Indian Muslim Clergy to Counter ISIS Propaganda: But they should go beyond rhetoric

Indian Muslim Clergy to Counter ISIS Propaganda: But they should go beyond rhetoric

A Story by New Age Islam

This is a laudable initiative and needs to be welcomed. But it calls for some serious reflection too. Techniques for making propaganda videos can be taught to the ulema.


India has started creating an internet-based "non-official channel of religious leaders" to stop Muslim youths from falling into the trap of ISIS''s literature of jihad, a report on has revealed, quoting government sources. It quotes a senior IPS officer posted with Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) saying "this (ISIS online propaganda) needs to be countered in a similar way," and that merely arresting Muslim youths is not going to solve the imminent threat. “The Muslim clergy will be trained to create YouTube channels, podcast, accounts on social media and websites to counter ISIS narrative,” says this report

This is a laudable initiative and needs to be welcomed. But it calls for some serious reflection too. Techniques for making propaganda videos can be taught to the ulema. But, will it be effective without a resolution of the more fundamental issue of content?  What, for instance, is going to be the narrative or the counter-narrative of the ulema? 

The outlookindia report gives a clue: “the clergy has been directed to highlight the atrocities carried on women and children by ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.” But do we need the clergy to engage in this kind of campaign. This can be done more effectively by normal channels of communication. Any print journalist or TV commentator can do this. Our media has indeed been doing this effectively for years.

The reason we need the clergy is to counter the Jihadist theology, not to condemn ISIS atrocities, abductions, sex slavery, attacks on Muslims and non-Muslims, etc. Any sensible person can condemn these atrocities and with equal effect. 

The clergy is required to counter the exclusivist Jihadi theology of violence and supremacism which is primarily based on the traditional Islamic theology of consensus of all schools of thought. This has to be done through a counter-narrative based on a new inclusivist theology of peace and pluralism. But to do that the clergy will have to work towards evolving a new theology that is different from the traditional theology taught in madrasas. It is this age-old theology that is used by Jihadis to propagate their message. 

It cannot be stressed enough that the reason Jihadis have been able to capture the imagination of thousands of our youth the world over is that they are not saying anything new. They are simply showing a way to practice what the ulema (religious scholars) have been preaching. The Jihadi narrative is the traditional Islamic theological narrative of Islam domination over all other religious beliefs, and eradication of what it considers the biggest crimes humanity can commit, particularly shirk, polytheism or idol worship, and kufr, rejection of the prophethood of Hazrat Mohammad (pbuh). All the most eminent scholars of Islam from Imam Ghazali (11th-12th century) to Imam Ibn-e-Taimiya (13th-14th century), Mujaddid Alf-e-Saani Sheikh Sirhindi (16th-17th century), Shah Waliullah Muhaddis Dehlavi (18th century) have shown a vision of political Islam that was finally given a more definite form in the 20th century by Maulana Syed Abul A’la Maududi, Hassan al-Banna, and Syed Qutb. The Jihadi ideologues of the 21st century may be stressing some parts of this traditional narrative more vigorously and downplaying some other aspects. But they are not saying anything that is entirely new or radically different.

Jihadi literature has not dropped from the sky all of a sudden. This is not the creation of Osama bin Laden or so-called “Khalifa” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Their narrative of world domination, fighting those who do not accept the message of Islam is basically what is taught in all our madrasas. The definition of Jihad as fighting those who do not accept the oneness of God and prophethood of Mohammad (pbuh) is found in books of every school of Sunni fiqh (jurisprudence), be it Hanafi, Malaki, Shafei or Hanbali. Indeed, even Shia theology does not differ much with Sunnis in matters of political Islam. They too want world domination for Islam and desire to subdue all non-Muslims.

This situation can be better understood with looking at how even an indefatigable warrior of peace and pluralism like Maulana Wahiduddin Khan had to accept the power of political Islam, while also pointing to mistakes made by Maulana Abul A’la Maududi. He says: "Efforts on the part of prophets over a period of thousands of years had proved that any struggle which was confined to intellectual or missionary field was not sufficient to extricate man from the grip of this superstition (shirk, kufr). (So) it was God’s decree that he (Prophet Mohammad) be a da’i (missionary propagating correct beliefs) as well as a ma’hi (eradicator of false beliefs). He was entrusted by God with the mission of not only proclaiming to the world that superstitious beliefs (shirk and kufr) were based on falsehood, but also of resorting to military action, if the need arose, to eliminate that system for all time".

 [From Maulana Wahiduddin Khan’s book “Islam �" Creator of the Modern World,” re-printed in 2003]. If this is the case, even according to those who are strongly opposed to Jihadism, then why should Jihadis not claim that they are merely carrying out the unfinished mission of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) by seeking to eliminate false beliefs like shirk and kufr from the world.

Murderous attacks on Sufi shrines, temples and churches, for instance, come under the category of eliminating Shirk and kufr from the whole world. In Salafi-Wahhabi theology, which most present-day Jihadis subscribe to, Sufi shrines are also supposed to be promoting shirk.

There are some differences in emphasis not only in the Jihadi theology and the classical theology but even within the Jihadist groups themselves. For instance, ISIS puts great deal of emphasis on the end-time millenarianism based on prophesies of the Prophet found in Hadith. The youth find it very appealing. On the other hand, Al-Qaeda did not make a big deal out of it, although at least two members of its shoora (leadership advisory council) are also said to have believed in the Millenarian Apocalypticism based on Islamic Eschatology. 

Among classical theologians as well none would dispute the validity of the Ahadith (plural of Hadith, so-called sayings of the Prophet (pbuh) quoted by the Jihadists to prove their point that many of the end-time prophesies of the Prophet have already come true, so it may only be a matter of a few years or decades when the world would reach its end with the appearance of Yajooj--Majooj (Gog-Magog), Imam Mahdi, Masih Dajjal (Anti-Christ for Christians) and Prophet Jesus Christ (pbuh) himself to be followed by Armageddon and Qeyamat, the Day of Judgement.

I haven’t found a single section of ulema questioning the authenticity of these Ahadith, as propounded in various books of Hadith, though they give differing interpretations of some of the statements and terminology used in these Ahadith.

Significantly, the propaganda in Pakistani religious circles about the duty of fighting a Ghazwa-e-Hind (a religious crusade against India that will bring great spiritual rewards) is also linked to this Hadith-based millenarianism.  Ghazwa-e-Hind is an offshoot of this eschatology-based millenarianism. It is said to be one of the signs of end of times on earth. Popular and revered Pakistani scholars have repeatedly written and spoken on the subject to drill it in the consciousness of religious-minded Pakistanis that they have to engage in Ghazwa e Hind to conquer India and eliminate shirk from that land to earn the highest possible Divine rewards.

The Ahadith on which the concept of Ghazwa e Hind and other millenarian prophesies are based are highly controversial. But the ulema almost unanimously call Hadith a form of wahi (revelation), as venerable as the holy Qurʾān itself, even though Ahadith were recorded in writing up to three centuries after the demise of the Prophet with long chains of narrations. These chains simply could not be authenticated after centuries, despite the best efforts of 9th century Muhaddithin (collectors of Hadith, traditionists) like Imam Bukhari, Imam Muslim, Ibn Majah, Tirmizi, al Nasai, Abu Da’ud, etc. The Muhaddithin have categorised Ahadith into various degrees of authenticity following rules they had devised to verify them. From the most authentic Ṣaḥīḥ to Ḥasan, Ḍaʻīf, Mawḍūʻ, Maqlūb are some of these categories. The foremost Muhaddith Imam Bukhari (810 to 870 CE) is said to have collected over 300,000 Ahadith out of the 6,00,000 in circulation, and included only 2,602 traditions in his Sahih (Book of authentic Ahadith).

A few facts will further illustrate the real status of the institution of Hadith. A total of 600,000 Ahadith were in existence, out of which 408,324 Ahadith are known to have been fabricated by 620 forgers, whose names and identity are known. (Al-Ghadeer, Al-Amini, Vol. 5, Page 245.) Some of these forgers are: ibn Jundub, Abu Bukhtari, Ibn Basheer, Abdullah Al-Ansaari, Al-Sindi.  One of them, Ibn Au'jaa, confessed before he was hanged (for his heresy) that he alone had forged 4,000 Hadiths. (Mish'kaat Al-Masabeeh, Translation by Fazlul Karim, Vol. 1, Page 17-20).

And yet ulema do not express any doubt about the authenticity of the Ahadith that present an apocalyptic millenarian thesis, so attractive to our youth that they flocked to Baghdadi’s brutal war machine in thousands from all over the world including India. They only try to interpret these Ahadith according to their preferences.

The predictions ascribed to the Prophet are such that many of them can be claimed to have come true in any age.  According to Hadith narrations, the Prophet himself was said to be afraid of the fitna (mischief) of Masih Dajjal (Anti-Christ, for Christians) and used to seek protection against it from God in every prayer. He used to visit any home where a deformed child with one damaged eye was born, (Dajjal is said to be one-eyed), to check for himself if this child displayed any signs that he could turn into the fearsome Dajjal.

So, the wait for a Muslim version of the apocalyptic end of the world has been going on for 1400 plus years. In this scenario Baghdadi emerged with a seemingly valid argument that the end is at hand as wars in different parts of the Middle East and Central Asia are going on as predicted for end of time by the Prophet (pbuh) and Masih Dajjal and Imam Mahdi are going to emerge soon. Many Muslims with deep faith in Ahadith, nurtured by the ulema, were bound to get attracted, as happened recently.

Similarly, every madrasa in the world teaches that Qurʾān is uncreated, like God. The implication is that the universality of any of the verses of Quran cannot be questioned, all of them have to be followed till eternity and every instruction remains applicable to Muslims for ever. Now, with this understanding, how can one question the motives of Jihadis when they quote militant, war-time verses of Qurʾān from Surah Tawbah, Surah Anfal and several others to justify their actions.

In every war, like the ones that were imposed on the Prophet (pbuh), orders are given to kill the adversary. But these orders become inapplicable once the war is over. But not if the order is written down in a book that is considered uncreated like God Himself. Then there is no question of which instruction is universal and which is no longer inapplicable. I asked Maulana Tahirul Qadri, who has written a much-quoted 600-page book of fatwa against terrorism, if war-time verses of Qurʾān instructing Muslims to kill the Mushrikeen (polytheists, idol-worshippers) still apply to Muslims and he said yes, all verses are applicable and for ever.

The Qurʾān contains many verses teaching pluralism, co-existence, peace and perseverance in times of adversity, even when Muslims are facing persecution as they did in early years of Islam in Makka. These verses are quoted by ulema in their rhetorical refutation of Jihadi theology. But books of classical theology taught in madrasas as well as Jihadi literature maintain that these early verses of peace have been abrogated by the sword verses in Surah Tawba asking Muslims to kill the polytheists and subdue the Jews and Christians. The argument is that Surah Tawba came almost at the end of the Prophet’s career and should thus be considered the final instruction of God, abrogating all previous instructions on how to deal with infidels.

Their argument is that instructions to fight given later have replaced the instructions for patience in the face of persecution that were given earlier when Muslims were in a weak position, unable to fight. Jihadi ideologues and most of our clerics agree as far as the Doctrine of Abrogation is concerned.

Clerics with such an understanding of Islamic tenets cannot question the Jihadists with any degree of authority. No wonder our youth call these clerics hypocrites. Our youth are educated, honest and sincere. Not all of them, of course, join hands with Jihadis but many of them see through the hypocrisy of ulema condemning someone who is practising at great cost to his own life and career what the clerics are themselves preaching. No wonder some of them go to the other side, partly as a reaction to this hypocrisy, and mainly to practice what they have been taught, online or offline.

Rationalist theologians called the Mutazalla were allowed to function and propagate their thesis of Quran being a creation of God freely till mid-ninth century of the Christian Era or second century Hijri. But since then traditional clergy has ruled and followed a policy of blind taqlid (unquestioning conformism) of the teachings of classical theologians, instead of God-mandated Ijtihad (creative rethinking of religious postulates to adapt to changing circumstances). The doors of Ijtihad have been closed for almost a millennium.

The most disastrous result of this supremacy of the clergy was seen in the import of printing press remaining banned in the Ottoman empire for close to four centuries. Ulema said the printing press was the invention of the Devil, as it was developed in Europe. This led to an intellectual backwardness in Muslims that arguably continues to this day. Things have still not changed much. The most influential chain of madrasas in South Asia, Deoband, has only recently and very grudgingly allowed the use of internet, that too only for purposes of Islamic Dawah, invitation to others to accept Islam.

Clearly, the clergy have been part of the problem that Muslims have been facing for centuries now.  Even the Jihadi militancy is a by-product of the theology of violence and supremacy that they have been teaching in madrasas. Can they now suddenly become part of the solution? They certainly can, if they decide to do so. However, it cannot be done without adequate soul searching and a systematic rethinking of their theological positions in the light of present-day realities. To counter Jihadism, they will need to study Jihadi literature and see which parts of their own theology is being used by the Jihadis to create mayhem in the world and what adjustments they can make in their own positions to counter that.

The maqāṣid al-sharīʿa (goals or objectives of sharia) is an Islamic legal doctrine,  which along with another related classical doctrine, maṣlaḥa (welfare or public interest) can provide a great deal of flexibility in dealing with issues in accordance with demands of modern times. Admittedly, these adjustments will have to be revolutionary in nature and not easy to make at short notice. So far, no work has been done in this direction, as governments asking them to counter Jihadism have cheerfully accepted their empty and hypocritical rhetoric, without noticing that these are having no impact.

On the basis of my decades-long study of Jihadi literature and its roots in the classical theology taught in our madrasas, at least the following points should constitute part of the counter-narrative of the ulema to have any impact. They should elaborate the points I am making here and present them convincingly, and in theological terminology, if they genuinely want to influence our youth and help prevent further radicalisation.

© 2019 New Age Islam

Author's Note

New Age Islam
The author has been write in the field of The War Within Islam and Islamic Culture

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Added on November 26, 2019
Last Updated on November 26, 2019
Tags: islamic world news