Historical Definitions of wasaṭiyya

Seminar al-Azhar University and the IDEO

icon-calendar  30 September 2017

On September 30th, the fourth meeting of our cooperative seminar with al-Azhar for this year took place. The chosen topic was the historical definitions of “wasaṭiyya”, usually translated as “the middle path.”

Three speakers presented their research on this topic: Ms. Inès Ata from the Department of Human Sciences (for women), Mr. Tarek Amin from the Department of Language and Translation (for men), and brother Jean Druel, from the IDEO. Each speaker reiterated the fact that every Islamic movement believes they are on “the middle path”, as compared to the extremes they condemn, whether they be secularist, literal, or violent extremes, or between tafrīṭ (indifference) and ġulū (exaggeration).

It is therefore impossible to define “the middle path” in absolute terms if we approach it from its dimension as a morale virtue; everyone can claim adherence to it. Or, to put it another way, it is futile to define wasaṭiyya as a “middle path” between secularism and jihadism. If the “middle path” is a compromise between the two, the jihadist would be right in saying that he is ‘more Muslim’ than other, which would be devastating for the community.

Historically, wasaṭiyya finds its foundation in the Qurʾānic expression “wa-kaḏālika ǧaʿalnākum ummatan wasaṭan” (Q2, al-Baqara, 143), which Denise Masson translated as: ‘And thus we have made you a just community’. A frequent interpretation of this expression is that Islam is a middle path between a Judaism considered as too focused on the law and a Christianity seen as so spiritual that it is not applicable. In this configuration, one does not become ‘more Muslim’ when they move closer to an extreme. The speakers also insisted on the communal dimension of Islam in the quoted Qurʾānic verse, where consensus among believers is supposed to be a guard against extremism.

Lastly, in Muslim theology, wasaṭiyya is the prerogative of the Ašʿarite school, which is defined by its balance between a literalism which rejects rational discussions of the text, and a rationalism which would not be held accountable to the letter of the text. In this configuration, it is the balance and negotiation between the letter and reason which makes Islam, not the abandonment of one or the other of these two features.

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