Boko Haram and the Dynamics of Denial: Islam is not the victim here

Boko Haram and the Dynamics of Denial: Islam is not the victim here

“It is a common refrain of pious Muslims in the face of atrocities done by other Muslims in the name of Islam that Islam must not be shamed: whenever an atrocity potentially dishonors Islam, non-Muslims are asked to agree that ‘This is not Islamic’ so that the honor of Islam can be kept pristine. However the real issue is not what would be good or bad for Islam’s reputation.  … Islam is not the victim here. The pressing issue here is not to get people to think well of Islam, but how these girls can be rescued, and above all how Boko Haram’s murderous rampage is to be halted.”

Qasim Rashid, an American Muslim, published on FoxNews a heart-felt expression of deep distress at the kidnapping of Nigerian girls by Boko Haram (‘What would Muhammad say to Boko Haram’).  He declared that Muhammad himself would not recognize this group as acting in line with his teachings:

“Boko Haram’s claim that Islam motivates their kidnappings is no different than Adolf Hitler’s claim that Christianity motivated his genocide. This terrorist organization acts in direct violation of every Islamic teaching regarding women.”

Qasim Rashid is not the only Muslim who has been speaking out in support of the kidnapped girls, while denying that their plight has anything to do with Islam (see here).

Qasim Rashid is a member of the Ahmaddiyah community, which is regarded as unorthodox by most Muslims.  Indeed Ahmaddiyahs are often severely persecuted for their beliefs in Islamic nations.  Although Qasim Rashid does not speak for mainstream Islam, he is nevertheless to be commended for speaking up against Boko Haram’s repugnant acts.

But does the claim that Boko Haram is not Islamic hold up to scrutiny?

What counts as a valid manifestation of Islam? Ahmaddiyah beliefs can be considered Islamic, in that those who hold them do so on the basis of a reasoned interpretation of Islamic canonical sources, even if the majority of Muslims reject them as Muslims. By the same token, the beliefs of Boko Haram must also be considered a form of Islam, for they too are held on the basis of a reasoned interpretation of Islamic canonical sources.

It needs to be acknowledged that Boko Haram has not arisen in a vacuum.  As Andrew Bostom has pointed out, violent opposition to non-Islamic culture has been a feature of Nigerian Islam for centuries. Today this hatred is being directed against Western education and secular government, but in the past it was indigenous Africa cultures which were targeted for brutal treatment, including enslavement and slaughter.  The modern revival of absolutist sharia-compliant Islam in the north of Nigeria is a process which has deep roots in history.  It has also been in progress for decades.  Khalid Yasin, an African American convert to Islam and globe-trotting preacher waxed lyrical about the advance of sharia law in Nigeria on Australian national radio in 2003:

“If we look at the evolution of the Sharia experiment in Nigeria for instance. It’s just a wonderful, phenomenal experience. It has brought about some sweeping changes, balances, within the society, regulations in terms of moral practices and so many things. …What did the Sharia provide? Always dignity, protection, and the religious rights?”

But let us consider the evidence Qasim Rashid gives for his view that Muhammad would disown Boko Haram.  His arguments can be summarized as follows:

  • ‘Boko Haram violates the Koran 24:34 [i.e. Sura 24:33] which commands, “and force not your women to unchaste life,” i.e. [this is] a condemnation of Boko Haram’s intention to sell these girls into prostitution.’
  • ‘They violate Koran 4:20 [i.e. Sura 4:19] which declares, “it is not lawful for you to inherit women against their will; nor should you detain them,” i.e. a specific repudiation of Boko Haram’s kidnapping and detention.’
  • ‘Prophet Muhammad’s dying words embodied these commandments. He implored, “Do treat your women well and be kind to them, for they are your partners and committed helpers.”’
  • The seeking of knowledge is an obligation on all Muslims, including ‘secular  knowledge’.
  • ‘Islam … commands female education.’

Although Qasim Rashid’s views are sincerely held, his reasoning is weak. Let us consider his points in order.

Compel not your slave-girls — Sura 24:33

Contra Qasim Rashid, Sura 24:33 does not say ‘force not your women’ but:

“… compel not your slave-girls to prostitution when they desire to keep chaste, in order to seek the frail goods of this world’s life. And whoever compels them, then surely after their compulsion Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” (The Quran translation used here is cited from a translation by Ahmaddiya scholar Muhammad Maulana Ali).

The word translated ‘slave-girl’ here can also mean a young woman, but in this passage it clearly refers to female slaves. A standard interpretation of this verse by Sunni commentators – such as Ibn Kathir – is that if someone owns a slave girl, he should not prostitute her, but if he does, Allah will forgive her.

Strictly speaking, this verse does not appear to apply to the situation of the Nigerian girls taken by Boko Haram.  The outrage is that they were taken captive and enslaved in the first place, becoming what the Koran refers to as ‘those whom your right hand possesses’.  That they may have been raped by their captors seems highly likely, but this is not the same thing as being prostituted to produce income for their owners. Islam permits men to have sexual intercourse with their slave women, and also to sell them into the service of another, but it frowns on hiring them out for prostitution.

In Sura 33:50 of the Koran it is stated that it was permissible for Muhammad to have sex with his female slaves:

“O Prophet! We have made lawful to thee thy wives to whom thou hast paid their dowries, and those whom thy right hand possesses, out of those whom Allah has given thee as prisoners of war”,

and in verse 23:6 this prerogative is extended to Muslim believers:

“Successful indeed are the believers … who restrain their sexual passions except in the presence of their mates [their wives], of those whom their right hands possess.”

The actions and teaching of Muhammad also support the practice of sexual slavery for women taken captive in jihad.  Chapter 547 of the Sahih Muslim, a revered collection of sayings of Muhammad considered reliable by most Muslims, is entitled ‘It is permissible to have sexual intercourse with a captive woman…’. Abdul Hamid Siddiqi, the translator and editor of the Sahih Muslim, added the following footnote to this chapter:

“As for the expression malakat aymanukum (those whom your right hands possess) [it] denotes slave-girls, i.e. women who were captured in the Holy War … sexual intercourse with these women is lawful with certain conditions.”

Boko Haram is reported to be intending to sell the girls at a slave market.  This is no doubt based upon the precedent of Muhammad’s own practice. There are many examples from Muhammad’s actions and those of his companions which could be cited.  For example, after putting the men of the Jewish Quraiza tribe in Medina to the sword, Muhammad’s biographer Ibn Isaq reports that he sold some of the Jewish women and used the money to buy horses and weapon:

“Then the apostle divided the property, wives, and children of B. Qurayza among the Muslims, and he made known on that day the shares of horse and men, and took out the fifth. … Then the apostle sent Sa‘d b. Zayd al-Ansari brother of b. ‘Abdu’l-Ashhal with some of the captive women of B. Qurayza to Najd and he sold them for horses and weapons. (Sirat Rasul Allah, by Ibn Ishaq)

The rest of the Jewish slaves were divided among the Muslims.  Muhammad himself took one of the leading Jewish women, Rayhana, for his concubine, but she refused to marry him:

The apostle had chosen one of their women for himself, Rayhana d. ‘Amr b. Khunafa, one of the women of B. ‘Amr b. Qurayza, and she remained with him until she died, in his power. The apostle had proposed to marry her and put the veil on her, but she said: ‘Nay, leave me in your power, for that will be easier for me and for you.’” (Sirat Rasul Allah, by Ibn Ishaq).

Rayhana, who became Muhammad’s concubine by capture in warfare, is revered to this day as one of the ‘wives’ of the prophet of Islam.

In addition to the support for this practice found in the Islamic canon, historical sources give ample evidence that enslavement of women as captives of war and resulting sexual servitude has been a persistent feature of Islamic warfare conducted by pious Muslims.  Consider for example the report of Imad ad-Din al-Isfahani, Saladin’s chronicler, of the fate of 8,000 Christian women in Jerusalem who were unable to pay a ransom for their release after the conquest of that city by Saladin:

“Women and children together came to 8,000 and were quickly divided up among us, brining a smile to Muslim faces at their lamentations. How many well-guarded women were profaned, how many queens were ruled and nubile girls married, and noble women given away, and miserly women forced to yield themselves, and women who had been kept hidden stripped of their modesty, and serious women made ridiculous, and women kept in private now set in public, and free women occupied, and precious ones used for hard work, and pretty things put to the test, and virgins dishonoured and proud women deflowered, and lovely women’s red lips kissed, and dark women prostrated, and untamed ones tamed, and happy ones made to weep!” (Arab Historians of the Crusades, ed. by Francesco Gabrieli, pp. 96-97).

It is has been widely accepted by Islamic jurists down the ages that Islam permits Muslim men to have sex with women who have come into their possession through being taken captive in war, either because they personally captured them, or because they acquired them by purchase or gift from another.  Indeed this was the legal basis in Islam for the harem system: the women of the harem were mainly sourced from jihad campaigns waged against non-Muslim communities.

It is simply incredible that Qasim Rashid would quote a verse which prohibits Muslim men from hiring out their concubines for sex as evidence that Islam is against the use of sexual violence against captive women.  If we are supposed to deny the label ‘Islamic’ to Boko Haram, are we also to conclude that Saladin and even Muhammad himself cannot be called Muslims?

Inheriting and troubling wives — Sura 4:19
Sura 4:19 is another passage cited by Qasim Rashid.  Maulana Muhammad Ali’s translation throws a different light on this passage:

“O you who believe, it is not lawful for you to take women as heritage [i.e. to inherit them] against their will. Nor should you straiten them by taking part of what you have given them …”

The standard explanation of this verse is that it prohibited two practices: a man ‘inheriting’ the wife of his male relative, which had apparently been a pagan Arab custom before Islam; and oppressing one’s wife in order to make her seek a divorce, so that she will pay back the bride-price. This latter practice had been occurring in Muhammad’s time, because if a Muslim man divorced a wife, he was not entitled to any financial compensation, but if a woman initiated divorce proceedings, she had to compensate him for her bride-price.  (See Ibn Kathir (here and here) and also Muhammad Ali’s explanation in footnotes which both concur with the explanation given here.)

Sura 4:19 is thus not a prohibition against detaining women: it has absolutely nothing to do with the situation of the captured Nigerian girls.

Treating your women well

With regard to Muhammad’s command to Muslims to treat their wives well, these words could apply as an instruction for the men who have married the captured girls, taking them as their wives.  It says nothing, however, about the issue of their capture, enslavement or sale.

On seeking secular knowledge
With regard to Qasim Rashid’s next point, most pious Muslims would agree that seeking knowledge, including Western scientific knowledge, is an obligation for Muslims.  Most Muslims do not agree with Boko Haram’s desire to banish all learning apart from Islamic instruction.  However antipathy to non-Islamic education and knowledge has had a long history in Islamic thought.  This is not a new idea, nor even a particularly aberrant one, but is part of the broad range of Islamic theological perspectives.

Learned Muslim women in the past
With regard to Qasim Rashid’s fifth argument, it is of course possible to find examples in history of capable Muslim women who were well-educated.  On the other hand there are traditions of Muhammad which denigrate the intellectual capacity of women, such as the following:

Once Allah’s Apostle went out to [to pray] … Then he passed by the women and said, “O women! Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you (women).” They asked, “Why is it so, O Allah’s Apostle ?” He replied, “You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you …” The women asked, “O Allah’s Apostle! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?” He said, “Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?” They replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Isn’t it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?” The women replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her religion.” (Sahih Bukhari, Book 6, Hadith 301)

In any case, asking what Muhammad would say on the subject of educating women is irrelevant to what Boko Haram has done. It did not attack the girls’ school because Boko Haram believes women should not be educated.  They did it because they are opposed to secular, non-Islamic education per se, and they believe they have the right to kill, enslave and plunder people who they count as their enemies.  They also wish to terrorize their enemies by stirring up as much fear and emotional trauma to them as possible.

Islam is not the victim here

Qasim Rashid writes: “Do not give the terrorists known as Boko Haram the dignity of attributing any religion to their name.” This is a common refrain of pious Muslims in the face of atrocities done by other Muslims in the name of Islam: whenever an atrocity dishonors Islam, non-Muslims are asked to agree that ‘This is not Islamic’ so that the honor of Islam can be kept pristine.

However the real issue is not what might be good or bad for Islam’s reputation.  The sight of Boko Haram’s leader saying on video that ‘by Allah’ he will go to market and sell the captive girls, because his religion permits him to do so, has already dishonored Islam.  Muhammad and Saladin, by their actions, could equally be considered to have dishonored Islam, but this is beside the point. The real challenge here is not preserving the honor of Islam, but what can be done to counter Boko Haram.

What is crystal clear is that nothing can be gained by denial of the truth about the jihadis’ religious ideology. Other Muslims may — and do! — disagree with Boko Haram’s beliefs. That is a not a bad thing.  But what will not help anyone – least of all the victims of this outrage – is putting forward weak arguments that no-one should judge Islam on the basis of Boko Haram’s actions.  That line of thought is completely irrelevant to addressing the problem.

Islam is not the victim here. The pressing issue here is not to get people to think well of Islam, but how these girls can be rescued, and above all how Boko Haram’s murderous rampage can be halted.
To achieve progress with this second goal it is necessary first and foremost to acknowledge the theological character of the challenge.   In historical contexts, such as colonial India and the Dutch East Indies, colonial governments were able to turn the tide on long-running and costly Islamic insurgencies by acknowledging the religious character of the challenge they were facing – that they were up against a jihad.  This enabled them to pursue appropriate strategies, such as:

  • Getting leading mainstream Muslim scholars to issue credible rulings (fatwas) which declared the specific jihad insurgency to be sinful and forbidden by Islam.  (Such fatwas continue to be used by Islamic regimes today to counter their home-grown insurgents.)
  • Making it a primary military objective to pursue and take out the ideologues – Islamic clerics – who were driving the insurgency through recruitment and religious formation of the jihadi combatants.  It is essential to cut off the flow of ideology.  US Navy Seals may be able to go in and rescue the kidnapped girls, but many more girls will continue to be kidnapped until the transmission of the ideology is disrupted.

Attempting to persuade non-Muslim Westerners that Islam is not the problem actually makes it much harder to formulate an effective strategy for countering jihadi insurgencies.  The aversion of the US State Department to acknowledge that Boko Haram was an Islamic religious movement – they only classified it as a banned terrorist organization in late 2013 – has had a crippling effect on America’s ability to make a difference in Nigeria (see Nina Shea’s analysis).

Boko Haram will not be contained by sending in hostage negotiation experts, or making public statements about poverty, disadvantage and ‘poor government service delivery’. These are not the cause of all this hatred.  Acknowledging the potent religious roots of the insurgency movement is the basic first step in shaping a credible response.  To accept this is not the same as saying that Boko Haram’s interpretation of Islam is correct.  One can be completely agnostic about what is or is not true Islam but yet grasp that Boko Haram is an interpretation of Islam, which at least for its followers has become the most compelling interpretation around.  Finding a solution to the challenge of Boko Haram can only start from this premise.

This article was first published by Front Page Magazine.

Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.


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