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Sharia Punishment: Why is ISIL killing Muslims?

Sharia Punishment: Why is ISIL killing Muslims?


After the beheading of the two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, President Obama made a claim very similar to the one Islam’s apologists constantly repeat with every horrific crime committed by an Islamic terrorist group. He said: "ISIL is not Islamic”, and backed up his claim with two statements:

No religion condones the killing of innocents

The vast majority of ISIL's victims have been Muslim

While the first statement is quite debatable (a claim that I will challenge in future articles upon discussing the justification of violence against non Muslims), the second is stating an undeniable fact. Yes, most victims have been Muslim, but does this fact really stand as enough evidence that the Islamic state is not adhering to Islam?

The first intuitive reaction might be: Well it should be, why would a group who claims to be fighting in the name of Islam, be killing Muslims? Observing other Islamic terrorist groups like Al Shabab in Somalia, Taliban in Afghanistan, Qaeda in Yemen, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis in Egypt, Hamas in Gaza and many others shows that most of their victims are Muslims as well. This repeated pattern should leave us with less confidence with what the President of the United States has concluded. In other words, if the acts of these groups are truly not Islamic, what made them all behave so similarly?

Should we be content with the answer that they simply misunderstood the teachings of Islam or should we dig deeper in to Islam’s history to find a better explanation? 

When is a Muslim no longer considered Muslim?

Shortly after the prophet of Islam had died, some Arab tribes found his death an opportunity to declare their apostasy from the Islamic faith, as they had been forcibly converted to Islam a few years earlier when Muhammad gave them the choice between converting, leaving the Arab peninsula, or being killed - based on the Quranic verses 1-5 from Surah Al Tawba (9). Abu Bakr the closest companion of Muhammad and the first to succeed him in ruling the peninsula, declared war on those tribes and applied the death sentence that Muhammad had set for punishing apostates:

Sahih Bukhari Book 88 hadith 5: “Whoever changed his religion [Islam], then kill him”, a punishment mentioned several times in all six books of hadith without exception.

What is more interesting, at that same time, some of these tribes did not leave Islam – however, they refused to pay the charity “Zakat” to the new Caliph as they understood it as a tax only payable to Muhammad. Even though they identified themselves as Muslims, Abu Bakr considered that an act of apostasy and declared the war against them as well.

The rationale behind his decision is explained in Sahih Bukhari Book 88 hadith 7:

When the Prophet died and Abu Bakr became his successor and some of the Arabs reverted to disbelief, `Umar said, "O Abu Bakr! How can you fight these people although Allah's Messenger said, 'I have been ordered to fight the people till they say: 'None has the right to be worshipped but Allah, 'and whoever said, 'None has the right to be worshipped but Allah', Allah will save his property and his life from me, unless (he does something for which he receives legal punishment) justly, and his account will be with Allah?' "Abu Bakr said, "By Allah! I will fight whoever differentiates between prayers and Zakat as Zakat is the right to be taken from property (according to Allah's Orders). By Allah! If they refused to pay me even a kid [young goat] they used to pay to Allah's Messenger, I would fight with them for withholding it." `Umar said, "By Allah: It was nothing, but I noticed that Allah opened Abu Bakr's chest towards the decision to fight, therefore I realized that his decision was right."       

To better understand the context, here is the hadith that Umar was referring to in his short debate with Abu Bakr. Sahih Bukhari Book 8 hadith 44:

“Allah's Messenger said, "I have been ordered to fight the people till they say: 'None has the right to be worshipped but Allah.' And if they say so, pray like our prayers, face our Qibla and slaughter as we slaughter, then their blood and property will be sacred to us and we will not interfere with them except legally and their reckoning will be with Allah”

In addition to the complete denial of freedom of conscience that Muhammad had established by first forcing Arabs to convert, and then punishing the apostates, Abu Bakr and Umar had confirmed by this war the broad meaning of apostasy: It is not even enough for one to declare they are a Muslim to be granted safety within the Islamic state, the refusal to pay the charity or even the failure to pray is considered an act of apostasy deserving capital punishment.

There are other hadiths that permit the killing of those who would identify themselves as Muslims but do not conform to the teachings. I chose specifically this one from Sahih Muslim Book 12 Hadith 199:

“I heard the Messenger of Allah as saying: There would arise at the end of the age a people who would be young in age and immature in thought, but they would talk (in such a manner) as if their words are the best among the creatures. They would recite the Qur'an, but it would not go beyond their throats, and they would pass through the religion as an arrow goes through the prey. So when you meet them, kill them, for in their killing you would get a reward with Allah on the Day of Judgement” 

This hadith is so dangerously ambiguous to the point that I have heard from both sides (the so called “Moderate” and “Radical” Muslims) referring to it to describe the other group!     

So, when does a Muslim ruler loses his legitimacy?

As it was for individuals, Muslim rulers had to meet certain criteria to be granted their legitimacy.

“Obey me as long as I obey God and his prophet. Shall I disobey them, you are not to obey me”. That is how Abu Bakr ended his inaugural speech in 632 AD after Muhammad's death. His understanding of the necessity to implement the Islamic law, according to the Quran and Muhammad’s orders, as his only means to maintain legitimacy, was based on several Quran verses and hadiths that outline this role. To mention a few:

From the Quran:

Surah Al Maeda (5) verse 44:

“Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah hath revealed: such are disbelievers”

Surah Al Maeda (5) verse 49:

“So judge between them by that which Allah hath revealed, and follow not their desires”

From Sahih Bukhari Book 56 Hadith 167:

“The 'Prophet said: It is obligatory for one to listen to and obey (the ruler's orders) unless these orders involve one disobedience (to Allah); but if an act of disobedience (to Allah) is imposed, he should not listen to or obey it."

Now back to the 21st century; put yourself in the shoes of Muslims who believe that Muhammad is the best of creatures that delivered the ultimate political model to follow as God ordered. Particularly the one billion Sunni Muslims who have been raised on the belief that Abu Bakr and Umar were of the very few Caliphs to successfully follow that model.

At the same time, have a look at the political systems established in most Muslim countries since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (the last Caliphate) in the 20th century. Systems that have replaced to a degree or another parts of this ancient model with a Western-like one. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Iran, and some other countries, laws in many Muslim countries no longer enforces Sharia punishments like amputation for theft, stoning to death for adultery, lashing for consuming alcoholic drinks, death for homosexuals and apostates and others.

Why do we find it so hard to believe that all of these Islamic militants, spread around the world, are Muslims that only took the above verses, hadiths and early history of Islam, seriously enough to follow them by the letter - as the most influential figures of Islam have previously done?

Why do we keep denying that the logical and inevitable consequences of those beliefs is for them to revolt against those “semi-secular” regimes?  (Regimes that have shown over the decades their reluctance to entirely implement Sharia)

Hasn’t Muhammad himself explicitly denied obedience to such regimes? Why do we keep insisting that their behaviour is not Islamic, for accusing their fellow Muslims of apostasy and therefore killing them?

Air strikes, and even boots on the ground, can stop ISIL and other terrorists for days, months or maybe a few years, as has happened before. The real war is not with those lunatics, it is with the ideology that transforms them into monsters. Nothing could be more Islamic than ISIL and Al Qaeda but until we admit it, all efforts to fight them will be comparable to sea-ploughing.