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Islamic scholar: 'There isn't one true Islam'

In a DW interview, Islamic scholar Syed Nomanul Haq explains what version of the religion militant Islamic groups like "IS" and the Taliban subscribe to. Haq says there is no monolithic Islam.

DW: Organizations like "Islamic State" and the Taliban claim to be "Islamic" and want to implement "true Islam." What do they mean by "true Islam?"

Syed Nomanul Haq: It is an interesting question. One should remember that there is no such institution as the church in Islam, so there is no promulgation of an official truth in the religion. So what happens is that it ultimately is a question of consensus. One should also keep in mind that the Koran [Islam's holy book] is not a collection of regulations; it does not consist of legal injunctions. One has to convert it into a functional system, and to do that one has to look at other sources, including the practices and customs. This is how the burden of determining the "true Islam" has been carried out by the community. It has never been a totally agreed upon system. It is impossible to have a monolithic Islam because of the nature of scriptures.

We have to historicize the whole thing, and it is human work. There can be disagreements on it. What we call Shariah is human work. What people have done is understand what the Shariah is, and what we call Islamic law is the understanding of the people's work.

Dr. S. Nomanul Haq

Haq: 'There are certain criteria that cannot be compromised in Islam'

It is not a free-for-all kind of arbitration. Consensus means that most people agree on certain rules. Also, it cannot contradict the basic principles, which are universal. For example, humanistic principles are agreed upon. There are certain ahkamat (orders) that determine the truth of the Koran which can't be violated. It means that a small community can't decide what "true Islam" is. There are certain criteria that cannot be compromised.

It's often said - probably without much intellectual and academic knowledge of Islam - that "Islamic State" "has nothing to do with Islam." But obviously there are religious justifications for their version of Islam. Do some Islamic teachings provide justification of their version of Shariah?

They draw upon normative sources, such as the Koran, the hadith (words of the Prophet), and the practices of the community. But as I said earlier, one thing is clear: there are universally agreed-upon principles, the rational principles, which cannot be violated. And if they are challenged, we have to consider them outside the realm of Islam. If I say that my Islam is to kill innocent children, then I don't need to argue that it is not Islam because it contradicts the basic rules.

People make claims out of desperation. I think it would be better to address those desperations rather than the solutions that they offer. These groups undertake ruthless and vicious measures that common sense dictates that there is something wrong with their claims. In translating normative sources of Islam into a functional system, common sense is required.

What is the meaning of "caliphate" in Islam, and does it contradict modern secular values?

If by secular you mean there is non-interference on the part of religious institution, then the concept of Islamic caliphate has always been secular. In Islam, there was no institution ever that dictated the appointment of a caliph. It was a secular situation. There is a notion of consultation there. It has never been a dictatorial system.

There is no Pope in Islam, there is no institution to prevail upon the state, as was the case with the Roman Empire where the Pope could sack kings. There is no equivalent of the Pope in Islam. The ulema (clerics) are not clergy; they are not institutionalized. They are private people. Anybody can lead a prayer. Due to the colonial experience that Islamic world has gone through, one mixes it with the Christian system, which we shouldn't be doing.

To what extent is the Saudi Wahhabi version of Islam responsible for the rise of violent extremism in Muslim countries?

"Wahhabi" is also a colonial term. They did not call themselves "Wahhabi," they call themselves the "Wahidun," the Unitarians, and they do not allow saint worship. Any system that is too rigid and does not allow variations is bound to give rise to extremism, and that leads to violence. The mystic Islam allows variations.

How does South Asian or Indian Islam differ from extreme ideologies such as Wahhabism and Salafism? Can it counter Islamic militancy?

Islam would not have spread in South Asia without the role that the Sufis played. The Sufis were extremely relaxed about the legal and political issues. However, they never compromised on the basic principles of Islam. At the same time, they were very humanistic about their interpretation of Islam. The had a good strategy: they would admit a non-Muslim custom in their rituals, hoping that one day the non-Muslims would reach out to them.

The interview was conducted by Shamil Shams.

Dr. Syed Nomanul Haq is General Editor of Oxford University Press' Studies in Islamic Philosophy series, and serves on the editorial boards of several international journals, including Islamic Studies, and the Journal of Islamic Science. He is currently a member of the Faculty of Humanities at the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi.