MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis Series | 1205 | November 24, 2015
Delegitimizing ISIS On Islamic Grounds: Criticism Of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi By
By: Prof. Ella Landau-Tasseron*
The following is the executive summary of Prof. Ella Landau-Tasseron's
The full paper is available here.
On September 19, 2014, a group of 126 Muslim scholars addressed an open
letter to the ruler of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In it they severely
criticize ISIS' policies and actions, claiming that they are deviations from
Islam, which is a merciful religion. In justifying their position, the
critics sometimes cite the same texts used by ISIS, giving their own
interpretation. It should be mentioned that the letter did not spark public
debate in the Muslim world.
Below I present the points of the clerics' criticism, with a short analysis
of each point (marked by an asterisk).
1. A Muslim claiming religious authority must have a formal education; he
must correctly apply Koran, hadith and legal theory, consider all the texts
relevant to any issue discussed, and avoid selective reading. ISIS religious
authorities do not meet these requirements.
* Al-Baghdadi has a PhD in Islamic legal studies (Shari'a) from Baghdad
University. This certainly makes him quite knowledgeable in Shari'a.
Furthermore, reading sacred texts selectively is unavoidable because they
always contain contradictions. The critics read selectively too, omitting or
explaining away texts that do not fit their arguments.
2. A religious authority must possess a mastery of Arabic. ISIS presents
itself as the fulfilment of Allah's promise in Koran 24: 55, "Allah has
promised those who believe and do good works that He will establish them as
successors (la-yastakhlifannahum) [to those who preceded them] on earth..."
ISIS maintains that the word la-yastakhlifannahum, derived from the same
root as the word khilafa, refers to Al-Baghdadi's Caliphate. This
interpretation discloses ignorance of Arabic, as it distorts the true
meaning of the verse.
* This verse has always been interpreted as foretelling the victory and
conquests of the Prophet and the early caliphate in the seventh century.
ISIS, emulating the pristine model, understandably applies the verse to
itself. True, the word la-yastakhlifannahum does not literally refer to a
caliphate, but some pre-modern Muslims thought that it did. This means that
ISIS has not introduced a new uninformed interpretation.
3. It is forbidden to oversimplify the Shari'a and ignore established
Islamic sciences and experts.
* The critics protest here the current trend of "democratizing religious
knowledge," in which autodidact Muslims read the sources for themselves and
sometimes reach legal conclusions. This trend is facilitated by the internet
and its appeal is great.
4. Leniency is always preferable in religious matters. The propagation of
Islam has always been done by preaching, not by coercion. ISIS' actions
contravene this Islamic principle.
* In devising this argument the critics resort to a practice that they
censure ISIS for, namely take verses out of their context or rely on verses
that are traditionally considered abrogated. It is also erroneous to say
that Islam was always propagated only by preaching. Both history and Islamic
law books prove otherwise.
5. The Shari'a must not be applied rigidly and literally, as done by ISIS,
but flexibly, according to circumstances of place and time.
* Indeed, Muslim scholars have always shown ingenuity in adapting Shari'a
laws to changing realities. In modern times the debate around adaptability
has intensified, as Muslims face problems resulting from a clash between
Islamic and Western cultures and values. ISIS represents an ultra-puritan
attitude which, in part at least, is precisely a response to Western and
Westernized modernity. The critics take a more flexible approach.
6. It is forbidden to kill the innocent, as ISIS often does. There must be a
lawful cause for killing.
* "Lawful cause" is mentioned in the Koran but without specification, so the
term is vague. Pre-modern Muslims debated whether unbelief was sufficient
cause for killing, or only unbelief combined with aggression. Both positions
are supported by Koranic verses and various interpretations and Prophetic
7. ISIS kills journalists and aid-workers; these are comparable to envoys,
whose killing is forbidden.
* This analogy drawn by the critics illustrates the feasibility of applying
lenient traditional norms to modern circumstances by deduction. Another such
analogy is made between the modern visa and the pre-modern aman, i.e. the
legal institution that protected foreign visitors in Islamic lands and vice
versa, on condition that they keep the laws of the host country. After 9/11,
many Muslims argued that the perpetrators had American visas, comparable to
aman given to Muslims in foreign countries. By committing a crime against
their American hosts, these Muslims thus broke Islamic law.
8. ISIS attacks Muslims, but jihad must be defensive and waged only against
non- Muslims. Furthermore, it must be waged with a lawful cause, right
intention, lawful goal and lawful conduct. The cause must be prior
aggression against Muslims, the intention must be to fight in Allah's way,
the goal must be "to make Allah's word supreme," and the right conduct is to
kill combatants only. ISIS deviates from all of these. The goal of jihad was
achieved when the Arabian Peninsula was Islamized by the Prophet in 630-31
CE, so that offensive jihad has become redundant. The post-Prophet Islamic
conquests cannot serve ISIS as a model because they were merely defensive.
The Prophet's execution of prisoners cannot serve ISIS as a model, because
those prisoners were war criminals like those tried in Nuremberg. ISIS also
errs by urging every Muslim to participate in jihad, because jihad is
incumbent upon the community as a whole, not upon each and every Muslim.
*Most of the terms and categories used by the critics here are borrowed from
the Western doctrine of just war. However, the rules of jihad are not
entirely compatible with that doctrine. Contrary to the critics' claim, the
Koran, the hadith and pre-modern Islam did preach offensive war. In fact,
the Islamic lawful goal of "making Allah's word supreme" means establishing
the reign of Islam by converting or subduing non-Muslims – either by
preaching and persuasion or by violent means. Thus there is a contradiction
between the critics' two statements ("jihad is only defensive" and "jihad's
goal is to make Allah's word supreme"). To resolve this contradiction the
critics devise an innovative interpretation: The goal of jihad has already
been achieved by the Prophet, they say, so only defensive jihad is now
legitimate. To my knowledge, no pre-modern Muslim scholar has offered this
As for the right conduct of war, early Muslim scholars set some rules, such
as "do not kill children," but these were later voided of content by means
of ingenious interpretations. Similarly, the Koranic rules concerning
prisoners of war stipulated that they may be released for a ransom or
gratuitously. Muslim jurists complemented these rules based on reported
actions of the Prophet, so that prisoners could also be executed or
enslaved. It seems that the earliest rules of conduct for jihad are more
compatible with current international norms than are the classical Shari'a
The critics do not take into account all the Koranic verses and reports
relevant to the issue of jihad (thus contravening their own advice to
al-Baghdadi). In particular, they omit to mention the traditional
interpretations of the so-called "sword verses," and many other verses and
hadiths, which enjoin the Muslims to fight infidels "in the way of Allah"
regardless of the need for defense.
Furthermore, the terms lawful cause, right goal, and right intention are
fuzzy. They appear to be means to restrict offensive war, but they are not
necessarily so. In Islam there is precedent for regarding as aggressors all
non-Muslims who refuse to convert, thus providing a "lawful cause" for
attacks on them even if they have not committed actual aggression against
Muslims. The goal of making Allah's word reign supreme is "right" in Islamic
terms, but it does not stipulate restrictions on offensive war. As for the
conduct of war, ISIS can easily find in the Islamic sources precedents or
justifications for most of their actions.
9. It is forbidden to label other Muslims "unbelievers" (takfir), as ISIS
* Labeling other Muslims "infidels" or "unbelievers" has serious
consequences, because in Islam apostates must be executed. The consensus in
pre-modern Sunni Islam has been to refrain from excommunication as much as
possible. Since the mid-twentieth century, radical Muslims use takfir in
order to legitimize violence against governments in Muslim countries, and
against other Muslims in general.
10. ISIS persecutes Christians although they have had a covenant with the
Muslims for 1,400 years (dhimma, meaning that they paid a poll tax, abided
by certain restrictions, and were protected in return). Moreover, Koran
9:29 – "Fight those who have been given the Scripture but do not believe in
Allah... until they pay the poll tax, humiliated" – applies only to those
amongst the Peoples of the Book (Christians, Jews and Sabians) who are
aggressors. The Christian of Arab descent, who were allies of the Muslims,
had a special status, in which they did not pay a humiliating poll tax but
rather a non-humiliating tax equivalent to the zakat tax paid by Muslims.
* The dhimma was abolished by the Ottomans in 1856. Nevertheless the
predecessor of ISIS, "The Islamic State of Iraq," declared the dhimma
contract null and void in 2007 on the grounds that the dhimmi had violated
it. A new dhimma covenant was drafted by ISIS in 2015. Thus the organization
in fact offers Christians the same three options traditionally offered to
most non-Muslims: Convert to Islam, pay tribute and become
protected-humiliated subjects (dhimmi), or face the sword. By this measure
ISIS equates itself to the second caliph, Umar bin al-Khattab (d. 644 CE),
considered to be the initiator of the dhimma arrangement.
As for the historical arguments regarding the special status of Christian
Arabs, it has some basis. The Christians of the Arabian Peninsula were part
of Arab Muslim society, and apparently experienced no discrimination. The
Christian Arabs in the Fertile Crescent did pay tribute, but were treated
more leniently than Christians of other descent.
I know no basis in the sources for the argument that Koran 9:29 only applies
to defensive war against aggressive Christians (or Jews, etc.)
11. ISIS harshly persecutes the Yazidis, but they belong to the Peoples of
the Scriptures, like Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists and many others. All of
these were recognized by the greatest pre-modern Muslim scholars as eligible
for the protected-humiliating status, and the Yazidis must be accorded the
same status and must not be persecuted.
* The Koran accorded the protected status only to "the Peoples of
Scriptures," identified as Jews, Christians and Sabians. Other idolaters
must either convert or face the sword. However, early Muslim scholars
recognized most non-Muslims as comparable to the Peoples of the Scriptures,
and accorded them the protected-humiliating status; this is the basis of the
critics' demand regarding the Yazidis. ISIS, however, claims that the
Yazidis are idolaters, on the basis of research conducted by ISIS scholars.
12. ISIS takes slaves, but enslavement is forbidden. Islam always strove to
abolish slavery, which indeed has been banned throughout the world based on
a universal, including Muslim, consensus.
* Contrary to the critics' claim, the Shari'a never strove to abolish
slavery but only to regularize it. It was, however, considered virtuous to
set Muslim slaves free. Slavery has indeed been abolished, at least in
theory, by the international community, but ISIS members do not regard the
international community as a model. They see themselves as reviving a custom
of the Prophet when they enslave prisoners of war and take slave girls as
13. It is forbidden to coerce anyone to convert to Islam. Many verses in the
Koran express toleration of non-Muslims. It is also forbidden to enforce the
Shari'a in the public sphere, because, as the Koran says (13:31, 26:4),
Allah wants there to be infidels and sinners on earth.
* Pre-modern Muslim scholars had to determine the attitude of Islamic law
towards non-Muslims, given the contradictory Koranic verses such as: "No
compulsion is there in religion…"(2:256) versus the recurrent injunction to
fight non-Muslims "until all religion belongs to Allah" (Koran 2:193, 8:39,
48:16). Pre-modern Muslim scholars considered as abrogated, or otherwise
explained away, the tolerance verses; the injunction to wage jihad was
considered binding, superseding all the verses expressing tolerance.
Differences in detail notwithstanding, the scholars established that some
groups must be coerced to convert to Islam or die, such as Arab idolaters,
apostates and Manicheans. Others must not be coerced, but they must
surrender to the Muslims. The critics in fact refute the pre-modern
consensus by reestablishing the validity of the tolerance verses.
Enforcing the Shari'a in the public sphere is by no means an ISIS
innovation. In pre-modern Shari'a books it is considered one of the major
tasks of the Muslim ruler. Religious police (hisba) in some modern Muslim
countries and in ISIS territories continues this tradition.
14. ISIS denies women their rights, their freedom of movement, and their
right to study, work, and dress according to their taste. Forced marriages
are also practiced under ISIS. Islam forbids all this.
* The Shari'a contains many rules that, by modern liberal standards, are
discriminatory against women. However, these may be interpreted and applied
in a variety of ways. The critics point at ways to improve social conditions
for Muslim women without renouncing the Shari'a or adopting a foreign system
15. ISIS kills children and forces children to participate in fighting and
other atrocities. Islam forbids such practices.
* As far as I can tell there are indeed no Islamic legal precedents, or
reports about the Prophet, that can justify ISIS' treatment of children.
16. ISIS enacts the Koranic punishments (hudud) without following the
correct procedures that ensure justice and mercy.
* The Koran stipulates specific punishments for certain crimes, such as
public stoning for unlawful sexual intercourse and amputation of hand and/or
foot for theft. Pre-modern Islamic law usually evinces a strong tendency to
limit the application of the hudud as far as possible, by complex procedures
for establishing guilt and by defining mitigating circumstances. Apparently,
a nascent, controversial Islamic regime such as ISIS may attempt to show
Islamic fervor through strict application of the hudud.
17-18. The torture and abuse inflicted by ISIS on both the living and the
dead are un-Islamic, and they harm Islam's image among other nations.
* The Shari'a does not enjoin torture and abuse; sometimes it bans such
conduct explicitly. For example, Prophetic sayings forbid abuse of the dead
and execution by fire. ISIS justified the latter atrocity as a
measure-for-measure act: The Jordanian Pilot was executed by fire because he
caused innocent people to burn by bombing them.
19. ISIS members attribute their conquests to Allah, thus attributing to Him
the atrocities that they commit during their conquests. It is forbidden to
imply that Allah is responsible for evil acts.
* The critics adduce here an innovative theological argument against the
perpetration of atrocities.
20. ISIS destroys tombs of prophets and of Companions of the Prophet; but
visiting such tombs is permitted, even beneficial, and destroying them is
forbidden. This is indicated by the Koran and hadith, and by the fact that
the Companions buried the Prophet and the first two caliphs near the mosque
* The issue of pilgrimage to holy graves has been hotly debated among
Muslims for centuries. Some regarded it as an infringement upon monotheism.
Vehement opponents to these customs were, among others, Ibn Taymiyya and
Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab. ISIS is not the first Islamic movement to oppose
the veneration of the dead and the cult of tombs.
* Ella Landau-Tasseron is a retired professor at the Department for Islamic
and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her
research fields are early Islamic history, the Arabian tribal system,
Islamic political institutions, hadith, Islamic historiography, and jihad.
Among her publications are a series of articles on the tribal society in
pre- and early Islamic times, two monographs on the institution of the
Islamic "oath of allegiance," and a monograph on non-combatants in Islamic
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