Establishment Islam’s spiritual leaders start to hit back at ISIS
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Establishment Islam’s spiritual leaders start to hit back at ISIS

For some mainstream clerics across the Arab world, the Islamic State is both a religious travesty and a PR problem

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand Sheik of Cairo's Al-Azhar, in a photo from 2011 [photo credit: AP]
Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand Sheik of Cairo's Al-Azhar, in a photo from 2011 [photo credit: AP]

When radical Jihadists of the Islamic State, formerly knows as ISIS or ISIL, captured the city of Mosul in northern Iraq in early August and began driving out the city’s ancient Christian community, Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi could be silent no more.

“These acts contradict Islamic law and Islamic morals, and do nothing but tarnish the image of Islam and Muslims,” wrote the octogenarian Egyptian cleric in a statement published by his Qatar-based organization, the International Union of Muslim Scholars.

“The Union demands the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — which has harmed Muslims by declaring the alleged Caliphate — to allow the Christians of Mosul to return to their homes, for they are the original inhabitants of Iraq and are no intruders.”

With the stated aim of tearing down the so-called “Sykes-Picot” borders demarcated by the colonial powers following World War I, the Islamic State poses a foremost threat to the Arab regimes it is attempting to override. It took a little while, but these regimes have awoken to threat of Islamist extremism, and begun using the most effective means in their toolbox to combat it: religious discourse, delivered by the countries’ establishment clerics.

Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi speaks to a crowd in Cairos Tahrir Square, February 2, 2014 photo credit: Khalil Hamra/AP
Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi speaks to a crowd in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, February 2, 2014 (photo credit: Khalil Hamra/AP)

These clerics, often employed by the state, are using a mix of emotive religious admonitions and practical arguments to sway believers away from the noxious allure of militant Islam, challenging ISIS’s notions of religious piety and its interpretation of genuine Islamic sovereignty.

Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta, the country’s central institution of Islamic research, published a statement on its website June 13 arguing that joining ISIS was “Islamically prohibited,” since the organization strives “to destroy the country and distort the image of Islam worldwide.”

The Islamic State, the short statement continued, was “bending the meaning of texts and misinterpreting Islamic laws in order to justify its extremist, bloody actions.” In addition, its actions could be “used as an excuse for foreign intervention” by “enemies of Islam” who would wreak havoc in Arab countries.

Rallying believers against a common, consensual enemy is another common way of drawing Muslims to the “good” side. In case the term “enemies of Islam” wasn’t clear enough in the Dar al-Ifta statement, Egypt’s top cleric Ahmad Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University, said that IS and other terrorist groups were “a colonial creation working in the service of global Zionism in its new version.”

Kashmiri demonstrators hold up a flag of the Islamic State during a demonstration against Israel, in downtown Srinagar on July 18, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Tauseef MUSTAFA)
Kashmiri demonstrators hold up a flag of the Islamic State during a demonstration against Israel, in downtown Srinagar on July 18, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Tauseef MUSTAFA)

“It is painful that these inhumane crimes are being perpetrated under the guise of the Caliphate and recreating the Islamic state, and in the name of Islam which is the religion of mercy,” Tayyeb said in a September speech before visiting Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faysal in Cairo.

Qaradawi, the Egyptian scholar, told Turkey’s Anadolu Agency why IS couldn’t possibly declare a Caliphate unilaterally. A Caliphate, he explained, could only be formed by a group states governed by Islamic law with the consent of their rulers and population, joining together in a federation or confederation. There was no reason preventing Muslims from uniting politically, he added, but such a union cannot be done “as it was in the past.”

Young Muslims were joining IS, he opined, as a result of “the situation and the corruption of [Arab] leaders.”

“Islam rejects extremism,” he said. “Every 100 years the religion requires renewal of its faith and concepts.”

Saudi Arabia, with its long experience of religion-based de-radicalization programs, has also mobilized its top cleric, Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz Aal Ash-Sheikh, in the fight against IS.

In a long-winded statement laden with religious language and published by the official Saudi news agency on August 19, Aal Ash-Sheikh likened IS to the Kharijites — a group of extremists in early Islam which rebelled against the Caliph Ali and subsequently broke away from the religion — saying the new group “has nothing to do with Islam.”

In this Sept. 9, 2010 file photo, Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, and head of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, Sheik Abdul-Aziz Al-Sheik, prays at the Imam Turki bin Abdullah mosque in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia photo credit: AP/Hassan Ammar)
In this Sept. 9, 2010 file photo, Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, and head of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, Sheik Abdul-Aziz Al-Sheik, prays at the Imam Turki bin Abdullah mosque in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia photo credit: AP/Hassan Ammar)

The Saudi cleric lambasted IS for challenging the sacred authority of Arab leaders and sowing dissent, or fitna, within the Islamic community; a mortal crime for any believer.

Rather than blame external forces for the creation or perpetuation of IS, Aal Ash-Sheikh, a representative of the ultra-traditional Saudi regime, called for “uniting the educational, cultural and developmental efforts to strengthen the ideology of moderation stemming from Islamic Sharia.”

Are beheadings sanctioned by Islam? asked a legal question posted on the website of the Union of Syrian Clerics, an opposition group, citing a Hadith, or oral Islamic tradition, in which a companion of the Prophet Muhammad supposedly approved of the decapitation of Kharijites and the public display of their severed heads in Damascus.

After dispelling the authenticity of the oral tradition, the public relations argument was invoked by the answering scholar.

“Imam al-Shafi’i (an 8th century scholar – E.M) said that religious rulings are contingent upon time, place and the individual concerned. We are living in a time where calling people to Islam requires improving its image … beheadings gravely harm that goal, driving people away from the religion and hurting the [Syrian] revolution,” the answer read.

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