The “Democratization” of Islamic knowledge, and the emergence of extremes

بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيم

A little while after publishing my article “The Enlightenment and modern-day ‘Islamic Terror’”, someone asked me why I did not provide any specific examples to show how extremist attacks may have been stopped by consultation with traditional Muslim scholars.

From that time up to now, I saw the occurrence of a number of events: On the one hand, I saw on one of the forums I normally visit, an upsurge of certain nominal Muslims questioning a number of well-established Islamic practices and beliefs. On the other hand, we all heard the news about the Woolwich attacks, where an off-duty British soldier was hacked to death by two Muslim “radicals”.

Of course, the first type of event I saw (questioning of well-established Islamic beliefs) is nowadays much more common in our milieu that the second type of events (terrorist attacks resulting in deaths). However, what I see is that both of these matters are in fact related, insofar as they derive from the extremes emerging as a consequence of what I call the “democratization” of Islamic knowledge, with its concomitant vituperation of traditional Islamic learning.

This program to diminish, in the minds of Muslims, the proper routes through which Islamic knowledge is gained was done under the auspices of non-Islamic systems of governance (through the implied slogan of “democracy and freedom of thought even into the basics of Islam itself”). This fact is of consequence, since what we have now in the Muslim world are in fact two extremes:

a) There is one extreme that is tilted towards secularization, for some even going towards leaving of Islam altogether. This extreme is actually something that the un-Islamic side wishes to accelerate as much as possible. Granted, it may be said that the only wish for the non-Muslim powers and organizations is to keep everyone’s conception of Islam a “private matter”, but as far as formal Islam is concerned, intellectually this is an extreme position with practical outward effects.

b) But then there is the other extreme, which is that of being radicalized due to the individual study of the Islamic texts and rulings, without consideration for the proper routes of Islamic scholarship. This is the extreme that causes most consternation in the non-Muslim world, but on an abstract level it is only “the other side of the coin” of this new reality, since both emerge as a result of “personal and private” consideration of the matter.

As I mentioned above, the first extreme is unfortunately quite common in our day and age. If a Muslim scholar happens to chance upon a random discussion forum of a Muslim-majority community where the discussion is about a general topic, he may lamentably see that word of disbeliefs (that is, phrases that would have a person formally placed outside the fold of Islam) are being uttered right and left by an inordinately high number of members, all without the slightest concern for what is being said.

This is even before getting into the mass phenomenon of a lay Muslim doing unguided personal research on the Internet on any given Islamic topic, sometimes even visiting explicitly anti-Islamic sites, thinking that such will not affect his thinking, even though this lay Muslim probably has none of the intellectual nor material tools at his disposal to independently cross-examine the claims of our adversaries. Some of the effects of this are the unmitigated questioning and mocking of the central beliefs and practices of Islam without any consideration for the methodology of Islamic scholarship, all the while raising the banner that his “personal Islam” should be accepted as totally valid.

But then again, this is the issue with the democratization of “Islamic knowledge”: Some will be drawn to the pole of radicalism, but most will be drawn to the pole of laxity in matters of Islamic practice and the shedding off of care with respect to their Imaan.

So what can be the answer to the original question I was asked when I had just finished writing the previous article?

I guess that a tangential answer within the world-order we are living in  now is that such specific examples are there but they may be masked, for as long as the current secularly dominated world-order continues to push for the “democratization” of Islamic knowledge, the traditional scholars of Islam have a “democratic equal-opportunity chance” (or less) of reaching any given Muslim mind. He may tilt towards the correct way of Islam, but he may also tilt towards the extreme of radicalization, or to the extreme of secularization and overall indifference towards formal Islam in general. Just as it is impossible in a “democratic Islam” for every Muslim to be led to the way of traditional Islam, so it is impossible for every Muslim to be driven to the “highly personalized non-scholarly Islam” that many in the non-Muslim camp may wish to be realized.