THE RELIGION GUY INTERRUPTS this blog’s usual answers to posted questions and feels impelled to highlight a development that ought to receive far more attention than it has.
Addressing the United Nations General Assembly September 24, President Obama said “it is time for the world — especially Muslim communities — to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIL” (the group also called ISIS or “Islamic State”).
As if in response, that same day 126 Muslim leaders issued a dramatic 15-page “Open Letter” to ISIL’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his followers that denounced them on religious grounds. Implicitly, the letter targets as well the tactics of al-Qaeda, Nigeria’s Boko Haram, and similar terrorist movements claiming Islamic inspiration. The technical argument relies on dozens of citations from the Quran, Hadith (accounts of the Prophet Muhammad’s words and deeds), and Sharia (religious law).
The signers of this blunt challenge, all from the faith’s dominant Sunni branch, come from 37 nations including the U.S. They include the current and former grand muftis of Egypt, the deans of the Sharia and theology faculties at Cairo’s venerable Al-Azhar University, and many scholars of similar stature, but no figures from Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment (though they could endorse the statement later).
In effect this international alliance is asserting that we speak for the true Islamic tradition and you absolutely do not. The signers say they represent “the overwhelming majority of Sunni scholars over the course of Islamic history.” The letter’s overarching theme is that God is “the most merciful” so all human conduct should reflect this. A summary of key contentions:
Killing: Islam allows defensive wars, but ISIL has “killed many innocents who were neither combatants nor armed, just because they disagree with your opinions.” This is forbidden (haram) and “one of the most abominable sins” in Scripture. Diplomats are never to be killed, and such protection extends to visiting journalists and aid workers.
Conduct of war: Combat requires “legitimate” cause, purpose, methodology, and intention or it is “warmongering and criminality.” During conflicts, Islam requires protection of monasteries, women, children, and prisoners of war. Violations of this “are heinous war crimes.”
Defining who is Muslim: Anyone who professes the faith “cannot be declared a non-Muslim,” but ISIL uses that tactic “to justify the spilling of Muslim blood” and usurp peoples’ rights and properties. It is “forbidden” to declare someone non-Muslim due to mere difference of opinion, or “to declare an entire group of people non-Muslim.”
Religious minorities: ISIL has killed Christians, looted their properties, and destroyed their churches. Yet they are not “combatants against Islam” but “friends, neighbors, and co-citizens” whose ancestors inhabited these lands since pre-Muslim times. Christians are to be respected as “People of the Scripture” and so are the Yazidis, many of whom have been slain by ISIL. These are “abominable crimes.”
Freedom of conscience: The Quran teaches that “there is no compulsion in religion.” But ISIL has “coerced people to convert to Islam just as you have coerced Muslims to accept your views. You also coerce everyone living under your control in every matter, great or small, even in matters which are between the individual and God.” Differences of opinion are “permissible” except for Islam’s universal “fundamentals.”
Punishments (hudud): The criminal penalties prescribed in the Quran are “obligatory,” but “not to be applied without clarification, warning, exhortation, and meeting the burden of proof, and are not to be applied in a cruel manner.” ISIL violates these tenets.
Torture: Islamic law forbids the beheadings for which ISIL is famous, and other forms of human debasement such as torture, mutilation, beatings, burying alive, and mass killings. Through such deeds, ISIL has “provided ample ammunition for all those who want to call Islam barbaric. . . In reality Islam is completely innocent of these acts and prohibits them.”
Politics: Against ISIL’s commands, “it is impermissible to rebel against the leader who is not guilty of declared and candid disbelief.” Also, “patriotism and loving one’s country does not contradict Islam’s teachings.” The call for Muslims from across the world to immigrate to ISIL territory violates Muhammad’s teaching. Baghdadi’s claim to re-establish the Caliphate sews “sedition and discord” and is illegitimate because such a realm would require broad global consensus among the faithful.
Religious credentials: Religious rulings and interpretations of the sacred Arabic texts require credentialed scholars able to carefully distinguish “conditional” from “unconditional” statements, to assess Hadith sayings, and to determine which Quran assertions were abrogated by later revelations. “One cannot ‘cherry-pick’ Quranic verses for legal arguments without considering the entire Quran and Hadith.” Many “sword” statements were specific to a certain time and place that has now “expired,” and it is “forbidden” to misapply these. Moreover, “it is not permissible to invoke a specific verse from the Quran as applying to an event that has occurred 1,400 years after the verse was revealed.”
Strong stuff. U.S. conservatives often complain that moderate Muslims rarely if ever challenge the radicals. Not so. Although the new letter is more pointed and timely than most prior declarations, its content resembles the international “Amman Message” from 2004 and numerous other statements from Muslims. However, these efforts gained little notice in the West and, more important, have failed to arrest the growth of violent extremism within the world’s Muslim communities. The September letter makes it more obvious than ever that this great world faith faces a moral and theological civil war that will consume years if not decades.
“Open Letter” text with full citations and list of signers: http://lettertobaghdadi.com/14/english-v14.pdf