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Ibn Taymiyyah’s Mardin Fatwa has been distorted to provide ideological justification for terrorist violence in the guise of religion

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The Mardin Conference – Understanding Ibn Taymiyyah’s Fatwa

By Sheila Musaji

First posted:  Nov 18, 2010      

In March of 2010, an important conference was held in Marden, Turkey.  This joins the Amman Statement and many other fatwas and statements that S. Abdallah Schleifer has called an important theological counter-attack against terrorism and the distorted ideology that feeds it.

According to the Mardin Conference organizers, the following was the purpose of this Conference:

Legal edicts, or fatwas, represent one of the most important tools for the application of juristic rulings in changing contexts. They are important points of reference for jurists who derive rulings relying on legal precedents, among other sources of law. The categorization of abodes—between Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Kufr, or the Abode of Peace and the Abode of War—is an issue on which the schools of jurisprudence have differed. The views and opinions of scholars are varied; their differences, in most cases, are not a result of differences in the body of texts or applied traditions, rather they relate to the understanding of historical circumstances, political situations and the balance of military power between a Muslim state and its non-Muslim neighbors.

Shaykh al-Islam Taqi al-Din Ahmad b. Abd al-Halim Ibn Taymiyya al-Harani, who died in 1328, may God have mercy on him, issued a well-known fatwa concerning the city of Mardin. During his time and against the backdrop of the fourteenth century, war was not an uncommon occurrence for Ibn Taymiyya, who also witnessed the ensuing turbulence and social disturbance. The overthrow of a regime often brought bloodshed and spread fear among those loyal to the deposed rulers who stood to lose power and prestige. In an attempt to understand the chaos that surrounded them during such periods of instability, the populace often asked questions relating to issues of faith and doctrine.

Against the Mongol conquest of much of the Eastern lands of Islamdom and the vivid memories of death and destruction that resulted from the cities that they razed, Ibn Taymiyya was asked to issue a fatwa on the status of the city of Mardin, which was under Mongol rule. The Mongols had embraced Islam, yet were criticized by some for their lack of faithful adherence to their new-found faith. The Shaykh al-Islam was simply asked: was Mardin an Abode of War or of Peace? Little was he to know that his fourteenth-century response would find itself being cited to justify indiscriminate violence, insurrection and the excommunication of Muslims in the twenty-first century.

Ibn Taymiyya remains an important authority for many Muslims. However, some students of sacred knowledge take his fatwas without considering them within the framework of their historical context, and without examining them alongside other opinions, which would allow them to be seen as relative and not absolute. In reality, Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyya’s rich and voluminous output, like that of many scholars, can be read in more than one way, particularly when taken in parts (and not read as a whole). An example is the reading of “Jihad,” a topic that is frequently taken without sound understanding or interpretation, in an excessively literal way.

Contemporary Muslim scholars therefore have a responsibility to review and understand the heritage of well-known scholars of Islam such as Ibn Taymiyya. They must correct and guide us to a sound reading of them. This is especially true in critical contemporary matters that require clarification, such as the importance of a sound fatwa, understanding the overarching scriptural rulings, working both with sound legal maxims and with the spirit of the law, and particularly in understanding jihad, its rulings and approaches in reference to existing international conventions.

This conference was organized by the Global Centre for Renewal and Guidance and Canopus Consulting in partnership with Mardin Artuklu University in order to discuss the rules of issuing fatwas in general and the implications of the Mardin fatwa in particular. The following issues were examined:

1. Understanding the Mardin fatwa in Context: The Era and its Ambiguities
2. The Historical Significance of the Fatwa 
3. The Categorization of an Abode from an Historical Viewpoint and in Light of Globalization and Modern Communication
4. Understanding Jihad: The Conditions of Armed Combat and its Rules of Engagement—as defined by Ibn Taymiyya and the UN Charter 
5. Concepts of peace and coexistence in Islamic thought

At the end of the Conference, the scholars issued an official declaration:

The New Mardin Declaration

All Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds and Peace and Salutations be upon Muhammad, who has been sent as a Mercy unto the Worlds, his family and all of his companions.A Peace Summit Conference (Mardin: The Abode of Peace) was convened in the Turkish city of Mardin at the Artuklu University campus on Saturday and Sunday (27-28 March 2010) under the auspices of the Global Center for Renewal and Guidance (GCRG – based in London) in cooperation with Canopus Consulting (based in Bristol) and sponsored by Artuklu University.

Participating in the conference was a group of renowned Muslim scholars, from across the Muslim world, who brought with them diverse and relevant specializations. They gathered in order to collectively study one of the most important (classical juridical) foundations of the relations between Muslims and fellow human beings, namely: the (classical juridical) classification of ‘abodes’ (diyar), as Islamically conceived, and other related concepts such as jihad, loyalty and enmity, citizenship, and migration (to non-Muslim territories).

They selected this juridical conceptual distinction because of its importance in the grounding of peaceful and harmonious co-existence and cooperation for good and justice between Muslims and non-Muslims, provided that it is understood in consonance with normative religious texts and maxims, and in light of higher objectives of Islamic Law.

The organizers chose as the main research theme for the conference the legal edict (fatwa) passed by Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyya concerning the classification of the city of Mardin during his lifetime. The edict was chosen because of the significant intellectual, civilizational, symbolic meaning that it holds.

The point of it is that Ibn Taymiyya, in his classification of the city of Mardin –  through his deep understanding of the Shari‘ah and keen insight and awareness of the context in which he lived – went beyond the classification that was common amongst past Muslim jurists: Dividing territories into an Abode of Islam (in which the primary state is peace), an Abode of Kufr (Unbelief) (in which the primary state is war), and an Abode of ‘Ahd (Covenant) (in which the primary state is truce), amongst other divisions (that they had stipulated).

Instead of the classification common in his age, Ibn Taymiyya came up with a compound/composite classification by virtue of which civil strife amongst Muslims was averted, and their lives, wealth, and honor safeguarded, and justice amongst them and others established.

His fatwa is one that is exceptional in its formulation and that, to a large degree, addresses a similar context to our time, a political state of the world that is different from the one encountered by past jurists, and which had formed the basis for the particular way in which they had classified territories.

It is such a changed context that Ibn Taymiyya took into consideration when passing his fatwa, and that now makes it imperative that contemporary jurists review the classical classification, because of the changed contemporary situation: Muslims are now bound by international treaties through which security and peace have been achieved for the entire humanity, and in which they enjoy safety and security, with respect to their property, integrity and homelands.  Consequently, Muslims are interacting with others in unprecedented ways: politically, socially and economically.

Contemporary jurists also need to review the classical classification of abodes because there is a real need for a sound Islamic and legal vision that does not violate Islamic religious texts, is in harmony with the higher objectives of the Shari‘ah, and engages our contemporary context.

In light of the above, the participants presented and discussed research papers at the conference, and the following are the conclusions and recommendations reached:

First: Conclusions:

1. Ibn Taymiyya’s fatwa concerning Mardin can under no circumstances be appropriated and used as evidence for leveling the charge of kufr (unbelief) against fellow Muslims, rebelling against rulers, deeming game their lives and property, terrorizing those who enjoy safety and security, acting treacherously towards those who live (in harmony) with fellow Muslims or with whom fellow Muslims live (in harmony) via the bond of citizenship and peace. On the contrary, the fatwa deems all of that unlawful, not withstanding its original purpose of supporting a Muslim state against a non-Muslim state. Ibn Taymiyya agrees with all of this, and follows, the precedent of previous Muslim scholars in this regard, and does not deviate from their position. Anyone who seeks support from this fatwa for killing Muslims or non-Muslims has erred in his interpretation and has misapplied the revealed texts.

2. The classification of abodes in Islamic jurisprudence was a classification based on ijtihad (juristic reasoning) that was necessitated by the circumstances of the Muslim world, then and the nature of the international relations prevalent at that time. However, circumstances have changed now: The existence of recognized international treaties, which consider as crimes wars that do not involve repelling aggression or resisting occupation; the emergence of civil states which guarantee, on the whole, religious, ethnic and national rights, have necessitated declaring, instead, the entire world as a place of tolerance and peaceful co-existence between all religions, groups and factions in the context of establishing common good and justice amongst people, and wherein they enjoy safety and security with respect to their wealth, habitations and integrity. This is what the Shari‘ah has been affirming and acknowledging, and to which it has been inviting humanity, ever since the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) migrated to Madina and concluded the first treaty/peace agreement that guaranteed mutual and harmonious co-existence between the factions and various ethnic/race groups in a framework of justice and common/shared interest. Shortcomings and breaches perpetrated by certain states that happen to scar and mar this process cannot and should not be used as a means for denying its validity and creating conflict between it and the Islamic Shari‘ah.

3. Amongst the priorities of Muslim scholars and Islamic academic institutions should be the analysis and assessment of ideas that breed extremism, takfir (labeling fellow Muslims as unbelievers) and violence in the name of Islam.

Security measures, no matter how fair and just they may happen to be, cannot take the place of an eloquent (scholarly) elucidation supported by proof and evidence. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the Ummah’s religious scholars to condemn all forms of violent attempts-to-change or violent protest, within, or outside, Muslim societies. Such condemnation must be clear, explicit, and be a true manifestation of real courage-in-speaking-the-truth, so as to eliminate any confusion or ambiguity.

4. Muslim scholars, throughout the ages, have always stressed and emphasized that the jihad that is considered the pinnacle of the religion of Islam, is not of one type, but of many, and actually fighting in the Path of God is only one type. The validation, authorization, and execution of this particular type of jihad is granted by the Shari‘ah to only those who lead the community (actual heads of states). This is because such a decision of war is a political decision with major repercussions and consequences. Hence, it is not for a Muslim individual or Muslim group to announce and declare war, or engage in combative jihad, whimsically and on their own. This restriction is vital for preventing much evil from occurring, and for truly upholding Islamic religious texts relevant to this matter.

5. The basis of the legitimacy of jihad is that it is either to repel/resist aggression (“Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors” — Surah al-Baqarah, 190), or to aid those who are weak and oppressed (“And why should ye not fight in the cause of Allah and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated (and oppressed)?” — Surah al-Nisa’, 75), or in defense of he freedom of worshiping (“To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight), because they are wronged; — and verily, Allah is most powerful for their aid” — Surah al-Hajj, 39). It is not legitimate to declare war because of differences in religion, or in search of spoils of war.

6. The issue of fatwas in Islam is a serious one. It is for this reason that scholars have drawn up stringent conditions/requirements for the Mufti (the authority issuing fatwas). Of these conditions is that he must be fully qualified in scholarly learning/knowledge. Of the conditions specific to the fatwa itself is having established the proper object of application (manat) according to place, time, and person, circumstance, and consequence/future outcome.

7. The notion of loyalty and enmity (al-wala wa al-bara) must never be used to declare anyone out of the fold of Islam, unless an actual article of unbelief is held. In all other cases, it actually involves several types of judgement ranging according to the juridical five-fold scale: (permissible, recommended, not-recommended, non-permissible, and required). Therefore, it is not permissible to narrow the application of this notion and use it for declaring a Muslim outside the fold of Islam.

Second: Recommendations:

The participants in the conference suggested the following recommendations:

- Convening an annual conference in Europe to research and explore, the Islamic conception of peace, and peaceful co-existence, between nations/communities and religions.

- Establishing the Mardin Center for Research in Islamic Political Theory.

- Creating research units and departments at Islamic universities and postgraduate institutions concerned with research, training, and qualifying of potential candidates, in the area of formulating and issuing fatwas on public issues pertaining to the entire Muslim Ummah.

- Encouraging theoretical and practical studies concerned with the historical conditions and circumstances affecting the issuing of religious edicts and opinions.

- Encouraging academic and scientific studies that focus on the historical circumstances and conditions in which the edicts of great scholars were issued in the past.

- Making more effort in revising, editing, and exploring the legacy of Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyya – may Allah have mercy on him – and the legacy of the exemplary scholars, with respect to their impact on the Muslim world and what is hoped to be gained from a sound and correct understanding of their respective legacies in terms of guiding and directing both the general public and specialists.

- Referring the declaration to the various fiqh (juridical) academies in the Muslim world for the purpose of enriching it, deepening discussion around it and extending its benefit (to a wider audience).

In conclusion, the organizers and participants wish to extend their heartfelt gratitude and appreciation to all those who contributed to the success of the conference, and first and foremost amongst them the Governor of Mardin, the President of Artuklu University, and the Mufti of Mardin.

May God send his peace and salutation upon our master, Muhammad, his family and his Companions, and all Praise be to God through Whose bounty and favour righteous works are completed.

Shaykh Abd al-Wahhab al-Turayri, former professor at al-Imam University in Riyadh wrote a detailed explanation of how this conference clarified a much abused fatwa:

I wish to speak about the Mardin Conference as someone who was closely involved with it from the conceptualization phase all the way up to its concluding session when the “New Mardin Declaration” was issued.

The Conference was convened by the Global Center for Renewal and Guidance (GCRG) in cooperation with Mardin’s Artuklu University with the purpose of studying Ibn Taymiyah’s “Mardin fatwa”. The conference was chaired by the eminent scholar Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyih. Indeed, the conference was his initiative. His hope for the conference was to take Ibn Taymiyah’s Mardin fatwa from the specific geographical focus for which it was intended to a broader global focus and from the contingencies of Ibn Taymiyah’s time to a timeless understanding.

To achieve this goal, the conference needed to investigate a number of topics:

(1) A full conceptual understanding of the fatwa was needed.

(2) The correct text of the fatwa had to be determined and errors in transmission identified.

(3) A correct understanding of the Mardin fatwa must be determined on the basis of the above.

(4) The fatwa’s benefits for the present day must be investigated.

The First Investigation: Conceptualizing the Fatwa

Mardin is the region of Turkey where Ibn Taymiyah was born. His home city, Harran, is located within Mardin. The Mongols conquered and occupied Mardin when Ibn Taymiyah was seven years old, forcing him and his family to flee.

The people of Mardin were Muslims. Ibn Taymiyah regarded the Mongol occupiers who ruled them as people who were unbelievers in Islam as well as spoilers and murderers, since the Mongols carried out numerous atrocities against the inhabitants of the region. The situation in the region was one where the general populace was Muslim but living under the dominion of non-Muslim rulers.

Ibn Taymiyah was asked about the people of Mardin: Should the people of Mardin be considered as hypocrites? Is it obligatory on the Muslims population there to emigrate? Is Mardin still to be considered part of the Muslim world?

His answer – known as the Mardin fatwa – addressed these points clearly:

1. The lives and property of the people of Mardin are inviolable. Their living under the subjugation of the Mongols does not compromise any of their rights, nor can they be maligned verbally or accused of hypocrisy.

2. As long as the inhabitants of Mardin are able to practice their religion, they are not obliged to emigrate.

3. They should not give assistance to those who are fighting against the Muslims, even if they are forced to flatter them, be evasive, or absent themselves.

4. The territory is neither wholly a part of the Muslim world, since it is under the domination of the Mongols, nor is it part of the non-Muslim world since its populace is Muslim. It is in fact a composite of the two. The Muslims living therein should be treated according to their rights as Muslims, while the non-Muslims living there outside of the authority of Islamic Law should be treated according to their rights.

Ibn Taymiyah’s nuanced description of the region demonstrates something of his ingenuity in dealing with complex questions and situations.

The Second Investigation: Determining the Correct Wording of the Fatwa

The text of the fatwa is as follows:

Ibn Taymiyah was asked about the land of Mardin. Is it a land of war or peace? Are the Muslims who live there obligated to emigrate to other Muslim countries? If they are obliged to emigrate and they fail to do so, and if they assist the enemies of Islam with their lives and property, are they sinful for doing so? Are those who accuse them of hypocrisy and malign them sinful for doing so?

Ibn Taymiyah answered:

Praise be to Allah. The lives and property of the Muslims are inviolable, whether they are living in Mardin or elsewhere. Assisting those who are acting in opposition to Islam is unlawful, whether those who give the assistance are the people of Mardin or others. The people living there, if they are unable to practice their religion, then they are obliged to emigrate. Otherwise, it is preferable but not an obligation that they do so. It is unlawful for them to aid the enemies of the Muslims with their lives and property. They must refuse to do so by whatever means they can, like absenting themselves, being evasive, or showing flattery. If the only way open to them is to emigrate, then that is what they must do. It is not lawful to malign them categorically or to accuse them of hypocrisy. Disparaging and accusations of hypocrisy must be according to the designations set forth in the Qur’an and Sunnah and are equally applicable to some of the people of Mardin as they are applicable to some people elsewhere.

As for whether it is a land of war or peace, it is a composite situation. It is not an abode of peace where the legal rulings of Islam are applied and its armed forces are Muslim. Neither is it the same as an abode of war whose inhabitants are unbelievers. It is a third category. The Muslims living therein should be treated according to their rights as Muslims, while the non-Muslims living there outside of the authority of Islamic Law should be treated according to their rights.

A discrepancy has come up in some printed editions of the fatwa with regard to the final passage “The Muslims living therein should be treated according to their rights as Muslims, while the non-Muslims living there outside of the authority of Islamic Law should be treated according to their rights.”

In some printed editions, the text is corrupted to read: “…while the non-Muslims living there outside of the authority of Islamic Law should be fought as is their due.”

This change in meaning is the consequence of the substitution of two letters in a single word. Instead of the correct word yu`āmal (should be treated), the word is rendered yuqātal (should be fought). This typographic error changes the meaning of the phrase drastically.

The correct wording of the fatwa appears in the following sources:

1. The only known manuscript copy of the fatwa which is the Zahiriyyah Library manuscript (2757) archived at the Asad Library in Damascus.

2. The fatwa is quoted by Ibn Taymiyah’s student and contemporary Ibn Muflih in his work Adāb al-Sharī`ah (1/212), with its correct wording: “…while the non-Muslims living there outside of the authority of Islamic Law should be treated according to their rights.”

3. It is also quoted correctly in al-Durur al-Saniyyah (12/248)

4. Sheikh Rashid Rida quotes it correctly in the journal al-Manār.

Regarding the corrupted wording, it makes its first appearance roughly 100 years ago in the 1909 edition of Ibn Taymiyah’s Fatawathat was printed and published by Faraj Allah al-Kirdi. Thereafter, Sheikh Abdurrahman al-Qasim’s edition was printed and published based upon the text of the Kirdi edition, and therefore replicating the error (28/248).

Due to the wide availability of this edition of the Fatawa, the inaccurate wording became the one that was well known to the public and to students of religious knowledge. Likewise, when the fatwa was translated into English, French, and other languages, the printed edition containing the error was relied upon. As a result, the reputation of Islam was compromised, and also a few young people in the West who converted to Islam got a false impression of Islam’s teachings.

If the Mardin Conference achieved nothing other than to bring this error to light and correct it, then this would have been accomplishment enough.

The Third Investigation: Determining the Correct Meaning of the Fatwa

The corrupted text of the Mardin fatwa has become the basis for the legitimization of many violent and militant groups within Muslim society. Among those who used the fatwa in this manner was Abdussalam Faraj in his book al-Farīdah ahl-Ghā’ibah (p. 6), which has become a manifesto for militant groups.

Many scholars have subsequently refuted his conclusions, including the former rector of al-Azhar Sheikh Jad al-Haqq, as well as the Chairman of al-Azhar’s Fatwa Board Sheikh `Atiyyah Saqar. They successfully discussed the implications of the Mardin fatwa according to its context, even though they accepted the text as it reached them in its corrupted state. Had they known the authentic wording of the text, it would have saved them a lot of trouble.

The reason why militant groups rely upon the Mardin fatwa to legitimize their behaviour is because of the corrupted phrase “…while the non-Muslims living there outside of the authority of Islamic Law should be fought.” This phrase can be seen to imply two things:

1. The directive to fight is given in the passive voice, without stating who is to carry out the fighting. Militant groups have used this as license for them to assume for themselves the role of taking up arms against people from within Muslim countries and communities.

2. The phrase “outside of the authority of Islamic Law” becomes ambiguous in the context of the corrupted rendering of the text. It could be interpreted to mean almost anyone, starting from those who commit minor sins to those who commit major violations. This has given militant groups a wide scope of interpretation for acting against others.

Once the authentic wording of the text is known, however, what the militant groups rely upon disappears entirely. The understanding of the fatwa is completely different. The correct wording of the fatwa emphasizes the inviolability of Muslim life and rules out any possibility of placing their lives or property in jeopardy. The fatwa clearly states: “The lives and property of the Muslims are inviolable, whether they are living in Mardin or elsewhere… It is not lawful to malign them categorically or to accuse them of hypocrisy.”

Also, it makes it clear that places like Mardin are neither places where Islamic Law is implemented nor places of conflict. Ibn Taymiyah in his fatwa declares that Muslims can live there as long as they are free to practice their religion and that the Muslims are entitled to be treated by other Muslims according to the rights that they have as Muslims, and the non-Muslims who live there and who are not subject to Islamic rulings should be afforded their rights as well.

This is what the Mardin fatwa really says, when its authentic text is relied upon.

The Fourth Investigation: Relevance for Our Times

Ibn Taymiyah, in his fatwa, recognizes that the world is not to be divided simplistically into Islamic lands and non-Islamic lands, unlike many before him who held to that dualistic view.

He recognized that there is a third type of society which has aspects of both. Furthermore, he stated that Muslims can live in such societies as long as they are free to practice their religion and that everyone should be afforded their rights. Muslims should recognize the religious rights of their fellow Muslims living in those lands, as well as the rights of the non-Muslims there who are not subject to Islamic Law.

This fatwa has relevance for today’s pluralistic world, where there is scarcely a country where Muslims do not live. The conditions the Muslims live under vary from country to country. In many countries of the world, Muslim minorities fully enjoy the right to practice their faith. They are allowed to worship according to Islamic teachings and they are not coerced into suppressing or abandoning their faith. Those countries may not be part of the Muslim world, but they are certainly lands of peace and security.

We can see that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) sent the first party of emigrants from Mecca to Abyssinia, a non-Muslim country, and he did so because it was a land of security where the Muslims were safe in their religion. This was because the king of Abyssinia was a just king who never wronged the people under his authority.

This is the gist of what the New Mardin Declaration stated, which was ratified by the delegates at the end of the Mardin Conference.

Shaikh Hamza Yusuf discussed this New Mardin Declaration and its importance at the ‘Rethinking Islamic Reform’ 2010 Conference at the Oxford University Islamic Society in Britain.

Tom Heneghan wrote an article on Reuters Muslim scholars recast jihadists’ favorite fatwa in which he noted

A conference in Mardin in southeastern Turkey declared the fatwa by 14th century scholar Ibn Taymiyya rules out militant violence and the medieval Muslim division of the world into a “house of Islam” and “house of unbelief” no longer applies.

Osama bin Laden has quoted Ibn Taymiyya’s “Mardin fatwa” repeatedly in his calls for Muslims to overthrow the Saudi monarchy and wage jihad against the United States.

Referring to that historic document, the weekend conference said: “Anyone who seeks support from this fatwa for killing Muslims or non-Muslims has erred in his interpretation.

... The Mardin conference gathered 15 leading scholars from countries including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, India, Senegal, Kuwait, Iran, Morocco and Indonesia. Among them were Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah of Mauritania and Yemeni Sheikh Habib Ali al-Jifri.

S Iftikhar Murshed wrote about this conference and its’ importance in the article Reality of “Mardin fatwa” of Ibn Taymiyyah to justify mass murder by Al-Qa’ida and Taliban:

The focus of the meeting was the “Mardin fatwa” of Taqi al-Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). Al Qaeda and its affiliated networks have repeatedly invoked the decree to justify mass murder in the name of Islam.

The scholars collectively examined what they described as “one of the most important classical juridical foundations of the relations between Muslims and fellow human beings, namely: the (classical juridical) classification of ‘abodes’ (diyar) as Islamically conceived, and related concepts such as jihad, loyalty and enmity, citizenship, and migration (to non-Muslim territories).”

Pakistan, which is the world’s foremost victim of terrorism, is not even in the periphery of the dialectic among reputed Muslim scholars to defeat the ideology of extremist violence. Despite its pretensions of being a leader of the Islamic world, Pakistan was conspicuous by its absence from one of the most important meetings on this issue last year in the ancient city of Mardin in south-eastern Turkey. Today it is exactly one year that the New Mardin Declaration was adopted by globally renowned theologians and academics from across the Islamic world including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, India, Senegal, Kuwait, Yemen, Bosnia, Mauritania, Iran, Morocco and Indonesia.

The conference, which was held on March 27-28, 2010, at Mardin’s Artuklu University, effectively deconstructed any religious justification for acts of terror. The focus of the meeting was the “Mardin fatwa” of Taqi al-Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). Al Qaeda and its affiliated networks have repeatedly invoked the decree to justify mass murder in the name of Islam.
The scholars collectively examined what they described as “one of the most important classical juridical foundations of the relations between Muslims and fellow human beings, namely: the (classical juridical) classification of ‘abodes’ (diyar) as Islamically conceived, and related concepts such as jihad, loyalty and enmity, citizenship, and migration (to non-Muslim territories).”

Ibn Taymiyya was born in Haran, a sleepy little town in the Mardin region, and was only seven at the time of the Mongol conquest of the area. Though he was forced to flee along with his family, vivid memories of the atrocities haunted him for the rest of his life. Several years later he was asked whether Mardin was an abode of war (Dar al-Kufr) or of peace (Dar al-Islam). Little did he know that centuries later his response would be distorted to justify violence and insurrection.

More specifically, his opinion was sought whether the Muslims who did not emigrate after the Mongol occupation of Mardin were to be condemned as hypocrites and also whether the region continued to be a part of the Muslim world. His answer, which came to be known as the Mardin fatwa, was:

(i) the lives and property of the Mardin Muslims were inviolable and they were not to be accused of hypocrisy; 
(ii) there was no obligation for them to emigrate as long as they were able to practice their religion; 
(iii) they should not provide assistance to those who fight against Muslims; and, 
(iv) Mardin was not wholly a part of the Muslim world because it was under Mongol rule but neither was it a non-Muslim territory for the reason that its people adhered to Islam.

The critically important part of the fatwa was:  “The Muslims living therein should be treated according to their rights as Muslims, while the non-Muslims living there outside the authority of Islamic law should be treated according to their rights.”

This brilliantly nuanced formulation, which sought to avoid violence, was subsequently corrupted thereby completely reversing its peaceful intent.
The distorted text reads:

                  “...while the non-Muslims living there outside the authority of Islamic law should be fought as is their due.”

This was the outcome of the inadvertent substitution of two letters in a single word. The original decree contains the word yu’amal (should be treated) but was rendered as yuqatal (should be fought) and this minor error was to have disastrous consequences in the contemporary era.

According to Sheikh ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Turayri, former professor at Riyadh’s al-Imam University, the only known copy of the original fatwa is archived at the Asad Library in Damascus and was correctly quoted by Ibn Taymiyya’s student, Ibn Muflih, in his work Adab al-Shariah. The Syrian born reformer, Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935) also used the uncorrupted version of the decree in the scholarly journal al-Manar which he published from Cairo in association with the famous Muhammad Abduh.

It was in the 1909 edition of Ibn Taymiyya’s Fatawa published by Faraj Allah al Kirdi that the distorted text of the original decree made its first appearance. The error was not rectified and was not only repeated in several subsequent publications of Fatawa but also translated into English, French and other languages.

So widespread did the corrupted text become that even leading scholars did not question its veracity. For instance, the former rector of al-Azhar, Sheikh Jad al-Haqq and the chairman of the al-Azhar Fatwa Board, Sheikh Attiyyah Saqar, were constrained to painstakingly refute the al-Kirdi edition of the Fatawa by citing several passages of the Qur’an and the Traditions. At the Mardin Conference, Sheikh al-Wahhab al-Turayri observed: “Had they known the authentic wording of the text, it would have saved them a lot of trouble.”

The distorted version of the Mardin fatwa provided the ideological justification for terrorist violence in the guise of religion.

The Egyptian engineer turned revolutionary theorist, Muhammad abd al-Salam Faraj (1954-1982) used the corrupted text for his book Al Farida al Ghaiba which posits jihad as the sixth pillar of Islam and has become the handbook for terrorist groups. Faraj was inspired by Maulana Maududi and Sayyid Qutb of the Islamic Brotherhood and in particular their interpretations of Ibn Taymiyya’s writings. He later broke away from the Muslim Brotherhood because it sought integration with the Egyptian political process on the ground that fighting Israel took precedence over toppling the regime.

Faraj also had sharp differences with the Takfir w’al Hijra, an extremist group led by Shukri Mustafa (1942-1978), which believed that the Muslims should separate from “infidel society” and refrain from fighting till they were strong enough to launch jihad. In contrast, Faraj wanted to attack “infidels and apostates” immediately. He established the Jama’at al-Jihad in 1981 which assassinated President Anwar Sadat on October 6 of that year. Faraj was executed six months later.

The policy adopted by Al Qaeda synthesises Shukri Mustafa’s concept of migration to safe havens beyond the reach of domestic and foreign security forces and Faraj’s call for immediate jihad. Thus Al Qaeda relocated to sanctuaries primarily in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s tribal areas, north-eastern Iraq and Yemen from where terrorist attacks can be launched.

It was the distortion of Ibn Taymiyya’s teachings emanating from the corrupted text of his fatwa that the Mardin Conference effectively exposed. Its final declaration, which was the collective endeavour of some of the most eminent theologians from different persuasions within Islam, clearly stated that:
              “Only the lawful leader of the Muslim community, and not individuals or groups, could declare “combative jihad” solely for the purpose of repelling aggression.”

This had an impact as was apparent from the reaction of extremist outfits who described the participants of the Mardin meeting as “the scholars of desertion”. Al Qaeda denigrated the conference as a “contemporary surrender movement” which sought to advance the interests of the west which had embarked on the “fiercest crusade” against the Muslim world.

Pakistan continues to bleed from the wounds of extremist violence but the government is not even aware of the ideological battle Muslim scholars are waging to defeat terrorism. If President Zardari is at all serious about his pledge at the joint session of parliament on Tuesday to vanquish “the mindset that preaches violence and hatred,” the first step should be the widest possible dissemination of the New [uncorrupted] Mardin Declaration.

It is absolutely amazing that Islamophobes like Robert Spencer are able to find fault even with such an important effort to undermine the foundations of any rationale that Muslims might use to justify terrorism.  He wrote an article doing just that. 

UPDATE 11/18/2010

Anwar al-Awlaki has attacked the Mardin Conference’s Declaration on Jihad.  Jack Barclay discussed this development in the Terrorism Monitor he notes:

In his essay “The New Mardin Declaration: An Attempt at Justifying a New World Order,” al-Awlaki attempts to discredit this viewpoint with a stinging attack on both the scholars behind the declaration and their motives.

...  Al-Awlaki’s critique of the Mardin Declaration could be seen as an example of why he is such an effective communicator. Put simply, he knows his audience – largely a minority of young English-speaking Muslims in the West - and pitches his arguments at a level that is simple, emotive, and compelling. He directly addresses the issues of concern to many young Western Muslims experiencing a growing religiosity and concern about the plight of their co-religionists abroad. By comparison, as al-Awlaki himself puts it, rival “establishment” scholars use what he calls “the language of lawyers and peace activists” to offer nothing more than calls for non-violence and interfaith dialogue, while condemning their fellow Muslims’ use of force to defend themselves and their religion. Al-Awlaki poses another simple question – if the jihad is not legitimate now, while the Muslim world is under such sustained attack, then when is it legitimate?

Al-Awlaki’s essay is an impassioned critique of the Mardin Declaration, not a theological refutation. That is not to say that al-Awlaki does not attempt to support his arguments with references to Islamic doctrine. However, these references are concise and accessible, and he never allows the clarity of his message to become lost amid overly detailed, introspective debate on the finer (though by no means unimportant) points of Islamic jurisprudence. While the publication of tracts at the more detailed juridical level is undoubtedly important in shoring up perceived theological top-cover for Jihadist violence, al-Awlaki possibly knows that much of this screed may be lost on a good proportion of his audience who may possess only modest levels of scriptural knowledge. Al-Awlaki focuses instead on highlighting those issues he knows will provoke a sense of widespread moral outrage among Muslims, such as the human cost of ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Palestinian Territories, and elsewhere.

In the bigger picture, it is interesting that al-Awlaki has bothered to pen such an extensive rebuttal of the Mardin Declaration at all. While initially deriding such pronouncements and their authors as being at best irrelevant and at worst sell-outs to the jihadist cause, jihadist scholars nevertheless seem compelled to respond with exhaustive criticism and theological refutations, which may be a reflection of a perceived strategic vulnerability. The publication in 2007 of extensive recantations by leading Egyptian jihadist ideologue Sayyid Imam al-Sharif (a.k.a. Dr. Fadl) is one of the most compelling examples of how such critiques have the power to tie down al-Qaeda ideologues in high-profile scholarly debate. If sustained, such critiques have the potential to damage the credibility of the jihadist narrative and the theological undercarriage that supports it. An interesting problem for Western counterterrorism agencies and officials involved in counter-radicalization programs is the extent to which they could or should find ways to amplify or selectively redeploy excerpts of these recantations to maximize their effectiveness against the jihadist adversary.


Mardin Conference Website:

 Originally posted May, 2010