By Ali Asadullah
Author’s note: In part one of this series, I addressed fundamental ways in which Muslims, seeking to defend Islam and portray it in a positive light, often fail in their comparison of Muslim extremists and the Ku Klux Klan. I explored the manners in which the former and the latter are indeed representative of their respective religions within the context of time and place. Now I would like to examine how this extremism arose and the type of thinking that allows it to flourish.
Historically speaking, the Ku Klux Klan could not have been possible without the Civil War. What the KKK represented, to a large degree, was an attempt to reclaim the social and political order of a bygone era.
Having been forced through the crucible of the Civil War and having been humiliated by Reconstruction and the martial law that came with it, many southerners were sympathetic to the cause of the KKK. Far from being held hostage by the KKK, they were, at the very least, passively accepting of its existence and its activities.
Turning to the Muslim world, we see that just as America went through its greatest tribulation as a nation (in the form of the Civil War), Muslims passed through the crucible of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The tumult and transformative confusion of that collapse acted as, what an evolutionary biologist would call, an evolutionary bottleneck for Islam.
And, to borrow another concept from evolutionary theory, we can see that selection pressures ensured that certain strains of Islamic thought made it through to the other side of the catastrophe. Selection pressures from Western conquest ensured that nationalism replaced pan-Islamic identity, that western education subverted Islamic education and that new, modern, foreign cultural practices and trends mixed and competed with traditional ones.
Modernity Thrust upon the Muslim World
With one way of life extinguished, and a rapidly growing and modernizing world infiltrating Muslim countries from every direction, Muslims, like white southerners during Reconstruction, struggled to make sense of their new realities. The caliphate was no more, but the lessons learned from earlier periods of Islamic history lingered in selective fashion.
Just as white southerners pivoted to reclaim what they could of the antebellum social order, Muslims moved to reclaim what they could of the vast, storied, contiguous history that had just been dashed upon the rocks of modernity.
It is in the early to mid-20th century, then, that Islamic political movements developed, coupled with often more literal, less interpretive approaches to Islamic theology and jurisprudence. Their emergence was perhaps predictable; for in a world without a caliphate, one might naturally try to establish some semblance of Islamic governance; and in a world bereft of Islamic educational depth, one might turn to less rigorous, less intellectual approaches to the religion in order to make sense of the new world around you.
This process of renegotiating social contracts, social norms and the extent of religion’s role in society was fraught with stops, starts and missteps. However, most pertinent to the discussion on extremism is the manner in which religion was leveraged to justify the approaches that various groups and their societies took.
Just as the KKK turned to Christianity to bolster its arguments, proto-Muslim extremists turned to Islam to legitimize their positions and actions.
The Vastness of Hadiths
For those unfamiliar with Sunni Islamic orthodoxy, I should explain that volumes upon volumes have been written on Islam — from the weightiest issues of belief to the minutest aspects of daily life. There is no shortage of diversity of thought and opinion in over more than 1400 years of collective scholarship.
Yet, if you ask a Muslim today, especially a Muslim in the West to name the texts that act as source material for the faith, he or she will struggle get beyond perhaps five or six titles. This is evidence of the aforementioned 20th century bottleneck.
At the top of the list of texts well known by most Muslims is, of course, the Quran. Following that, we have the two most rigorously authenticated collections of prophetic sayings: Saheeh Al-Bukhari and Saheeh Muslim. Next usually comes the collection of 40 key prophetic narrations by Imam Nawawi. And, for Quranic exegesis, most Muslims will likely turn to the Tafsir of Ibn Kathir.
Oh, and if you’re lucky, you might find some Muslims who are aware of the multi-volume history written by Al-Tabari. That may vary from community to community a bit, but in the end we are still talking about a limited number of sources.
Most important to understand is that even if these texts aren’t familiar to Muslims, most of what they have ever been taught about Islam has come from a limited number of sources. The process by which scholarship became slowly narrowed began early in the 20th century and accelerated late in the same century, especially as Muslims spread to the West, where a reductionist approach to teaching the faith was often favored.
Now mind you, there is nothing inherently wrong with learning from any of these texts or any other text for that matter so long as one has has teachers and guides to help interpret what is being read. In the absence of this, impressionable Muslims are fodder for those who know how to manipulate teachings and selectively use them to serve a self-aggrandizing or mercenary motive. Let’s take a look at ISIS as an example.
ISIS, according to its own narrative, is simply doing what has been commanded of Muslims by Allah. For those of us who know better, we see the faults in their thinking and actions. But to the malleable, poorly educated Muslim, ISIS makes it sound so simple using the limited number of texts with which Muslims are familiar.
For instance, the translated meaning of verse 4:97 of the Quran is as follows:
Verily! As for those whom the angels take (in death) while they are wronging themselves (as they stayed among the disbelievers even though emigration was obligatory for them), they (angels) say (to them): “In what (condition) were you?” They reply: “We were weak and oppressed on earth.” They (angels) say: “Was not the earth of Allah spacious enough for you to emigrate therein?” Such men will find their abode in Hell – What an evil destination!
Never mind that you’ve never read the entire Quran, that you know little, if any, classical Arabic, and that you don’t come anywhere close to qualifying as someone certified to analyze the Quran. You nonetheless read 4:97 and start shaking like a leaf with fear of eternal damnation because you are living a less than pious life amongst “the disbelievers.”
Oh, but where, oh where, is a Muslim go, then? Surely not to any of the Muslim countries already in existence. Because, as ISIS would tell it, they are all corrupted lands as well where a truly pious Muslim would never live. So what is a Muslim to do?
ISIS has the answer: A newly-minted caliphate where the reductionist teachings and selective quoting you’re already familiar with forms the basis of governance and social life, and where nearly 100 years of struggle for some post-Ottoman utopian political reality is suddenly manifest on the highways and byways of this new Muslim nation (or so they claim).
And with a little more selective quoting, ISIS has another foolhardy individual on a one-way trip to Iraq or Syria with little if any hope of ever returning. Armed with the Internet, a pool of significantly disaffected Muslims and knowledge of the human mind’s desire to find comfort and certainty in simple things, it’s just that simple for an ISIS recruiter.
The Battle of Extremist Rhetoric
Be afraid, be very afraid; for extremist rhetoric has been designed to be well-sourced pablum for the intellectually toothless. Without ever leaving the cozy, warm reassuring embrace of Shaykh Google, an extremist can cobble together a seemingly compelling argument, one that stands in stark contrast to the interpretive abstractions sometimes offered up by more knowledgable, well-rounded scholars of the religion.
Consider the the Letter to Baghdadi, which, in truth, is really a letter to those who might be swayed by the Siren song of ISIS. After all, given his track record, does it really seem likely that Baghdadi is open to advice?
Aside from the fact that the letter is TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) for most attention span challenged youth, the very first page after the executive summary sums up the failure of its approach:
Accordingly, it is forbidden to equate ‘the sword’—and thus wrath and severity—with ‘mercy’. Furthermore, it is forbidden to make the idea ‘mercy to all worlds’ subordinate to the phrase ‘sent with the sword’, because this would mean that mercy is dependent upon the sword, which is simply not true. Besides, how could ‘a sword’ affect realms where swords have no effect, such as the heavens, subtle beings and plants?
The last line of this excerpt, a rhetorical call to philosophical reflection on where swords do and don’t have affect, is probably enough to convince a young extremist to stop reading. This letter is the equivalent of bringing a knife to a gun fight. Speaking deep, intellectual truths to a literalist is a waste of time in my opinion.
These guys are quoting Quran and Sunnah all day, every day; so if you can’t argue with them on their level, you’ve lost before you’ve said word the first.
Christianity vs. KKK, so too Islam vs. ISIS
So where does this leave us? Again I look back to the KKK and America’s march towards racial equality. It took just about 100 years for the United States to officially and substantively roll back racial hatred and extremism with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
These were the turning points along with the other fundamental changes that came through the close of the 1960s and into the 1970s.
We are approaching the 100 year anniversary of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire; and Muslims too are, in my opinion, on the brink of rolling back the scourge of extremism. It may not seem that way – what with all the chaos in various parts of the Muslim world and the ongoing threat of extremism in the West.
However, if we look to the success stories, we can see a way forward.
The UAE (Dubai in particular) stands as a literal shining example of what can be. McKinsey expects Doha to be one of the world’s 10 richest cities in 2025, and the government there has recently opened a museum that addresses Qatar’s own sordid history with slavery and human rights abuses.
Saudi Arabia has launched its Vision 2030 initiative and recently removed sectarian material from its Ministry of Islamic Affairs website. And, Morocco remains a welcoming, accepting place despite whatever issues it may have (you MUST watch this video of the rapturous arrival of New York Jews at the airport in Casablanca – it’s the best thing you’ll see this week, believe me).
In the U.S., literalism and anti-intellectualism seems to have given way to broader, more encompassing approaches to Islam. Additionally, political Islam seems to have moved beyond its past Us vs. Them view of the world and on to accepting Islam and Muslims as being integrated within their society.
The work to end extremism is not done, but I feel a new day is dawning. If Muslims and the Muslim world are allowed to continue their forward progress, I believe the future holds a much more peaceful reality for all.
And, just as the KKK has been largely marginalized in American society, I hope for a future where Muslim extremists will be marginalized in Muslim societies and communities.
Ali Asadullah was formerly the founding editor of, one of the first American Muslim news and views publications on the internet. He writes on a range of topics related to Islam, Muslims, current affairs, and culture. He is a monthly columnist for Altmuslim on Patheos Muslim.
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