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  • Exegeses of "Moderation":Negotiating the Boundaries of Pluralism and Exclusion
  • Asma Afsaruddin (bio)

As a general term, moderation on the surface appears to be unproblematic. We instinctively describe as moderate behavior that more or less conforms to social and cultural notions of propriety in a given milieu. Avoidance of violence and of generally injurious conduct is a fairly universal definition of moderate or temperate behavior.

In a religious context, however, moderation can be and often is a loaded term and its semantic and behavioral content frequently contested, particularly on theological grounds. Moderation, after all, is usually defined in the context of what is judged to be extremist behavior. Religious extremism, however, is another highly contested term and devising a universal yardstick with which to precisely measure and define a pure form of "extremism" and "moderation," divorced from specific socio-historical contexts, is practically impossible. The exegesis of moderation therefore can be a fraught exercise in theological self-definition and definition of others relative to oneself and one's religious community.

How moderation has been invoked in the Islamic milieu as evidenced primarily in Qur'anic exegeses will be the focus of this article. The discourse of moderation among Muslims was launched from the very beginning of Islam in the seventh century when the Qur'an applied to them the designation umma wasat, which means "a middle" or "moderate nation/community." This Arabic term occurs in Qur'an 2:143 and has been enthusiastically embraced by Muslims as part of their self-identity and parsed in different ways in relation to the People of the Book, that is, Jews and Christians. As we shall soon see, as Muslims came to celebrate this nomenclature over time as an indication of divinely-conferred distinction upon them and as a divine mandate for them to avoid extremes in one's beliefs and conduct, they also progressively began to lose sight of the fact that the Qur'an, their own sacred scripture, recognizes moderation in practitioners of the two other Abrahamic faiths. Qur'an 2:143, after all, has its parallel in Qur'an 5:66 in which righteous Jews and Christians are described as constituting a "balanced" or "moderate community" (Ar. umma muqtasida). In these two verses taken together, the Qur'an thus suggests that it is subscription to a common standard of righteousness and upright conduct that determines the salvific nature of a religious community, and not the denominational label it chooses to wear. Pre-modern Muslims generally did not recognize such a [End Page 1] [Begin Page 4 ] potential religious pluralism to be embedded in these verses; pluralism after all is exclusively a modern concern. As the topics of moderation and pluralism gain center stage, however, in contemporary Muslim societies, particularly in the post-September 11 environment, these two verses together offer the possibility of extrapolating universal principles of ethical and moral conduct from the Qur'an, conducive to the formation of a moderate, inclusive, and genuinely pluralist global community today.

Several questions undergird this research. How have Muslims through time understood "moderation" and its implementation in communal life? How did this self-understanding as a "middle/moderate community" shape individual and collective Muslim identity as well as relationships with non-Muslims? Does the concept of moderation have a bearing on the concept of tolerance, particularly of religious "others?" What are the implications of this historical discourse for inter-faith relations today and for the retrieval of universal principles of just and humane conduct? In the course of this article, I attempt to answer these questions by looking primarily at a cross-section of Qur'anic exegeses from the earliest period (eighth century of the Common Era) to modern times, which discuss both Qur'an 2:143 and Qur'an 5:66. In this manner I trace the diachronic understanding of "moderation" as expressed in the writings of some of the most prominent Muslim exegetes and thinkers, grounded in their specific socio-historical circumstances.

Pre-Modern Exegeses of Qur'an 2:143

This verse states, "Likewise, we have made you [believers] into a middle/moderate community (umma wasat), so that you may bear witness [to the truth] before others and so that...


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