A religious basis for violence misreads original principles

A new stream of Salafi clerics is emerging to challenge extremist views by pointing out discrepancies between Salafis and the historical figures they claim to follow.

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Much of Salafi ideological appeal comes from the unparalleled ability to root their views in traditional religious sources. They have convinced their followers and adversaries alike that their ideology represents the authentic teachings of major figures in Islamic history. A Muslim who opposes their views is deemed "mubtadea", or an innovator in religion.

Unfortunately, many moderate clerics and academics play into their hands by either attacking or entirely shunning historic sources. By doing so, moderates undermine their own standing in the eyes of many ordinary Muslims and bolster Salafis' popularity.

Ahmed Ibn Taymiyyah, a 13th century theologian, is a case in point. Ibn Taymiyyah is widely recognised as the intellectual father of the idea of takfir (accusing Muslims of apostasy) and extremist fatwas. To many Muslims, he is a remarkable authority on Sharia.

In Salafi circles, citing Ibn Taymiyyah's works is a measure of a person's knowledge of Islam. Because of his supposed contempt for philosophy, for example, Saudi universities do not teach the subject. "If Ibn Taymiyyah's name is mentioned, there is no need to seek further evidence," is one criticism of Salafist thinking.

But a review of his writings shows that his legacy has been distorted and misrepresented by fundamentalists. One of his most notorious fatwas, for which he was given the label of "father of Islamic terrorism", is known as the Mardin fatwa. In Islamic scholastic tradition, the world can be divided into two abodes: the abode of peace (believers) and the abode of war (unbelievers). Ibn Taymiyyah was asked to categorise Mardin, the city in modern-day Turkey where he was born. At the time the city was ruled by Mongols who had embraced Islam but were criticised for their non-adherence to the new faith.

Ibn Taymiyyah replied that Mardin was neither an abode of peace or of war. He came up with a third category that would be later used to justify indiscriminate violence: "It is not an abode of peace where Sharia must be implemented because its army has embraced Islam; nor is it an abode of war where residents are unbelievers. It falls under a third type where Muslims must be treated as they deserve to be treated and unbelievers must be 'combated' as they deserve to be 'combated'."

For decades, fundamentalists used the fatwa to justify fighting unbelievers even in areas where Muslims lived. But scholars have recently discovered that the widely distributed copies of the fatwa contained an error. The original copy, found at Al Dhahiriya Library in Damascus, reads: "Unbelievers must be treated as they deserve to be treated" (yoamalu). It did not use the word "combated" (yoqatalu). Ibn Mufleh, a student of Ibn Taymiyyah, also reported the word as "treated", as did other contemporaries.

Based on this misprint, fundamentalists have issued fatwas calling for the killing of infidels and labelling as kafir Muslim rulers who do not appear to adhere to Sharia (such as the Mongol rulers). It was used, for example, to justify the assassination of Egypt's President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

According to the Saudi cleric Dr Abdulwahhab Al Turairi, the first such misprint occurred about 100 years ago with the reprinting of Ibn Taymiyyah's Collection of Fatwa, which was later translated into English and French because of its popularity. Dr Al Turairi said the translation also helped to radicalise new converts from the West. The original text was corrected after a major conference in Turkey in 2010, probably too late since the ideology had taken root across the world.

Ibn Taymiyyah's Mardin fatwa was in fact a breakthrough, departing from the binary view of the world as either an abode of permanent peace or permanent war, to a third abode of coexistence.

Another basic discrepancy is that Ibn Taymiyyah wrote at least five books on philosophy; he criticised theological philosophy but, on several occasions, he defended philosophers in other realms of knowledge - namely, physics and mathematics. He essentially reiterated the view of the 12th century theologian Abu Hamed Al Ghazali who said physics and mathematics are different from logic.

While Ibn Taymiyyah tried to reconcile faith and reason, and wrote a book on the subject, extremists argue reason is the root of all deviation from God's way. As reason (aqel) is a recurrent theme in the Quran, these Salafis define any attempt at reasoning as "hawa", which is more accurately defined as false reasoning (which is mentioned in the Quran in the context of deviation).

Ibn Taymiyyah is also the father of the pragmatic principle of "siyasa shariyyah", or Sharia-compliant realist governance, which deals with politics, economics and law based on an overarching principle known as maslaha, or public interest. This goes against a signature principle of Salafism, which is "sadd al tharayi", or the prevention of vice by prohibiting anything that could lead to vice- such as immorality if a woman drives a car.

Theologians like Ibn Taymiyyah cannot be ignored by moderate Muslims or academics; their writings appeal to ordinary Muslims because they lay the groundwork for understanding Sharia. But fundamentalist clerics have misinterpreted and misrepresented these teachings to the public.

A new stream of clerics is emerging from within the Salafi tradition, including Dr Al Turairi, to challenge extremist views by pointing out striking discrepancies between Salafis and the very figures they claim to follow. It is hoped that recognising and exposing these discrepancies will help counter the fundamentalists' appeal.

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