- Role of Religious Thought: The article underscores the significance of religious thought, particularly within the context of Islam, in shaping attitudes and responses to the Israel-Palestine conflict. It highlights how various intellectual groups, from traditional ulama to neomodernists, have influenced the discourse and actions of Muslim communities in relation to the conflict.
- Neomodernism as an Alternative: The article proposes neomodernism as a potential alternative to the cycle of violence and suffering in the region. Neomodernist scholars advocate for a more moderate and peaceful interpretation of Jihad, emphasizing non-violent means to address political struggles. This perspective is presented as a way to engage with contemporary political issues while avoiding armed conflict.
- Multifaceted Approach to Peace: While neomodernism is highlighted as a promising avenue, the article also acknowledges the complexity of the Israel-Palestine conflict and emphasizes the need for a multifaceted approach to achieve peace. This includes political dialogue, humanitarian assistance, international support, people-to-people initiatives, respect for religious sites, long-term solutions, and education and awareness efforts to address the root causes of the conflict and promote understanding among communities.
In a recent interview with Foreign Affairs magazine, Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel and special envoy for Palestine-Israel negotiations, pointed out that Hamas’ surprise offensive coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War serves a dual purpose. On one front, it disrupts diplomatic normalization between Arab states and Israel including a potential security deal involving the US and Saudi Arabia, a move that would have isolated Hamas and Iran. Concurrently, the offensive reignited the Palestinian issue, stirring emotions across the Arab world and rallying popular opposition against the policies of Arab elites concerning Israel and the US.
While this incident highlights the fragility of recent diplomatic initiatives that overlook the long-term problems concerning the State of Palestine and ending Israel’s illegal occupations, it also underscores the immense suffering endured by ordinary individuals on both sides of the conflict. Given the gravity and complexity of the conflict, the emotional attachment of Muslims to the Palestinian cause and its holy sites, and the prevailing orthodox religious thought in the Muslim world, Indyk is probably right when he observes that it would be challenging for any Muslim leader to diverge from the path Hamas and many other actors have chosen. Unfortunately, this path, marked by an unending cycle of offensives and counteroffensives, has only deepened the suffering.
The need to seek a more peaceful alternative, nevertheless, is crucial, not only for Muslim leaders but also for international institutions and stakeholders of the contemporary liberal world order. In exploring the Israel-Palestine conflict’s multifaceted dimensions, this article delves beyond the surface geopolitics to explore the role of ideological factors, especially Islamic religious thought in shaping and perpetuating Muslim attitudes and response to this conflict. From the historical dominance of traditional ulama and the emergence of modernist intellectuals to the complex interplay with Islamist ideology, this article takes a journey through the evolving landscape of Islamic thought. Ultimately, it points toward a potential path to peace – one grounded in neomodern religious perspectives – that could serve as a peaceful alternative to the Hamas’ offensive, offering respite to the suffering masses.
Islamic religious thought is largely influenced by the ulama, religious intellectuals responsible for shaping religiopolitical opinions across Muslim societies. Chronologically, this article classifies these intellectuals into four categories: traditional, modern, Islamist, and neomodern, reflecting the changing character of Islamic thought over time. The traditional intellectuals, comprising mainly of ulama and Sufis, have been a dominant force shaping the religious outlook since the early Islamic period following the “Rightly Guided Caliphs” (632–661 CE). Enjoying political stability under the Umayyad and Abbasid Empires, these ulama focused primarily on consolidating Islamic jurisprudence, leaving political matters largely to the ruling elite.
From the nineteenth century onwards, alongside the traditional ulama, there has emerged a new class of religious intellectuals popularly referred to as the modernists, responsible for initiating the era of Islamic modernism. The modernist intellectuals emerged at a time when traditional religious thought was undergoing a crisis due to the onslaught of Western colonialism. Traditional ulama had struggled to adapt to modern political ideals like democracy, elections, constitution, and the concept of the nation-state, which contrasted sharply with the traditional concept of Ummah (the Muslim community). Consequently, the influence of traditional ulama waned, partly because they could not adequately address these challenges to satisfy the rapidly modernizing masses and elites. What set modernists apart from traditional ulama was their ability to bridge the gap between religion and the modern world. Figures like Muhammad Abduh, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, and Allama Iqbal championed Islamic modernism, aiming to reconcile the Islamic faith with modern values.
Islamic modernism, nonetheless, could not dismantle the centuries-old religious edifice erected by the traditional scholars. Ironically, the second-third generations of modernists, instead of striving for ideological renewal, utilized a modernist legacy to attain political power. Later modernists such as Abul Ala Maududi and Sayyid Qutb redefined Islamic modernism in political terms, emphasizing the establishment of an “Islamic state” through political and sometimes violent means. The traditional ulama, previously overshadowed by the modernists, also bounced back and absorbed some of the modernists’ ideals especially the establishment of the Islamic State through the armed resistance (Jihad) against the occupying forces. The degradation of the latter-day modernists and traditional ulama’s employment of modernist-inspired political activism has given rise to the complex phenomenon of Islamism that has baffled scholars for the past many decades.
Many present-day politically active Islamic groups, such as Hamas, Hizballah, Jamat-e-Islami, and others, draw their ideological inspiration from this synthesis of traditional and Islamist religious thought, viewing Jihad as a viable response to occupying forces in places like Palestine and Kashmir. However, such responses, while drawing attention to the issues, come at the cost of widespread violence and suffering inflicted upon the masses.
How can this vicious cycle of offense and counter-offense be broken? Is there a better alternative for Muslims to resolve such intricate issues? This article posits that neomodernism provides one such alternative. Emerging in the late 20th century in places like Indonesia and Pakistan, neomodernists transcend the bounds of orthodox tradition and piecemeal ijtihad to develop alternative interpretative frameworks to understand the Quran. One such reinterpretation concerns the understanding and scope of Jihad that challenges the prevailing wisdom and offers a more moderate and peaceful approach.
Islamic neomodernism rejects the concept of individual or “private” jihad, where individuals or small groups take it upon themselves to engage in acts of violence. Jihad, for them, can only be declared by a legitimate Islamic state and its leadership. Moreover, in line with international law, neomodernism places strict restrictions on the conduct of jihad in which non-combatants, including women, children, and civilians, should never be targeted in any form. This shift in neomodern religious thought redirects the focus and energy of Muslims away from armed violence towards a deeper appreciation of contemporary political struggles. It emphasizes the need for modern (peaceful) solutions, such as raising international awareness about the issues affecting Muslims, advocating for the right to self-determination, and highlighting instances of human rights violations.
In a world fraught with geopolitical tensions, the Israel-Palestine conflict is not just a matter of international politics; it is deeply intertwined with Islamic religious thought. As we look to the future, the transition from traditional to neomodern religious thought represents a promising avenue for resolving this deeply entrenched crisis. By embracing a more moderate and peaceful interpretation, we can break free from the vicious cycle of violence and suffering that has plagued this region for generations. It is not only a call to Muslim leaders and intellectuals but also a responsibility for the international community to support the reform efforts of these scholars. As we navigate the complex nexus of politics, religion, and history, it is our collective duty to seek a brighter, more peaceful future for both sides of the conflict and the wider Muslim world.