Who Are Moderate Muslims?
By Ghulam Mohiyuddin
In the past many Muslims were reluctant to describe themselves as being 'moderate' for fear they might be wrongly suspected of being weak in their faith. With the rise of radicalism and extremism in Islam as manifested by Al Qaeda and the Talibans, as well as the growth of ultra-conservative movements such as the Tablighi Jamaat and the Jamiat-e-Islami, it becomes necessary for us to define the parameters of what we mean when we refer to 'moderate Muslims'. Other designations such as 'liberal Muslims' or 'progressive Muslims' are, for the purpose of this discussion, considered to have the same connotations as 'moderate Muslims’.
Moderate Muslims are not a monolithic group, and many moderate Muslims will not have all the characteristics described below. But there are certain characteristics that distinguish moderate Muslims. They tend to keep religion in a private space and do not make a public display of their faith. Religion for them has a place in their lives, but it is not their whole existence. They reason things out and think for themselves, rather than depend on advice from books or from fatwas.
They are guided by the spirit and ethos of the Quran. They base their thinking and behaviour on the fundamental tenets of Islam, namely the supremacy of the one and only God, His requirement that we live righteous lives and His holding us accountable for our actions. They revere Prophet Muhammad as well as Prophets Abraham, Moses and Jesus. The values that are most meaningful to them in pursuit of a virtuous life are also derived from the Quran, namely equality, justice, tolerance, compromise, compassion and rationality.
However they are not obsessed by rites, rituals and regimentation. Religion is important to them for spiritual sustenance and guidance but it does not dominate their lives. They participate fully and energetically in the rough and tumble, the competitiveness and the rat race of the temporal world. They strive to succeed in their educational and career goals, to provide well for their families' spiritual and material needs and to make their rightful contribution to the community they live in.
Moderate Muslims generally support major reforms in Sharia laws, reforms which conform to basic Quranic principles of fairness, justice, equality, compassion, common sense and human dignity, but which are also consonant with contemporaneous mores and realities. They would like to see polygamy and triple-talaq abolished, women enjoy equal status and equal rights in matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance, have full rights and opportunities to pursue their educational and career goals and be able to compete and work in professions, business, politics, arts, crafts etc just as their male counterparts. Moderate Muslims are not likely to be supporters of burqa or niqab. Regarding some strange fatwas issued recently by some seminarians, part of the problem, in the eyes of some moderates, lies with the fact that the system puts a vast range of issues under the purview of religion, which is defined not just as a "mazhab" or religion, but as a "deen" or way of life. The focus of religion should be on spiritual and moral matters. Issues of daily living and societal affairs such as dress, appearance, diet, personal laws, working conditions, banking, political systems etc should be governed by secular or laic norms even though they will be influenced by one's traditions.
In areas of public affairs, moderate Muslims support democracy and secularism. They highly value freedom of speech. They abhor blasphemy laws, apostasy laws and heresy laws. They strongly support human rights and minority rights. They are often strong critics of the abridgement of minority rights in Muslim majority countries, e.g. the rights of non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia or of Ahmadis in Pakistan or of Tamils in Malaysia. They have strong nationalistic allegiance to the country they live in, irrespective of whether the country is a Muslim-majority country or not.
The "Ummah" for them is an informal and nominal interconnectedness of world Muslims, characterized by empathy rather than by any tangible bonds or obligations. They do not subscribe to the idea of a future world caliphate. They do not consider 'jihad' or holy war to be a possibility in this day and age when Islam is not threatened and Muslims are not persecuted because of their religion. Any hatred of or threats to non-believers or 'kafirs' is unacceptable to moderate Muslims who believe in peaceful co-existence with people of other faiths. Moderate Muslims shun extremism in religion as well as in politics, they condemn all acts of terrorism, condemn killing of innocent civilians, and consider suicide bombers to be mortal sinners. They do not believe bizarre conspiracy theories with regard to either 9/11, 26/11 or any similar catastrophic event.
For moderate Muslims, 'Ijtihad' (innovation) is an important tool for change. It allows independent reasoning to reinterpret and expand on Islamic law. Ijtihad is essential to keep Islam in the vanguard of world religions.
Among recent and current leaders and writers, a moderate Muslim would be averse to the teachings of Maulana Maududi, Sayyid Qutb or Zakir Naik. He is more likely to favor the writings of Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, Maulana Waris Mazhari, Chandra Muzaffar, Sultan Shahin, Ziauddin Sardar and Javed Anand.
A moderate Muslim feels comfortable and at home in a pluralistic or multi-ethnic society, and can enjoy rewarding social and collegial relations with Hindus, Christians, Jews, atheists and others. He is able to respect the beliefs of others and does not feel the need to argue that his faith is superior to those of others. He is able to listen with interest to the views of others. He can expound on his own beliefs with clarity and without obscurantism.
The traditional Muslim teaching is that there is only one Islam and any division of Muslims into orthodox and moderates is invalid. But there are distinct differences between the attitudes and lifestyles of the orthodox and the moderates and we should take cognisance of that fact. People in both groups should be comfortable with their own beliefs and should be able to draw sustenance from the like-minded others in their own group. But above all they should not hurl insults at members of the other group. If we cannot respect each other, we should at least tolerate each other since we do have to co-exist.
Ghulam Mohiyuddin is a retired physician of Indian origin.