Western policy-makers and academics have focused in recent years on the need to provide an effective counter-narrative to the global jihadist movement.1 2 The common threads in radicalization literature suggest a critical element of the counter-narrative should be undermining the theological authenticity of jihadist ideology. A recent literature review highlighted the role misinterpreted religious authority can play in justifying violence, reducing “moral inhibitors,” and displacing personal responsibility.3 Furthermore, it emphasized some central themes in the extremist narrative: re-conceptualizing radicalization as ideological socialization away from the mainstream, dividing the world starkly into Islamic and non-Islamic lands, and de-legitimizing the existing political order.4
In practice, many Muslim interventionists working in de-radicalization programs in community and custodial environments in the United Kingdom (UK) believe that challenging the perceived religious authenticity of the global jihad narrative is integral to their work.5 Our aim in this paper is to describe and respond to the typical theological reasoning advanced by jihadists in support of their extremist political ideology and violent activities to demonstrate that their arguments are not, as they claim, based on Islamic consensus or traditionally recognized interpretations of classical Islamic sources.6
We analyze concepts critical to the worldview espoused by the global jihadist group al-Qaeda and the irredentist groups Hamas and Lashkar-e-Ta’iba to illustrate the typical arguments advanced by proponents of jihadist ideology as a whole. Identification of key tenets is based on their significance in framing and popularizing an extremist worldview and in efforts to legitimize violent jihadist tactics. As such, they can be found across the groups’ foundational literature and are repeated by leading ideologues as well as echoed by other individuals or groups. This leads to a self-reinforcing of the movement’s core messaging and explains, in part, the durability of the extremist narrative. The theological counter-arguments put forward in this paper are based on alternative readings of scripture citing mainstream scholars from the four medieval Sunni schools and their authorities in Islamic law7 and are informed by study at al-Azhar University in Cairo.8 We rebut major claims made by jihadists as a whole and, where possible, cite major scholars respected across the Islamist spectrum.9
Understanding the Extremist Narrative
Central to the jihadist worldview is the binary division of the world. On one side is Dar al-Islam (‘lands of Islam’), land under Muslim control that implements the religious principles of shari‘a (‘Islamic principles and law’) as divine law. On the other is Dar al-Harb (‘lands of war’) or Dar al-Kufr (‘lands of disbelief’), land that is not governed by an Islamist state. Jihadist cleric Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (1959–present), the “most influential living Jihadi Theorist,”10 claims juridical authority for the designation of states where perceived non-Islamic rules are dominant as Dar al-Kufr:
And we hold the view of the jurists regarding the dar wherein if the laws of kufr were uppermost and the dominance therein was for the kuffar [‘unbelievers’] and their legislations then it is dar al-kufrz. [...] just as the term dar al-Islam is applied upon the abode in which the laws of Islam are uppermost, even if the majority of its inhabitants are kuffar as long as they are submitting to the rule of Islam.11
Al-Maqdisi believes that no state currently meets the criteria for Dar al-Islam.12 Predominant throughout al-Qaeda literature, therefore, is the corresponding claim that Muslim leaders submit to the West, do not adhere to the shari‘a correctly, and are, therefore, legitimate enemies. Furthermore, his assertion that the implementation of shari‘a as state law is a precondition for Dar al-Islam enables jihadist groups to declare war on the leaders of Muslim-majority countries without castigating the Muslim citizens they must draw on for support.13 The result: the whole world is a site for potential conflict.
This cornerstone of modern jihadism has endured for 30 years, in part because it co-opts widely held grievances within Muslim-majority countries14 and in part because its simplicity enables jihadist groups to adapt their messaging to changing political circumstances. For example, al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden’s (1957–2011) early 1996 statement on the perceived war between the “Zionist-Crusaders alliance” and global Muslims denounced the Saudi regime as “collaborators” for permitting a United States (US) military presence in the Arabian Peninsula,15 an issue which continues to find significant support within Sunni Muslim-majority countries.16 In 2011, with the world’s attention focused on the burgeoning ‘Arab Spring’, current al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s statement of support deliberately aligned the protesters’ actions with his group’s long-standing fight against “these corrupt and corruptive rulers, the Arab Zionists.”17
The concept of reclaiming or liberating perceived Muslim land—and returning it to Dar al-Islam – is a common denominator among jihadist groups. Regardless of geographical priority, the underlying concept is the same: whether the territories were historically Islamized through fath (‘conquest’) or through da‘wa (‘proselytization’), any land previously conquered by Muslims or forming a part of historic Muslim empires is understood to be Muslim land by religious law, and so, Islamic land forever.
Bin Laden’s World Islamic Front 1998 manifesto, for example, further developed the rationale for “kill[ing] the Americans and their allies” with all three stated grievances a variation on reclaiming Muslim land.18 While the South Asian group Lashkar-e-Ta’iba focuses predominantly on Kashmir, the group’s foundational literature displays an ideological affinity with the global jihadist outlook.19 Among the eight reasons listed in the pamphlet Why Are We Waging Jihad? is the desire to return previously conquered land to Muslim control:
Muslims ruled Andalusia (Spain) for 800 years but they were finished to the last man. Christians now rule (Spain) and we must wrest it back from them. All of India [...] were part of the Muslim empire that was lost because Muslims gave up jihad. Palestine is occupied by the Jews. The Holy Qibla-e-Awwal (First Center of Prayer) in Jerusalem is under Jewish control. Several countries such as Bulgaria, Hungary, Cyprus, Sicily, Ethiopia, Russian Turkistan and Chinese Turkistan…were Muslim lands and it is our duty to get these back from unbelievers.20
As a result of the jihadist definition of Muslim land, three conditions apply: that such land must always be ruled over by an Islamist government at whatever cost, including warfare and terrorism; that it is forbidden to relinquish any part; and that Muslims must fight perpetually to reclaim it. Peace treaties thus are an act of religious betrayal and jihad a religious duty, or fard.21
The Hamas Charter describes historic Palestine as “an Islamic Waqf [endowment] consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgment Day,” explaining that “neither a single Arab country nor all Arab countries, neither any king or president, nor all the kings and presidents, neither any organization nor all of them, be they Palestinian or Arab” has the legitimacy to give up “any part of it.”22
Just as Lashkar-e-Ta’iba lists historic Muslim empires, the Hamas Charter explains that “the same goes for any land the Moslems have conquered by force.”23 Hamas echoes the architect of al-Qaeda’s ideology and former mentor to bin Laden, Abd Allah Yusuf ‘Azzam, who wrote in one of the earliest jihadist texts that:
It is not permitted to include a condition in the treaty that relinquishes even a hand span of Muslim land to the Kuffar. Because, the land of Islam belongs to no one, therefore none can make negotiations over it.24
The Hamas Charter further states that “any procedure in contradiction to Islamic Shari‘a, where Palestine is concerned, is null and void.”25 This statement unilaterally precludes peace with Israel.
As well as popularizing the religious necessity of re-conquering and repelling infidels from all Muslim lands, jihadists mandate the restoration of a Caliphate, conceived as an expansionist Islamic state under a single leader, or Caliph, from which to recover Muslim land and unite Muslims globally under one interpretation of shari‘a. Jihadists claim evidence from Prophetic tradition obligates the necessity of one Caliph and forbids multiple rulers. They further believe that such evidence is definitive (qat‘i), and permits no other interpretations. The relevant hadith (‘reported speech of the Prophet’) are:
It has been narrated on the authority of ‘Arfaja who said: I have heard the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) say: Different evils will make their appearance in the near future. Anyone who tries to disrupt the affairs of this Umma while they are united you should strike him with the sword, whoever he be. (If remonstrance does not prevail with him and he does not desist from his disruptive activities, he is to be killed). (20:4565)26
It has been narrated on the authority of Abu Sa‘id al-Khudri that the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: When oath of allegiance has been taken for two caliphs, kill the one for whom the oath was taken later. (20:4568)27
Jihadist ideologues further maintain that only an Islamist state – one that implements shari‘a, and rejects cooperation with non-Muslim states – can provide the necessary security and legitimacy for its Muslim residents. For jihadists, rejection of the perceived doctrinal injunction for a Caliphate constitutes rejection of an essential aspect of Muslim belief; as such, Muslims who disagree are charged with unbelief and then declared apostates from Islam, a practice known as takfir. As a result of their dichotomous understanding of Dar al-Islam, the religious duties to reclaim Muslim land and to establish an expansionist Caliphate seeking to take Islam to all parts of the world are enduring priorities for jihadists.
Jihad against non-believers
Jihadist ideologues popularize their message by misappropriating fundamental theological principles concerning jihad, specifically by advocating offensive jihad as a collective obligation until all citizens worldwide either convert to Islam or submit to Islamic rule.28 This was most succinctly expressed by ‘Abd Allah Yusuf ‘Azzam:
The scholars of the principles of religion have also said: "Jihad is Daw‘ah [‘proselytisation’] with a force, and is obligatory to perform with all available capabilities, until there remains only Muslims or people who submit to Islam."29
Jihadists have developed theological arguments for who constitutes a legitimate target and whether targets need to be differentiated at all to circumvent the general Islamic prohibition on killing non-combatants. Significant internal debate over certain actions (i.e. the high civilian and Muslim casualties in the 9/11 attacks and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s brutal campaign in Iraq) notwithstanding, three inter-linked lines of argument for limiting or disregarding the general prohibition have emerged: reciprocity, necessity, and collectivity.
The idea that jihad is a legitimate response to attacks against Muslims is central to the jihadist narrative, which advocates argue is made permissible by the Qur’anic verse, ‘Then whoever transgresses upon you then transgress likewise against them’ (2:194). Saudi jihadist cleric Faris Ahmed Jamaan al-Showeel al-Zahrani, for example, argues:
So it is permissible for the Muslims to treat their enemies with the likeness of everything they perpetrate against the Muslims. [...] if they target our women and children- then it is the right of the Muslims to equally retaliate by targeting their women and children- and this is because of the generality of the Verses.30
Lashkar-e-Ta’iba includes, “to avenge the blood of Muslims killed by unbelievers” among its eight reasons for engaging in jihad,31 while Hamas leaders have argued reciprocity for attacks against civilian targets. In 2002, for example, former Hamas leader Isma‘il Abu Shanab (1950–2003) stated: ‘It’s not targeting civilians. It is saying that if you attack mine I’ll attack yours.’32
The doctrine of necessity – al-darura tubih al-mahzurat (‘necessity makes permissible the prohibited’) – is a well-established principle of Islamic jurisprudence. One of the best-known and most misappropriated classical invocations of military necessity is Shafi‘i scholar Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali’s (1058–1111) disputed edict that, in a situation of vital necessity, universal benefit and certainty of outcome, Muslim armies are permitted to sacrifice prisoners of war from their own army who are being used as a human shield by the enemy.33
In his 2003 fatwa (‘religious edict’) on weapons of mass destruction, al-Qaeda-linked Saudi cleric Nasir bin Hamad al-Fahd (1968–present) invoked human shields to authorize their use, when necessary in a defensive war, even if the casualties include Muslims:
Similarly, killing a Muslim is forbidden and not permitted; but if those engaged in jihad are forced to kill him because they cannot repel the infidels or fight them otherwise, it is permitted, as when the Muslim is being used as a living shield.34
Collective guilt was central to bin Laden’s early declaration of war against the US. The 1998 fatwa invoked the Qur’an when stating that it was permissible to target American civilians indiscriminately in retaliation for the US seeking regional support for air strikes against Iraq:
The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies [...] is in accordance with the words of Almighty God, "and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together," [...]35
Hamas founder Ahmad Yassin (1937–2004) said in 2001: ‘The Geneva Convention protects civilians in occupied territories, not civilians who are in fact occupiers. All of Israel, Tel Aviv included, is occupied Palestine. So we’re not actually targeting civilians that would go against Islam.’36
One of the tactics most popularly associated with jihadist violence is the use of suicide bombings. Among the most detailed defenses of the indiscriminate nature of jihadist suicide attacks from al-Qaeda ideologues is the pamphlet, “The Islamic Ruling on the Permissibility of Martyrdom Operations,”37 attributed to the influential former leader of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia Yusuf al-Uyayri (1973–2003).38 Using the doctrine of necessity, al-Uyayri asserts that suicide attacks are legitimate not only because they are a necessary response to superior military forces, but also because of the perceived benefit they bring to Muslims and Islam:
As for the effects of these [suicide] operations on the enemy, we have found, through the course of our experience that there is no other technique which strikes as much terror into their hearts, and which shatters their spirit as much. [...] On the material level, these operations inflict the heaviest losses on the enemy, and are lowest in cost to us.39
The subjective nature of necessity and benefit, however, has precipitated a breadth of responses regarding permissibility. There is significant debate among contemporary clerics over which circumstances permit such attacks. For example, while the influential Qatar-based Egyptian Islamist theologian al-Qaradawi strongly criticised the targeting of American civilians in the 9/11 attacks,40 he had previously issued a fatwa in 1997 permitting suicide bombings in Israel due to military necessity:
And we hold the view of the jurists regarding the dar wherein if the laws of kufr were uppermost and the dominance therein was for the kuffar [‘unbelievers’] and their legislations then it is dar al-kufrz. [...] just as the term dar al-Islam is applied upon the abode in which the laws of Islam are uppermost, even if the majority of its inhabitants are kuffar as long as they are submitting to the rule of Islam.110
Central to the jihadist defence and propagation of suicide operations is the widening of the Islamic tradition of shahada (“bearing witness”; also “martyrdom”). This traditionally has applied to soldiers who die in the battlefield at the hands of their enemy. Now it is used to justify the killing not only of the intended targets but also of the attacker(s), innovating the term istishhad (“the act of deliberately killing oneself with the intent of seeking martyrdom”). The most detailed exposition of this comes from al-Uyayri, who cites evidence in support of self-sacrifice for the benefit of Islam to circumvent the Qur’anic injunction against suicide.42 He references a hadith about a disbelieving King and a boy who refuses to renounce his faith even when faced with certain death, stating that it “is the strongest of evidences for this issue [permissibility of suicide operations].”43 He relates the hadith in full as follows:
And we hold the view of the jurists regarding the dar wherein if the laws of kufr were uppermost and the dominance therein was for the kuffar [‘unbelievers’] and their legislations then it is dar al-kufrz. [...] just as the term dar al-Islam is applied upon the abode in which the laws of Islam are uppermost, even if the majority of its inhabitants are kuffar as long as they are submitting to the rule of Islam.111
Al-Uyayri argues that because “the boy […] ordered the king to kill him in the interest of the religion […it…] is legitimate, and not considered suicide.” He further cites more than 40 narrations that he argues support the seeking of martyrdom in the battlefield. He focuses on an individual fighter breaking through the frontline and risking certain death to kill as many from the enemy’s forces as possible, stating:
Al-Uyayri concludes that willingly embracing one’s inevitable death in the furtherance of Islam – either to inflict heavy casualties against enemy forces or to strengthen the steadfastness of Muslims – is self-sacrifice and presents suicide bombers as a contemporary manifestation of this tradition.46
Treachery towards one’s country
Finally, jihadist ideologues advocate loyalty to the umma (‘transnational Muslim community’) to the exclusion of any other communal or national loyalty, the most extreme endpoint of which is inciting Muslims living in Western countries to perform acts of terrorism against their fellow citizens. Yemeni-American al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki (1971–2011), who played a prominent role in radicalizing and recruiting Western Muslims, regularly preached that there was a war between the West and Islam, and that, for Western Muslims, loyalty was to their religion rather than their country. In his 2010 online statement, titled “Message to the American people,” he said:
This notion of loyalty to Islam is entwined with the jihadist conception of Muslim lands. Jihadists express it as solidarity with the citizens of Muslim-majority countries perceived to be at the forefront of jihad, either by virtue of occupation (i.e., the Palestinian Territories and Kashmir) or oppression (i.e., Syria) or by the presence or recent presence of Western forces (i.e., Iraq and Afghanistan).
The theological arguments offered by jihadists are fundamental to the resultant act of terrorism, not only in the ways the perpetrators frame the world and their aims, but also in the ways they justify the violent acts they commit to achieve them. Understanding this – and their claim to exclusive truth – is essential to challenging the ideology which inspires acts of religious violence.
Introducing Alternative Narratives
The world: Dar al-Islam or Dar al-Harb?
Jihadist groups claim that their understanding of Muslim lands is based on the four medieval schools and their authorities in Islamic law. The Islamist definition of Dar al-Islam, however, is anachronistic, since the concepts of the modern nation state and state law post-date the primary sources of shari‘a. According to traditional scholarship, the normative values exhibited in Dar al-Islam are the right to practice Islamic rules and the free exhibition of the symbols of Islam (for example, the ritual prayer; the annual fast; the building of mosques; the call to prayer; the wearing of Islamic dress; and the performance of Muslim marriage).
This is exemplified by the Iraqi judge and scholar of Muslim polity and law, Abu’l-Hasan al-Mawardi (d. 1058), and the Syrian scholar, Imam Abu Zakariyya Muhyi ’l-Din al-Nawawi (1233–1277). In his work on the ordinances of government, for example, al-Mawardi states:
In his major legal work, rawda al-talibin, al-Nawawi cites al-Mawardi’s definition of Dar al-Islam approvingly:
The criterion adopted by al-Mawardi and al-Nawawi, therefore, was that the open practice of Islamic acts was sufficient for the land to be considered Islamic land.
In his work on Shafi‘i jurisprudential doctrine, al-hawi al-kabir, al-Mawardi further states:
Al-Mawardi, therefore, considered living safely in non-Muslim-majority land as preferable to emigration to a Muslim land, hoping that Islam would spread by proselytization and virtue of the good example of Muslims residing there. For both al-Mawardi and al-Nawawi, emigration was considered a religious duty only when Muslims were persecuted, prevented from practicing their faith, and if it was practical to do so.51
The Shafi‘i position was based upon a Prophetic practice (sunna)52 that no jihad or fighting should take place in a region where the call to prayer (adhan) was heard, as the free practice of Islam indicated that the land in general was not hostile to Muslims and Islam. This is found in a hadith from the al-jami‘ al-sahih (also known as the Sahih Bukhari) of Muhammad al-Bukhari (d. 870), and in a hadith from the Sahih Muslim of Imam Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj (d. 875). Both texts are considered, by all Sunni scholars, to be the soundest of the six main hadith collections and equal in authenticity:
In al-minhaj bi-sharh sahih muslim, al-Nawawi’s respected thirteenth-century commentary on Sahih Muslim, he interprets the hadith as follows:
Al-Nawawi further argues that this evidence of Islam can be met by as few as one individual praying.56
Modern Islamic scholars have sought to reclaim this traditional understanding of Dar al-Islam. In his work on the influences of war in Islamic jurisprudence, the chair of Islamic jurisprudence in the College of Shari‘a at Damascus University, Sheikh Wahbah Mustafa al-Zuhayli (1932–present), says:
Since the Dar al-Islam/Dar al-Harb paradigm has no scriptural basis, al-Zuhayli argues that it was a paralegal description of the reality of medieval international relations. As such, he believes that the descriptions resemble contemporary categories of international relations more than they constitute any theological tenet:
Muslims ruled Andalusia (Spain) for 800 years but they were finished to the last man. Christians now rule (Spain) and we must wrest it back from them. All of India [...] were part of the Muslim empire that was lost because Muslims gave up jihad. Palestine is occupied by the Jews. The Holy Qibla-e-Awwal (First Center of Prayer) in Jerusalem is under Jewish control. Several countries such as Bulgaria, Hungary, Cyprus, Sicily, Ethiopia, Russian Turkistan and Chinese Turkistan…were Muslim lands and it is our duty to get these back from unbelievers.200
The political description of Dar al-Islam at the center of jihadist ideology is, therefore, not grounded in religious scripture. Positive definitions from the past should not be applied in a normative manner today, and the Islamist understanding should have no religious relevance in defining the nature of relationships between states in the modern world.
Hamas and peace with Israel
Islamic jurists have long considered the acceptance of treaties to be a legitimate form of recognition (both of the validity of their own polity to others, and of the polities with which they are dealing). The earliest example is the Treaty of Hudaibiyya, signed in 628, between the Prophet Muhammad (on behalf of the Muslim state of Medina) and Suhayl ibn Amr, the envoy of the Quraish tribe which controlled Mecca (the city from which Muhammad had been forced to flee in 622).
The Treaty of Hudaibiyya, however, was controversial among the Medinan Muslims. The Quraish did not accept Muhammad’s description as the Messenger of God; neither did they permit those Muslims living in hard conditions in Mecca to migrate to Medina, where the Prophet and other Muslims were living safely. While, to many of Muhammad’s followers, the treaty appeared humiliating and a sign of weakness, the Qur’an refers to the treaty as a “manifest victory” (48:1). It argued that the greater benefits facilitated by this agreement outweighed the drawbacks. The benefits included a 10-year peace, recognition of the Muslim polity, the opportunity to visit, and propagate the faith in, Mecca, the political removal of any justification for Muslim persecution, and the abolition of propaganda against the Prophet.
Integral, therefore, to the discussion of peace treaties is the Islamic doctrine of necessity or benefit, which renders normally prohibited actions permissible if they are in the best interests of a community.59 The Treaty of Hudaibiyya also engenders discussion over whether Islamic international relations are predicated on perpetual war or peace, and, as such, whether peace treaties should be subjected to time-limits. The Shafi‘i scholar, al-Nawawi, for example, believed that the Treaty of Hudaibiyya demonstrated the doctrine of need or benefit:
Muslims ruled Andalusia (Spain) for 800 years but they were finished to the last man. Christians now rule (Spain) and we must wrest it back from them. All of India [...] were part of the Muslim empire that was lost because Muslims gave up jihad. Palestine is occupied by the Jews. The Holy Qibla-e-Awwal (First Center of Prayer) in Jerusalem is under Jewish control. Several countries such as Bulgaria, Hungary, Cyprus, Sicily, Ethiopia, Russian Turkistan and Chinese Turkistan…were Muslim lands and it is our duty to get these back from unbelievers.201
Al-Nawawi explained that such treaties were permissible according to whatever the rulers viewed to be in the interest of the people while acknowledging that these interests may be disputed. He further believed that, in certain circumstances, certain evils may be accepted to repel greater evils (ihtimal mafsada yasiru li daf‘ a‘zam minha).61
Al-Nawawi also acknowledged the lack of consensus on time limits. The plurality of thought on this issue is demonstrated further by Cordoban exegete Abu ‘Abd Allah al-Qurtubi (1214–1273), a Maliki scholar widely cited across the spectrum of Islamic and Islamist thought. Explaining the verse, “If they incline towards peace then you must incline towards it,” (8:61) al-Qurtubi states that peace treaties were acceptable for a range of time frames and in a range of circumstances:
One contemporary example is the 1979 Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty. The leading Mufti of al-Azhar at the time, Jad al-Haqq ‘Ali Jad al-Haqq (1917–1996), issued a detailed fatwa justifying the treaty according to shari‘a and emphasising the benefit that peace would bring to Islam and Muslims.63 Jad al-Haqq’s long declaration, published in a national newspaper, explained that peace was the primary basis of Islamic international relations. As such, treaties should be made in the best interests of the people, and, if necessary, can draw upon other principles established in Islamic law (for example, permitting the lesser of two evils for a greater benefit). He cited al-Qurtubi to substantiate his position.64
Likewise, the Salafist state Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh ‘Abd al- ‘Aziz bin Baz (1910-1999), produced an edict – on the permissibility of both a peace that was time-limited (muwaqqata), as well as one that was not (mutlaqa) – which also referred to the criterion of best interests. Furthermore, he referenced the Qur’anic injunction, “If they incline towards peace then you must incline towards it” (8:61), and cited the Treaty of Hudaibiyya as precedent.65 Bin Baz’s fatwa has legal precedent. There is a strong legal tradition of upholding a peace treaty even if the other party is at war with another Muslim state. This is based on the Qur’anic injunction: “But if they seek your help in religion, it is your duty to help them except against a people with whom you have a treaty of mutual alliance, and Allah is the All- Seer of what you do” (8:72).
North African Maliki scholar Abul-Abbas Ahmed al-Wanshirisi (1430/31–1508) supported this principle in his collection of North African and Andalusian fatawa, the multi-volume al-miyar al-murib, which is widely considered a primary source on the social, cultural, economic, and juridical practices of medieval al-Andalus and the Maghreb. In answer to an abstract question about the legitimacy of a Muslim empire or state having relations with another state with whom other Muslim states are at war, Imam Wanshirisi answered affirmatively, and the principle is mainstream within the Maliki School.66
The function of treaties as a legitimate Islamic mechanism for recognizing the sovereignty of other states, therefore, has a long history. It is based on Prophetic practice and is recognized by classical scholars from the four Sunni schools of law. Furthermore, neither Prophetic practice nor Sunni jurisprudence prevents a Muslim state from entering into a peace treaty with Israel while other Muslim states choose not to.
The Realities of the Caliphate
Muslim scholars have differed over the necessity of having a single political leadership. For some, the hadith forbidding multiple rulers should be interpreted as meaning Muslims must prevent schisms when they are already united under a single leadership, not necessarily when there are already many different states and leaderships. Prominent thirteenth-century Maliki scholar al-Qurtubi, for example, stated that, “if the lands are distant and far from each other, such as Khurasan [modern Afghanistan] and Andalusia, then it is allowed [to appoint more than one leader].”67 A later Maliki scholar from Granada, Abu’l Hasan Ali Bin Muhammad bin Ali al-Qurashi al-Qalsadi (1412–1486), stated in his commentary on anwar al-sunniyah, the hadith collection of Ibn al-Juzay al-Kalbi al-Ghirnati (d. 1340), that the hadith meant it was not correct to have more than one leader in any one country.68
Al-Nawawi further states that while, in general, scholars have agreed that there should not be two leaders at one time, there is the possibility of different opinions, and that this issue is “outside the definitive matters (kharij min al-qawati‘).”69 Al-Nawawi then refers to the Arab jurist Muhammad Ali al-Mazari (1058–1141) and the Shafi‘i Imam, al-Haramayn al-Juwayni (1028–1085), as evidence of those who accepted the permissibility of multiple political leaders. In his text on the rights and responsibilities of the rulers, ghiyath al-umam, al-Juwayni says:
For al-Juwayni, therefore, the division of authority is according to need. Discussing the question of two imams in two separate countries, he concluded that neither could lay claim to the leadership of all Muslims.71
The issue of the Caliphate, it can be argued, is greatly exaggerated by Islamists. In fact, making political leadership a central aspect of faith and declaring Muslims who accepted multiple leaders to be unbelievers were traditionally considered characteristics of extremists. Shafi‘i scholar al-Ghazali, for example, stated:
Al-Ghazali believed, therefore, that while a Muslim denying the recognition of political leadership would be considered mistaken by mainstream scholars, they should not be considered as outside the community of believers, and that to do so is extreme.73
Civilian lives are sacred
Islamic legal tradition has consistently advocated the protection of life. According to the hadith, the killing of women and children is forbidden:
Moreover, the protection of life is classically understood on the basis of humanity, and not on the basis of creed, race, or other considerations. Fourteenth-century Somali jurist and scholar Uthman bin Ali Zayla‘i (d. 1342), for example, wrote: “We do not accept that the basis of moral inviolability is Islam, rather it is humanity.”76
The sanctity of life unites Islamic scholars past and present and the prohibition on the killing of women and children is one of the few areas upon which there is consensus. In his commentary on umdat al-ahkam, a respected hadith collection by Hafiz ‘Abd al-Ghani al-Maqdisi (d. 1203), for example, Shafi‘i scholar Ibn Daqiq al-‘Id (d. 1303) states that the hadith prohibiting the killing of women and children during war are muttafaq ‘alayhi (‘agreed upon’), meaning that the two foremost hadith compilers, al-Bukhari and Muslim, agreed on its authenticity:
Suicide attacks are not martyrdom
Suicide attacks, like conventional attacks, contravene the consensus prohibiting the killing of women and children and the sanctity of life that runs throughout the primary sources of shari’a. Despite claims to the contrary, neither the exhortation of suicide operations displayed by jihadist ideologues nor the qualified support offered by Islamist clerics is endorsed by classical Islamic jurisprudence on warfare. In fact, traditional rulings on the behavior of those undertaking jihad – specifically the injunction to protect life (both their own and others) and the requisite criteria for permitting the killing of Muslim prisoners – fail to support either the jihadists’ conflation of suicide and martyrdom or their use of the ‘human shield’ defence.
In classical Islamic literature there is no explicit discussion of suicide missions. Relevant rulings, however, can be found in the context of women on the battlefield. In his collection of North African and Andalusian fatawa, fifteenth-century Maliki scholar al-Wanshirisi, for example, answers a question about the legitimacy of those undertaking jihad attacking women. Assuming the legitimacy of warfare had been established, the majority view among classical jurists was that women could only be attacked if they were actively involved in combat on the battlefield. Part of al-Wanshirisi’s explanation for this is used by modern scholars to forbid suicide operations.
Specifically, al-Wanshirisi cited an edict from an earlier Maliki jurist, Abu’l Abbas al-Amareedh. It stated that a Muslim soldier is prohibited from fighting women and children unless they were physically attacking him and he was likely to lose his life if he refrained. If, in the course of defending himself, al-Amareedh explained, the women or children are killed then “there is no censure.” It would not be permissible, however, for a Muslim soldier not to defend himself when capable and die as a result, because “being the cause (mutasabbib) of one’s own death is haram (forbidden).”78 From this and similar edicts regarding conduct on the battlefield, contemporary scholars have concluded that the act of self-detonation can never be permitted,79 a position which excludes the jihadist equivalence to martyrdom.
Contrary to al-Qaradawi’s exhortations of the ‘human shield’ defence in relation to suicide attacks in Israel, the majority position of the four Sunni schools is that attacking a human shield is never permissible. In his commentary on the Hanbali scholar Majd ul-Din Ibn Taymiyya’s (d. 1255)80 hadith collection muntaqa al-akhbar, al-Shawkani states:
The use of al-Ghazali’s edict on human shields to support suicide bombings, therefore, diverges from classical sources of Islamic law and does not conform to the cultural heritage within the four traditional schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence.
Homeland – treachery is prohibited in Islamic law
While jihadists misappropriate Muslim loyalty to their religion, Islamic law traditionally does not permit Muslims to engage in hostile acts against the land in which they live, regardless of whether that country is Muslim-majority or not. For example, classical Islamic scholars recognised that, in lands where people’s security was granted by law, there was a social contract or covenant between the people and the state. From that covenant followed an agreement among the Sunni and Shi‘i schools that breaking the laws of the land is forbidden.
The mutual recognition of rights and responsibilities accorded by a covenant was advocated by one of the most respected authorities on the Zaydi-Shi‘i School, Imam Ahmad bin Yahya al-Murtadha (1362–1436).82 In his seminal work on fiqh, matn al-azhar fi fiqh al-a’immah al-athar (commonly known as kitab al-azhar), al-Murtadha stated that the granting of aman (‘safe passage’) through hostile territory to a Muslim and his property obliges Muslims to grant the same for members of that community and that any property taken by force should be returned.83 He further stated that as part of the covenant it is mahdhur (‘forbidden’) to violate the shurut (‘conditions’; sg. shart) of that territory.84
The founders of the Shafi‘i and Hanafi’i schools, Imam al-Shafi‘i (767–820) and Abu Hanifa, also advocated aman, and the concept is considered mainstream within their respective schools. In his legal text al-muhadhab, for example, eleventh century Shafi’i Imam and legal specialist Abu Ishaq ibn Ibrahim al-Shirazi (1003–1083)85 wrote:
In his work on al-Nawawi’s famous commentary on al-muhadhab, contemporary scholar Muhammad Najib al-Muti’i states that this view was shared by Imam al-Shafi’i.87 Al-Muti’i further states that while Abu Hanifa also forbade the violation of property rights afforded to an individual by aman and referred to such violation as a religious sin, he did not legally oblige that the wealth be returned.88
The sixteenth-century Shafi‘i jurisprudent, Ibn Hajar al-Haythami (1504–1567), also understood that such protection is mutual and, therefore, obliges Muslims to protect non-Muslims with whom they have a covenant. When Muslims are given freedom to practice their faith and live freely within non-Muslim-majority countries or under non-Muslim rule, for example, they are obliged to defend the resident country in the event of attack. Moreover, all Muslims around the world are obliged as well. In fath al-jawwad, for example, al-Haythami writes:
He further states that this is wajib (‘a necessary part of the shar’ia’90).
Many contemporary Islamic scholars apply the classical position regarding oaths to the situation of all Muslims living in non-Muslim-majority countries today. Mauritanian Mufti bin Bayyah, for example, argues that Muslim citizens of European states benefit from religious freedom, and are obliged to adhere to the social contract (including obeying state law), as evidenced by the Qur’anic verse, “O you who have attained faith! Fulfil your agreements” (5:1). Bin Bayyah states that these rules also extend to Muslim residents, insofar as: they have chosen to enter and live in non-Muslim-majority countries under a covenant or agreement, and God has “obliged us with obedience to the law.”91
The ideas outlined in this paper are intended to show the type of arguments that can be used to refute the claims made by Islamist militants and extremists. They have been well-received in both progressive and conservative political and religious circles, as well as among activists and scholars. The original report published by the Henry Jackson Society (UK) on which this paper is based received endorsements from Muslim scholars in the UK, former leaders of European jihadist networks, and academics and security experts across Europe. All focused on the importance of work in which, as one Muslim legal specialist stated, “the views of the ‘Islamists’ are systematically shown to be perversions and distortions of the traditional positions of Islam.” Moreover, Sheikh Khalid Abdul Aziz Omran, the head of training for the Global Network for Al-Azhar Graduates, stated his hopes that the arguments would prove useful “in correcting the thinking of extremist groups that have misunderstood Jihad in Islam, thus harming themselves, their religion and humanity in general.”92
Understanding he traditional plurality of views and interpretations of the primary sources of Islamic law is crucial to undermining the present-day legitimacy of jihadist ideology. The purpose is to demonstrate that jihadist claims to represent “authentic Islam” as it is found in the traditional sources and interpretations of Islamic law are false. In fact, as many scholars have argued, the jihadist understanding of Islam and edicts on warfare are actually heterodox innovations. Traditional legal opinions directly refute the jihadist movement’s claim to represent the only acceptable theological approach to these issues just as they challenge the extremist idea that traditional Islam mandates or requires jihadist struggle against modernity. Most important, this helps to undermine the main source of jihadism’s current ideological and religious strength—that is, the extremist claim to be the “true Muslims” who are fighting modernity—and it helps to show that the jihadists are, in fact, heretics.
The counter-arguments to modern jihadism described in this paper are not themselves based on new ideas. In fact, many of these arguments against religious extremism are rooted in classical Muslim scholarly discussions. We have presented some of these arguments here in the hope they will provide insights into jihadist narratives and their claims to represent “authentic Islam” and also to help empower those who wish to challenge such extremism. These arguments against the narrative of global jihad have already received much attention, for example, within Islamic centers in Denmark, where counter-terrorism practitioners, activists and radicalization academics have noted their effect.93 And while some extremists and critics have attempted to impugn our intentions and others for publishing the ideas presented here,94 these critics have not attempted to challenge the soundness of the counter-arguments to jihadism that we have presented. The fact that leading Muslim scholars have endorsed the counter-arguments to extremism in this paper may be partly responsible for this. So far, the extremists have not sought to refute these traditional arguments against them, and we believe this is because jihadism rests on a deeply flawed religious and intellectual footing. Should, however, the extremists ever decide to take on this challenge, it may become the start of a larger debate within Islam whose outcome will concern Muslims and non-Muslims like.