Quilliam’s Senior Researcher on Islamic Studies Sheikh Dr. Usama Hasan explains in conversation with The Tony Blair Faith Foundation why the oppression and tyranny of ISIS, far from being supported by scripture, is in stark opposition to the central Quranic ideas of mercy, justice and compassion.

1. As an expert on hadith literature why does the ISIS narrative give it such a key role?

The hadith are traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his disciples and companions in the early years of Islam. Now ISIS follow a very strictly puritanical Salafi/Wahabbi approach to Islam, and have this idea of returning to pure Islam, as practiced by the Prophet and his companions – which is a very naïve kind of idea. But the way to reach that is through traditions or hadith in terms of details (How did the prophet do this? And how did his companions do that?), especially in terms of war and public governance, etc.

So that is their kind of ideal, which is why they constantly refer to the hadith, because they think they can follow the pure prophetic example, and also because they think that way they will be blessed by God, that their actions will be in some way correct, even if they make no sense in the real world in terms of modern values etc. But they think that they will attract divine blessing by doing things in that pure way, and that’s why the constantly refer to scripture, relying also on the hadith for the details.

2. ISIS claims their treatment of religious minorities is based on Islamic jurisprudence. Is this credible?

It’s very important to understand that ISIS has an ancient or medieval approach to religious minorities and to the conduct of warfare. So for example in the ancient world it was the norm to enslave your opponents in war, or to kill them all. That happened in ancient Rome, Greece, and right across the world. That was the norm… enslaving women and children was the norm, in war. And it was part of the Arabian culture, and it continued under Islam with a lot of modifications.

In early Islam there was the concept of Dhimma, where non-Muslims are protected by Islamic states, in return for paying a special tax called the jizya. Now ISIS have brought all of that back, because they’re trying to recreate a pure, original Islamic state, if you like. What they seem to totally misunderstand is that over the last five centuries, especially the last two or three centuries, there has been a lot of reform in Islamic thinking – Islamic jurisprudence – so that the ancient notions of Dhimmitude, or a special tax of jizya, and a special status for non-Muslim minorities, was abolished by the Ottomans, for example.

Two centuries ago – almost – the Ottomans brought in equal citizenship, and everyone was an Ottoman subject. And in the 20th Century, with the large number of Muslim nation states, they discussed this vigorously and had, again, the idea of equal citizenship. For example in Pakistan, an overwhelmingly Muslim country, but the founder of Pakistan laid down very clearly that Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians and others in Pakistan would be of equal status. Now ISIS being very mediaval in their thinking, or even pre-medieval, would reject all of this development and say “this is not in early Islam, and therefore we reject it and we go back to early Islam”, and they’re imposing special taxes like jizya on Christians and on religious minorities. And they’ve got it very wrong.

They’re applying a literalist, fundamentalist approach to the scriptures, and believing that they can solve the world’s problems by applying the methods of the ancient world in the 21st Century. And it clearly doesn’t work, and in fact causes immense harm and oppression and tyranny, which for believers like me – we’re very clear – is totally opposed to the Quranic spirit and the Islamic spirit which is of mercy, compassion, justice, love, forgiveness. Unfortunately groups like ISIS have no understanding of that.

3. What will ensure the criticisms of ISIS from Muslim leaders around the world are heard?

A fatwa is a religious pronouncement on a subject by a religious scholar or group of scholars, and it is accepted as authoritative by those who wish to: by those who trust those people, or groups or individuals. The key question here is winning the trust of ordinary Muslims. In the modern world there is a real breakdown in trust in many places, because many Muslim states have had dictatorships or tyrannies in place who have co-opted the religious leadership – under duress, often. And often, the pronouncements of the religious scholars are totally in line with an oppressive, despotic dictator, for example.

So in large parts of the Muslim world, the masses do not trust official religious scholars. So no amount of fatwas have any effect, because people say these are sellouts, they’re government scholars, they’re government agents etc. What we need is to show there is an openness, and a freedom for the whole society, including for the religious scholars. It’s very important to open up the Muslim societies to freedom, democracy etc., so that religious authority is rescued from being in the grips of tyranny, and then it will be credible again.

So the key [issue] is to make that religious scholarship and their pronouncements credible, that it is not for the sake of a government sponsored agenda or for an external agenda, but it is inherently for the sake of Islam and a devout, faithful response to what is happening in the world. If that is done, then it is likely to be far more receptive. But inasmuch as any religious scholars or groups have an element of credibility and trust among those they speak to, then those recipients will trust their judgments and their fatwas, so it needs very careful targeting of different pronouncements to get to the right audiences.

4. Despite these condemnations, why do many young Muslims find ISIS attractive?

One of the biggest reasons why ISIS is still attractive to thousands of young Muslims around the world who are joining their ranks is because of literalist and fundamentalist thinking which sees religion and the world in very simple, binary, black and white terms, and its us vs. them, good vs. evil, and they think they’re the good guys.

On top of that, there is a very powerful eschatological narrative which ISIS promotes, based on early Islamic prophecies found in Islamic tradition, most of which, in fact, were clearly fabricated in the early centuries of Islam when you had big battles with the Persians and Byzantines, Romans and the Holy Land, Jerusalem and other places were being fought over. But those prophecies are still being repeated, over and over again, right across the Muslim world.

There is a strong sense of Messianism, that the end of the world is nigh, the Messiah, the Mahdi and the second coming of Jesus is about to happen. And all of these events, which mention Damascus, Jerusalem, Iraq, Syria, Arabia, Mecca and Medina, from the first two centuries of the Islamic tradition, are now being repeated as if they are about to happen, right now in the 21st Century. And that is one of the most powerful aspects of ISIS propaganda, that many people don’t appreciate, is that they’re literally telling people that “the end of the world is about to come, and we are the good guys in this final battle between good and evil. Armageddon’s about to happen, and if you want to be part of it, if you’re a true believer, you must come and join us”. It’s actually a very deceptive, but very powerful narrative.

5. How should Muslim leaders create a counter-narrative to ISIS?

For an effective counter-narrative to ISIS, we have to recognise that ISIS are often preying upon the frustrations of Muslims around the world who lived under dictatorships and tyranny and oppression, and don’t know what freedom is, and don’t know what it is to have some power. And they’re being offered power through guns, to hit back against their imagined enemies, whether they’re other Arabs or Muslims, or the Western world, or whatever. The only way, long term, to deal with this, is to give those people real freedom: freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of thought; to give them participation in power, in politics (i.e. in democracy: local and national democracy that works). And then they can see that you can have a free, effective, civilised society where they are partners and they are stakeholders in their society, so that they do not need to resort to joining extremist terrorist groups, and to gain power through a gun. That is the fundamental challenge for the Muslims at the moment.

And of course, the very narrow theological and jurisprudential pronouncements of ISIS – their very narrow approach to religion and to Sharia, the caliphate etc.; their oppression of women; their oppression of non-Muslim minorities; their oppression of other sects like the Shia, like Yezidis and others – all of that needs to be dismantled theologically and jurisprudentially. And of course, all of the great Muslim reformers and thinkers of today, and for the last few centuries, have been providing the arguments for that. Those arguments need to be popularised, so that we have a balanced approach to Islam in the modern world that is true to Islamic tradition, but also fits with the nature of reality in the modern world that we live in. And that is an ongoing effort.

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