The Calamity of Extremist Thought: The Responsibilities of the Ulema and Muslim Intellectuals

By Maulvi Yahya Nomani

(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand)

Starting from the recent past, Muslims have fallen prey to certain absurd psychological weaknesses and aberrations in response to various forms of oppression and exploitation that they have suffered and from which they have not been able to free themselves. One of these weaknesses is the marked tendency to resort to empty sloganeering, heated rhetoric and an extremist approach in seeking to solve our problems. Such emotionally-driven sloganeering sways Muslims off their feet, and can easily lead them astray and into terrible destruction. There is no need for me to cite any examples in this regard. Every knowledgeable person is aware of this obvious fact.

This particular communal disease that I refer to is found at every level of Muslim society and almost every place where Muslims live. Indeed, heated rhetoric, empty, boastful sloganeering and extremist thinking is so rife among Muslims that even level-headed and serious intellectuals, who realize the worthlessness of this approach, can scarcely keep themselves free from their impact.

To illustrate my point about emotionally-driven extremism in Muslim circles, let me cite the case of the storming of the Lal Masjid and the Jamia Hafsa, a girls’ madrasa attached to it in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, two years ago. This is a tragic and bloody tale, an incident that was thoroughly avoidable.

The managers of the mosque and madrasa had demanded that the Government of Pakistan immediately impose the shariah as the law of the country. The response of the Government was so brutal that even those who are habitually opposed to the mullahs denounced its excesses. One hardly expected anything different from the Government of Pakistan, which, after all, listens only to instructions from its American masters. At the same time, however, few can dispute that the extremist stance taken by those in charge of the Lal Masjid was simply suicidal. It was obvious from the very beginning that it would lead nowhere but their own destruction. I shudder to imagine what the future holds for Pakistan if things continue in this way.

Extreme emotionalism and sensationalism, of the sort exhibited by the clerics associated with the Lal Masjid and its madrasa, has now taken the form of a deadly disease. It is causing unimaginable damage and destruction to the Muslims themselves. Yet, and unfortunately, few serious efforts are being made to destroy this illness from its roots. Muslims derive much more pleasure from emotionalism and empty sloganeering than from realistically examining themselves and their situation. Even some of our leaders and ulema are swayed by this misguided approach, further causing our community to be overpowered by emotionalism and extremism. This mentality is a product of a long series of defeats and of a long period of subjugation. It is now exhibiting deadly side-effects and consequences for the Muslims throughout the world. That is why this approach must be abandoned, difficult though this might be. There is simply no other alternative.

To come back to the simply suicidal stance of the clerics of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, who, in the name of struggling for the enforcement of the shariah in Pakistan, caused the deaths of dozens of people—it was a foolhardy attempt by a single madrasa to take on the entire army of a country. Is this at all permissible according to the shariah? And, from the point of view of the shariah, is it allowable to engage in such acts that are not just suicidal but are also bound to create greater problems for, and suspicions of, madrasas, Islamic movements and Islamic activists, not in Pakistan alone but also in the rest of the world? Would not the killing of several Pakistani army personnel in the course of the siege of Lal Masjid have created enmity in the hearts of a large section of the Pakistani Army for the madrasas? Would not this sort of action pave the way for the Pakistani Army to become like Turkey’s, which is vociferously opposed to Islamic movements and institutions?

Yet, lamentably, as far as I know, although leading Pakistani Islamic leaders did not approve of the tactics of the clerics of the Lal Masjid, they did not sufficiently critique the extremist mentality of these clerics. Instead, many of them lauded what they considered to be their ‘sacrifice’ and ‘martyrdom’. In the face of this glorification, what hope remains that the dim-witted can see the light? In fact, they would continue to believe that the extremist approach and methods used by the clerics of the Lal Masjid are correct and that those who distance themselves from them are weak in faith.

The fact remains that the two brothers in-charge of the Lal Masjid and their scores of students are products of Pakistani madrasas. Obviously, their crazed, suicidal extremism must have at least something to do with the general environment in many madrasas in that country. The teachers and students of madrasas are indelibly influenced by the environment of their institutions. As Maulvi Zahid ul-Rashdi, the editor of a noted Pakistani journal Al-Shariah, remarked in a recent issue of his magazine, the number of people in Pakistani madrasas who display this sort of extremist approach is considerable, and they are spread throughout the country. Maulvi Zahid ul-Rashdi rightly comments that the Government of Pakistan should seek to dialogue with them. But, now that the Pakistani Government has identified itself as an ally of America and an enemy of the ‘jihadists’, can the extremists’ approach of inviting death for themselves and for many others, in the process leading to unimaginable destruction, be at all defended? Certainly not. Yet, unfortunately, even some of our leading ulema, including several who are said to be aware of the demands of the times, continue to search for excuses for this sort of dangerous and destructive extremism that, totally unmindful of the interests of Islam and its followers, is an emotionally-driven path to collective suicide.

Some ulema sought to defend the extremist approach of the clerics of Lal Masjid with regard to the enforcement of the shariah in Pakistan by arguing that this was the only option available in the face of the reluctance, even refusal, of the Pakistani Government to do so on its own and the inability of existing Islamic institutions to ensure this. Those who argue in this absurd fashion seem to believe that the Lal Masjid tragedy was somehow inevitable and inescapable. They seem to suggest that if the Pakistani Government and the existing Islamic institutions and movements in the country continue to drag their feet with regard to the immediate enforcement of the shariah in the country, such tragic and bloody confrontations will continue to erupt, which even the ulema will not be able to stop.

We must understand that if we continue to search for excuses, such as this, for extremism, we can never save ourselves from the menace that it is. The growing wave of attacks on the Pakistani armed forces from extremist elements is only making the problem even more intractable. These are suicidal attacks that are also destroying the Muslim community itself. Obviously, these cannot be excused at all. These are stupidities that only strengthen the hands of our foes, who obviously stand to gain as a result of Muslims killing themselves. Therefore, while the Pakistani ulema were justified in their criticism of the Government’s handling of the Lal Masjid issue, they should have also unambiguously declared that the clerics of the Lal Masjid had engaged in acts that were totally forbidden or haram according to Islam. These clerics had openly defied and opposed the leaders of the community, including the ulema, and were guilty of going against the community. Their stupidity drove them to cause their own deaths and that of hundreds of their students. They wrongly sought to arrogate for themselves the power of enforcing the law and establishing legal punishments (hudud), in the process, caused great strife (fitna). All this should have been explicitly pointed out by the Pakistani ulema, so that in future innocent people would not lose their lives in this tragic way and the fair name of Islam would not be spoiled, which is what the Lal Masjid confrontation led to.

Besides this, the clerics of the Lal Masjid went beyond the limits in defaming the ulema. One of the leading clerics of the mosque and madrasa, Abdul Aziz, sought to escape by disguising himself in a woman’s burkha after causing the deaths of several of his students. When he was caught, he admitted that he had given an interview to the media while disguised in that garment. And to add to his brazen shamelessness, he said all this with a smiling face. After disgracing the concept of jihad and the ulema in this despicable fashion, he had the gumption to deliver an emotionally-driven speech, calling for what he termed jihad, at the funeral of his brother.

It is tragic that few Pakistani ulema expressed their anger at this sort of disgusting behaviour. Obviously, then, elements among Muslims who have been driven to such extremes by the oppression of Muslims by others and the betrayal of Islam by Muslim elites, will not be goaded into changing their attitude and methods that are causing such destruction to themselves and other Muslims as well. Nor will they feel forced to obey the rules and regulations of the shariah that prohibit illegitimate violence. Nor, too, will they be willing to accept and concede the tragic fact that their approach is making any sort of Islamic activism even more difficult and the possibility of the establishment of Islam and the shariah even more remote.

I have pondered over the issue of the roots of this extremist mentality. Why do some people continue to be attracted by something that is so obviously destructive? One major factor is the seductive power of extreme emotionalism, which has been reinforced by repeated defeats that Muslims have suffered. This has now become the communal disease of the Muslims, so much so that seeking to cure the disease is thought of as cowardice. In actual fact, however, Islam does not condone or promote uncalled-for sacrificing of one’s life when there is no realistic possibility of victory. Till then, Muslims are supposed to remain bravely steadfast.

Another factor, and one that needs to be closely and critically examined, is a marked extremist approach among a significant section of Muslims to various issues. For instance, many Muslims have a strange sort of obsession with the notion of the enforcement of the shariah by the state, with the concept of the ‘Islamic state’ and with the call for the establishment of ‘The Caliphate of the Glorious Caliphs’, in that they consider these as the basis of religious progress. They even imagine that if these are not brought about, a Muslim cannot do anything much at all for Islam, although he might still be able to guide people from disbelief to faith.

This is a wrong approach. It is undoubtedly true that Muslims must, as a duty, seek to mould the state on the lines of Islamic teachings, but this task is certainly not their only concern. In fact, there are numerous other things that Muslims need to do before this.

Lamentably, some recent Muslim scholars have interpreted Islam in quite the contrary way, thereby promoting extremism and excess. In fact, their interpretations have also influenced many Muslim thinkers who were fiercely opposed to them. In this context, it must be asked if in today’s age and context of immorality and corruption, is it at all possible to establish an Islamic state without cultivating people’s faith and piety and the fear of the life after death? Certainly not. To seek to set up such a state in the absence of cultivating a morally upright society can only end in failure and strife. It is counter-productive, like banging one’s head against a massive rock. The prophets of God never established Islam in this fashion. Islam certainly cannot be established in this manner. To think otherwise is to adopt an absolutely unnatural and unrealistic approach. In fact, one can even say that an Islamic state cannot be established all at once, through the fiat of the state or a group of individuals, as many extremists imagine. Rather, it is something that evolves over time, an outcome of a long process. It is like a garden that slowly grows. First, seeds are sown in it. Then, as the saplings emerge they are protected from harmful insects. Thus, an Islamic society slowly emerges. Its members’ faith is built up and strengthened. As long as this is tended to, like a garden carefully looked after by a gardener, it remains fresh and verdant. But, if this task is overlooked, the society falls prey to corruption, just as a neglected garden is soon overtaken by insects that finally destroy it. To stretch the analogy further, the branches of the trees in the garden that is the Muslim community have, for a considerable period now, dried up because of our neglect, and their leaves have dried and fallen. Naturally, to expect this garden to suddenly, and all at once, turn fresh and vibrant is unrealistic. So, too, in the case of the quest for establishing an Islamic state.

In the light of this, it can be seen how unrealistic the extremist approach to the establishment of Islam is. In the case of the Lal Masjid, a handful of clerics of a madrasa sought to use force to compel the state of Pakistan by giving its rulers an ultimatum to enforce the shariah. This was as unrealistic as hoping to leap all the way up to the moon from the terrace of one’s home. Obviously, the commotion raised by these clerics could easily have been solved by the local police station, but then this would not have served the purposes of the Government, which was playing into the hands of those who thrive on fanning the flames of Islamophobia. The Pakistani rulers handled the situation in such a way as to fan further hatred for the ‘mullahs’ and the madrasas, not just among non-Muslims but also among Muslims as well. The global media rushed in to highlight the Lal Masjid agitation, thus leading further weight to Islamophobic discourses, while it maintained a studied silence on the fact that the majority of the Pakistani ulema did not approve of the stance taken by the Lal Masjid clerics. In fact, a delegation of the Pakistani Federation of Madrasas, including its head, Maulvi Salimullah Khan and the top-ranking scholar Maulvi Muhammad Taqi Usmani, travelled to Islamabad to meet and discuss matters with the clerics of the Lal Masjid, but the latter insisted that they would not change their approach to seeking to establish Islamic laws in the country, no matter what the repercussions. Finally, the Deobandi Madrasa Federation took the step of cancelling the membership of the madrasa associated with the Lal Masjid, and in this way announced that it had nothing to do with it.

Although, in general, the Pakistani ulema distanced themselves from the extremist clerics of Lal Masjid, their announcement of doing so so was insufficient. The fact of the matter is that the sort of extremism that the clerics of the Lal Masjid had resorted to is wrong and illegal according to the shariah. Anyone with a modicum of knowledge of the shariah and a bit of common sense will know that it is not at all permissible for any actor other than the state to seek to enforce shariah laws in this manner. The question here is not just the legality or illegality of this action according to the shariah. Rather, it is also a question of an issue that has wrought great damage to Pakistan, and indeed to Islam and Muslims the world over. Far from succeeding in ‘establishing Islam’, such extremism will only make it easier for America to succeed in its efforts to clamp down on Islamic activism in Pakistan.

In this context, it is imperative that we seriously study the roots of extremism in our midst. We must also make serious, well-organised plans to uproot this disease from our society.

Let me cite another recent case from Pakistan to further stress my point. Amir Cheema, a Pakistani youth, travelled to Germany for higher technical education. When a German paper published some despicable cartoons insulting the Prophet Muhammad, Amir Cheema approached the editor of the paper and warned him that if did not repent he would kill him. Consequently, Amir Cheema was arrested and thrown into jail. In that supposedly ‘civilised’ European country, he was so badly tortured in prison that he died. His corpse was brought to Pakistan, where he was given a hero’s burial. Several Pakistani Islamic magazines published stories about him, showering praises on him. They went to the extent of even congratulating him on his martyrdom, projecting him as some sort of role model for Muslims to emulate in the face of any future events involving insults to the Prophet Muhammad.

In connection with this incident, a Pakistani columnist wrote, ‘This incident bears striking similarities to the killing of the Dutch artist who presented a nude woman with Quranic verses painted on her body as an art item. This accursed man was soon dispatched to hell, slain by a Moroccan Muslim lad, who, when he appeared in court, proudly announced that he would do the same to anyone else who dared to insult the Prophet.’

It must be noted here that, purely from the point of view of the shariah, the action of this Moroccan youth was absolutely wrong. His love for Islam is another matter, but the shariah did not give him permission to take this step, which violated the peace treaty that the man’s country had with the country where he was then residing. By taking a visa to enter Holland he had implicitly agreed not to damage in any way the life and property of Holland’s citizens. He had, in effect, agreed and undertaken that he would obey the laws of Holland. The shariah did not at all permit him to violate this agreement, which he did by killing the artist.

Those who traduce the Prophet might be eligible for punishment, but this it is for the courts and the state to decide. Those who take the law into their own hands and inflict punishment, such as killing, of traducers of the Prophet undoubtedly commit wrongful murder, because for the imposition of such hudud punishments one must have the legal authority to do so, which is not the prerogative of any private individual, that is to say anyone but the courts and the agencies of the state.

Lamentably, however, being swiftly swayed off our feet by emotionalism we lose our reason and allow emotional-driven rhetoric and actions to take us where they will. That is why no one dared to announce and clarify that the action of the deceased Amir Cheema should not be something that other Muslim youth should emulate. Nor did anyone declare that it was wrong, even haram or impermissible, from the point of view of the shariah, for even lovers of the Prophet to take the law in their own hands and kill those who insult the Prophet.

Our opponents well know of our susceptibility to emotionalism, and they make full use of it. Consequently, our emotion-driven acts of desperation boomerang on us ourselves. At the bottom of this all is the undeniable fact that a certain streak of extremism does exist in the Muslim community, one that is fuelled by high-sounding sloganeering and claims. This deadly disease can only be cured through concerted efforts by our intellectuals, foremost among them being the ulema. It is particularly the ulema that one looks to in this regard to chart a middle-path, for they know better than most others the limits and possibilities of rigidity and flexibility in religious matters. They are also aware of the sensitivities and finer aspects of religion. At the same time, and lamentably, it must be admitted that few of our ulema have been bold enough to correct the misguided emotionally-driven extremism of some Muslims, like Amir Cheema, who have been responsible for destructive and un-Islamic actions, ironically in the name of Islam itself, which are being glorified by many Muslims.

And God alone is He from whom we ask for help.

(Maulvi Yahya Nomani is an Islamic scholar associated with al-Furqan, an Urdu journal based in Lucknow. He can be contacted on

Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Social Policy at the National Law School, Bangalore


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