Islam and Terrorism

by Dr Joseph Lumbard

Islam, as a community, confronted the realities of warfare in its earliest years. Beginning in 624, Muslims were forced to meet their enemies on the battle field or suffer annihilation. There was thus a period of eight years before the Prophet’s death in 632 during which Muslims received direct guidance from God and the Prophet on matters pertaining to warfare. The guidance found in the Quran and the Hadith established binding legal precedents and set clear boundaries that Muslims have sought to implement since that time. From its first decades until the present, Islam has had a “just war theory” that treats everything from the goals for which a war can be fought to the tactics that can be employed in war under varying circumstances. The Islamic legal tradition treats war as a necessary evil that must always be constrained by justice and fairness. Any attack that has an unjust goal or employs unjust means is considered to fall outside the bounds of Islam. The ends never justify the means. It is made clear by the Quran, the Hadith, and Islamic law that war is only permissible against combatants who wage war. Non-combatant civilians have rights that cannot be violated. Islamic law even provides definitive proscriptions against the violation of animals, trees, crops, and water.

The violence emanating from strident puritanical groups in the modern Islamic world is the direct antithesis to the constraints on war enjoined by traditional Islamic law. Efforts to justify such violence rely upon a militant recasting of jihad in purely militarist and jingoist terms. Jihad is, however, a wide-ranging concept that encompasses all manner of ‘striving’ for God. Quran 25:52 states, So obey not the disbelievers, but strive against them by means of it with a great striving (jihad kabir). Traditional commentators understand ‘it’ in this verse as a reference to the Quran. The verse is thus as an injunction to strive by means of preaching the Quran. Jihad is understood by traditional Islam as a spiritual endeavor for which understanding the classical texts and inner spiritual purification must necessarily precede outward jihad. As the Prophet Muhammad has said, ‘The best striving (jihad) is to strive against your soul and your passions in the way of God.’ And when the Prophet was asked, ‘Which of those who strive has the greatest reward?’ he responded, ‘Those who remember God most.’ In contrast, the indiscriminant violence enjoined by modern extremist groups, such as the many branches of al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad and Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin in Somalia, Harkat-i-Jihadi-i-Islami and Lashkar-i Tayyiba in Pakistan and India and Jama‘atul Mujahideen in Bangladesh, among others, violates the traditional Islamic restrictions on warfare and jihad.

Such bellicose puritanical groups directly violate traditional Islamic law in many respects. In the name of returning to the roots of Islam, they have deconstructed the established authority of the traditional legal schools. By negating the trunk, branches and fruits of classical Islam, they weakened the tree as a whole. Their new methodology amounted to an egalitarian approach wherein anyone could derive a legal ruling from the Quran and the Hadith without specialized training. This created a vacuum of authority that could then be filled with the totalitarian premises of the modern nation state read as it were into Islamic sources. More concerned with establishing an ‘Islamic’ state than with maintaining the moral integrity and methodological coherence of the classical legal tradition, extremist groups allowed the ends to dictate the means. This approach led to the vision of a dictatorial theocratic state that would impose its own legal will. The new vision was presented as the reemergence of ‘pure’ Islamic law. But having undermined the authority of the traditional scholars, the state would now dictate the law, as in the modern nation state, rather than the law constraining the state, as in traditional Islam. At the heart of this lies a totalitarian rejection of other interpretations of Islam. Such rejectionism results in efforts to quash all traditional forms of Islam. In some cases this is accomplished through financial support for mosques, educational institutions, and media outlets that support their agenda. But in many other cases it is accomplished through violence and coercion. For this reason far more Muslims are the victims of Islamist terrorist attacks than are people of other faiths. To legitimate such violence, these puritanical groups resort to labeling followers of all other brands of Islam as ‘disbelievers’ (kuffar), a process known as takfir. Having labeled other Muslims as ‘disbelievers’ and removed the legal constraints that Islam places on war and violence, takfiris then disenfranchise, intimidate or kill the representatives of alternative interpretations of Islam. Of the more than 17,000 civilians killed by terrorist attacks in Pakistan over the past ten years, the majority have been Muslims of various denominations. Similarly in Iraq and Afghanistan, the vast majority of terrorist attacks are aimed at the subordination or elimination of other Muslim groups. In complete contradiction to classical restrictions of Islamic law, the majority of such terrorist attacks in all countries target private civilians.

Takfiris insist that adherents of any other religion are disbelievers. In contrast traditional Islam has always regarded Jews and Christians as People of the Book, who are necessarily protected by Islamic law. It is in fact the responsibility of Muslims to protect People of the Book against attacks by other Muslims. Recent attacks upon Christians by extremists in Pakistan, Egypt and Syria stand in stark contrast to the traditional policies and attitudes that had preserved these same communities, in some cases for over a thousand years. In this same vein, it is often forgotten that while the intolerant fascism of the takfirist ideology led to the Taliban destroying the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001, the fundamental tolerance inherent to Islam had allowed these same Buddhas to stand in territories under Islamic rule for over a thousand years.

A recent example of takfiri tactics is provided by the attacks in Libya in 2012. In addition to ransacking mosques and madrasas, takfiri groups demolished shrines and disinterred the bodies of revered Sufi shaykhs. A similar approach was employed in Chechnya where, in the absence of effective government control, they, systematically murdered Sufi Shaykhs and intimidated other Muslim leaders in order to eliminate the most effective forms of traditional Islamic leadership in the region. Having done so, they were able to establish Chechnya as a region from which terrorist attacks could be launched in other parts of Central Asia. This tactic is also seen in Afghanistan, where in the prelude to the attacks of September 11,2001, al-Qaeda assassinated Ahmed Shah Masoud, the most prominent representative of traditional Islam in Afghanistan. Each of these instances demonstrates the takfiri awareness that representatives of classical Islam and the institutions of classical Islam pose the biggest threat to their political agendas.

In other areas, other fundamentalist groups seek to co-opt other Islamic movements in the region. This has been the most effective tactic in the Indian subcontinent. Efforts to co-opt groups such as the Deobandi school and Tabligh-i Jamaa’at that were originally grounded in classical orthodox Islam have not been entirely successful. They have, however, resulted in militant takfiri offshoots, such as Harkat-i-Jihadi-i-Islami and Lashkar-i Tayyiba in Pakistan and India and Jama‘atul Mujahideen in Bangladesh. Combined with their efforts to co-opt other movements, these fundamentalists exploit the instability created by conflicts in various regions around the world from Iraq to Nigeria, Bosnia to Kashmir, and Chechnya to Aceh, to sow the seeds of their own ideology. More recently, the Arab Spring has created openings for fundamentalist groups in Libya and Syria. Many of the fighters among the Syrian rebels are in fact battle hardened fundamentalist who come with the hopes of establishing a new Islamic state fashioned according to their narrow ideology.

As demonstrated by the thousands of fatwas that have been issued against them by classically trained jurists from all schools of Islam Law, the fundamentalists are an aberration in the history of Islam. Capitalizing upon economic imbalance and political upheaval in many areas of the Islamic world, they have succeeded in making their militant- takfiri understanding of Islam appear to less educated Muslims and to outsiders as an expression of normative Islam. But nothing could be further from the truth. The attempts to spread their extremist ideology only succeeds in spreading when there is political instability, when the representatives of traditional Islam have been weakened or eliminated, and when the institutions of traditional Islam have been compromised. Strengthening traditional Islam is thus the most effective way, perhaps the only way, to counter the extremist Islamist ideologies and their deleterious consequences.