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Defining Evil in the Islamic tradition
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"Toleranz wird zum Verbrechen, wenn sie dem Bösen gilt" (Tolerance becomes a crime when applied to evil), wrote Thomas Mann in 1924 in The Magic Mountain.


For one of the greatest writers and intellectuals of the twentieth century, therefore, a value that was almost universally shared was not, always and automatically, intrinsically positive. But first it is clear that we must define what we mean by ‘evil’, and establish the context within which it is conceived and made manifest.




  • Death represents the ultimate evil for the western secular world, while for Islam, it represents intervention of the divine will
  • War and violence were instrumental in the establishment of all of Weber’s ‘universal religions’
  • Today the term gihàd is widely used as a pretext by a vast number of fundamentalist terrorist organizations whose fanaticism is fuelled by the social and economic marginalisation


For Voltaire ‒ recalling, after the offences of "Charlie Hebdo", the conditioning presence of Pushkin’s Stone Guest in reference to an allegedly unfettered freedom of expression – Good and Evil were a problematic duo that he resolved by identifying Evil with death, so much so that he wondered how a God who claimed to act like a father towards his creatures could instead consign them to annihilation and allow them to be subjected during their lives to moral and material suffering.


For the philosopher to speak of God was to employ a rhetorical device, given his profound critique of all religions that degenerated into fanaticism, well expressed in his Philosophical Dictionary of 1764 when he declared "If we believe absurdities, we will commit atrocities."


For the prevailing – and not necessarily atheist or agnostic – Western secular world view, which modelled itself so closely on the Enlightenment, death is therefore the ultimate evil. Not just physical death but also the death of the ‘inalienable’ rights of Man: from the right to life to the right to political speech and organisation.


It is in this sense that it becomes impossible for the West to conceive the terrorist attack against "Charlie Hebdo" as anything other than absolute, unmitigated Evil. In other cultural contexts, however, Evil is given a different interpretation.


In the context of Islam – the last of what Max Weber called the 'universal religions'– even if dichotomous, Good and Evil have the same root. Good is one with the Divine will and Evil its transgression. That some godlike creature can be ontologically defined ‘Malign’ by definition is therefore nonsensical.


The devil (Shaytàn, Iblìs) is nothing more than a ‘poor devil’, who cannot act without the consent of Allah, even when engaged in the seductive task of whispering "into the hearts of men" (CVIX:5) to persuade them to disobey his commandments, as confirmed in the Koranic passage in which the devil reminds his creator "Thou hast led me into error" (VII:16).


Only through absolute submission to the Divine commandments (islàm) can Muslims hope that ‘the second death shall do them no harm’. It is easy to understand how the blasphemy and offence of God or his last prophet Muhammad, made explicit in the cartoons of "Charlie Hebdo", cannot be forgiven by the Muslims, who judge them as utterly Evil, even if they do not give rise to any legal obligation to punish the sinners violently, all the more so as they originated outside the Islamic world.


For Muslims there can be no possible scope for concurring with the phrase, falsely attributed to Voltaire, "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it", when these words vilify the basic Islamic principle of the shahàda, which proclaims the unity and indivisibility of Allah and Muhammad’s prophetic mission.

There is a widely-held belief in Western public opinion that violence and intolerance underpin Islamic thought. In the eyes of the West, Islam is infected by the notion of gihàd, implacably interpreted as the ‘holy war’ against non-Muslims, despite the fact that this connotation is, legally speaking, a minority view within Islamic law itself (sharì‘a) compared with the ‘devotion’ or ‘piety’ that believers must demonstrate to rid themselves of any vice or unworthiness.


This belief overlooks the fact that war and violence were instrumental in the establishment of all of Weber’s ‘universal religions’. From Joshua or David to the Christians, who in the Early Middle Ages persecuted the pagans and in the Late Middle Ages launched the crusades.

And Islam is no exception. After fleeing in 622 towards Yathrib (later renamed Medina) from the growing hostility of the polytheists of Mecca, the Muslims lost no time in attacking their former fellow citizens.


In their eyes, justified in this instance by the Koran, it was an avenging ‘holy war’ or gihàd li-sabìl Allàh, "a striving in the way of God", wholly comparable with the lethal interdiction sought by the Jewish God to persecute the Amorites of the Negev and favour the Elect, as told in the Book of Numbers (21:3).


For every other use of warfare the Koran speaks of qitàl, ghazwa, harb or darb and if, under Islamic law, the term Jihad has very little to do with the military operations which, from 634 onwards, two years after the death of Muhammad, resulted in the conquest of Mesopotamia, Syria-Palestine and Egypt, the Muslims equally never renounced its use, given its strong psychological hold on the fighters promised eternal salvation in the event of their death in battles touted as necessary to spread the Koranic truths and earn eternal salvation.


Violence, which according to Voltaire (Fanaticism or Mahomet the Prophet) and Montesquieu (The Spirit of the Laws) is the leitmotif of the Islamic creed, is referred to relatively little in the Koran or even in the history of the conquests (futuhàt), if only because the populations that were politically controlled were not obliged to embrace the faith of the victors, as emphasised by David Cook in Understanding Jihad.


Today the term gihàd is widely used as a pretext by a vast number of fundamentalist terrorist organizations (al-Qà‘ida, ISIS, just to name two) and by some lone wolves, whose fanaticism is fuelled by the social, economic and cultural marginalisation that prevails in the European suburbs predominantly inhabited by Islamic communities.

How can we begin to define these people’s Islam? And does it make any sense to talk about a ‘moderate’ Islam?

If we consider that these are the numerically exiguous (though devastating) product of the approximate theoretical background of the self-taught imàm, who have almost never completed long years of study in the field of ‘religious sciences’ required by the most reputable centres of learning, such as the al-Azhar in Cairo, it appears illogical to speak of a ‘moderate’ Islam as if this were an exception.


Islam, with all its positives and negatives, numbers around 1.3 billion faithful, while it is the world of Jihadist extremism that is a tiny, if still difficult to quantify, minority.


Sprouting from the neo-Hanbali and Wahhabi Sunni movements, fiercely hostile to the official Islamic world, accused of supine acquiescence to the ‘Judeo-Christian and crusading’ West, Jihadism cannot be defined as an ‘orthodox’ variation of the Sunni religion, given that its criminal actions take no account whatsoever of the unbroken stretch of 1,400 years of institutional and legal traditions, to which its own misunderstood leaders contributed.


Proof of this can be seen in their condemnation of the ‘heresy’ (kufr) of which Shi'a Muslims stand accused, whose ‘blood it is right to spill’, ignoring the fact that the official Sunni religion never denied them the status of believers for over a millennium, however much they may have been ‘in error’, allowing them instead to participate fully in the sacred rites of the Pilgrimage to Mecca and its environs,  but which have broken definitively away from it, are rigidly excluded.


Today, as never before, does the urgency of a reciprocal and non-superficial knowledge of Islamic culture appear so apparent, which in a spirit of mutual respect and collaboration can halt this process of degeneration that offends Islam everywhere.


Only then can the authors of these abominable crimes and their instigators, several of whom are unfit to mention owing to their very astute alignment with the West, be definitively crushed.


Translated by Teresa O'Connell

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