Why Fatwas against Islamist Terrorism fail as a tool to counter Terrorism

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Islamic scholar Sultan Shahin explains that the Fatwas issued by Ulema against Islamist Terrorism are high on rhetoric but low on detail and specifics. The need is to issue Fatwas condemning Islamist terrorism and in the same breath also explain how radical ideologues misuse Quranic verses to push gullible Muslims towards jihad.

Numerous fatwas (edicts) have been issued by ulema (Islamic scholars) across the globe, particularly since 9/11 in a bid to stem the tide of Islamist Terrorism. Tens of thousands of ulema have endorsed these fatwas issued by influential institutions of Islamic learning of all sects in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh as well as other parts of the world. When issued, these fatwas inspired great expectations. As perceptive and insightful an observer as Mr. Ziauddin Sardar proclaimed “the beginning of the end of the war of terror” when a hundred thousand Deobandi ulema endorsed a fatwa issued by the hundred-year-old Islamic madrasa in Deoband, India, “unequivocally denouncing terrorism,” in June 2008. Similarly, Sufism-oriented Barailwis, hard-line Salafis, Ahl-e-Hadeesis, have all denounced Islamist terrorism in their separate or joint statements. But terrorist ideology continues to attract our youth, particularly in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. What used to be merely a Pakistan-sponsored secessionist struggle is showing signs of tuning into an Islamist struggle for the establishment of Islamic Sharia through a universal Caliphate, very much redolent of the objectives of the so-called Islamic State or ISIS. Popularizing the slogan of “Shariatya Shahadat,” a militant leader Zakir Musa, Burhan Wani’s successor, even threatened to kill Hurriyat leaders for calling Kashmir’s separatist movement political and not religious. Calling them “hypocrites, infidels, followers of evil”, the militant had warned to chop off their heads to be hanged in Lal Chowk in Srinagar, “if they create hurdles in the path of making Kashmir an Islamic State”.

The most intriguing question in this scenario is: Why are fatwas of leading ulema of all Maslaks (sects) so ineffective in stemming the tide? The fatwas are clear and passionate in their condemnation of terrorism. The Deobandi fatwa, for instance, should have been the most influential. Most militants in the South Asian sub-continent, including the Taliban, are products of madrasas that can be called Deobandi. The fatwa says: “Islam has taught its followers to treat all mankind with equality, mercy, tolerance, justice. Islam sternly condemns all kinds of oppression, violence and terrorism. It has regarded oppression, mischief, rioting and murdering among severest sins and crimes. … In Islam, creating social discord or disorder, breach of peace, rioting, bloodshed, pillage or plunder and killing of innocent persons anywhere in the world are all considered most inhuman crimes.”

According to this fatwa, the very purpose of Islam …(is) “to wipe out all kinds of terrorism and to spread the message of global peace”. Muslims should not co-operate with people who spread the lie of terrorism; and those who do are “committing sins of oppression”.

Similar sentiments were expressed in fatwas from Pakistan and Bangladesh, again endorsed by tens of thousands of clerics from across these countries. Like fatwas given before in Pakistan, the recent Paigham-e-Pakistan Fatwa issued on 20 January 2019 also denounced all types of extremist ideologies and criticized the promotion of sectarian hatred, called it mischief on earth and demanded the state to resolve this critical issue with an iron fist. The forceful imposition of sharia –the common practice promoted and followed by the terrorist organizations and the armed struggles against Pakistan have been declared Haram (forbidden) under this fatwa. The fatwa declared suicide haram and jihad only a state’s prerogative. Scholars from all Islamic schools of thought stated that suicide attacks have been forbidden by the Qurʾān and they have been termed as Haram (strictly forbidden). Hence, the ones involved in such horrific crime must be considered rebels and Khawarij and shall be punished to the greater extent. Furthermore, according to the Islamic teachings this fatwa also supported military operations aimed at eradicating extremist and militant evils out of this society.

In a similar vein the fatwa issued by over one lakh Bangladeshi Islamic scholars in August 2016 also declared militancy and extremism in the name of Islam haram or ‘forbidden’. The ‘fatwa’ was signed by some 1,01,524 Islamic scholars belonging to Bangladesh Jamiatul Ulama.

The fatwas declared, “…killing of innocent people indiscriminately is not permissible in Islam, killing of children, women, old and weak people who do not take part in a war is strictly forbidden in Islam. Even killing of these kinds of people during war is not allowed in Islam. Killing of people during prayer is a heinous and severe crime.”

While presenting the fatwa before the media, Maulana Fariduddin Masoud, chairman of Bangladesh Jamiatul Ulama said: “Islam is a religion of peace. In the name of Islam, some quarters are spreading extremism and terror through misinterpretation of Qurʾān and Hadith to gain their personal interests. Though many label the militants as jihadis, they are actually terrorists. Islam doesn’t support terrorism. And those, who are carrying out suicide attacks with the belief to go to heaven as martyrs if they die, and live as heroes if remain alive, will not go to heaven according to Qurʾān and Hadith. The participation in Namaz-e-Janaza for those religious terrorists, militants and secret attackers is also forbidden. And those who will die taking stand against these militants will be regarded as martyrs.”

These are all severe condemnations of terrorism. Then why do these fatwas have no influence on the section of our youth which listens to the militant ideologues’ rhetoric. Almost 40,000 foreigners joined the so-called Islamic state, from around the world, and, of course, it is safe to assume that many more must have wanted to join but couldn’t due to logistical difficulties. Travelling to a so-called state which was not really a state recognised by even one member of the global community was not easy. Where does militant ideology’s appeal come from and why are the passionate efforts of all our ulema not so successful? This is a question that needs to be pondered upon seriously, if we are to stem the tide of militancy from the Muslim community.

A close reading of these fatwas reveals that while these are all long on rhetoric, they are short on details and specifics, the terms in which militant ideologues talk. The influential militant ideologues like Syed Qutb, Maulana Maududi, Abdullah Azzam, Anwar al-Awlaki, Aiman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden, all of them make (or made) a persuasive case of their militant ideology, comprehensive, internally consistent and coherent, based on solid foundations of Qurʾān, Hadith and events of Islamic history, particularly actions of the companions of the Prophet (s.a.w) and the Salaful Saleheen. Apart from these, the militant narratives are also based on universally accepted theological doctrines of Un-createdness of the holy Qurʾān, universal applicability of all exhortations of Qurʾān and Hadith, Abrogation of early Makkan verses preaching peace, co-existence, patience in times of adversity by later militant Madinan verses of war, exhorting Disavowal and Dissociation with Idolaters and Subjugation of People of the Book, punishment of death for blasphemers and apostates, etc.

On the other hand, most of the counter-narrative of clerics, proclaiming Islam as a religion of peace are one-liners. If at all they quote Qurʾān, they quote just one verse (5:32) which says killing even one innocent person amounts to killing humanity and saving one person amounts to saving humanity. The rest is rhetoric. Strong, passionate rhetoric, absolutely, but just that — rhetoric. There is only one fatwa among the many which takes up the issue in some detail. It’s the fatwa from Bangladesh Jamiatul Ulema. At least, it acknowledges a couple of the many militant verses that are repeatedly used by radicals in justifying violence. But it again makes the same familiar mistake of countering it by quoting early Makkan verses advocating patience in the face of adversity. The madrasas that these clerics run teaches books like Itqan fil Uloomul Qurʾān, Tafsir-e-Jalalain, Hujjatullah al Baligha, etc in which Tehreef fil Qurʾān Naskh, Mansookh, etc. are discussed in great detail, giving credence to the radical narrative that verses exhorting peace in early Islam were abrogated by later verses of war. Indeed, there is a widespread view that one sword verse 9: 5 alone has abrogated 124 early Makkan verses, exhorting peace, tolerance, pluralism, co-existence, patience, etc. And there are something like 164 verses of war that were revealed later in Madina, which have by virtue of having come later abrogated earlier verses. This argument of progression of the duty of Jihad has been taken to a point where  verses 9:5 and 9:29, asking Muslims to kill the Mushrik and subjugate ahle kitab, are supposed to have abrogated not only verses teaching patience in Makka — Inna Allah ma as-Sabireen, God is those who are patient (2:153), 11:49, 50:39, 39:10, 70:5, 15:85, 15:85, (39:10, 70:5) — but even verses 22:39 and 2:190, permitting the use of force in self-defence. Offensive jihad has thus become an obligation for every Muslim in the view of several authorities. Even a Sufi of the highest order like Imam Abu-Hamid al-Ghazali says that Muslims should go on Jihad at least once a year. Obviously, this Jihad can only be offensive in nature.

The fact of the matter is that in every war, once a decision has been taken to go to war, people are motivated to fight, rewards are announced, punishment is prescribed for disobedience and so on. But once the war is over, these instructions are no longer considered applicable. Our tragedy is that under the Doctrine of Uncreatedness of Qurʾān and the Doctrine of Abrogation, these last verses of war in SuraTaubah like 9:5 and 9:29 have become the pre-eminent teaching of Qurʾān in matters of war and peace and relations of Muslims with non-Muslims. The general acceptance of Blasphemy and Apostasy as crimes punishable with death has taken even intra-Muslim discord to a new height, resulting in takfeer of entire communities and killings.

Thus, we Muslims are stuck in a situation where the radical war-mongers have an upper hand. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that ulema are not yet prepared to come up with a genuine counter narrative. They seem to think that passionate rhetoric will do the trick. I do not doubt their intentions. But when a strategy fails, one has to think of the next step. In my view, the following declarations will have to be made forcefully and repeatedly by ulema around the world for the tide to begin turning.

1.  Qurʾān has been created by God. It is a collection of verses that were revealed to Prophet Mohammad (s.a.w) initially in Mecca, as instructions into the universal faith that has been coming to humanity since the advent of Prophet Adam (AS) on earth, through a series of prophets of equal status (Qurʾān 2:136) sent to all nations, bearing the same message. So, these initial verses that teach us peace and harmony, good neighbourliness, patience, tolerance and pluralism are the foundational and constitutive verses of Qurʾān. They constitute the fundamental message of Islam. But Qurʾān also contains many contextual verses that were revealed as instructions from time to time for the Prophet (s.a.w) and his companions to deal with difficult existential situations that arose as both the Mushrikeen (pagans) of Makka and Ahl-e-Kitab (People of the Book) living in Madina mostly refused to accept the message of God coming to them through the Prophet, and decided to eliminate the Prophet and his few companions. These verses are of great historical importance and tell us the near-insurmountable difficulties the Prophet had to face to establish Islam. But despite their importance they are no longer applicable to us as instructions of war, over 1400 years after the wars were fought and won by the grace of God. We are not engaged in any war now.

2. The Doctrine of Abrogation, as defined by radical ideologues today, is a false doctrine. God cannot be giving orders only to abrogate them later, except that some orders may be simply meant to have temporary application as in the case of war-time instructions.

3. God does not prescribe any punishment for blasphemy and apostasy. Nor does He authorise any human, a ruler or scholar to punish any one.  So even if there is fool proof evidence that someone has committed these crimes, the punishment has to be left to God.

4. We are now living in the world of modern nation-states; our international relations are guided by the charter of United Nations which has been signed by virtually the whole world including all Muslim majority states. It is simply not possible today for any state to conquer new territories and establish its rule there as was the norm until the first half of the twentieth century. So, all talk of performing Jihad at least once a year should cease, even if it was indeed mandated by Qurʾān and Hadith. It is simply impractical and God does not ask us to perform impossible task.

5. There is no scriptural sanction for the call of a global Khilafat of Muslims either in Quran or Hadith. Modern pluralistic states are very much in tune with the first Islamic State evolved by Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) under the constitution provided by Meesaq-e-Madina. Muslims do not need a global Khilafat, though Muslim-majority countries can cooperate more fully in the spirit of brotherhood sanctioned by Quran and even form a commonwealth of Muslim states.

6. Modern Democracy is a fulfilment of the Quranic exhortation of amrahum shoora bainahum. So Muslims should try and strengthen democratic institutions in the countries where they live either as a majority community or as a religious minority.

7. Let us all accept that Islam is primarily a spiritual path to salvation, one of the many (Qurʾān 5:48) sent by God to humanity in different ages through different prophets, all of equal status (Qurʾān 2:136, 21:25, 21:92). God has asked us to compete with one another in performing good deeds [Qurʾān 2:148, 23:61] and that is what we should be focussed on. As Qurʾān came to confirm all previous faiths, we can only respect and accept all other religions as paths to the same divinity. The Doctrine of al-Wala wal-Bara as propagated by radical elements is misconceived and impractical in the present highly complex and intricately interwoven global society.

I do hope Ulema as well as common Muslims will consider these points in the spirit of consultation in which it is being presented and a consensus will gradually evolve.

(This article was first published in New Age Islam)

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