The flaw in the Fatwa on the so-called Islamic State

This really is quite magnificent. To those who insist Muslims cannot or will not integrate with or conform to British values, customs and traditions, this fatwa (= religious opinion; not death sentence) constitutes a scholarly refutation, not least because it addresses directly the “poisonous ideology” of the Islamic State, and it does so theologically and quranically: there no Warsi-like knee-jerk repudiation that “these are not Muslims” or “this is not Islam”. The “so-called ‘Islamic State'” may be “heretical and extremist”, but its heresy is inspired by the Qur’an and its extremism derives from the example of Mohammed. You may cavil over the reliability of historical sources or quibble over the extent of theological abrogation, but Mohammed was undoubtedly something of a warmonger and Allah does indeed command that unbelievers ought to be beheaded: “I shall cast into the unbelievers’ hearts terror; so smite above the necks, and smite every finger of them” (Qur’an 8:12).

For the theologian and historian, context is important – or ought to be. If we cannot discern what biblical scholars have long called a scripture’s Sitz im Leben (“setting in life”), our theological exposition may be distorted by the lens of our own time and the imposition of our own deficient moral perspectives.

There is no doubt that Mohammed used what today would be termed “murder” and “terrorism” in order to propagate his beliefs and spread his ideology (Qur’an 8.17; 33.26; 8.67). He pillaged towns without warning, slaughtered unarmed men who had gone to the fields and markets on their daily business, captured their wives and children, and is said to have distributed the younger women among his soldiers while always keeping the prettiest ones for himself and having sex with them in the same day he murdered their fathers, husbands and loved ones. These are not fables and nor are they the bigoted musings of those who may be termed “Islamophobic”: it is history as recorded in the Qur’an, Sunnah and Hadith. Ergo the problems of the so-called Islamic State may be seen to find their inspiration in the example of the so-called Prophet, who is considered the template for perfect manhood.

Of course, the vast majority of British Muslim are peaceable and fraternal, and so take a more latitudinal view of such scriptures and seek to set them in their historical perspective. They would quote from the Qur’an passages like surah 2:190: “Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but do not begin hostilities, for God does not love aggressors.” Their daily jihad is private and devotional: it is against the sins of the flesh and the temptations of this world. But for their more robust co-religionists, including members and supporters of the so-called Islamic State, their daily jihad is public and combative: it is against the heretics, infidels and the political power of the “Great Satan“.

But those who use surah 2:190 to insist that Islam means “peace” are quoting out of context. This passage is from the sixth year of the Hijrah, when the Muslims were a strong and influential community, but not supreme. Mohammed ordered them to defend themselves against Meccan attacks, but not be aggressors because they had a treaty. Many of them were exiles from Mecca, where the pagans had established an intolerant autocracy, persecuting Muslims. When they tried to assert their rights, the result was bloodshed. This surah was therefore concerned with a specific period of self-preservation; it is not a blanket command regarding all acts of violence. Being bound by context in time and space, there are many who reasonably do not consider it to be an eternal injunction.

But this is where this British fatwa derives its essential inspiration. The “religious opinion” is expressed and signed by six leading Islamic leaders and scholars:

Sheikh Mohammad Shahid Raza OBE
Executive Secretary, Muslim Law (Shariah) Council of UK. Head Imam, Leicester Central Mosque.

Sheikh Qamaruzzaman Azmi
Secretary General, World Islamic Mission. Head Imam, Manchester Central Mosque.

Sheikh Paul Salahuddin Armstrong
Co-Director, The Association of British Muslims.

Sheikh Dr Qari Mohammad Asim MBE
Head Imam, Makkah Masjid, Leeds.

Sheikh Dr Usama Hasan
Author, ISIS Fatwa. Former Imam, Masjid Al-Tawhid Mosque, Leyton. Head Theologian, Quilliam Foundation.

Mufti Abu Layth
Founder, The Islamic Council, UK.

Some prominent names and organisations are notable by their absence..

It’s not quite like convening a Nicaea III ecumenical council and omitting to invite the Anglicans, but, just as the Mughals and Ottomans don’t really cut it for the Islamic State, one doubts that this array of moderate sheiks and muftis hold much sway over their throat-slitting co-religionists. And there is no supreme theological authority to which a disputatious party can appeal other than to their own fatwa, which is merely an opinion of what is halal or haram. One Muslim’s “poisonous ideology” is another Muslim’s door to Jannah.

These scholars instruct Muslims to live by the law of the land in which they reside, and they do so by making appeal to the Geneva Conventions and (essentially) to the established social contracts (/treaties) of the UK and EU. But the Islamist’s allegiance is not to Geneva; nor is to the values of liberal democracy or European oligarchy. And their citizenship is neither in Britain nor Europe: they are bound by no secular polity of man-made law. And there is no uniform Islamic theology or jurisprudence: Sharia is divided, disparate and contextual.

Surely the imams of Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Leicester and London know that?

Of course, we thank them for their wise and reasoned exhortation to the radicalised Muslim youth who prefer Jihad in Syria to weight training in the Islamic Youth Club of Wandsworth. But theology is a bit deeper than invoking secular treaties or plucking scriptures out of the air and seeking to bash them into a particular religio-political worldview. And what, in any case, is the political worth of a spiritual fatwa in a religious tradition that entertains taqiyya?