Muslims condemn ISIS, but are the terrorists 'apostates'?

The World

If anyone says Muslims aren’t condemning terrorist attacks like the one in Paris last week, they haven’t been listening.

From heads of state in Muslim countries, to Muslim civic organizations, to individual citizens who practice the Islamic faith, Muslim denunciations of ISIS and its ilk have been plenty in recent days. 

“These people are not Muslim,” says Wafi Abdouss, a young Internet personality from Morocco in a recent Youtube video. “They don’t represent Islam, because they don’t represent what we believe in. These so-called jihadists, or fundamentalists, they only represent themselves. And I just wanted to extend my deepest condolences to the French people.” 

As people all over were learning about the news from Paris, Imam Yahya Ibrahim went on talk radio in Western Australia to say that those who support the ISIS ideology represent an infinitesimally small percentage of the nearly 1.6 billion Muslims around the world. Ibrahim condemned what happened in Paris. 

“I think any human being would condemn that as an act of madness,” he said. 

The fact that ISIS kills in the name of Islam is what disturbs Hesham Hassaballa the most. He’s a physician from Chicago who blogs at BeliefNet. In Hassaballa’s view, the extremists of ISIS are committing the sin of blasphemy. 

“We live in a time when religious faith may not be important to many people. It still is to me. It’s still a very precious gem and jewel that I hold onto very strongly. So, if someone, some savage, tries to take that precious thing and defile it with murder ... barbarism ... coldhearted bloodthirstiness, that’s offensive,” Hassaballa says. 

“I’m not going to fight [ISIS] on the battlefield, but what I can do is speak out against them in the strongest manner possible.”

Muslim religious authorities are doing the same. 

Some Islamic scholars have denounced the radicals of ISIS as heretical. Shaykh Muhammad al-Yacoubi, originally from Syria, goes so far as declaring them to be apostates. That’s a little like excommunication in the Catholic tradition. But in Islam, apostasy is a capital offense. 

During a recent speech at Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, Yacoubi told his audience that the followers of ISIS have deviated from Islam and that Muslims have an obligation to fight them, not just on the battlefield. 

“ISIS is a religious group, is an Islamic group. You cannot fight ISIS based on security alone. You have to have Muslims scholars telling you how to save the minds of our next generation from being brainwashed. War starts in the minds of people,” Yacoubi said. 

Yacoubi mentioned that he cannot think of a time throughout Islamic history when Muslims were confronted with such a challenge from within. 

But other mainstream Islamic scholars have calibrated their criticism more carefully. 

Leaders at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, for example, have condemned the recent attacks in Paris and the extremism of ISIS in general. After the assault at the office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo early this year, Azhar cleric Modi Al-din Afifi said, “We distance ourselves from these criminal acts and we emphasize our rejection of these criminal acts, because we recognize the right of all people to live in a peaceful world. These acts have nothing to do with Islam and nothing to do with the reality of the Islamic religion we believe in.”

But Afifi stopped short of accusing ISIS of apostasy. 

There are good reasons for this, says Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution. Hamid is the author of Temptations of Power, a book about Islamist movements in the Middle East. 

“This idea that you can kind of render someone who claims to be a Muslim outside the faith sets a very dangerous precedent,” Hamid says.  

“That’s exactly what ISIS does. That is their legal and theological reasoning. They essentially argue that the vast majority of Muslims are not true Muslims, that they are in fact apostates, therefore their blood is licit.”

Condemning the actions of ISIS from an Islamic perspective begins with scripture. The Quran states very clearly that all human life is precious, “that if anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or (and) to spread mischief in the land — it would be as if he killed all mankind.” 

But Hamid adds that most Muslims also believe that God, and God alone, will issue final judgment. 

Politics comes to play in all this, of course, says Mohammed Fadel of the University of Toronto. Fadel says that helps explain why Sunni Muslim political leaders are hesitant to name ISIS as the enemies of true Islam.

“The Sunni states in the region are either unwilling or incompetent or unable to intervene to stop ISIS. Once you sort of escalate it by declaring ISIS to be an apostate regime, an apostate ‘state’, that puts more pressure on them to do something,” Fadel says.

For its part, ISIS seems to take this stuff seriously too. In its twisted ideology, the whole world is divided into two camps, ISIS and its supporters on one side and then everyone else — which includes most Muslims — who belong to the enemies of ISIS. The extremist group has also singled out Muslim scholars who have condemned its violent tactics. ISIS calls them apostates.