Boko Haram: From Despair to Hope

In an extraordinary address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 29th, 2015 during the "Leadership Summit on Countering ISIL and Violent Extremism", Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah, President of the prestigious Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, Abu Dhabi, UAE carried a powerful message of peace in Islam, in his distinguished voice, to the world. Shaykh Bin Bayyah is listed as the 23rd of 500 most influential Muslims in the world by the The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre, Jordan and is also the Vice-President of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, former minister of education and former minister of religious affairs of Mauritania. In 2010 he corrected a 101-year old terrible misprint of the Mardin Fatwa of Ibn Taymiyya that almost all the Muslim extremist groups have relied on to justify their violent extremism. Shaykh Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), one of Islam's most forceful theologians, had issued a definitive fatwa (legal edict) against the Mongol (Tatars) rulers during the great Mongol crisis of the years 1299 to 1303. He declared that it was compulsory for true Muslims to engage in aggressive jihad against Mongol rulers, on the grounds that they did not follow Sharia and as such were not Muslim, notwithstanding the Mongol rulers' claim of conversion to Islam.

The fatwas of Shaykh ibn Taymiyya (In total, Ibn Taymiyya wrote three well-known fatwas against the Mongols and another fatwa on the status of Muslims living under Mongol rule in the city of Mardin) have been cited by almost all modern Muslim extremists from those who assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 to the present. The original Mardin Fatwa reads as follow:

"Ibn Taymiyah was asked about the land of Mardin. Is it a land of war or peace? Are the Muslims who live there obligated to emigrate to other Muslim countries? If they are obliged to emigrate and they fail to do so, and if they assist the enemies of Islam with their lives and property, are they sinful for doing so? Are those who accuse them of hypocrisy and malign them sinful for doing so?

Ibn Taymiyah answered:
Praise be to Allah. The lives and property of the Muslims are inviolable, whether they are living in Mardin or elsewhere. Assisting those who are acting in opposition to Islam is unlawful, whether those who give the assistance are the people of Mardin or others. The people living there, if they are unable to practice their religion, then they are obliged to emigrate. Otherwise, it is preferable but not an obligation that they do so. It is unlawful for them to aid the enemies of the Muslims with their lives and property. They must refuse to do so by whatever means they can, like absenting themselves, being evasive, or showing flattery. If the only way open to them is to emigrate, then that is what they must do. It is not lawful to malign them categorically or to accuse them of hypocrisy. Disparaging and accusations of hypocrisy must be according to the designations set forth in the Qur'an and Sunnah and are equally applicable to some of the people of Mardin as they are applicable to some people elsewhere.

As for whether it is a land of war or peace, it is a composite situation. It is not an abode of peace where the legal rulings of Islam are applied and its armed forces are Muslim. Neither is it the same as an abode of war whose inhabitants are unbelievers. It is a third category. The Muslims living therein should be treated according to their rights as Muslims, while the non-Muslims living there outside of the authority of Islamic Law should be treated according to their rights."

In some printed editions (Instead of the correct Arabic word yu`āmal (should be treated), the word is rendered yuqātal (should be fought)) which first appeared about 100 years ago, the last part of the text of the fatwa is corrupted to read:

“…while the non-Muslims living there outside of the authority of Islamic Law should be fought as is their due.”.

The typographic error resulted in the change in the meaning of the phrase which has had drastic and dangerous consequences on the way the edict is interpreted and used. Sadly and to further complicate the matter, it was this first misprint in 1909 edition(published by Faraj Allah al-Kirdi) that has formed the basis of subsequent reprints, made available to the public and students of knowledge in many languages in different countries.

Yet, Ibn Taymiyya's juristic opinions in the original text are clear enough: Muslims can live in Mardin or any other society as long as they are free to practice their religion and Muslims are entitled to be treated by other Muslims according to the rights that they have as Muslims, and the non-Muslims who live there and who are not subject to Islamic rulings should be afforded their own rights as well. This is further supported by Ibn Taymiyya's vision of jihad which, Jon Hoover, an Ibn Taymiyya scholar, observed that "Ibn Taymiyya's vision of jihad (is interpreted by scholars) as a defense of Islamic practice and communal identity (Hoover 2012), rather than offensive jihad. This understanding is very important as it eliminates all the pretexts that the violent extremists normally use to justify their culture of violence or indoctrinate vulnerable and impressionable youth. Shaykh Abd al-Wahhab al-Turayri, former professor at al-imam University in Riyadh even considers the use of the particular fatwas to launch violence on others alien to the scholastic community. Rather, he states, the fatwa actually provides proof for Muslims to live peacefully in pluralistic societies: "This fatwa has relevance for today's pluralistic world, where there is scarcely a country where Muslims do not live. The conditions the Muslims live under vary from country to country. In many countries of the world, Muslim minorities fully enjoy the right to practice their faith. They are allowed to worship according to Islamic teachings and they are not coerced into suppressing or abandoning their faith. Those countries may not be part of the Muslim world, but they are certainly lands of peace and security."

The final collapse of the terrorists' claim came in 2010 in the same place on which the fatwa was issued. During an unprecedented conference in Mardin (Mardin is now in south-eastern Turkey), prominent group of Muslim academics, scholars and theologians gathered at the Artuklu University to examine the Mardin Fatwa of Ibn Taymiyya and its application by extreme groups. The conference was chaired by the eminent scholar Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah. Indeed, the conference was his initiative. The goals set for the conference were four: (1) A full conceptual understanding of the fatwa was needed. (2) The correct text of the fatwa had to be determined and errors in transmission identified. (3) A correct understanding of the Mardin fatwa must be determined on the basis of the above. (4) The fatwa's benefits for the present day must be investigated. Shaykh Ibn Bayyah insisted during his presentation at the conference, for the first time in 101 years, that the fatwa was in fact so internally contradictory that it couldn't be correct. When he returned to Saudi Arabia where he is a professor at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, he carried out further researches and was able to track down the earliest manuscripts of the fatwa to the Dhahiriyyah Library in Damascus. In this only existing manuscript, he found a clear misprint in the commonly used editions, which allowed the extremists to misapply the fatwa and use it as the core proof of their legitimacy.

The unrelenting siege on the theological justifications of the terror specialists, the questioning of their religious credentials and the rigorous and continual scholastic dissection of their most important premises have played great roles in effectively countering their extreme ideology and violent interpretation of Islam. Also, it shows how seriously the scholars have held the trust upon them to guide and lead at all times. Perhaps, it is for this reason that extremist groups like Boko Haram have declared unlimited war on Islamic scholars, sending after them hunter killer teams and murdering many of them in cold blood. It is very important for the Nigerian society to remember the immense work and sacrifices of those martyred scholars who fought, tooth and nail, to dispel Boko Haram's evil ideology, and counter their rhetoric.

The solution to the scourge of terrorism that Nigeria faces is not solely in the hands of the Military or the Nigerian Muslim community. Just putting it on the shoulder of either is grossly mistaken and naive. In the religious aspect, it is really an interfaith community-based solution. All peace loving people, Muslim and Christian, must start to think of themselves as equal stakeholders in making sure this is the very last time common criminals are allowed to go on rampage, unleashing terror on us from safe havens. All hands must be on deck to heal the scars of the long years of senseless division, separation and hate-mongering which cultivated the mindset that allowed some to look on while others bled and died. We need to re-engage our youth with nonviolence tactics, rebuild relationships and trust, be boundlessly compassionate, revile violence of all kinds, restructure what inter-faith relations really means, from the top and the bottom. All these need to be taught in schools, as much as they are taught from the pulpit.

Prosecuting counter-terrorism efforts with tactical military operations are a necessity. Our troops are making immeasurable and important sacrifices each day to decapitate the influence and dismantle their terror infrastructures. We are with them in both thoughts and prayers. We pray that God Almighty grants them resounding victory on all the fronts. It is the duty of the government and people of Nigeria to continue to support the armed forces to prevail, it is our duty to help and rehabilitate those who have fallen victim to extremist violence by providing intervention and rehabilitation, by providing training and jobs, by providing boundless compassion and undifferentiated care.

It is great to see that the Nigerian Muslim community is led, through the Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), by leaders that have incorporated best practices in dealing with violent extremism on one side and inter-faith relations on the other. His Royal Highness Sa’adu Abubakr, the leader of the Nigerian Muslims and 24th of 500 most influential Muslims in the world has traveled the length and breath of the country calling for and promoting both religious and civic peace. In the last few years, he has enabled many meetings between Nigerian scholars and other world-renowned scholars promoting peace. A few years back in Abu Dhabi, 20 scholars from Nigeria met with other prominent scholars and resolved to continue to work together for peace in Nigeria. His Eminence Cardinal John Onaiyekan and Sultan have shown exemplary leadership in working to bring faith communities together. Both had been Nobel prize nominees and are both elected co-presidents of the World Council's Religions for Peace. The World Council is a global agent of multi-religious action entrusted with Religions for Peace governance. Its members are comprised of distinguished religious leaders who are dedicated to building peace. His Royal Highness Sa’adu Abubakr was the first signatory to the "A Common Word Between Us and You"- a powerful instrument setting out the means for cooperation and worldwide co-ordination between Christianity and Islam. This powerful document does so on the most solid theological ground possible: the teachings of the Qu’ran and the Prophet, and the commandments described by Jesus Christ in the Bible. Despite their differences, Islam and Christianity not only share the same Divine Origin and the same Abrahamic heritage, but the same two greatest commandments- the love of God and the love of the neighbour.

As a parting shot, Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah observed to the General Assembly: "The ship of humanity is in perilous waters: our human abode is threatened by fire, and therefore our current situation calls for urgent collaboration. Today, humankind is in dire need of the Ark of Noah. In keeping with our Prophetic tradition, our central concern is how to rescue this sinking ship. We are attempting to extinguish the fires that have engulfed our human abode; hence, we are merely firefighters and lifesavers." Nigeria is certainly caught in the dangerous undercurrent of the perilous waters which the Shaykh spoke of. We need young leaders to support those interfaith heroes that have consistently raised the flag of peace and harmony, to amplify their powerful voices and we need masses of people that will be peace advocates.

In all of the chaos and extreme violence, the overwhelming majority of Nigerian Muslims have stood against the extremists and rejected the discourse of violence. In a single and unequivocal voice, Muslim Nigerians have declared to the Boko Haram: what you call to is not Islam and we stand with all your victims. As Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah stated in his final comments at the UN, "God willing, we shall continue along this path, and we extend our hand to anyone with good intentions who seeks peace, regardless of their affiliations and whether they come from within the abode of Islam or from without. We invite all to an alliance of cultural and educational strategies that can address the perils of war and violence and the madness of this moment in time, which an Iraqi poet of a century ago seemed to identify when he wrote, “Surely we are living in a time of such extremes: One not driven mad by it, cannot be deemed sane.”"

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Articles by Disu Kamor