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Jihad Is Islamic?

One of the most common comments found on social media and also frequently stated in the media and by politicians is that “ISIS/jihad has nothing to do with Islam” and in 2014 a group of Islamic scholars wrote an open letter to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi with the intention of proving that point theologically.

One of the main themes of Sharia Watch UK is that jihad to establish Sharia law as the basis for Islamic rule has deep roots in Islamic texts, that the jihadis are Muslims and that the Islamic justifications for jihad can be found in obvious and plausible readings of those texts and interpretations. The intention of this short article is to examine that letter, which has received far less publicity than one might expect and three critiques of the contents.

Letter to al-Baghdadi:

The letter in English, Arabic and a variety of other languages can be found at:

The copy of the letter downloaded by ShariaWatchUK is suffixed '_14'. Signatories to and endorsements of the letter can also be found on there.

Critiques of the Letter:

To the best our our knowledge, none of the authors of these critiques have collaborated in any way on their respective pieces. The similarity of the points made in their critiques is therefore telling.

Prof. Ella Landau-Tasseroni(MEMRI):

Robert Spencer (RS): [Short critique] [Detailed critique]

Crethi Plethi (CP): [Background of some of the main players associated with the letter]

Sharia Watch UK Review of Letter and Critiques

Overview of the Critiques:


The one by Prof. Ella Landau-Tasseroni for the MEMRI organisation is the most charitable regarding the intentions of the letter writers and the most detailed, drawing on several classical Islamic references. She clearly states at the beginning that “I do not presume to establish what in the Letter (or anywhere else) is authentically Islamic or deviates from Islam.“

Crethi Plethi:

“The open letter is presented as an authoritative Islamic rejection of ISIS’ philosophy. But the open letter expresses only one interpretation of the Qur’an and Hadith, and is certainly not the only authentic and legitimate interpretation of Islamic texts. It can be argued that the same is true for the more literal and traditional teachings of groups like Hamas, al-Qaida and ISIS.

Much as the points raised in the open letter can be appreciated, which, incidentally, are rather general and not necessarily applying to ISIS, the letter was more likely written as a public relations exercise for Islam in the West than as a message to ISIS. The signatories of the letter know all too well that ISIS will not be convinced by a bunch of, in their eyes, “apostates.””

Counter Jihad Report: By Robert Spencer:

The Hamas-linked Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Fiqh Council of North America held a press conference in Washington today at which they declared that they had refuted the religious ideology of the Islamic State. They issued this lengthy “Open Letter” (not, interestingly enough, a fatwa) addressed to the Islamic State’s caliph Ibrahim, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, explaining how he was misunderstanding Islam. Is this an Islamic case against the Islamic State’s jihad terror that will move Islamic State fighters to lay down their arms? Or is it a deceptive piece designed to fool gullible non-Muslim Westerners into thinking that the case for “moderate Islam” has been made, but which will not change a single jihadi’s mind? Unfortunately, it is the latter.

To be sure, Hamas-linked CAIR and the Fiqh Council and all the signers of this Open Letter really do oppose the Islamic State. But they don’t oppose it because it is transgressing against the commands of what they believe to be a Religion of Peace. They oppose it because they want to establish a caliphate under the auspices of or led by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Islamic State constitutes competition. This is clear from their sly endorsements in this document of jihad, the Sharia, and the concept of the caliphate.

Author's Comments At Launch of the Letter:

Even translated into English, the letter will still sound alien to most Americans, said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations, who released it in Washington with 10 other American Muslim religious and civil rights leaders. “The letter is written in Arabic. It is using heavy classical religious texts and classical religious scholars that ISIS has used to mobilize young people to join its forces,” said Awad, using one of the acronyms for the group. “This letter is not meant for a liberal audience.” Even mainstream Muslims, he said, may find it difficult to understand.

Hmmm... as Crethi Plethi state in their analysis:

'However, with some contradiction it is a fact that the Qur’an is also made “easy to understand and no one is allowed to divert its literal meaning” (Qur’an V11:1, V41:3, V41:44, V54:17, V54:22, V54:32, V54:40 and other places).'

If the Quran is correct then surely it should be a fairly simple task for these Islamic scholars to correct the misunderstanding of the jihadis in terms that both Muslims and non-Muslims can understand if Islamic texts genuinely represent peace? As Qur'an 5:15 states: “O People of the Scripture, there has come to you Our Messenger making clear to you much of what you used to conceal of the Scripture and overlooking much. There has come to you from Allah a light and a clear Book.“ This verses shows that Muhammad's words and deeds are the guide to what is Islamic and that the words of the Qur'an are clear i.e. all should be able to understand them, particularly non-Muslims.

Summary of the Details Of The Critique:

As both the letter and the critiques are lengthy and quite detailed, what are considered to be the main points are summarised here. For the originals of either please refer to the original sources quoted at the top of the article. Points made in the letter are referred to as claims.

Claim: Establishing a Caliphate was inappropriate[p3-4] (22- It is forbidden in Islam to declare a caliphate without consensus from all Muslims.):

Critique Summary: There is no reason why ISIS should not consider itself as a “fulfilment of the Divine promise to make Islam and the Muslims strong and victorious” [MEMRI].

This is pure fiction. None of the historic caliphates were established by consensus from all Muslims. Even the first three “Rightly Guided” caliphs were chosen over bitter opposition from the party of Ali, the shiat Ali, which ultimately became the Shi’ites. Also, note that Hamas-linked CAIR, the Fiqh Council and the scholars take for granted that the concept of a caliphate is legitimate; they just don’t like this particular one.[RS]

Claim: “Regarding the qualities of a mufti and the disciplines that he must master: … it is imperative that the mufti must be a scholar of language, for the Shari’ah is [in] Arabic. … it is imperative that he be a scholar of syntax and parsing … it is imperative that he be a scholar of the Qur’an, for the Qur’an is the basis of all rulings … Knowledge of textual abrogation is indispensable; “[p2-3]

Critique Summary: The signatories use verses that are considered abrogated to make some of their points despite warning al-Bagdhadi not to do that. They also omit to mention verses that do not support their points again contravening their own advice to ISIS regarding considering the entirety of Islamic texts. Many of their points are so generalised as to be meaningless[MEMRI, RS]

Claim: 5- It is forbidden in Islam to ignore the reality of contemporary times when deriving legal rulings.

Critique Summary: This one is quite telling. It suggests that there is a certain accommodation Muslim believers must make to the times and to circumstance, without changing core principles — i.e., the problem with the Islamic State is not its beliefs, but their application, and the time may be right for the application of those beliefs at some other time, but not now.[RS]

Claim: 12- The re-introduction of slavery is forbidden in Islam. It was abolished by universal consensus.

Critique Summary: This is flatly false. Slavery is still widely practised in North Africa, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere because it is sanctioned in Islam.

Claim: “16 It is forbidden in Islam to enact legal punishments (hudud) without following the correct procedures that ensure justice and mercy.”

Critique Summary: In effect, this means that the signatories consider stoning people to death and killing apostates etc. is OK provided the correct procedures have been followed. [RS]

Claim: 17- It is forbidden in Islam to torture people.

Critique Summary: At Khaybar, Muhammad ordered that a fire be lit upon Kinana’s chest until he told the Muslims where the Jews’ treasury was hidden. So what constitutes “torture” is, like so many things in Islam, subject to interpretation.[RS,

Claim: 18- It is forbidden in Islam to disfigure the dead.

Critique Summary: “When the prophet ordered that the corpses of the polytheists be dropped in to a well… He stood over the bodies of twenty-four leaders of Quraish, who had been thrown into one of the wells and started call them by name and by the names of their fathers…” (Ar-Raheeq Al-Makhtum, The Battle of Badr, p. 271) [RS]

Claim: The section “Difference of Opinion” (p5) states: “It is worth noting that most of the people who became Muslims throughout history, did so through gentle invitation (Da’wah hasanah) … And while Islam spread from politically Central Asia (Khurasan) to North Africa due to Islamic conquests, the majority of the inhabitants of these remained Christian lands for hundreds of years until some of them gradually accepted Islam through gentle invitation, and not through severity and coercion.”

Critique Summary: CP-“In another example of the “religion-of-peace” public relations exercise, the open letter also attempts to rewrite the history of Islam. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. The expansion of Islam, since its birth in c. 610 CE, leaves a long trail of atrocities, bloodshed, violence, coercion and oppression. The original inhabitants of Muslim conquered territory were given the choice “Jizyah (poll tax), the sword, or conversion to Islam,” just as ISIS is doing it now. And what would the Christian do, when a few hundred years have passed? Would he or she not choose the benefits of being a Muslim rather than being subjected to intolerance, intimidation and paying taxes as a second class citizen?” MEMRI do make the point that some conversion in Africa were peaceful but the claim that that was the anywhere near the majority flies in the face of historical research e.g. [MEMRI, CP, RS]


Their historical arguments that Islam was spread purely by peaceful means and that all battles fought were defensive is just plain wrong. As is shown by this dynamic map:

If the Imams/Islamic scholars version is accurate, 7th/8th century Muslims were forced to fight defensive wars right across North Africa, across the Straits of Gibraltar right through Spain and into France as far as Tours as well as on many islands in the Mediterranean and the Balkans.

Similarly, although less well documented in Europe, Islamic armies fought their way eastwards into parts of China and the whole of India. Indeed, many Hindus believe the geographical name Hindu Kush means Hindu Slaughter and is derived from Persian.

One wonders just how the people of the Arabian peninsular managed to make so many enemies from the Southern tip of India to Tours in France (thousands of miles) given the state of communications at the time! This view of these conquests only being defensive wars may fit nicely into the Muslim narrative of victimhood but they don't stand up to historical scrutiny.

Overall, this letter does appear to be more of a public relations exercise than a serious attempt to undermine the theological basis of jihad, especially considering the positions some of the signatories are reported to have taken at other times, but it is our leaders who seem desperate to believe as this extract from an article by Tom Holland in 2013 shows. Note the quoted tweets from an ISIS fighter who clearly believes that Islam sanctions the taking of sex-slaves and the killing of kuffar[unbelievers]:

Over the past few years, Western leaders whose knowledge of Muslim scripture is scanty in the extreme have repeatedly been obliged to pose as experts on Islam. The atrocities currently being committed by jihadis in the Middle East have prompted them to a particular slew of commentary. John Kerry, speaking recently in Iraq, was typical. The Islamic State, he declared, “claims to be fighting on behalf of Islam but the fact is that its hateful ideology has nothing to do with Islam.” A reassuring assertion, and one that almost everyone, including the vast majority of Muslims, would desperately like to believe – but wishful thinking, all the same.

The grim truth is that sanctions can be found in the Qur’an, in the biographies of Muhammad and in the histories of early Islam for much that strikes the outside world as most horrific about the Islamic state. “Kuffar are afraid we will slaughter yazidis,” a British jihadi tweeted recently from Syria, “our deen [religion/ law] is clear we will kill their men, take their women and children as slaves insha Allah.” That this reading of assorted qur’anic verses and episodes from the life of the Prophet is the most brutal one imaginable does not necessarily invalidate it. To be sure, there are other, richer, more nuanced interpretations possible – and yes, the bone-headed literalism of those who would interpret the Qur’an as a license to maim, enslave and kill represents a challenge to everyone who prizes it as a revelation from God, supremely compassionate and supremely wise. That is no reason, though, to play the jihadis’ own takfiri game, and deny them a status as Muslims. The very appeal of their sanguinary interpretation of Islamic scripture is far too lethal to permit such a tactic. It is not enough to engage with the jihadis solely on the battlefield. They must be defeated as well in mosques, and libraries, and seminar rooms. This is a battle that, in the long run, can only be won by theologians.


In our opinion, the Imams/Islamic scholars have failed to make the case that the jihad currently practised by ISIS and other groups is not sanctioned by Islamic texts. The Imams/scholars have broken the very rules they accuse ISIS of not following when they try to make their case by ignoring abrogation and parts of Islamic texts that are inconvenient to their argument.

They have also tried to substantially misrepresent the way Islam was spread after the initial conquest of the Arabian peninsular as been by defensive wars and peaceful invitations to people to become Muslims. The historical record shows a very different picture.

Similarly with slavery, their claim that Islamic states have abolished it (under pressure from Western countries it must be said) is technically accurate, however slavery is still legal under Islamic Sharia law and it is still widely practised in several Islamic states. There is no will or movement in Islam that we are aware of to change Sharia law to abolish slavery and that such a movement is most unlikely to occur as Muhammad kept slaves himself and the Qur'an itself says that captured women may be used as sex-slaves:

[Quran (33:50) - "O Prophet! We have made lawful to thee thy wives to whom thou hast paid their dowers; and those (slaves) whom thy right hand possesses out of the prisoners of war whom Allah has assigned to thee" Also Quran (23:5-6) , Quran (4:24) , Quran (8:69) ]



The Imams/Islamic scolars have also implicitly endorsed the principle of Sharia hadd punishments (Stoning, flogging, amputation) provided correct [Islamic] procedure has been followed. That these senior figures of Islam, many in the West, who purport to be moderate implicitly endorse such punishments rather than flatly rejecting is troubling.

The most troubling aspect however is that a multitude of senior Islamic figures are unable to make clear and unambiguous case against Islamic jihad and an Islamic caliphate that all, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, can clearly understand. The truth is that this letter appears to be mostly a public relations exercise designed to quiet growing Western fears regarding Islam. o that end, this letter is just another example of 'jihad by the pen' and one our governments have been quietly complicit in since 9/11 as this white paper on Reversing the Ostrich Complex makes clear.

As the article from 2013 by Tom Holland says:

“It is not enough to engage with the jihadis solely on the battlefield. They must be defeated as well in mosques, and libraries, and seminar rooms. This is a battle that, in the long run, can only be won by theologians.”

On the basis of this very serious effort by these Muslim critics of ISIS, we appear to be a long way from that happening, if indeed that case can be made in any unambiguous way?