Muslim Scholars Letter to Al-Baghdadi of ISIS or ISIL— a Missed Opportunity

Recently, with much fanfare, 122 scholars (as it is being reported in the media) issued an open letter to Al-Baghdadi, the self-declared Caliph and leader of the ‘Islamic’ State of Iraq and Levant/Syria (ISIS or ISIL). This is yet another in the litany of letters and fatawa that have targeted terrorists or terrorism. For example, renowned salafi-oriented Saudi scholar Shaykh Salman Al-Oudah wrote a letter to Osama Bin Laden in 2007 [bookmark this excellent collection of fatawa/letters in this post on TAM].

But based on the media reaction to this latest letter, one would not be blamed for thinking this is the first ever such effort.

First it is important to say that the effort should be appreciated, regardless of its drawbacks. Undoubtedly, such a letter will have positive impact for Muslims in the West because the average individual in the region will see this as an effort undertaken by Muslims to reclaim their own narrative.

Also, the letter raises several excellent points and is an obligatory reading for anyone involved in Muslim community affairs, be it imams or youth leaders. This is because it is important for such community leaders to familiarize themselves with textual Islamic proofs to provide a counter-narrative to the “jihad-cool” narrative that some disaffected youth may be attracted to. That is, Muslims policing their own to prevent any individual from seeking a violent path in response to legitimate grievances.

From Letter to Al-Baghdadi-“Who gave you authority over the ummah [Muslim people]?” the letter asks. “Was it your group? If this is the case, then a group of no more than several thousand has appointed itself the ruler of over a billion and a half Muslims. This attitude is based upon a corrupt circular logic that says: ‘Only we are Muslims, and we decide who the caliph is, we have chosen one and so whoever does not accept our caliph is not a Muslim.’ “

Because we bemoan the lack of coverage of Muslim condemnation of terrorism, one would expect that most Muslims would welcome such significant media attention. However, that has not been the case as discussed below:

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Who is the Audience?

While the target audience is Al-Baghdadi and his followers, one can safely assume that this audience that is primarily of jihadi-salafi orientation will ignore it, coming from scholars that are of mostly sufi leaning. This is especially important because of the deep sectarianism that ISIL engages in.

So if ISIS will not receive it, who will? According to CAIR’s Nihad Awad, “even translated into English, the letter will still sound alien to most Americans”. So if it is not for Americans (or Europeans), then it seems we have an awful audience problem.

Many times these letters are meant to serve the signatories, to tell the world, “look we are not with the enemy, but we are the good guys”. And it appears to me that this is the real purpose of the letter, along with some media coverage that pits Muslim scholars against ISIS.

The Messenger Matters, sometimes more than the Message

It is one thing to include scholars such as Shaykh Bin Bayyah who is respected almost universally, but quite another to include controversial figures that completely mar any chance that the letter might have had on reaching those that most need to read it with an open heart and mind.

The two individuals whose inclusion is most alarming is Shaykh Ali Gomaa of Egypt and Ed Hussain, a British citizen currently working in the USA.

As most Muslims are vividly aware, Gomaa was one of the key scholarly voices who justified the massacre of Egyptian people by coup-enabled President Sisi. The following are Gomaa’s despicable words, which one could in fact say, are not very different from the type of rhetoric employed by ISIS:

Shoot them in the heart … Blessed are those who kill them, and those who are killed by them . . . We must cleanse our Egypt from these riffraff … They shame us … They stink. This is how God has created them. They are hypocrites and seceders … Stand your ground. God is with you, and the Prophet Muhammad is with you, and the believers are with you … Numerous visions have attested that the Prophet is with you. May God destroy them, may God destroy them, may God destroy them. Amen!

Imagine an ISIS supporter receiving the letter signed by Gomaa, and then comparing its contents to the words above. It is not difficult to imagine that such an individual would take the letter’s contents seriously.

The other individual whose presence as a signatory is also disturbing in addition to being alarming is Ed Hussain. Initially, how is it that a person who is shy of using his first name Mohammed can be an activist for Muslims? Can one imagine a Jewish activist who changes his last name from Cohen to Cain? While this might seem a minor point, it becomes important when Ed Hussain wants to portray himself as a defender of Muslim rights!

Ed’s associations are also disturbing. He was part of the Quilliam Foundation in the United Kingdom, a much-despised government-funded organization that has almost no support in the Muslim community of UK. This is partly due to the organization’s enabling of anti-Muslim bigotry by taking up neoconservative positions, including for example indirect support of Israel’s Gaza incursion. While Ed has moved on from Quilliam, he has kept his most despicable UK-related association—he is still a senior advisor at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

Any person associated with one of the most destructive global voices today, Tony Blair, is hardly someone who should be taken seriously as a voice for peace. In fact, it can be said that Blair is one of the key enablers in the creation of ISIS, because it is he who justified the invasion of Iraq and its subsequent destruction. Blair is now pushing a new war on Islam, with an ever-expanding definition of radical-Muslims.

How do we expect Al-Baghdadi or any of the ISIS followers to take such a letter seriously when it involves the same people who justified the murder of 3000+ in Egypt and who in various positions or associations have enabled Israel’s attacks in Gaza, the invasion of Iraq, etc.

President Obama, defender of drone attacks and extrajudicial assassinations of American citizens, recently quoted Sh Bin Bayyah, “We must declare war on war, so the outcome will be peace upon peace”. Yet the presence of some enablers of war and killings in the letter’s signatories means that the this is yet another opportunity missed for peace through the battle of hearts and minds.

post script-I am fully aware that one of the founders of MuslimMatters and our scholar, Dr. Yasir Qadhi is also one of the signatories. And it is important to point out that I am not criticizing anyone for signing the letter and joining Muslim luminaries such as Sh. Bin Bayyah and Sh. Hamza Yusuf. My points are simply related to the efficacy of the letter due the presence of some controversial figures and the absence of some important figures. The latter is something I did not choose to delve in.

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20 responses to “Muslim Scholars Letter to Al-Baghdadi of ISIS or ISIL— a Missed Opportunity”

  1. ZAI says:

    Br. Amad,
    Agree w/ most of your points and criticisms.
    Only disagree with this part:

    “The other individual whose presence as a signatory is also disturbing in addition to being alarming is Ed Hussain. Initially, how is it that a person who is shy of using his first name Muhammad can be an activist for Muslims? Can one imagine a Jewish activist who changes his last name from Cohen to Cain? While this might seem a minor point, it becomes important when Ed Hussain wants to portray himself as a defender of Muslim rights!”

    Bro, who cares that he doesn’t use the name “Muhammad”? How does that make him any less Muslim
    or not a representative of Muslims? There is no such thing as a “Muslim” name, nor does it
    factor into his work in any way. I find this line of thought first derived from Ahmad Sirhindi, Shah Waliullah and the Deobandi South Asian thought to be absurd. I understand it may have had some relevance to the initial South Asian Muslim audience who wanted to preserve an identity as opposed to Hindus and other non-Muslims back in the day…not that I agree with this line of thought…but I can see why it was promulgated… how is it relevant to the modern
    day though when Islam has moved beyond Arab-Turkish-Persian cultural expression and become global? We have many names in Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Pashto, Malay, etc. that are in no way connected to religion nor an expression of any adopted culture other than our own as well. Should people with those names also be disqualified?
    This point isn’t as well thought out as the rest of your article. If I was a Muslim convert here in America named “Ed” I’d be insulted by this to be honest. We have a lot of Europeans converting with European names man…and yes, there
    are plenty of Jews with Europeanized names who are taken seriously…as there have been many Jews with Arabized names in the past who were great Rabbis whom Jews today revere.This point is anachronistic and sophistical really.

    If you wanna take exception to Hussain on associations with Quilliam or his opinions on matters outside a normative
    mainstream, fine and good. His name though? Maybe he just likes it or wanted ease of pronounciation or whatever man. But please remove this point and then delete my comment man. Tarnishes an otherwise good article.

    • Amad S says:

      I think you missed the point.
      If Ed’s name was ACTUALLY Edward or Eduardo or even Ed or Joe or Gary, etc., it would be no problem at all.

      It isn’t. It is Mohammed. And if you want to represent your community, be proud of your beautiful name, Mohammed. Optics do matter and there is a reason the guy wants to mask his name.

      • ZAI says:

        Br.Amad,
        Have you asked him anytime or heard/read him make a statement that he changed it due to Shame or some type of self hate? If not, it is pure conjecture. It is not any of our business frankly & certainly says nothing about his faith. Optics do matter, but not based on shallow conjectures of his reasons & intentions.

        A lot of people change their names for various reasons. Ease of pronunciation, assimilation to adopted culture, because they simply like it, so on and so forth.

        • Amad S says:

          I am sorry but the guy’s track record in enabling Islamophobia through Quilliam doesn’t afford a lot of benefit of doubt. The issue is quite obvious. In any case, your point is fair and noted.

      • I can never respect some one who tries to hide the name Mohammed. He should go ahead and change his first name. It might seems a simple thing, but it tells us a lot about the person.

      • Laura says:

        In his book titled The Islamist, he mentions that he began to call himself Ed because Muslim sisters in Syria would not call him the name of the Prophet as respect to the Prophet.

    • Hyde says:

      Brotha Ed is sycophantic fanatic wash out who has said horrendous things about Muslims and Islam and now he is a signatory? With diseases like that, we have more to worry about then Al-Bagdadai.

  2. AsimG says:

    Asalaamu alaykum,

    I agree with some of your arguments, but let me add some value to the letter.

    1. This letter is for Muslims potentially at-risk for Radical behavior (pre-emptive):
    There are people who are tired of inaction and hypocrisy and want to be involved in change. This shows them very clearly, regardless of those 2 signatories, how wrong such action is in Islam.

    2. This letter is for Muslims who are are being harmed by ISIS fitna and need to hear from the scholars with actual evidence how ISIS is wrong.
    It is not easy to be a Muslim today especially if you haven’t had the time to study the deen in-depth. Documents like this show what Islam truly is and separates the falsehood. And it shows some of our most elite scholars are signing off.

    3. Anyone who signs these documents will be attacked
    You can have the children of Ibn Baz (rahimullah) signing this document and still ISIS will call them sell-outs. But the work is an academic one and stands until countered. Forcing them to just attack the signatories shows they don’t have the ability to counter the arguments.

    But…
    Ed Hussain’s name should be removed. He is not a scholar or anyone whose opinion matters to the Ummah. Ali Gomaa’s name on here is a joke, but I think it would be difficult in the currently anti-ikhwan environment in Egypt to not have him on there.

  3. I think you are right the letter suffers in general from a confusion about what it is and what its audience is. My assumption is that it is intended primarily as a p.r. exercise directed at non-Muslims and to have something to link to when people say “Why don’t the Muslims condemn ISIS?” or when even Muslims ask these orgs, why aren’t you doing anything about this? So now they’ve “done” “something.” Which is ok, as far, as it goes. But the document does not contain the rigor that would re required if it were actually a fatwa and actually makes some arguments that I find problematic. Allah knows best.

  4. Lets build on efforts instead of nitpicking says:

    As Salamu Alaikum,

    Okay, the letter was not perfect by any means. Its too long and complicated for ‘the average American’ or perhaps even the general Muslim, while its waaaaaay too short for a serious scholarly treatise.

    And we disagree with the policies of 2 out of the 122 signatories. And we all know that ISIS/ISIL/IS is going to totally disregard it anyway.

    But I must admit that I personally found the letter extremely helpful and comforting. And I’m sure others did so as well! Perhaps it may make some brother (or even sister!) who is leaning towards joining or supporting ISIS/ISIL/IS think twice.

    Lets build up on the efforts of our Muslim brothers and sisters instead of nitpicking.

    If the author or Muslimmatters feel they could write a better letter to ISIS/ISIL/IS, and obtain more acceptable signatories, they should certainly do so. I know Muslimmatters has scholars who are more than capable of such an effort. And more public efforts against such organizations will certainly be very helpful.

    • Amad S says:

      wasalam
      Appreciate your feedback.

      I agree with you on the benefits of the letter and if you read my post carefully, I indicated that it should be required reading esp. for those working with youth.

      However, if that is the purpose, then it would have been better to frame the contents in a more youth-friendly format and actually target them as the audience. The problem is a mismatch of content and audience and that renders a very useful effort as an opportunity missed— that could have been better.

      So, stop nitpicking on my article :)

      • Lets build on efforts instead of nitpicking says:

        As Salamu Alaikum,

        Actually, hee hee, I realized while I was typing my comment that perhaps I was doing just that…nitpicking your article :D!

        But I really do mean my last paragraph…its not meant to be sarcastic…the letter could be improved: certainly it could be ‘translated’ so its more accessible to for the masses/youth, etc…perhaps MuslimMatters could post a youth friendly version?

  5. Jamal says:

    The Ummah needs needs really good leader. These new things are a test for the whole Ummah to unite against.

  6. Wazeed Safi from CA USA says:

    I say no good NOR evil about them since I have not been able to verify what they are doing on a fair level.The thing I don’t get is when/if this ISIS group fails. Who will be in charge after them? Will it go back to the Maliki gov? Maybe US will intervene YET AGAIN? maybe this time another oppressor? is that what we come to? having oppressor after oppressor come in and we write letters? and let them continue to kill sunni muslims and steal land and humiliate us? Are we waiting for a miracle to happen? We sew the seeds of jahannum and we except to ripe the fruits of jannah? we can’t change ourself yet we want to change the world and say “Not in our name”? If that is the case we deserve to be humiliated and until we grow a spine then we will stay in this position. we ARE the laughing stock of the world because we have 1.6 billion but are “garbage” because no leadership or unity. NAME ONE SCHOLAR/LEADER today to be a “Ruler/Khalifah/King” and THE UMMAH would argue, bicker, slander, backbite and denounce him until Qiyamah. Why? have we turned into the jews? because this new leader is not from “OUR” group we will not accept him? back to the point. and then we have this whole process over again and now it won’t be a big deal because at least ISIS is finished? Im just trying to be pragmatic please leave the emotions out of it. somebody please explain. Is there an open letter to all the oppressive rulers? if there is then what good is it doing? lets have a shred of dignity and accept the fact that this is our fault and not blame anyone else. We will criticize muslims when the time comes and defend ourselves if we are attacked. Well they have infiltrated our lands and something must be done. writing letters is not going to change the state of the umma I can assure you that. Until the ummah changes may Allah bring us back to the Sirat al Mustakeem and forgive us for our despicable state. But i am a lonely muslim and i seek refuge in Ar Rahman for my evil i do and say.

  7. RoohSong says:

    I dont understand why we as Muslims have to so apologetic? Dont we see this as a fitnah? Dont we know the background of these founders of ISIS as being from the ‘other side’? Why should we apologize for what they are doing to us?

  8. Waqar Ali says:

    Dear Brothers,

    Read the letter,

    read the criticism

    and read the criticism.

    Being a ordinary Muslim

    The only person that came to my mind or in the mind was Hussain (رضي الله عنه), lot of similarities in the situation (not in person). As an Ummah we have become so segregated, so fragmented that we have forgotten that the issue is a matter of our house, of Ummah of our beloved prophet( صلى الله عليه وآله وصحبه وسلم). Fear the day when we have to stand before our lord and we will be expecting intercession from Rasool Allah ( صلى الله عليه وآله وصحبه وسلم). What we will reply ? What all is happening is happening before us and we know it. What we have done. Will we be able to justify ourself, our positions ?

    Think about it…….. ( and remember Allah is all knower and all seer and knows everything that we hide and that we try to show )

  9. Yusuf Smith says:

    Ed Husain is not even a scholar, by any definition. Why was he even invited to co-sign the letter?

    These kinds of letters and fatwas so often get picked up by the media and presented as if groundbreaking. Same happened with Muhammad Tahir Al-Qadri’s fatwa a few years ago, which would have been accepted only by his followers.

  10. murujan says:

    aSalam aleikum,

    My advice is that we need to start understanding how things actually work in the world. We tend to engage in much discourse regarding things that have nothing to do with actual reality. It is striking, as one comment previously mentioned, that so many are voicing their opinions, condemnations, adn fewer thought they seem to be even unquestioning support without having any verifiable evidence of what is actually happening.

    I want to share these with the intent of starting a shift in persepctive:

    This video is a surprisingly good explanation of one of the most important invisible structures that all Muslims should be aware of,the petrodollar system:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8T9ICWOYCNQ

    Here is an article about shifting the technology and processes we use to live our lives:

    http://murujan.com/2014/04/04/muslims-connecting-to-permaculture-design/

  11. Sit Magpie De Crow says:

    Wazeed Safi from CA USA said this “I say no good NOR evil about them since I have not been able to verify what they are doing on a fair level.”

    Well perhaps I can help inform you on some of the “improper” things they are doing. Perhaps then you might consider the possibility they might just be evil.

    http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29333327
    Testimony by a former female Yazidi captive:

    Meanwhile, experts say some 4,500 individuals – including about 3,000 women and children – remain in IS hands.

    The young women and girls are being treated as spoils of war and trafficked around the region. Only a few have managed to escape.

    Adla has just been reunited with her husband at a camp in the town of Zakho. She was taken with others from her village and held for 38 days.

    “At first I was taken to a big house in Mosul. It was full of women,” says Adla, trembling. “They locked all the windows and doors and surrounded it with guards.”

    “Every day or two, men would come and make us take off our headscarves so they could choose which of us they wanted. Women were dragged out of the house by their hair.”

    “As Adla was moved from place to place, she saw her friends being violently beaten and raped. One was forced to leave with her little son at gunpoint.”

    “She says that for a long time the militants left her alone because she was pregnant, but later she became more worried for her safety.”

    “One day a lot of men came to take girls and we decided we must run away. Even if they captured and killed us, we’d prefer to be dead than to stay.”

    He says Yazidis are being specifically targeted because IS wants strategic control of their land but also because of their ancient beliefs, which the Sunni Muslim extremists consider heretical.

    “They don’t believe Yazidis are religious; they don’t believe Yazidis have rights. They want to tell them they have no place in the Islamic State,” Mr Domle says.

    “They think they can kick the Yazidis out, especially from the Sinjar area, and if the Yazidi women don’t convert they can use them as slaves, as gifts of war.”

    At a school where she is taking shelter, I meet an unmarried woman in her early twenties, who agrees to tell me her horrific story of being held and tortured by IS.

    “The beat us with cables, starved us and made us wash our faces with petrol,” she says.

    “They tried to take one of my friends and she slit her wrists. Two others hanged themselves from the ceiling fans.”

    Think about that… girls hanging from ceiling fans.

    Now Wazeed and all you other doubters of the possibility that ISIS is a genuinely profane organization in the Middle East, if these muslims/ISIS adherents are targeting young women and girls(children!) for repeated rapes as sex slaves and the abuse is so brutal young girls/teenagers would rather hang themselves from ceiling fans or slit their wrist than to live one more day in such hellish captivity isn’t it sensible that such a group is worthy of universal and unambiguous condemnation?

    This joint letter to the “Caliph” may be imperfect and some of its participants less than worthy of inclusion but you have start somewhere.

    Rape.Genocide.Mutilation.Murder.Beheadings.Torture.Slavery.Tyranny.

    These are the crimes being committed under the literal banner and spirit of the faith and people here are fixated on a personal name change by a controversial Western activist named Ed Husain…

    Can we please try to see the forest and not focus on the trees?

    P.S. watch the full video at the link and tell me if you really think those Yazidi women (just one group victimized by ISIS) are paid “Mossad actors” or that their experiences and suffering isn’t real.

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