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The (non) Islamic State: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Challenge of Islamic Illiteracy

In his book Islams and Modernities, renowned historian of religion Aziz Al-Azmeh argued that there are as many “Islams” as there are situations that sustain them. In the context of the contemporary Middle East, Azmeh’s observation is readily apparent.

While definitive studies have demonstrated that the majority of the world’s Muslims share the same desires and ideals as Americans and other Westerners, there are certain individuals who claim that “Western” and “Islamic” ideals (if such labels can even be applied appropriately) are antithetical. To be certain, such claims are made frequently by non-Muslim Westerners. In the Islamic context, such ideology is represented today most prominently by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Al-Qaeda offshoot “the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS). Demonstrating his ultimate goal, on June 29, Baghdadi rebranded his group as the “Islamic State” (IS). Since well before their June declaration, however, Baghdadi and his troops had been making nearly unchallenged progress toward becoming just that: a state.

A recent article in the New York Times described the recent gains made by Baghdadi. “What I see in Raqqa proves that the Islamic State has a clear vision to establish a state in the real meaning of the word,” the Times article quoted a resident of the city of Raqqa as saying. “It is not a joke.”

It certainly is not a joke that Baghdadi is making concerted efforts to form a functioning state. However, it is a joke to describe this burgeoning state as “Islamic.” To do so demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of Islamic history and law, and Baghdadi’s proclamations and actions are indicative of his historical, religious and cultural illiteracy. As the eminent Islamic scholar Ebrahim Moosa has argued repeatedly, this lack of “Islamic literacy” is the primary cause of extremism in the Middle East.

Baghdadi’s ideology, rooted in the concept of takfir, calls for transnational jihad to establish a new “Islamic caliphate.” Takfiri ideology holds that any Muslim whose beliefs are different is an unbeliever and apostate and must, therefore, be killed. The concept of takfir in Islamic law is complex. Takfir refers to declarations of apostasy and excommunication from the faith. It is forbidden, considered heresy, for one Muslim to simply declare another Muslim an apostate because of differences of opinion over the faith. The process of takfir, which usually only occurs after a Muslim has declared himself a kafir, or unbeliever, is guarded by a labyrinth of stringent legal measures.

Many Westerners argue that Muslim leaders throughout the world are, to some degree, at fault for the proliferation of this ideology because they have failed to condemn it. However, this argument is superficial and does not pass the test of any serious analysis. For only one example, the 2005 Amman Message, the consensus of more than 500 Islamic scholars, including the Shaykh of Al-Azhar, the Shi’a cleric Ayatollah Sistani, and Shaykh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, reminded Muslims that it is forbidden to declare a fellow Muslim an apostate.

Instead of the superficial Western argument, this ideology has been sustained and fed by very real factors, many of which have been created and/or made worse by United States policy and actions in the Middle East. For example, Baghdadi’s group traces its origins to Iraq, where he used the destruction from the 2003 American invasion to give his ideology some legitimacy. Baghdadi argued that only Islam, as a total and complete way of life governing matters of state and matters of faith, could repel the American occupiers and begin to build a more pristine “Islamic” way of life.

Takfiri militants like Baghdadi attempt to legitimate their theoretical conceptualisation of an “Islamic State” as a return to the past; a return to some point in history when a purer, richer form of Islam was practiced. The example drawn upon is the experience of Prophet Muhammad at Madinah. While the Prophet’s community there was not a “state,” properly considered, it was the first instance of Islam being used politically, and the example of the Prophet as a religious and political leader remains the eternal model for all practicing Muslims to adhere by. However, an analysis of the actual historical experience of the Prophet and his followers at Madinah illuminates the religious and historical illiteracy of takfiri ideology.

First, the Qur’an expressly forbids declarations of apostasy between Muslims. “Oh, you who believe and live on the path of God, be discerning, and do not say to anyone who greets you with peace, ‘You are not a believer'” [4:94]. The Qur’an also reveals that there shall be no compulsion in acceptance of religion [2:256]. Elsewhere, the Qur’an reveals that there will naturally be differences of opinion among Muslims and non-Muslims: “Say: ‘Oh, you who disbelieve, I do not worship what you worship, and you do not worship what I worship, and I shall not worship what you worship, and you shall not worship what I worship. To you your religion, and to me, mine'” [109:1-6].

The Islamic State’s demands that Iraqi Christians leave their territory, convert to Islam or face immediate death have no basis in either the Qur’an or the example of the Prophet. When the Prophet arrived in Madinah to establish the first Muslim community, the most powerful tribes there were Jewish. Especially after being harshly oppressed in Makkah before he fled to Madinah, the Prophet sought to establish a system of government that was based on the voluntary consent of the people, and that guaranteed them the freedom to worship and practice their faiths as they wished.

One of the first Muslim historians, Muhammad ibn ‘Umar al-Waqidi, provided an illuminating account of this. He wrote that the inhabitants of Madinah “were a mixed lot” and, therefore, the Prophet “wished, when he arrived at Madinah, to establish peace/concord between them, all of them as a collective group, and to make peace with them. A man would be a Muslim and his father a polytheist.”1

The political system that Muhammad ultimately established is enshrined in what has been labelled the “Constitution of Madinah.” Though not strictly speaking a constitution, this collection of eight separate documents established a governing system of political and religious tolerance. The first document was written after a contract between Muhammad and the Madinan tribes known in English as the Treaty or Contract of Al-‘Aqaba. The early Muslim historians Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Hashim recorded Muhammad as having stated upon the conclusion of the treaty: “All things are now common between us; your blood is as my blood, your ruin is as my ruin.”2

Ibn Ishaq, who wrote the first biography of the Prophet, described the “Constitution” as such: “The apostle [Muhammad] wrote a document concerning the emigrants and the helpers [the peoples of Madinah] in which he made a friendly agreement with the Jews and established them in their religion and their property, and stated the reciprocal obligations.”3 The Constitution lists each tribe in Madinah one by one, and guarantees their rights and freedoms. Based on these documents as well as the written historical record, the Islamic city-state at Madinah was characterised by unprecedented political and religious tolerance, as guaranteed by law.

The example of the Prophet and the political model of his city-state at Madinah thus stands in stark contrast to Baghdadi’s (non) “Islamic State.” Muhammad guaranteed freedom of religion and worship in a set of written laws; conversely, Baghdadi and his troops are burning ancient Christian churches in Mosul and recently destroyed the ancient Shrine of Jonah.

By destroying the shrine of Prophet Jonah simply because he is associated with Christianity Baghdadi is, apparently, unaware that the Qur’an commands Muslims to revere all of the prophets who preached monotheism as prophets of Islam (submission to the Will of God) and to make no distinction between them. For example, the Qur’an commands Muhammad to acknowledge that his religion is the religion of Abraham, who worshipped no god but God (monotheism). “So, believers, say, ‘We believe in God and in what was sent down to us and what was sent down to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and what was given to Moses, Jesus, and all the prophets by their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and we devote ourselves to Him'” [2:136].

Tolerance and pluralism in Muhammad’s city-state at Madinah also characterised relations between men and women. Baghdadi and his fellow takfiris should remember that the Qur’anic revelations regarding affairs between men and women were revolutionary in the context of life in the seventh century, not just in the Arabian peninsula, but anywhere at that point in time throughout the world.

Consider, for example, the reports that IS fighters are forcing young women from conquered territories into marriage. If these reports are true, Baghdadi should know that his fighters are directly disobeying the Qur’anic injunction that forbids such acts: “You who believe, it is not lawful for you to inherit women against their will” [4:19]. Baghdadi should remember that the Qur’an granted women rights to inheritance, which was unprecedented in monotheism (and most of history). As the Qur’an reveals: “Men shall have a share in what their parents and relatives leave, and women shall have a share in what their parents and relatives leave, whether that legacy is small or large, this is commanded by God” [4:7].

The authority which Baghdadi believes he possesses to issue such decrees, namely, Caliph of all Sunni Muslims, is illegitimate in terms of Islamic law and historical practice. Many of the most prominent Islamic scholars today have condemned Baghdadi’s declaration as such.

The system of the Islamic caliphate is a complex concept in Islamic history. It was conceived in the days immediately following Muhammad’s death, which was a particularly tumultuous time for the Muslim community. During Muhammad’s lifetime, he was, as the final Messenger of God, believed to be the indisputable leader of the faith. As such, he relayed revelations from God to the Muslim community to guide them throughout their lives. If Muslims had questions about certain things that were not covered by God’s revelations, they looked to Muhammad for guidance. These examples eventually came to be one of the sources of law in Islam, known collectively as the sunnah, the sayings and way of life of the Prophet, made up of individual hadith, or examples.

Neither the Qur’an nor the sunnah contained instructions for Muslims regarding what to do politically after Muhammad’s death. The community was left without a leader and no Divine Guidance on how to select one. Accordingly, the Prophet’s closest companions met and drew upon the long-refined Arab traditions of shura (consultation), ijma’a (consensus) and bay’ah (voluntary oath of allegiance) in establishing a system for selecting political leaders. This new system, the Caliphate, was established the day after Muhammad’s death, when one of his most trusted companions, Abdullah ibn Abi Quhafa, known more simply as Abu Bakr, received the voluntary consent of the Madinan community to serve as Khalifat Rasul Allah, or the successor to the Messenger of God.

Ibn Ishaq wrote perhaps the first historical description of this process. The acceptance of Abu Bakr as the successor to Muhammad was “an unpremeditated affair,” he wrote, reflecting the lack of instructions from God or the Prophet on what to do after his death. Ibn Ishaq continued to write that Abu Bakr was chosen voluntarily because the community held him in the highest esteem. He then wrote, “He who accepts a man as ruler without consulting the Muslims, such acceptance has no validity for either of them.”4

Abu Bakr’s first speech (khutba) as caliph demonstrates the respect with which Muhammad’s closest companions and the first Muslims regarded concepts such as consultation, consensus and accountability. Ibn Ishaq recorded Abu Bakr as stating: “I have been given authority over you but I am not the best of you. If I do well, help me, and if I do ill, then put me right. Truth consists in loyalty and falsehood in treachery… Obey me so long as I obey God and His apostle, and if I disobey them, you owe me no obedience.”5

Granted, throughout history the caliphate did diverge from this original model. Understanding the model of the Prophet and his companions is, nonetheless, of ultimate importance today because all believing Muslims consider it to be the ideal model of human endeavour. This remains especially true for those Muslims, such as Baghdadi, who describe themselves as adhering to the salafi school of thought. Salafism is a complex and broad label that describes many different contemporary ideologies. However, it draws its name from al-salaf al-salih, which means the righteous or pious predecessors. The label refers to Muhammad, his companions (the Rashidun) and the first community of Muslims at Madinah. Though all Muslims look to the example of this generation for supreme human guidance, this is especially true for figures like Baghdadi, who often portray themselves as the purest representatives of this historical model.

Within this context, then, it is clear that Baghdadi is Islamically illiterate. The challenge of this Islamically illiterate ideology extends far beyond the relatively more simple matter of terrorism. An ideology, after all, cannot be defeated by counterterrorism. Therefore, the international community, if it is interested in defeating Baghdadi, must realise that this ideology was not created in a vacuum. Rather, it is sustained by a confluence of factors, such as poor quality of education, corruption and despotic governance. The challenge of Islamic illiteracy is not killing its ideologues; the challenge is killing the forces that sustain the ideology itself.

One of the most negative consequences of the proliferation of this ideology is that, unfortunately, it augments the Western perception that all Islamic activists are violent, intolerant and autocratic. It must be clear that this is not true. The Tunisian Islamic activist Rachid Ghannouchi, for example, frames his political, social and cultural reformist vision within a conceptual framework subsumed by Islam. He even calls for the establishment of an “Islamic state.” However, Ghannouchi’s “Islamic state” is in no way similar to Baghdadi’s.

In terms of United States government policy, officials must not let the proliferation of takfiri ideology cloud their understanding of Islam and politics. Religion is, always has been and will remain an important factor in socio-political reform and democratic mobilisation in all societies throughout the world. For the United States government to view Baghdadi through a lens focused solely on counterterrorism, and for the United States government to allow a fear of takfiri ideology to preclude them from accepting and assisting peaceful Islamic activists like Rachid Ghannouchi or even the Muslim Brotherhood, is myopic, short sighted and superficial. Until the factors sustaining this particular interpretation of Islam are addressed, it will, despite its illiteracy, continue to spread.

1Muhammad ibn ‘Umar al-Waqidi, Kitab al-maghazi, ed. Marsden Jones, vol. 1 (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), 184. As cited in R.B. Serjeant, “The ‘Sunnah Jami’ah,” Pacts with the Yathrib Jews, and the ‘Tahrim’ of Yathrib: Analysis and Translation of the Documents Comprised in the So-Called ‘Constitution of Madinah,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 41, No. 1 (1978).

2As cited in Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. J.B. Bury, vol. 5 (London: Methuen and Co., Ltd., 1911), 380-381. See also A. Guillaume, trans., Ibn Hashim, ed., The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah (London: Oxford University Press, 1955), 201-207.

3Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, 222.

4Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, 684-685.

5Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, 687.

Mr. Roberts studies Islamic intellectual history and Islamic movements with Dr. John Voll at Georgetown University in the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. He recently completed writing Political Islam and the Invention of Tradition, soon to be published, which explores the emergence of Political Islam and the concept of an Islamic state founded upon an indigenously Islamic concept of social contract. He has lived and studied in Tunisia and Yemen. Prior to his appointment at Georgetown, he was Special Assistant to the former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Department of State and worked in the private sector.

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