It’s been all over the news that the group known as ISIS has recently attacked Iraq with the agenda of creating a Muslim caliphate, while brutally raping and killing Christians and other non-Muslims. In Israel, Hamas fired 4,700 rockets at Israeli civilians in the last few months, kidnapped and killed Israeli students, and in the past has waged war via suicide bombers, all in the name of Islam. And Al-Qaeda has a long history of terrorizing non-Muslims in India, Europe, and of course the U.S.
Do these actions represent the values of the Muslim tradition? If not, why haven’t we heard criticism from Muslim leadership?
Let’s start with the first question: does the religion of Islam support the attack of non-Muslim civilians or suicide bombings?
These sound like straightforward questions. But finding the answers is anything but. Many critics in the American media have concluded that Islam endorses war against all non-Muslims. To support this claim, media outlets have identified quotes in the Qur’an as evidence. And yes, it’s possible to pick out individual verses that appear to endorse war against disbelievers such as “I will throw fear into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Then smite the necks and smite of them each finger” (Qur’an 8:12), and “Exhort the believers to fight… because they (the disbelievers) are a folk without intelligence” (Qur’an 8:65).
But this makes just as much sense as cherry picking verses from the Bible and thinking you understand Judeo-Christian values. You only need to go to Deuteronomy (21:18-21) to read verses that say when teenagers are disobedient, they should be stoned to death. No Christian or Jew would ever endorse this edict, but there it is.
Allowing for the possibility of subtle meanings that take years of learned analysis to discern, or understanding that highly precise limitations render it a never-used punishment isn’t much of a leap for most people familiar with these religions. But when hearing individual inflammatory verses from the Qur’an, that leap somehow becomes much harder to make.
Many Muslim scholars (e.g. Sherman Jackson, David Dakake, Shaykh Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti) caution that selecting lines from the Qur’an without considering their context is a sure recipe for misunderstanding, and those who do it are either ignorant or have an underlying agenda. In David Dakake’s essay “The Myth of a Militant Islam” (2013) he clarifies the complexities of Qur’an interpretation: First, knowledge of Arabic is essential because there can be multiple meanings of many words.
Second, the reader needs to be aware of the historic context in which verses were revealed to understand their intent and limitations. For example, when discussing the Qur’anic verses quoted above, Al-Tabari (the revered 10th century Persian scholar of Qur’anic commentary) argued that this is not to be “read as carte blanche to attack any and all non-Muslim peoples;” rather he says, “the verse was revealed specifically in relation to fighting the idolators of Mecca” during Muhammad’s lifetime. This point is reiterated in the Creed of Al-Tahawi , a highly acclaimed 10th century reference on Muslim beliefs drawn from the Qur’an and the Prophet’s example, embraced by the majority of Sunni Muslims. It relates that military action against non-Muslims is sanctioned only to “remove belligerence and not the removal of disbelief.”
Further, the development of Muslim law is based not only on verses in the Qur’an, but also on hadith, which are the documented sayings and lived example of Muhammad, as reported by his companions and wives.
For a full exploration of what the Muslim tradition says about killing civilians and warring against disbelievers, I refer to the nuanced analysis of Shaykh Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti, in his “Fatwa Against the Targeting of Civilians” (2005). Shaykh Afifi is a University Research Lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Oxford , and has been named as one of the “500 Most Influential Muslims for the last several years .
In response to extremist groups like Al-Qaeda who have used verses from the Qur’an to legally justify waging war against non-Muslim civilians, Shaykh Afifi writes “any doctor of the law should be horrified and appalled since it is an immature yet persuasive attempt to mask a misguided personal opinion with authority from fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), and an effort to hijack our law.”
Muslims are prohibited from targeting civilians because according to several hadith – the Prophet Muhammad forbade the killing of children and women, (even if acting as soldiers, they can only be killed in self-defense). This has been extended by Muslim jurists to include any non-combatants, and is a consistent standard held throughout the different schools of Muslim law.
Afifi also concludes that suicide bombers are murderers, not heroes or martyrs, and will face punishment in the hereafter for several reasons. First, suicide is completely prohibited in Islam. Second, suicide bombers kill non-combatants, which is prohibited. Third, Muslim law considers valid military targets to include only the battlefield and military bases. Places like a restaurant or hotel or a public bus are invalid targets because attacks aren’t made from these places, non-combatants are likely to be there, and the non-combatants have not been given the choice to leave.
Groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS have declared that Muslims must now wage war with Americans and their allies, civilian and military. To this, Shaykh Afifi responds:
Any such declaration would immediately place the endeavor outside the bounds of true jihad whose limits…would clearly exclude, for instance, attacks upon women and children…. Declarations making “lawful” the indiscriminate killing of civilians unequivocally transgress the limits of warfare defined in traditional sources.
Finally, he argues that Islam is not a religion of war, it is one of peace. There are “100 verses in the Qur’an commanding us at all times to be patient in the face of humiliation and to turn away from violence.”
This point is further fleshed out in Prof. Ibrahim Kalin’s essay “Islam and Peace” (2013). In an analysis as sophisticated as Afifi’s, Kalin elucidates the meaning of the concept of peace in Islam as one of the names of God (salaam) and “is therefore an essential part of God’s creation and is assigned a substantive value.”
Peace as a substantive concept is also based on justice (‘adl); for peace is predicated upon the availability of equal rights and opportunities for all to realise their goals and potentials. One of the meanings of the word justice in Arabic is to be ‘straight’ and ‘equitable’, i.e., to be straightforward, trustworthy, and fair in one’s dealings with others. Such an attitude brings about a state of balance, accord, and trust, and goes beyond the limits of formal justice dispensed by the juridical system. Defined in the broadest terms, justice encompasses a vast domain of relations and interactions from taking care of one’s body to international law. Like peace, justice is one of the Divine names, and takes on a substantive importance in view of its central role in Islamic theology as well as law.
So it appears clear that Muslim values don’t support the actions of groups like ISIS, Hamas, or Al-Qaeda. And, now to the second question: If what these groups do is against Muslim values, why haven’t Muslim leaders denounced them?
Here the answer is easy: they have! But you wouldn’t know it if you only viewed American media outlets. There has been very little media coverage of the many Muslim scholars and clerics who have publicly rejected the agendas and practices of these groups. For a comprehensive list of Muslim denunciation of these groups as “unIslamic” read this post by the the Center for Research on Globalisation. But here are a few examples:
The official Vatican news website recently reported:
The most explicit condemnation came from Iyad Ameen Madani, the Secretary General for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the group representing 57 countries, and 1.4 billion Muslims. In a statement, he officially denounced the “forced deportation under the threat of execution” of Christians, calling it a “crime that cannot be tolerated.” The Secretary General also distanced Islam from the actions of the militant group known as ISIS, saying they “have nothing to do with Islam and its principles that call for justice, kindness, fairness, freedom of faith and coexistence.”
The website notes that in Britain, Sunni and Shi’a Muslim authorities have recently declared to the British government that ISIS “does not represent the majority of Muslims.”
The Arab League Chief described the brutal practices of ISIS against Christians and Yazidis as “crimes against humanity” as reported in the Al Arabiya News.
Similar condemnations were made against ISIS by Muslim authorities in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. You just never heard them because the American media chose not to cover them. Why is that? Well folks, that’s another whole post. But something to consider.
The human brain can only take in so much information. To make it easier our brains like to categorize things like events and people. If we really want to know what’s going on in the world, we have to fight that tendency. Every major religion has sacred texts informed by centuries if not millennia of commentary, and have developed amid cultural and historical forces. It’s not simple. But the truth rarely is.