It 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.