While the Muslim community has been forthcoming in its rejection of Isis, some have felt uncomfortable fully denouncing those who claim to be committed to Islamic ideals. This nominal reticence has in no way aided radicalisation; its significance lies more in that it indicates an overarching attitude that is sincere but misplaced. As we have seen with Isis and its influence over some observant Muslims, reverence for Islam can lead even the well intentioned to assume that all assertions bearing any relevance to religion should be recognised, or that the mere quoting of a Qur’anic verse or hadith renders a claim sacrosanct. The same reverence subsequently leads many to believe that strongly denouncing such assertions is religiously unjustifiable, and where some might actually engage in censure they consequently question its appropriateness and feel awkward thereafter. However, this is not reflective of early scholastic approaches; retorting to the Kharijites’ use of the Qur’an to denounce political arbitration, the prophetic companion and righteous caliph, Ali b. Abi Talib, famously said: “A statement of truth with which falsehood was intended!” This sentiment clearly reflects the idea that the Qur’an can be easily misused, and that where the standing of the faith is diminished as both the highest ethical order and a great civilising influence, we must articulate a firm and decisive denunciation that also points out and rectifies misunderstandings. Whilst this might seem tedious to some, a methodical, civilised and patient approach is essential for those interested in such matters.
Have Muslim organisations effectively challenged the Isis narrative?
Now all the Muslim organisations and their representatives (mostly from Sufi or Jama’at Islami inclinations) that have publically announced their denunciations of Isis have overlooked the above, failing to recognise that to robustly deal with the Isis narrative in a way that renders it impotent requires a thorough insight into theology, law and jurisprudence together with Islamic ethics and political acumen. Mere political posturing has never helped the Muslim community in resolving its issues. In fact understanding how these realms interact is of utmost importance to leadership in general, at least in a way that facilitates innovative contributions to society that are reflective of Islamic orthodoxy in western modernity. Rather than provide a compelling response to Isis, many Muslim organisations have instead shared their own religious readings that has raised uncertainties and lent substance to the criticisms Isis makes of the mainstream Muslim voice. To understand how things have gone so awry, the words of the Prophet resonate: “Allah does not take hold of knowledge merely by seizing it, but does so by taking away scholars till none remain alive. Then the people will take the ignorant as their leaders, who, when asked for religious advice shall offer it without knowledge: they are misguided and misguide others.”
Feigning theological concurrence and unilateral condemnations – a viable strategy to challenge sectarianism?
As an example, one feeble strategy employed by Sunni Muslim community actors attempting to counter Isis inspired sectarian intolerance is emphasising religious unity with their Shi’ite counterparts. Not only is this approach largely ineffective in the face of Isis advocates but the assumption that political accord and social harmony between people of different beliefs can only be achieved through feigning theological concurrence is perniciously incorrect; like Isis they suggest that Muslims cannot live in harmony alongside those with variant views. Having religious antipathy does not at all mean that we cannot disagree, debate and dialogue in a civilised manner nor does it engender a lack of respect for fellow citizens. We should not feel obliged to put on a façade of religious accord with those whom we believe to ascribe to aberrant beliefs, whether they are Shi’ite, Christians or anyone else. In fact the plurality of beliefs we enjoy in the West should be celebrated by taking the opportunity to engage meaningfully with neighbours and friends, our brothers and sisters in humanity, to cogently clarify why we believe theological truth to be on the side of Abrahamic monotheism, as revealed to the final prophet Muhammad; and in the context of religious denominations as articulated by Sunni orthodoxy: adherence to prophetic tradition and apostolic consensus. Any attempt to tackle sectarian bigotry that promotes oppression and violence (such as that of Isis) must empower people with the confidence to believe as they wish emphasising the importance of their beliefs being concomitant with notions of tolerance and respect, and acknowledging that the greatest means by which to challenge others is through courteous engagement and intelligent dialogue.
There are also contentions that go beyond theology and into the realm of politics. The idea that joining with our British Shi’ite neighbours to condemn Sunni barbarism in Iraq is neither necessary nor meaningful. For anyone privy to the news: the depiction of an innocuous Shi’ite majority beleaguered by a savage Sunni force is inaccurate. The brutality we see in Iraq is not one-sided; just as Islamic State militants overrun Shi’ite towns massacring anyone in their path; their Shi’ite counterparts do much the same. Recently Amnesty International gathered evidence pointing to a pattern of extrajudicial executions by government forces and Shi’a militias in the Iraqi cities of Tal ‘Afar, Mosul and Ba’quba. The loose alliance of Sunni factions in Iraq too, came as a result of the injustices experienced with the Shi’ite government and militiamen indiscriminately killing Sunnis at mosques and elsewhere. The Guardian reported: ‘It is attacks like these that have persuaded large numbers of ordinary Sunnis who live in the vast spaces between Baghdad and Damascus to side with Isis.’ Given the sectarian mess in Iraq, our one-sided denunciation of those abroad runs the risk of legitimising opposing factions equally culpable – if there must be a denunciation it should be dispassionate, full and far-reaching. However, given the good relations between Sunnis and Shi’ites in the UK it is unclear as to why we must condemn events in foreign lands; the Prophet stated, “Part of the perfection of one’s Islam is his leaving that which does not concern him.” Our focus should not be on sectarian dynamics in Iraq, but on how the Isis narrative might infiltrate religious discourse here in the UK.
Simplistic narratives about politics, states, law and war
Beyond this episode of oversight from Muslim organisations and individuals in the UK (from whom lack of depth is habitual), there are other factors that inadvertently aid the spread of dubious views among those who are sincere but less informed. Contemporary Muslims have long been fed simplistic narratives about politics, states, law and war. On subjects such as governance and authority, the confusion that often besets sincere Muslims is that much like Isis, their reference point tends to be medieval political paradigms concerning the institution of a caliphate, the jizyah, and jihad. Now given this similar starting point, for preachers to completely disprove the political rhetoric of Isis it means that they might inadvertently invalidate their own paradigms, or at least demonstrate some inconsistency.
For too long such matters have been addressed in a rudimentary fashion, self-styled clerics and religious preachers who lack knowledge, depth and maturity mislead many into assuming a simplistic narrative. The paucity of learned and astute thinkers developing Islamic political theory to reflect modernity means that while classical Islamic jurists used the language of empire during an age of empire; the conceptualisation of a polity with an Islamic ethos in an age of modern nation states has yet to mature. An example of such maturation might be the attempt to consider jizyah as a policy of taxation in the modern world – a sophisticated subject matter with many aspects necessitating diligent enquiry. For western Muslims engaged in such sophisticated discussion, a number of pertinent questions might arise that require sound deliberation, from the ethicality of a tax regime that differentiates between citizens and how that positions Muslims on political liberalism (the dominant political philosophy of the western world), to whether zakat and the jizyah reflect laissez-faire economic principles and how that might suggest Muslim support for neo-liberal policies.
The Curious Response From Hizb-ut-Tahrir
Beyond this general observation of the ‘Muslim response’, specific examples from various Muslim groups too have proven weak and failed to adequately challenge Isis. Hizb ut Tahrir (HT, or at least most of their factions) for whom the establishment of a caliphate is a raison d’être has rejected Isis claims of a caliphate. Having stipulated a number of conditions for the validity of a state they assert that these haven’t been met. Their conclusions are based on seemingly arbitrary benchmarks. For example, although the appropriation of oil fields and bank vaults has afforded Isis an economic basis with which to establish a polity, HT spokespeople state that amongst the unmet conditions is political self-sufficiency and the capability to defend borders. In any case, the idea that any state in the modern era is completely self-sufficient is a misnomer; the global system of finance has meant that economies are very much interdependent. On defence, the seizure of US supplied weapons has helped to secure frontiers and the efficiency by which Isis deters attempts to recapture cities demonstrates a group with powerful capabilities. In fact, the Economist ran a piece stating that some western diplomats hold Isis to have the most potent ground-fighting force in the region after Israel. To argue, as HT have that Isis would be unable to withstand an American air assault is another incongruity, how many states in the world could? Does the fact that other states cannot now invalidate their claim to statehood as well? Such arguments weaken the authority of HT repudiations – to many it looks like backtracking on simplistic ideas (as realised by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) around a caliphate as well as the reality of westerners leaving the comforts of western living for the Iraqi desert at the behest of the new caliph hitting home. Essentially, HT comes across as a collective that seeks a unifying social identity developed on rhetoric and rallying, but apparent inaction when relevant circumstances arise. Their response to Isis is unimpressive; in effect they claim to reject the new caliphate they have long sought because a country hasn’t precipitously formed that is independent of the world economy, free from the effects of globalisation and readily endowed with a military force that can repel a superpower.
Will Salafi scholars respond to Isis retorts?
From the Salafi and more specifically Saudi (Najdi) camp, refutations have been far more determined although still failing to robustly tackle the comebacks of Isis advocates. A number of scholars, mostly from Saudi Arabia, have been swift in condemning the takfiri nature of Isis and their murderous rampage through Syria and Iraq. Some, such as the respected Shaikh Sa’d al-Shithri, have gone as far as to excommunicate members of Isis from the faith labeling them “deviants and heretics” and “greater in disbelief than the Jews and Christians!” The fact that the majority of those massacred by Isis are Muslims or that Isis is led by ex-Ba’thists employing Saddam-era cruelty is not lost on this camp, but in response Isis supporters maintain that Najdi scholars systematically fail to consider that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is attempting a transition from galvanising the Sunni elements of two failed states into a new one, so while he may seem ‘heavy-handed’ (if that’s what they call Isis barbarism), what else can he do about those who reject his ‘righteous’ attempt to forge a united polity with one overarching authority, a concept that is not itself disputed by interlocutors? Whereas Najdi scholars refer to Isis as a mere sectarian faction vying for power, advocates assert that the Islamic State is now a polity covering an entire region that has established key political institutions and the rule of law; and putting aside the past and Isis’ brutal methods, now that an Islamic state (in their view) has been erected, how is it illegitimate, and if it isn’t then why not support it?
An interesting point to note is that while Salafis have been vehemently opposed to the activities of Isis such as their treatment of minorities (especially Christians), their commitment to political paradigms reflective of those envisioned for the middle ages results in concurrence with Isis on some principal objectives, and so they find themselves awkwardly assenting to some of the Isis rhetoric. Inevitably this emboldens Isis supporters and just as we find with the responses of other groups opposed to Isis including HT and most jihadists, it seems to strengthen their case.
Sufis and Liberals make declarations, but in whose interests?
Other Muslim groups self-defining as liberal and Sufi have had also decried Isis, but without any associated attempts at substantially and meaningfully deconstructing the Isis narrative. There have been a number of declarations deceitfully re-termed fatwas; let alone qualifying as religious verdicts these declarations fail to meet the requirement of nominal intelligence, their authors provide insipid arguments and opt for artificiality in order to attract superficial attention.
The word fatwa linguistically means to clarify, and in legal terminology it is where the specialist clarifies a legal verdict, – divine instructions that pertain to the actions of those obligated by the law. Logically, this necessitates that the verdict be issued after assiduous intellectual enquiry by way of legal reasoning through the use of Islamic authoritative legal sources such as revelation, legal unanimity, and legal precedence. To quote modern secular legal agreements or general political sentiment as authority for the basis of a fatwa is quite bizarre, meaningless in the court of religious law, and indicative of the ineptitude of whoever might muster the misplaced courage to actually present such illiteracy of the shari’ah.
Interestingly, the varied Muslim landscape has also seen otherwise passive and apolitical Sufis taking strong political positions such as encouraging western military intervention, and Muslim liberals who align themselves with democratic ideals blaming the ‘Salafists’ and ‘Wahhabis’ for the barbarism of Isis whilst vindicating muftis in Syria and Egypt as well as leaders in the region widely recognised as corrupt. In these distinctly political premises, many see through the assertions of spirituality; their pretensions seem less like manifestations of rabbaniyyah (devout godliness) and more like class-based affectations acquiescent to the interests of the establishment.
So who or what remains? For the sincere and intelligent believers of the British Isles continuing down the current path is ineffective; we urgently require scholars endowed with scriptural knowledge, relevant theology, and mastery over Islamic legal theory, as well as a deep insight into politics, law, society and culture. It is their job (and dare I say responsibility) to deliver a narrative that operates on an entirely different level to that of various groups and factions who hold narrow interests and have struggled to convincingly challenge Isis. This project demands a rounded approach that is rich with scriptural understanding and both social and political insight. It is due to the absence of a holistic attitude that people will continue to remain unsure about their response to situations where Islamic ideals and shar’i (legal) terminology are appropriated by a disagreeable horde. Even beyond Isis, rather than offer meaningful narratives that brings out the best in believers we are offered unproductive sectarian attitudes, none of which deal with problems when they arise or impel the decent and upright to truly know their Lord, engage with revelation, understand the world around them, rally in strength and excel in constructive activism.
 Al-Bukhari and Muslim; reported by Abdullah b. Amr b. Al-Aas.
 Al-Tirmidhi et al, reported by Abu Hurairah.