We occasionally hear the term ‘moderate Islam’ from some political statements or news outlets, but what does it actually mean to be a moderate Muslim? Is there even such a term for non-moderate Muslims?
This term can be contentious depending on how it's being used to define a certain context or issue. Some Muslims even find the term ‘moderate Muslim’ to be offensive. Being moderate can also mean different things for different groups of people. Nevertheless, Muslims can all agree that Islam is indeed a religion of moderation.
The concept and virtue of moderation in Islam can be traced back to the Quran, where Allah s.w.t. says:
وَكَذَٰلِكَ جَعَلْنَـٰكُمْ أُمَّةً وَسَطًا لِّتَكُونُوا۟ شُهَدَآءَ عَلَى ٱلنَّاسِ وَيَكُونَ ٱلرَّسُولُ عَلَيْكُمْ شَهِيدًا
“And it is thus that We appointed you to be the community of the middle way so that you might be witnesses to all humankind and the Messenger might be a witness to you…”
(Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:143)
What does moderation (wasat) or the ‘middle way’ mean? Scholars have different views on this. According to an article published by the Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (IKIM), Moderation is the middle path between two extremes: excess and deficiency. It is broadly known as a commendable trait and is even highly encouraged in Islam for us to adopt it. This is also the view of Imam Fakhrud-Din Ar-Razi, where he said:
“It can be that when wasat (i.e. moderation, middle way) is conferred to Muslims, means that they are moderate in their religion, balanced in between (two extremes of) excessiveness and deficiency, and in between exaggeration and diminishment. They are not exaggerating like the Christians who turned the Al-Masih (the Messiah - Prophet Isa a.s.) into the son of God, and they do not diminish (the religion) like the Jews who altered their holy scripture and ignored the prophets.”
The middle way between two opposite ends of extreme is virtue. For example, courage is the middle way between two opposite ends of vices which are cowardice and recklessness. Hence, moderation, or the middle way, is a virtuous position between extremes. That being said, moderation is not necessarily a position of perfection, rather it is a path broad enough to include anyone who denounces extreme tendencies.
Additionally, Imam Ibn Kathir, comments in his tafsir on two possible meanings of wasat in the verse above. The first is the chosen and most excellent. In this regard, it connotes a proactive notion for Muslims to strive for excellence and development, guided by divine commandments. In the same tafsir, he comments the second possible meaning is fairness or justness, which is why the verse continues by praising the community of the middle way (Muslims) to be a witness for all of humankind. After all, being just is the utmost important trait of being a witness.
All these different meanings of wasat do not necessarily contradict one another, but they are, in fact, complementary to the deeper meaning of the word itself.
While the meaning of moderation is clearly defined above by our scholars of tafsir, it can still be a challenge to draw the line between moderation and extremism. As mentioned in the introduction, different people can have different and relative views of what is moderate based on their own perspectives.
This is due to factors which involve different thoughts, traditions, practices and contexts when discussing moderation. However, that doesn’t mean that its definition is ultimately subjective. On the contrary, it is argued that moderation is neither subjective nor determined by rational thought alone.
To arrive at a sound understanding of moderation, we can determine it based on the overarching message of the Quran and Sunnah, as well as identifying what is considered to be extreme.
Islam recognises the line which separates moderation and extremism, even in matters of the religion itself. If a Muslim transgresses this ‘limit’ where it involves harm and making the religion more difficult beyond our capacity, it is then considered to be going against the religion. Allah s.w.t. says in the Quran,
لَا تَغۡلُواْ فِى دِينِڪُمۡ
“Do not exaggerate in your religion.”
(Surah An-Nisa, 4:171)
This illustrates that Islamic teachings are against extremism. Instead, Islam promotes mercy, kindness, moderation, fairness and justice. Although the verse above was originally directed to the people of the book (Jews and Christians), its message can be related to all readers, which is to stay away from extremism.
Furthermore, the Prophet s.a.w. also said in a hadith, warning us from resorting to extreme tendencies in our religious life:
إِنَّ الدِّينَ يُسْرٌ وَلَنْ يُشَادَّ الدِّينَ أَحَدٌ إِلَّا غَلَبَهُ فَسَدِّدُوا وَقَارِبُوا وَأَبْشِرُوا وَاسْتَعِينُوا بِالْغَدْوَةِ وَالرَّوْحَةِ وَشَيْءٍ مِنْ الدُّلْجَةِ
“Verily the religion (Islam) is (made) easy and whoever overburdens himself in his (practice of) religion will be overwhelmed by it. Follow the right course, seek closeness to Allah, give glad tidings; and gain strength by worshipping in the mornings, the afternoons, and during the last hours of the nights.”
In another hadith, Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. asserted the same values while also emphasising making others comfortable with your presence and Islam:
يَسِّرُوا وَلَا تُعَسِّرُوا وَسَكِّنُوا وَلَا تُنَفِّرُوا
“Make things easy and do not make things difficult. Make people calm and do not frighten them away.”
This is clear that moderation in Islam also comes together with simplicity and mercy. The same message of moderation and gentleness can be seen in the Holy Quran:
هُوَ ٱجْتَبَىٰكُمْ وَمَا جَعَلَ عَلَيْكُمْ فِى ٱلدِّينِ مِنْ حَرَجٍ
“for (it is) He (Who) has chosen you, and laid upon you no hardship in the religion”
(Surah Al-Hajj, 22:78)
The verse above shows that Islam only decrees commands and recommendations that resonate with human nature, fulfilling the bodily, intellectual and spiritual needs of human beings, and are guided by moderation.
Since Islam, as a religion, is not exclusively confined to religious practices per se, this implies that Muslims are encouraged to practise and cultivate moderation in every aspect of their lives, from lifestyle to worship, in order to achieve the best of both worlds. As narrated in a hadith, Hanzalah Al-Usayyidi r.a. reported:
I said, “O Messenger of Allah, when we are in your presence and are reminded of Hellfire and Paradise, we feel as if we are seeing them with our very eyes, but when we leave you and attend to our wives, our children, and our business, most of these things slip from our minds.” The Prophet said:
وَالَّذِي نَفْسِي بِيَدِهِ إِنْ لَوْ تَدُومُونَ عَلَى مَا تَكُونُونَ عِنْدِي وَفِي الذِّكْرِ لَصَافَحَتْكُمُ الْمَلاَئِكَةُ عَلَى فُرُشِكُمْ وَفِي طُرُقِكُمْ وَلَكِنْ يَا حَنْظَلَةُ سَاعَةً وَسَاعَةً
“By Him in whose hand is my soul, if your state of mind remains the same as it is in my presence and you are always occupied with the remembrance of Allah, the angels will shake your hands in your beds and roads. O Hanzalah, rather time should be devoted to this and time should be devoted to that.”
This shows that our Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. taught us to devote our time to both our religious practices as well as our worldly affairs and responsibilities. Islam lies in between the extremes of those who fully reject the world and those who completely immerse themselves in worldly pleasures and material possessions.
We can find many examples of how Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. exemplified moderation in other areas of his life, including his diet. The Prophet s.a.w. said,
مَا مَلأَ آدَمِيٌّ وِعَاءً شَرًّا مِنْ بَطْنٍ حَسْبُ الآدَمِيِّ لُقَيْمَاتٌ يُقِمْنَ صُلْبَهُ فَإِنْ غَلَبَتِ الآدَمِيَّ نَفْسُهُ فَثُلُثٌ لِلطَّعَامِ وَثُلُثٌ لِلشَّرَابِ وَثُلُثٌ لِلنَّفَسِ
“A human being fills no worse vessel than his stomach. It is sufficient for a human being to eat a few mouthfuls to keep his spine straight. But if he must (fill it), then one-third for food, one-third for drink and one-third for air.”
(Sunan Ibn Majah)
This hadith indicates the prophetic guidance to being moderate in our diet. He s.a.w. dissuaded us from overeating by apportioning it to a third of our stomach capacity. By doing so, we can achieve a balanced diet which can lead to many benefits such as weight control. Otherwise, overeating can cause harm physically, spiritually, intellectually and morally as Imam As-Syafi'i said:
“I haven’t filled my stomach to satisfaction since I was 16 years old, because doing so makes the body weaker, hardens the heart, eliminates one’s intelligence, brings sleepiness, and weakens one’s ability to do acts of worship”
Here, we can observe that practising moderation is not easy as it requires mindfulness to observe the limit as well as a strong will and the discipline to avoid temptation toward vices and extremes.
In summary, we can conclude some clear characteristics of moderation in Islam:
1. Islam is easy to practise and simplicity (not overburdening the self or others) is a preferred trait
2. Mercy is a trait that is inseparable from Islam
3. Islam favours gentleness and ethical conduct
4. Islam promotes peaceful approaches and is against outright violence
We must first understand the meaning and characteristics of extremism to avoid engaging with all of its forms. Here are some notable characteristics of extremism:
According to Imam Ibn Taimiyah, extremism is defined as “being over the limit, like adding on something, while praising or insulting someone who qualifies, or the like.”
Whereas, Imam Ibn Hajar put it as “To be excessive and rigid to the point of transgressing limits.” Imam Asy-Syatibi shared the same meaning.
The description of extremism above can be seen in a hadith where three overzealous men approached the Prophet s.a.w. to share their resolve in practising the religion: one who intended to deny breaking his fast, another who pledged to pray the night prayer while abandoning sleep and the third who vowed to distance himself from women and marriage.
In response, Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. advised them:
وَاللَّهِ إِنِّي لأَخْشَاكُمْ لِلَّهِ وَأَتْقَاكُمْ لَهُ، لَكِنِّي أَصُومُ وَأُفْطِرُ، وَأُصَلِّي وَأَرْقُدُ وَأَتَزَوَّجُ النِّسَاءَ، فَمَنْ رَغِبَ عَنْ سُنَّتِي فَلَيْسَ مِنِّي
“Truly, I am the most fearful to Allah and the most pious among you; yet I fast and break my fast, I pray and I sleep, and I also marry women. Then, he who does not like my sunnah, is not of me (not one of my followers).”
The hadith above is an example of extremism and overzealousness in religious practices. First, the three men made a voluntary act of worship an obligation. Second, they regarded what is halal (permissible) in Islam as haram (forbidden). Third, they neglected the dharuri (essential) needs of a human being like eating, drinking and sleeping.
Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. explicitly warned Muslims against both monasticism and celibacy as the former neglects the rights of family and others while the latter causes a society to corrupt. Extreme religious views and actions indeed can be detrimental to us or even to others.
Allah s.w.t. says in the Quran,
تِلۡكَ حُدُودُ ٱللَّهِ فَلَا تَعۡتَدُوهَاۚ وَمَن يَتَعَدَّ حُدُودَ ٱللَّهِ فَأُوْلَـٰٓٮِٕكَ هُمُ ٱلظَّـٰلِمُونَ
“These are the limits ordained by Allah; so do not transgress them, if any do transgress the limits ordained by Allah, such persons do wrong (to themselves as well as others).”
(Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:229)
Such extreme views or actions may be due to excessively strict interpretations of the Holy Quran and Sunnah without using established and accepted methodologies. This contradicts the nature of the shara’ (religious law). Such characteristics are described by the Prophet s.a.w. as Al-Mutanatti’un, which is interpreted as those who tend to be excessive and go over the limits in their words and actions. Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. said three times repeatedly,
“Destruction upon the Al-Mutanattiun”
In some instances, extremism can also lead to violence. For example, developing a shallow understanding of jihad, confusing it for militant violence, and then taking steps to materialise that inadequate conception without taking into account the context and other important considerations.
This can be seen in many examples of extremists who exploited the name of Islam to pursue their misleading agendas and objectives.
On the other hand, extremism is not only about overburdening or overdoing things. It also refers to the other extreme opposite end, which is ignoring or abandoning the commandments of Islam such as praying or fasting in Ramadan.
In addition to that, there is also another type of extremism which is in the fundamental principles and aqidah (faith). For instance, believing in the existence of other infallible men after Prophet Muhammad s.a.w, treating Muslim sinners as apostates or declaring war on fellow Muslims.
With all the different examples of extremism above, we can conclude that some forms of extremism are more severe than others, making it detrimental to the individual and even to society. This shows us that there are different levels and degrees of extremism which often require different approaches to tackle them.
The idea of being moderate in every aspect of our life is the ideal that we can try to strive towards. Not only does it lead to a balanced life for individuals, but it also allows society to thrive peacefully. This is in contrast to extremism which tends to cause harm to oneself and others.
Therefore, in our context, we should cultivate moderation in our lifestyles and practices as Muslims to preserve peace in our multi-religious and multicultural society. Here are some ways to help us live consistently and constantly by moderation in Singapore:
1. Develop yourself gradually and don’t overburden yourself. Learning about Islam and striving to be a good Muslim is a journey that is unique for every individual. No path is completely identical. Yet, as seen in the hadith mentioned earlier, it is not uncommon for those who are new to learning Islam to develop a strong zeal in fulfilling their life as Muslims.
However, this newfound enthusiasm and zeal to change should be carried out in moderation. Otherwise, Ibn Al-Jawzi identifies this kind of overzealousness as a strategy of Iblis to mislead Muslims. For example, he argues that there are Muslims who find joy in performing the night prayer, even to the extent of praying it the entire night. Unfortunately, they would focus too much on it that it takes a toll on them and eventually, they become exhausted and lazy to fulfil their religious or worldly obligations.
Ibn Al-Jawzi explains further that there are indeed recordings of our righteous predecessors fulfilling their religious life devotedly on a whole different level. What allows them to reach that pace is because they have developed the discipline gradually until they become accustomed to it while being able to prioritise their life well.
Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. emphasised the significance of doing good deeds consistently even if they were little:
أَحَبُّ الأَعمَالِ إِلَى اللهِ أَدْومُها وَإِنْ قَلَّ
“The acts that are most pleasing to Allah are those which are done continuously, even if they amount to little.”
2. Fundamentally, we need to understand the main objectives and philosophy of our religion, particularly behind the teachings and practices such as: Why are Muslims obligated to perform prayer, fasting, zakat and hajj? Why are Muslims required to cover their aurah? Why is alcohol prohibited? This way, it provides a sense of meaning, purpose and motivation when observing our religious practices.
This guides us to be mindful of the Maqasid Shariah (the higher objectives of the Shariah) and to weigh its outcomes based on the established principles and philosophy of Islam. The last thing we want is to unknowingly allow our actions to go beyond the limits and contradict the Shariah and its main purpose.
3. Next, we also need to understand and appreciate how the scholars derive rulings from the Quran and Sunnah; this includes the Shariah decision-making tools and processes they applied. Not only does it aid us in understanding the extent and validity of their rulings, but it also helps guide us in exhibiting open-mindedness towards the broader perspective of Islam on any issue.
Without a prior understanding of that, we might exaggerate our understanding of the texts and stray away from the intended meanings or constantly question the fatwas issued regarding contemporary issues. Developing a good comprehension of formulating a religious ruling or guidance will allow us to appreciate the process and our scholars better.
4. Besides that, it's also important to appreciate the diversity of scholarly views. We can achieve this by learning about comparative Fiqh in order to expose ourselves to the diversity of opinions of our scholars on any issue. As a result, we can develop a deeper appreciation of these scholarly differences (ikhtilaf).
This doesn’t mean that we can cherry-pick different opinions. Instead, the objective is to not confine us from thinking that we are only right and others are wrong as we know that there are different views on certain matters. This character of respect for scholarly opinions can be seen in all four schools of legal thought (mazhab): Hanafi, Maliki, As-Syafi’i and Hanbali.
Read: The 4 Mazhabs in Islam
5. Lastly, it is important for us to avoid creating controversies, confusion and antagonism within the community. As Singapore guarantees the freedom to practise our religion, we also play an important role to safeguard the peace in our society, despite having differences and diversity in religion and culture.
To co-exist, we should first understand the importance of social cohesion and mutual respect in a multicultural and multi-religious society. This way, it will motivate us to build strong and positive connections by embracing our differences and working together effectively to achieve understanding, mutual kindness and confidence in each other. Such acts are a part of good manners in Islam and a manifestation of moderation.
It is beautiful that the concept of moderation in Islam allows one to find balance in every action whether it is religious, social or private matters. It is the middle path between two ends of extremes: exaggeration and deficiency.
Striving for moderation can be very challenging, but if we strive hard to hold on to this golden principle in all aspects and areas, it can be the key to success in this world and hereafter.
May Allah s.w.t. give us the will and desire to understand and master the art of moderation in both worldly and religious matters.
And Allah knows best
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 Persatuan Ulama dan Guru-Guru Agama Islam. (2004). Moderation in Islam in the Context of Muslim Community in Singapore, pg.19
 Iqbal, N. (2015). Human Nature: An Islamic Perspective. Retrieved from ResearchGate: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/312126052_Human_nature_An_Islamic_perspective
 Ilyas, U. (2021). Importance of Moderation in Aspects of Life. Retrieved from Dawat-e-Islami: https://www.dawateislami.net/magazine/en/new-writers/importance-of-moderation
 Persatuan Ulama dan Guru-Guru Agama Islam. (2004). Moderation in Islam in the Context of Muslim Community in Singapore, pg.17
 Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura. (2019). Living in Moderation. Retrieved from Muis: https://www.muis.gov.sg/-/media/Files/OOM/Khutbah/English/PDF/2019/E19Jun14---Living-in-Moderation.pdf/
 Persatuan Ulama dan Guru-Guru Agama Islam. (2004). Moderation in Islam in the Context of Muslim Community in Singapore, pg. 4
 Moderate Islam. (2017). Retrieved from Saudi Gazette: https://saudigazette.com.sa/article/523654
 Three men came to the houses of the wives of the Prophet s.a.w. to inquire about the worship of the Prophet s.a.w. When they were informed, they considered their worship insignificant and said: “Where are we in comparison with the Prophet s.a.w. while Allah has forgiven his past and future sins”. One of them said: “As for me, I shall perform the night-prayer all night long.” Another said: “I shall fast continuously and shall not break it.” and another said: “I shall abstain from women and shall never marry”. The Prophet s.a.w. came to them and said: “Are you the ones who said ‘such and such’? Truly, I am the most fearful to Allah and the most pious among you; yet I fast and break my fast, I pray and I sleep, and I also marry women. Then, he who does not like my sunnah, is not of me (not one of my followers).” (Sahih Al-Bukhari)
 A great scholar of Islam and a prominent figure from the Hanbali school of legal thought. He departed from this world around the year 1201
 Imam Abu Al-Faraj Ibn Al-Jawzi, Talbis Iblis (Manipulation of Iblis), Al-Muniriyyah Publication, Cairo, Egypt, pg. 141
 Persatuan Ulama dan Guru-Guru Agama Islam. (2004). Moderation in Islam in the Context of Muslim Community in Singapore, pg.20 and pg.323