The Ongoing Crisis in Islam

The Ongoing Crisis in Islam

After every major massacre perpetrated by Jihadists, the opinion space all over the world gets polarized between the two extremes. The liberals refuse to acknowledge any causal connection between the actions of Jihadists and the Islamic Scriptures. They ascribe the rise of Jihadist movements to economic conditions (a theory much identical to Marxist criminology), western interventionism and social factors and call those who instead find a causal connection of Jihadist phenomenon with Islamic Scriptures as Islamophobes and in retaliation themselves get branded as Islam apologists by the latter.

This debate is rewound after every act of mass violence by Jihadist groups only to get suspended without any conclusion to be rewound again after yet another terrorist attack, as both sides end up using foul language towards each other. Labels like Islam apologist or Islamophobe have kept any conclusion out of the bounds for an undecided neutral observer on the street who increasingly finds the specter of Jihadist threat closer to her or his immediate surroundings.

The question then is whether the common Muslims and non-Muslims can any longer afford to remain undecided and confused about whether Islamic Scriptures sanction what Jihadists are doing. Such confusion is a risky game for mankind whatever may be the answer to this seemingly simplistic question, as it often leads to magnifying the problem instead of solving it.

The Business of Blaming this or that Sect

The current focus of the debate around Jihadism revolves around gory scenes of violence which ISIS regularly enacts. As anti-Islam sentiments are soaring up in the West with every new ISIS video featuring grisly massacres which the group justifies in an unapologetic manner by referencing to verses from Quran and Hadith, mainstream Muslim Clerics and Scholars try to shift blame to one Islamic sect or the other for fuelling Jihadism.

Maulana Mahmood Madani

After Paris attacks, the leading South Asia Cleric Maulana Mahmood Madani who is affiliated with Darul Uloom, Deoband, which is one of the most influential Seminaries in the Muslim world and is seen as a key vehicle of Islamic revivalism, has started a campaign to dissuade Muslim youth from joining the Salafist ISIS.

However, the Deobandis have never disowned, let alone excommunicated, the Jihadist groups who are decidedly Deobandis and are responsible for killings of equally large number of people.

The Afghan Taliban or Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan as it calls itself originated from key Deobandi Seminaries in Pakistan like Darul Uloom Haqqania. Taliban harbored Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda and has killed thousands of Afghan citizens in waves and waves of suicide attacks. It regularly stones helpless women to death for alleged adultery and during its reign in Afghanistan, demolished the Bamiyan Buddha just like ISIS is now destroying heritage sites in Palmyra.

Another Deobandi Jihadist group Jaish-e-Mohammed has been responsible for attacks on Indian Parliament and numerous suicide attacks in Jammu and Kashmir. And if counter-radicalization is just about blaming one Islamic sect or Jihadist groups belonging to such a sect, then the Afghan Taliban too has recently denounced what ISIS is doing and has warned it to stay away from Af-Pak.

Similarly, Barelvis who constitute another major Muslim revivalist sect, which has come to be considered as a moderate Muslim Sect mainly because it is rooted in Sufism and also because now Wahabi, Salafist and Deobandi groups control the Global Jihad with Barelvis themselves being on the receiving end of Jihadist violence to some extent.

Over the last few years many prominent Darghas in Pakistan which are frequented by Barelvis have come under attacks by Deobandi and Wahabbi groups. Though Barelvis constantly blame Deobandis and Wahabis for the scourge of terrorism, they have their own rich contributions to preparing fertile ground in the last century on which much of global Jihadist movement thrives today.

Barelvis were at the helm of the “Pakistan movement” which sought to create a “Pure Islamic State” by dividing India. The Muslim League which relied heavily on Barelvi support launched the “Direct Action” to force the “secular” Indian National Congress and Hindu majority at large to yield to the partition of India on religious lines with this kind of Jihadist Pamphlets:

“Muslims must remember that it was in Ramzan that the Quran was revealed. It was in Ramzan that the permission for Jehad was granted. It was in Ramzan that the battle of Badr, the first open conflict between Islam and Heathenism was fought and won by 313 Muslims; and again it was in Ramzan that 10,000 under the Holy Prophet conquered Mecca and established the kingdom of Heaven and the commonwealth of Islam in Arabia. Muslim League is fortunate that it is starting its action in this holy month.”

The resulting violence claimed one million to three million innocent lives and caused the greatest human migration in history. In later decades, Deobandis came to dominate religious affairs in Pakistan as its Army and Intelligence Services embarked on a mass radicalization program to prepare recruits for jihad against Soviets in Afghanistan and in Kashmir against Indians.

Salman Taseer

However, Barelvi clergy continues to make contributions to Jihadism and in 2011 the prominent Barelvi Ulema applauded the killing of Governor of Pakistan’s Punjab Province Salman Taseer by his own security guard just because he wanted the Pakistan’s Islamist blasphemy law to go.

Such has been the attraction of these Jihadist projects in Muslim societies that Ahamadiya Muslims (now declared non-Muslims by law in Pakistan) who today face worst kind of persecution in Pakistan, were at the forefront of supporting the Muslim League’s Jihad against “Hindus” and the sect’s chief Cleric migrated to Pakistan leaving his traditional seat in Indian Punjab and in his rosy days in Pakistan dreamt of an “Islamistan” in which all Muslim countries will one day merge and Muslim nationalities will cease to exist[1].

Currently, the Pakistani state and society produces more Jihadists than it can accommodate, send abroad or kill. While Deobandi groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahiba and TTP have targeted Shias and Barelvis inside Pakistan, the Salafist LeT started beheading of “infidel” Soviet soldiers in late 1980s itself and displayed the head of an Indian Army Officer in its annual congregation in 1995, a characteristic Salafi jihadist act which ISIS is now practicing on large scale in Iraq and Syria.

The business of blaming this or that Muslims sect has further limitations in this age of rising Salafism as Salafi jihadists may come from any of the four key schools of Islamic jurisprudence, namely Hanafi, Maliki, Shafei and Whahabi/Hanabali.

Has ISIS done Something Novel?

While the global attention is currently focused on ISIS, what we should not miss is that Jihadism, Islamic Caliphates and Emirates have existed in the Muslim world since the beginning, when Al-Qaeda or ISIS or for that matter even the Wahabis, Deobandis and Barelvis were not in existence[2].

These medieval Islamic States and Jihadists enacted even more enormous scenes of ghastly genocide than what ISIS is currently doing and all civilizations within the domain or on the peripheries of these Islamic States suffered those atrocities. What they did is graphically similar to what ISIS is doing today.

Though there are volumes of information available on this mostly from Muslim Histories, I will only quote a few instances for the sake of brevity. When Delhi’s Sultan Feroze Tughlaq raided the island of Jajnagar near the Province of Orissa: “The swordsmen of Islam turned the island into a basin of blood by the massacre of the unbelievers…..Women with babies and pregnant ladies were haltered, manacled, fettered and enchained, and pressed as slaves into service in the house of every soldier.”[3]

The devout Muslim Babur, who pledged to give up drinking wine as he embarked upon the battle with the Indian military coalition, was in habit of raising towers of “infidel heads” according to his own admission[4].

Yezdi Women

And if the sex-slavery being perpetrated by ISIS on Yezidi women is something new just an example of how Allauddin Khilji’s armies took slaves from Gujarat must be enough: “the Muslim army in the sack of Somnath took captive a great number of handsome and elegant maidens, amounting to 20,000, and children of both sexes, the Muhammadan army brought the country to utter ruin, and destroyed the lives of inhabitants, and plundered the cities and captured their offspring”[5].

An Indian Historical treatise Kanhade Prabhand describes the suffering of these slaves:

“they made people captive – Brahmanas (priests) and children, and women, in fact, people of all (description) huddled them and tied them by straps of raw hide. The number of prisoners made by them was beyond counting. The prisoners’ quarters (bandikhana) were entrusted to the care of the Turks. The prisoners suffered greatly and wept aloud. During the day they bore the heat of the scorching sun, without shade or shelter as they were [in the sandy desert region of Rajasthan], and the shivering cold during the night under the open sky. Children, torn away from their mother’s breasts and homes, were crying. Each one of the captives seemed as miserable as the other. Already writhing in agony due to thirst, the pangs of hunger added to their distress. Some of the captives were sick, some unable to sit up. Some had no shoes to put on and no clothes to wear. Some had iron shackles on their feet. Separated from each other, they were huddled together and tied with straps of hide. Children were separated from their parents, the wives from their husbands, thrown apart by this cruel raid. Young and old were seen writhing in agony, as loud wailings arose from that part of the camp where they were all huddled up. Weeping and wailing, they were hoping that some miracle might save them even now.

Even the early Arab invaders of India sponsored by the Caliphate were as unapologetic of the slave taking and beheading as the ISIS is. Muhammad bin Qasim who invaded North Western India on the orders of Caliph Walid and his Iraqi General Hazzaz was instructed “to give no quarter to infidels, but to cut their throats, and take the women and children as captives”[6]. He proceeded accordingly. After sacking Debal, he captured “700 beautiful females, who were under the protection of Budh (that is, had taken shelter in the temple), were all captured with their valuable ornaments, and clothes adorned with jewels” and according to the directions of Scriptures dispatched 1/5th of their numbers to his master and the sponsor of Jihadist campaign Hajjaj and distributed the rest among his soldiers. In Rawar, Qasim’s army took 600 people as slaves of which 30 women of royal lineage were sent to Hajjaj who “presented them” to Caliph Walid who “sold some of these captives of royal birth and some he presented to others”[7].

One may only end up asking this: Is the ISIS doing something novel which previous “Islamic states” have not done? The limited point is that Jihadism will continue to exist and surface again and again even after the destruction of groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda unless the ideological and theological issues underlying all this are understood and addressed by the Muslims as well as the non-Muslims.

Islamism and Indic ‘Shaastrarthas’

Before the Islamic Imperialists subjugated India–particularly its urban centers–the country had a rich tradition of sorting out religious and philosophical controversies through scholarly debates on religious scriptures which were known as ‘Shaastrarthas’ i.e. debates aimed at fixing the real meaning and the spirit of religious scriptures.

However, the new Muslim Sultans applied the “Godly” dictum of “Sword is the key to heaven and to hell”[8]. They tried to prove the superiority of Islam through the sword instead of allowing any discussion or debate with the ancient traditions of India.

This resulted in protracted civil wars which lasted for at least 500 years till the middle of Akbar’s reign. It was an era marked by quick expansion and equally quick contraction of Delhi’s Muslim sultanates as the Indic rebels beat them back from various provinces. Will Durant summed up the whole story in his classic The Story of Civilization in these words “The Islamic conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history.”

Mughal Emperor Akbar who was enthroned in 1556 A.D. too perpetrated Islamic imperialism rooted in Jihadism. While trying to subjugate the unrelenting Hindu Kingdom of Chittor in North West India, he presided over the massacre of 30,000 civilians in a single day.

Fatahnama-e-chittor (Chittoor Victory Proclamation) issued after this blood curdling victory reads like a message we often hear from groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda when they proudly take responsibility of terrorist attacks. It richly quotes from Quran. A few excerpts are being quoted here:

“Praise be to Allah who made good His promise, helped His servant, honoured His soldiers, defeated the confederates all alone, and after whom there is nothing. All Praise and thanksgiving behoves that great Opener (fattah) of forts and kingdoms, in whose grasp are the keys of the conquests of the just and religious Sultans, and with whose patent of favour and authority are decorated the manshurs of the Khilafat and sovereignty of the victorious emperors. ‘The Merciful one (Karim) whose omnipotence has ensured the victory of the believers through the promise: to help believers is incumbent upon us, the Omnipotent one who enjoined the task of destroying the wicked infidels on the dutiful mujahids through the blows of their thunder-like scimitars laid down: Fight them!  Allah will chastise them at your hands and He will lay them low and give you victory over them.(Quran 9:14) Glorified is He, and High Exalted from what they say, His sovereignty is not dependent on any friend and helper.”

“We spend our precious time to the best of our ability in war (ghiza) and Jihad and with the help of Eternal Allah, who is the supporter of our ever-increasing empire, we are busy in subjugating the localities, habitations, forts and towns which are under the possession of the infidels, may Allah forsake and annihilate all of them, and thus raising the standard of Islam everywhere and removing the darkness of polytheism and violent sins by the use of sword.  We destroy the places of worship of idols in those places and other parts of India. (The praise be to Allah, who hath guided us to this, and we would not have found the way had it not been that Allah had guided us.’ Quran 7:43)”

Until 1575 A.D., Akbar continued to follow these Islamist policies but he soon realized that he couldn’t build a lasting empire without taking on board the Hindu majority. He also understood that his personal greatness and the greatness of his empire depended upon how well he could understand the diverse religious viewpoints of his subjects.

So, he knowingly or unknowingly revived the Indic tradition of Shaastrartha departing from the Islamic dictum of “Sword is the Key to Heaven”. He called scholars of all major Indic religions, Christian and Zoroastrian priests as well as Sunni and Shia clerics. He made clerics from different Muslim sects to sit face to face and discuss the scriptures though at times they ended up abusing and cursing each other in front of the emperor.

He listened to these scholars for four years and imbibed many things from various religions in his personal life as well as applied them to State policies. Above all he discovered that that the arguments of Islamist clerics were in no way superior to scholars of other religions as they failed to provide logical answers to many of his queries.

So, he decided that Islamic scriptural teachings were not enough to force his non-Muslim subjects into a sub-human life and to subject their faiths to daily insults. Today, history remembers him as Akbar the Great, a debatable label. Three generations later, when his great-grandson, Aurangzeb reversed the State to Islamist model of “Sword is the key to heaven”, the mighty Mughal Empire contracted to precincts of Delhi in just a few decades.

Notably, Aurangzeb sat over the throne after subjugating (and later eliminating) his elder brother Dara Shikoh who like his great grandfather was a believer in inter-faith discourse. What needs to be understood at this point is that the ideological war against Jihadism cannot be won without appreciating the importance of historical contest within the Muslim world: between the ones who want to discuss and debate things with non-Muslims and those who believe in “Sword is the key to heaven” theorem.

If non-Muslims fail to carefully and above all respectfully engage with ordinary Muslims who are still not in the Jihadist net (such Muslims constitute the majority), they will only be helping the Jihadists who are constantly trying to engage with such Muslims. And with only one-sided Jihadist interpretation being fed to a normal Muslim youngster coupled with the absence of discourse with alternative interpretations as well as with the teachings of other religions, he is susceptible to start believing that as the ultimate truth.

But for all this to happen what needs to be acknowledged is that Jihadism is indeed rooted in the Islamic theology, and all Jihadist projects in history from medieval to modern times have been able to justify themselves by quoting Islamic scriptures.

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The Jihadist ways are impracticable as they close doors on all possibilities of innovation present within the Islamic theology like the concept of Qiyas and may end up destroying the Muslim world before it destroys the rest of the mankind. Probably, that’s what Egyptian President General Abdel Fateh al-Sisi was tying to convey to a gathering of Muslim Clerics and students last January at the premises of Al-Azhar University when he said this:

“Is it possible that 1.6 billion people should want to kill the rest of the world’ inhabitants-that is 7 billion-so that they themselves may live? Impossible! I am saying these words here at Al-Azhar before this assembly of scholars and ulema-Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I am talking about now. All this that I am telling you, you cannot feel it if you remain trapped within this mindset. You need to step to step outside of yourselves to be able to observe it and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective. I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move…because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost and it is being lost by our own hands.”

Struggle against Jihadism and Opportunity of the Digital Age

President Sisi wanted the Ulema to make a move, but that may not come on a substantial scale for various reasons. Muslim clergy often thinks that acknowledging any inconsistency, fallacy in any Islamic scripture or saying that any part of such texts are now redundant may bring in question the unquestionable authority of other parts of these texts.

Moreover, it is not easy for them to do something for which they have always declared others as apostates. This is the reason that they are still to acknowledge erroneous conceptions contained in these texts regarding more secular phenomenon like Sunset.

Islamic congregations are based on the primacy of the Ulema who lead the prayers, give takrir (politico-religious discourse) and solve the questions regarding faith through Fatwas.

This is the reason that the clutches of the Ulema are still strong on the Muslim society in this digital age and this is also the reason why the Ulema will have to be bypassed by those fighting an ideological war against Jihadism to engage common Muslims.

The Internet penetration in Muslim societies is increasing each day which may enable an ordinary Muslim to search for himself what a particular Quranic verse says and how various Islamic schools interpret it differently and what people from other religions think about it. In this age, the force of government bans on such literature is weakening. Hence, in the coming decades, the Ulema will not be able to maintain a monopoly on such discourse in Muslim societies.

However, seen from the point of view of Jihadists this spells a crisis and they are trying extra hard to impress upon young Muslim minds as to how Islamic scriptures should only be subjected to literal interpretation and these verses have strictly definite incontestable meanings. And whenever they are successful in convincing a Muslim youngster about this, they get a new recruit.

Jihadists are waging an ideological war within the Muslim societies to conclusively crystallize the meaning and applying conditions of these verses in a manner that never was the case before. However, if the counter-radicalization activists can keep the matter open and can successfully trigger a scholarly debate that will be the first step towards success.



[1] Al Fazl: 23 March, 1956: p. 7-8

[2] Wahabism took birth only in 18th Century in Saudi Arabia’s Najd while Deobandi and Barelvi sects were founded in North India only in the later half of 19th century.

[3] Sirat-e-Firuzshahi

[4] Babaurnama: p. 572-73

[5] Wassaf, Bk.  IV: p. 448

[6] Chachnama, Kalichbeg: p. 154-155

[7] Ibid.

[8] An Alternative to Holy War, Pasha Mohamed Ali Taeharah: p.4).

Divya Kumar Sotti

Divya Kumar Soti is a national security analyst and a Lawyer specialising in comparative business and tech laws. He avidly studies geopolitics, history, radicalism and theology