Egyptian scholar sees ISIS as ‘last phase’ of Islamic fundamentalism

“Political Islam groups have no future and we are now witnessing the dying stage of the cycle of fundamentalism in the Arab world.” - Islamic intellectual and philosopher Abd al-Jawad Yasin
Sunday 24/02/2019
Deconstructing radicalism. Islamic intellectual and philosopher Abd al-Jawad Yasin. 	               (Al Arab)
Deconstructing radicalism. Islamic intellectual and philosopher Abd al-Jawad Yasin. (Al Arab)

For decades, the Arab world has been experiencing the takfiri and exclusionary intellectual winds of Islamist fundamentalism. These ideological currents have gone deep into social structures and fragmented and divided societies by portraying a different image of the religion, which is essentially a belief in God and a commitment to morality.

These currents turned religion or, more precisely, people’s conception of religion into a destructive tool and an impediment to human development.

Since change is part of the natural laws of societies, religious fundamentalism has nowhere to go but disappear. This is the gist of the thesis of Islamic intellectual and philosopher Abd al-Jawad Yasin, who has been engaged for 30 years in deconstructing radical Islamist thought.

“Political Islam groups have no future and we are now witnessing the dying stage of the cycle of fundamentalism in the Arab world,” Yasin said. “We are experiencing the effect of the third generation of the Islamist movement and this generation is the most brutal and violent and that confirms that the life cycle of these movements has reached its peak and that they will end soon.”

Yasin specialises in Islamic studies. He was born in 1954 in Zarqa, north of Cairo. He studied law and philosophy at Cairo University and joined the judiciary at the request of his father. He became interested in Islamic thought at an early age and was biased towards freedom in its “metaphysical” meaning, that is to say the opposite of imposition, regardless of its origin. He champions individual and collective freedoms against the idea of a totalitarian state.

Yasin’s early writings were violent and extreme and represented an extension of the ideas of Sayyid Qutb and of Abul A’la Muwdudi. With the publication of his first book, “Muqaddimah Fi Fiqh Al-Jahiliyah Al-Mu’asirah” (“Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Contemporary Jahiliya”),” he brandished the weapon of takfir or accusation of apostasy in the face of society. Fellow Islamist writer Fehmi Howeida considered him “a revivalist of Qutbist thought.”

After that, Yasin said he undertook a fundamental review of his ideas, without bias this time. He tried to rediscover religion by applying a philosophical and scientific approach to it and concluded that the way we think and practise religion is not composed of elements of the absolute revelation but of historical and social components dating to the first three centuries of Islam and particularly of ideas related to the political struggles and conflicts of that period. The resulting conceptual system is not humanistic in the sense that, for the most part, it conflicts with the ideas of freedom and reason.

Yasin concluded that fundamentalist thought played a role in presenting the worst practical model of religiosity in Islam. He developed and defended his unorthodox theories in his books (published in Arabic under Arabic titles) “Power in Islam: Salafi Thought between the Scriptures and History,” “Religion and Religiosity” and his latest book “Theology,” published by Mominoun Without Borders, as well as dozens of research and scientific studies of fundamentalism, religion and society.

Yasin spoke to The Arab Weekly in his home. He was focused and enthusiastic through the two-and-a-half-hour interview, demonstrating command of his subject matter.

Yasin asserted that political Islam was “one of the intellectual cycles of modern history in the region. It emerged as the successor of the cycle of left-wing political thought and sought to oppose the status quo. Another aspect of the political Islam movement is that it also constituted a pre-emptive reaction against the globalised movement of human development that was overtaking the world by force.”

During the 13th and 16th centuries in Europe, Christian fundamentalism went through a similar stage in which European societies experienced radical transformations of economic, social and mental structures. The Roman Catholic Church, which was the dominant religious authority controlling legislation, society and politics, tried to resist the trends but was forced to voluntarily relinquish its authority.

Yasin said European sociologists, such as Auguste Comte, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, predicted the fading away of religion as the dominant power in societies. With the progress of scientific knowledge and awareness in Europe, it was said that religious thought would fade gradually until it vanished.

History has proven them wrong, however. In the West, the sacred made a strong comeback. What faded was the social history that was affixed to religion and not the essence of religion itself — God and morality.

In the Muslim world, conditions are constantly changing but economic development has not seriously affected social, economic and mental structures. At its beginnings, however, progress shook the prevailing religious system a little bit. Yasin insisted on distinguishing the religious system from religion itself.

Because of that early experience with progress, the religious system adopted a pre-emptive strategy against modernity, drawing on criticism of modernity in the West. The religious establishment claimed this criticism of modernity would work in its favour but it overlooked the fact that modernism had removed the religious order and overtaken the essence of religion in the West. Yasin said the same phenomenon would happen in the Muslim world.

He pointed out that the religious system faces two main problems. The first is that it is an exclusive system. It believes that it is the sole holder of the truth. This belief contradicts the pluralism and diversity affirmed by the Quran.

The second problem is that it believes in freezing vision and point of view and this belief is incompatible with human progress. These contradictions cannot survive, added Yasin, and the prevailing religious systems in the Arab world, especially political Islam, will inevitably disappear.

Yasin said the Islamic State (ISIS) is the “last chapter in the expansion of fundamentalism.”

He explained that ISIS is the third generation of modern political Islam movements. The Muslim Brotherhood movement was the first generation and then came the ideas of Sayyid Qutb and Abul A’la Maududi, which were adopted by the Muslim Brotherhood. When Qutb’s ideas were merged with precepts of fundamentalist Salafism, the amalgam gave birth to organisations such as al-Qaeda and similar groups. They became representatives of the second generation of political Islam.

Yasin said organisations such as ISIS are the last generation of political Islam. That is why that movement was more brutal, bloodier and more intractable than other similar movements. Of course, political and social conditions contributed to the emergence of this movement but it is in its waning phase and will disappear like the others before it. With its disappearance, Islamic fundamentalism will gradually fade away.

It is the first generation of political Islamists — the Muslim Brotherhood of the late 1920s in Egypt — who bear responsibility before God and history for distorting religion and distorting its image,” Yasin said.

The Muslim Brotherhood “has divided the umma into two factions and Islam into two versions and resorted to the initial fundamentalist ideas found in the historical system and presented them as the religion of God and what He wants from His faithful,” he said.

In “Power in Islam,” Yasin said Islamist movements and groups had corrupted the Muslim mind by considering politics as related to religion or as an integral part of it.

Asked about the concept of “reforming religious discourse” championed by some Arab governments to counter fundamentalist thought, he paused for a moment, then, with a sad look on his face, said: “It is a softened version of the concept of religious reform that was bravely used in the early 20th century. Some governments are still trying to appease the religious terrorism that still inhabits the minds of so many people.”

He said that “if the people of Hadith were the ones who officially codified religious practice in Islam and these people were most hostile to reason and most intolerant of others, the common people with their popular version of Islam were closer to reality and more acceptable and tolerant of others.”

Yasin said the solid mass of Muslims remains resistant to fundamentalist thought. This mass, with its popular religiosity, is more in tune with progress and change and more capable of adapting to reality. It coexists peacefully with all faiths.

Common Muslim folk accept and befriend Christians, live with Jews and even tolerate Salafists and atheists. That’s just the way they are. They accept life with all of its aspects. They listen to music, sing and accept to mix with the opposite sex. Even so, they would still consult the “official version” of religion on some matters and may or may not accept its verdict.

Yasin reiterated that encouraging this popular version of religion is a pressing and necessary step because popular Islam is the only bastion capable of absorbing and uprooting fundamentalism and of bringing back the spirit of acceptance and tolerance towards all.

He stressed that, almost exclusively in Arab environments, the role of the state has always been to support popular religiosity. Therefore, the state must abandon its hesitation in dealing with fundamentalism and with what it thinks is the fake authority of religious institutions.

Yasin said Islam recognises secularism in many ways; the man, therefore, cannot understand why some countries insist on stating in their constitutions that Islamic law is the main source of their legislation. Obviously, the move is just a plain attempt to appease the religious establishment.