How to Respond to Extremism

Sent On: 
Tue, 2019-04-30
Newsletter Number: 

In the previous newsletter, I made reference to Dutch sociologist Ruud Koopmans’ recently published book on Islam, “Het vervallen huis van de islam,” (in translation: the dilapidated house of the Islam). Koopmans believes combining political Islam with fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic scriptures is key to understanding terrorists’ motivations. Reality appears to be more complex.


Religions—and Islam is no exception—conform to the period in which it is preached and to the societies which adopt them. In a tribal society, Islam tends to take on a tribal character. For example, the main religion in India is Hinduism, which sanctions a caste system 1). The caste system exists in practice also among Muslims and Christians in India without such distinctions being sanctioned by these religions. We need to distinguish between official religion, that is Islam as defined by state sanctioned institutions such as the Azhar and Dār al-Iftā' and acts carried out by other groups or individuals in society in the name of a religion.


Arab society is primarily an honor-and-shame society. This culture is often not limited to the honor and shame of an individual but of a (religious) group, tribe, clan, or family. Honor has to be protected, which means errors should be brushed under the carpet even if one must lie. Showing weaknesses and faults is seen as shame and thus loss of prestige which has to be avoided at all costs. Muslims in an honor-and-shame society may claim this to be Islamic which, however, is difficult to maintain if one bases himself on the Qur’anic text. 2) Christians in the Arab World behave in exactly the same manner. It thus seems to be incorrect to attribute honor-and-shame to Islam even though Muslims may argue that their honor-and-shame behavior is innately Islamic in nature. 


The understanding of what many people in society believe to be ‘true Islam’ or ‘true Christianity’ are highly diverse explains Dutch Arabist Eildert Mulder, who has extensively traveled around the Middle East, visited Salafi as well as other mosques in the Netherlands, engaged in discussions about honor killings and wrote extensively about Islam and Middle Eastern cultures including, with co-author Thomas Milo, the book “De omstreden bronnen van de Islam,” (The Contested Sources of Islam, 2009).3)


Mulder says we should not underestimate that the populations in most Muslim countries are very young. In Egypt, for example 62% of the population is below 30 years of age. Extremists can be found in different age groups, but it is generally easier to attract impressionable youth to radical groups then older people whose ideas about the religion they adhere to is well developed. Some youth joined radical groups under the false impression that terrorism brings their desired utopian world closer to reality. Others, Mulder found, are attracted by adventures while still others may have a criminal background and believe that the punishment for such sins are 60,000 years in fire in the afterlife. Such a terrible fate, many believe, can only be avoided if one dies for what is believed to be a noble cause. That is not official Islamic teaching, but it is definitely worrying that this belief has pushed a number of youth into joining extremist groups.


Many Muslim, Christian and other believers believe it is better to be more obedient to God than to humans. But what does God want of believers? Beliefs are transmitted through holy texts that were written in a specific context during a specific time in a particular location. Yet, the faithful often purport the universality of religious texts, arguing that the core message of contained within scriptures transcends the specific historical context in which they were revealed. 


Holy texts are interpreted by scholars and preachers, both radical and moderate, who often derive very different (if not contradictory) meanings from the same texts. If a scholar or preacher claims to know an absolute truth, he is effectively claiming to know what God wants.


The Azhar, Egypt’s most important institution of Islamic learning, and the majority of Muslims repeatedly state that beliefs resulting in extremism are not Islamic. Mulder is happy such statements are being made. If this is done frequently enough, it will deter many youths from becoming radicalized. However, radical Islamic groups continuously draw on Qur’an, Hadith and selected Islamic scholars to substantiate acts of terror. Simply stating that certain views are not Islamic is insufficient because people drawn toward radical circles believe that these written sources are indisputable. But are they?


Religious people from all faiths should become more aware of the origins of their religion as well as of the different cultural influences to various aspects of their faith. Such awareness would help the faithful to realize why there are so many interpretations of both Christian or Islamic scriptures. Such knowledge will make us privy to the fact that many traditionally held beliefs are not written in stone. Some Muslims adhere to the notion, especially with regards to the fluidity and depth of the Arabic language, that beliefs were meant to be a matter of interpretation. This inevitably leads to discord among the faithful as to whose interpretation is correct. That has resulted in questions about who has the authority to interpret religious texts.


There are many flawed interpretations floating around. Muslim apologists often make use of scholarly text criticism of the Bible but neglect ambiguities in the Muslim tradition. The same is also true for Christian apologists who tend to make use of criticism on the sources of Islam; Qur’an and hadith but neglect similar criticism on early Christian sources. That results in highly defensive responses that may be equally flawed.


Many believers and preachers explain their faith without taking into consideration in what contexts their religions developed. All religions developed in an evolutionary process in a particular cultural and political context. In all religions, contemporary sources corroborating the events reported in the scriptures are scarce. The genesis stories of both Christianity and Islam as we know them today have been later developed. If we study the earliest extant sources, we discover that the genesis stories that have been presented to us through tradition are the outcome of discussions in the formation periods of these religions in which often opposing views were held and later religious leaders and scholars tried to harmonize those views. Once we become aware of human factors in the origins of religions, we also become more cautious of making any absolutist claims. People who are no longer able to make absolutist claims are less prone to accept extremist views because they would be more critical of what they are being told by others about their religion. They also would be less susceptible to create dichotomies with the intent of "othering" rathering than promoting tolerance and peaceful coexistence between people of different faiths.


Mulder is impressed by the book Muqadimah li al-Tārīkh al-Ākhar (Introduction to the alternative history) of the historian Dr. Suliman Bashear [Sulaymān Bashīr] who has been teaching at the University of Najah [al-Najāḥ] in Nablus and the University of Bir Zeit in Ramallah, both of which are Palestinian territories occupied by Israel. Upon obtaining copies of very early Islamic manuscripts from Damascus, Dr. Bashear underwent a study to compare the early sources with traditional Islamic sources such as Ibn Hishām (??-833 CE) and Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (839–923 CE). He obtained a one year leave from teaching and made an effort to study the various discussions in early Islam as well as how and under which circumstances they developed, and published his results in the aforementioned book in 1984. Bashear’s conclusions are far reaching and show how major dogmatic views in Islam are the results of an evolutionary process undermining the traditional narrative of how Islam came into being. The views expressed in his book were not favorably received by the Palestinian elite who did not want traditional beliefs to be questioned, out of fear for unrest, and distanced themselves from him and his book. They avoided a discussion on content and did not encourage other scholars to investigate his findings. Such an attitude is often the easiest way of dealing with a dissident voice, but this does not contribute to truth finding. Instead of isolating him, other scholars could have analyzed his arguments and engaged in scholarly debate with him.


Islam came into being in a period following a lengthy war between the Byzantine Empire and the Persians which weakened both empires and gave rise to beliefs that were not sanctioned by the political rulers of these empires.


We have very little archeological or textual evidence about the origin of Islam prior to Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan [ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Marwān], ruling between 685 and 705 CE. Just as other political leaders prior to him and during his time, Malik used religion to unite his state. Most information we have about early Islam comes from later sources and are not contemporary to the events they describe. 4) 


Bashear discovered many contradictions in these early sources. He attributes the contradictions to discussions from the days the manuscripts were written. Many contradictions can be attributed to the Abbasid rulers in Baghdad trying to present themselves as better Muslims than the Umayyad rulers from Syria whom they replaced in 750 CE. The Abbasids employed Muslim scholars to engage in religious rhetoric and interpretations as a means to establish legitimacy and assert power. Later Muslim authors have tried to brush those differences away in an effort to create a united narrative.


Bashear made a number of insightful discoveries. He found, for example, that the oldest recorded hadiths have no isnad chains (the names of people that handed a narrative from one generation to the other) unlike later recorded hadiths. Some hadiths mention a person as an eyewitness while in other sources the same person is seen as a later narrator. ʿIlm al-Isnād  (the study of transmission) has explanations for the points raised here but this is an area where scholars may have contradictory views.


There are other surprising discoveries such as remarkable similarities between Caliph Umar ibn al-Khatab [ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb] (634-644 CE) and Umayyad Caliph ʿUmar II (717-720 CE). One would almost think these are the same persons. Furthermore, there are similarities between the Prophet Muhammad [Muḥammad] and the 3rd generation Muslim Muhammad el-Hanafiya [Muḥammad al-Ḥanafiyyah] who also referred to himself as a prophet of God. How is this possible? What exactly happened in this period? How can one explain the differences in these earliest sources and how does this compare to later sources?


Bashear’s book is not perfect. He had to digest a wealth of material in the period of only one year. This is reflected, for example, in a chaotic presentation of his sources. Bashear was born in 1947, and passed away in 1991 following a heart attack, 44 years old. He has thus not been able to continue working on these earliest Islamic sources. There has been much development in the study of early Islamic history with the discovery of new source material. The works of such scholars as the late Patricia Crone, Michael Cook and Chase Robinson (to name but a few) attest to the progress made in the field. At the University of Saarbrücken, Germany, much attention is given to historical-critical research. Many of these scholars are not Muslim and it is hoped more Muslim scholars will become involved in this research and help other scholars and believers understand what happened in these early years of Islam. One thing is certain: many of the traditional beliefs about the earliest history of Islam may need to be revised. People should be encouraged to be more critical of absolutist claims by becoming more knowledgeable about the origins of their faith.


April 30, 2019


Cornelis Hulsman,

Editor-in-chief, Arab-West Report

1)      This is the majority view but some Hindus say the caste system was already there before Hinduism became the dominant religion. In other words, the caste system was originally not part of Hinduism. Opinions differ here.

2)      Monika Zickelbein, Sin and Shame in the Biblical and Islamic Context, Arab-West Report, October 26, 2005.

3)      The introduction of this book was translated for Arab-West Report, see:

4)      For the oldest Qur’anic manuscripts see: