By John Azumah, Associate Professor of World Christianity and Islam
Once again, the world is being subjected to horrific images of religious and ethnic genocide from Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria to Boko Haram in Nigeria. These images make many around the world feel helpless, fearful, angry and even guilty that there seem to be very little anyone can do to stop these barbaric acts. Many talking heads parade from one television channel to the other presenting “expert analysis” of the situation. The typical Muslim/CNN response is to condemn IS and Boko Haram followed by denials that their acts have nothing to do with Islam. They are joined by many left-wing liberal western experts of Islam in this denial. Then we have the Islamophobic/FOXNEWS response which is at pains to point out that IS and Boko Haram represent the true face of Islam. These are joined by a number of right-wing evangelical Christian Islamicists. These conflicting perspectives are confusing to many ordinary people, including Christians, some of who are victims of the atrocities.
Commenting on the label “Boko Haram” (literally western education is forbidden), which has been imposed on the Nigerian terrorist group, Andrea Brigaglia of the University of Cape Town, South Africa, makes the following insightful observation:
The popularity of the nickname Boko Haram in the national and international press might be explained by two different reasons. For the northern [Nigerian] Muslims, especially those ideologically close to Izala and Ahlus Sunna, the label transforms the radical group into an exotic eccentricity and hides its embarrassing connection to the leadership of a well-established Salafi organization in the country. For the southern Nigerian Christian press on the contrary, as well as for the global Western media, the nickname Boko Haram magically captures all the stereotypes that have daily currency in Islamophobic discourses: at the same time obscurantist, primitive and ferocious, Boko Haram embodies all the prejudices associated with the supposed ‘essence’ of Islam (Brigaglia 2012: 37-38).
Contrary to repeated Muslim denials, there is no question that aspects of the ideology of groups such as Boko Haram and IS are rooted in Islamic texts and that they draw inspiration from Islamic history. In fact, groups such as al-Qaeda, IS and Boko Haram, can be traced back to Wahhabi-Salafi thought which is widespread across the Muslim world and in the West. Some of the leaders of these jihadi groups have either been students of leading Wahhabi-Salafi scholars or inspired by their works. Brigaglia has done a very good study outlining the connections between Boko Haram and Ahlus Sunna leaders in Nigeria who are funded by al-Muntada, a Salafi Trust in the UK. In a forthcoming article I have established the connections of Boko Haram’s ideology and leadership in the wider northern Nigerian context. Wahhabi and Salafi thought in its modern expression, have their origins in a leading 14th century Islamic jurist-theologian, Ibn Taymiyya (d.1328), through Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab (d.1792), renown students and teachers of the Hanbali School of Law, one of the four orthodox Schools of Sunni Islam.
Muslim denials that jihadi groups have nothing to do with Islam are therefore attempts to disassociate Islam from the eccentric excesses and barbarity of these groups. This is where the rest of the non-Muslim world and Christians in particular need to engage in some “hard talk” with Muslims. It is vital for Muslims to engage in serious introspection and reminded that sweeping denials do not inspire confidence. Muslims, however, are already engaged in serious introspection, whether it is disillusioned young Iranians leaving Islam in droves and giving up on religion altogether, or ordinary individual Muslims turning away from Islam to other religions, including Christianity, or a growing progressive trend in Islam which is engaging in a critical re-reading of Islamic texts and history. The following quote from a progressive Muslim scholar a couple of years after 9/11 is indicative of this introspection:
The time has come to stand up and be counted. As Muslims and as human beings, we stand up to those who perpetuate hate in the name of Islam. We stand up to those whose God is a vengeful monster in the sky issuing death decrees against the Muslim and the non-Muslim alike. We stand up to those whose God is too small, too mean, too tribal and too male…To all of these, we say: not in my name, not in the name of my God will you commit this hatred, this violence” (Safi 2003: pp. 9-10).
There can be no denying the fact that “a wind is blowing in the house of Islam” and a battle for the soul of Islam is earnestly underway! It is therefore disingenuous and unhelpful to claim or even suggest that jihadi groups embody or represent the “essence” of Islam. First of all, as we pointed out above, at best, the ideologies of modern jihadi groups can be traced back to the Hanbali School of Law, which scholars unanimously agree is the most conservative of the schools. In other words, modern jihadi groups owe their origin and inspiration to one out of four Schools of Law in Sunni Islam. Sure, IS’s demands that non-Muslims should convert, pay jizya or die for instance can be traced back to Islamic sourcebooks. But the working details of the declaration and conduct of jihad itself are so complicated in Islamic jurisprudence, which some evangelical commentators, like IS, are willfully ignoring.
For example, al-Qaeda, IS and Boko Haram have no legal legs to stand in Islamic jurisprudence to declare a jihad. The declaration of legitimate jihad is the preserve of a recognized ruler of an Islamic state. Also, as we all know by now, these jihadi groups target Muslims who disagree with their views. In fact innocent Muslim civilians are overwhelmingly the victims of jihadi violence. The jihadists justify their targeted killing of other Muslims on account of takfir, declaring fellow Muslims unbelievers who are legally permitted to be killed. This key feature of jihadists’ doctrine and tactics was uniformly repudiated in early Islam, and the Kharijites who espoused it ruthlessly suppressed as terrorists. Thus in Islamic history and political theory, jihadi groups like al-Qaeda, IS and Boko Haram are, indeed, heretical terrorists!
Some evangelical commentators take exception with Muslim apologists that “what will not help anyone – least of all the victims of this outrage – is putting forward weak arguments that no-one should judge Islam on the basis of Boko Haram’s actions” (Durie 2014). But if it is justified to judge Islam on the basis of the actions of jihadi groups, the logical question is: what then should we do with the actions of Kurdish Muslims who are fighting and dying to protect Christian and Yazidi minorities? The Kurds are also Muslims, reading the same Quran, following the same prophet and performing the same daily prayers. And if we go by that logic, is it then justifiable to judge Christianity on the basis of the numerous heinous actions of Christian sects and major traditions like the Dutch Reformed Church in Apartheid South Africa or the Southern Baptist Convention in America which only formally apologized in 1995 for its support of slavery, segregation and white supremancy? To suggest that these groups were in contravention of Jesus’ example and teaching does not help the victims of their theology and actions either.
The most fundamental flaw at the heart of the narrative that jihadi groups represent the “essence” of Islam is what I call the “textualist hermeneutical approach”. Protestants believe in Sola Scriptura, and some evangelicals think everything can be proven or disproven by drawing a straight line between selected texts and actions (historical and contemporary), assuming correlation to be the same as causation. Such approaches are no different from the jihadists whose well-known revivalist mantra is “Qur’an and Sunna alone”! The truth, though, is that the vast majority of Christians and Muslims don’t live by Sola Scriptura or Qur’an and Sunna alone. There are intervening and mediating socio-political, ethnic, cultural, economic, historical and contemporary realities that inform the way we live out our faith. When we fail to take such extra-textual forces into account our responses will lack in integrity and sustainability.
The narrative that atrocities committed by jihadi groups has everything to do with Islam is therefore just as false as the counter narrative that the atrocities have nothing to do with Islam. Both are in denial and selective in their readings of texts, history and contemporary realities. It is imperative to call upon Muslims to publicly condemn and repudiate these groups. And key Muslim leaders around the world are doing so repeatedly: Iyad Ameen Maduri, Secretary General of OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation), with 57 member countries and 1.4 billion Muslims; the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia; the Indonesian Uluma Council; Mehmet Gormez, Turkey’s highest Muslim cleric; Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi of Iran; the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and many others have all renounced IS and Boko Haram as heretical terrorists.
Unfortunately, some evangelical experts of Islam are among those who rubbish and dismiss such Muslim renunciations as taqiya (dissimulation) and “obscurantist”. The same experts are among those who go out of their way to discredit progressive Muslim readings of Islamic sources in order to make the further point that “Islam reformed is no Islam”! Such approaches, apart from the inherent flaws pointed out above, are alienating Muslims who are at the forefront of fighting jihadi Islam. At the heart of such approaches is the view that Islam is the problem, the Qur’an is the problem and Muhammad is the problem! To problematize Islam, the Qur’an and Muhammad is not only to unwittingly seek excuses for twisted zealots, but is futile and disempowering which can only inspire more fear. If the Qur’an and Islam are the problems, what is the solution? To pass legislations proscribing Islam as a religion and banning the use of the Qur’an?
I want to conclude by reiterating the need to engage in open, frank and constructive dialogue with Muslims. Rather than engage in such dialogue, Christians have over the decades contributed to the invisibility of Christian presence and witness in Muslim lands by caving in to real and imagined threats from radical groups or engaging in missions in underhanded ways. Leading Muslim intellectuals around the world – from Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Sudan, South Africa and the West – are fighting for minority rights. Countering the jihadists ideology is best achieved by working with such Muslims to disenfranchise the jihadists by drawing away the majority of ordinary Muslims from their toxic views and barbaric acts. Attacking and problematizing Islam, Muhammad or the Qur’an will only alienate Muslims, create an “us versus them” scenario, which is exactly what the jihadists preach and are seeking to achieve!
Azumah, John (2014), “Boko Haram in Restrospect”, (forthcoming)
Brigaglia, Andrea (2012), “Ja‘far Mahmoud Adam, Mohammed Yusuf and Al-Muntada Islamic Trust: Reflections on the Genesis of the Boko Haram phenomenon in Nigeria”, in Annual Review of Islam in Africa, No. 11. pp. 35-44
Durie, Mark (2014), “Boko Haram and the Dynamics of Denial”, in Frontpage Magazine (May 15), accessed at http://www.meforum.org/3826/nigeria-boko-haram-islam
Safi, Omid [ed.] (2003), Progressive Muslims on Justice, Gender and Pluralism, Oxford: Oneworld Publication