The Challenge of Responding to Jihadi 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 seems to be very little anyone can do to stop these barbaric acts. Many talking heads parade from one television network to the next presenting “expert analysis” of the situation. The typical Muslim/BBC response is to condemn IS and Boko Haram followed by denials which state that their acts have nothing to do with Islam. They are joined by many left-wing liberal western experts on Islam. Then we have the Islamophobic/Daily Mail response which is at pains to point out that ISIS and Boko Haram have everything to do with Islam and actually represent the true face of Islam. They are joined by a number of evangelical Christian activists. These conflicting perspectives are perplexing 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 (Andrea Brigaglia “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, 2012, No. 11. pp. 35-44 here from pp. 37-38).


Islamic Roots

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 teaching 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 job in outlining the connections between Boko Haram and Salafi leaders in Nigeria who are funded by al-Muntada, a Salafi Trust in the UK. In a forthcoming article ("Boko Haram in Retrospect") 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 Law of Sunni Islam.

Muslim claims that groups like al-Qaeda, IS and Boko Haram have nothing to do with Islam are attempts to disassociate Islam and themselves 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 our Muslim colleagues, neighbours and friends. It is vital for Muslims to engage in some serious introspection and be reminded that such sweeping denials do not inspire confidence.

Muslim Introspection

Muslims, however, are already engaged in deep introspection, whether it is disillusioned young Iranians leaving Islam in droves and giving up on religion completely, or ordinary individual Muslims and communities 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 quotation from a progressive Muslim scholar a couple of years after 9/11 is an example 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, Omid [ed.] (2003), Progressive Muslims on Justice, Gender and Pluralism, Oxford: Oneworld Publication: 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!

Mark Durie's Reflections

In his reflections on IS and Boko Haram, Mark Durie, a very dear Australian colleague, who self-identifies as “a theologian, human rights activist, pastor of an Anglican church”, passionately and rightly calls attention to what he identifies as the “theological illiteracy” of the West and the denial and failure of Western elites to come to grips with the theological roots of radical Islam. Durie chastises mainstream Western scholars for creating what he calls an “obscurantist veil”, for “wilful historical ignorance”, “enforced cultural blindness and intellectual amnesia” and “dissimulations”.  All of these, he claims, have contributed to promoting a “mythical Islamic construct”. I have to admit that I share much of Durie’s frustrations with increasingly secularized and religiously illiterate Western societies.

I take exception however with key aspects of Durie’s approach. Durie insist that IS "battle tactics are regulated by sheikhs who implement the sharia’s rules of war.  Many of the abuses committed by ISIS … are taken straight from the pages of Islamic legal textbooks”. To prove his points, Durie refers to Islamic scripture, precedent of Muhammad’s example, legal texts and Muslim scholarly opinions and draws sweeping conclusions like: “In reality Islamic coexistence with conquered Christian populations was always regulated by the conditions of the dhimma” (dhimma is a discriminatory code that relegates Christians and Jews to the status of second-class citizens under Islamic rule).

The heart of Durie’s objection lies in what he perceives as Muslim apologists and liberal Western elites whose priority seems to be the preservation of the honour of Islam at the expense of the “truth”, as he perceives it. Writing on Boko Haram, Durie states that “what will not help anyone…is putting forward weak arguments that no-one should judge Islam on the basis of Boko Haram's actions”. Because  “attempting to persuade non-Muslim Westerners that Islam is not the problem actually makes it much harder to formulate an effective strategy for countering jihadi insurgencies”. In other words, as far as Durie is concerned, Islam is the problem, or at least part of the problem.

Is Islam (part of) the problem?

There are a number of problems with Durie’s thesis.

The dhimma

First of all it is not true that everywhere Christians lived under Muslim rule the conditions of dhimma were “always” applied to them. On the contrary, there are several historical contexts where Christians under Muslim rule became so powerful and exerted so much influence that it drew the ire of radical and polemical Muslim preachers. The jizya tax, for instance, was applied haphazardly and sporadically throughout Muslim history under oppressive regimes. Talking about violence and conquests for religious causes, European Christian empires and nations were just as guilty as the Islamic caliphates. For centuries, both embarked upon conquests and wars to colonize and to convert while religious minorities like Jews were subjected to all kinds of discrimination and oppression under Christian Europe culminating in the Holocaust. The point here is that one thing Christians and Muslims share in common is that of a fallen humanity with all its brokenness.

Islamic law

Another problem with Durie’s approach is that it is too simplistic to claim that the battle tactics of al-Qaeda, IS or Boko Haram are “taken straight from the pages of Islamic legal textbooks”, or that  "the ISIS jihadists can ably defend their theology on the basis of Islam’s history and religious traditions" (my emphasis).

First of all, as we showed above, at best, the ideologies of groups like al-Qaeda, IS and Boko Haram can be traced back to the Hanbali School of Law, which scholars unanimously agree is the most conservative of the schools. In other words, the jihadi groups owe their origin and inspiration to one out of four Schools of Law of Sunni Islam subscribed to in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with some following in Palestine, Syria, and Iraq, a total of less than 50 million following out of the 1.6 billion global Muslim population. Sure, IS’s demands that non-Muslims should convert, pay jizya or die can be traced back to Islamic sourcebooks. But the working details of the declaration and conduct of jihad itself are so complicated in the legal books.  This is something which Durie, like IS, is willfully ignoring.

For instance, al-Qaeda, IS and Boko Haram have no legal legs whatsoever to stand on in declaring a jihad. The declaration of jihad is the preserve of a legitimate ruler, not a band of fanatics. If anyone at all can declare a legitimate jihad, there will be anarchy and all Islamic legal texts are clear on this. The exception is when Muslim land comes under attack or occupation by an enemy force and jihad or resistance becomes an individual responsibility. None of the above applied prior to 9/11 nor in the case of IS and Boko Haram today. Also, as is well known by now, these jihadi groups target and kill fellow 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 fellow Muslims on takfir, declaring fellow Muslims to be unbelievers deemed legally permitted to be killed. This key feature of the jihadists' doctrine and tactics was uniformly repudiated back in the seventh century and the Kharijites who espoused it ruthlessly suppressed as terrorists. Thus in Islamic history and mainstream political theory, jihadi groups like al-Qaeda, IS and Boko Haram are all heretical terrorists. It does not matter what individual Muslim scholars say, irrespective of how eminent they may be. There has always been a mainstream!

Kurdish Muslims

Durie takes 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” (my emphasis). 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. When pushed on this, Durie resorts to weak arguments that the Kurd’s good deeds are due to their nationalism, whilst IS barbarism is due to their Islamic identity. But if we go by the logic of judging Islam on the basis of the actions of jihadi groups, is it then justifiable to judge Christianity on the basis of the numerous heinous acts committed by Christian sects and mainline 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 supremacy? To suggest that these groups were in contravention of Jesus’ example and teaching does not help the victims of their theology and actions either.


But I think the most fundamental flaw at the heart of Durie’s analysis is what I call the “textualist hermeneutic” he adopts. Like the good Protestant he is, Durie believes in Sola Scriptura, and thinks everything can be proven or disproven by drawing a straight line between text and action, assuming that correlation is the same as causation. In this regards, Durie is no different from his jihadi antagonists whose well-known revivalist mantra is “Qur’an and Sunna alone”! Not only are texts cited as cause and validation of atrocious acts, they are selectively cited just as historical and contemporary contexts are selectively referenced. 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 existential realities that inform the way we live out our faith. When challenged on this, Durie claims he does not deny these factors, but he hardly takes these seriously as part of the complex web of intervening and contributory factors to the rise of jihadi groups. By refusing to take into account such extra-textual forces seriously, Durie can be said to be guilty of the willful denial he charges Muslim apologists and liberal Western scholars.

Jihadi atrocities and Islam

The narrative that atrocities committed by jihadi groups has everything to do with Islam is therefore 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 also perplexing that Christians are among those who call out loudest for Muslims to publicly condemn and repudiate Jihadi atrocities. Yet Christian activists are among those who rubbish and dismiss Muslim condemnations as taqiya (dissimulation) and obscurantist when they are voiced. Similarly, Christians are among those who call upon Muslims to take a critical re-reading of their scriptures, traditions and history. Yet, in most cases, Christian Islamicists are those who go out of their way to discredit progressive Muslim readings of the Muslim scripture and tradition in order to make the further point that “Islam reformed is no Islam”! Durie adopts this dismissive attitude towards Qasim Rashid in his blog on Boko Haram. As Joseph Cumming once put it, “if a Muslim says the Qur’an teaches him/her to love Christians, why should Christians be the ones saying no, actually the Qur’an says you should kill us”!

I have focused on Durie’s analysis of jihadi groups because I consider him a good friend with whom I feel comfortable to disagree, and because his views fit neatly into the narrative Brigaglia describes as embodying “all the prejudices associated with the supposed ‘essence’ of Islam”. Such narratives, 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 narratives 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 a fringe group of twisted zealots, but is futile and disempowering which can only inspire more fear, more hatred and potentially more violence. For instance, if the Qur’an and Islam are the problems, what is the solution? What else do we realistically expect from governments? Drop bombs on the Ka‘bah in Mecca, the Prophet’s mosque in Medina and al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem? Or pass legislation to proscribe Islam as a religion and ban the use of the Qur’an?

Is there a solution?

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. Rather than engage in such dialogue, missionaries 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 under-handed missions. Western governments also need to get over their ideological posturing with Iran and come to terms with the fact that Islamic terrorism is largely a Sunni phenomenon, not a Shi‘a or Alawite one. They need to get over the simplistic and false binary view of the world of “friends” and “foes” and engage in “hard-talk” with the so-called “friends” like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. 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. The battle against jihadi Islam cannot be won from London, Washington or Melbourne. As the experience of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt demonstrates, the battle can only be won on the streets of Muslim cities and towns. 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!

4 thoughts on “The Challenge of Responding to Jihadi Islam”

  1. Debates like that of Durie and Azumah on the relation of Islam to violence are perennial. However, we may find it most helpful to acknowledge that post-imperial nostalgia is the moral and spiritual lens through which many Muslims view both democracy and the world system. Perhaps some formulations of Islam *are* a problem; clearly many Muslims *have* a problem accepting the legitimacy of any order but that which they associate with the militarily triumphant Muslim states of the past.

  2. A Response to John Azumah

    John Azumah has taken another bite of the apple by releasing a second response to my Lapido Media article “‘Three Choices’ and the bitter harvest of denial”. His earlier response has now been re-issued, in edited form, with Fulcrum.

    I can refer Fulcrum’s 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 would 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, however implemented, 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. First, 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 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 basically the same in all four schools: for example it is permissible to kill male captives of war in all the schools of Sunni jurisprudence.
    I would be most intrigued to know if Azumah can provide even a single illustration of how the actions of terrorist groups faithfully follow Hanbali jurisprudence IN CONTRAST TO all 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 not my belief. My point rather is that they claim – vigorously – to base their views on the essentials of Islam as delivered by Muhammad.

    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. It is also an argument which is presented at a highly abstract level. For example, John Azumah does not present any evidence that the sale of captive women by the Islamic State is against the precedents set by Muhammad or rejected by any school of Islamic jurisprudence. I submit that the reason he has not done this is because he cannot.

    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 link to my rejoinder above), but it seems John Azumah is not listening.

    And yes, I do believe that Islam itself is the problem.

    Mark Durie

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