The Middle Path of Moderation in Islam

The Qur'anic Principle of Wasatiyyah

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Mohammad Hashim Kamali
Religion and Global Politics
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     2015.
     336 pages.
     $34.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190226831.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In The Middle Path of Moderation in Islam, Mohammad Hashim Kamali examines “an important but somewhat neglected aspect of Islamic teachings”: wasatiyyah (1). Wasatiyyah, translated into English as “moderation,” means “opting for a middle position between extremities” (9). Islam, along with a number of other religious traditions—Christianity, Judaism, Confucianism, and so on—considers moderation a virtue. Kamali’s interest in the virtue of wasatiyyah is not purely academic; instead, he believes wasatiyyah offers a practical solution to “the unprecedented spread of extremism and violence” in modern times (1). With this in mind, Kamali devotes significant space in The Middle Path of Moderation in Islam to descriptions of contemporary forms of extremism and their moderate alternatives. These descriptions, which constitute the bulk of part 2 of The Middle Path of Moderation in Islam, are necessarily subjective. As Kamali himself notes, “what one may consider to be extremist or moderate” varies according to one’s religion and social customs (36). This subjectivity means that the reader will likely view this part of the book more positively if his or her perspective on moderation/extremism matches Kamali’s, and less positively if it does not. For example, Kamali’s characterization of Western militarism and liberal capitalism as extremist is not likely to be universally well-received (216).

Part 1 of The Middle Path of Moderation in Islam, called “Conceptual Analysis,” is a little more objective. Kamali begins this section with a discussion of how the connotations of the Arabic wasatiyyah differ from those of the English “moderation.” Wasatiyyah is associated with the superlative: strongest, best, noblest, and so forth (9). Moderation, on the other hand, often connotes mediocrity, indifference, and weakness (14). Kamali then attempts to prove that moderation (wasatiyyah) is an Islamic value. To this end, Kamali cites passages of the Qur’an and hadith that either advocate moderation specifically or recommend a moderate course of action (16). For example, Kamali references a hadith attributed to Ibn ‘Abbas which quotes the Prophet as saying the moderate or “middle-most” choice is always best (25). He also notes that the Qur’an recommends moderate spending in both al-Isra’ 17:29 and Furqan 25:67 (27). Kamali also provides quotes from a number of contemporary Islamic scholars on the importance of moderation in Islam (29). These quotes are noteworthy because they come from both Sunni and Shi’a scholars as well as scholars from a number of different countries.

Although Kamali’s conclusions regarding wasatiyyah as an Islamic value make sense, the reasoning he uses to reach these conclusions is made less accessible by his use of Arabic. Kamali’s “main piece of evidence on wasatiyyah” comes from al-Baqarah 2:143 (16). He argues that this verse establishes wasatiyyah as both an ideal to which the Muslim community should aspire and a virtue it already possesses based on the verse’s description of the Muslim community as وَسَطاً or “justly balanced” (16). Kamali does not mention that وَسَطاً is transliterated as wasatan, or that wasatan is a derivative of the same root as wasatiyyah. Without knowledge of Arabic, the reader will miss the linguistic relationship between wasatiyyah and “justly balanced.” The language barrier to Kamali’s reasoning is problematic because he addresses his message on wasatiyyah to “followers of all religious and cultural traditions and communities,” some of which, presumably, are unversed in Arabic (3).

Like part 2, part 1 contains several descriptions of extremism that are likely to be controversial. For example, Kamali calls the United States’ Republican party extremist because of its positions on global warming, gun violence, and immigration (15). He also calls Israel’s policy on Palestine a product of extremism and a desire for power (45). Kamali’s decision to include these potentially controversial examples of extremism, along with those in part 2, is particularly interesting given his subject matter: controversy does not jibe well with moderation. Furthermore, including these examples might be detrimental to Kamali’s effort to promote wasatiyyah among people from a variety of backgrounds.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Martha McCluskey is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
January 15, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mohammad Hashim Kamali was Dean and Professor at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC) and the International Islamic University in Malaysia. He currently heads the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia.

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