I am quickly discovering that much of western academia appears unready, unwilling and extremely reluctant to engage in an intellectually honest dialogue over some of the problematic doctrines of Islam. I have been denied the opportunity of having an academic supervisor to complete my Master’s degree in Studies in Religion because I refuse to shy away from investigating the obvious problems that manifest as a result of some of the core doctrines of Islam. My research proposal that aims to examine the scriptural and doctrinal justifications for some of ISIS’ behaviours has been deemed problematic on grounds that appear more steeped in regressive liberal politics than in actual academic merit.
Below is my research proposal and two email replies to the final supervisor who rejected my proposal:
Research Proposal: A Critique of Three Claims Made in ‘The Open Letter to Al-Baghdadi’
In 2014, an open letter addressed to the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, co-signed by 122 Islamic scholars and community leaders, was published in order to isolate ISIS’ interpretation of Islamic doctrines and practices from the wider Ummah. The purpose of the letter was to ebb the tide of bedroom-radicalized Muslims who, despite this noble endeavour, continue to join ISIS’ jihad and assist them in their goal of establishing a global Islamic caliphate. The open letter contains 24 criticisms of ISIS’ understanding and practice upon theological grounds. This paper will critically evaluate four of these criticisms by examining the Qur’an, the Sunnah and Sira of Muhammad, as well as the hadith and contemporary and classical scholarship on the issues surrounding these criticisms. The four criticisms evaluated are as follows:
- Jihad in Islam is defensive war. It is not permissible without the right cause, the right purpose and without the right rules of conduct.
- The re-introduction of slavery is forbidden in Islam. It was abolished by universal consensus.
- It is forbidden in Islam to force people to convert.
- It is forbidden in Islam to harm or mistreat—in any way—Christians or any ‘People of the Scripture’.
The first issue to be examined is the homogenous manner in which this letter describes the religion of Islam, which, as is the case with the expression phenomena of religions in general, is subject to a variety of legitimate interpretations. If one were to ask a Sunni what Islam is, the answer would contain distinctions from the answer given by a Shia or a Sufi, for example, and even within these denominations answers would vary in accordance with subjective personal interpretations, which are the result of external social, socio-political, and socio-psychological pressures, as well as numerous other variables that impact upon the individual’s application and understanding of their religion. A possible counter to this criticism could be that it would be impossible to make any definitive analytical statements about something which cannot be defined at all – thus, such a criticism is ostensibly based on logic that may erode anything concrete that one may refer to as Islamic. To counter this counter, the theological structure of the religion of Islam must be taken into account in so far as it assists in a definitive identification of universal pillars of the religion as a whole, whilst still allowing for sufficient flexibility to encompass the broad range of interpretations that exist within the religion of Islam.
This paper will challenge the four criticisms listed above by employing the primary pillars of Islam, the Qur’an and hadith, as well as by examining contemporary and classical scholarship on the issues addressed within these criticisms. It will be argued that the primary pillars of Islam permit and even encourage offensive jihad, which also finds historical precedence through common practice observed in Islamic history – that slavery, in particular sex-slavery, is permitted in jihad in accordance with chapter eight of the Qur’an, as well as various hadith. Further, it will be argued that forceful and coercive conversion to Islam is encouraged within the Medinan Surahs, which take precedence over of the earlier Meccan Surahs by way of the exegetic doctrine of naskh (abrogration). Finally, it will be argued that the harming – in any way – of Jews and Christians is done so by ISIS in harmony with established Islamic doctrines, specifically within the hadith, including the Sira of Muhammad, whom the Qur’an establishes as the perfect example for Muslims to follow.
Interaction with Existing Scholarship
This research essay will interact with a broad range of historical and Islamic scholarship. Some of the scholars whose work will be evinced, examined and critiqued include:
Shawki Allam (Grand Mufti of Egypt)
Professor Aaqil Ahmed
Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi
Abu Basir al-Tartusi
Abu Dujana al-Khurasani
Abd al-Majid al-Hitari
Two email replies:
I completely understand your reservations. I also concede wholeheartedly that the majority of Muslims are peaceful and apply the Meccan surah over the Medinan. The same cherry-picking is prevalent in Christianity, for example; for if Christians truly applied the their scriptures scrupulously, Joel Osteen would be out of a job and given the existence of Matthew 5-17-20, a whole host of violence would continue to plague the modern western world. Having said this, in my humble opinion, scholarship isn’t about, or shouldn’t be about, repeating existing consensuses, which in this case come from within the religion – it should be about challenging existing propositions and adding to the discourse in a constructive, critical and serious way. What might the west look like today if Thomas Paine hadn’t challenged the aristocracy for fear of a lack of audience appeal, or because an argument could have been made that society seemed already to be working well-enough; or if Darwin buckled under the pressure of his time? George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “All great truths begin as blasphemies”, and if we are unable to challenge (even religion) within secular academia, how might we achieve progress? Some of the core doctrines of Islam are problematic for enough people (predominantly Muslims) to be addressed. Wife-beating, offensive jihad, amputating the hands of thieves, sex-slavery, male guardianship, homophobia etc…; these doctrines are still alive and well to such a degree that they deserve exposure in not just popular circles, but academic ones. I guess we can continue to examine the problem with Western-centric eyes and continue to fall prey to the “bigotry of low expectations”, to steal a phrase from Maajid Nawaz – we can continue in our complacency and apathy for the suffering of non-westerners, and ignore the problems that such doctrines are continuing to cause in the Muslim world, because they are not really our problems, but I would hope that secular scholarship in this area would be brave enough and intellectually honest enough to critically address such gaps in the existing academic discourse.
Over and above everything I have said here, I think that this area of academic research represents a fresh field for academic inquiry, because to date, and for obvious reasons, this avenue of investigation and research has been largely left untouched – although there is a slowly growing group of Muslim scholars who are now beginning to move beyond religious and political biases and examine with more critical eyes the problems that form the focus of my research paper.
Thanks for reading.
My apologies, in my previous email, I forgot to address this statement you made:
‘It is one thing to pick out Koranic verses etc which seem to imply violence (though nothing like the OT and Judges or Kings!), it is another to say they do all the work when there are multiple countervailing verses and so forth (I mean, it seems to me your reading would be accepted in a general sense by ISIS, but not by the majority of muslims – and that itself is food for thought…)’
Firstly, it is not a matter of picking out Quranic verses that “seem to imply” violence, and the verses you are perhaps alluding to do not “seem to imply” violence, they expressly sanction it – it is about examining how and why ISIS can employ such verses, and more importantly, whether or not some of the core and peripheral doctrines and exegetic traditions (‘naskh’ – abrogation) themselves provide leeway for such interpretation. My primary interest is in examining the question of how ISIS are able to use such teachings, and to what extent their interpretations may be regarded as legitimate? Islam is a religion, I agree, and it can be interpreted in a plethora of ways, like any religion, but to ignore the fact that it can be interpreted in this particular manner, is to ignore the history of the religion and the foundations upon which it was established, at least from the Medinan period onward, with a variety of exceptions that manifested throughout its history, such as the Islamic Golden Age, etc. Once again, I understand your reservations, but I wouldn’t want you to get the impression that I have just picked out random verses from the Qur’an to confirm pre-existing biases, or that I am unaware of the fact that the majority of Muslims are peaceful. I have done a great deal of research in this area and a strong academic case can be made to show that some of ISIS’ behaviours can be justified by some of the doctrines of Islam, and that therefore there is room for reform, and again, I do acknowledge the uncomfortable nature of such a topic, but again, it is a ripe field for academic inquiry.
Thanks again for taking the time to read this reply…