Islamic State has fallen into a moral and religious quagmire following the execution of Jordanian pilot Mouath Kasaesbeh, forcing it to release a fatwa – an unprecedented attempt to restore confidence among those on the fence with regard to the group’s ideology and mission.
IS’s religious ideologists have attempted to justify their method of execution by extracting religious texts that attribute such methods of punishment and retribution to the Prophet Mohammed’s early successors. In trying to religiously justify the execution by fire of Kasaesbeh, IS refers to the first caliphs, who supposedly used torching as punishment for apostasy. This, according to IS, was Kasaesbeh’s crime.
In an emotional attempt to rationalize their act, IS compared Kasaesbeh’s death by fire to the incineration of children in air-strikes directed against IS. They said his execution was retribution for the act Kasaesbeh was commissioned to carry out against them, saying, “We have not come after you to burn you, you were the one who had come to burn and kill us.” The group has also posted images of burned children with the text, “They [the children] are innocent; you are not.”
By seeking to justify its execution of the pilot, IS has stirred up a much bigger, in fact faith-quaking debate among Muslims. A platform has been created on which the sacredness and authenticity of Muslim religious texts is being publicly debated and contested, not by the usual suspects, but ordinary Muslims.
Perhaps the most esoteric debate to have resulted from this controversy is related to the venerated status in Islam of certain figures, and the semblance of infallibility conferred on them by Muslims over the past centuries. Was Islam successful in eroding the pre-Islamic culture that could have influenced the judgment of those who converted to the new faith – a faith that was developing in parallel to the original dominant culture? Were they simply acting in accordance with the actual teachings of Islam? If the cited incidents in Islamic history are authentic, how did the Muslims then feel about such forms of punishment? If burning people as a form of punishment was not abhorrent in Islamic history, why should it be now? These are the kind of questions doing the rounds in Muslim households now.
IS is asking Muslims to make peace with a brutal version of their history, a version they would rather deny altogether – and perhaps rightly so. Even if the sources used by IS are indeed authentic, the impulse of Muslims would be to reject their credibility, or to at least contextualize the cited incidents such that they become an exception rather than the rule. Then again, the inability to examine history without bias could also mean that texts were reproduced and re-interpreted in the lengthy chains of narration. What IS has not considered when dusting off old sources to justify its actions is that it may very well be dealing with fictions.
While to the majority of Muslims Islam is about peace, to IS, it is about justice: “I shall do unto thee what thou hast done to me.” But herein lies the polemic; Islam has never equated justice to like-for-like retribution. It is common knowledge that Shariah law sanctions hand-cutting for theft. If we were to apply the logic used in the interpretation of “an eye for an eye” in this context, then a thief would have his or her property stolen as punishment for their transgression. Similarly, rape in Islam is identified as a crime of hirabah (unlawful warfare or piracy), and is punishable in Shariah by death, not rape.
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Thus, IS’s limited and contorted understanding of the concept of Islamic justice muddles its understanding of Islamic sources.
This distorted reading of Islam by IS and similar groups can, to a certain extent, be attributed to the West’s demand for an immediate resolution to the recent up-surge in jihadi thought in the Arab world. In the post-9/11 years, there were massive curricula changes in the Arab and Muslim worlds to remove what the West deemed controversial texts on jihad from school textbooks. Heeding this demand did not necessarily fulfill the objective of moderation but nonetheless, the West needed to be appeased.
The quick fix imposed on the Muslim world gave way to public ownership of the sacred texts. New interpretations appeared, and new scholars emerged to reclaim the “true religion.” The public ownership of religion meant that self-appointed scholars were now able to impart religious knowledge filtered through their personal political perceptions of the world. These scholars attracted willing audiences, who felt they were being deliberately denied access to their religion and culture by the changes imposed to their curricula – curricula with no history of birthing fundamentalists before 9/11.
At the same time, Muslims are confronted by an ideological polarity between the sacred and the sanctified. The sacred text of the Holy Koran and the sanctified texts of the Hadith, which document the words and deeds of the Prophet Mohammed and his companions, have been amalgamated to create a traditional, cohesive narrative of a glorified past. Muslims have not only inherited the message of Islam; they have supplemented the message, such that the actions of revered figures have become a Procrustean standard.
Also, what text becomes authoritative in the life of a Muslim, and what practices can be emulated has also been shaped by a revivalist movement known as Salafism (from salaf, meaning predecessors).
Let me digress a little to explain what this movement is all about, for to a growing number of Muslims, the connotations associated with the word “Salafi” are not positive, and those who subscribe to it have constantly felt themselves to be the enlightened few who had the courage and foresight to walk out of Plato’s cave, so to speak. In principle, the movement aims to revive the utopian, “just” society that exists in the primary Muslim sources.
However, in practice this necessitates the discarding of the process of inquiry in reading Muslim history, especially if faced with the potentially blasphemous need to question the “sanctified.” This is where the majority of Muslims, Salafists and members of the IS meet at a junction.
IS is a product of Muslim societies’ deference of important questions related to the sanctified. Discrediting the sources used by IS, or relegating them to the domain of the “contentious, therefore, better not discussed by laymen lest we err” has had Muslims go on the defensive, feeling the need to apologize and explain every time Islam is used to legitimize IS’s actions. By not examining the sanctified, be it the documented words or deeds of revered personas, or the actual venerated figures in Islam, Muslims are involuntarily acknowledging the authenticity of what would otherwise be controversial.
While it is possible to distance Muslim ideology from the IS ideology, as long as our primary sources remain the same with little room for critical reflection into our ideological inheritance, this ongoing conflict regarding legitimacy and authority in “Islamic rulings” cannot be resolved.
The author is an educator based in Dubai.
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