Allah says in the Qur’an: “And thus we have made you a moderate nation that you will be witnesses over the nations (mankind) and the Messenger will be a witness over you” (al-Baqarah, 143).
The keywords in this verse (ayah) are “ummatan wasatan” (a moderate nation), from which the concept of wasatiyyah (moderation) is derived.
The concept is a very comprehensive and complex one. It perhaps most fully portrays the meaning of Islam and the role of Muslims.
In addition, it is the most widely used and abused concept. True Muslims proudly use it because they understand it, while those bent on manipulating Islam and Muslims inanely abuse it because they do not – or pretend not to - understand it.
To the latter, the idea of moderate Islam and Muslims signifies alliance with and support of the West, politically, culturally, and ideologically. It also denotes religious permissiveness, which is the threshold of liberalism. The weaker Muslim a person is, the more moderate he becomes.
Contradictions and paradoxes
This viewpoint is loaded with contradictions and paradoxes.
For example, when Ronald Reagan wanted to sell advanced weapon systems to the “ultra-conservative” Saudis, he called them “partners” and “moderate.” However, the move was nothing but part of a strategy that aimed to support the US on a range of vital regional and global issues.
“Moderate” was equivalent to “alliance and cooperation.”
Today when the labels of “moderate Islam” and “moderate Muslims” are employed mainly within the counterterrorism discourse, the ultra-conservativism of Saudi Arabia is suddenly seen as the antithesis of moderation. It is the biggest stumbling block.
Hence, the sweeping liberal and progressive reforms of Mohammad bin Salman, which are generally attuned to the interests of the West, are greatly supported. And predictably, they are marketed as the face of “true” and “moderate Islam.”
Needless to say that most reforms, especially pertaining to religion, education, and a number of social and cultural norms, are questioned by religious authorities.
“Moderate” now became as good as “full collaboration and subjugation”.
No wonder that Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, recently dubbed moderate Muslim groups as “Uncle Toms,” that is, “groups subservient to the West”.
For the sake of propagating moderation (wasatiyyah), both by the friends and foes of Islam – Muslims and non-Muslims - numerous institutes and organizations have been established, conferences and forums organized, and books and articles written worldwide. At first effectively a mantra, the term is now becoming something of a cliché.
The actual meaning of ummatan wasatan
The actual meaning of ummatan wasatan is “the true, just, and best nation.”
The source of this meaning is the plain message of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s Sunnah, followed by authorities in the Arabic language, exegesis or tafsir (commentary) of the Qur’an, and theology, instead of some politicians, journalists, or just wannabes.
In Arabic, wasat means “best and most excellent.” It also means “center” and “middle.”
For instance, the tribe of Quraysh was said to be in wasat (in the middle) in relation to other tribes. That means it was the best tribe.
Similarly, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was said to be in wasat with respect to his people. That means he was the best and most excellent of all of them.
When Allah furthermore says that the ‘Asr prayer is the best, He describes it as wusta (a variation of wasat), that is, the middle and best prayer (al-Baqarah, 238).
The best and most just person among “the owners of the garden” the Qur’an also calls awsat (al-Qalam, 28). Awsat is the superlative form of wasat.
The reasons for being a moderate nation
Muslims are a moderate (best, just, and most exemplary) nation for several reasons:
All earlier nations failed in different ways to embrace en masse, meticulously practice and preserve the teachings of their prophets. Muslims are the solitary exception with regard to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the Qur’an. Those nations’ subsequent religious trajectories turned out to be incongruous aberrations, and their civilizational directions failed experiments.
Muslims shun the extremities of previous nations with which they rejected their prophets and corrupted their legacies. Those extremities are ideological and practical.
Foremost were the excesses of the Jews and Christians. The former depreciated and denigrated their prophets to such an extent that they killed many of them, while the latter incorrectly venerated Jesus so much that they ended up regarding him as the Son of God.
Muslims are a moderate (middle and justly balanced) nation because they stick to the truth and its right path, without swerving into any of the potential extremities (immoderations).
Since every earlier nation failed and then adopted a wrong path – especially the Jews and Christians as the numerous and extant People of the Book – Muslims are the only hope for humanity.
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was the final messenger of God (the Seal of Prophets) and the Qur’an the final revelation of Allah to mankind. As such, Allah promised that He will be the guardian both of the Qur’an and the final prophet’s legacy.
Such could be one of the imports of the Prophet (PBUH) being sent “as a mercy to the worlds” (al-Anbiya’, 107).
There is no tradition of another prophet that is intact today, nor is there a revealed scripture that has not been tampered with and distorted beyond recognition.
Muslims are therefore expected to be the advocates of ceaseless dialogues, discussions, debates, and interactions in ways that are best and most gracious. Those initiatives should target all people, especially Jews and Christians.
Allah says: “Say: ‘O People of the Book (Jews and Christians), come to a word that is equitable between us and you - that we will not worship except Allah and not associate anything with Him and not take one another as lords instead of Allah.’ But if they turn away, then say: ‘Bear witness that we are Muslims’" (Alu ‘Imran, 64).
That is one of the reasons why the mentioned verse on moderation is given within the framework of a discourse concerning the Jews and Christians as the People of the Book who had given up the stipulations of their covenants with Allah.
Moderation is at once a privilege and responsibility. It is a two-edged sword.
Islam as the final revelation emerged in the midst of man-made darkness-es and ignorance-s. It was placed right at the heart (in the middle or center, wasat) of mankind’s ideological, cultural, and civilizational spectacles as well as experiences.
The understanding is in material and spiritual terms. Accordingly, Islam emerged surrounded by diverse cultural and civilizational undercurrents. It emerged equitably balanced in what could be considered a geographical, historical, and spiritual midpoint, quickly becoming its center of gravity.
What is more, for “moderate nation” in the above verse, the indefinite, rather than definite, article is used. It is “a moderate nation” and not “the moderate nation.”
This implies that being a moderate and middle nation is nothing unprecedented. The nation of every single prophet was given a chance to be in a way a moderate nation – or the moderate (just and best) nation of its own time and place – as well.
As they were squandering their chances, the nations were gradually moving away from the center (wasat) until they all came to be relegated to the periphery – and the virtual oblivion - of the spiritual sphere.
Islam and Muslims were thrust into the center - just like everybody else before them – with the task of trying to pull everybody back to it, or at least to mark and keep clear the paths that lead from the periphery back to the center.
The task is critical because Islam is the final and only viable alternative. It is the only existential hope similar to Nuh’s (Noah’s) Ark.
If Muslims rise to the task, they merely reinforce their status as the best (moderate) nation. They will then be qualified to testify on the Day of Judgment against the other nations which refused to be pulled back from the periphery to the center.
But if they fail in their assigned mission, the Prophet (PBUH) will then testify against Muslims on the Day of Judgment. He duly performed his prophethood functions upon them, in turn entrusting them to carry the torch of the truth elsewhere - but they failed.
The let-down means betrayal of the heavenly trust. It is a double failure: one towards themselves and the other towards the rest of the people. Fulfilling the trust correspondingly connotes the ultimate success and a double reward.
It follows that the Day of Judgment for Muslims will be a day of testimonies, either for them by the Prophet (PBUH) and other nations, or against them also by the Prophet (PBUH) and other nations.
For one to be Muslim for himself only is not a perfect situation. He ought to share his bounties as much as feasible with such as are starved of them. He should be a beacon of light, along with life, to others.
Most people will not react favorably, but that is their problem, not his. People are free, should live freely, and should make free choices. Only then will religion – and life – make sense.
Muslims must not force anybody to accept and practice Islam. That is utterly un-Islamic. However, they are bidden to do so themselves entirely and to make Islam known as such to the world. After that “whosoever wills, let him believe, and whosoever wills, let him disbelieve” (al-Kahf, 29).
Allah confirms: “There shall be no compulsion in (acceptance of) the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong” (al-Baqarah, 256).
Positively, Islam is against the hypocritical styles of tolerance, pluralism, integration, and liberalism.
The nature of Islam is such that Muslims cannot vacillate between it and something else. Nor can they vacillate inside it between commitment and laxity.
Islam is the complete way of life that must be followed perfectly in terms of obeying its rules and regulations, and wholeheartedly in terms of the quality of the performed deeds.
Allah reminds: “O you who have believed, enter into Islam completely (and perfectly) and do not follow the footsteps of Satan. Indeed, he is to you a clear enemy” (al-Baqarah, 208).
True (and moderate) Muslims live Islam to the fullest. They strive in the cause of Allah, making the lowest the word(s) of those who disbelieved and the Word of Allah the highest, without being afraid of anybody’s accusations and blames.
They know that the ideas of jihad, da’wah, shari’ah, education, politics, and all the civilization-building processes are as central to Islam as its most fundamental spiritual ceremonies. When certainly all of them are unified can the robust edifice of Islam and its culture, as well as civilization, be erected.
True Muslims do not care if someone accuses them of being fundamentalists, conservatives, traditionalists, and even extremists, in that they know all too well what is going on and who is saying what. They are concerned about what Almighty Allah, the Prophet (PBUH), angels and all the good people may think and say about them.
Exclusively this way, Muslims can be perfect examples to and saviors of others. People easily recognize authentic quality, honesty, trustworthiness, and integrity wherever they may be, appreciating them afterward more than anything else.
On the other hand, people (non-Muslims) nowadays do not appreciate Islam as much as they should – much less embrace it - essentially because Muslims are poor exemplars to others, individually and collectively, institutionally and privately.
Muslims are struggling with themselves at all possible levels, how then can they have time, or energy, for others? They are bogged down with rather insignificant issues in connection with their sheer existence, how then can they have time, capacity or will, to take on the challenges of the whole world?
This by no means bodes well for Muslims’ fortune on the Day of Judgment (the Day of testimonies) when they will have to face the Prophet (PBUH) and the rest of the nations. Somebody will have to answer for the predicament, and woe to the culpable ones.
Muslims are a moderate nation also because their Islam is reasonable, coherent, and practical. It accepts and treats life and man exactly as they are, enhancing potentials and alleviating limitations. It sees a possibility in everything.
It moreover strikes a delicate balance between the exigencies of matter and spirit, body and soul, and this world and the Hereafter.
Life is a harmony and unity. It is intrinsically good, beautiful, and pure, and so is man with his inborn disposition to worship his Creator. No aspect of life is to be pursued at the expense of another.
This balanced (moderate) attitude is peculiar exclusively to Islam issues directly from the concept of Allah’s Oneness (tawhid). It is but a sign of Allah’s will and care for man, His vicegerent on earth.
Finally, when all is said and done, the meaning of “best, just, most excellent, middle and rightly balanced nation” entailed in ummatan wasatan (moderate nation) is more or less like the meaning of “best nation” (khayru ummah) about which Allah says: “You are the best nation produced (as an example) for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allah. If only the People of the Book had believed, it would have been better for them. Among them are believers, but most of them are defiantly disobedient” (Alu ‘Imran, 110).