Topsy-Turvy Terms

When it comes to Islam and the news, are you confused by all the terms used to describe various competing factions? Of course there are Sunnis and Shiites, the two major sects of Islam, and Sufis, who can be either Sunni or Shiite or neither. Then there are Alawites, Ismailis, Ahmadiyyas, Wahabbis, Salafists and Islamists (a singularly unhelpful term, in my opinion), and a host of other splinter groups. But a quick Google search and some basic reading can clear up your confusion on this front.

Other terms, however, are more fluid: conservative, fundamentalist, radical, moderate, extremist, and secular, to name a few. The received wisdom is that the “crazies” are the radical extremists, who draw from the fundamentalist ranks. The “true Muslims” are the moderates and perhaps even the pious conservatives who practice their religion peacefully and don’t bother anyone else.

I would like to challenge the received wisdom, redefining those terms according to historically orthodox Islam. This may be a bit mind-bending, so please bear with me.

Our media intelligentsia (pardon the oxymoron) regularly lump the terms radical and extremist together and contrast them with the term moderate. The moderates are those Muslims most like us, with Western values, who eschew violence or hyper-religiosity. The radical extremists, on the other hand, are those willing to die for the advancement of Islam and to kill as many unbelievers as they can in the process. In trying to find a solution for the “radical jihadist” problem, many are calling for a reformation, much as what happened in Western Christianity in the 15-16th centuries under the leadership of Luther, Calvin and others. The Protestant Reformers were truly radicals, in that they protested against the overgrowth of speculative theologies and practices in the medieval Roman Catholic Church and called for a return to the roots (radix, in Latin) of the Christian faith, as found in the Bible. Our English word “radical” in essence means a returning to the root of something. Protestants were radicals in the sense that they promoted a “back to the Bible” movement.

If we apply that understanding to the world of Islam, we would have to say that Muslim radical reformers are those promoting a return to the essential roots of the Muslim religion: the Qur’an and the Sunna (the accounts of the life of Muhammad, believed by orthodox Muslims to be the archetype of human behavior). Who are the radicals urging a return to the practices of the early Muslim community as recorded in their holy literature? They are the fundamentalists, the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and their various militant arms: al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, and the like.

Who are the extremists? Well, the English word “extreme” comes as well from Latin, whose verb extro means “to go out,” and whose adjective extremus means outermost, or furthest from the center/point of origin. Since radical Muslims want to return to the center of historical Islam, the term extremist doesn’t really apply to them, at least from a Muslim point of view – indeed “radical extremists” would be a contradiction in terms. Instead, Muslim extremists would be those whose beliefs and practices (while still calling themselves Muslims) are furthest from the teachings of Muhammad and his companions. What Muslim group best fits this categorization? Those whom we call “moderates” or “secularists.”

How’s that for twisted thinking? Those wishing to reform Islam by returning to 7th Century practices and beliefs are the radicals (or centrists) and those calling for a peaceful, privatized Islam (principally Westernized moderates) are the extremists. In orthodox Islam there are no moderates – either you submit to the commands of Allah and his prophet, or you are labeled a hypocrite (and your fate in that case is equal to or worse than that of an infidel). Either all in, or all out. So-called Muslims who want to remain on the outermost fringes of Islam (e.g., non-observant, cultural, uninterested in Shariah or jihad, etc.) are by the definition of Islamic orthodoxy “extremists” who must return to the center or face eternal judgment.

In light of this, I try to avoid use of the terms radical, extremist, and moderate, and use instead my own descriptive terms (perhaps others use them as well, but I haven’t come across such thinkers yet). I speak of those committed to the root teachings and practices of Islam as “core Muslims” and those less committed or more interested in creating a hybrid Islam (with Judeo-Christian values replacing Islamic ones) as “fringe Muslims.”

This seems to me to clear up a lot of the confusion caused by a multiplicity of terms, and makes it a bit easier (though painful) to answer the question, “Who are the true Muslims?” Since Islam teaches that the Qur’an is the inviolate Word of God, and that Muhammad is the moral exemplar of human life, those who follow its teachings and his example most closely will have to be considered “true Muslims.” Any groups or individuals seeking to reframe or reform the faith, or to jettison doctrines and teachings that don’t comport well with modernity may mean well, but will by Quranic definition fall into the camp of hypocrites, and face the unmitigated wrath of Allah for eternity: “The Hypocrites will be in the lowest depths of the Fire [i.e., the hottest condition]: no helper wilt thou find for them” (Sura 4:145; explanatory note is mine).

Does the use of “core vs fringe” Muslims seem a more helpful way of categorizing Muslim groups or individuals than the use of terms presently in vogue? Please feel free to comment! Your input will help me as I speak around the country on questions related to Islam and Christianity. Thank you so much in advance for your thoughts.


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12 Responses to Topsy-Turvy Terms

  1. Margaret Alcala says:

    Your explanation of the different kinds of Muslims and their relationship to Koran is helpful,but I think it only serves to further confuse when your labels based on the Latin origins are opposite to the way labels each group. Not that the media is correct but they have created the popular culture or framework that we use for reference.


    • mateenelass says:

      Thanks, Margaret. Since our English language is rooted rather firmly in Latin bedrock, mixed liberally with Greek topsoil, I hoped that by pointing out the correct meanings of those particular words, it would become clear that their present usage fogs the true picture, and that my alternate suggestion would offer greater clarity, but I understand your view that it has not! Thank you for taking the time to share. I’ll keep working at the idea until I get it right or realize it’s not worth pursuing.


  2. Kim Burch says:

    Thank you Mateen. Your explanation of terms brings clarity and is most helpful.


  3. Malcolm Smillie says:

    an insightful read


  4. Regina says:

    As someone who takes the time to self educate. Your explanation makes perfect sense to me.

    Are you willing to reform to entire education system of our country so that the uneducated or under educated could understand you explanation.


  5. Marie Ugorek says:

    I’m not sure the extent to which the terms “core” and “fringe” are for me. I can see how it might be very helpful for someone inside Islam, where the infallibility of the Qu’ran and the example of Muhammed is central to the issue. However, within the Christian Church, the extremists (those whose beliefs/practices are “out” on the edges of Christianity, rather than closer to the core of accepted/agreed upon/universal practices) are more likely to be the ones who claim that our scripture contains no contradictions, is dictated directly by God, was intended to be scripture when recorded, should be taken literally no matter what, etc. Overwhelmingly, those Christians who educate themselves about the history, cultures, types of literature, historical personalities and environments, etc. of the Christian scriptures and traditions of faith return to a center of Moderation rather than to a center of strict scriptural adherence. Therefore, I think these terms might be just as misleading for Christians as the “extremist” labels would be. Ideally, Christians would make an effort to become better educated about Islam, as we share a common identity as spiritual descendants of Abraham, but since Christianity itself is encountering a crisis in which learning about our OWN faith is not considered a priority for many, that isn’t likely to happen enough to make a difference.


    • mateenelass says:

      Marie, thank you for your thoughts. I have to disagree with your assessment, though. The “center” of a religion is not what one wants it to be, but what its authoritative documents declare. You may believe or disbelieve them, but you don’t have the right to pick and choose among them. In all my years of study of the NT (going on 40 now) and with a Ph.D. in the field, I can honestly say that I do not find Jesus anywhere preaching moderation as the center of his message. The extremists in Christianity would also be those on the fringes of faith, i.e., those who embrace the name and practices when it suits them, but live primarily according to the passions of the flesh.

      I agree that it would be wonderful if Christians took time to become better educated about Islam, but I’m afraid your comment that we Christians share a common identity with Muslims as spiritual descendants of Abraham betrays your own need to take that advice.


  6. Ray Parry says:


    Have you read Graeme Wood’s analysis of ISIS and their goals “What ISIS Really Wants” from the Atlantic Monthly? I would be interested in your comments on their end goal, if you haven’t already commented.

    Ray Parry


    • mateenelass says:

      Ray, I read the article back in March, and remember agreeing wholeheartedly with his piece, but I’m hazy now as to the “end goal” to which you refer. I’ll have to go back and reread it!


  7. Ray Parry says:

    Essentially the end goal is to force all the western nations to engage ISIS in battle in Iraq. When the ISIS warriors have been reduced to a small number, such as 5000, then Jesus will return and lead ISIS to victory. Sounds like an adaptation of Revelation.


  8. Ray Parry says:

    I meant Dabiq, Syria, not Iraq.


    • mateenelass says:

      Yes, the various sects of Islam have their end-time scenarios just as Christian sects have. For a small set of groups, Dabiq, Syria functions much as Megiddo does for some Christian interpreters as the place of the final battle.


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