Islam between Indifference and Extremism: An Analysis of the Ummah’s Situation (Part 1)

The following is an extract from a lecture given by Dr. Zafar-ul-Islam Khan, Chief Editor of The Milli Gazette, in a Qur’an Study Circle meeting at Bangalore on 4th March, 2017.


The great majority of today’s Muslims can be called lax Muslims, perhaps forming around 90% of the Muslim populations. They are mostly conscious of their religious identity but are indifferent to their religious duties as Muslims. They may don a cap, keep beard, wear what is considered a “Muslim” dress but in their real day-to-day lives they seldom punctually offer the daily five-time obligatory prayers or pay Zakat or take care of their relatives, neighbours, orphans, widows, and community members as ordained by Islam. They are generally aloof from the affairs of their community, do not follow the Islamic moral codes and do not pay attention to things beyond their personal lives and the well-being of their children and immediate families.

Laxity or indifference to the matters of religion and community is not a new phenomenon. Even early generations shuddered at the level of laxity then creeping into the Muslim society. Rich Muslims these days pay more importance to performing repetitive Haj and Umrah than to their other religious and social obligations.

Laxity may be due to ignorance, weakness, upbringing, social pressure, or lack of understanding of the Islamic moral principles and the wisdom underlying Islamic injunctions and prohibitions. It does not refer to those who have consciously rejected Islam. Rather, it refers to those who believe in Allah (swt) but do not avail themselves of His guidance in their day-to-day lives and behaviour.

Over the ages, Muslim laxity exhibited itself in two ways:

(a) Some responsibilities, like al-Amr bil-Ma’ruf wan-Nahi ‘an al-Munkar (enjoining the good and prohibiting the undesirable), which is a personal obligation of every Muslim, was slowly forgotten, so much so that the discharge of this obligation today is mostly frowned upon in some Muslim societies.

(b) Some obligations (Fara’id) are given more importance than others. For example, in all Muslim societies fasting (Sawm) is given more importance than prayers (Salah). Thus, we see people, who may or may not be offering even Friday prayers, diligently fast during Ramadan. Likewise, people now attach less importance to paying Zakat than offering the five-time obligatory prayers despite the fact that Salah and Zakah have been mentioned 28 times together in the Qur’an. Some Companions of the Prophet (saws) used to say: “Prayer of one who does not pay Zakat is useless.” When, in the wake of the Prophet’s (saws) death, some Arab tribes rebelled and said that they will pray but will not pay Zakat, Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, said: “By Allah, I will fight anyone who differentiates between Salah and Zakat.”

Over the centuries, Muslims came to give more importance to Nawafil (supererogatory, i.e., desirable but not obligatory) than to obligatory duties (Fara’id and Wajibat). This is seen in later Sufis and their followers who are more concerned about Dhikr (repetition of words in praise of Allah), Tasbih (repetition of words in Allah’s glorification) and Wird (recitation of Sufi formulas) than to social obligations like prohibiting Munkar and resisting social and political injustice in their societies. Some Sufis shun even obligatory prayers claiming that they have reached a spiritual stage where these things are not required, which is obviously wrong as even the Prophet (saws) was not exempted from these religious duties.

In general, ordinary Muslims are now more concerned about individual acts of worship like Salah, Dhikr and Umrah, forgetting their broader obligations like Jihad against foreign invaders, acquisition of religious knowledge, social reform, settlement of disputes and differences in society, cooperation with each other in matters of common good, piety, counselling each other to do good, be merciful to others and spend on community needs beyond paying Zakat.

People have forgotten their collective duties like acquiring religious and worldly knowledge, excelling in science and technology, especially in military sciences in order to protect their societies from foreign threats and maintain peace.

The emergence of two separate educational systems (religious and secular) after the advent of the colonial era meant that the majority of Muslim children going to “modern” schools do not get any religious education. This fact alone is largely responsible for the indifference and laxity seen in Muslim societies today.

The problem of laxity multiplied in recent decades with the disappearance of extended families, small family units becoming the norm where both parents work and hence have no time for their children. They compensate this by over-indulgence of their children, flooding them with toys and gifts and giving in to their ever-increasing demands, which breeds in these children selfishness and indifference to the general condition of society.

The system of the traditional Islamic upbringing at home has almost crumbled. Over the decades, religious teaching at home has been, at best, reduced to reading Nazirah Qur’an without understanding its meanings and learning the Islamic morals. There is undue stress on English language so much so that our children now can only speak their mother tongues. They cannot write in their own language or read the treasures left behind by their ancestors. They hardly know anything about their own history and culture.

This had its impact on our societies where people have forgotten their obligation of al-Amr bi al-Ma’ruf (ordering good) and Nahy ‘Anil Munkar (prohibiting the detested) which is so essential for the continuation of a righteous and responsible community. Matters are so bad today that if you try to discharge this duty, you may be told to mind your own business and refrain from meddling in others’ affairs.

Here, I must hasten to clarify that we cannot expect all Muslims to be of a single level of duty, observance and morality. The Qur’an itself has warned us that there would be three kinds of Muslims:

(a) Zalimun li Nafsihi (wrong-doer to oneself). These are the people who are found wanting in discharge of their religious duties and who often commit unlawful acts;

(b) Muqtasid (averager, or moderates), i.e., those who discharge their religious duties and refrain from unlawful acts; and

(c) Sabiqun bil-Khairat (those who compete or are foremost in doing good things) who not only perform their obligatory duties and refrain from unlawful acts but are also the first when personal sacrifices are required.

All these three types are part of the Muslim community today. People belonging even to the Zalim category cannot be excommunicated. It is only natural that all Muslims cannot belong to the third category. Therefore, it is wrong on the part of some religious and activist Muslims to accuse Muslim masses of Fisq only because they commit some sins and are not very careful about their religious duties. Allah (swt) has promised such weak Muslims of forgiveness:

“So that He may reward those who do good, with what is best, those who avoid great sins and indecent offences save lesser sins.” (53: 32)


“If you abstain from the major (sins) that you are being forbidden, We will acquit you of your (minor) sins and allow you (into Paradise) a felicitous entry.” (4: 31)

Ibn Kathir (d. 1373 CE), the great Mufassir, while explaining the first Ayah above (al-Najm 53: 31-32) said that Lamam means lesser offences or smaller sins. According to him, Muhsin (doer of good deeds) is the one who refrains from major sins.

It is but natural that all Muslims cannot be of same quality and condition vis-à-vis adherence to Islam and Shari’ah. Some may enjoy the power and courage to stop an evil being committed in front of them. Some may be vocal about their disapproval while many others will only disapprove of the evil in their hearts and that is the weakest stages of Iman (belief). If a Muslim fails to disapprove of evil even in his heart, he has to be wary of the state of his belief.

At times, it may be advisable to keep quiet in front of an evil if a bigger evil is feared in the event of an attempt to stop it by force, like the situation Harun (asws) faced when he decided not to object to his people’s fabricating and praying to an idol while Prophet Musa (asws) was away. He thought that he may cause disunity among the Israelite community which would be a greater evil.

Likewise, we may remember what the Prophet (saws) told Sayyidah ‘Aisha: “Were your people not so close to shirk until recently, I would have re-built Ka’bah on the foundations of Ibrahim.” Likewise, Muslims are ordained to bear the injustices of rulers if a bigger Fitna (trial) is feared in case of a revolt unless, of course, a ruler openly commits Kufr. Allah (swt) requires of His servants to make all possible efforts: “On no soul does Allah place a burden greater than it can bear.”

Laxity of Muslims in social and political life is evident from their indifference and passivity towards what is happening to others in their own societies and outside their borders; carelessness about common good, safeguarding public property, eagerness to migrate to western countries which shows lack of love for one’s own kin; carelessness about the importance of time in private and public life; carelessness about one’s health; staying awake till late at night; carelessness about personal hygiene and public cleanliness; a general tendency towards laziness; inability to discharge one’s duties as best as possible; indifference towards acquisition of deeper knowledge and preferring superficial awareness about things crucial to one’s private and professional life.


Extremism in Muslim societies is of two kinds: (a) religious and (b) violent.

The religious extremism manifests itself in focusing on trivial and peripheral matters and going to the extent of excommunication (Takfir) of those who do not confirm to these thoughts or reject them. Examples are many: like the issue of beard or its length, wearing long clothes, moving the index finger during Tashahhud in Salah, saying Aameen loudly or silently, making or keeping photos, etc.

Issues like clothes, eating and sitting habits, alms etc. are subject to changing choices and should be adopted as long as they serve the basic purpose. Hence there should be no problem about wearing western clothes (so long as they confirm to Islamic Satr rules), using modern cutlery and furniture, and employing latest technology and weapons (although they should be develop by themselves, independently of Wester influences).

No one will become Kafir or apostate because of his following or not following these trivial issues which are raised as if the Muslim societies have no problems left or as if Muslim societies are fully conforming to Islam and not facing any internal or external problem. These very people, who blow up these trivialities, commit major sins like ingratitude (‘Uquq) to their parents, failure to discharge their professional duties properly for which they are paid salaries, failure to make sure that their livelihood is Halaal, abandoning their wives and children to their fate, etc. Such people tend to exaggerate and expand the borders of Haraam despite the fact that Allah (swt) has warned in the Qur’an not to pronounce things Halaal or Haraam out of one’s whims:

“And say not – for any false thing that your tongues may put forth – ‘This is lawful, and this is forbidden,’ so as to ascribe false things to Allah. For those who ascribe things to Allah will never prosper.”

Scholars of our early generations were very cautious about pronouncing something Haraam unless there was a textual support to do so. If there was no such support, they would simply say, “We do not like this. Such people adopt the more severe opinion of some earlier jurists who disliked something while others allowed it. They always prefer the severe views of Abdullah ibn ‘Umar over the benign views of ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas. They would reprimand someone for drinking while standing or wearing a long dress while there is proof that the Prophet (saws) at times drank while he was standing. Wearing of long dresses is disliked only if it is done for pride and vanity. Such people are not clear about major terms like Islam, Imam, Kufr, Shirk, Nifaq and Jahiliyah. They very easily pronounce someone Kafir and astray due to their misunderstanding of these terms.

A minor sin or an unintentional mistake does not render one Kafir because his belief in Allah (swt) and Islam remains intact. The major cause for this waywardness are superficial preachers who read some general books and listen to some preachers while they themselves do not have deep knowledge of the sciences of Islam like Usul al-Fiqh and Maqasid al-Shari’ah. This has led to a superficial understanding of Islamic texts. Shaikh Yusuf Al-Qaradwi calls it “neo-Zahirism” after the old Zahiri Fiqhi school known for its literalist approach which rejected ‘Ilal (reasons), Qiyas (reasoning), Maqasid (aims), and the higher interests of the community.

It is a common practice among people, who consider themselves “religious,” to accuse others of Fisq, Bid’at (innovation in religious matters) and Kufr (disbelief or rejection). In general, people who consider themselves “religious” entertain doubts about the religiosity of others. This is against the spirit of Islam which looks at the outward (Zahir) behaviour of the believers, seeks to make things easy for them and give them many avenues and opportunities to make amends and repent in case of a mistake and sin. Here are some Qur’anic Ayahs which stress this spirit:

  • “Allah intends every facility for you: He does not want to put you to difficulties.”
  • “He has imposed no difficulties on you in religion.”
  • “Allah does not wish to place you in a difficulty).”

Shaikh Muhammad Al-Ghazali (d. 1996), the great Egyptian scholar and preacher, had said, “The day religiosity loses goodness of hearts, good morals and love for people, it will be a curse for the country.” Quoting this, a Maghribi (North-African) scholar observes that:

“Extremists do not tend to offer more social services to society. Rather, they only raise issues of dispute in religious matters like how to place your legs during Salah while they are least interested in building a model Muslim society and procuring elements necessary to rebuild our civilisation. They are moved by people’s minor sins and hasten to blame them of Fisq (sinning) and Kufr (disbelief) as if everyone in their eyes is a sinner unless proved innocent. This approach is against the Islamic fundamentals.”

Violent Extremism

The other form of extremism is violent, commonly known as “Islamic terrorism,” although it’s a misnomer because Islam can never teach or condone terrorism. Human life is sacrosanct in Islam which considers that killing of one person is tantamount to killing whole humanity. This new phenomenon relates to groups believing in armed struggle against regimes they think are anti-Islam or anti-Muslim. This is a fairly modern phenomenon going back to early 1970s when some violent groups like Jama’at al-Takfir wa’l-Hijrah (Jama’atul Muslimin) and Tanzim al-Jihad (Jihad Organisation) first emerged in Egypt. The former kidnapped and killed the Egyptian Auqaf Minister, Shaikh Muhammad Husain al-Dhahabi, in July 1975 while the latter assassinated President Anwar al-Sadat in October 1981.

Extremism is found all over the world. It is not a Muslim monopoly. We have Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and even secular extremists but world media focuses only on Muslim extremism which, in any case, cannot be defended. Yet, one may warn, that a large number of incidents reported by the media are false, and that, it has been proven that some of the cases are actually organized by governmental authorities themselves.

Muslim rulers by imposing secular and western laws and ways on an unwilling population, persecuting Islamic scholars and organisations, encouraged violent extremism in their countries. In fact, as in case of Egypt, this ideology was born in Egyptian prisons during the 1960s when detainees, being tortured and violated, concluded that their tormentors in the prison and outside cannot be Muslims. As a result the idea of Takfir (excommunication) of the rulers and their helpers was born.

Islam does not allow secretive groups to wage war against a Muslim state. Muslim minorities too are duty bound to lead a peaceful life and faithfully live up to the terms of their existence is a country. In the case of India, we are bound by a legal and social compact which does not allow us to wage war against the state. If we have problems and complaints, we have the recourse to political, democratic, legal and judicial means to secure justice.

Extremism exhibits itself in our societies in various ways, e.g.,

(a) Extreme bias for one’s opinion and rejection of the other opinion. This is despite a consensus in the Ummah over the centuries that with the exception of the Prophet (saws), saying or opinion of any other human being may be accepted or rejected. Such people allow themselves to make Ijtihad [independent Fiqhi reasoning] in most crucial issues but deny the specialised scholars of that right. They try to force their opinion on others using all the means at their disposal like Takfir or accusing their adversaries of Bid’ah (innovation in religious matters).

(b) Preference of difficult choices where easy options are available and forcing others to accept their opinion, despite clear divine guidance to the contrary.

A person is free to prefer for himself most difficult choices but he must not force others to do the same. When praying alone, the Prophet’s prayer used to be the longest but when leading congregational prayers, he used to make them short. He said, “When one of you leads people in prayers, he should make it short because there are weak, sick and elderly (in the congregation). But when one of you prays for himself, let him make it as long as he wishes.” (Narrated by Abu Hurairah)

(To be concluded)

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