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Is ISIS Actually Bad? Un-Islamic?

By Pervez Hoodbhoy

October 14, 2017

PAKISTAN’S military and government have proscribed the militant Islamic State (IS, aka Daesh) group and declared it an enemy organisation. They have never explained why. Of course, IS’s atrocities — which include beheadings, crucifixions, suicide bombings, and intimidation of civilians in captured territories — have been condemned by many. It is also a fact that IS has killed many more Muslims than non-Muslims. But is IS to be faulted for bad tactics or is its goal to create an Islamic state in Pakistan itself wrong? Should attempts to make a global caliphate be condemned or, instead, assisted?

Our generals and politicians would rather bomb IS than argue logically against it because they know IS’s stated goal resonates with millions of ordinary Pakistanis. Through its internet machinery, IS declares it will establish God’s principality (mumlikat-i-khudadad) headed by a righteous caliph who would govern by God’s law. For this to happen territory must be seized and secured, idolatry and heresy eliminated, and the immoral mixing of men and women stopped. This is sweet music to many Pakistani ears.

IS literature claims that Muslims can properly practise their faith only in an Islamic state. This also resonates perfectly. The leader of Kashmiri separatists and a member of the Jamaat-i-Islami, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, put it succinctly: “It’s as difficult for a Muslim to live in a non-Muslim society as it is for a fish to live out of the water.”

More support comes from Allama Iqbal, Pakistan’s celebrated poet-philosopher who declared that the ultimate goal of Muslims is to create a caliphate. In his influential 1934 lectures The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Iqbal said: “In order to create a really effective political unity of Islam, all Muslim countries must first become independent: and then in their totality they should range themselves under one caliph. Is such a thing possible at the present moment? If not today, one must wait.”

Pakistan’s generals and politicians would rather bomb IS than argue logically against it.

With such a powerful voice advocating the caliphate as an eventual goal, should one then accept IS’s vision as authentically Islamic? Does IS genuinely represent Muslim thought and Muslim aspirations today? For two strong reasons — the ones that generals and politicians fail to articulate — I think not.

First, IS claims its legitimacy through Islam. But this is futile. IS’s takfiri Islam is definitely not mainstream Islam. This one particular strain must be contrasted against countless gentler, differently reasoned, more humane forms that reject IS’s harsh interpretations. To say which one of these is the truer Islam is irresolvable since Islam does not have a central authority like the pope.

But IS wants ‘purification’ and so those Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims who disagree with its version have been declared apostates, stoned, killed, and had their hands and feet cut off. Like the Afghan Taliban, IS delights in destroying humanity’s common heritage. It despises archaeology, women and non-Muslims. Even if some Muslims agree with IS’s deeds, most reject them.

Second, IS’s claim that Islam insists upon a caliphate is not supported by the Holy Quran. Every Islamic scholar has to agree that the Quran does not mention a territorial Islamic state. In fact, there is no word for a territorial state in classical Arabic. That which comes closest today is Daulah but this word acquired its current meaning well after the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, when the European concept of a geographically defined nation-state was born.

Islam’s greatest sociologist and political scientist, Ibn-i-Khaldun (1332-1406), had emphatically rejected the concept of an Islamic state and opposed using religion in politics. Others such as al-Mawardi (earlier) and Syed Abul Ala Maudoodi (later) thought otherwise, but all agree that the holy texts are not governance manuals.

Quarrels among scholars would have been stilled if the Quran or hadith had defined even the broad outlines of statehood. However these texts provide no hint of an executive or of government ministries. How should administrative units be determined, and the police or army organised. Would there be jails?

Most tellingly, the holy texts leave us guessing on how an Islamic state’s ruler is to be chosen and what might be legitimate cause for his removal. To this day there are furious disagreements as to whether Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) did or did not specify his successor — or even a procedure for determining one. This created an enduring schism on how to select the next leaders of the faithful. So, for example, is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi acceptable as the present caliph or should it be someone else?

There can surely be hugely different opinions on religious and political matters, including whether a caliphate is desirable or possible in a globalised world. These are tolerable, arguable differences. But what Pakistan absolutely must not tolerate is messianic radicalism that encourages the killing of innocents after labelling them kafirs. Whether a group is anti-Pakistan (IS, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan), or pro-Pakistan (Afghan Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad) is irrelevant. Every group that calls for violence against civilians inside or outside national borders should be banned. A victory of religious fanatics would ensure limitless suffering and the destruction of every Muslim society on this planet.

So far ideologically unchallenged, ISIS is now fast increasing its presence across Pakistan and particularly in Balochistan. Even as it loses territory in Iraq and Syria, its propaganda units are trying to create new generations of religious extremists, much as they have done in Europe. Decrying IS as a rogue movement is insufficient to reverse this trend. It is also futile to claim that IS has nothing to do with Islam because its leadership carefully quotes supportive holy doctrines to justify every major atrocity. Therefore IS must first be defeated on ideological grounds — military action can come later if necessary.

Counter narratives to radicalisation do exist within the Islamic paradigm. A meeting of Ulema called by the National Counter Terrorism Authority that I attended earlier this year cogently argued that radical Takfiri groups depart from Islamic tradition and that their interpretation of Islamic sources is incorrect. But these wise recommendations, like many before them, have met obscurity. No Pakistani civil or military leader of significance has had the courage to endorse or own them. Extremism can breed rapidly in this climate.