The question in the title has been raised for some time. It will only become louder following the horrendous events in Paris, even if (as one can only hope) no more such events will occur in Europe or America. Those who are riding on a wave of anti-Muslim feelings assume that the answer is that there are none—which is false. Yet those Muslims who resent the question as “Islamophobic” should answer it instead of brushing it aside. Both President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron have recently urged that ISIS and its ilk must be destroyed by military force (though both are doing it with less-than-Churchillian commitment), but that the foes of ISIS must also engage in a battle of ideas.
One may agree but also ask who should do this. The Pentagon? The BBC? Anyone who has given any thought to this will say that the best candidates will be Muslims. One can be more specific: They should be Sunni Muslims, since this is the community from which ISIS has emerged. (God knows, Shiite Muslims, with Iran in the lead, have engaged in their own variants of terrorism, but ISIS is the more immediate issue.) But also it should probably not be individuals with Muslim backgrounds who are so Westernized that what they say has little resonance among most Muslims—Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Salman Rushdie come to mind. In other words, the want ad should be for conservative Sunni Muslims.
(I speak of ISIS. I’m annoyed by the practice of constantly listing every acronym by which this odious outfit has been called: “Islamic State” won’t do, because supposedly that legitimates the pretension that it is the Islamic state. So we get an endless serving of all the acronyms: “IS, ISIS, ISIL, Deash”. This is silly. We know who they are. I prefer the most descriptive acronym “ISIS”—the developing Islamic state in Iraq and Syria. No legitimacy implied.)
As a matter of fact, there have been a good many voices raised. Here is a partial list, who spoke up in the course of 2014: Probably the most significant has been that of Shawki Alam, Grand Mufti of al-Azhar in Cairo, the most prestigious Sunni center of learning in the world. He described ISIS as “corrupt”, “a danger to Islam”, “violating Sharia law and humanitarian law”. There have been statements by the Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Shaikh, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, who spoke of ISIS as “the number one enemy of Islam”; by Mehmet Gormez, the highest cleric in Turkey, who saw ISIS as “hugely damaging” and “truly awful”; and rather amazingly, 100 Sunni and Shi’a imams in Britain issued a joint statement (this unusual collaboration probably easier in Europe than in the Muslim heartland) calling ISIS “an illegitimate vicious group, who do not represent Islam in any way”. What has been the effect of these statements? I don’t know. But this is not a story of tacit acceptance.
My attention was recently drawn to a document that is very relevant to the quest for a conservative Sunni repudiation of ISIS. (I am indebted for this reference to Riyaz Timol, of the Center for the Study of Islam in the UK, at the University of Cardiff.) First issued (I think at al-Azhar) in September 2014, its title is “Open Letter to Dr. Ibrahim Awad al-Badri, alias Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi”. This address is actually a subtle putdown: The sequence of the two names refers to the individual with a minor academic degree who declared himself “Caliph”—successor to the Prophet Muhammad and thereby head of the entire worldwide community of Muslims. (He does not suffer from excessive modesty: Abu Bakr was the name of the first caliph after the death of the Prophet. The shift in the title from the first name to the alias would be something like calling Pope Francis “Jorge Bergoglio, a priest in Argentina, alias Vicar of Christ on earth”.)
The original text of the document was in Arabic; it has now been translated into English and several other languages, all available online. It was signed by 126 Islamic scholars, from many countries, several of them from al-Azhar. (One somewhat startling signature is by Salman Tamimi, of the Muslim Association of Iceland! That organization presumably meets in a telephone booth. I guess it was included to emphasize the global range of the signatories.)
The document opens with the often-used sentence “bismillah al-rahman al-rahim”, translated as “in the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful”. I suppose that in English “compassion” and “mercy” are almost synonyms, though one may make some distinctions. I don’t know Arabic, but I’m told that some clearer distinctions may be made between the two terms. Both derive from the stem rhm; rahman refers to a quality: God is compassionate/merciful; rahim refers to an action: God acts compassionately/mercifully. After the invocation of the Bismillah and the address of Badri alias Abu Bakr, and “the fighters and followers of the self-declared Islamic State”, the text goes on at some length to show how central mercy is to God’s essence. It quotes a preacher close to ISIS proclaiming what purports to be a Quranic passage: “God bless Prophet Muhammad who was sent with the sword as a mercy to all worlds”; but this wording, clearly meant to refer to jihad, distorts the Quranic text: the sword is smuggled in. The correct text (in the words of God himself, dictated in Arabic by the angel Gabriel to the Prophet) says “We did not send you, except as mercy to all the worlds”. The phrase “with the sword” is taken from a hadith, a non-Quranic but authenticated saying by Muhammad. The Quran, the direct word of God, is general and unconditional; a hadith is specific to a certain time and place which no longer pertain. This important falsification is typical of the faulty hermeneutic of ISIS: “It is forbidden to mix the Quran and hadith in this way, as it is forbidden to mix the general and the specific, and the conditional and the unconditional”. This critique of this faulty hermeneutic is not pedantry; rather it applies directly to ISIS’ distorted use of Islam to justify its murderous use of the sword.
The document then expands its view of mercy at the heart of Islam. A Quranic passage: “My mercy embraces all things”. And a particularly eloquent hadith: ”When God created Creation, He wrote in place above His throne – Truly, My mercy is greater than My wrath”. Accordingly, it is forbidden to equate the sword—and thus wrath and severity—with mercy”.
Back to the Bismillah: Of course I’m very much an outsider to the method of reasoning deployed in this document. I would have a hard time making it as a student at al-Azhar, even if I learned Arabic! But I’ve tried to get into the argument. I think it has persuaded me that Islam puts the mercy of God at the heart of the faith, and that the merciless sword of ISIS is indeed a blasphemous distortion of that faith—is precisely “un-Islamic”.
I read the following sentence some years ago, but I cannot recall its exact provenance; I think it was a mystical (Sufi) text: “The entire meaning of the Quran is in the Bismillah. The entire meaning of the Bismillah is in the ‘ba’ [the Arabic letter ‘B’ with which the word begins]. The entire meaning of the ‘ba’ is in the dot or point (nuqta) underneath the ‘ba’.” As I recall, there was a school of Sufi meditation focusing on the nuqta. In other words, God is everwhere, and so is his mercy. Islam is marked by a profound sense of the majesty, the powerful otherness of God, among other things symbolized by the vast empty spaces in and around many mosques. Yet this God of “all the worlds” is immanent everywhere—as put in another Quranic verse “God is as close to man as the vein in his throat”.
In an “executive summary”, the letter to Baghdadi follows the usual form of a legal ruling (fatwa) on what is forbidden. The primary one that totally delegitimates the ISIS rhetoric: “It is forbidden in Islam to issue fatwas without all the necessary learning requirements… It is also forbidden to cite a portion of a verse from the Quran—to derive a ruling without looking at everything that the Quran and hadith teach related to that matter… One cannot “cherry-pick” Quranic verses for legal arguments without considering the entire Quran and hadith.”
The document goes on (my comments in square brackets):
It is forbidden in Islam to oversimplify shariah matters (in making legal rulings) and ignore established Islamic sciences. […]
It is forbidden in Islam to kill the innocent.
It is forbidden to kill emissaries, ambassadors, and diplomats; hence it is forbidden to kill journalists and aid workers.
Jihad in Islam is defensive war. It is not permissible without the right cause, the right purpose and without the right rules of conduct. […]
It is forbidden in Islam to harm or mistreat – in any way – Christians or any “People of the Scripture.” [Usually referred to as “People of the Book”—originally Jews and Christians, then, as Islam burst out of Arabia, this protected category came to include Zoroastrians and Hindus, even Buddhists.]
It is obligatory to consider Yazidis as “People of the Scripture.” [Under the category of Zoroastrians—they were of course persecuted with special savagery by ISIS in Iraq.]
The re-introduction of slavery is forbidden in Islam.
It is forbidden in Islam to force people to convert.
It is forbidden in Islam to deny women their rights. [A bit vague, that one!]
It is forbidden in Islam to enact legal punishments (hudud) without following the correct procedures to ensure justice and mercy. [If one is concerned with the way in which criminal law is practiced in, say Saudi Arabia and Iran, not to mention the territories controlled by ISIS or the Talibans, this sentence is an ambivalent hole through which a truck could be driven. Islamic penal provisions include quite an assortment of permissible methods of execution—beheading, hanging, stoning—for a wide array of offenses—including murder, homosexuality, blasphemy, adultery. It will all be a matter of how the definition of “justice and mercy” is practiced. Optimally (from the Western point of view on human rights), a liberal interpretation of sharia would follow the Jewish example: The provisions for capital punishment in the Hebrew Bible (such as in Leviticus) are as ferocious as those in Islamic law (probably not by coincidence). Very few of those were ever formally revoked by rabbinical courts. They were left standing (supposedly to underline the seriousness of the offences), but very rarely inflicted. Sentences of death were surrounded by numerous requirements that were almost impossible to meet. A sanhedrin (the highest rabbinical court that could pronounce sentences of death) that did so even once in seven years, was called a “bloody Sanhedrin. There was no Jewish sovereignty between the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (70 CE) and the establishment of modern Israel (1948), so the issue was purely theoretical. Yet the reluctance to inflict capital punishment persists. The Israeli state can be quite brutal in dealing with Palestinian terrorists, but not one has been sentenced to death. The only individual who ever was executed was Adolf Eichmann (and even ardent foes of the death penalty might hesitate to protest that decision).]
It is forbidden in Islam to torture people.
It is forbidden in Islam to declare a caliphate without consensus from all Muslims.
The statement discussed in this post is not the last critique of ISIS-type Islamism by a conservative Sunni scholar. For example, see this book-length case: Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, Refuting ISIS: A Rebuttal of Its Religious and Ideological Foundations (2015). It will surely not be the last.
What are the prospects for conservative Sunni opposition to ISIS? It is very difficult to predict, even if one assumes (in Herman Kahn’s dubious phrase) a “surprise-free future”. Recent events have shown that the Middle East in particular is capable of bringing about some very surprising futures—and mostly unpleasant ones at that.
There is always the old debate of the role of ideas in history. I think the most empirically viable view of this is interactive. Ideas do matter, but history is not an ongoing philosophical seminar; religious history is not an ongoing theological debate. Demographic, social, political and economic factors always interact with religious ones. Islam began with the solitary experiences of one man on Mount Hira, overlooking the commercial city of Mecca, an environment of trade routes across Arabia, and the battleground between the Byzantine and Persian empires. Yet this one individual with extraordinary contacts with the supernatural (or what he believed to be that) unleashed forces that changed the world. We cannot predict what the coming decades will bring about, but we can be confident that the future will again see the interaction between “ideal” and “material” factors. In odd ways, military developments and fluctuations in the oil market will be affected by debates between scholars at al-Azhar and in the Shiite lecture halls in Qom, and vice versa. Whatever happens, it will be fascinating to observe.
It is unlikely that ISIS will be defeated unless its territorial bases are conquered and occupied by “boots on the ground” (whether American, Turkish, or whoever else’s). But there is also an influential battle of ideas. In that battle authentic Muslim voices like the ones discussed here could be very helpful.