Al-Azhar and the Islamic State

Al-Azhar University is considered Sunni Islam’s oldest and most distinguished institution of learning. The University was founded c. 1171 in Cairo when the Ayyubids under Salah al-Din overthrew the Shia Fatimid Empire in Egypt. The new Sunni rulers insisted that the instruction of Sunni jurisprudence should replace any Shia instruction and the new university would be centered around the Al-Azhar mosque (originally constructed c. 970-972). It was at this point, with the founding of the university c. 1171, that Al-Azhar (and Cairo) began to establish itself as one of the most authoritative Islamic institutions of the past nine-hundred years, remaining so today. Thus, the views of the scholars of Al-Azhar matter to many modern Muslims, particularly in the absence of a modern generally recognized caliphate, who often look to Al-Azhar for guidance on modern controversies. Consequently, I have found Al-Azhar’s commentary on issues related to the rise of the Islamic State (and related issues) troubling.

Today we all woke up to news of the troubling terrorist attacks in Brussels, for which the Islamic State has taken credit. At this point, a reported 31 are dead and 170 wounded and that number will likely climb. The attacks, including two bombings at the Brussels airport and one at a subway, seem to have been connected in some way to the recent arrest of the wanted terrorist Salah Abdeslam, who participated in the Paris attack in November that killed 130 people. He was finally arrested in Belgium not far from where he lived before the terrorist attack. How was he able to avoid discovery and arrest by modern European security services for five months in one of the biggest manhunts in European history, only to be discovered a few houses away from his parents’ home in Brussels? He had an extensive network that protected him. He was shielded by “dozens, if not scores” of local sympathizers. I saw an interview with a European security analyst pointing out how widespread and sophisticated such networks are throughout Europe. The reason it took European security services so long to locate Abdeslam was because it was “professionals (European security services) vs. professionals (e.g. Islamic State networks).” Moreover, thousands of Europeans have fled to Syria to fight on behalf of the Islamic State and many have returned to Europe. The logistical support network that makes this possible must include many thousands more supporters. Abdeslam claims he alone personally knows of at least 90 such former Syrian fighters in Europe now. Thus it is not surprising that the President of France has claimed, in contrast to the U.S. government, that Europe is at war.

In light of such events, the role of Al-Azhar in speaking out about such things is important. This morning I noticed a Facebook friend post an article highlighting how Al-Azhar had condemned the Brussels attack, noting that such an attack “violate[s] the tolerant teachings of Islam.” Certainly a condemnation of the attack from Al-Azhar is welcome, but one poster immediately responded to the original post with the comment, “These people are schizophrenic or what? On one side you have al azhar [sic] scholars having all kind of anti humanist ideas, like slave raping for the sake of humiliation, on other hand they condemn the attacks.”

The commenter then posted a link to an article in the Daily Express, quoting me. For the record, I never gave an interview to Daily Express on this topic, but they found and cited a blog post of mine on the topic of an Al Azhar scholar’s recent (2014) justification of rape of non-Muslim women captured in war. What was troubling about the Al-Azhar scholar’s findings was how it played so well into the ideology of the Islamic State. In my original blog post, I noted:

“I’d recently viewed a widely circulating clip showing Al-Azhar Professor Suad Saleh arguing that, in a legitimate war between Muslims and their enemies, Muslims can capture slave girls and have sex with them. This is disheartening because Al-Azhar is a more than 1000 year old seat of learning and perhaps the most respected in the Sunni Muslim world. It’s a particularly touchy issue because of ISIS’ recent actions with regard to the Yazidi people.”

Moreover, we often hear about how the Islamic State is “not Islamic” or that their members are “apostates” (see examples here,  here, and here). Yet those making such claims are not getting any support from Al-Azhar on this argument, which refuses to condemn Islamic State supporters as “un-Islamic,” noting explicitly that regardless of their sins they remain Muslims.

The Islamic State controls a population of millions in the lands they control between Iraq and Syria and they have recruited tens of thousands of foreign supporters to join their self proclaimed caliphate. They have shown considerable growth over the past two years, expanding into Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, and many other countries. They now also, apparently, have a formidable network of supporters in Europe. Their reach online is unprecedented, as Islamic State propagandists reach millions of potential recruits and supporters online every day.

It seems that Al-Azhar could far more clearly and effectively contribute to efforts to minimize and diminish the influence of the Islamic State by not having their scholars explicitly support the enslavement of non-Muslim females captured in war, as in the case of thousands of Yazidi women currently enslaved by the Islamic State.

Moreover, I realize that Islam represents a spectrum of beliefs and interpretations of the faith by various groups of Muslims ranging from hardline militancy to versions that are compatible with western values and advocate peace. Yet for Al-Azhar to come out and explicitly reaffirm that the members of the Islamic State are genuine Muslims, even if they sin in their actions, does not help matters. This was effectively what they did when they issued a statement on December 11, 2014, explicitly condemning a Nigerian mufti’s earlier efforts to declare members of the Islamic State as apostates. In response, Al-Azhar declared, “No believer can be declared an apostate, regardless of his sins…” Critics rightly pointed out that Al-Azhar could have rejected the Nigerian mufti’s claim without explicitly addressing the issue of whether Al-Azhar (in particular) views the Islamic State as apostates. Why needlessly give the legitimacy of the Islamic State a boost? Particularly at a time when much of the rest of the world is fighting for the hearts and minds of many Muslims who otherwise might be encouraged to embrace the Islamic State’s vicious view of Islam?

Whatever the case, if Al-Azhar is correct (and perhaps they are in a technical sense), then those who claim the Islamic State is “un-Islamic” or that their members are “not Muslims” will need to rethink their claims as one of the most respected institutions of Islamic learning over the past nine hundred years has, unfortunately, shut them down on this point.


Addendum: Here is a response posted on the above mentioned Facebook thread by Arnold Yasin Mol, a Dutch scholar of Islamic theology, addressing the issues I mention in this post. I post it here with his permission. He notes:

“In orthodox Islamic theology as represented by the Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama’a the majority opinion is that:

1. Anyone declaring the testimony of Faith (Shahada) is techically a Muslim. Only through a clear public statement wherein a person rejects the prophethood of Muhammad can such a person be called an apostate (Murtad).

2. Anyone who declared the Shahada but upholds beliefs deviating from the orthodox mainstream is an heretical innovator (mubtadi) and not an unbeliever (Kafir).

3. There are a few belief statements that are considered nullifiers of the Shahada, such as saying that believers from others religions are equal in truthful belief as Muslims, even though those other religions reject Muhammad as a prophet. Or by insulting the prophet (Sibb al-Nabi) as insult is seen as equivalent to rejection.

4. The majority position of the Ahl al-Sunna is that belief (iman) has an intellectual ontology that is NOT affected by deeds (amal). This is why sins, light or heavy sins, cannot make one an unbeliever but only a sinner (Fasiq). Deeds are based on perception (Mudarak) and piety (Taqwa) and it is these two that can fluctuate in a believer and can make one commit evil or good deeds. Only large, clear, non-compulsory and continued acts of idolatry (Shirk) in worship (ibadat), which belong to other religions, can make one an unbeliever as this would be a continued rejection of Islamic monotheism (Tawhid). Personal sins as drinking or lapses in obligatory prayers are personal sins, not rejections of monotheism or Muhammad’s prophethood.

5. This seperation of belief and deeds was a reaction towards the Khawariji, an early Islamic group who judged Muslims only on their deeds and not on their words of faith. For the Khawariji, belief is shown by deeds, thus when deeds are lacking (like praying), one can be declared an unbeliever.

6. The reason why al-Azhar, as an Ahl al-Sunna institute, doesn’t want to aposticize extremists as ISIS is exactly because ISIS does apply the Khawariji criteria of faith=deeds. The whole position of al-Azhar is that declaring other believers as unbelievers is exactly on what groups as ISIS are based upon. It is this theology of excommunication which lays at the basis for modern extremism just as it did 1300 years ago with the Khawariji.

7. There are Ahl al-Sunna scholars as Tahir al-Qadri and Muhammad al-Yaqoubi who do declare terrorists as unbelievers as their deeds are not seen as sins, but as rejections of clear orthodox texts on the ethics of war and interMuslim struggle. The acts of terrorists are thus seen as such of a horrific scale that go beyond personal sins and do affect the ontology of belief. They are thus made equivalent to hypocrites (Munafiqun), followers of Muhammad who openly professed faith, but showed their unbelief in their unwillingness to struggle against oppression. al-Azhar also rejects the idea that one is allowed to rebel against an unjust Muslim ruler, while Qadri and Yaqoubi believe one is allowed to rebel against an unjust Muslim ruler.

8. The discussion is thus on: What is belief, is it ontologically seperate from acts, on what are acts based, which acts belong to worship (and thus to the rights of God) and which to social matters (and thus to the rights of mankind), and which rights are more important? The question is also on justice, is it fair to believe that a Muslim terrorist only goes temporarly to hell while his non-Muslim victim will stay in hell forever? Etc. The discussion is thus on the metaphysics of belief, NOT on the rejection of terrorist acts themselves.”