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Princeton Imam: 5 Reasons Mainstream Muslims Reject ISIS

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Sohaib Sultan is the Imam and Muslim Life Coordinator in the Office of Religious Life at Princeton University and directs the university's Muslim Life Program in the Office of Religious Life. He is the author of The Koran for Dummies (Wiley, 2004) and The Qur'an and Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad: Selections Annotated and Explained (Skylight Paths, 2007).

ISIS is waging an effective campaign to recruit followers and warriors to its ideology and battlefield—a battlefield that increasingly includes Europe and America, from Paris to California—with devastating consequences. In a speech Sunday night President Barack Obama called upon Muslims in America and abroad to continue to speak out against the hateful ideology of violent extremism in order to undermine the movement’s power of persuasion online. Many Muslims, often the main victims of ISIS and frustrated at how the group has tried to speak for Islam, are self-motivated to repudiate the Islam of ISIS and to articulate their own understanding of the faith.

There are, of course, many psychological, sociological and political factors for why ISIS is able to take advantage of very real and palatable anger on the ground—from oppressive and dysfunctional dictatorships in parts of the Middle East and imperial military misadventures by Western powers to the weakening of the Islamic scholarly tradition in the modern era and the marginalization of frustrated Muslim youth in too many societies. But ISIS has undeniably cloaked its ideology and ambitions with Islamic lure using selective sacred texts and decontextualized religious rulings to recruit vulnerable Muslims to its cause.

Here are five reasons why ISIS is misguided from an Islamic perspective.

1. When ISIS employs passages from the Qur’an, it completely ignores premises and contexts. For example, ISIS uses passages such as “kill them wherever you find them” (9:5) to justify attacking civilians, including Muslims who don’t fall in line. In reality, when the Qur’an justifies fighting—as it does for the first time in passage 22:39-41, according to commentators of the Qur’an—it is strictly on the premise of self-defense, preventing exile and defending people from religious persecution.

Other passages that permit or encourage fighting must be read with this premise otherwise they can be misread to allow just about anything. The problem with ISIS’ selective reading of the Qur’an is that it ends up ignoring constant refrains including “incline toward peace” (8:61), do not transgress the limits of what is right (2:191), maintain peaceful relations with those who intend no harm (4:90), honor treaties (9:4) and give asylum to peaceful non-combatants (9:6).

In other passages the Qur’an calls on its adherents to ignore aggression (25:63), to repel evil with good (41:34), and to forgive wrongs (3:134). Similarly, the Qur’an tells Muslims to live righteously and justly with peaceful people of other faiths (5:5 and 60:8 for example). Most important, ISIS’ interpretation of the Qur’an goes against the general ethic and ethos of the scripture’s message, found in numerous passages, that commands righteous believers to stand for justice, refrain from anger, free the slaves, feed the poor and needy, and be constant in kindness and compassion, among many other virtues.

We should aspire to the guiding and enduring values of the Qur’an during times of war and times of peace. I would encourage everyone to read and refer to The Study Qur’an to gain more insight on the Qur’anic message and how it has been interpreted through the centuries.

2. When ISIS invokes the model of Prophet Muhammad, it either mischaracterizes the received traditions or looks to an exceptional circumstance rather than the general rule. ISIS’ waging so-called jihad against fellow Muslims and waging war without any established legitimacy as a group is contrary to the prophet’s way. And, in the conduct of war, ISIS has made a mockery of the rules of fighting that were clearly established by the first Caliph Abu Bakr based on the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings that Muslim armies were forbidden from even cutting down fruit-bearing trees let alone killing innocents.

In some respects, such as the treatment of prisoners, the extremist group has willfully and obviously violated the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, who treated prisoners kindly and excused them regularly. And, like the group’s reading of the Qur’an, ISIS’ interpretation of the prophetic model defies the standard observance of mercy that Muslims have always taken to be the defining characteristic of the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings and path. Even in the legitimate battles that the prophet led, he chose to be merciful toward his enemies on the battlefield and even in victory.

Determining the lessons of Muhammad requires a detailed, systematic and wholesome interpretation of the texts in context. For further reading, I would suggest Muhammad: His Character and Beauty by Shaykh Yusuf Nabahani and Misquoting Muhammad by Jonathan Brown.

3. The way that ISIS interprets and applies the Shari’ah is an absurd re-imagination of how Islamic Law was applied historically. Islamic Law is not about harsh penal codes and restricting people’s natural freedoms, as ISIS seems to conceive of it. Rather, Islamic Law, according to the earliest scholars of the tradition, is about facilitating benefit and removing harm by preserving religion, life, intellect, family, wealth and human dignity—its six agreed-upon higher objectives.

The advancement that Muslims have made in everything from science and medicine to art and architecture points to a dynamic understanding of law that facilitated human flourishing—not one that suppressed freedom and creativity. Women historically were not forced to cover head-to-toe nor were they largely confined to their homes. In fact, they played very important roles in society as teachers and philanthropists and held professional roles during much of Muslim history. Similarly, ISIS’ notion of how non-Muslims should be inhumanely treated under their twisted version of Shari’ah stands in stark contrast to the way non-Muslims lived, and at times even sought refuge, under Muslim rule.

In typical ISIS fashion, there is a willful ignorance of the fact that there is an entire intellectual tradition that methodically debates and discusses the Shari’ah—it is not a black-and-white code imposed without due consideration of culture and context. Does anyone really believe that ISIS style Shari’ah is going to revive Islam’s place in the world as they claim? For more reflections, read Noah Feldman’s The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State.

4. ISIS’ use of violence to instill fear in anyone who stand in its way is a completely repudiated tactic. It has been consistently condemned by every major school of Islamic thought since the first violent extremist movement emerged in early Islam in the form of the Khawarij. Those who engaged in creating fear and instability in society were dealt with very strongly and seen as perpetrators of the worst of crimes under Islamic Law.

This is partly why every major school of Islamic thought has publicly and consistently condemned ISIS. How then could this ideological movement claim to even possibly unite Muslims under its made-up caliphate? I would recommend reading Sherman Jackson’s Domestic Terrorism in the Islamic Legal Tradition; an Open Letter to Al-Baghdadi, endorsed by hundreds of prominent Muslim scholars; Shaykh Muhammad Afifi’s fatwa Defending the Transgressed by Censuring the Reckless Against Killing Civilians; Refuting ISIS: A Rebuttal of Its Religious and Ideological Foundations by Shaykh Muhammad Al-Yaqoubi; and Muslim Leaders Refute ISIS Ideology.

5. Much of ISIS’ lure is built on an apocalyptic vision for the end of times that is based on a few select prophecies. Muslims have historically never based their actions on these prophecies, and some would seem to warn us against the rise of ISIS if anything. To build a movement that is aspiring to bring about the end of times is largely foreign to Muslim intellectual thought and ethical consideration. Instead, Muslims largely heed the prophet’s advice that states if you are planting a seed in the ground and the end of times comes upon you, “continue planting the seed.” In other words, turn to God and do good in the world—leave the future of the world in God’s Hands.

As a Muslim and as a religious leader in the community, I sympathize with frustrations and even anger that many Muslims feel at the current state of affairs. But the solution is not to join an extremist ideological movement that lacks a positive and civilized vision for the world. Rather the solution is to look at the problems of the world and to ask how you can, individually and collectively, build bridges and bring beauty to a broken world.

These times call for intellectuals, social justice activists, compassionate caregivers and social entrepreneurs to come together to fight the good fight—the fight to preserve our common humanity. As the Qur’an wisely states: “Help one another toward virtue and God-consciousness; do not help one another toward sin and enmity.” (5:2).

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Write to Sohaib N. Sultan at ssultan@princeton.edu

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