Ibn Taymiyyah and his fatwa on terrorism

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The ulama opposing terrorism are repeatedly emphasising the religious plurality of the world today and no medieval opinions expressed by jurists can be valid, asserts Asghar Ali Engineer.




Terrorism has become a worldwide disease which is swallowing the lives of thousands of innocent people in certain intensive conflict areas like Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir, North East India, certain other parts of India, and South Thailand. There are different reasons for terrorist violence in different conflict areas which vary from political to socio-economic injustices.

However, it must be clearly understood that terrorism does not suddenly drop out of heaven; it originates here on earth in response to acts of omission or commission by the ruling classes. But soon it acquires dynamics of its own and ceases to be a mere response. It becomes a phenomenon in itself and various vested interests, political, economic and those related to the armaments market begin to support it directly or indirectly. No terrorist movement can survive long without such support and merely as a response.

I would also like to say here that the very terminology ‘Islamic terrorism’ is a media creation and it reflects, besides prejudices and ignorance, a hostile attitude towards anything Islamic or to do with the Muslim world. No religion can ever encourage the mindless violence that terrorists resort to. Religion in its essence is nothing more than a moral and ethical way of life, upholding the highest values of life. Everything else is culture, politics or other interests. Any conduct or behaviour which does not reflect this moral and ethical core is anything but religious.

Here in this article we are concerned with the terrorist violence which was unleashed by Al-Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden with his attack on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001. We are not going to analyae here why he did it. We have thrown enough light on this in several other articles. We are concerned here with what legitimation he found to justify this attack.

The famous fatwa

All analysts and scholars agree that Osama and his followers used Ibn Taymiyya’s famous fatwa on the use of violence against unjust rulers. Ibn Taymiyyah was borne a few years after the Mongol sack of Baghdad which saw unimaginable savagery committed by them in killing hundreds of thousands of people in the most barbarous of ways. Taymiyyah, himself a great jurist, was a follower of Imam Hanbal. Imam Hanbal prohibits rebellion against unjust authority as it would result in anarchy and more bloodshed.

However, Ibn Taymiyyah,  against the teachings of his own school issued a fatwa justifying violence against unjust and authoritarian rulers so as to re-establish the Islamic rule and the rule of Shari’ah. This fatwa is being used by terrorists to justify their attacks as ‘Islamic’ and many young Muslims who do not even know who Ibn Taymiyyah was and in what circumstances he issued this fatwa, get misled and find ‘Islamic legitimation” in his fatwa.

Initially the Ulama, though, did not necessarily approve of the use of this fatwa; they kept mum or just whispered their opposition – not loud enough to be heard. But when the violence intensified and became uncontrollable, their conscience revolted and many of them decided to call al-Qaeda’s bluff by opposing the fatwa. Now many of them are coming forward condemning the use and misuse of Ibn Taymiyya..

Ibn Taymiyya, undoubtedly a great scholar and eminent jurist, had issued a set of four fatwas known as the Mardin fatwas. Mardin was a Turkish fortress in South-east Turkey with a  mixed population. And Osama  quoted this Mardin fatwa repeatedly in his calls for Muslims to overthrow the Saudi monarchy and wage jihad against the United States. Some prominent Ulama from the Islamic world decided to meet in Mardin to discuss Ibn Taymiyya’s fatwa towards the end of March 2010

This historic document was referred to by these Islamic scholars and they took decisive stand against it. They said, “Anyone who seeks support from this fatwa for the killing Muslims or non-Muslims has erred in his interpretation.” They further said, “It is not for a Muslim individual or a group to announce and declare war or engage in combative jihad…on their own.”

Prominent ulamas reject his fatwa

Those who use Ibn Taymiyya’s fatwa totally ignore the circumstances in which the fatwa was issued. Nothing can be valid unless seen in historically concrete circumstances. Ibn Taymiyyah himself, as pointed out above, had gone against his own Hanbali School in issuing the fatwa. Even then, all Islamic scholars had not unanimously endorsed it. Moreover, as pointed out by an Islamic scholar from, Belgium Prof. Yahya Michot, the Mardin fatwa has some ambiguity, which has been ignored both by terrorists as well as many western scholars and commentators.

It is important to note that the Mardin conference gathered 15 leading scholars from countries including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, India, Senegal, Kuwait, Iran, Morocco and Indonesia. Among them were Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah of Mauritania and Yemeni Sheikh Habib Ali al-Jifri.

While Ibn Taymiyyah was alone in issuing the fatwa, here a galaxy of prominent Ulama and Muftis from across the Islamic world from Indonesia in South-east Asia to Algeria in West Africa gathered and rejected the fatwa. It is a representative statement of the Islamic world rejecting terrorism. Not that those terrorists are going to stop violence and come to the table for negotiations for peace.

There are too powerful interests to care for any such rejection from across the Islamic world but it certainly sets norms and indicates what the Islamic world stands for. For sure, even then the anti-Islamic tirade is not going to stop and many western commentators and anti-Islamic forces will continue to hold Osama bin Laden as the real representative rather than this galaxy of Ulama from across the Islamic world.

It is not only these Ulama who met at Mardin who have condemned terrorism, but several other conferences and congregations have been taking place in several Islamic countries condemning terrorist violence. Several books are also being written and discussed. One of the remarkable works in this respect is that of Maulana Tahirul Qadri of Pakistan, who has compiled a 600-page volume quoting authorities from the beginning of Islam through the medieval ages to the present day opposing terrorism and the senseless killing of innocent people and non-combatants, which is strictly prohibited in Islam.

Another seminar took place at Oxford, where some Islamic scholars met to discuss a book written by Prof.  Yahya Michot, who teaches Islamic history and culture in Belgium University. This book, Muslims Under non-Muslim Rule, covers the four fatwas issued by Ibn Taymiyyah known as the Mardin fatwas. The book, besides discussing the life and work of Ibn Taymiyyah, analyses the four fatwas.

Yahya maintains that Taymiyyah issued these fatwas in a certain historical context and hence it is imperative to study and explore his writings in the existential circumstances in which they were produced; otherwise one is not only likely to misunderstand but also misinterpret them. His Mardin fatwa is a good example. Mardin “occupies a strikingly strategic location. It is dominated by a fortress reputed to be unassailable, from which the view reaches deep into the vast plain of upper Mesopotamia”.

Domain of peace and religious plurality

Though the precise date of the fatwa is not known, Ibn Taymiyyah issued it in response to a request to clarify whether Mardin was a domain of peace (dar al-salam) or a domain of war (dar al-harb). According to Yahya, there is a sort of ambiguity in this fatwa and there is no clear answer coming from the fatwa.

In his own words, “Is (Mardin) a domain of war or of peace? It is a (city of a status) composite (murakkab) in which both the things signified (by those terms are to be found). It is not in the situation of a domain of peace in which the institutions (ahkam) of Islam are implemented because its army (jund) is composed of Muslims. Nor is it in the situation of domain of war, whose inhabitants are unbelievers. Rather, it constitutes a third type of (domain), in which the Muslim shall be treated as he merits, and in which the one who departs from the Way/law of Islam shall be combated as he merits.”.

Thus it is important to note that Ibn Taymiyyah refused to say whether Mardin was a domain of war or peace and it is the most significant aspect of the Mardin fatwa which has been ignored by Osama as well as western scholars who demonise Ibn Taymiyyah. Today’s world is almost entirely composite in nature. There are either significant Muslim majorities or minorities.

The Ulama opposing terrorism are repeatedly emphasising this fact of religious plurality of the world today and no medieval opinions expressed by jurists can be valid. Any fatwa, like the Mardin one, can be issued without taking concrete conditions into account; there is unanimity among Islamic scholars that if Muslims are allowed to live in peace and have guaranteed religious freedom such a region cannot be but dar al-saqlam i.e. abode of peace, in Taymiyya’s own words. No violence can be justified in such a region. Thus terrorism has no place in the modern world.

Asghar Ali Engineer is head of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai.

Source: Secular Perspective  – 16-30 April 2010

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