THE WRITTEN WORD: Fatwa on Terrorism and Suicide Bombings
By: Caleb Slayton , Captain, US Air Force
Fatwa on Terrorism and Suicide Bombing
by Shaykh ul-Islam
Dr. Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri
London: Minhaj-ul-Quran International, 2010
Dr. Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri calls his book a "fatwa." 1 He carefully chose this title to complement the objective of the book's methodological approach and meticulously selected content. Tahir-ul-Qadri is a well-known Muslim scholar from Pakistan (the title Shaykh ul-Islam means "scholar of Islam") who writes for Muslim and non-Muslim audiences alike in an ongoing effort to correct damaging misperceptions of Islam. Unlike the half-baked, paragraph-long "fatwas" of self-proclaimed Muslim jihadists, the author's first implicit point is that a legitimate fatwa (religious opinion) requires extensive research that pores over 1,400 years' worth of Muslim writings, with an emphasis on scholarly consensus, the Qur'an, and proper Sunna interpretation.2 His second point is that, because the fatwas of violent jihadists lack the required background scholarship and logical rigor, the passionate conclusions of groups like al Qaeda, the so-called "Islamic State," and Hezbollah are completely unfounded.
Not all fatwas need be 400 pages long, of course. Tahir-ul-Qadri strives for an approach that Arabic scholars, Muslims, non-Muslims, and non-Arabic speakers alike can respect, although those of his audience who are not familiar with the Qur'an and the Arabic language may not necessarily benefit from the Arabic source texts he extensively cites for each quotation. Tahir-ul-Qadri provides his own English translation of these Arabic texts for the reader's benefit and the skeptic's advantage, a tactic which allows the author partial control over potential misinterpretations of these religious writings. Having some rudimentary Arabic training of my own, I noted that the author often uses bracketed translations to temper potentially extremist interpretations.
The book's preface grabs the reader's attention quickly, with a summary of the book's broad conclusions: Islam does not allow revolt against even unjust or oppressive regimes. Takfiri terrorists, those who accuse fellow Muslims of being apostates, have existed in every Muslim age and will continue to exist until the end times. Carefully, in short snippets with extensive source-document quotations, the author lays down his argument against any and every brand of terrorism, while expressing an extreme disgust for suicide. The author's erudition and extensive use of scholarly quotes are meant to be—and are—impressive, but instead of persuading the reader, the torrent might simply drown him or her into submission.
Tahir-ul-Qadri concludes that Islam mandates the safety, security, and peace of all who live within its spiritual walls. Punishment for breaking not just Islamic law but also a country's civil laws should be handed out fairly, regardless of religion, language, or race. Taking this argument further, the author claims that all who promote the violation of these principles should be regarded as rebels, who, along with the historical Kharijite sect, are not only criminals but mandated government targets.3
Tahir-ul-Qadri quotes Hadith (the sayings and teachings of the Prophet and his companions) to argue that the Kharijite ideas historically come from the Najd region (the area of modern-day Riyadh), but he is careful not to label all Kharijite teachings as Salafi (pertaining to the first three generations of Muslim teachers and followers). Salafism as an exclusive observance can lead to fundamentalism and extremism. But those early Muslim leaders of the Salaf era also witnessed Mohammed's methods firsthand. Therefore, possessing a deep understanding of the early Muslim era and its practices, respective of the modern context, is held in high regard by Muslims in general.
Many modern terrorists play the religious part well, appearing more pious in Muslim practice, prayer, and fasting than other Muslims. Tahir-ul-Qadri, also an active Sufi, says some terrorists in fact appear so devout that Hadith warns they would be difficult to target, because their pious works discourage any offensive against them.4 The violent jihadists' mix of piety and attractive, grievance-based interpretations of political events, especially those that appear to be against the Muslim world, serves as both a powerful recruiting tool and a strong self-defensive measure.
In Western media, academic circles, and especially military analyses, it has become increasingly difficult to separate (1) terrorism from Salafism; (2) the motive of political violence from that of religious fervor; (3) interpretations of the end times as espoused by Islamic State ideologues from the mainstream Islamic eschatological viewpoint; and (4) unlawful Islamic military offensives from what the shari'a prescribes as valid violent offensives. Through a very careful reading of historical texts, Tahir-ul-Qadri claims not only that terrorist teachings run counter to true Salafi ideals, but that he himself can disprove terrorist arguments using only the Qur'an and Hadith. The early Muslim era sets the standard in leadership practice and interpretation of shari'a; therefore, the Salafi approach to the Qur'an and Sunna exclusivity is an ideal that moderate scholars strive to obtain.5 Tahir-ul-Qadri's goal is to reclaim from the terrorists a proper understanding of an era that they have twisted to justify their violent cause.
Tahir-ul-Qadri again shifts the balance unexpectedly when he looks at the issue of rewards for violence. He would give terrorists only Hell for a reward, not 77 virgins. But still, not to be outshone by the allure of Paradise for jihadis, he emphasizes the Hadith passages declaring that those who fight the terrorists will be richly rewarded and those who are killed by terrorists are the "best of those slain under the heavens." 6
What makes the Islamic State different from other terrorist groups such as al Qaeda is its members' belief in the impending end times. Their interpretation of current events, reached through a selective and biased reading of Qur'anic texts and Hadiths, serves as an incentive for recruits to join "the winning side" as the end of earthly life as we know it draws near. In order to reframe Islam's end-times teachings, Tahir-ul-Qadri argues that the Kharijite movement itself, both historically and in its present extremist form, is a symbol of the end of the age, its strength waxing and waning until the second coming of the Messiah. There is legitimacy in the Salafi approach, the author affirms, and there are rewards for proper violence. There is a moderate end-times schemata to terrorist events. Finally, there is an obligation on all Muslims to adopt the author's dominant Sunni and mystical Sufi version of Islam to defend the Muslim world by word and sword against the Islamist extremism that, according to this Pakistani scholar, misrepresents Islam.
At multiple turns in the book, readers, especially those accustomed to doses of military intelligence and media descriptions of terrorism, will ask themselves, "Why don't I see this moderate brand of Islam?" Most pungent of all, if fighting terrorists is obligatory for all governments in Muslim lands, why does the Muslim world seem to be the least financially invested in the fight and the most condemning of foreign intervention? Does it not appear that the ideal of security and safety that this scholarly Muslim author ascribes to Islam is more prominent in non-Muslim liberal democracies? Could it not be argued that the equal justice and freedom of religion that Tahir-ul-Qadri mandates for Islam are more prevalent in Western Europe and North America than in the Middle East and North Africa?
The disconnect is twofold. First, Tahir-ul-Qadri represents the "orthodox," or, in religiously neutral terms, the central academic theology of Islam. The vast majority in the Muslim world, however, are more concerned with the day-to-day practice of Islam.7 Despite the generous support from Western and non-Western scholars and politicians alike for Tahir-ul-Qadri's definition of Islam, it is a fair critique to wonder at the actual praxis. Defining Islam does not define all Muslims any more than one definition of Christianity could encompass all forms of Christian practice. Second, it is still hugely difficult to come up with a definition of terrorism to which all would agree, given current political events and the intrigues of international relations.
In fairness to this author of over one hundred books, I'm certain Tahir-ul-Qadri's debating methods are more equitable in other works. But as it is, the long book under review here should be twice as long. The author expends barely a page's worth of ink on the terrorists' point of view. His research would be improved if it included an extensive review and correction of terrorist use of specific Qur'anic passages and Hadith exegesis. Without a balanced debate, the thesis is left half empty.8 Additionally, Tahir-ul-Qadri condemns modern terrorists for being takfiris—it is a bold counterpunch to call the terrorists non-Muslims in the same breath. In a debate where all participants claim Salafi excellence, knowledge of end-times doctrine, and authentic Islamic credentials, it would appear that the "takfiri" accusations go both ways.
In the final chapters of this extensive scholarly work, the author tempers his call for violent offensives against terrorists with his deeper, long-term counterterrorism strategy: education. Before anyone else is to lose his life, he counsels, scholars, Imams, political leaders, and teachers must invite Muslims and non-Muslims alike to adopt Tahir-ul-Qadri's vision of Islam. Only when non-Muslim extremists and rebels explicitly reject widespread educational campaigns, and only if victory is assured, should Muslims target them as legitimate targets of proper violent jihad. To the moderate Muslim core, education is the best approach to counterterrorism. Interestingly, the book's author is implicitly asking the world to support Muslim missionary zeal in order to combat a global terrorist threat. This vision may not sit well with all military strategists, world leaders, or the rest of the world's non-Muslims.
As a student of African history, culture, and politics, I found it intriguing that today's moderate Muslim voices, so keen to support a more pacifist, inclusive, and tolerant Islam, represent the same form of Islam that nineteenth-century European colonizers actively encouraged and empowered for decades in the Sahel and the Sahara. To weaken the influence of contemporary violent jihadist movements, French and British policy encouraged coopting moderate Sufi leaders and elders and boosting their influence with mutually beneficial quids pro quo. Islam grew more rapidly during colonialism than at any other time in West African history.9 While various Muslim authors chastised these coopted Muslim leaders at the time and accused the colonial powers of supporting a "timid" Islam instead of respecting the dominant Islam of Usman dan Fodio, El-Hadj Umar Tall, or the Mahdi of Sudan, Islamic scholarship is reverting to a similar strategy today.10 We appear to have come full circle. Is Tahir-ul-Qadri suggesting that the colonizers had it right 150 years ago?11
Fatwa on Terrorism is an excellent read for the student of Islam. The sources, citations, biographical list of quoted scholars, and extensive lexical terms encompass a small library of Sunni Islamic thought. The counterterrorism argument is a subset of the debate within Islam on what it means to be Muslim. Tahir-ul-Qadri leaves out politics, current events, and international relations in order not to muddle his free-flowing elucidation of source documents. But preaching the teachings of Islam still misses the reality of how one billion people differ in the practice of their faith. Until the terrorist arguments are given a little more respect through equally rigorous scholarship, books like these will continue to preach barely beyond the choir.
As a final note to my own Special Forces work community, Tahirul-Qadri's Islam is an ideal that will take generations to form. A dominant peaceful, inclusive, democratic, and tolerant Muslim state would be a long-term counterterrorism solution. However, my Special Forces comrades live and work in the now. Orthodoxy and its corresponding orthopraxy live in the realm of religious scholarship, university studies, and top-level writings such as this book. To understand the reality of any religious practice, Islam included, operators are better off interacting directly with their diverse grassroots partners in whatever locality they find themselves. Shaykh al-Islam Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri describes the Muslim world as it could be. Special Forces live in the diverse world where cultures actually live and sometimes struggle to survive.
About the Author(s):
Caleb Slayton is an active duty officer in the US Air Force.
- Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, Fatwa on Terrorism and Suicide Bombings (London: Minhaj-ul-Quran International, 2010).
- The term "Sunna" refers to what the prophet Mohammed said and did, much of which was documented in the process of gathering Hadith. Tahir-ul-Qadri, as a Sunni Muslim, interprets Islamic theology and leader legitimacy differently from how a scholar of the minority Shi'a might. All Muslims emphasize the importance of Hadith, although again they may prefer different interpretations of certain passages.
- Kharijite is an early Islamic label for a breakaway sect whose members practiced extreme piety through legalism. They condemned anyone outside their interpretation of Islam as non-Muslim. Non-Muslims, according to the Kharijites, were to be killed in order to weed out corruption and preserve the purity of Islam. This action of labeling someone a non-Muslim is called takfirism. Muslim scholars apply the label "Kharijite" to today's terrorists because they use similar intolerant and extremist acts to enforce their beliefs.
- Sufism is an esoteric branch of Islam that emphasizes love of God as it manifests in one's own mind and consciousness.
- Hadith and the Qur'an are the most important tools used to interpret Islamic law, known as shari'a. The earliest Muslims, the Salafs, however, lived in a different temporal, geographical, and technological era from all Muslims after them. Therefore the main Muslim schools of law use other tools such as analogy (qiyas), consensus of the scholars (ijma'a), and individual reasoning (ijtihaad) to help Muslims navigate the ever-changing Islamic landscape.
- This quote used by Tahir-ul-Qadri is from the following Hadith: Sunan Ibn Majah 176.
- Regular polls, interviews, and research think tanks confirm that only a small minority of Muslims (1–7 percent) support terrorist teachings. The majority of the world's Muslims, however, still practice their faith in a diversity of syncretistic and unique manners outside the "orthodox" definition. This is true of most religions.
- This approach is becoming more mainstream, beginning last year with the "Open Letter to al-Baghdadi," in which mainstream Islamic scholars broke down one by one the Islamic teachings of the ISIS leader. See "Open Letter to Dr. Ibrahim Awwad Al-Badri, Alias ‘Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi,' and to the Fighters and Followers of the Self-Declared Islamic State," 19 September 2014: http://www.lettertobaghdadi.com
- Lansiné Kaba, "Islam in West Africa: Radicalism and the New Ethic of Disagreement, 1960–1990," in The History of Islam in Africa, ed. Nehemia Levtzion and Randall L. Pouwels (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000), 189–208; and Dorothea Elisabeth Schulz, Muslims and New Media in West Africa: Pathways to God (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012), 30–31, 138–39.
- The following authors are two examples of those who condemned the cooptation of moderate Muslim leaders: Mohamed Omer Beshir, Terramedia: Themes in Afro-Arab Relations (Khartoum: Institute of African & Asian Studies, University of Khartoum, 1982), 43; and Ali A. Mazrui, The Africans: A Triple Heritage (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1986), 286. Usman dan Fodio was an ethnic Fulani living under Hausa rule in the area of modern-day Nigeria, Niger, and Cameroon. El-Hadj Umar Tall, influenced by Usman, carried out jihad in Guinea and Mali. Muhammad Ahmed of Sudan rallied against the Egyptian and British government, under the title Mahdi, or Messiah. None of these nineteenth-century jihads was a strictly counter-colonial movement. They were motivated by the perceived injustices of the existing political institutions, combined with distaste for the syncretism of local Islam, two grievances that are consistently invoked in today's jihadist recruitment initiatives. See Nehemia Levtzion, "Islam in the Bilad al-Sudan to 1800," in The History of Islam in Africa, ed. Nehemia Levtzion and Randall L. Pouwels (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000); and Ibraheem Sulaiman, The African Caliphate: The Life, Works & Teaching of Shaykh Usman dan Fodio (1754–1817) (London: The Diwan Press, 2009).
- See Beshir, Terramedia, 20, 43; Mazrui, The Africans: A Triple Heritage, 142–43, 284–86; and Ali A. Mazrui, The African Condition: A Political Diagnosis (London: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 52, 123.