By Sultan Shahin, Founder-Editor, New Age Islam
11 March 2019
Oral Statement At United Nations Human Rights Council, Geneva, 40th Regular Session 25 Feb to 22 March 2019
General Debate on Agenda item 3: “Promotion and Protection of All Human Rights, Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Including the Right to Development.”
Delivered on behalf of Asian-Eurasian Human Rights Forum
The US is withdrawing from Afghanistan as well as from Iraq and Syria. Inspired by the Taliban declaration of victory, a radicalised terrorist in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, backed by a Pakistan-based Islamist terrorist organisation, attacked an Indian military convoy, killing 40 soldiers. Similar suicide attack killed 27 elite revolutionary guards in Sistan, Iran. Emboldened Jihadists will surely carry out more such attacks in future. The gloating in Islamist circles for having “defeated” both the superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, has reached its peak.
Still fresh in our minds is what happened when the international community abandoned Afghanistan in 1989. Taliban ruled and Al-Qaeda got a safe haven. A series of atrocities including 9/11 and horrors of Islamic State followed.
In this backdrop, the complacency of the world community in allowing Taliban to govern Afghanistan is inexplicable. Jihadist strength does not come from their soldiers and territories. It comes from an ideology and ideologies cannot be defeated militarily.
The Jihadist ideology is based on very solid foundations in Islamic history, scriptures and theology. Moderate Muslims have not yet succeeded in evolving a satisfactory alternative theology of peace and pluralism to challenge the current theology of violence and exclusion. Even when such a theology evolves, it will take time and effort for it to be established. Mainstream Muslims should be allowed the time and space to work out and propagate a counternarrative. I would, therefore, urge the international community not to repeat the mistakes of 1989 and invite further disasters.
It will be wrong for the world community to think that Islamism has been defeated because the so-called Islamic State has lost most of its territories. Several security experts have reported that out of approximately 30,000 foreign fighters ISIS continues to have around 10,000, hiding in different parts of Iraq and Syria, 10,000 have returned to their homelands and only 10,000 killed in wars. There are no figures available for the local Arab soldiers, but there are apparently quite a few and with sufficient local support to sustain them in their hiding places. It is well-known that many thousands of Sunnis from Saddam Hussain’s former army had joined the so-called Islamic State. On top of all that, ISIS continues to have the support of tens of thousands of sympathisers around the globe who include hackers and online recruiters. Most importantly, Jihadist presence on social media and their ability to propagate their narrative is intact.
As for the Taliban, several security experts feel that they may eventually come back to rule from Kabul again following the US withdrawal, regardless of the arrangement that is worked out now. The promises of following democratic system of governance that the Taliban are making now on the negotiating table are not worth the paper they will be written on. Their publications like Nawa-e-Afghan Jihad have been arguing for decades that democracy goes against the Islamic injunction of sovereignty belonging to God alone.
Justifying the 9/11 Attacks, Taliban scholar Sheikh Yousuf Al-Abeeri had given a long Fatwa that appeared in Taliban monthly magazine Nawa-e-Afghan Jihad in eight parts in 2012--2013, month after month, supporting indiscriminate killing of Innocent civilians under special circumstances. In his concluding part, Sheikh Yousuf Al-Abeeri had focused entirely on the Islamic permissibility of “brutal and mass killing of the enemy.” Starting from the “lawfulness of burning the enemy” and “opening the dams of rivers and lakes” to drown the inmates of a fort or besieged town, launching mortar attack, the fatwa goes on to justify “releasing snakes and scorpions on the enemy even if non-combatant women and children are also present.” Then it argues, “the lawfulness of these measures including ‘demolishing their buildings, spreading poison and smoke,” if it is not possible to capture or dominate them without resorting to these practices”. Having thus “established” the justification of a terror attack against civilians, the Taliban scholar then goes on to justify the destruction of American cities and questions the sanity of any Muslim who declares “killing the Americans in New York and Washington as unlawful.”
These arguments are made quoting several reputed medieval jurists of the stature of Imam Nawawi, Allama Ibn Qudāmah al-Maqdīsī, Imām al-Bayhaqi and Al-Sahihain. (Al-Sahihain refers to Sahih al-Bukhari and Shahih al-Muslim, the two books of Ahadith, considered the most authentic sources of Islamic faith after the holy Qur'an).
Taliban scholar Al-Abeeri concludes: “Therefore, given the arguments from Shariah, it can be said that whoever said that killing the Americans in New York and Washington is unlawful actually shoots in the dark. He is saying this in ignorance. Killing the enemy by burning or drowning, destroying or damaging buildings to capture them or terrifying the enemy are the points on which the majority of scholars of Islam agree. This practice was followed by the holy companions of the Prophet. How can then someone who is blind in the love of the Americans question something which is authenticated by the Quran and the Hadith.” (Nawa-e-Afghan Jihad, January 2013)
I doubt that the American and Russian diplomats who are negotiating with the Taliban are asking them to renounce their radical interpretation of Islam. Even if the Taliban claim to have renounced these views, it would be folly to believe them, as they can justify in their minds making any false promises under the juristic principles of maslaha and taqaiyya. Allowing Taliban to come back to rule Afghanistan or even to share power initially is the portent of a disaster in the making. Doing that simply because the international community has lost interest in the region as it had following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989 is beyond comprehension.
It must be understood that whatever the ISIS and Taliban or other Islamist terrorist groups do, they are able to justify on the basis of medieval juristic opinion which has resonance with the Muslim masses, certainly with ulema (scholars of Islam) who have read and teach the same books in their seminaries. Moderate Muslim scholars are challenging these views but are far from convincing the Muslim community of the soundness of their views from a theological standpoint.
Why is this proving so difficult? Even in the brief quotes from a Taliban scholar above we have seen that Jihadists are deriving their arguments from a consensus of medieval Islamic jurists (ijmaa) and Hadith. They also quote wartime verses of Quran. Above all they quote events from established history.
While one can reinterpret scriptures and seek to change the ijma, it’s difficult to question established history. As this Taliban scholar said, “this is what the Prophet and his companions did.” This sets an example to be followed by Muslims for all time to come. This is what they claim to be doing and achieving similar successes too. For instance, they are comparing what they consider their success in defeating both superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, to the success of ill-equipped Arab Bedouins of early Islam in defeating both the Byzantine and Sassanian empires, the two superpowers of the seventh century CE.
This doesn’t mean that the Jihadist arguments cannot be questioned and countered. They can be and are. The problem is that in order to challenge them successfully, moderate scholars need to bring about a revolutionary change in their own outlook first. This they are not yet prepared to do. While taking a critical view, they seek to stay within the theoretical framework of the Shariat established by Aimma Arba, the four recognised authorities on fiqh or jurisprudence, Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Maalik, Imam Shafai, and Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal. The result is that moderates too are often arguing on the basis of the same ideas on which the jihadi edifice is built.
Let me cite an example. The self-styled Khalifa al-Baghdadi’s millenarian thesis that attracted thousands of youths from around the world, and has now proved to be wrong, was based on Ahadith, the so-called sayings of the Prophet, that had been collected decades and centuries after his demise. But when a moderate Sufi scholar Maulana Tahirul Qadri, who wrote a 600-page fatwa against terrorism, set out to counter Baghdadi’s eschatological thesis, he too based his arguments entirely on Ahadith, though a different set of Ahadith, rather than questioning the credibility of sayings gathered centuries after the Prophet’s death. Out of 600,000 Ahadith that had been collected, all but around 10,000 have been found to be either outright fabrications or of very doubtful credibility. Even in the surviving 10,000, called authentic, many have different levels of authenticity. Only the Mutawatir Ahadith, those collected from multiple sources, carrying the same statements of the Prophet, are credited with maximum authenticity. But most of the clerics, including the 126 leading religious scholars and academics from across the Muslim world who wrote a 14,000-word Open Letter to the self-styled Khalifa Baghdadi, critiquing his so-called Islamic State, stated: "... everything in authentic Hadith is Divinely inspired.” This goes completely against common sense. The Hadith was written down and compiled decades and centuries after the demise of the Prophet. How could it have been “divinely inspired,” or “akin to revelation,” as claimed by them? But clearly, even well-regarded scholars in the West, Pakistan’s Maulana Tahirul Qadri and academics from Egyptian Al-Azhar University base their arguments on the same traditional narrative.
Moderate scholars cannot come up with a credible counter-narrative to the traditional Jihadist narrative whilst conceding the very ground on which the Islamist thesis is formulated. For instance, in the Open Letter, the moderate fatwa says: "It is known that the verse ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ was revealed after the Conquest of Mecca, hence, no one can claim that it was abrogated." Then the fatwa goes on to criticise Baghdadi for using coercion. But the important thing is that even the moderate fatwa has accepted the basic premise of Baghdadi and other Islamists that peaceful Meccan verses revealed before the conquest of Mecca have been abrogated or, at least, may have been abrogated, and it is the militant verses relating to war, ordering killing of Mushriks and Kafirs, that should now prevail.
Another similar issue is the “uncreatedness” of Quran to which all schools of thought including today’s moderates subscribe. This implies that all instructions of the holy Quran, regardless of the context in which they were revealed, are applicable to Muslims for all time to come. Holy Quran gave a number of instructions during the wars that were imposed on the Prophet in early seventh century. Warriors are to fight, to lay down their lives and to kill adversaries. These are no easy tasks. Rewards are announced for following the orders and punishments threatened for not following them. But once the war is over, those orders are no longer applicable. However, even 1400 years after those wars, those instructions are considered applicable to Muslims even today. This is the position of all Islamic scholars. Modern, moderate scholars do not question this proposition. Their Open Letter says: “everything in the Qur’an is the Truth.”
The current Islamic theology of consensus of all schools of thought, called ijma, has evolved over one and a half millennium. It’s heavily influenced by the progression of history. So, much of the current theology does not justify itself on the basis of Islam’s primary scripture, the Quran. No punishment is prescribed in the Quran, for instance, for blasphemy and apostasy. But there are anti-blasphemy laws, prescribing compulsory death sentences in several Muslim countries. Several other Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia and Malaysia are currently facing similar demands. The classical Muslim jurisprudence of all schools of thought agrees that blasphemy by a Muslim is a form of apostasy which has to be punished with death, although they differ slightly on how and when to reach this judgement. This punishment, however, has to be awarded by the state after proper judicial scrutiny. But radical ulema now argue that since the Muslim states have become beholden to modern imperial powers or taghut (Satan) and are not awarding and executing this punishment, Muslim individuals have the right, if not the duty, to administer the punishment of death to the offender themselves. How would they determine if someone has actually committed blasphemy or apostasy? Only some scholar or a group of scholars has to issue a fatwa. The alleged blasphemer or apostate may keep claiming that he has not blasphemed or left Islam, but if a scholar says the allegations are correct, then that is usually the final word in an atmosphere of lawlessness that prevails in several Muslim countries.
This atrocity is based on Islamic Shariat’s Hudood laws which are supported by even our moderate ulema. The 126 moderate ulema, fielded by the global Muslim community to counter the Islamic State, take up the issue in their Open Letter and say: "Hudud punishments are fixed in the Qur’an and Hadith and are unquestionably obligatory in Islamic Law." Having accepted the basic premise of the Baghdadi tribe, the Letter goes on to criticise its implementation in the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It says: "however, they are not to be applied without clarification, warning, exhortation, and meeting the burden of proof; and they are not to be applied in a cruel manner." And so on. But once the moderates have accepted the basic premise of Hudud (Punishment) largely based on 7th century Bedouin Arab tribal mores being "unquestionably obligatory in Islamic Law," what difference does actually remain between moderation and extremism?
While Muslims concede that non-Muslims living as protected minorities in Muslim-majority lands can have a measure of religious freedom, except in the Arabian Peninsula, which is reserved for Islam, those born in Muslim families or those who have embraced Islam do not have the freedom to leave the religion. As Islam is now generally considered synonymous with a State blasphemy and apostasy by a Muslim are accepted as high treason and will be punished as such.
Twentieth century Indian Islamic scholar Maulana Syed Abul Ala Maududi described Islam as a State, justifying this proposition, but Muslims have believed in the concept, without describing it as such for centuries. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Shah Waliullah Dehlavi in the 18th century, or Mujaddid alf-e-Saani Sheikh Sirhindi in the 17th century or Imam Taqī ad-Dīn Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah, in 13th-14th centuries or even the Sufi master Imam Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad al-Ghazali in 11th-12th century, all had similar views on this subject.
In the matter of a Muslim’s relationship with non-Muslims similar consensus prevails. Scholars of all hues are united in believing that the only possible relationship between the two can be of that of the conqueror and the conquered. The world is divided into Dar-ul-Islam (the land of Islam) and Dar-ul-Harb (the land of conflict). Under the force of circumstances, a third category has evolved, Dar-ul-Sulh or Dar-ul-Amn (the land of truce or peace). But this is necessarily a temporary arrangement. Those Muslims, who are living in the Dar-ul-Sulh, have to keep trying to change it into Dar-ul-Islam in the same way as those living in Dar-ul-Harb are supposed to do so.
While sectarian differences among Muslims can be bitter and lead to each sect declaring another sect apostate, there is complete unanimity on the Muslim dream that, as Maulana Dr Israr Ahmad of Pakistan put it, “the past glory and grandeur of the Muslim Ummah should be realised.” His mentor Maulana Abul Al’a Maududi had shown the way, in the following words that present a summary of his arguments: “while non-Muslims can be allowed to live as second-class citizens and follow their ungodly beliefs, they cannot be allowed to rule any part of the world. Non-Muslims have to be dislodged from power everywhere. Islam demands sovereignty of God to be established the world over, not in any one small part.”
“Iqamat e Deen,” (establishing the religion of Islam in the world), Maulana Maududi said was a Muslim’s primary duty. So, when an opportunity arises to dislodge Soviet Union from Afghanistan and replace it with a fundamentalist Islamic state, many Muslims from around the world listen to the call. Similarly, when an opportunity arises to remove United States from regions in Iraq and Syria, and Afghanistan, many listen to the call. These are considered golden opportunities to perform Jihad and do one’s religious duty.
So now, when the US has decided to leave both areas, a wave of joy engulfs the Islamist world, filling it with new energy to continue with its dream of eradicating non-Islam, particularly the main enemy, Shirk (polytheism, but mainly idol-worship) from the world. For a deeply religious Muslim, a graduate of a madrasa, in particular, Muslims are one nation (al-Islam millat-e-waheda) and all non-Muslims are another separate nation (al-kufr millat-e-waheda). For most Muslims there is no difference between a Christian, a Jew, or an Atheist, a Deist or an ex-Muslim or those deemed apostates. And their job is to eradicate kufr (disbelief), shirk (polytheism, idol-worship) and irtidad (apostasy) from the face of the earth and establish Islam’s dominion in the world.
What do the moderate ulema say on this issue? Surprising, but they actually seem to justify the destruction of idols. Read the following from the Open Letter:"Your (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s) former leader, Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi said: ‘In our opinion, it is obligatory to destroy and remove all manifestations of shirk (idolatry) and to prohibit all means that lead to it because of (a great Muhaddith, an authority on Hadith) Imam Muslim’s narration in his Sahih (book of authentic Hadith): on the authority of Abu Al-Hiyaj Al-Asadi, Ali ibn Abi Talib said: ‘Should I not tell you what he [i.e. the Prophet pbuh] sent me to do: not to leave a statue without obliterating it nor a raised grave without levelling it.’ However, even if what he said were true, it does not apply to the graves of Prophets or Companions, as the Companions were in consensus regarding burying the Prophet (pbuh) and his two Companions, Abu Bakr and Omar, in a building that was contiguous to the Prophet’s Mosque."
The impression is unmistakable that the moderate ulema are only opposed to the destruction of "the graves of Prophets or Companions," and not to the supposed obligation to destroy and remove all manifestations of shirk (idolatry). So, the implication is that, according to these moderate scholars, the Taliban were justified in destroying Bamian Buddhas. This is not conducive to maintaining inter-faith relations in contemporary world where all civilised peoples respect each other's right to practise their religion, where Islam itself is protected and defended despite the terror activities in its name.
On the issue of the need for a global Caliphate the moderate ulema again concur with the basic proposition of the Baghdadi clique. They say: "There is agreement (ittifaq) among scholars that a caliphate is an obligation upon the Ummah. The Ummah (global Muslim community) has lacked a caliphate since 1924 CE." Then it goes on to criticise Baghdadi for lack of consensus from Muslims, etc. and accusing him of sedition, fitna, etc in fairly strong language. But the problem remains the same. Moderate ulema agree with Baghdadi on the basic premise of the so-called “obligation of the umma to have a global caliphate.” This is absurd in this day and age. And coming from moderate Islamic scholars from around the world, it is absolutely ridiculous. It is important to realise that the holy Quran also does not call for a global Khilafat.
Clearly both the Baghdadi group (ISIS) and moderate ulema are equally outdated, seemingly continuing to live in the 7th century CE. Neither the extremists nor the moderates accept modern, multi-cultural, sovereign nation-states in which all citizens have equal rights to freely express themselves and practise their religion and whose borders cannot be altered through conquest. The only way a global caliphate on the medieval lines can be established if the so-called Islamic State was able to conquer the whole world and declare its leader as a Caliph of global Muslims community. It is this aspect that the moderate scholars are questioning. How can Baghdadi be a caliph for the global Muslim community without conquering large chunks of land even in the Middle East, they are asking. They are not questioning the medieval system of expanding territories by conquest.
Islamists certainly and it would appear even moderates, still live in the world in which the greatest Sufi scholar Imam al-Ghazali (1058-1111) had asked them to go to Jihad at least once a year so as to extend the boundaries of Islam. A realistic appraisal of any situation is beyond them. If you knew their history you would understand their irrationality. Indian ulema had, for instance, gone to 14th century Muslim ruler Mohammad bin Tughlaq (the Sultan of Delhi from 1325 to 1351) and told him that all the Mushrikeen (idol-worshippers) of India, i.e., 80 per cent of the Indian population, should be declared Mushrik and killed as punishment for Shirk, the biggest crime in Islam. Tughlaq, of course, did not listen to them.
This fanaticism and psychological distance from reality among ulema is not merely an Indian phenomenon. The Turkish ulema did not allow the Khilafat-e-Usmania (Ottomans), one of the largest empires in history, to import printing press from Europe for close to four centuries, claiming this was an invention of the devil. The Muslim backwardness of today started from that fatwa. In 1940s and 1950s, the major debate in the Muslim community around the world was if religion permits the use of loud speakers and radio. Later when television became available the same debate consumed a lot of our attention for years. Even today Deoband ulema, whose madrasas produced the Taliban, have allowed the use of internet only for propagation of Islam. But the most unfortunate part is that the Muslim community as a whole continues to remain under the stranglehold of ulema even today.
Until genuinely moderate Muslim scholars are able to question these theological notions about Islam and State successfully, and establish a new modern, pluralist and peaceful theology of Islam, it would be a folly to leave these elements to fester and multiply. They have and can cause much more damage to world peace. The world should unite in providing, as I said before, the moderate Muslims time and space to introspect, contest this theology of violence and exclusion and replace it with a theology of peace and pluralism.