Indian ulema wary of taking on ISIS

Indian ulema wary of taking on ISIS

By SULTAN SHAHIN | 4 June, 2016
A boy holds a placard at a rally organised by a Muslim charitable trust denouncing ISIS in Mumbai, in November 2015 . Reuters
The ulema wield considerable influence. Their silences matter as much as their statements.

A complete silence has greeted Islamic State’s (ISIS’) direct challenge to the Indian ulema. “Islam has never been a religion of peace,” says an Indian jihadi, as had his khalifa a year ago. “Islam is a religion of permanent war: Prophet Muhammad himself spent all his life fighting.” An outright lie from ISIS, a monstrous outrage, but there was no response from the ulema.

Some would say our ulema have already done enough. Why should they respond to every outrage? Didn’t 1,050 Indian ulema sign a fatwa describing ISIS’ acts as against the basic tenets of Islam? They did, as did 120 ulema from around the world and even the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia. So why are they so completely ineffective? Why does ISIS continue to get recruits? 30,000 Muslims reached the ISIS from 100 countries in one year.

The answer lies in the nature of fatwas issued against the ISIS. The Indian ulema’s fatwa is basically a one-liner, depending entirely on a verse from the Holy Quran: “Whoever kills a person [unjustly]…it is as though he has killed all mankind. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved all mankind” (5:32). Other fatwas quote other similar verses from the Quran. The question then is inevitable: in the face of such overwhelming evidence in favour of peace and pluralism from Islam’s foundational scripture, how can a Muslim ideologue openly preach terrorism, xenophobia, intolerance and then get a positive response from such a large number of Muslims from across the world? And how can the ulema remain completely silent? How can neo-Salafis taunt our ulema as being Munafiqeen (Hypocrites), for whom the lowest depths of Hell are reserved in Islam, and get away without even a tepid response from our ulema?

It is these questions that our ulema are unwilling to take up. Unwilling or unable? I would say, both. Willingness would require a gigantic effort. They would need to take on almost the entire Islamic theology. They would need to argue with ideologues of such distinction as Imam Ghazali, Ibn Taymiyya, Mujaddid alf-e-Saani Shaikh Sirhindi, Shah Waliullah Dehlavi, Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, Syed Qutub and Abul A’la Maududi, to name only a few.

Concerned Muslims will have to evolve a new theology, a theology of peace and pluralism and reach the Muslim ummah directly, over the heads of the ulema.

From all these eminent theologians, the curious Muslim youth gets the same message of Islam supremacism, exclusivism, xenophobia, intolerance and his duty of jihad in the sense of qital (armed struggle). Imam Ghazali said, “Muslims should go on jihad at least once every year.” Clearly he meant offensive jihad for the sake of Islam’s domination. Highly revered 18th century Indian scholar, theologian, Muhaddis and jurist, Shah Waliullah Dehlavi had said: “It is the duty of the prophet to establish the domination of Islam over all other religions and not leave anybody outside its domination whether they accept it voluntarily or after humiliation…” Which Indian aalim today would have the guts to contradict Imam Ghazali, Ibn-e-Taimiya and Shah Waliullah Dehlvi?

Wahhabi terrorist ideology is based on rigid postulates like the following and all our ulema subscribe to them:

1. The Quranic verses revealed in Medina permitting war came later, and therefore that they have abrogated the earlier Quranic verses exhorting patience and perseverance, peace and pluralism that were revealed in Mecca. Our ulema do not dispute this Doctrine of Abrogation. They do not say, without equivocation, that the verses revealed earlier at Mecca constitute the foundational text of Islam and have not been and cannot be abrogated; and that the war-time, contextual verses were meant for those times alone and do not apply to us anymore, especially over the earlier verses. The fact is that Islam is a religion based on peace, on compassion and on mercy.

2. The Hadith were collected up to 300 years after the Prophets demise. But the ulema simply say some Hadiths justifying violence against innocents are found in sihah-e-sitta (all six authentic books of Hadith).” No matter how much you coax them they will say no more. Their meaning is clear: “Hadith cannot be questioned, no matter how much it contradicts the Quran.”

The ulema wield considerable influence. Their silences matter as much as their statements. Those who expect help from them in fighting Islamist terrorism are mistaken. The contempt with which neo-Salafists treat our ulema is well-deserved. Nor can one expect much from secular, liberal moderates. While they are implacably opposed to terrorism, and wary of living as a suspect as every Muslim is today, they are not willing to engage with the Islamist theology. This requires them to overcome the inevitable fear of violent death.

Ask the liberals of neighbouring Bangladesh. Not many have this level of motivation in spite of the chaos all around. As for political leaders, Muslim and non-Muslim, the less said the better. Politicians are called leaders, but they actually follow the herd. Hardly any “leader” is in sight.

However, one must take hope from history. Extremism has always been a part of Islamic history. But Muslims have managed to defeat it. At the moment, extremism is particularly influential, radicalising almost the entire society, largely as a result of tens of billions of petrodollars having been invested in this project over the last four decades. But the essence of Islamic spirituality, peace and pluralism, will find a way of bouncing back. To help this process, concerned Muslims will have to evolve a new theology, a theology of peace and pluralism and reach the Muslim ummah directly, over the heads of the ulema.

This must be based on Islam as a spiritual path to salvation, rather than a totalitarian ideology of world domination, as the current consensus dictates. Merely focusing on positive features of Islam, as some suggest, will not help. This is the age of the internet. Nothing can be hidden.

We will have to engage with the Islamist and neo-Salafist theology, taking, as it were, the bull by its horns. There are no soft options.

Sultan Shahin is the founding editor of a progressive Islamic website, He can be reached at


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