28 Feb The Theological Drivers of Jihad
Two horrific acts of murder took place in Europe in October 2021, within a few days of each other. One was the stabbing of English MP David Amess by a UK citizen with a Somali heritage, Ali Harbi Ali. The other was the killing of five Norwegians by Espen Andersen Braathen, a Danish citizen.
These two attacks were different in many ways. One targeted a public figure, a well-known politician, in a church; the other picked off random targets in a supermarket. One was a knife attack; the other was executed with a bow and arrows. What the attacks had in common, apart from both taking place in Europe just a few days apart, was that both attackers were Muslims, one born a Muslim and the other a convert, and the victims were non-Muslims.
After the UK event, some media reports seemed strangely inappropriate. For example, an early report in the Australian, after noting a police report that the attacker was a Somali, speculated as to a possible connection with the fact that Amess “has been an opponent to LGBT rights and same-sex marriage and was also fiercely opposed to fox-hunting. He had supported Brexit.” The mind boggles to imagine a Somali fox-hunting enthusiast.
Local Muslims who knew Amess were appalled and deeply grieved by his murder. He was well known as a very good friend to Muslims in his electorate over many years. Mosques in his electorate came together to declare his killing an “indefensible atrocity”. The message was so obviously sincere, yet the wording seemed awkward: what might a “defensible atrocity” be?
It is not enough for Muslim organisations to deplore each violent individual or to dismiss such killings as acts of “blind hatred”, as Southend’s mosques did, for the problem is bigger than individuals. Over recent decades, there have been too many violent attacks in Europe on non-Muslims by Muslims claiming a religious mandate. This has been happening in numbers that are disproportionate to the Muslim presence in Europe. Why is this so?
We need to dig deeper to explore potential theological drivers for these atrocities. Of course, there are Muslims who deny that such drivers even exist, yet there are other Muslims—the radical ones—who unashamedly cherish and celebrate such violence on religious grounds.
One theological driver is an old, long-established teaching in Islam that certain categories of people can be freely killed without breaking Allah’s laws. For such people, the blood of those killed, as some sharia textbooks put it, is “halal”: permissible to be shed without incurring guilt.
Who are these unfortunates? They include Muslims whom sharia law considers guilty of a capital offence, including anyone who has killed another Muslim, committed adultery or left Islam. Muhammad himself said that there are three reasons for killing a Muslim: apostasy, adultery and murder of another Muslim.
There is a further, large class of people whom Islamic law has traditionally considered to have “halal” blood, namely non-Muslims who have not been afforded the protection of an Islamic state. During periods when Islam was expanding its territory by warfare, enemy infidels were deemed to have such blood. The sharia rules of war stipulated that infidel adult men could freely be put to death, while the women and children could be enslaved.
In addition, there is a long history of fatwas being issued against those who have opposed the imposition of Islam. The renowned Muslim jurist and Koranic commentator Ibn Kathir issued a fatwa in the fourteenth century stating that Mongol rulers who governed by laws established under Genghis Khan could be freely fought against and killed, because the Mongols did not rule by the Islamic sharia. Genghis Khan’s legal code, the Yassa, did not establish the supremacy of Islam as the sharia did, but afforded tolerance to all religions.
In the months after 9/11, I found that a Melbourne Salafist organisation had published on their website a translation of Ibn Kathir’s fatwa, with commentary by the Salafi cleric Abd al-Qadir bin Abd al-Aziz. This document concluded by stating that Ibn Kathir’s ruling was still current, and could be applied to anyone who rules other than by the sharia. In effect, this implied that every Australian politician could be fought against and killed, from the then Prime Minister John Howard down, since they were not ruling by the sharia. By this rationale, the same would apply to David Amess.
The call to jihad can be very compelling, In November 1914, the Ottoman Sultan issued a fatwa calling on Muslims all over the world to rise up and wage individual jihad against infidels. Seven weeks later, two Australian Muslims who had lived for a long time in Australia, Mullah Abdullah and Mohammed Gool, heeded the call, opening fire on a New Year’s Day picnic train outside Broken Hill. They shot four people dead. The two men, who were killed by the police, had left notes explaining that they were responding to the call to jihad from the Caliphate.
A global Islamic Awakening has been building steam since at least the nineteenth century. Its single “big idea” is the conviction that, if only Muslims followed the sharia more faithfully, Islam would once again be triumphant in the world, reversing centuries of decline. The myriad sharia-revival movements inspired by this idea have again and again called Muslims to embrace violent jihad, along with its regulation according to sharia principles. Thus, the shedding of “halal” blood has continued.
One theological driver of this violence is a hadith, a saying attributed to Muhammad, which states that if a Muslim kills a non-Muslim, the two will not end up in the same place: the non-Muslim will go to hell, while the Muslim will attain paradise. From this tradition arises the belief that shedding the blood of infidels can assure a Muslim a place in paradise.
What to do about these theological drivers? It is certainly not enough for Muslim individuals or groups to state that a particular event is an “indefensible atrocity”. It is also understandable that many Muslims intensely resent their cherished faith being maligned by association with the heinous acts of people they would write off as bad or mad. I feel sympathy for these beleaguered believers, for it is wrong, and indeed offensive, to tar all Muslims with the same brush. But the theological drivers remain. They are real, and they need to be countered if the killings are to stop.
It certainly will not do, as some UK Islamic organisations proposed in response to the 7/7 bombings in London, to declare that infidels should not be killed because they are under a covenant of protection due to the safe haven their societies have provided to Muslim immigrants. This view was recently reiterated by the notorious English Muslim radical Anjem Choudary, who, in rejecting claims that he was linked to Ali Harbi Ali, stated, “My position over the last 25 years in Britain as a Muslim and lecturer in Islamic laws has always been that the Muslim community live with the non-Muslims here under a covenant of security, where in return for their life and wealth being protected, they are prohibited from targeting the life or wealth of others.” The problem with this “solution” is that, by declaring a conditional “exception”, it validates the underlying, more general principle that infidel blood is halal.
In the past, Islamic societies imposed a covenant of surrender, known as the dhimma, upon non-Muslims, according to which non-Muslims who lived under Muslim rule were “protected”. This protection was dependent upon the non-Muslims’ historic surrender to Islamic rule, and the ongoing payment of an annual “head tax” by adult males to ransom their heads year by year. This arrangement also validated the underlying principle that non-Muslim blood is halal unless special conditions apply.
What is needed from Muslim leaders is a thorough-going renunciation of the idea that the blood of the kaffir (non-Muslim) is worth less than the blood of a Muslim. Indeed, one should go further and declare that all blood is equal in the sight of Allah, so every human life is equally precious and deserving of respect, and anyone who claims otherwise is a disbeliever. This would establish the principle that to kill a non-Muslim is as much a crime as killing a Muslim, certain strands of thought in Islamic tradition notwithstanding.
Non-Muslims also bear some responsibility for naivety in responding to Islamically-inspired killings. The public panic which ensued after David Amess’s killing in the UK about “lone wolf” attacks is a case in point. Stressing the individual, even idiosyncratic, nature of these attacks is merely a way to avoid exposing the theological roots to the light of day.
Some years ago I raised the publication of Ibn Kathir’s fatwa on an Australian Muslim website with an officer of the Australian intelligence community. Was it not, I suggested, an act of incitement to murder, or an act of sedition, to declare it lawful to attack anyone who rules other than by sharia law? Shouldn’t people who teach such things deserve to feel the full force of the law? No, it wasn’t, and they should not, this guardian of our liberties said.
What I took away from this depressing conversation was that the security services will go after people planning actual acts of terror, but not those who teach the theology that ploughs the soil to receive the seed of violence. Such ploughing can make murderous attacks out to be noble, righteous and deserving of paradise. The voices who prepare the soil and water the theological roots of these attacks should be made culpable for the violence that their actions inspire.
A recent example of such incitement was a protest held in Sydney in May 2021 by the radical Islamist organisation Hizb-ut Tahrir, at which a speaker cried out, “Oh Allah, give us the necks of the Jews.” This was a prayer asking for Muslims to be enabled by Allah to cut throats and commit beheadings. Hizb-ut Tahrir is not illegal in Australia, even though its constitution calls for apostates from Islam to be killed.
A challenge in countering the theological drivers of individual jihadism is that the killers claim to derive authority from sacred Islamic texts, backed by traditions of Muhammad, verses of the Koran, and centuries of Islamic jurisprudence. It is not easy to challenge the weight of this tradition. Easier by far is to lament and deplore individual heinous acts, declare that these acts have nothing to do with Islam, and worry about unpredictable “lone wolves”. Yet such hand-wringing will do nothing to stem the flow of “halal” blood.
This article first appeared in Quadrant.
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.