Having a strong faith that one’s religion is the ultimate truth usually implies that it is more truthful than other religions. This kind of faith is often seen as one of the sources, if not the main source, of fanaticism and intolerance. This conclusion is drawn from observing that such people believe that their religion is the best. While this observation is true, linking fanaticism to one’s strength of belief in their faith is superficial. It fails to uncover the real, more fundamental cause.
What makes an individual intolerant is not their belief that their faith is “the” true religion. It is rather their explicit or implicit self-image as a true believer and representative of that religion. The problem is not having unwavering faith in one’s religion, but the baseless faith in one’s self being a good believer. There are three observations that confirm this. First, the overwhelming majority of people who believe that their religion is supreme are tolerant, respect the beliefs of others, and happily co-exist with them. Second, fanatics show intolerance not only to those who embrace other religions, but also to believers who share their faith but whom they do not see as good believers. Clearly, intolerance here is the result of one seeing themselves better than other believers of the same faith. Third, fanaticism does not express itself in one’s relationship with God, but in one’s relationship with other people. It is not a state of mind that focuses on one’s inner development, but it is a mindset that shows itself when dealing with others.
This extreme form of unjustified self-confidence is nothing other than utter arrogance. It is the kind of misguided pride that Satan showed when arguing with God that he was better than Adam and would not bow down before the latter:
We created you, fashioned you, and then said to the angels: “Fall prostrate before Adam.” They fell prostrate, except Satan; he was not with the prostrators (7.10). He (God) said: “What prevented you from prostrating?” He said: “I am better than him. You created me from fire but created him from clay.” (7.11)
Satan assumed that he was better than Adam on the basis of an assumption he made. Fanatics also presume that they are better than others, as if God had told that. This is an instructive verse on this issue:
O you who believe! When you travel in the way of Allah, investigate and do not say to someone who offers you peace: “You are not a believer,” seeking riches of this world, for with Allah there are abundant spoils. You too were so before, then Allah conferred favors on you. So investigate. Allah is aware of what you do. (4.94)
I have commented on this verse in more detail in my book on Jihad in the Qur’an in a section on “the Qur’an’s Warning Against the Abuse of Armed Jihad.” God here warns the believers not to see themselves superior to the disbelievers, reminding them that they also were disbelievers and that it is by His favour that they are now Muslims. This statement should take away any pride one has thinking that being a Muslim is a personal achievement and remove any sense of superiority to others.
Verse 4.94 does not attribute to God only the person’s conversion to Islam. It means that the state of being a believer must be always seen as a continuous favor from God. Even if one is a perfect believer, there is no guarantee that this would not change. A most beautiful and humbling example on the humility of those who genuinely fear God and love Him comes in the supplication of one of His most privileged servants:
My Lord! You have given me a share of kingship and taught me a share of the interpretation of talks. Originator of the heavens and the earth! You are my guardian in this world and the hereafter; make me die as a Muslim and join me with the righteous. (12.101)
By the time he uttered these words, Joseph was a Prophet and a miracle worker who had experienced numerous amazing favors from God. None of this affected his humility as he acknowledged that to remain a Muslim, he needed God’s continued help. There is not the slightest hint of arrogance, unjustified self-confidence, or conceit.
This is how this humility is expressed by the great Sufi and poet Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273), as he talks about those who strayed away from God:
Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, idolator, worshipper of fire,
Come even though you have broken your vows a thousand times,
Come, and come yet again.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Fanatics lack humility. They do not understand that knowing the truth and being on the true way are not one and the same. In fact, God considers failing Muslims more guilty than disbelievers, calling the former “hypocrites” and threatening them with “the lowest depth of the Fire” (4.145).
Arrogance has blighted the human race from its beginning. An unholy child of this spiritual disease, fanaticism is not confined to religion. People can be fanatical about any belief, because fanaticism stems from having an enormously exaggerated sense of self-righteousness. Those who are in positions of leadership, such as politicians, are even more susceptible to fanaticism, because leadership gives the person a sense of mission that can be easily confused with self-righteousness and self-importance. One extreme examples of a fanatical politician is Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister. The way he mislead the British people, other politicians, and other countries to justify the disastrous war against Iraq is a perfect demonstration of how fanatics work and behave. He could not reconsider his call for war even in the face of the strongest evidence against his claims. His argument for the war against Iraq kept changing, as uncomfortable facts kept coming out. What did not change, however, is his uncompromising sense of being right. Ironically, Blair has always been fond of warning the world about Muslim fanaticism!
Arrogance is a devastating disease, which is why God condemns it several times in the Qur’an (e.g. 31.18). Fanaticism is one syndrome of arrogance. Humility, on the other hand, is a marvelous medicine. One tragedy of the human being is that it is easier to be arrogant than being humble.