Confronting the problem with Islamic orthodoxy

When we studied together at a madrassa, Rashid Moosagie had a very low opinion of my politics. I was disenchanted by the academic, abstract nature of our curriculum at the Deoband seminary, some 160km from New Delhi, where I was enrolled in 1978; I desperately wanted the wisdom of my faith to help shape the world, and I had begun to lose myself in the writings of political Islam.

Rashid had just arrived to apprentice under some scholars after completing his religious education elsewhere, and he thought my notion of “applied Islam” was nonsense. The ideas I loved offered heady rhetoric but little substance, he argued. And eventually I came to agree with him that the madrassa approach, focused on tradition and piety, along with an infusion of new knowledge, was the best way to revitalise Islam. By that time, Rashid had become a successful imam in his native South Africa.

So I was very confused to learn that, this year, Rashid immigrated to Syria and joined Islamic State. He left Port Elizabeth with his wife, adult sons and daughter and parted with the circle of clerics in a city where he had served for more than 30 years. In a letter he sent home, and audio recordings I obtained from someone close to him who asked not to be named, Rashid claims it is theologically mandatory for a Muslim to migrate to a land where God’s law is applied.

“I am very happy here,” he said. “Here I found what I missed all my life.”