Sheikh to Terrorists: Go to Hell

April 17, 2010

Pakistani newspapers recently picked up an intriguing story from the country’s security establishment. Reporters learned that their government had intercepted a secret message circulating within Tehrik-e-Taliban, the most prominent of several militant groups trying to overthrow the government in Islamabad. The jihadists, it seemed, had just added a new target to one of their death lists. His name is Tahir ul-Qadri, and he’s no government official. He’s one of Pakistan’s leading Islamic scholars, an authority on the Quran and Islamic religious law.

It’s no wonder the terrorists want to see Qadri dead. Last month he promulgated a 600-page legal ruling, a fatwa, that condemns terrorism as un-Islamic. A few Western media outlets gave the news a nod, but the coverage quickly petered out. And that’s a pity, because the story of this fatwa is just beginning to get interesting. “I have declared a jihad against terrorism,” says the 59-year-old Qadri in an interview. “I am trying to bring [the terrorists] back towards humanism. This is a jihad against brutality, to bring them back towards normality. This is an intellectual jihad.” This isn’t empty rhetoric. Last year militants killed one of Qadri’s colleagues, a scholar named Sarfraz Ahmed Naeem, for expressing similar positions. 

This isn’t the first time that a Muslim jurisprudent has denounced suicide bombings as contrary to the spirit of Islam. But Qadri’s ruling represents an important precedent nonetheless — one that could well contribute to the struggle between the suicide bombers (and those who support them) and a more moderate brand of Islamic politics. Many Muslim scholars before Qadri, of course, have denounced terrorism. What makes him significant is the uncompromising rigor of his vision, which deploys a vast array of classical Islamic sources to support the case that those who commit terrorist acts are absolutely beyond the pale. He’s especially keen on targeting the coming generation, younger members of the global ummah (the community of believers) who — he contends — have lost their bearings in the roiled post-9/11 world.

Qadri’s fatwa aims to establish a bit of healthy clarity. His finding, which builds its argument around a meticulous reading of the Quran and the hadith (collections of oral statements attributed to the Prophet Mohammed), makes the case that terrorist acts run completely counter to Islamic teaching. While quite a few scholars before have condemned terrorism as haram (forbidden), the new fatwa categorically declares it to be no less than kufr (acts of disbelief). “There was a need,” says Qadri, “to address this issue authentically, with full authority, with all relevant Quranic authority — so that [the terrorists] realize that whatever they’ve been taught is absolutely wrong and that they’re going to hellfire. They’re not going to have paradise, and they’re not going to have 72 virgins in heaven. They’re totally on the wrong side.”

So it’s not too hard to imagine why the Taliban aren’t amused. “Qadri has been very bold in saying that these terrorists are awaited in hell,” says Hassan Abbas, a Pakistani scholar at Harvard University’s Belfer Center. “He is clearly provocative, in a positive sense, and this courageous act is also noteworthy.” He notes that the fatwa includes a number of specific criticisms of the conservative Deoband movement, whose teachings underlie many of the militant Islamic groups in South Asia — something that has angered many of the Deobandis. (Qadri himself is a prominent representative of the Barelvi school of Sunni Islam — a Sufi-influenced group that, says Abbas, has historically outnumbered the Deobandis in Pakistan.) But few of the hard-core jihadis are likely to be swayed by Qadri’s formidable scholarly credentials. It’s a different constituency that Qadri has in mind — namely the wavering middle.

Abbas, who describes himself as a member of that Muslim mainstream, says that Qadri’s decision to announce the fatwa’s publication in London rather than back home in Pakistan might have diminished its initial impact a bit. “Interestingly, the fatwa has generated a debate in the blogosphere — among young Muslims living in the West,” he says. “I think that can potentially be the most important contribution of this work in the short and medium term. The fact that so many of his speeches and lectures are available online (including on YouTube) indicates that he is listened to globally and especially by educated Muslims.” It also hasn’t stopped the fatwa (originally written in Urdu) from gaining attention in publications ranging from the Middle East to the Philippines — attention that is likely to build as the entire weighty work gradually finds its way into relevant languages. (The full English translation of the fatwa, for example, has only just been completed. Qadri’s aides are still on the lookout for a proper publisher in the West.)

Could it be that some onlookers are making too much of the whole thing? Ahmed Quraishi, a conservative Pakistani commentator based in Islamabad, disputes Qadri’s influence, political or otherwise. Other scholars before Qadri have condemned suicide bombings, he insists. “Suicide is outlawed in Islam through clear injunctions in the Quran,” says Quraishi. “But fighting and dying in self-defense is not. In fact, it is encouraged. So when a Muslim scholar comes out and says, ‘suicide attacks are haram,’ you need to see the finer print. It is outlawed if it means killing the innocent. But it is not if it means attacking invaders or occupiers.”

That, indeed, is what many have argued before. Yet one of the things that makes Qadri’s fatwa so compelling is precisely that it sweeps aside such logic. The claim that terror is a legitimate or excusable response to oppression is, according to Qadri’s finding, an “awful syllogism” because “evil cannot become good under any circumstances.” (To be sure, he also denounces occupation and acts of aggression against Islam — but insists that they must be resisted peaceably wherever possible and strictly according to the laws of war where not.) What’s more, as noted earlier, Qadri goes well beyond declaring terrorist acts to be merely “forbidden.” In his view they’re a manifestation of disbelief, not just a profound sin but a veritable denial of Islam.

This is, in a word, pretty strong stuff — additional evidence, if any were needed, that the so-called “war on terror” pales beside the war within Islam itself, the continuing, subtle, and utterly vital struggle for the soul of the faith. So it will be worth keeping an eye on the impact these 600 pages will have on Islam’s restless minds in the years to come. “The real contribution of the fatwa cannot be evident in a matter of a few weeks,” argues Abbas. “The message will go out slowly.” But go out it will. Stay tuned.


4 Responses to “Sheikh to Terrorists: Go to Hell”

  1. While I do appreciate and like CHRISTIAN CARYL´s article in FP, APRIL 14, 2010; Sheikh to Terrorists: Go to Hell, he should have avoided some of his clichés and loose talk, such as;.
    • “ Tehrik-e-Taliban, the most prominent of several militant groups trying to overthrow the government in Islamabad”.
    • “war on terror” pales beside the war within Islam itself
    Taliban in Pakistan is a dangerous and despicable, ill trained, illiterate and brainwashed bunch of young men who has never posed any threat to Pakistan’s security. To claim that 15 thousand Taliban are trying to overthrow the democratically elected government, backed by 170 million (including 35 million Pashtun) patriotic people and world’s 6th largest professional army, equipped with latest heavy armaments is, not only insulting to the nation of Pakistan but also shows how little western journalists know the reality on the ground.
    Even Time Magazine, which was part of an ugly rhetoric against Pakistan, seems to have come to its senses. In its most recent article from the 16 April 2010, Time admits that;
    “It took just a few months for the Pakistani military to clear the Swat Valley’s lush, mountainous tribal terrain of its Taliban usurpers last summer, using some 30,000 troops to dislodge the guerrillas from the once-bustling tourist haven, 80 miles northwest of the capital Islamabad. Pakistanis have largely cleared militants from Swat, which is in the North-West Frontier Province, as well as the South Waziristan and Bajaur areas along the Afghan border”.
    By the way, Taliban have never once claimed that they wanted to take over Pakistan. It is the western press, which advocates such silly notions.It would be interesting to ask Mr. Caryl, where are those Taliban now.

    War on terror was and to a larger extent is, an ideological and physical battle between two camps. On one hand you have powerful state machinery with sophisticated means to kill from a distance and the other, who kill innocent people to advance their cause. Both parties indulge in terrorism and their geo-political aims are the same, namely-POWER. Terrorism is going on from Columbia to India but unfortunately, it has been given a label called Islamic terrorism. It is anyone’s guess why the West has such a fixation with Islam.

    Dear Mr. Caryl, there is no war going on in Islam. What is happening is a healthy debate, exchange of ideas and Ijtahad – meaning progressive development. Terrorism is not part of that and should not be linked as such, with Islam.

    Ahmed Quraishi’s assertion that giving your life and fighting and dying in self-defense is not prohibited in Islam, is actually right. But t is not an Islam issue. Through out history, soldiers and civilians have sacrificed their lives in to protect their family, tribe, state, culture and religion. It is thus important to distinguish between taking an innocent life – non acceptable under any circumstance and whatever reason – and defending oneself, however one finds fit against a superior enemy and whatever means necessary, as Malcolm X so clearly stated 50 years ago. Russian citizens threw themselves in front of Nazi tanks during WW2 and Pakistani soldiers did the same in 1965 against Indian invading tanks. It is called sacrificing oneself for the sake of community. We may agree with this method or condemn it but many people may not.
    Kind regards
    Bashy Quraishy

  2. Jaydev Says:

    @Bashy Quraishy
    You have clearly no idea about guerilla warfare. 15,000 guerillas is largely enough to bring 1million+ Pak army to its knees. Especially when there are “true believers” in the ranks.You unnecessarily huge post is a sign that you need to convince your point to yourselves more than others. 🙂

  3. Jaydev Says:

    @Bashy Quraishy
    You have clearly no idea about guerilla warfare. 15,000 guerillas is largely enough to bring 1million+ Pak army to its knees. Especially when there are “true believers” in the ranks.Your unnecessarily huge post is a sign that you need to convince your point to yourselves more than others. 🙂

  4. Farukh Sarwar Says:

    This type of FATWAS would of course denounce suicide bombings carried out by Taliban. It is true that these terrorists want to bring the government down by creating such conditions, but they won’t succeed because the whole population is against them and will surely be able to root them out of our society.

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