

“In contrast, more liberal Muslims, or moderate Muslims if we want to use that term, take a more rationalistic approach to reading their texts and following Islamic law,” he said. “They believe that some of that textual material, whether in the Quran, Hadith or legal texts, was relevant at a particular point in past history, but Islamic societies have moved on and so they are no longer relevant today. So many liberal Muslims are genuinely horrified by the ISIS atrocities in Iraqi in Syria. Similarly, they argue that polygamy is not relevant to the 21st century and so the relevant verses or legal paragraphs represent historical artefacts, as it were.”

In addition to radicals and moderates, the scholar said Islam includes traditionalists, who rely on the Quran plus the centuries of scholarly Islamic reflection on it, and Sufis, a contemplative or “mystical” sect of Islam who look for “deeper” meanings in Quran verses and seek a charismatic experience.

Interpreting Muhammad

Another important distinction between moderate and radical Muslims is the way they view Muhammad, Islam’s founder, the scholar said. “Both radicals and liberals look to Muhammad for their model,” but liberals emphasize his early work in Mecca as a “peaceful protestor” while radicals focus on his later years in Medina as a “warrior statesman,” where he developed the practice of physically waging holy war, or “jihad,” against non-Muslims.

“Today’s jihadis look at non-jihadi Muslim moderates as having sold out the prophet,” the scholar said. “For radicals, where Muhammad ended up is what’s important. For moderates, taking a holistic approach to his life, and relegating some of the more uncomfortable events of his later years to policies that suited the eighth century but are not relevant today, is the way to go.”

Bridger noted that the Quran “contains no biographical information about Muhammad, and there is a conspicuous lack of non-Islamic sources that confirm any of the details we have in the traditional biographies about Muhammad.” While Bridger believes Muhammad was a real person, he is “less certain about the details of his life [or] whether he was responsible for the Quran as we have it today.”

The famous division between Sunni and Shiite Muslims is “not tied at all” to the issue of radical versus moderate Islam, Bridger said. Sunnis and Shiites differ over who should be Muhammad’s successor as the caliph, or ruler, of the Islamic community. Both Sunnis and Shiites include radical and moderate elements.

A 2012 Pew Research study of 38,000 Muslims worldwide appeared to confirm claims of diversity within Islam. Muslims “have widely differing views” about “how important religion is to their lives, who counts as a Muslim and what practices are acceptable in Islam,” according to the Pew study.

In surveys of Muslims in 39 countries, a median of 27 percent per country said Islam is open to more than one interpretation. A majority of U.S. Muslims (57%) said Islam can be interpreted in multiple ways.

Bridger estimated that less than 20 percent of Muslims hold to some form of violent Islam, with less than 10 percent “in the most extreme category.”

Based on Pew’s estimate of 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, that means up to 32 million Muslims may advocate some form of religious violence and up to 16 million may advocate extreme violence.

Among notable moderate groups that reject violent Islam are the Quilliam Foundation in the United Kingdom, the Liberal Islam Network in Indonesia and Sisters in Islam in Malaysia.

Eroding freedom

Mike Edens, professor of theology and Islamic studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, told BP he believes only about 10 percent of Muslims have some inclination to use violence to advance Islam. But he noted that in most communities where Muslims gain a majority, personal freedoms begin to erode.

“When we see a British community or an American community such as Dearborn [Mich.] moving toward a Muslim majority, we begin to see shifting of standards of behavior in the street and in the families,” Edens said.

Among Muslims of all stripes, even those who reject violence, religious coercion is a “broadly applied reality,” Edens said, because Islam is a religion focused on external behavior rather than heart transformation. He defined coercion as the use of psychological pressure to force people into accepting a religious viewpoint.

In contrast, “biblical Christianity is internal transformation … and if a Christian is to be a thinking Christian and apply biblical truth, coercion” would not be “a method he would apply,” Edens said.

There is a passage in the Quran forbidding coercion in religion, Edens said, but “that verse is abrogated by many other verses that talk about enforcement of external codes.”

In the end, preventing Islam from eroding personal liberty in the western world will require a combination of evangelism by Christians and discerning action by governments whenever Islamic practices begin to undermine democratic ideals of religious liberty and expression, Edens said.

“We who are followers of Christ need to make a clear witness to who Jesus is and what He’s done in transforming us and what He can do for our Muslim friends,” Edens said.