The Roots of Muslim Radicalism: Part 3—The Challenge of the New Islamic Sects

This is part 3 in a three-part series. Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this “Roots of Muslim Radicalism” series.


Islam and World Powers

On the basis of its claim that Muhammad was the final and greatest prophet of God, Islam has sought to bring all people into “submission” to the will of Allah.  The word Islam means “submission,” and a Muslim is “one who submits.” Although Islam has had its philosophers and apologists who have sought to persuade people to convert to the Muslim faith, in general, Islam has from its very beginning (including under Muhammad himself) made its major advances around the world through military force. By contrast, while Christianity has on occasion also been imposed by force, its initial cultural success in Europe came by the blood of Christian martyrs, and the most important means of spreading Christianity during the past four centuries has been the work of missionaries who have also, in many cases, died as martyrs to further the gospel.

In general, Islam has from its very beginning (including under Muhammad himself) made its major advances around the world through military force.

The Rise and Fall of the Muslim Empires

During the decades immediately following the death of Muhammad, the Muslims consolidated their hold on Arabia and gained control of Palestine and parts of North Africa and the Mesopotamian region. About the year AD 700, the Dome of the Rock was built in Jerusalem at the site where Muhammad was believed to have had a vision of (or journey to) heaven. By 711 the Muslim empire covered all of North Africa and had conquered Spain (where the Muslims became known as the Moors). By AD 1000 Muslim power covered essentially the entire Middle East and was rising in India and Southeast Asia.

At this point Christian Europe felt it had to answer the political and military threat of the Islamic empire. It concentrated its efforts on taking control of Jerusalem and on driving the Moors from Spain. Jerusalem changed hands a couple of times and ended up in control of the Muslims, where it remained (under different ethnic powers) from the 13th to the 20th century. The Europeans were more successful in Spain, eventually expelling the Moors in 1492 (the same year as Columbus’s first expedition).

It was the British empire which would eventually contain the expansion of the Islamic powers worldwide. In 1600 the British formed the East India Company, establishing economic interests in a part of the world that was increasingly under Muslim control. By the time of the American Revolution, the Muslim Ottoman Empire was breaking up gradually, due in large part to British (and French) colonialism in India, Africa, and Southeast Asia. In 1858 India became part of the British empire, and between 1880 and 1918 the British gained control of both Egypt and Palestine. The Ottoman Empire disappeared completely after World War I, and during the 1920s, several independent states emerged, typically with the British or French lending support. These included Turkey, established as a secular state, and several Arab monarchies (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Syria) with only partially Islamic systems of law.

The British intent in taking control of Palestine all along was to open the way for Jews to establish a homeland there, an intention formally declared in the Balfour Declaration (1917). Already in 1881 Jewish immigrants had begun building new settlements in Palestine, still largely Arab Muslim in population. The Jewish population grew in Palestine after World War I and increased dramatically during the Nazi regime in the 1930s and throughout World War II, as Jews sought to escape the Holocaust. After the war ended, in 1947 the United Nations partitioned Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, giving Jews 52 percent of the land. In 1948 the nation of Israel began its modern existence. The Arab Palestinians rejected this plan, and in 1948 Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq launched war against Israel. In less than a year Israel had won the war and enlarged its borders to encompass some 77 percent of the former Palestine.

Meanwhile, in India the British-educated Mohandas K. (“Mahatma”) Gandhi led a nonviolent resistance movement to pressure the British for Indian independence. Although the British did grant India its independence, Gandhi’s hope that Indian Muslims and Hindus would live together in peace was not realized. The Muslim-dominated areas in the east and west wings of the Indian subcontinent became an independent Pakistan1 in 1947, and Ghandi was himself assassinated in 1948.

Muslim Radicalism and the Middle East

The main flashpoints in the world involving Muslim powers in the last half of the 20th century were in the Middle East. In the Six-Day War (June 1967) Israel took control of all of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, refusing to comply with a United Nations resolution calling for its withdrawal from these “Occupied Territories.” Modern Arab-Israeli peace negotiations throughout the rest of the century focused on these disputed areas and the disposition of cities, especially Jerusalem, considered holy by both Jews and Muslims. The negotiations were complicated by Arab Palestinian terrorism (orchestrated in the 1970s and 1980s especially by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, or PLO, headed by Yasser Arafat) and by Israeli attacks against Lebanon, where PLO forces were based. Even the historic peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians in 1994 did not resolve these issues or bring the violence to an end.

The militant Palestinian resistance against Israel is a small but crucial part of the larger movement known as Muslim “fundamentalism,”2 perhaps better termed Muslim radicalism. This movement represents a backlash against the Westernization and secularization of Muslim countries. In 1978–79 the Ayatollah Khomeini led a revolt in Iran in which he deposed the Shah (who had been supported by the West), instituted a state governed by Islamic law (Sharia), and held American hostages for over a year. In 1981 members of a radical Muslim group named Jihad (the Arabic word meaning “struggle” and often translated “holy war”) assassinated Anwar Sadat, whose visit to Jerusalem in 1977 had opened peace negotiations between Egypt and Israel. Similar groups emerged during the 1980s among the Palestinians, notably Hezbollah and Hamas, as the PLO became less radical.

Meanwhile, throughout the 1980s, neighboring nations Iran and Iraq fought a long and bloody war. The West was inclined during this period to look more favorably on Iraq because of its secular government (ruled by dictator Saddam Hussein), which seemed more open to the West than Iran’s militant Islamic government. This perception was undone when Iraq invaded Kuwait, leading to the Gulf War (1990–91), in which a U.S.-led coalition of nations—including some of the Muslim nations of the Middle East—drove the Iraqi army out of Kuwait.

Muslim Sects

Islam is known in the West, and especially in the United States, as much or more by its sects as through the traditional forms of Islam. We will briefly consider four of them.

The Sufis

The Sufis were a medieval movement within Islam that reacted against the formalism and materialism of the growing Muslim empires. Sufis sought to develop a simple lifestyle and cultivate a deep spiritual experience of Allah, generally following a mystical path to find such experience. The interest in mysticism in the West in the 20th century led to rapid growth of Sufism in Europe and the United States.

The Sikhs

The Sikhs were founded around 1500 by Guru Nanak, a Hindu in Punjab during the Muslim rule of the Moguls there. Nanak is regarded as the first of 10 founding gurus who sought to integrate the form of Hinduism which expressed devotion to a personal deity (known as bhakti) with the mystical Sufi tradition in Islam. Sikhs believe in a god who is the immortal creator and has many names, including Allah, Rama (a Hindu divine name), and Sahib (“sir,” “master”).  The Sikhs are well known for their martial philosophy and garb (notably the turban and the dagger), a tradition stemming from their persecution in Punjab by Muslim authorities in the 1600s. Outside their original home, the largest Sikh populations are in the United Kingdom, which has close to half a million Sikhs, and the United States, which has more than a quarter of a million Sikhs.

The Baha’is

The Baha’i World Faith was founded by Baha’u’llah, a Muslim in Persia (modern-day Iran) in the 19th century. He took the name Baha’u’llah (“the glory of Allah”) because he claimed to be the last in a series of prophets, each of whom had provided a new and more complete manifestation of God to the world. The Baha’i sect teaches that Jesus was the sixth of these prophets; Muhammad was the seventh; a Persian prophet called the Bab, whom Baha’u’llah had followed, was the eighth; and Baha’u’llah himself was the ninth, last, and greatest of these prophets. As might be expected, the Baha’is were persecuted by the Muslim authorities in Persia, and Baha’u’llah died in a Turkish prison in Palestine in 1892. His son, ’Abdu’l-Baha’, brought the Baha’i religion to America, where it has flourished and grown throughout the 20th century.

The Nation of Islam

The Nation of Islam is undoubtedly the most culturally significant sect of Islam in the United States. Popularly known in earlier years as Black Muslims, the Nation of Islam is an African-American cult that reinterprets Islam as a religion for the oppressed Blacks. The original vision of its founder, Wallace Fard Muhammad, was of a separate and autonomous Black nation within the United States. African Americans were urged to renounce their U.S. citizenship and reject their last names (which were their “slave names”), using only “X” in their place.

The most famous member of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, was killed in 1965 by angry Nation members, after Malcolm had disavowed the group in favor of pursuing a more traditional Muslim path. The Nation of Islam3 has been led since the late 1970s by Louis Farrakhan, among the most controversial African-American leaders since the 1990s. Under Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam seeks economic independence from the White establishment (“Buy Black”) rather than political independence from the United States. He has provoked outrage over the years for his rhetoric of hate, especially against the Jews. Still, for many African-Americans Farrakhan’s message—especially his emphasis on self-reliance, personal responsibility, and the importance of restoring young Black men in America to their place in the home—strikes some important and valid themes.

Christians and the Challenge of Islam

No religion besides Islam poses a more formidable challenge to Christianity in the third millennium. Islam is the dominant religion in many parts of the developing world, and its appeal as the religion of the oppressed, the religion for those who resent their treatment at the hands of the White European and American establishments, has considerable force. Islamic civilization boasts numerous and impressive accomplishments in architecture, mathematics, philosophy, and law—to name just a few of the areas in which Islamic culture has shined.

Now that Islam, in both traditional and sectarian forms, is growing in Europe and America, as well as throughout the world . . .

How Should Christians respond?

Response #1: Acknowledging the Good

It is important for Christians to acknowledge that there is much in Islam that is good. Certainly, the monotheism of Islam is far superior to the paganism that gripped Arabia and much of the surrounding lands before Muhammad. The cultural contributions of Islamic civilization to the rest of the world should be appreciated and commended. On the other hand, it does no good to perpetuate stereotypes of Arab or other Muslim peoples. Many Muslims are sincere, kind people, who simply care about their families and the future of their people.

Response #2: Accepting Responsibility

We should recognize that much of the conflict between the West and the Islamic nations of the Middle East and North Africa is the result, at least in part, of Western policies and practices. This is not to place all or even most of the blame on the West, but it is to say that the West has contributed to the problem.

To cite just one example, the treatment of Jews in Europe throughout the modern era, but especially in the 20th century, in large measure led to the creation of a Jewish state right in the middle of a region long dominated by Muslim peoples. The whole matter of Israel and its relations with the Palestinians and the surrounding Muslim nations is exceedingly complex, but the point is that the West cannot deny all culpability for the problem.

Response #3: Supporting Peace Efforts

Christians need to support efforts to bring peace between Muslims and Jews in the Middle East and to foster understanding and acceptance between themselves and Muslims. Christian efforts to evangelize Muslims have so far had only marginal success, and this might not change unless and until the climate of mutual suspicion between people of these two largest world religions changes.

Response #4: Telling Them the Good News

Finally, Christians need to continue efforts to evangelize Muslims with the good news of Jesus Christ. We can and should work toward mutual understanding and acceptance while at the same time taking every opportunity to present the gospel to Muslims. This will require gaining a fair and accurate understanding of Islam as well as an ability to explain and defend the Christian truth claims over against the errors of Islam. Surely this largest of mission fields deserves the greatest of efforts and commitments of the Christian church as we progress through the third millennium.


To learn more about Islam and how Christians can reach out to Muslims, check out Ken’s six-part Understanding Islam series. 

Series Navigation<< The Roots of Muslim Radicalism: Part 2—Islam & Jesus

Footnotes

  1. The eastern part of Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971.
  2. The term is of debatable accuracy. Insofar as Muslim and Christian fundamentalists both decry the secularization of their societies and believe that the culture and nation should return to complete adherence to their Scripture (the Qur’an or the Bible), the comparison has merit. However, the use of force to impose Islamic law is an essential part of the radical Muslim agenda, whereas only a very small and extreme segment of Christian fundamentalism has even suggested resorting to violence.
  3. Or to be more precise, a splinter group of the Nation of Islam; the original group went through various name changes and was absorbed into the world religion of (Sunni) Islam in 1985.