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Timely Messages from Honored Guests

Muslims Looking Inwards: Issues of Debate among Muslims

Peter Riddell is Professorial Dean of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths of the Melbourne School of Theology in Australia.

The worldwide challenge of Islam is in the news at every turn, and pastors need to be able to engage it thoughtfully. Through three articles, I hope to shed light on the issues. This first will consider factors internal to Islam—the issues and debates taking place among Muslims themselves. The second will assess how Muslims look outwards—the view Muslims have of non-Muslims, especially Westerners and Christians. The third will take the reverse viewpoint—how Christians can, do, and should look into Islam from the outside.

The worldwide community of Islam is no less diverse than world Christianity. There are various ways to categorize Muslim diversity: according to race (e.g., Arab Muslims, African Muslims of various groups, Turks, Iranians, and Malays); according to national groupings (e.g., Indonesians, Chinese, Pakistanis, Iraqis, and Egyptians); according to sect (e.g., Sunnis, Shi’a, and Isma’ilis).

In order to better understand Muslim responses to the modern world, it is particularly helpful to divide Muslims according to their view of sacred scripture and law. Some see these writings as timelessly relevant to all areas of life, while others see them as time-bound in part, with some sections no longer directly bearing on modern life. The basic distinction is between scriptural literalism on the one hand, and reason-based engagement with sacred text and law on the other.

From this diversity flows different Muslim attitudes to pluralism, on two levels—pluralism within the Muslim community and pluralism without, regarding other religious groups. I will return to the latter pluralism in my second article. As for the former, Muslims have been reasonably comfortable with racial/ethnic diversity (though many would count “more Arab” in dress, language formulae, etc., as “more Islamic”). But they have not dealt well with ideological diversity. Competing groups have not been content to live with difference, but rather have sought to establish, by fair means or foul, centers of authority which stamp out the opposition. In this context, Muslims have not developed the kind of democratic traditions understood in the West. And attempts to impose Western values, such as those that Turkey’s Kemal Atatürk raised against the Sunnis in 1924, have met with bitter opposition.

Today, some Sunnis look to Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the oldest Islamic university in the world, where ultimate authority lies with the grand sheikh, currently Sayyid Muhammad Tantawi. Some Muslims follow a scholarly person rather than a position, e.g., Qatar’s Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an expatriate Egyptian graduate of Al-Azhar, known for his charismatic personality and expertise in Islam. Still others favor revolutionaries, such as Osama Bin Laden; they are impressed more by direct action than by eloquent theologizing. Furthermore, the revolutionaries’ scriptural literalism is far more lucid to many Muslims than the scholars’ rationalist offerings. Alas, such divisions over authority have, through the centuries, resulted in many uprisings, rebellions, and assassinations.

Muslim leaders of more rationalist inclinations seek to assure Western audiences that Islamic radical militancy carries very little support among Muslim communities. The facts do not bear this out. The global reach of radical Islamism is evident in the exponential growth of terrorist attacks since the attacks in Egypt, Israel, and Africa. And surveys show that, attacks in New York and Washington, Bali, Istanbul, Madrid, London, and Paris have received surprisingly strong ideological support from many Muslims.

We should note that radical Islamist violence does not target non-Muslims only. Indeed, radicals have managed to disrupt previously stable Muslim communities—Indonesia, southern Thailand, Turkey, Jordan, and minorities in Western countries—as well as previously unstable Muslim communities—Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Egypt.

What are the root causes of radical Islamist violence? Some commentators, both Muslim and Western, insist that the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, exacerbated by U.S. foreign policy, is the central cause of Islamist terrorism. Others, mostly non-Muslim (with the exception of brave Muslim figures such as Irshad Manji), insist that the root cause of such violence lies in the sacred texts of Islam. They note that similar Islamist violence occurred in previous centuries, long before either Israel or the U.S. existed. They link it with periods of Muslim weakness in terms of world power and argue that Islamic theology assumes an earthly dominance which must be maintained, restored, or extended.

What then of the response to radical Islamism from more liberal, modernizing Muslims? Will moderates confront the radicals, or will they seek to curry favor with Muslim populations through anti-Western rhetoric, and thereby undergo gradual radicalization themselves? Consider the “moderate” Muslim Council of Britain, the public face of British Islam in government circles. It lobbies hard for Muslim rights and is far more comfortable critiquing outsiders than with scrutinizing the Muslim community itself. So the question naturally arises, “How liberal is liberal Islam?” The answer seems to be, “Not much.”

We next shift our focus from Muslims looking inwards to Muslims looking outwards1 and consider Muslim perspectives on the West in general, and Christians in particular.


See Part V & VII of this series, "Muslims Looking Outwards: Attitudes towards Non-Muslims" & "Is There Religious Freedom in Equal Measure in Christian and Muslim Countries?"