Eastern-Western Debate – Islam and Violence

Islam and violence – the question of whether the terror of the so-called Islamic State or the acts of violence by Al Qaeda or Boko Haram can be justified theologically, whether they are based on Islam itself, has been the topic of political science and philosophy for some years now. For example, the German magazine “Cicero” asked the question: “Is Islam evil?” Even if there is a question mark, it is only a question mark away from the statement that Islam is evil – and only a few lines further the author comes to this conclusion. He uses the famous sentence, once quoted by Pope Benedict: “Show me what new Mohammed has brought, and there you will only find bad and inhumane things like this that he prescribed the faith that he preached through that Spreading the sword.”[1] Meyer’s conclusion: ISIS actually only acts what the prophet himself was a role model for.

Even in the German weekly newspaper “Die Zeit” with its far broader readership, it doesn’t read much better: Here, the Palestinian psychologist Ahmed Mansour underlines, without being contradicted, that the content of IS is based on mainstream Islam, which many Muslims practice in Germany. And Hamed Abdel-Samad also claims: “That religious law is supreme and accepted not only by Islamists, but by many devout Muslims.” Yes, indeed, he is right. But the conclusion that he draws from this is fatal: “This is one of the reasons why ISIS was able to conquer cities of over a million with just a few thousand fighters.”

If you think so, it is only logical to the general line that Muslims must distance themselves from the Islamic State – the fundamental proximity of Muslims to IS terrorism has only just been argued. Two things are particularly bizarre: Why do you think that German Muslims are closer to those Muslims who persecute Yazidis and Christians than to those who rush to their aid and give them shelter? Because it is precisely Muslims who are trying to put an end to the so-called Islamic State: The fight against the Islamic State is not a fight between the West and the Muslims. After all, it is first and foremost Arabs who fought the IS terrorists in Syria, as well as Sunni Kurds and Shiite Arabs in Iraq. They take in the Christian and Yazidi refugees there and care for them under the most difficult conditions.

The ignorance of the critics of Islam

After 09/11, those phenomenon came to light. Even then, even when tens of thousands of Muslims took to the streets in Europe to protest against the terror by Islamists, it was still said: “You are not distancing yourself.”

Professors of Islamic theology have clearly taken a position on the atrocities: “We strictly reject interpretations of Islam that pervert it into an archaic ideology of hatred and violence,” a statement says. Islamic authorities as well as decidedly conservative-traditionalist circles have condemned organizations like IS as all around barbaric and un-Islamic.[2] This even applies to the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Asis bin Abdullah al-Sheikh, who so far has not attracted attention.

But if critics of Islam ignore these positions and thus Islamic theology and still claim that Islam is close to IS terrorism, then – it must be said – their image of Islam corresponds almost exactly to that of the fundamentalists.

Examples of such a defamatory image of Islam can not only be found in the press. Just to pick out an example at random: In the publication of a German citizens’ initiative in Hessen, Germany, that is directed against the construction of a mosque, it says: In view of the developments surrounding the terrorist organizations IS, Boko Haram and Al Qaida, it is incomprehensible that a mosque should be built. “That all these excesses should have nothing to do with Islam can only be believed by those who have decided to believe ex officio: ignorant politicians.”

However, such an image of Islam has little to do with the Islam of the vast majority of Muslims and their authorities. This Islam, especially mainstream Islam, of which it is said that the content of IS terrorism is laid out, is to be looked at more closely in the following.

Clear opposition to IS terrorism

In order to give an insight into the attitude of this Islam to violence, the open letter from over 120 well-known scholars to the followers of the so-called Islamic State is particularly instructive. Most of these scholars come from a conservative spectrum of Islam and are not modern reformers or Islamic enlighteners. Instead, they deal with the ideology and references to the Quran of ISIS within a decidedly orthodox thought structure. Accordingly, it cannot easily be placed in a certain corner as westernized, nor can one accuse them of not being listened to by the masses anyway.

Among the authors is the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Shawqi Allam, as well as Sheikh Ahmad Al-Kubaisi, the founder of the Ulama Association of Iraq. Among them are scholars from Chad via Nigeria to Sudan and Pakistan. Obviously, they need Islamic theology to position themselves clearly against the terrorists. How else can one explain why Islamic scholars write to terrorists? They explicitly oppose the claim that IS will implement what is “written in the Quran”, as IS propagandists often use as a recruitment argument. The letter was addressed to Ibrahim Awwad al-Badri, alias “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi” and to the fighters and supporters of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State”. It also addressed those Muslims who the authors fear may fall into the clutches of IS propaganda. Al-Baghdadi, who was born in Iraq in 1971 and called himself after the first caliph of Islam, Abu Bakr, and who with the addition of al-Baghdadi asserted his claim to Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid caliphs. According to the authors, according to Islamic law, the proclamation of a caliphate, i.e. the political successor of the prophet, can only take place in consensus with all Muslims.

The authors name a total of 24 offenses of which the so-called Islamic State is guilty of: “It is forbidden in Islam to kill emissaries, ambassadors and diplomats; thus it is also forbidden to kill all journalists and development workers.” Or: “It is forbidden in Islam to harm Christians and all other writers – in any way imaginable – or to abuse them. Jihad is a part of Islam defensive war. It is forbidden without the right reasons, the right goals and without the right behavior. It is forbidden in Islam to force people to convert. The reintroduction of slavery is forbidden in Islam. It was abolished by universal consensus. It is forbidden in Islam to deny women their rights.”

Detailed reasons are given for each of these statements. For example, the authors describe it as the duty of all Muslims to consider the Yazidis as owners of scriptures: “From an Islamic point of view, these people are majus, about whom the prophet […] said: ‘Treat them like the scripture owners.’” It was accordingly illegitimate to declare them unbelievers or even to treat them as outlawed. With footnotes it is neatly documented where the quotations come from. In this case, the hadith can be found with Imam Malik and Imam ash-Shafi’i, two of the four founders of the four Sunni schools of law, therefore highest authorities.

The authors also go into the prerequisites for Islamic jurisprudence and thus indirectly deny the self-appointed caliph any authority and competence to make legally binding statements. According to the authors, the methodology was laid down in the Quran by God and in the hadiths by Mohammed and demands: Everything that has been revealed on a particular question must be considered in its entirety. The focus must not be on individual fragments. This methodology is evident from the scripture itself, including the following verse: “Do you believe in only this part of the book and deny the other?”[3]

When all relevant passages are brought together, the “general” must be distinguished from the “specific”, the “conditioned” from the “absolute” and the unambiguous verses from the ambiguous. Then the “occasions of revelation”, the asbab al-nuzul, for all these verses as well as all other hermeneutic conditions that the classical scholars have established, must be included. Only then, justice is pronounced or an interpretation is given, based on all available written sources.

In other words, one cannot interpret a verse without observing the entire Quran and all traditions. “It is not permitted […] to just pick the cherry on the cake from the Quranic verses without understanding them in their overall context” to reconcile with each other. The Islamic scholars refer to Imam al-Shafi‘i and to a universal consensus among all scholars of legal theory.

Quran is not a license to use violence

In this context, the authors also deal with those verses of the Quran that seem to legitimize violence: “Those who are being fought were allowed to fight because they were wronged.”[4] Mostly, there are those and similar verses of the second sura, which critics of Islam cite in the negative and jihadists in the positive way, in order to prove the alleged willingness or necessity of violence inherent in Islam. In contrast, the scholars refer these verses exclusively to a specific event – precisely because they have included all other texts and above all the cause of revelation in the interpretation.

Consequently, the verse only deals with the following concrete situation: In the year 630 AD, the prophet marched into Mecca to fight the pagan Meccans, thereby breaking a peace treaty that he himself had concluded two years earlier. His actions required legitimation, which is provided by the verse: The Meccans could be fought because they had previously sinned against the prophet’s community. They had driven his followers away and wanted to kill him. A general instruction for all Muslims therefore cannot be derived from the verse. The authors explain: “Therefore, jihad is linked to a lack of security, the deprivation of freedom of religion or fraud and eviction from one’s own country. These verses were revealed after thirteen years of torture, murder, and persecution. There is no offensive and aggressive jihad just because people belong to a different religion or have a different opinion.”

This reading is by no means modern or inspired by the West. Because here a method is used, that has existed in Islamic sciences for centuries. A whole branch of it is concerned with the aforementioned occasions for revelation. So one has always assumed a dialectical relationship between text and addressee and searched for the context in which a verse was revealed in order to better understand its meaning and scope. An individual case like the one described in the verse cannot serve as a precedent for other similar situations. Although Islamic law is essentially determined by thinking in terms of precedents, “it is not permitted to relate a particular verse of the Quran to an event that happened 1400 years after its revelation.”

One thing is certain: Islamic theology has sufficient argumentative resources to oppose the so-called Islamic State.

A professor of ethics and political philosophy at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce in Rome claimed the opposite in a widely read article in the Swiss paper “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”: “IS is not a heresy, […] but acts exactly according to the pattern of warlike Islamic expansion, that has recurred in history. The model is Mohammed himself. The basis of legitimation are the Quran and Islamic law, the Sharia. This is, where the theological plight of Muslim intellectuals is based: because of their religious tradition, they cannot condemn IS terrorism in principle.”

Even if the Islamic scholars bind the use of corporal punishment to strict criteria, they can be doubted. They also turn against sexual violence when they criticize the reintroduction of slavery and disapproval of the fact that the Islamic State is depriving women of their rights. But one looks in vain for a commitment to equal rights. As far as women’s rights are concerned, the authors are clearly still stuck in traditional structures. A much clearer position must be taken here and it must be made clear that corporal punishment and gender discrimination in the 21st century are not only incompatible with the values ​​of the West, but also with the ethos of Islam.

Other Islamic thinkers have already done this and called for equality. As a women’s rights activist, for example, one can argue with the spirit that speaks from the Quranic provisions or the maqasid ash-shari‘a, the goals of religion. The reasoning can be as follows: The Quran has improved the situation of women. For example, it forbids the killing of female infants, which was common practice at the time. And it granted daughters half of the inheritance that their sons got. According to this approach, however, full equality could not be established because this would not have been conveyable to the society of that time. But through the improvement that has taken place, the goal of prophecy can be clearly seen. And in this sense, equality must be achieved today. With this approach, one can also find a solution for sura 4:34, the so-called chastisement verse – the verse that apparently legitimizes violence against women: Precisely because of the situation then prevailing, violence against women could not be abolished, but the goal of prophecy emerges solely from the fact that the prophet, therefore the first interpreter of the Quran, never struck his wives.

Significantly more liberal thinkers than the conservative Islamic scholars have developed other methodologies to carry the message of the Quran into the present day, such as the method of the so-called “Double Movement” by the Pakistani Fazlur Rahman. According to him, one must first study the context, in which the Quran was preached. This is the only way to understand the original message. From this, in a second movement, the principles and values ​​that the Quran propagates as the norm can be derived.

Rahman also criticizes an approach to exegesis that regards the Quran as a series of isolated verses and thus fails to convey an understanding of the Quranic view on the world. He wrote that many Muslims did not understand that the Quran was a unit. Instead, they “proceeded atomistically”. This fragmentary treatment of the Quran has increased in modern times. But Fazlur Rahman, and with him many who were very influenced by him, go much further in content than the traditionalists – Rahman’s double-movement approach leads to an Islamic justification for a pluralistic theology of religion and not only rejects violence against people of different faiths, but even promises them a place in heaven.[5]

What connects fundamentalists and critics of Islam

As different as the approaches of the conservative scholars and the modern-liberal authors may be, the fact is that the traditionalists also assume a relationship between revelation and history and insist on the need to create even apparently clear verses to subject them to detailed linguistic and historical interpretation instead of simply taking them literally. In doing so, they consider the Quran in its overall context and always with a view to its history of interpretation. On the other hand, the process of picking out individual verses from the Quran in order to substantiate one’s own theses, as practiced by Islamic critics and fundamentalists alike, is grotesque from an Islamic-theological point of view, and even more: it is a sign of complete ignorance. The Quran is not a quarry, and suras ping pong is not part of the canon of Islamic science.

Fundamentalists, but also the well-known critics of Islam, disregard a 1400 year old scholarship, when they assume that the Quran would understand itself without recourse to the elaborate methods of its interpretation. For example, the publicist Necla Kelek’s call for Islamic scholarship shows that she has never heard of these methods: “The peace-loving Muslims will be helpless in argumentation towards the fundamentalists, as long as they are not ready to include the Quran as historical and the text to be questioned and the doubt to be regarded as legitimate.”[6] But that is exactly what Islamic scholarship has always done: It regards the book in its historical context – and not just since today. An Islam beyond its interpretation by Muslims and Muslim theology, which for their part are extremely heterogeneous, only exists in the fundamentalism of warriors and critics.


[1] Issue August 2014

[2] http://www.lettertobaghdadi.com

[3] Sura 2:84

[4] Sura 22:39

[5] Fazlur Rahman: Major Themes of the Qur’an; Chicago 1980 and Katajun Amirpur: Re-think Islam – The Jihad for Democracy, Freedom and Women’s Rights, Munich 2013, pp. 91-116

[6] Necla Kelek: Violence and Oppression in Islam. A religion of arbitrariness; www.nzz.ch

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