Al-Muhajabah, whose blog veiled4Allah is on my blogroll, has an interesting article titled “A Field Guide to Islamic Activists”. It gives some of the background on the basic philosophies of Sunni Islam: the historic four madhabs (Hanafi, Shaafi, Maliki, Hanbali); Wahabism; modern trends; and militant ideology of Osama Bin Laden. Here is her conclusion:
The aim of the first two parts of this essay (Historical Background and Trends in Contemporary Islam) was to discuss genuine movements of revival and reform in the Muslim world, and where they come from. I want to show that these movements are distinct from “militant Islam”. “Militant Islam” is a response to the political situation in the Muslim world over the last thirty years or so. It is the selective use of certain elements of Islam to produce an ideology to support political or armed struggle. It is not a natural outgrowth of Islam, because the selection process leaves out much that is vital to Islamic civilization, but is rather a distorted vision of the religion produced to further certain very specific aims. If the Arabs and Pashtuns were not Muslims, they would have used a different religion to justify their actions. Fifty years ago, they might have used communism or another secular ideology instead. But as Muslims and in today’s political climate, they choose to use Islam.
I have argued that “militant Islam” is not part of Wahhabi Islam, but rather comes out of a reaction against the Wahhabi movement. I also mean by this that “militant Islam” and “fundamentalism” are two different things. “Fundamentalism” in the Islamic context means a reform movement that seeks to go back to the pristine earliest form of the religion. It is a reaction against religious decadence rather than against any political situation. It is very similar to Protestantism in Christianity. Wahhabi Islam (the movement most closely resembling “fundamentalism”) is concerned with purifying the entire way of life of the Muslims, their worship and their interactions with each other whether or a personal or a societal level. There is a richness and a complexity to it. And, as I argued above, it is not Wahhabi Islam itself that has given rise to “militant Islam”, but rather, “militant Islam” is (among other things) a backlash against the failure of Wahhabi Islam to live up to its own ideals. This is an important distinction to make.
There is also modernist Islam. Modernist Islam is “fundamentalist” in the sense that it is a reform movement seeking to go back to the pristine earliest form of the religion. If early Islam did not have the dynamism, egalitarianism, and flexibility that modernists are looking for, they would look somewhere else. But they do find these qualities in Islam, which confirms and strengthens their commitment to their religion. Islam is an entire way of life, and it regulates both peoples’ worship and their interactions with each other, from the personal level to the societal level. Those who are committed to improving the lives of Muslims through Islam will thus be involved in social activism and political reform. This too is similar to the Wahhabis. It comes out of the nature of Islam as a religion.
But modernists are specifically interested in bringing democracy and a concern for human rights, and women’s rights, to the Muslim world. They look for the flexibility to adapt Islam to the changing needs of people rather than wanting as the Wahhabis do to follow a single vision of Islam (in this case the early Muslim community.)
It is an interesting introductory article, though as with all such things it glosses over complexities (it still gives a much better picture than what you can get from the media or blogosphere.) She does have some errors with the part of her essay dealing with Pakistan. I’ll document those when I have some time.