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  • Writer's pictureMohammad Yusri Yubhi Md Yusoff

Moderation in Islam: Understanding the Origin of Islamic Moderation Concept of Wasatiyyah

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

At its heart, Wasatiyyah serves as a potent counter-narrative to the distorted ideologies that seek to divide societies and sow seeds of intolerance.

Mosque Islamic architecture

What is Islamic moderation or “Wasatiyyah?”

In today's fast-paced and increasingly polarized world, finding common ground seems more challenging than ever. Yet, within the rich tapestry of Islamic teachings, there exists a concept that beckons Muslims to navigate life's complexities with balance and harmony. Welcome to the world of wasatiyyah, the embodiment of the middle way - a path of moderation that holds profound significance for the Muslim community.


Derived from the Arabic word "wasaṭ" meaning "middle" or "central," wasatiyyah calls upon Muslims to embrace a moderate approach in all aspects of life. At its core, this concept urges individuals to steer clear of extremes, transcend divisive ideologies, and foster unity amidst diversity. It is an invitation to Muslims to embody a holistic understanding of our faith, one that rejects radicalism, extremism, and any form of excessive behaviour.

Extremism

However, there are naysayers who reject this concept on the basis that the term was not coined during the period of nascent Islam. There are also those who use this term loosely to trivialize Islamic rituals and practices.


Here we look at the historical background of “wasatiyyah” as the Islamic concept of moderation, and understand its evolution.


How was the concept of “Wasatiyyah” found its place in Islamic tradition?


The term wasatiyyah is never mentioned in this form within the Qur'ān, Sunnah or even in the Prophet's biography (sīrah). This term is also not known among classical Muslim scholars or recorded in the discussions of the ṣaḥabah (the Companions of the Prophet), the tābiʿīn (the Successors – the generation of Muslims following the ṣaḥabah), the followers of the tābiʿ al-tābiʿīn (the Successors of Successors – the generation after the tābiʿīn ). The only discussion was in various derivatives from its root word wasaṭ, which is found repeatedly in the Qur'ān and Sunnah. However, it is also worth mentioning that Muslim scholars have shown deep interest in deliberating the meaning and interpretation of 'Ummatān Wasaṭa' in the Quran:

وَكَذَٰلِكَ جَعَلۡنَٰكُمۡ أُمَّةٗ وَسَطٗا لِّتَكُونُواْ شُهَدَآءَ عَلَى ٱلنَّاسِ وَيَكُونَ ٱلرَّسُولُ عَلَيۡكُمۡ شَهِيدٗاۗ

“And thus we have made you a just community that you will be witnesses over the people and the Messenger will be a witness over you.”

(Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:143)

Islamic motif and architecture

In addition, even though the concept of wasatiyyah was not explored extensively, the principle of wasatiyyah visibly has appeared in the literary works of classical Muslim scholars. Even though its meaning – as described by scholars like al-Qaraḍawī (1926 – 2022 CE) and his contemporaries – does not appear, the root wasaṭ and its fundamental concept does (Polka, 2016).


Although the concept of wasatiyyah is relatively new, the term 'Ummatan Wasaṭā' and the derivatives from the root word of wasaṭ and its synonyms in the Qur’ān and Sunnah have already been deliberated by both classical and contemporary Muslim scholars – particularly the exegetes and linguists. Both sets of scholars are in agreement that the discussion on wasaṭ or wasaṭiyyah from the perspectives of etymology and sharaʿ refers to ʿadl (just), khayriyyah (the best or excellence), tawassuṭ (intermediacy), qaṣd and iʿtidāl (moderation), tawāzun (balance), taʿādul (equilibrium) and even wasaṭ (middle).


In supporting this argument, Hallaq notes that the ideas of wasatiyyah have been observed not only by modern Muslim scholars but also by classical scholars. He then illustrates this point by citing the example of al-Shāfiʿī (767-820 CE), who was known as the synthesiser of divine revelation and human reason (raʾy) by reconciling the doctrines of the rationalists and the traditionalists. While explaining the methodology of al-Shāfiʿī's 'middle way' position, Hallaq highlights al-Shāfiʿī's approach to mediating a position between rationalism and traditionalism. In his own words,


"Shāfiʿī regulates raʾy in the form of qiyās and assigns it a role subsidiary to that of the revealed sources, though it remains an essential part of his methodology. Ibn Ḥanbal avoids qiyās, but not completely. Dāwūd completely rejects it in favour of a literal reading of the two primary sources. In both time and doctrine, then, Shāfiʿī position is located midway between the early raʾy libertinism and the later Zahirite conservatism" (Hallaq, 1997, p.31).


Therefore, al-Shāfiʿī's stance in the science of legal theory, according to Hallaq, is the middle way between the two polar opposites of Imam Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal's (780-855 CE) libertinism and Imam Dāwūd al-Ẓāhirī's conservatism (Hallaq, 1997). Similarly, Muḥammad ʿImārah also argues that the renowned theologist Abū Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī (874-939 CE) espoused the idea of wasatiyyah in his notion of rationality (ʿaqalāniyyah) in theology.

Muslim medieval scholars

According to ʿImārah, the framework of this notion is the infusion of the following principles of thought; the Fiqh and Uṣūl al-Fiqh of al-Shāfiʿī's schools of Fiqh, the theology of Ibn Kullāb (died 855 CE) and the Turāth al-Salafiyyah (heritage of the predecessors) of Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (‘Imarah, 2011). Accordingly, ʿImārah then cements his arguments by quoting numerous examples of al-Ashʿarī's ideas of wasaṭi (middle position) in his thoughts. Firstly, al-Ashʿarī takes the middle position between the concept of tashbīh (anthropomorphism) of al-Ḥashawiyya – of comparing or connecting Allah to created things while acknowledging the importance of disconnecting Allah from His creation; which is the principle of tanzīh (transcendence) espoused by the Muʿtazilites. Secondly, he infuses the methodology of the Uṣūl al-Fiqh and the ʿIlm Kalām, thus applying both human reasoning (raʾy) and revealed divine knowledge (naql) in the field of al-Mutakallimūn. Thirdly, ʿImārah asserts that al-Ashʿarī adopted the intermediary principles of combining human reasoning and the reference of divine texts, which is the integrated methodologies of the salafiyyah nuṣūṣiyyah, Mu'tazilites and the philosophers. Thus, in a way, the wasaṭiyyah way of thinking of Abū Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī was a new concept of ʿIlm Kalām which combined the principle elements of salafiyyah nuṣūṣiyyah and the Mu'tazilite, which in the process, rejected the thinking of philosophers, textualists, anthropomorphists (mutashabbihah) and also the Muʿtazilites (‘Imarah, 2011).


Accordingly, al-Shāṭibī (1320-1388 CE) also employs a middle position in his tarjīḥ (preferment) of accepting and rejecting particular views. According to him, it is a position that conforms with God’s intent, which is the view that eliminates burden and hardship – neither exceeding the proper bounds nor negligence (la ifrāṭ wa lā tafrīṭ) (Faraj Muhammad, 2018). Hence, when there is a situation between easiness and hardship in a state of worship, for instance, the tarjīḥ of views is to accept that the wasaṭ (moderate) position represents nothing but a middle position between undue difficulty (ʿusr) and extreme ease (yusr) (Hallaq, 1997).

Muhammad 'Abduh

(Image source: Tafsir Al-Quran.Id)


Later in the modern era, certain elements of wasaṭiyyah started to appear more prominently during the period between 1830 and 1890 CE. Through the literary works of Sheikh Muhammad ʿAbduh (1849-1905 CE) and his student Rashid Riḍā (1865-1935 CE), the notion of wasatiyyah from the juristic dimension became more definite and clear. In contrast to their predecessors, ʿAbduh and Riḍā were more convincing in presenting their thoughts in relation to traditional legal doctrines. They did so by drawing on and through the assistance of influential authorities from al-Azhar, such as ʿAbduh himself and Muḥammad Muṣṭafā al-Marāghī (1881-1944 CE), to disseminate their views and ideas (Nakissa, 2019). ʿAbduh's contribution, in particular, is massive. It plays an instrumental role in reforming tradition by showcasing the beauty of Islam as a religion that is relevant for all times – one that runs parallel to constantly changing and extremely complex circumstances. Subsequently, Ibn ʿĀshūr (1879-1973 CE) is another example of a modern scholar who espoused the principle of wasatiyyah. The evidence can be found in his eminent literature, Maqāṣid al-Sharīʿah, where he introduced moderation via the concept of samahah (magnanimity) as the higher objective of Sharīʿah. Samāḥah, which can also be defined according to Ibn ʿĀshūr as “standing midway between sternness (tadyīq) and indulgence (tasāhul)”, is a reflection of moderation, justice and temperance (Ibn ‘Ashur, 2006).


Who popularised the term “Wasatiyyah”?

Although various derivatives from the root word wasaṭ have a more extended history in the Qur'ān and some of its synonyms are also found repeatedly in the Ḥadīth. According to Bettina Graf in her book, Global Mufti: The Phenomenon of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, she asserts that the use of the term wasaṭiyyah in Islamic scholarship is relatively recent and was only coined in the 20th century. She acknowledges that clerics at al-Azhar began to use it in their own scholarly works. Muḥammad al-Madanī (1907-1968 CE) was probably the first when he wrote a booklet entitled al-Wasaṭiyyah fī al-Islām (Moderation in Islam) in the early 1960s (Graf, 2009). However, further investigation indicates that the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Shaltūt was possibly one of the earliest Muslim scholars that used the term of wasaṭiyyah in his work of al-Islām, ʿAqīdah wa Sharīʿah – which was published for the first time in 1959 – during his argument of socialism in Islam when citing Islam as the middle way between the resistance against exceeding of ownership of wealth and the absence of private ownership at all (Shaltut, 2009).

Mahmud Shaltut

(Image source: Wikipedia)


Subsequently, more and more contemporary Muslim scholars began conceptualising and further developing the sophisticated idea of wasatiyyah. Al-Qaraḍāwī, for instance, was inspired by the Qur’ānic messages of wasatiyyah in al-Baqarah, 2:143 and the interpretation of Muslim exegetes in describing the beauty of this wasatiyyah's concepts, consequently led, systemised, institutionalised, and popularised this doctrine from the mid-1990s. Consequently, many others began writing on this genre in quick succession. They include Muḥammad ʿImārah (1931-2020 CE), ʿAbd al-Laṭīf al-Farfūr (1944-2014 CE), Muḥammad ʿAlī al-Ṣallābī (born 1963 CE) and many others (Kamali, 2011, Al-Qaradawi, 2013).

Why Wasatiyyah is important for Muslim’s today?

It is imperative for Muslims to exercise wasatiyyah and to reject and oppose all kinds of extremism in religion. The demand for the adoption of this manifestation of wasatiyyah approach as the tool to remedy the element of extremism in the modern world is not only at the individual level but also at the level of the Ummah as a whole nation.

Modern Muslims

By exercising the attributes of wasatiyyah in worship, for instance, we can perform our obligatory prayers well and excellently at every appointed time. However, an act of worship can also be considered excessive if is being performed at the expense of other responsibilities that God has also commanded for us to maintain. This includes performing prayers all night without sleeping leading to health deterioration, or when one only choosing to focus on excessive rituals act to the extent of neglecting the responsibility to take care of the family, such as deliberately choose not to earn income to provide for the family. This sort of action is inappropriate and being overly committed to religious rituals, contrary to the notion of wasatiyyah, which includes aspects of equilibrium, equity and moderation in Islam (Bā Sallūm, 2004).

Preserve the nature and the environmental.

Likewise in the matter of preserving the sustainability of the environment, God reminds us to always take care and preserve the balance of God's creation by not damaging His earth either by polluting it or destroying it. This is also part of faith and coincides with the spirit of wasatiyyah which is the essence of justice, excellence and balanced.


As stewards of God and inhabitants of the earth, humans have a great responsibility in ensuring that the environment is preserved. As His stewards on earth (khalifah fi al-ard), it is our role not only to strengthen our relationship with God and reap the benefits of the natural environment He bestowed upon us, but also we are entrusted with responsibilities to protect the environment from degradation and destruction. God has chosen us amongst all His creation to be His vicegerent in taking care of this temporary home of ours - earth.


As Muslims, let us continue to evolve in an ever-changing world, let us remember the significance of wasatiyyah. Let us embrace the essence of this concept, not as a mere buzzword, but as a transformative force that can reshape our interactions, relationships, and ultimately, our societies. In practising wasatiyyah, we can find the harmony that eludes us, the unity that binds us, and the strength to forge a better future for all. Insya’Allah.



References:


Ibn ʿĀshūr, Muḥammad Ṭāhir. (2006). Treatise on Maqāṣid al-Sharīʿah, translated from Arabic by Mohamed El-Tahir El-Mesawi, Virginia: The International Institute of Islamic Thought.


Baker, Raymond William. (2015). One Islam, Many Muslim Worlds, New York: Oxford University Press.


Bā Sallūm, Majdī Muḥammad Surūr. (2004). Al-Wasaṭiyyah fī al-Fikr al-Islāmī. Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyyah.


Faraj Muḥammad, Hussām al-Dīn Khalīl. (2018). Al-Wasaṭiyyah al-Sharʿiyyah wa Dawruhā fi al-Tarjīẖ al-Fiqhiy, Beirut: Maktabah Ḥasan al-ʿAṣriyyah.


Nakissa, Aria. (2019). The Anthropology of Islam Law: Education, Ethics and Legal Interpretation at Egypt’s Al-Azhar, New York: Oxford University Press.


Hallaq, Wael B. (1997). A History of Islamic Legal Theories: An Introduction to Sunnī Uṣūl al-Fiqh, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Al-Ḥifnī, ʿAbd al-Munʿim. (1993). Mawsūʿah al-Firaq wa al-Jamāʿāt wa al-Madhāhib al-Islāmiyyah, Cairo: Dār al-Irshād.


ʿImārah, Muhammad. (2011). Tayyārat al-Fikr al-Islāmī, Cairo: Dār al-Shurūq.


Graf, Bettina. (2009). Global Mufti: The Phenomenon of Yusuf al-Qaradawi. In Bettina Graf, and Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen (eds.). The Concept of Wasaṭiyyah in the Work of Yusuf al-Qaradawi. London: Hurst & Company.


Kamali, Mohammad Hashim. (2015). The Middle Path of Moderation in Islam: The Quranic Principle of Wasatiyyah, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Polka, Sagi. (2019). Syaikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi: Spiritual Mentor of Wasati Salafism, New York: Syracuse University Press.


Shaltūt, Maḥmūd. (2009). Al-Islām, ʿAqīdah wa Sharīʿah, Cairo: Dār al-Shurūq.


Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association. (2003). Moderation in Islam in the Context of Muslim Community in Singapore. Singapore: Pergas.


Al-Qaraḍāwī, Yūsuf. (2011). Kalimāt fi al-Wasaṭiyyah al-Islāmiyyah wa Maʿālimihā, (Cairo: Dār al-Shurūq.


Al-Qaradawi, Yusuf. (2013). Islamic Moderation and Renewal, translated from Arabic by Hassan Ahmed Ibrahim, Hassan Abdel Razeg El-Nagar and Idris Salim El-Hassan, Kuala Lumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization.



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