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Anti-Extremism Sufi Islamic Scholars’ Refutation of Jihadist Theology: Relevant or Run of the Mill?

By Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, New Age Islam

1 October 2015

At a time when Islamic postulates are conflated in global media with violent extremism, radicalism, religio-fascism, xenophobia, intolerance and exclusivism, a coherent narrative of peace within an Islamic framework is indispensable. However, the question is: what are the progressive and peace-loving Ulema and Islamic clerics, particularly those with the Sufi inclination, doing about it? The extremist Islamist ideologues have cunningly worked out an effective and dangerous radical theology of violence, wanton sectarian killing and suicide bombing. But what about our moderate Islamic clerics and intelligentsia? Do they continue to stare silently or have they really articulated a well-throughout-out Islamic narrative of peace, non-violence and de-radicalisation? And if they are really concerned about it, how accurate, effective and genuine is their engagement in this critical, urgent and gigantic intellectual task? These are some of the relevant questions in the minds engaged in brainstorming effective ways to curb the menace of religious extremism in the Muslim world. 

Dr. Tahir ul Qadri’s Fatwa on Terrorism and Suicide Bombing

Perhaps, the first theological refutation of the Jihadist ideology from among the Ulema was rendered by a Pakistani Sufi cleric Dr. Muhammad Tahir ul Qadri. In an effort to correct damaging misperceptions of Jihad, he wrote a 512-page book published in London by his Minhaj-ul-Quran International in 2010. He termed his book a "fatwa” in order to complement the objective of his Islam-based methodological approach to refute the terror ideology.  Dr. Qadri argued that Islam never allowed rebellion against the regimes, even if they were unjust or oppressive. Takfiri terrorists, who declare fellow Muslims of being apostates, have existed in every era in Islamic history and will continue to exist until the end times, he stated. Quoting extensively from Qur’an and Hadith (the Prophet’s traditions, sayings and teachings), he laid down a hard-hitting argument against every brand of terrorism in the name of Islam, rebutting the justifications of suicide given by the terror ideologues. He opines that the Kharijite ideas historically emanated from the Najd region which paved the way for the hardcore Salafism with its exclusive observance of Islam that can lead to religious extremism. “Some terrorists in fact appear so devout that Hadith warns they would be difficult to target, because their pious works discourage any offensive against them. The violent jihadists' mix of piety and attractive, grievance-based interpretations of political events, especially those that appear to be against the Muslim world, serves as both a powerful recruiting tool and a strong self-defensive measure”, he argues.

The conclusion in Dr. Qadri’s jurisprudential thesis or fatwa is that Islam mandates peace, safety and security for all civilians and those breaking a country’s civil laws should be punished regardless of religion, creed, or race. Through a well-considered reading of the Qur'an, Hadith and historical texts, Dr. Qadri tried to reclaim from the jihadist ideologues a context-oriented understanding of the Islamic references that they have twisted to justify their violent extremism.

Fethullah Gülen’s Responses to Religious Extremism

The renowned Turkish Sufi Islamic scholar, Fethullah Gülen has been known for his consistent stance against the justification of violence by the religious rhetoric. Notably, he was the first Islamic scholar to publicly condemn the 9/11 attacks in an advertisement in the Washington Post. His arguments against the radical jihadism mainly rely on a robust and thorough understanding of the spirit and teachings of Islam’s primary sources, the Qur’an and Sunna – the foundations of Islam on which its core teachings are based. He propounds that “a true Muslim cannot be a terrorist and a terrorist cannot be a true Muslim because they are so fundamentally and diametrically opposed to each other, not just according to the ‘letter of Islam’ but also according to the ‘heart, soul and spirit of Islam’. (Fethullah Gülen’s specific responses against particular incidents of violent extremism, Ozcan Keles and Ismail Mesut Sezgin)

It would be interesting here to deliberate on Gülen’s response to Qatar-based Shaikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s justification of suicide attacks in Israel. He is distressed at this justification as he says:

“Apparently, Qaradawi has said that this is legitimate in Islam since they (Palestinians) have no other weapons to use. I was deeply saddened when I heard this statement by Yusuf al-Qaradawi (b.1926) because he, like Ratib al-Nabulsi (b.1938), Said Ramadan al- Buti (d.2013) and Hassan al-Turabi (b.1932) are well-known people in the Muslim world – they are not average people, they are well-known. When they speak, it is as if they speak on behalf of Islam and as a result, Islam is negatively impacted by this statement. How can he legitimise such an act? On what Islamic rule or principle does he base this opinion? That does not mean I am suggesting that we remain indifferent to what is happening there – I die with every person I see dying in those lands. But this form of action is not in accordance with the “pleasure of God” or with reason.’ (‘Kanlı Arenada İslam İmajı (Londra’da Terör). Bamteli. 09.07.2005’, Herkul website, accessed 5th February 2015, da-teror/)

Recently, he has contributed a strongly-worded article to The Wall Street Journal against violent extremism of the jihadists. Right from his initial draft to the conclusion, he keeps unequivocally refuting the terror ideology, abandoning Muslim victimhood mentality and conspiracy theories and giving concrete suggestions to combat what he calls “the extremist cancer”. His concrete suggestions include: “Muslims must confront the totalitarian ideology because every terrorist act in the name of Islam profoundly affects all Muslims, alienating them from fellow citizens and deepening the misperceptions about their faith’s ethos....when terrorists claim the Muslim mantle, then they bear this identity, if only nominally and members of the faith must do whatever possible to prevent this cancer from metastasizing in our communities.....We must denounce violence and not fall prey to victimhood....Having suffered oppression is no excuse for causing it or for failing to condemn terrorism.....that the terrorists are committing grave sins in the name of Islam is not merely my opinion; it is the inevitable conclusion of an honest reading of primary sources: the Quran and the accounts of the life of Prophet Muhammad......

It is noteworthy that Mr. Gülen helped publish a scholarly book on the Islamic perspective on terror and suicide attacks, condemning such acts on humanitarian and religious grounds. He articulated his Islamic narrative of peace, non-violence and de-radicalisation not only to the Western readers but also in his mosque sermons with congregations of thousands of Muslims. Besides, he has given interviews to Turkish, Japanese, Kenyan and American newspapers in which he categorically condemned the use of political, ideological and religious reasons to justify acts of terror.

Shaikh-ul-Azhar Ahmad al-Tayyab’s Stand on Extremism

A categorical and unequivocal refutation of the terror ideology came from the oldest Sunni Islamic university, Shaikh-ul-Azhar (Al-Azhar’s vice-chancellor), Shaikh Ahmad al-Tayyab, a former Sajjadah Nasheen (patron of a Sufi shrine) in Egypt. He stated that there are certain ideas and texts in the Islamic curriculums that have been manipulated over hundreds of years and they cannot be ignored. These erroneous ideas, he opined, have painted a bad picture of the Muslim Ummah as one characterised by killing and destruction. Shaikh-ul-Azhar’s sane voice echoed in Egypt and particularly the ruling government. Inspired by his stance, the current Egyptian president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, in his bid to contain the radical extremism, went to the extent of banning all the books and videos of all the Salafist ideologues such as Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn Abdul Wahhab, Sheikh Hasan al-Banna, Syed Muhammad Qutub and the ilk. He even blamed the previous clerical staff appointed at the Al-Azhar for rekindling such religious rhetoric

Maulana Yaseen Akhtar Misbahi and his Explanations to the Verses of Jihad

With an aim to apprise the common Muslims and non-Muslims of the true essence and contexts of the Qur’anic verses of Jihad, Sunni-Sufi Islamic scholar, Maulana Yaseen Akhtar Misbahi rendered an explanation to the most debated and critiqued Qur'anic verses of Jihad along with the interpretation of each verse. “Aayat-e-Jihad Ka Qur’ani Mafhoom” (Verses of Jihad and their Qur’anic Essence) is an exegetic work in Urdu rendered by Maulana Yaseen Akhtar Misbahi and published from his own Darul Qalam, Delhi in 2007. Maulana Misbahi is a renowned Sunni-Sufi Islamic scholar and writer in the Indian subcontinent. He is known for his moderate, broader and distinct theological views among the Islamic scholars in India and abroad. Of late, his writings and views on Jihad-related verses of the Quran came into limelight when he was picked up by the intelligence agencies for questioning in the pre-Obama-visit security sweep of Delhi. After the questioning, he was let off when it became clear that he held moderate views in his writings on Islam and Jihad.

Maulana Misbahi’s renderings on the verses of Jihad make it is clear that the interpretation of the 24 verses of the Qur’an cannot be properly done until the rulings, literal nuances and terminological implications of Jihad are taken into serious account with the related historical contexts. Given that these verses of Jihad came in particular turbulent circumstances, they actually served a certain practical purpose limited to specific time and context. And if these circumstances and purpose no longer exist, then the ruling ceases to exist, too. This is the basic principle enshrined in the Islamic texts. Going by this, Muslims should focus on higher universal values like fairness, justice, peace, security and compassion, rather than specific measures and procedures such as jihad, Qital, Jizya, taxes, establishment of the Islamic state or formation of the army under the leadership of an Islamic Caliph. Thus, Maulana Misbahi’s exegesis corroborate the basic principle employed by the moderate Qur’an exegetes, that is, considering the Shan-e-Nuzul (reason for revelation) as well as the historical contexts when interpreting even a single verse of the Qur’an. Based on this canonical principle, they conclude whether that context could or could not be extended to our time.

Maulana Misbahi’s moderate and context-based interpretation of the verses of Jihad has set an example for today’s commentators and exegetes of the Qur'an in understanding the verses and explaining them in consonance with the context and Shaan-E-Nuzul, in their translations, commentaries and exegesis. Cherry-picking the Qur’anic texts, taking verses out of context and ignoring countless other Qur’anic verses and Prophetic traditions is completely antithetical to the foundational principles of the Islamic theology. Much in the same way, throwing around baseless objections and lame accusations without conducting an objective study is also contrary to all etiquettes of justice and fairness. In fact, this is what the present-day radical jihadist ideologues and Islamophobes are doing to further their nefarious objectives; the first engaging in mischief-making and hate-mongering in the name of Islam and the latter demonising everything associated with Islam.

Mufti Manzar Ashrafi Misbahi’s 1,100-Page fatwa on ISIS

Recently, Mumbai-based Sufi Islamic cleric, Mufti Manzar Ashrafi Misbahi issued 1,100-page fatwa, in which he tried, to debunk the self-proclaimed caliphate of, IS on the grounds of Islamic law. According to recent media reports, more than 1,000 Muslim clerics across India have backed Mufti Misbahi’s fatwa against ISIS. It is the most recent jurisprudential work to counter terrorism and is indeed a welcome clerical effort to stem the tide of terror ideology. Since the fatwa has been drafted after a four-month rigorous research, it should certainly be thoroughly studied. In an effort to refute the misguiding claims of IS, Mufti Manzar surmised: “Our religion deems even those who mistreat animals as criminals. While Islam teaches us to abandon the mistreatment towards animals, there is an entity, which beheads defiles and maims people with impunity. How can that entity call itself Islamic”.

Nevertheless, Mufti Misbahi has not made it clear as to why the very idea of Islamic state or caliphate is irrelevant to this age of democracy. His rightly argues that “for an Islamic state to be established, it has to adhere to the Islamic principles”. No Islamic scholar will disagree with him. But the question still remains: can we dream today of an Islamic state fully consistent with the true universal, egalitarian and democratic values that the Prophet Muhmmad (pbuh) instituted in his state in Medina? It is not difficult to see how distant its possibility is, amid the ongoing religious strife and sectarian killings in the Muslim world. Some of our neighbouring Muslim states—for instance Pakistan, started with the claim of running their governments on the true Islamic principles. But we all witness with open eyes how brazenly they violate even the basic human rights enshrined in Islam. The continued religious persecution against the minorities makes a mockery of their daydreaming of Nizam-e-Mustafa (the Prophetic governance). They set no value upon the true tradition of governance envisaged by the Prophet, who stated, “if a Muslim causes a harm to any religious minority (in an Islamic state), I will be strongly advocating against him in the court of God” (Hadith).             

Mufti Misbahi avers that his fatwa strongly speaks about how the IS is un-Islamic and it unequivocally refutes its false claims of adhering to the Islamic postulates and principles. However, he would do well if he also clarifies the basic premise of Islamic state or caliphate, which is irrelevant to this age of democracy. Given the ongoing religious strife and sectarian killings playing havoc across the Muslim world, any theological justification of an Islamic state is completely irrelevant and antithetical to the spirit and letter of Islam.  Apparently, most Islamic scholars and Ulema engaged in counter-terrorism task hardly expose and refute the terrorists' theology. Their refutation would work wonder if it included an extensive review, refutation and correction of their misinterpretation of specific Qur'anic verses and Hadith references.

Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi is a classical Islamic scholar and English-Arabic-Urdu writer. He has graduated from a leading Islamic seminary of India, acquired Diploma in Qur'anic sciences and Certificate in Uloom ul Hadith from Al-Azhar Institute of Islamic Studies. After graduation in Arabic (Hons.), he has done his M. A. in Comparative Religions & Civilisations and a double M.A. in Islamic Studies from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.