Are the teachings of ISIS Islamic? Not by the sanad


Is ISIS Islamic, given its explicit use of Quranic verses to justify its actions?

H.a. Hellyer, The Straits Times

Earlier this week, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Sunni Islam’s most renowned educational institute, called for educational reform for Muslims to prevent the spread of religiously inspired extremism.

Sheikh Tayyeb was careful not to associate terrorism and violence specifically with Islam. “Bad interpretations” and “a historical accumulation of excessive trends”, he said, had led Muslims to become more vulnerable to recruitment by radicals.

In contrast, the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), otherwise known as “Da’ash”, made sure that all who view their propaganda material of grisly executions are left in no doubt that they are doing it in the name of religion, citing chapter and verse from within the Islamic tradition.

This has led to a flurry of recent commentaries arguing that those who insist, like President Barack Obama did last week, that ISIS is un-Islamic are living in denial.

Are the Grand Imam and the President of the United States wrong then? Is ISIS Islamic, given its explicit use of Quranic verses to justify its actions?

A key to this heated debate is to be found in Sheikh Tayyeb’s scholarly term, “interpretations”, of which Islam has a long and rich tradition dating back centuries.

There is a certain irony that he made his remarks in Mecca, the holiest city for Muslims worldwide and part of modern-day Saudi Arabia. The modern Saudi state arose on the back of religious support from the purist Salafi movement, which many describe more derogatively as “Wahhabism”.

Sheikh Tayyeb did not go into the differences in his speech but the Grand Imam comes from within the Azhari tradition, a school of thought representative of the Sunni mainstream, and one which disagrees with Salafism in more than one area of religious teachings.

There is a further irony in that in the territories ISIS militants have taken over, they often use Saudi religious textbooks even as the religious establishment of Saudi Arabia rails against the extremists.

Of course, one could ask on what basis does Sheikh Tayyeb judge interpretations, deeming some good and others bad? After all, there is no papacy in Islam, nor is there some kind of hierarchical ecclesiastical authority. Is it more akin then to Protestant Christianity, with the individual having great latitude in interpreting scripture?

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