What Is a Moderate Muslim?

Stephen Schwartz gives a simple test for identifying moderate Muslims:

Moderate Sunni Muslims may be recognized in person by asking a simple question: “what do you think of Wahhabism, the state Islamic sect of Saudi Arabia?†Every Muslim in the world knows about Wahhabism, and knows that it is embodied in al-Qaida. If a Sunni Muslim is asked about Wahhabism and states that it is a controversial, extreme doctrine that causes many problems because of Saudi money, the respondent is probably moderate. Denouncing the Saudis alone is not enough; radicals criticize the Saudi monarchy for insufficiently enforcing Wahhabi beliefs. The root cause of Sunni terror is Wahhabism, not the monarchy.

Of course, there are radical Shiites, radical Nation of Islam adherents, and others. There are more clues:

Moderate Muslims may also be identified by what they do not do, to contrast them with radicals. And at the top of that list comes the practice of takfir, or declaring Muslims unbelievers over differences of opinion. Takfir also includes describing the ordinary, traditional Muslim majority in the world as having fallen into unbelief.


Moderate Muslims do not engage in takfir. Shias shun takfir, including radical Shias, and Shias fighting against Sunnis who persecute them do not practice takfir against their foes. Enemies of terrorist Wahhabis do not accuse them of unbelief, but of criminality. Traditional Muslims avoid accusations of unbelief, as they were counseled to do by the Prophet Muhammad. The Prophet never anticipated that Muslims would fall into unbelief.

Moderate Muslims, including Shias as well as Sunnis, also do not refer to followers of other religions, especially Jews and Christians, Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Buddhists, as unbelievers. The Koran never refers to Jews and Christians as unbelievers, but as People of the Book, worthy of respect and protection. Moderate Muslims adhere strictly to this outlook.< Moderate Muslims do not employ the rhetoric of jihad, including attempts to split hairs over the meaning of the term. Moderate Muslims seek a place in the contemporary world for Islam to be respected as a faith, not conflicts in which they may gamble on victory with the lives of others. Jihad vocabulary does nothing to advance the cause of Islam; it creates obstacles to it. [...] Moderate Muslims also do not reject allegiance to non-Muslim governments. According to current interpretations of Shafi̢۪i sharia, a major school of Islamic jurisprudence through history, there are no countries where Muslims are not required to obey local governments, for the security of their communities. Moderate Muslims do not proclaim public loyalty to such governments while privately counseling that Western governments are inferior to Muslim religious decrees. They do not invent civil rights violations as a political means of fighting Western authorities. Moderate Muslims recognize that Muslims have more rights and opportunities for advancement in most Western countries than in most Muslim lands. [...] Moderate Muslims concentrate on devotion to their religion, not on politics or public relations, and always recall that the Prophet called for his umma to be a community of moderation.

These criteria seem reasonable enough. Indeed, they’re rather common sensical.

Some obvious questions remain, however: What percentage of the world’s Muslims are “moderate” by this definition? How influential are the moderates? Why do the most extreme of the extreme, including Osama bin Ladin and his affiliates, continue to be worshipped as a hero by enough Muslims to remain safe?

Update: Rusty Shackleford meets Schwartz’ definition of an “extremist”.


It seems unnecessary to add that those who try to disclaim a link between Wahhabism and al-Qaida, or who blame al-Qaida on American machinations, cannot be considered moderates. If a Sunni denies that Wahhabism exists by saying “there is only Islam,†or tries to cover Wahhabism with an ameliorative term like “Salafism†— a fraudulent effort to equate Wahhabism with the pioneers of the Islamic faith — the individual is an extremist.


The Islamic Army in Iraq and al Qaeda both share the same short-term goals (ousting the U.S.), intermediate goals (harsh Sunni sharia in Iraq), and long-term goals (restoration of caliphate). Both are salafiyist groups and are violent jihadis of the worst kind.

Q.E.D.: Rusty Shackleford is a Muslim extremist.

(Apropos of nothing in particular, Schwartz’ tests remind me of Jeff Foxworthy‘s “You Might be a Redneck” bit. If you call a Wahabbi a Salifi . . . you might just be a Muslim extremist.)

FILED UNDER: Middle East, Religion, Terrorism, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    Interesting. I had heard that Muslims were cool towards Hindus and Buddhists as, respectively, polytheists and atheists. Hence much of the turmoil in a certain subcontinent.

  2. McGehee says:

    Moderate Muslims, including Shias as well as Sunnis, also do not refer to followers of other religions, especially Jews and Christians, Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Buddhists, as unbelievers.

    Yeah, I think including Hindus and Buddhists in that sentence is a little odd, given Islam’s view of polytheism.

  3. John Burgess says:

    Schwarts has found a niche (and a nickle) in Wahhabi-bashing and he’s sticking to it.

    He is ignorant of quietist strains within Wahhabism (actually the majority) who don’t really care what other people believe, but are adamant about not wanting to “get infected” by other religions.

    And even though they have centuries of precedent to believe the “cooties” thing about other religions, even Wahhabis can reform.

    I refer you to this Arab News editorial about reforms sought from the Fifth National Dialogue that took place in December.

    I hate to keep bring up the logical problem Schwartz’ analysis produces: If Wahhism is the problem, why aren’t all Wahhabis terrorists? With a population of 17 million, 80% of whom are self-professed Wahhabis, why are there only a few thousand who go on to terror?

    Wahhabism is not, historically, tolerant. That’s bad in its own way. But the followers of that strain of Islam are waking up to the fact that they cannot condemn 5/6 of the world’s population.

  4. Bachbone says:

    Perhaps I’ve just missed them, but our major media seem to have produced very few Muslims criticizing the terrorists. But I have seen quite a few Muslims praising them. Is “moderate Muslim” an oxymoron? Probably not, but hearing more from that ‘silent majority’ would lend credence to the proposition that a relatively few nutcases do not speak for them all.

  5. Anderson says:

    Bachbone, by definition, one doesn’t hear from the “silent majority.”

    Watching TV you would think that all Christians were prudes, hucksters, or both.

  6. legion says:

    Anderson beat me to it, but yes – there is no ‘shock value’ to seeing a Muslim protest terrorism, ergo the media (liberal, conservative, or otherwise) won’t report on it.

  7. BWE says:

    But you do see christians on tv making space between themselves and the right (Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, Jerry Fallwell, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Baker etc.)

    Just another example of liberal media bias I guess.

  8. Herb says:

    In light of a rather uneventful and somewhat dull day, this post along with the story about Biden and the hearings provided me with some giant belly laughs.

    A moderate Muslim? is that for real ?
    Never knew there was such a thing.

  9. BWE says:

    I agree with Herb, those darn muslims, christians and jews make all the damn trouble. We could just relax with a nice joint by the pool if it weren’t for all those folks who bought into that religion crap huh? I’m with you Herb.

  10. Herb says:


    Wow, you are really a sarcastic individual. Looks like you have been smoking a little to much lately. Perhaps you can start on some medications that would chill you out a little.
    The least you can do is be nice, or would that fit interfere with your usual rear end attirude.

  11. BWE says:

    Um. I wasn’t being sarcastic. If it wasn’t for the fact that we as a species are so darn gullible to the whole stupid religion/ control thing, we wouldn’t be out there blowing up buildings and stuff and claiming religios piety for it. How many other things are there that people are willing to kill and die for only on the justification of the words of a leader? No, I was being quite serious. I totally argree that once you have bit the hook of religion, you can hardly be called a “moderate” any more.