Jihadi Islam: A Response to John Azumah

In response to John Azumah's article, "The Challenge of Responding to Jihadi Islam", which engaged with his work, Mark Durie posted a comment.  Here he expands on that and adds links which were unable to appear in the comment.

John Azumah has taken yet another bite of the apple by releasing a third response to my Lapido Media article “‘Three Choices’ and the bitter harvest of denial”. This is an earlier response, now re-issued, in edited form, with Fulcrum (for his previous comments, both reported on Lapido Media, see here and here).

I can refer readers to my previous rejoinder to Azumah: “Complexity, Truth and the Islamic State: a response to John Azumah and Colin Chapman.” In respect of Azumah’s new material for Fulcrum I make the following observations:

I did not say that the conditions of the dhimma “always” applied to Christians living under Islamic rule. My point was subtly different, namely that coexistence after Islamic conquest was “always regulated by the conditions of the dhimma”. By this I did not mean to imply that dhimma laws were consistently or uniformly applied to Christians at all times and in all places: my point was that the dhimma conditions and worldview profoundly framed and shaped the patterns of coexistence of Muslims and their conquered subjects.

John Azumah emphasises that groups like the Islamic State, Al-Qa’ida and Boko Haram trace their theology to the Hanbali madhab (Sunni school of law), which, he points out, is followed by only a minority of Muslims today. He insinuates that other schools – representing the majority of Muslims – have different rules concerning jihad and the treatment of conquered non-Muslim subjects. This is misleading on several counts. Although it is true that Hanbali jurist Ibn Taymiyya has been influential among Salafi groups, his student Ibn Kathir, who has been almost as influential, was Shafa’i. Terrorists today follow all four of the main madhabs: Al-Shabab are Shafa’i, the Afghan Taliban were Hanafi, and Gadhafi, a long-term sponsor of terrorism, governed according to Maliki jurisprudence. In any case the rules for the treatment of non-Muslims during and after conquest are essentially the same in all four schools: for example it is permissible to kill male captives of war in all the schools of Sunni jurisprudence.

It seems ironic that Abdullah Azzam, whose influential tract Join the Caravan incited many to go for jihad in Afghanistan, reported that of the four schools, the Hanbalis rank the duty of jihad below the duty to perform daily prayers:  the other three schools rank jihad more highly when it has become an individual obligation (fard ‘ayn): for them it is equal to praying and fasting.

I am intrigued to discover whether Azumah can provide even a single illustration of how the actions of terrorist groups follow Hanbali jurisprudence in contrast to the teachings of the other three schools.

Azumah’s main criticism of what I have written is that I claim that groups like the Islamic State have the ‘correct’ understanding of Islam as delivered by Muhammad. This is not my belief. My point rather is that such groups claim – vigorously and ably – to defend their views on the basis of the essentials of Islam as delivered by Muhammad.  I am not saying their defence is correct: I merely point out that for many it is a compelling defence.

In regard to Azumah's theological silver bullet – that the Islamic State's jihad is invalid because only a legitimate leader can declare a jihad – I would draw attention to the position of the jihadis.  It has long been accepted by jihadi ideologues that when Muslim lands are occupied, jihad becomes fard ‘ayn, an individual obligation, without the need for a leader to declare it.  This is also a mainstream view of Islamic jurists.  It is also widely accepted by jihadis that Muslims lands are occupied by unbelievers today, despite Azumah's claims that this does not apply to Iraq or Syria today, and it did not apply "prior to 9/11".

The point is not whether John Azumah believes Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan are occupied.  The point is that Muslim radicals believe this.  And not only they, but many leading others have made similar statements in the past. Bin Ladin considered that Saudi Arabia was occupied by Americans during the Gulf War, and it was this that led him to found Al-Qa'ida a few years later.  The jihad in  Afghanistan under Soviet occupation was justified on the basis that Afghanistan was occupied: the argument is laid out very clearly in Abdullah Azam’s Join the Caravan.  The Sunni rebels fighting in Syria believe Assad is an unbeliever and an occupier of Muslim lands.  Four years ago, Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi, now 'caliph' of the Islamic State rejected the validity of parliamentary elections in Iraq and committed himself to jihad against the American 'occupier and his agents': the 'agents' being of course the elected government of Iraq. The Islamic state continues to reject the validity of Iraq's government for this same reason: that they consider them stooges of the occupying Americans. There would be the same attitude to the Saudi Arabian ruling family.

Let me be perfectly clear: I am not saying that the Islamic State's ideology is the only interpretation of Islam, nor that it is the 'correct' one. What I am saying is that it is a reasoned interpretation.  And that is a problem which needs to be understood.

John Azumah's argument is presented at a very abstract level. Just to take one example, he does not offer any evidence that the sale of captive women in jihad – as the Islamic State is doing – is against the precedents set by Muhammad, or against the rules of jihad in any of the schools of Islamic jurisprudence.  I submit that he does not because he cannot.  Such practices are not "eccentric" as he puts it, but they have been widely applied in historical jihad campaigns.  Of course Muslims are not the only ones who have done such things, but the point is that such formerly mainstream Islamic warfare practices as selling slaves or beheading captives have been re-emerging for religious reasons: this is something the Islamic State's ideologues have been quite clear about.

John Azumah’s solution is to argue that such groups do not have a true understanding of Islam as it has existed historically, and the correct response to jihadi terrorism is to inform Muslims of the correct understanding of their religion. This is patronising.

Finally, John Azumah seems to consider that as a ‘good protestant’ I must be some kind of fundamentalist, and consequently I interpret Islam through that prism. I have already rejected and refuted this simplistic view (see here).

And yes, I do insist that Islam is a problem – not the only problem in the world, but a problem all the same – and that is something worth talking about.

6 thoughts on “Jihadi Islam: A Response to John Azumah”

  1. Dear Bowman Walton,

    I fully agree with John Azumah’s statement about supporting Muslims to reject the views of the jihadists.

    But we disagree about the extent to which this requires Christians to reject specific Islamic teachings.

    I disagree with Azumah’s claim that ‘problematizing’ Islam will alienate Muslims and create WWIII. I also reject the term ‘problematizing’. This weasel word presupposes something which in fact needs to be discussed, namely that Islam is not the problem, or not even part of the problem.

    No-one can make something into a problem – ‘problematizing’ it — if in fact it is already a problem.

    And yes, I do believe that telling untruths about Islam will not make us all safer. On the contrary, it will foster conditions for radical Islam to flourish. That has been the track record so far. Worst of all, denial encourages Muslims to continue to play the victim card and blame others for their many sufferings. This is profoundly unhelpful for everyone.

    Magdi Abdehadi’s recent blog post ‘it is not a warped view of Islam’ (http://maegdi.wordpress.com/2014/10/03/it-is-not-a-warped-view-of-islam/) points out that at the present time across the Muslim world commentators are making the point that the ideology of ‘extremism’ has “firm roots in traditional Islam.” For example many critics have been speaking up to reject the hadith (tradition) of Muhammad in which he said “I bring you slaughter” – the very same hadith that has been cited by IS to justify its murderous rampage.

    Abdelhadi reports of this Arabic language commentary: “The whole tenor of the debate is that Muslim societies should stop blaming the others for their woes, and acknowledge their complicity.”

    In this climate of criticism of traditional Islam within the Muslim world, it is rational and reasonable that Christians should also speak up to point out that their collective suffering at the hands of the jihadists has theological roots within Islam. Far from leading to Armageddon this can only help reinforce the support for reform which is building – and which must continue to build – within the Muslim world. This reform MUST include a rejection of some aspects of what Abdelhadi calls ‘traditional Islam’: otherwise calls for reform will fail, and the jihad will continue to rage on.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful reply. Many will read it with interest.

      If you and John Azumah have each identified different effects of Christian critique of Islamic traditions, then we may have a complex balance to strike. As you say, some Muslims seem to have the confidence to revise Islam in the light of humane criticism from within and without (a strong ego response). As John Azumah says, others with weaker confidence may well lash out at the source of the criticism from across a chasm of reassuring polarisation (a weak ego response). And of course, many Muslims may feel both responses to criticism of their religious traditions. Do you know of an Islamic counterpart to Fulcrum with whom we might discuss this?

  2. The Durie/Azumah debate has been absolutely fascinating.

    I really do hope that our politicians understand that the answer to radicalisation is not a simple vaunting of British values and high-profile Muslim denunciations.

    I can see little difference between sort of religious rhetoric that incites young Muslims to jihad and the sermons of Papal legates who encouraged hundreds of thousands of medieval Roman Catholics to join the crusades.

    While we decry the belligerence of Muslim clerics, let’s remember how Pope Urban II incentivised the masses with the promise to reward with remission of penance those undertaking crusades, I mean ‘pilgrimages’ with military protection.

    ‘All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested. O what a disgrace if such a despised and base race, which worships demons, should conquer a people which has the faith of omnipotent God and is made glorious with the name of Christ!

    With what reproaches will the Lord overwhelm us if you do not aid those who, with us, profess the Christian religion! Let those who have been accustomed unjustly to wage private warfare against the faithful now go against the infidels and end with victory this war which should have been begun long ago. Let those who for a long time, have been robbers, now become knights. Let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians.

    Let those who have been serving as mercenaries for small pay now obtain the eternal reward. Let those who have been wearing themselves out in both body and soul now work for a double honor. Behold! on this side will be the sorrowful and poor, on that, the rich; on this side, the enemies of the Lord, on that, his friends. Let those who go not put off the journey, but rent their lands and collect money for their expenses; and as soon as winter is over and spring comes, let them eagerly set out on the way with God as their guide.’

    Clearly, he thought Christ’s Kingdom was of this world.

  3. Just thought I should add a ‘health warning’ to this article for the benefit of UK residents. If you follow the link to Azzam’s Join the Caravan, you should clear your browser cache afterwards. Otherwise you could inadvertently find yourself in possession of a piece of terrorist literature and technically in breach of Section 58 of the Terrorism Act.

  4. Thank you, Fulcrum, for giving this important topic continued attention.

    Here, I am trying to bring the two arguments to common terms, and to see what steps they suggest to us. Other readers may read the cross-talk differently– if so, I hope that they say so– but at the centre of this debate I see an agreement and a disagreement.

    “I couldn’t agree more with Durie that a long-term solution to the toxic ideology and murderous orgies of the jihadists is ‘to emphatically reject and stigmatize’ the twin-pillars of jihad and dhimma in classical Islamic law… 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.”

    Does Mark Durie take yes for an answer here, or does he object to this formulation of the common ground? If there is agreement here, what follows from it?

    (Given that Muslims must “’emphatically reject and stigmatize’ the twin-pillars of jihad and dhimma,” have Christians an obligation to do something concrete to enable Muslims to change?)

    “Attacking and problematizing Islam, Muhammad or the Qur’an will only alienate Muslims and create an ‘us versus them’ scenario. Exactly what the jihadists preach and are seeking to achieve!”

    John Azumah seems to claim that Mark Durie’s arguments promote a mass polarisation that itself facilitates jihadist violence. Put bluntly– if we agree with Durie, more people will die than would have died if we had instead pre-empted this mass polarisation. Is this actually Azumah’s claim? If so, what is Durie’s response to it?

    (To protect their home territories and defend human rights, Western states avoid polarising their populations against Muslims, so that they often present views like those of Azumah. Yet because some sort of polarisation is inherent in every deadly conflict, some critics with views like those of Durie fear that state emphasis on an idealised, pacific Islam is untruthful and makes populations less safe. Is there a Christian response to this dilemma?)

Leave a comment