It depends on whom you ask, writes Dr. Najib Awad, associate professor of Christian theology and the director of the International PhD Program at the Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut.
As a theologian, Awad notes that the concept of “moderate Christianity” is not rooted in the history of Christianity. Nor is it with Islam or Judaism, meaning that the burden falls on modern Islamic thinkers to outline their vision of what moderate Islam truly is.
Islam is neither extremist nor violent, Awad says, but without theological guidance on what moderation is, Islam will be claimed by various “agendas, parties, fronts and powers” looking to advance their own interests.
As a Syrian, I’ve often heard over the past 20 years (and especially after 9/11) a number of prominent Muslim thinkers, and likewise the Arabic news media, promulgate the term “moderate Islam.” And here I am, the Syrian who was carried away, along with millions in this part of the world, by believing in the existence of “moderate Islam,” and that the term references Islam itself.
But over the past few years, with the beginning of the revolutions, which we hoped would be an “Arab Spring” in the East, and with the appearance of a number of revolutionary speeches claiming an Islamic identity and practicing their own understanding of the word, I began to feel that there truly was ambiguity around the precise meaning of “moderate” Islam, and around the meaning of being a “moderate” Muslim, as regards identity, belonging, and existence.
In the past few years, uncountable versions of Islam have appeared before our eyes, and uncountable identities, all of which tell us that what they say and believe, that alone represents “moderate Islam.” In the midst of this generalizing, complicating and confusing state, the term “moderate Islam” (to say nothing of other terms) has become ambiguous and is in critical need of definition and clarification.
What does moderate Islam mean? And what does it mean for someone to be a “moderate Muslim?”
The term “moderate Islam” isn’t used in Islamic jurisprudential, theological, or early philosophical texts. There is talk of tolerant Islam, which treats people well and justly, and calls on them to surrender to Allah freely. But not a single early Islamic thinker uses the term “moderation,” which I think differs in its definitional and conceptual meaning from the notion of “tolerance.” The fact that the other two monotheistic Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Christianity, don’t use the term “moderate” in their intellectual history either makes the matter even more ambiguous.
In Christianity, there’s “conservative” and “liberal” Christianity, “orthodox” and “unorthodox,” “traditional” and “non-traditional,” “normative textual Christianity” and “intellectual rational Christianity.” But you won’t find the term “moderate Christianity,” all of which makes the issue of understanding the term “moderate Islam,” impossible from a comparative-religion perspective. I did not find, even today, intellectual, research-based texts, credible and written by religious scholars and Islamic thinkers, that explain what Muslims mean when they talk about “moderate Islam.”
In reality, the term “moderate Islam” is a modern term. A number of Islamic religious authorities created it in order to combat the fierce media campaign which the Western news media undertook against both the Arab and Muslim world after 9/11 and after the West began to face the threat of al-Qaeda.
At the time, the entire Islamic and Arabic world, in all its forms, rose up against al-Qaeda by asserting that Islam, by nature, is “moderate” and not “extremist” (this is another term which needs an exact and clear definition in Islam), and that moderation is the intrinsic essence which organizes Islamic religious practice, civilization, and behavior.
But who defines “moderate Islam?” Who defines it in an Arab world that is smoldering and exploding from within because of agendas, parties, fronts and powers that claim to be Muslim in nature? I believe that there is a historical, pressing—even fatal—necessity for the trusted scholars and authorities of Islam in the Arab and Islamic world to present a definition of “moderate Islam.” I believe this, because I am convinced that Islam is neither extremist nor violent, nor is it exclusionary or prone to conflict.
Some might say that as a Christian, I have no right to interfere in these matters, or to say what I dare to in these lines. God forbid I be among those who allow themselves to intrude on that which they have no right to intrude upon. But as an observer, and an academic who believes in the bond of all Eastern peoples, I realize that our fate as Arabs lies in a continual and critical re-understanding of ourselves, and a deep probing of our essence.
All this cannot be realized except when all Muslim Arabs apply themselves to rethinking what this means for “moderate Islam.”