ISIS and the Larger Muslim Crisis by Hanadi Riyad

Hanadi Riyad croppedIt is heartening to hear the many condemnations Muslim scholars have issued of ISIS and its methods and actions. One of the latest attempts comes in the form of an open letter addressed by a coalition of one hundred and twenty six Muslim “scholars” from across the world to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and ISIS followers and supporters. The seventeen page letter is one of the most detailed responses to ISIS I have read. However, just like other responses, it fell short of my expectations as a Muslim woman. I checked the list of the signatories and I could not find any women amongst them.

I am saddened to note that the authors of the letter fall into the same mistake they accuse ISIS of: they quote some Quraanic verses and Hadiths selectively, out of context, and portray them as sufficient rebuttal against ISIS actions, never mind the sources, verses, and Hadiths ISIS has been quoting just as selectively to justify its crimes. The letter explains about the methodology of Islamic legal theory (usul al-fiqh) that it stipulates “to consider everything that has been revealed relating to a particular question in its entirety, without depending on only parts of it, and then to judge if one is qualified based on all available scriptural sources.” There’s no explicit logical explanation for why the parts of the scripture and interpretations quoted by the writers of the letter should be given precedence over the ones quoted by ISIS.

The implicit reason, however, resides in the authors’ assertion of their authority as Sunni “scholars”  and their opinion as “a scholarly opinion.” We should take their word because they have the authority that ISIS does not. The assumption that ISIS cannot count amongst its ranks scholars is neither explained nor defended. The doctrinal connection between ISIS and Wahhabi ideology upheld by many Saudi scholars – like ibn Baz and his disciples— goes unacknowledged.

I find the implications of this line of argument very disturbing. It perpetuates the “herd” mentality existent amongst some Muslims and certainly amongst ISIS followers. Average Muslims are made to feel inadequate to use their reason and education to read and attempt to understand the scripture. Instead, they resort to the opinions of those “qualified” to do so to regulate every aspect of their lives, from how to take a shower to when to take up arms and embark on Jihad. Scholars enjoy unquestionable authority and credibility even if their edicts defy reason and Muslims’ sensibilities. One such famous edict is the permissibility of a child’s marriage to an elderly man, which remains unchallenged by most mainstream Muslim scholars despite its unpalatibility.

Average Muslims are made to believe they are too simple-minded to understand and evaluate the legal theory methodologies and logic used to reach such edicts. It stands to reason then that such people are not going to question their scholars when they call on them to join Jihad or to confine women to their homes.

The letter asserts the impermissibility of “rebelling against the [Muslim] leader” and his entitlement to absolute obedience. Indeed, al Baghdadi is a Muslim leader according to the letter’s definition and therefore is entitled to obedience in the eyes of his followers.

Unfortunately, the writers of the letter, like most mainstream Muslims scholars, fail to show respect for the average Muslim’s intelligence and agency; they ask for the same obedience that ISIS has demanded.

The letter ignores the lengthy debates that have taken place about Hudud amongst contemporary Muslim theorists and thinkers, like Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid and Mohammed Abed al Jabri, and declares them “fixed in the Qur’an and Hadith and are unquestionably obligatory in Islamic Law.” It gives a vague explanation of some of the circumstances where certain Hudud had been suspended with no evidence whatsoever, and naturally fails to condemn ISIS for implementing them. This “unquestionability” of law and interpretations is the very thing that has rendered some Muslims vulnerable to ISIS and likeminded scholars.

Highly controversial issues like “punishments” (Hudud) and the treatment of women are addressed only perfunctorily. Point 14 of the letter reads:

In simple terms, you treat women like detainees and prisoners; they dress according to your whims; they are not allowed to leave their homes and they are not allowed to go to school. Despite the fact that the Prophet said: ‘The pursuit of knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim’, and despite the fact that the first word revealed of the Qur’an was: ‘Read’. Nor are they allowed to work or earn a living; nor allowed to move about freely and they are forced to marry your fighters.

Such matters as women’s freedom to dress as they want, their freedom of movement, their right to work, and choose their husbands are serious issues that have been controversial from before ISIS. Saudi Arabia is a prime example of a context where such rights are contested daily. In not including a legal rebuttal of such practices, signatories – all male – demonstrate a disturbing indifference and possibly ambivalence towards the women’s situation under ISIS.

The savage methods of ISIS and the scholar community’s response are indicative of a larger Muslim crisis. It is the crisis in authority with which the Muslim world has been struggling for decades now. The insistence of authoritative scholars to give precedence to the text (naql) over reason (‘aql) with no objective regard to the context 1,400 years ago or now have resulted in unbelievable edicts, like the impermissibility for women to look at bananas and cucumbers in the market as they are deemed suggestive. The lack of questioning of the legal theory methodologies and framework established by the classical imams over a thousand years ago has locked Islam and its laws in a historical vacuum. Scholars who dare to question established methodologies are denounced as non-scholars.

While the Muslim “establishment” seems oblivious to this crisis, many Muslim youths are suffering a crisis of their own, a crisis of belief and identity.

Hanadi Riyad is a development practitioner and a graduate student of Human Rights and Human Development in the University of Jordan. She is especially interested in the relationship between Islam and women’s rights. When she is not working and researching, she is traveling and enjoying the world and the kindness of humanity.

Categories: Islam, Qur'an, Textual Interpretation

Tags: , , , , , , ,

25 replies

  1. Shukran Hanadi – I am happy of you sharing this informative post, I enjoyed reading it!


  2. This was really informative! Thank you.


  3. Thank you, Hanadi, for writing this essay. I worked with Nasr Abu Zaid for years. He often noted that there is little to no dialogue between scholars within Islam and everybody else. In addition, as you note, there are those who set themselves up as “knowing” (imams, jurors), as opposed to those who do not “know.” Nasr said there was a great need for critical thinking–asking questions, etc. In your experience, do you see the situation changing? That is, are more Muslims beginning to question the undisputed “authority” of those who set themselves as “knowing?”


    • I believe any processes of change take some time to manifest in a physical or measurable sense, so I think it’ll take a lot of time and effort to “change the situation.” The seeds might be there, ironically sowed by the extremists who have driven many to start questioning authority and what they think of as “Islam,” but the counter-current is very strong to say the least. Some muslims have been questioning the “undisputed” authority of “ulama” for some time, mainly since the rise of al Qaeda and September 11. This “questioning” has become stronger now, but it remains largely unarticulated. This is due partially to that the language of questioning is not as accessible to many in the Middle East as the language of “following” is. While mainstream sheikhs, imams, and even “scholars” have perfected the language of the masses, the “questioning” — as articulated — is more academic and elitist than “real.” The potential for change is certainly there, but it will not grow on its own I’m afraid.


  4. It may sound like I’m promoting my own path in quoting this, but it is a sharing that can be universal. There is a story in Zen that says:

    The emperor, who was a devout Buddhist, invited a great Zen master to the Palace in order to ask questions about Buddhism. “What is the highest truth of the holy Buddhist doctrine?” the emperor inquired.

    “Vast emptiness…and not a trace of holiness,” the master replied.

    “If there is no holiness,” the emperor said, “then who or what are you?”

    “I do not know,” the master replied.


  5. It’s very sad that because those Islamic State hoodlums are getting all the publicity these days they have become the face of Islam to most of the rest of the world. They do not, of course, represent what Islam really is, but media coverage makes the world think they do. This is enormously sad. I hope you find more kindness in the Middle East.


    • Thank you. We do need more kindness in the Middle East.

      Something struck me as interesting about your comment about how ISIS and the media coverage of the situation is affecting the image of Islam. I think many Muslims think it is their duty to relentlessly “defend” Islam and even maybe question their conception of it and counter that largely negative media narrative. They think as Muslims it’s their obligation to denounce ISIS’ methods and savagery. A rather strong apologist discourse is emerging that is somehow relieving the “other” of the responsibility and burden to question their own biases and conception of Islam as “outsiders” to the faith but also as sisters and brothers in humanity to its practitioners. This is just to say that if the world think ISIS represents Islam, I mourn the world not Islam.


  6. I love this piece. I believe you are leaning toward the conclusion that there is no “Islam [as it] really is” (sorry Barbara Ardinger) but rather that Islam like other religions can become what the adherents of it believe it should become. It is a question of authority, and if contradictory messages can be derived from texts, and if traditional authorities advocate some morally unacceptable positions, then there really is no other choice than becoming our own authorities (in relation to traditions or not) as individuals and communities.


  7. I don’t hold anything men say as having any authority over me religiously at all. My theology is simple, if it isn’t women saying it, and if it was only written by men centuries ago, and if the lastest letter is only written by men, the I reject it as anti-woman.


    • Women have been successful in the past in “using” men to get their voice across and heard. Is it better or worse than not having our voices heard at all? I don’t know. I think at times we need to engage with the power-structure to make a change. We need not like it but at least we need to reasonably weigh it.

      This reminds me of the Egyptian feminist dilemma when Mubarak was ousted in 2011. Pro-women laws were immediately questioned and condemned because they came from an autocratic regime that has starved and beggared women as well as men, and because they were mostly passed under the patronage of Mubarak’s wife (who is just as part of the autocratic regime as he is). I think boxes and labels hold too much power over us that we need to question.


  8. The “crisis” is only for those in the Sunni Muslim community who do not agree with conservative or traditionalist thought. Since these scholars have branded the Quran as “good for all time”, the problem is with the audience, not the scholar-clergy nor the academic/juristic methodology used to solve problems. In other words, if the believer is not living an ‘authentic’ life which is in compliance with their interpretation of the Quran, then the believer must change her life. The inauthentic person creates dissension (fitna) and disturbs cultural boundaries with innovation (bida). To a person living in a society that is characterized by debate and invention, this mindset can often be insufferable.

    However, it is important to remember that conservatives and traditionalists have a brand of Islam that asks the same questions and gives the same answers and they have been doing this for hundreds of years and will likely continue for hundreds of years. There is something very satisfying to many people to have that kind of stability, particularly in a contentious and changing society. Furthermore, all these traditional religions encourage large families. Even if you have seven kids and four of them drop out because they don’t like that brand of Islam, you still have a remaining three to continue the brand existence. The traditionalists are not going to change.

    There will continue to be a growing population of disenfranchised (the new term seems to be ‘unmosqued’) Muslims. If there are some engaged and innovative thinkers, then perhaps a reform movement will emerge. However, the conservative and traditionalists are under no such pressure. They can continue to parrot the teachings passed down to them with not much thought whatsoever: they still have the numbers on their side.

    Now I must go forthwith to attend to a provocative zucchini patch….


    • Thank you so much for that perspective, and dialogue. It matters.


    • Well, yes, that’s what mainstream ‘ulama are saying: there’s nothing wrong with the framework and the problem is in the people. But precisely because the Quraan is supposed to be “good for all time,” “dissenters” are saying that we need to acknowledge the human agency at play in reading and understanding the Quraan in different times. And this is not new really, Ibn Rushd, the Mutazilites, and other thinkers have advanced that line of thinking for hundreds of years. Political oppression won out and they were silenced for the most part but their tradition is being revived now.

      The ISIS and the extremist situation in general is making more people in the Sunni Muslim community realize that they in fact “disagree.” It’s becoming harder and harder to avoid taking a stand on hudud or women’s treatment for instance when ISIS is just at the borders confronting us with what we’ve learned as kids to be “Islam.” With my reservations regarding the argument about religious conservatism and number of children, having 4 out of 7 children “drop out” or question this tradition is by no means insignificant.

      True, it’s much easier to be a traditionalist and conform — and there are no magic solutions — but change has to start somewhere and it usually starts with a group of dissenters who become change-makers.


  9. Neither ISIS nor these “Muslim scholars” have any real authority because they have no real Knowledge of the Revelations: They have no Knowledge (“My people perish for lack of Knowledge.”) that “the resurrection” in the Quran is a Doctrine of ‘Rebirth’ based upon the revelation of the memories of previous lives–which is the Revelation of a Feminine Truth (or that the “Night Journey” of Mohammed is a symbol for the Vision of the “Son of man”.) The denial of this ONE Revelation is the foundation of ALL of the misogynistic doctrines and practices of monotheistic metaphysical philosophy-religions.

    But the media REFUSES to publicize this one Doctrinal Truth for fear of threatening the economic interests of Monotheism, Inc.; the result of which will be the “time of trouble” Prophesied by Daniel.



  10. This is a very interesting read and an extremely valid argument.

    One point of possible disagreement is that, from my humble experience, the presence of female scholars wouldn’t have necessarily shifted the rhetoric to include elements of feminism.

    I do have a question to ask you, if that’s okay: how would you personally challenge support for ISIS’s ideology should you come across it?


    • Hope you don’t mind me interjecting something here: Having female scholars mouth a fundamentally misogynistic theology is NOT any improvement. The only way of *effectively* challenging “support for ISIS’s ideology” is not by the “scholars”, but on the basis of the fundamental Revelations themselves (see my comment above and the notes on my website); which, however, would also challenge the support for Judaeo-Christian ideology which ALSO consists of misogynistic contradictions of those Revelations, which is WHY the media will NOT publish the Truth about those Revelations.



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