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Building Blocks Of Religious Extremism

It is ultimately the rulers who must initiate and oversee the process of producing genuine, non-extremist religious scholars

While religious extremism among Muslims can take many forms, it has four major building blocks: generalising Quranic verses by ignoring the context, accepting hadith as practically independent and binding source of law without contextualising it in the light of the Qur’an, absence of critical thinking among religious scholars, and effectively brainwashing the masses.
The Quran is a clear book of guidance. Like all other texts it has a context. Its verses are bound in its context in a remarkably coherent way. You remove the context and allow its verses to give meanings in isolation and you have a perfect case of misreading the book in a way that at times will lead to innocuous misunderstandings, on other occasions serious misconceptions, and in still other cases disastrous interpretations.
An example of innocuous misunderstanding is the apparently general agreement about the first five verses of chapter 96 starting with “Read in the name of your Lord” that they were the very first verses of the Quran that were revealed. Looked at in the context of the rest of the verses of the surah with which the beginning five verses are inextricably bound, they appear to have been revealed when the opposition of the disbelievers had reached a very high level.
An example of a misleading understanding of a verse is where God says man won’t have anything except for what he has striven for (53:39). Completely ignoring the context of the verse which is talking about the rules applicable for the life hereafter, some people have been led to understand that it is an Islamic principle that people should get rewarded in this world only on the basis of what they strive for.

“Having served in one of the most prestigious universities of the country for several years, I can vouch with confidence that an individual’s education qualification has little to do with his attitude towards religious understanding once he turns to traditional religion”

 However, one of the most dangerous understandings of the Quran occurs in case of verses where, for example, God has required polytheists to be killed wherever found (9:5). While the Quranic context is unmistakably clear that the directive was meant for the polytheists of the Arabian Peninsula who continued to reject the truth they received from the messenger of God despite it becoming absolutely clear to them, there are people who generalise this directive. The threat of terrorism we are faced with today owes itself to such glaringly dangerous misinterpretations.
An example of hadith getting completely misinterpreted causing huge problems is the one that says that if a believer witnesses an evil, he is religiously bound to correct it with his hands; if that is not possible, he ought to criticise it with his tongue; and if that too is not possible, he should condemn it in his heart, which is the weakest part of faith. Many extremists have been inspired by this hadith to use force to change what they consider evil in the society. Little do they realise that the Prophet of God who had the strongest faith didn’t even touch any of the three hundred and sixty idols in the Kabah despite worshipping there for the first thirteen years of his prophetic mission. It was only after he returned as a conquering leader with authority to enforce law that he cleansed the house of God from those idols.
The above-mentioned difficulties shouldn’t be a cause of worry if religious scholars were wearing their thinking caps. That possibility is sadly missing. Our religious seminaries train people to become scholars who would toe the line of their respective schools of thought. Blindly following the elders of the sect a scholar belongs to is an inviolable principle in most of these seminaries. Difference of opinion is tolerated in a limited domain of issues that have to do with application of the already decided principles of understanding religion. Challenging those principles is considered almost blasphemous.
On top of it, most religious groups have developed effective methods of brainwashing. Historical events highlighting extraordinary status of revered personalities, exaggerated rewards of deeds considered important for the identity of the religious group, severe condemnation of individuals seen as villains etc are repeated with such confidence and authority that the ordinary addressee is left with little choice but to accept everything mentioned to him as unquestionable realities. Religious groups preaching their respective brands of theology deliver the message with frequent regularity, ensuring no other contesting voice is heard by the follower. As a consequence of this exercise we have numerous emotionally charged zealots belonging to different religious groups each of whom is thoroughly convinced that his view is the only correct version of truth. These zealots include some otherwise highly qualified scholars in their own respective non-religious fields of expertise. Having served in one of the most prestigious universities of the country for several years, I can vouch with confidence the fact that an individual’s educational qualifications has little to do with his attitude towards religious understanding once he turns to traditional religion: Blindly following the way of elders in the hierarchy of scholars in the religious group is a norm which no one can dare challenge.
The way out of this otherwise hopeless situation is to create awareness of the correct understanding of the Quran as a book that has a remarkably coherent text and to relate hadith literature with that text. This task should be carried out by religious scholars who should have no sectarian leanings. Instead, they should take pride in claiming to be Muslims only. If a critical mass of such scholars is created, they can in turn teach religion to the masses in a way that they won’t blindly follow a scholar or a sect. Instead, they will be encouraged to ask questions and make intelligent choices from the given options of religious opinions.
The above-stated remedy for religious extremism is not going to be a mean task. With myriad religious groups fiercely competing to attract new members, anyone daring to initiate a reform process on the above lines will not tolerated. It is therefore ultimately the rulers who must initiate and oversee the process of producing genuine, non-extremist religious scholars.
“The article by Dr Khalid Zaheer was published at dailycapital.pk on 13-FEB-15.”