The ISIS Phenomenon

ISIS, Extremism and an Opportunity for a Knowledge-based Civilizational Renewal

Submitted by Professor Nazeer Ahmed

“Verily, Allah does not love the extremists” (The Qur’an, 5: 87)

Summary: This essay takes an historical look at the occasional rise of extremism in the fourteen hundred years of Islamic history. The objective is to sift through and identify the factors that are common to the extremist movements of the past and the present. The perspective is from the inside looking out. External influences that fan the flames of discord and are perhaps crucial are touched upon only briefly to provide a context for analysis. ISIS is a witch’s brew that has many cooks who are better left unnamed so as not to detract from our principal objective of introspection. It is posited that the rise of fanatical extremism in the modern era and the concurrent rise of virulent Islamophopia offer unique opportunities for civilizational renewal of Islam based on the pristine, universal, loving message of the Qur’an and the Seerah (path, methodology) of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh).

Vaulting across two continents, I am constantly pressed to explain the ISIS phenomenon which pops up like an ugly ghost lurking behind every conversation. Whether you are making a presentation to an interfaith group in San Francisco or talking to a taxi driver in Bangalore, the conversation drifts towards this subject like a rolling ball on an inclined plane speeding towards a muddy pit at the bottom.

ISIS has grabbed the attention of the world. Indeed, it is the chief ugly show on earth much as Pol Pot of Cambodia was fifty years ago. One day it is beheadings. The second day it is ethnic cleansing. The third day it is bulldozing of ancient historical sites. The banality of the show provides daily ammunition for the unending diatribes of Islamophobes and muffles the voices of those who seek to defend their faith.

The response of Muslim scholars to this phenomenon follows the usual pattern of hand wringing, distancing, denial and condemnation. While the response is understandable, it is clearly not enough. What is at stake is not just the outcome of an event but a challenge to the very essence of Islam as a faith.

I have watched with interest the steady rise of Islamophobia in the western media over the last fifty years. Until the Second World War, the image of a Muslim, as it was crafted by Hollywood movies, was that of an amorous Arab in long, flowing robes whose love for swift horses was exceeded only by his attraction to white European women. Then came the tragedy of Palestine and the focus shifted to the Palestinians. Gradually, it morphed into disdain for all Arabs. In the 1970s, the net extended further to include all Muslims. In the 1990s, as the neocons gained ascendancy in America, the animosity transcended region and race. The Islamophobes went for the jugular and took direct aim at the sources of faith, namely, the Qur’an and the person of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh).

The issues, therefore, transcend ISIS which is a passing phenomenon that will move on like a transient shadow on the canvas of history. It will be contained and extirpated. The issues touch upon the very foundations of Islamic faith.

The modern era is an historical occasion, a bend in history that has the potential to shape the destiny of the Islamic world, indeed of the world at large. An historical occasion calls for a civilizational response to a global challenge, one that shapes the future of humankind and guides it towards its transcendent destiny, namely, to rise up to the divine honor of servanthood.

History is a divine Sign. In the words of Ibn Khaldun (1332- 1406 CE), the father of historiography, history is a useful science which teaches us the struggles of the generations bygone so that we can learn from them and chart our course for the future. A brief study of the history of extremism falls into this category.

The khwarij (seventh century) and the assassins (eleventh century) are offered in this essay as examples of early extremist movements. The development of modern day extremism is traced over the last four hundred years. The triumph of spiritual Islam in the post-Mongol thirteenth century is provided as a counterpoint to extremist movements and as an alternate methodology for a civilizational response to the current Islamophobic barrage.

The Rise of the Khwarij (676 CE)

The Khwarij arose out of the convulsions of the early civil wars. The assassination of the third Caliph Uthman (r) in 676 set off a political storm that rent the Islamic community apart. I have covered in some depth the events surrounding this tragedy in the Encyclopedia of Islamic History ( The narratives are summarized here to provide a context for our observations.

Most Muslim chroniclers have shied away from examining the early civil wars citing the honor and respect that is due to all Companions of the Prophet. Yet others have maintained that the ijtihad (legal reasoning) of both Ali (r) and Muawiya (r) was correct but that of Ali (r) was of a higher order than that of Muawiya (r). We take no position regarding the issue (we will scrupulously avoid the issue of hakam) except to cite the historical facts as they unfolded. Ali (r), whom the Prophet had called “gateway to my knowledge”, was a fountainhead of spirituality, a man of principle, a great scholar, a noble soldier, but was caught up in the political storms generated by the Caliphate of Uthman (r) and his assassination. Muawiya (r) was an accomplished administrator, a superb politician and a determined foe. The two proved to be true to their positions till the end of their lives. Ali (r), as the legitimate Caliph, desired to establish order first and then attend to other matters of state.

Upon assuming the Caliphate, Ali (r) wrote to the governors of all the provinces in the far flung Caliphate asking them for their resignation so that new governors might be appointed. Most complied but the response from Muawiya (r), the governor of Syria, was a blank envelope. He demanded qisas (justice for the assassination of Uthman (r)) first, before he would accept the Caliphate of Ali (r).

On his part, Ali (r) moved the capital of the Caliphate from Madina to Kufa (656) and raised an army of 80,000 for the march on Syria. This army was mostly composed of Iraqis, with contingents of Madinites and Persians. Seeing the storms gathering on the horizon, some notable Companions tried to make peace. Abu Muslim Khorasani (r) convinced Muawiya (r) to write to Ali (r). In his letter, Muawiya (r) offered to take his oath of fealty to Ali (r) if he surrendered the assassins of Uthman (r). But by now positions had hardened on both sides. When Ali (r) raised the issue before a large gathering at the mosque in Kufa, over 10,000 Iraqis raised their hands and declared that each of them was an assassin of Uthman (r). The messenger from Syria returned empty handed.

Muawiya (r) raised an army of 70,000 in Syria and marched towards Iraq, The two armies met on the plains of Siffin and then collided.

For a long time, the battle was a stalemate with neither side gaining a decisive advantage. But on the night of Laitul-Hareer (the Night of the Battle), the supporters of Ali (r) attacked with such determined force that the Syrians realized they were on the verge of defeat. It was here that Muawiya (r) played one more ruse. Upon the advice of Amr bin al As (r) , to whom Muawiya (r) had promised the governorship of Egypt, the Syrians hoisted copies of the Qur’an on their lances and declared that they would accept the hakam (arbitration) of the Qur’an between the contesting parties. Ali (r) saw through this ruse but was helpless in the face of the determined demands from both sides.

This was one more of the fateful decisions for Caliph Ali (r). The acceptance of arbitration established Muawiya (r) as a legitimate contender for power with Ali (r). The two sides established a tribunal of two persons, one from each party, to decide between Muawiya (r) and Ali (r). Abu Musa Aashari (r), a pious elderly Companion of the Prophet, was selected to represent Ali (r). Amr bin al As (r), an avowed partisan, was the representative for Muawiya (r).

It was at this juncture that a group from Ali’s (r) army walked away. They were called the Al Khwarij (also called the Kharijites). The Kharijites were furious because in their view, Caliph Ali ibn Abu Talib (r) had committed shirk by accepting the arbitration of men as opposed to the hakam (arbitration) of the Qur’an. And unless he repented, they vowed to oppose Ali (r).

This was a classic illustration of how the transcendence of divine revelation is compromised when people of limited understanding apply it in mundane affairs. The Khwarij (literally, those who walked away) juxtaposed two ayahs from the Qur’an and sought legitimacy for their ruthless activities. Initially, they forced Ali (r) to accept arbitration on the basis of the Ayah: “If any do fail to judge by what God has revealed, they are wrongdoers” (Qur’an, 5:47). Then they walked away when a tribunal was appointed, basing their position on another Ayah: “Yet those who reject faith hold (others) as equal with their Lord.” (Qur’an, 6:1). It was their position that the Qur’an alone was the arbitrator; the arbitration of men was not acceptable.

Legitimacy in Islam flows from the Qur’an. Throughout Islamic history, the protagonists of the major intellectual and political upheavals have sought their justification in divine revelation. The extremist Khwarij were no exception; they were the first ones to do so. This is a major lesson from the civil wars that rent asunder the early Islamic community.

The arbitrators decided that both Ali (r) and Muawiya (r) were to resign and that a replacement was to be elected by the community. When it was time to make this announcement public, another trick was played. Abu Musa Aashari (r) was asked to speak first and he faithfully announced the joint decision. But when Amr bin al As (r) followed, he changed the story. ”O people, you have heard the decision of Abu Musa. He has deposed his own man and now I too depose him. But I do not depose my own man Muawiya. He is the inheritor of Emir ul Momineen Uthman and wants lawful revenge for his blood. Therefore, he is more entitled to take the seat of the late Caliph”. There was pandemonium in the gathering. Accusations flew. But it was too late. When news of this episode reached Ali (r), he was sad. Amr bin al As (r) returned to Damascus where Muawiya (r) was declared the Caliph (658). Thus it was that during the years 658-661, there were two centers of Caliphate, one in Kufa and the other in Damascus.

This subterfuge was unacceptable to followers of Ali (r) and the war resumed. For three years various provinces were contested between Muawiya (r) and Ali (r), including Madina, Mecca, Jazira, Anbar, Madain, Badya, Waqusa, Talbia, Qataqtana, Doumatul Jandal and Tadammur. At long last both sides seemed to have tired and a truce was declared in 660 CE. Under the terms, Ali (r) retained control of Mecca, Madina, Iraq, Persia and the provinces to the east. Muawiya (r) retained control over Syria and Egypt.

The de-facto partition re-established the historic geopolitical boundary between Byzantium and Persia at the borders of the Euphrates. Byzantium belonged to the Mediterranean and Europe while Persia belonged to Asia. Through the centuries, this boundary was re-affirmed by many of the Caliphs and sultans, so much so that the historical experience of the Persians, Central Asians, Indians and Pakistanis of today is significantly different from the historical experience of Syrians, Jordanians, Lebanese, Egyptians and North Africans. Syria and Egypt did not accept the Caliphate of Ali (r) until the Abbasid period (750 CE), whereas Ali (r) was for all times the Caliph, the “Lion of God”, the teacher and mentor for Persians and Persianized Muslims in the east.

The Khawarij, the first extremist sect in Islamic history, were not content to walk away from Ali (r). They sought to alter the political landscape through assassination, murder and mayhem and resolved to simultaneously assassinate Ali (r), Muawiya (r) and Amr bin al As (r), blaming these three for the civil wars. As fate would have it, the assassination of Ali (r) was successful. Muawiya (r) escaped with a minor wound. Amr bin al As (r) did not show up for prayer on the day he was to be assassinated and his designee was killed in his place. Ali ibn Abu Talib (r), the Fourth of the Khulafa e Rashidoon, died on the 20th of Ramadan, in the year 661 CE.

The eleventh century witnessed the rise of another extremist group, the assassins, who were a byproduct of the political and military struggles between the Sunni Abbasids based in Baghdad and the Shia Fatimids based in Cairo. Around the turn of the millennia (circa 1000 CE), the balance of power was decidedly in favor of the Fatimids who controlled vast swaths of territory stretching from Algeria to Multan in modern Pakistan. From their dominant position in Egypt, the Fatimids controlled the lucrative trade between the Mediterranean lands and India impoverishing the Abbasids in Baghdad.

The tug of war between the Shias and the Sunnis gave birth to many extremist movements. The Qaramatians, based in Bahrain, were a specific menace. In the year 906 CE they ambushed pilgrim caravans returning from Mecca and massacred thousands of pilgrims. In 930 CE they sacked Mecca and Madina and carried off Hijr e Aswad to Bahrain. The Black Stone was ransomed by the Abbasid Caliphs in 952 CE after paying a huge ransom and was brought back to Mecca.

The Assassins (1160 CE)

In the early eleventh century, another Shia dynasty, the Buyids, rose in western Iran and gradually extended its sway over much of southern Iraq as well as the Tigris-Euphrates regions. In 1055 CE they captured Baghdad, the seat of the Abbasid Caliphate. The harried Abbasids appealed to the Sunni Seljuk Turks, an emerging power in Central Asia, for help.

The Seljuks tilted the internal balance of power in the Islamic world decidedly in favor of the Sunnis. The victory of Seljuk Sultan Taghril Beg over a combined challenge from the Fatimids and the Buyids (1056-1060 CE) marked the turning point in this struggle. Baghdad was wrested from the Buyids and the Fatimid tide receded towards Cairo. From then on, the Orthodox vision of Islam, with an accent on the Hanafi and Asharite components, was to dominate Muslim history. This is not a surprise considering that the Turks embraced and championed the Hanafi Fiqh and the Asharite philosophical outlook.

The Fatimid response to their debacle in Baghdad was a deadly clandestine war directed at the leadership of Sunni Islam. The technique was to use assassination as a political tool. The architect of the Assassin Movement was Hassan al Sabbah. Sabbah, in his early years, was a fellow student with Nizam ul Mulk (1018-1092 CE), the most celebrated vizier of the Seljuk period. It is related that Sabbah was spurned in his ambitions to obtain a high position in the Seljuk administration. Whether by conviction or spite, he became a Fatimid and with the consent and connivance of the Fatimid Caliphs in Cairo, turned his pointed dagger at the head of the Sunni establishment.

Hassan al Sabbah retreated to the mountains of northern Syria and established his hideout in the remote mountain areas of Mazanderan. There he set up his headquarters and let loose a reign of terror. The structure of his clandestine movement was pyramidal with Hassan at the apex of the pyramid. He carried the title of Shaykh al Jabal. Next in the hierarchy were the dais who were trained to propagate the movement. Below the dais were the fidayeen, who were indoctrinated as true believers in the gospel of Hassan and acted as agents of their master. It was they who were charged with the responsibility to carry out the assassinations in the far-flung corners of the Islamic dominions. At the bottom of the rung were the rafeeqs, the uninitiated recruits, who were undergoing indoctrination prior to their initiation as fidayees.

The term assassin derives from the Arabic word hashashin (those who consume hashish) because the fidayees used hashish as an intoxicant and while intoxicated, committed their murders. The hashish was mainly imported from India although some was also locally grown. The Hindustani name for hashish is “ganja”, a product similar to marijuana, still widely cultivated and used in the subcontinent. The assassin movement is also called the fidayee movement and its followers are referred to as fidayeen. In Turkish it is called the Nisari movement. Both designations imply a willingness to die in the cause of a movement. The Arabs called the fidayeen mulahida (the impious).

In a valley close to his headquarters, Hassan set up a veritable paradise with fruit orchards, gardens and hundreds of beautiful young women. The recruits would be heavily drugged with hashish and then brought into the valley. When they woke up in the company of beautiful women amidst the gardens, the young men thought they were in heaven. Here they received a heavy dose of indoctrination in the secrets of the assassin movement. Total and complete obedience to the commands of the master was required of the initiated. The graduates would be let loose in the vast dominions of the kings and sultans to exact vengeance for the defeat of the Fatimids at the hands of the Seljuks.

The assassins went for the head of Sunni Islam. Hundreds of notables, viziers and generals fell to the assassins’ daggers or the poison cup of the fidayeen. Chief among those assassinated was Nizam ul Mulk, the Grand Vizier of the Seljuk Sultan Malik Shah. Nizam ul Mulk was undoubtedly one of the ablest administrators produced by the Muslims. His celebrated book, Siasat Nama, written in Farsi, is a masterpiece of the art of administration and politics. It was Nizam ul Mulk who provided a stable anchor to the Seljuk ship. He established universities wherein some of the most capable minds of the age taught. He built hospitals, constructed roads and canals, encouraged agriculture, reinforced the military, rationalized tax collection and fiscal policies, promoted national and international trade with India and China. The Seljuks prospered and Baghdad once again became the premier city of the world. One of the most notable scholars who taught at the Nizamiya College in Baghdad was Imam al Gazzali who changed the course of Islamic history thorough his dialectic and the sheer force of his pen.

The assassination of Nizam ul Mulk in 1091 was a major blow to the world of Islam. Not only did it deny the Seljuks the services of a first rank administrator, it hastened the centrifugal forces in the vast Seljuk Empire. Others who fell to the fidayeen included the celebrated Emirs Maudud (1127) and Zengi (1146) of Mosul and the Atabek Imaduddin. A hundred years later, Salahuddin Ayyubi himself narrowly escaped the assassin’s dagger on two separate occasions. Mohammed Ghori, conqueror of Delhi (1192 CE), was not so fortunate and died at the hands of an assassin near Kabul in 1206 CE.

The Seljuks attacked the assassins time and again but each time the assassins escaped. It was not until 1251 CE that the Mongols, under Hulagu Khan, finally conquered the assassin territories and drove them from their hideouts. This was no consolation to the Muslim world because the Mongols were on their way to Baghdad to decimate the very heart of Islamic civilization. Notwithstanding the Mongols, the fidayeen continued to survive in pockets of northern Syria and Iraq until modern times. After the First World War, with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, these areas came under British occupation and received British protection.

After the death of Nizam ul Mulk, Seljuk power dissipated. The empire broke up into small principalities. Quarrels broke out between the princes and the emirs resulting in open warfare. It was into this fossilized Muslim body politic that the Crusaders injected their power in 1096 CE.

The Mongol Deluge and the Response of the Awliya

Extremism is not a necessary consequence of military defeats and political upheavals. The Islamic civilization, as a global spiritual endeavor, has risen on historic occasions to heal and renew itself in the face of calamities. In the process it has rediscovered itself and elevated humankind to new heights of aesthetic, ethical and cultural plateaus. The aftermath of the Mongol invasions (1219-1258 CE) offers us historical insights.

In 1219, Genghis Khan invaded Khwarizm (Central Asia). I have described in detail the events leading up to this invasion in Suffices it to point out here that Genghis defeated the Shah of Khwarizm and devastated what are today northern and western China, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kirgizstan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, and India up to the Indus River. The invasions did not stop with the death of Genghis in 1227 CE. His successors followed up with the conquest and plunder of much of Eurasia including Iran, Iraq, Syria, the Caucuses, Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe up to Hungary. In 1258 CE they destroyed Baghdad, the seat of the Abbasid Caliphate. Cities lay in ruins, agriculture perished, libraries burned, learned men extirpated, entire nations were decimated. At no time in human history was there such devastation on such a vast swath of earth in such a short span of time.

Faced with near extinction, the Islamic civilization rose up to the challenge. Within fifty years of the destruction of Baghdad it had converted the Mongols and made them defenders of the new faith. How did it happen?

With its political power destroyed and culture decimated, Islam turned inwards to its spiritual roots. It was the Sufis who kept the lamp of faith shining in the darkness of the 13th century. The Mongols killed the rulers, destroyed the libraries, enslaved the scholars, but their sword could not touch the heart of the Sufi. The Sufis persisted, fought a battle of the soul won it with the conversion of Ghazan the Great of Persia (1295). In small cells and in far-away hideouts, the fire of faith continued to burn and when the darkness lifted, it was these small fires that became beacon lights and carried the loving message of the Qur’an to the far corners of India, Pakistan, Indonesia and eastern Europe, transforming the social landscape of Eurasia and profoundly influencing the course of global events. Over a span of more than a thousand years, tasawwuf provided the guiding principle for reform in the far-flung corners of the Islamic world as well as the cutting edge for political movements. If the center of gravity of the Muslim world today is closer to Delhi and Lahore than to Cairo, it is due not so much to the power of the Sultans or the preaching of the mullahs, but to the spiritual approach of the Sufis.

In the generation that experienced the Mongol deluge, one finds a grim determination not only to survive but also to serve and expand the sphere of faith. The genius of the age expressed itself through spirituality. Sufi tareeqas grew up in the devastated lands and provided the life raft for Muslims in their darkest hour. Among the ones that have left a lasting imprint on history were the orders founded by Shaykh Abdul Qadir al Jeelani (Baghdad, d. 1166), Khwaja Moeenuddin Chishti (Ajmer, India d. 1236), Ziauddin Suharwardi (Baghdad, circa 1150), Ali al Shadhuli (Egypt, d. 1258), Jalaluddin Rumi (Turkey, d. 1273) and Khwaja Bahauddin Nakhshband (Bukhara, d. 1386). Ibn al Arabi (d. 1240) introduced Sufi thought into Spain about the same time. The Qadariya Order spread throughout the Muslim world and profoundly influenced religious, social and political movements. The Chishti order was the major instrument in introducing Islam in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent. Ibn al Arabi’s writings influenced the development of tasawwuf the world over. The Shadhuliya School found its followers in Egypt, Syria, Malaysia, East Africa and North Africa. Jalaluddin Rumi’s Mevlevi order influenced the Turks and the Europeans. The resilience of Islam, manifest in its spiritual dimension, not only absorbed the shock of the Mongol invasions, it ultimately succeeded in converting the Mongols themselves to Islam.

While not compromising on the Shariah or the Sunnah of the Prophet, tasawwuf melted together Islamic spirituality with local cultures and evolved a folk Islam that spread through the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent, Indonesia, Eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. The history of these regions cannot be understood unless the spiritual dimension of Islam is kept in mind. Many of the movements that sprang up to reform the Sufi bent of the Muslim masses were themselves strongly rooted in Sufi thought. Examples are the reform movements of Ibn Taymiyah (Syria, d. 1326), Ahmed Sirhindi (India, d. 1615), Muhammed al Sanusi (Libya, d. 1859) and al Mahdi (Sudan, d. 1885).

The triumph of the Awliya must be looked at in its historical context. The Afghans had conquered Hindustan (1192 CE) only 25 years before Genghis Khan’s invasion of Central Asia. Islam had only gained a toehold in the Indonesian islands when Hulagu destroyed Baghdad (1258). The Islam that entered India and the Far East was less the didactic Islam of the ulema, and more the spiritual Islam of the Sufi. Specifically, Sufi movements profoundly influenced the eastern lands of Islam, constituting what are today Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Central Asia, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia as well as the West African nations south of the Sahara. In the core regions of the Arab world, which escaped conquest and devastation by the Mongols thanks to the Mamluke (Muslim) victory at Ayn Jalut (1261 CE), Sufi influence was less pronounced and the area remained faithful to the legacy of classical Islam, with a heavier emphasis on the Shariah and political legitimacy. For instance, the ghazi spirit of the Ottomans in the 14th and 15th centuries was deeply animated by Bektashi, Naqshbandi and Qadariya influence. Uthman don Fuduye (d. 1817), who led a struggle to establish a Caliphate in West Africa was a follower of the Qadariya Sufi order. Abdel Qader al Jazairi, a Qadariya Shaykh, led the resistance to French occupation of Algeria (1840). Shamayl Daghestani who resisted Russian occupation of the northern Caucasus in the 1840s was a Nakhshbandi Shaykh. Shaykh al Hajj Umar Tal led the resistance to French occupation of Senegal and Mali (1860). As late as 1911, it was the Sanusi movement in North Africa that resisted the colonial invasion by Italy. Even in modern times, Sufi orders continued to provide the leadership for national independence movements in many of the non-Arab Islamic regions. As an illustration, for over a century, the resistance to Russian rule in the Caucasus has been led by the Naqshbandi order. By contrast, in the 18th century, the battle cry of the Wahhabi movement in Arabia was strict adherence to the Shariah. Modern day Islamic movements in Egypt and Algeria are animated by a call to rule by the Shariah and political legitimacy.

The Sufis “conquered” India, Africa and Indonesia and profoundly influenced the politics, language, art, music and culture of the Muslim peoples of the east. The spirituality of the Sufis was uniquely suited to the ancient Asian mind. Hindus and Buddhists alike entered the fold of Islam in droves. Thus it was that Khwaja Moeenuddin Chishti of Ajmer, Baba Fareeduddin of Punjab, Khwaja Khutbuddin of Deccan and Nizamuddin Awliya of Delhi made a more lasting impact on the Indian subcontinent than did Mahmud of Ghazna or Alauddin Khilji. The asceticism of Indonesian Buddhism found Sufi Islam to be more acceptable than the pedantic recitations of mullahs. The animist soul of Africa resonated to the drumbeat of tasawwuf and Africans entered Islam by the millions.

The impact of tasawwuf on subsequent developments in politics, music and culture was no less profound. The Safavid dynasty in Persia originated as a Sufi movement. Babur, the first Mogul Emperor, was an avid Sufi as is manifest from his Babur Nameh. The early Ottomans were the “Ghazis of Rum”, many of whom followed the Naqshbandi Order. The Mogul emperors Akbar and Jehangir were devout followers of Shaykh Salim Chisti. The Chishtis and the Nakhshbandis profoundly influenced Hindustani music marrying devotional singing with classical ragas, as in Qawwali, Naat, Hamd and Ghazals. It is a tribute to the universal genius of Shaykh Jalaluddin Rumi that he is perhaps the most widely read poet in North America today. Summarily, Tasawwuf was the dynamic force that rescued Islam in its gravest hour, conquered the Mongols and propelled the faith deep into Asia and Europe.

The Modern Period

This brings us to the modern period.

I have pointed out in the Encyclopedia of Islamic history that the modern rise of extremism in the Muslim world dates back to the last decades of the seventeenth century. It is instructive to note that the political collapse that engulfed the Islamic world around the year 1700 was global, rather than regional. The Mogul, Safavid and the Ottoman dynasties suffered significant political and social regression almost simultaneously. This suggests that the reasons for the loss of Muslim political initiative in world affairs were not regional; they were global. Regional analyses distort the perspective and provide only partial answers. The issue demands a global perspective. What is astonishing is that there is a strong correlation between the social and political decay and the rise of extremism among Muslims. It is also astonishing that the seeds of extremism were sown when Muslim political power was at its zenith. History validates the assertion: “Verily, God does not love the extremists” (The Qur’an).

Parochial religious zeal played an important part in the disintegration of two of the principal dynasties, namely the Moguls in India and the Safavids in Persia. We have discussed how Islam turned inwards after the Mongol disasters and how the Sufi awliya saved the day for the Muslims. It was this new wave of Islam, spiritual in content, amalgamated with the cultures of the new peoples entering the fold of faith that spread into Persia, Central Asia, India, Indonesia and Africa.

The religious establishment, consisting of kadis and ulema, were suspicious of any departure from strict adherence to the Shariah and were not reconciled to the power of the Sufis. Within the Islamic world itself, there was a tension between the Sufis and the ulema. (The tension continues to this day as a not-too-polite debate between the “Sufi” and “Salafi” partisans). The 16th century produced several kings and emperors who resonated to Sufi culture, founded new dynasties and expanded them into major empires. The real or perceived excesses of these monarchs produced a reaction in the more orthodox circles. By the latter part of the 17th century, the orthodox had displaced the Sufis in the centers of political power. The triumph of the conservative ulema increased tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims, between Shi’a and Sunni and played a direct role in the disintegration of the Mogul and Safavid empires.

In India, the Great Mogul Akbar, a consummate statesman who knew the value of folk Islam, produced a Sufi fusion of Islamic and Hindu elements and solidified the Mogul Empire (1565-1605). Akbar was a zealous adherent of folk Islam and treated the Chishti Sufis with the highest honor. His initiatives created a cosmopolitan Mogul-Persian-Afghan-Rajput culture that survives to this day in India and Pakistan. Although there was an orthodox reaction, the principal exponent of which was Shaykh Ahmed Sirhindi (d. 1526), Akbar’s reforms survived and prospered during the reign of Jehangir (d. 1627) and Shah Jehan (d. 1666). By 1650, this cosmopolitan culture had produced the Taj Mahal and the Jami Masjid of Delhi, while the Hindus found it possible to rise to the highest posts in the empire. Rai Raghunath served as the divan (prime minister) of Shah Jehan, while Rai Chandra Ban Brahman was the chief of his secretariat. The syncratic tendencies of folk Islam showed themselves in the person of Dara Shikoh, heir apparent to Shah Jehan. Dara was a follower of Mian Pir, a Sufi shaykh of Lahore. When Mian Pir passed away, Dara became a follower of his disciple, Mulla Shah. Dara was a reputed scholar and wrote several books including Majma-ul-Bahrain (1655) and a Farsi translation of the Upanishads. His works were translated into Latin in the 19th century and had a major impact on the German Schopenhauer and the American Emerson.

Dara did not survive the struggle for succession after Shah Jehan. The Orthodox Sunni wing, led by Aurangzeb (1656-1708) carried the day. Aurangzeb made the Mogul Empire an Islamic state. Jizya was reimposed on the predominantly Hindu population of India (1679). Discriminatory customs duties were imposed on goods belonging to the Hindus. The Rajputs who had provided their muscle for the empire, and had built familial ties with the emperors, withdrew their support. The Marathas in western India rose up in revolt. In the Punjab, the Sikhs were restless. As long as Aurangzeb was alive, his indefatigable energy, resilient character and puritan drive held the empire together. Within 15 years of his death (1707), the empire collapsed. Regional despots established their rule, only to be swallowed up one after the other by the British East India Company.

In Persia, the Safavid dynasty was a product of the Safaviyya Sufi movement in eastern Anatolia and Azerbaijan (1500 CE). It was the energy, zeal and commitment of the Safaviyya that enabled Shah Ismail I to consolidate his hold on Persia. Throughout the 16th century, the Safaviyya Sufis and their military arm, the Qazilbash, played an important part in the Safavid state. By the year 1600, however, the Safaviyya had lost their revolutionary zeal and had become a part of the establishment. The reforms introduced by Shah Abbas I weakened the power of the Safaviyya and neutralized the power of the Qazilbash. Specifically, the standing army raised by Shah Abbas with recruits from Georgia and the Caucasus meant a decrease in the power of the Qazilbash, who resisted but lost the struggle. With a decrease in the power of the Sufis, the qanqas that had provided much needed social services in the countryside since the days of Hulagu Khan (1258) lost their effectiveness. The religious vacuum left by the Sufis was filled by the traditional ulema who had no stomach for the esoteric doctrines of the Sufis.

A more conservative Salafi movement arose in Arabia in the eighteenth century which was to have a profound impact for centuries to come. Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab was born in the year 1703 into the Banu Sinan tribe of Najd in Uiynah, located approximately 50 miles from Riyadh, capital of modern Saudi Arabia. He received his early education from his father Shaykh Abdul Wahhab bin Sulaiman, which included memorization of the Qur’an and a study of Sunnah and Fiqh. As a teenager, he performed the Hajj and stayed on in Mecca and Madina to study under reputed scholars of the age, Shaykh Abdulla bin Ibrahim of Najd and Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab Hayat of India. He studied the works of classical scholars and was influenced in particular by the writings of Ibn Taymiyah. After completing his studies, he traveled through Persia and Iraq, visiting Basra and Kufa. Returning home he started teaching his austere vision of Islam. The hinterland of Arabia, inhabited mostly by Bedouins, had very little contact with the outside world. The Bedouins who roamed the vast desert practiced a folk Islam embellished with the talisman, tomb visitation and astrology. Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab found the atmosphere hostile to his teachings and had to flee his hometown.

The shaykh considered all practices which were not in strict conformity with a literal interpretation of the Qur’an and the Sunnah to be bida’a (innovation), and he considered it his duty to eradicate such practices with force, if necessary. The religious charisma of the learned shaykh and the military-political acumen of the Emir were a powerful combination. A jihad was declared against the neighboring emirs who would not subscribe to the strict interpretations of religion offered by the Shaykh. Thus started the Wahhabi movement, which in time was to propel itself to Mecca and Madina, and spread from there over the Islamic world. In the process it thrust Saudi Arabia into modern history.

Consolidation of Wahhabi influence in the Najd continued throughout the 18th century. Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab wrote to renowned scholars of the day outlining his vision of Islam cleansed of the accretions that had crept in over the centuries. It was after the Shaykh passed away in 1787, however, that major opportunities for expansion beyond the borders of Najd presented themselves. In 1799, Napoleon landed his troops in Ottoman Egypt, quickly overran the Nile Delta and advanced into Syria. The British defeated the French armies but the incursion of a European power into the heartland of the Ottoman Empire required a partial withdrawal of garrisons in the outlying provinces for the defense of Anatolia proper. Specifically, Ottoman garrisons in Jeddah and Mecca in Arabia as well as Kufa and Basra in Iraq were depleted. Sensing a military opportunity, Emir Abdul Aziz of Najd who had succeeded his father Emir Muhammed ibn Saud captured Karbala in Iraq in 1802. He followed up this victory with the capture of Mecca in 1803, bringing a major portion of Arabia, extending from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf, under Saudi control.

The contribution of Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab was that he reasserted the pristine and uncompromising Islam, characteristic of the desert dweller. He provided a counterbalance to the excesses of esoteric doctrines and reasserted the central importance of Tawhid. History and geography were on the side of the Shaykh. Several factors helped the Wahhabi movement in its initial growth. The location of the Najd in the harsh and empty womb of the Arabian Desert protected it from changes sweeping across the world. The good fortune of the Shaykh in forming an alliance with the ibn Saud family and the political consolidation of Saudi Arabia in the 20th century to include the cities of Mecca and Madina were also important factors. Muslims have always looked to Mecca and Madina as a source for the purity of faith. The Wahhabi movement, centered in these two pre-eminent cities, enjoyed an acceptance among Muslims that would have been impossible if it was based elsewhere. The discovery of oil and the immense riches it brought enabled the projection of Wahhabi ideas far and wide, as far away as Europe and the United States.

The Wahhabi movement extracted a heavy price from the Islamic world for its stark vision of religion. When faith is stripped of spirituality, it becomes secular and degenerates into rituals. The second issue with Wahhabism was its compulsive character. The element of compulsion made it even more extreme when it faced resistance. Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab waged a jihad against fellow Muslims in Najd who did not agree with his views. The Qur’an is explicit that there is no compulsion in religion and that the Truth stands clear from the untruth. The Shaykh overlooked the historical contributions made by the Sufis in India, Pakistan, southeastern Europe, Central Asia, Indonesia and Africa. It was the Sufis who won the contest for the soul of Asia from the Mongols and the Crusaders. They were also the decisive element in some of the most important battles of the world, such as the decisive Battle of al Qasr al Kabir in Morocco (1578 CE). In its attempts to combat Sufi influence, Wahhabism pushed itself far to the right of the religious spectrum and spawned a host of extreme Salafi movements in the twentieth century.

Characteristics common to Extremist Movements

A toxic disaffection caused by perceived or real social, political or economic injustice, and a desire for vengeance, are common, identifiable threads running through all extremist movements. I have summarized here the characteristics that are shared by most extremists:

  • They harbor an obsessive preoccupation with a deep political, social or economic grievance.
  • They seek to redeem the perceived wrong by force.
  • They congregate into a fanatical group.
  • They are led by a figurehead who galvanizes the grievances of his followers into extreme, often brutal deeds.
  • They believe that there is a reward for their fanatical actions.
  • They use religion not to heal their bruised souls but as a vehicle to gain legitimacy for their coercive, brutal methods and as an emotional anchor for their irrational deeds.
  • Lastly, and this applies to Muslim extremists, the targets of their wrath are primarily fellow Muslims.

A student of history may note in passing that military efforts to root out extremist sects, historically, were more often than not, unsuccessful.

Modern Extremism

ISIS is the bitter fruit from a thorny bush that has been allowed to fester and grow for over four hundred years. A cogent argument can be made that the political and social decay of the Islamic world is directly related to the loss of spirituality and the consequent ethical and social decay. Mogul India thrived as long as it followed the inclusive Sufi path charted out by Emperor Akbar. More than a century of peace vaulted India into the position of the richest country on earth, accounting for over 22 percent of the GDP of the world by the year 1700 CE. It was richer than China, richer than the Ottoman Empire, richer than all of Europe put together. In 1679 CE, Aurangzeb reinstated the jizya on non-Muslims, a tax that had been abandoned by Akbar, alienating the Rajputs who had provided a firm anchor for the Mogul empire on the soil of Hindustan. The Fatawa-i-Alamgiri, a monumental compilation of legal edicts, formulated at the direction of the emperor had the unforeseen effect of social fragmentation; it gave legal underpinnings to stratified social and religious structures based upon class, income and religion. It solidified the hold of Muslim ulama on political and administrative structures that had been eliminated a century earlier by Emperor Akbar. At the same time it weakened the hold of the Sufi shaykhs and the zawiya which had provided a shared and egalitarian spiritual space for people of different faiths and varied social ranks. We observe a similar development in Safavid Iran at about the same time. Morality flows from the spirituality that animates all human beings. It comes from within and is a gift from God. It cannot be forced. Within a generation after the promulgation of the Fatawa, the empire was consumed by ethical rot from within, a fact acknowledged by an aging Aurangzeb himself in wistful letters to his son, Prince Muhammed Shah.

Centuries of colonialism followed. India was the first great non-western civilization to fall to Europe. Much of Asia and Africa followed. The impact of colonialism was to weaken the social structures and devastate the educational institutions that had grown up over a span of a thousand years in the colonized lands. It was the beginning of the Age of Discontinuity in the Islamic world. Political impotence provided further opportunities for the growth of exclusivist, rejectionist and extremist ideologies.

The two World Wars exhausted Europe, colonialism ended and it seemed as if a new era of enlightened international cooperation had dawned. But alas! It was not to be. The victorious allies from World War II were divided into two camps, the capitalist and the communist, and a cold war emerged. This bipolar world lasted until 1990 when the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own bureaucracy. A new era began, uni-polar, dominated by the neocons of America. Overarching these two periods was the financial domination of the United States sanctified in the paramount American dollar as the exchange currency of the world. Colonialism ended but the reigns of economic power stayed with western bankers.

The post World War II period saw the realignment of national boundaries and the emergence of new nation states. South Asia was partitioned. Israel appeared on the map and fought a series of wars with the Arab states. There emerged substantial Muslim minorities in India, China, Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and North America. Almost a third of all Muslims lived as minorities in nation states, each with its own constitution and its own culture.

In retrospect, this period, between 1945 and 1990 provided a golden opportunity for the world of Islam to change its direction from self-absorbing narcissism to an outward reach across the globe, as one civilization to another, joining hands to fulfill the divine human mission to serve. But this was not to be. The cold war had provided opportunities for smaller players to operate in the crevices between the two antagonist camps and rediscover their existential identities. This opportunity was squandered by the ruling classes in exchange for palaces and a pittance.

The civilizational winds that had captured and pushed the Islamic world to the conservative right since the eighteenth century continued unabated and with full force. The intellectual energies of the Muslims were spent more on carving out Islamic nation states than creating interfaces with other civilizations in a rapidly shrinking technological world. The poetry and prose of the great philosopher-poet Allama Iqbal had provided a spurt for Islamic nationalism in South Asia in the pre-World War II period. The trend continued after the war. Hassan al Banna and Syed Qutub in Egypt and Maulana Abul Ala Maududi in South Asia stood on the shoulders of Ibn Taymiya, Ahmed Sirhindi, Shaykh Abdel Wahab, Shah Dehlavi. Uthman don Fodio and provided dialectic energy for right wing forces. These were highly influential in capturing the attention of educated youth in Muslim lands. Very little was done to provide an intellectual framework for an Islamic life as one in a multitude of civilizations in an interconnected world. To my knowledge, the only feeble attempt in this direction was made by my former colleague, the late Dr. Syed Zainul Abedin, an Aligarh trained American social scientist, through the Journal of Muslim Minorities published in the 1970s and 1980s from King Abdel Aziz University in Madina, Saudi Arabia. Even this effort fizzled out after his death. So, when the wheels of fortune turned and there were social and political pressures on Muslim communities, the Islamic landscape was bereft of intellectual energies to cope with the pressures. Extremism was the result.

The pressures on the Islamic communities have increased enormously since 1990. This phase started with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The invasion destroyed the traditional tribal structure of Afghan society and set in motion forces that continue to destabilize not only Afghanistan but the neighboring countries as well. The Carter Administration cultivated the Taliban as a resistance force to Soviet occupation. When the Soviets left in 1989, exhausted from the war, the Taliban took over, unleashing their own brand of coercive dogma on a hapless and suffering population. The events of 9/11 happened followed by American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq with consequent devastations on a wide swath of territories extending from Central Asia to the Mediterranean. Without the countervailing force of the Soviet bloc which was formally dissolved in 1991, the west has had a field day in intervening in the nations of the Middle East. The destruction of Libya in 2011 is an illustration. The reasons for these military interventions are complex and primarily economic but the end result is the same.

The death of the Soviet bloc denied the west a bogeyman for marshalling its populace for its hegemonist goals. A new bogeyman had to be invented. What else but Islam? Since the Islamic world lacks the economic muscle and political power to confront the west, as did the former Soviet Union, the assault was formulated in ideational terms. Samuel Huntington’s book, The Clash of Civilizations (1992), attempts to give this assault a philosophical foundation, anointing it with an aura of inevitability A social scientist can decipher the birth, careful nurturing and growth of Islamophobia over a span of half a century. Up until the Second World War, the image of a Muslim as seen by Hollywood movies was that of a handsome Arab in long, flowing white robes who was as much enamored of fast horses as white European women. After the tragedy of Palestine in 1948, the focus shifted to the Palestinians. Gradually, it was expanded to include all Arabs. After the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1971, the net of hatred was extended to all Muslims. The rise of the neocons during the Bush administration seemed to open the flood gates for anti-Islamic literature. The publication of The Satanic Verses (1988) by Salman Rushdie was a first salvo in this direction. What was until then a tirade against Muslims turned into a jugular assault on the person of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) and finally the Qur’an itself.

An Opportunity for Knowledge-based Renewal

The Islamic community is caught completely unprepared for this new challenge. After towing the line of conservative ulema for four hundred years, the Muslim mind is unable to formulate a cohesive intellectual response to the current ideational challenge which spares neither the person of the Prophet nor the Word of God. For over a thousand years Islamic scholarship has been preoccupied with fulfilling the ahkam (the do’s and don’ts). That is understandable. But it overlooks the higher ethic of creation, to know Him through His Signs which He offers in profusion in nature, in human history and within the soul. Absent also is engagement and negotiation with other civilizations in the shared, common space of a shrinking world.

Great civilizations renew themselves and rise up to new heights when faced with challenges. Weak civilizations recoil when they meet a challenge, wither away and disappear from the canvas of history. Islam is a great civilization embraced by more than a quarter of the people of the earth. It has demonstrated time and again its capacity to rediscover itself and overcome adversity, as it did after the Mongol deluge.

The renewal must come from within and must be based upon the universal, loving message of the Qur’an. Knowledge is the antidote for ignorance just as Truth is the antidote for falsehood. The basis for knowledge and the Truth in Islam is the Qur’an and the Seerah (path, methodology) of the Prophet.

In response to the current global challenge, let there emerge a knowledge-based society, immersed in the Qur’an and the seerah of the Prophet that extends its hands in love to all humankind. The takleef (burden) that history has placed on the Islamic community in America is to build such a society. “God does not place a burden on a soul greater than it can bear” (The Qur’an, 2:286)

The Prophet founded such a knowledge based society in Madina. It had its basis in the loving, universal message of the Qur’an. The Prophet was, in the words of Aisha (r), an embodiment of the Qur’an.

The current challenge demands a transformation of Islamic civilization, not just a riposte to the thrusts of the Islamophobe. This is an historic opportunity that presents itself once in a thousand years. The Islamic community in North America is in an ideal to take the lead for this transformation. Every educated Muslim, man and woman, must learn the Qur’an, its inner spiritual meaning as well as its outer meaning, in the original Arabic if possible; if not, then, from a good translation in his native tongue. How can one defend what one has not studied? Only a person who knows the Qur’an and the seerah can engage in a dialectic with the Islamophobes who spare neither the Prophet nor the Word of God from the acidity of their tongue or the prickly tip of their pen. And only a person with knowledge can dispel the darkness that shrouds the warped mind of the extremist.

Religions collide when they descend from their transcendent mission of divine servitude and are used to define group identities. Islam has a divine mission to serve (“I created not beings of fire and beings of clay except to serve Me”, The Qur’an). Extremism has shattered this grand vision into a thousand pieces.

The audience of the Qur’an is all humankind. The message is general. The guidance to the believers is specific. The seerah (literal meaning, path) embraces the Prophetic methods and processes. It is independent of time and space. One can learn from it no matter when and where one lives.

The kingdom of Islam is the kingdom of the heart. Its fortress is taqwa, the consciousness of the divine. Justice is its banner. Its guidance is from the Word of God and it becomes a witness by the Light of Muhammad. Its reason to be is service. Nature and history are its teachers. As Mevlana Rumi expressed it, this kingdom is neither of the east nor of the west. It is the kingdom of the spirit, the kingdom of God. This kingdom cannot be invaded by the assault of the Islamophobe nor can it be demolished by the banal acts of the extremist. This, in essence, is the secret of divine surrender. This, in essence, is the answer to ISIS.