Extremism: Does Islam need a reformation?

Extremism: Does Islam need a reformation? April 22, 2009
All those in favor, say ‘aye’

In the wake of the recent pirate attacks on American ships in the Indian Ocean, and the implication that Al Qaeda is behind the pirates (a dubious claim at best), I heard progressive radio host Thom Hartmann speak about whether Islam needs a “reformation,” similar to that in Judaism and especially Christianity. In fact, he has posited this question to a number of Muslim callers on guests on his show in the past few days: “Is it time for a reformation in Islam?”

Indeed, given the often terrible news about Islam, it is understandable why this question would even be raised in the first place. When people see constant references to vicious barbarity – beheadings, suicide bombings, public flogging, “honor killing,” and the like – all done overtly in the name of Islam, it is only natural to wonder whether Islam itself is the problem. Yet, as tempting as it is to apply the Christian experience as analogy, it is a flawed premise from the very beginning.

The Protestant Reformation was a movement, begun in the 14th and 15th centuries, to reform the Catholic Church. It sought to change various beliefs and practices that were fundamental to the Church at the time, such as purgatory, particular judgment (the judgment of a soul immediately after death), devotion to Mary, devotion to the saints, most of the sacraments, mandatory celibacy, and the authority of the Pope. In England, the divorce of the Church of England from Rome was started by Henry VIII, after he was denied an annulment from his wife by Pople Clement VII. Again, a new church was started in reaction to “wrong” beliefs in the Catholic Church.

There is no such corollary in Islam. All of the barbarity that is done in the name of Islam is a deviation from the fundamental beliefs, principles, and traditions of Islam. Extremism in the name of Islam is nothing new to the faith: it began soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) with the Kharijites, who ended up killing the fourth caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib (r). After the Kharijites came the Hashasheen, or “Assassins,” who were Islam’s first “suicide terrorists.” They terrorized the Muslim populace for decades. Now, we have the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Yet, throughout Islam’s history, these extremists have always been a tiny fringe minority who follow a clearly heretical belief system which is rejected by the overwhelming majority of Muslims. The Islamic mainstream has always endured and eventually won out against the extremists. Today, there are a small group of people who want the world to think that Muslim extremists are somehow the “mainstream,” especially since these extremists cite scripture as justification for their actions. Yet, only a criminal mind could cite the Qur’an to justify the murder of innocent people having lunch at Sbarro’s; or worshipping at a mosque on Friday; or buying fruit at the market. Just because a terrorist says “the Qur’an says so” does not make it the truth.

Let us take suicide terrorism as an example. Everything about it violates Islam and its principles. The Qur’an says: “And do not take a life that God has made sacred, except for just cause” (17:33). In no way, shape, or form could the taking of innocent life be considered “just cause.” Moreover, suicide is a grave sin:

“And spend for the sake of God, and do not invest in ruin by your own hands. And do good, for God loves those who do good” (2:195).

“And do not kill yourselves, for God has been merciful to you” (4:29).

Thus, no matter how many verses someone may cite in justification, the crime of suicide terrorism is completely out of the Islamic mainstream. It is clearly a deviation from the Islamic norm, completely rejected by the overwhelming majority of Muslims. If Islam needed a “reformation,” that would mean that suicide terrorism against “non-believers” is part of Islamic belief and needs to be “expunged” in the interest of bringing Islam into the 21st century. But, the truth is, suicide terrorism has never been part of Islamic belief; it has always been an ugly deviation.

This does not mean, in any way, shape, or form, that a good number of Muslims are not in need of reformation. On the contrary, there needs to be a wholesale reformation of Muslims on a number of fronts. Yet, whenever we see Muslims acting like barbarians, they are betraying the principles of Islam, they violate the letter and spirit of the faith. If every Muslim everywhere had kept to the principles of Islam, there would be no suicide terrorism; there would be no beheading of people in front of a banner saying “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Messenger”; there would be no “honor killing.” No, Islam does not need a “Reformation.” But a whole lot of Muslims do.

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at

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