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ISIL Juristic Approach: A Scholarly Criticism

Editor’s Note: In a letter addressed to the leader of the so-called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, more than 100 scholars, thinkers, preachers and activists discussed and refuted a number of principles and practices that ISIL adopted. The letter included an explanation of important rules that need to be adhered to in the process of inferring and implementing the rulings of Shariah. We quote this discussion below, with minor editorial modifications.


1. Legal theory (usul al-fiqh) and Quranic exegesis:

With regards to Quranic exegesis, and the understanding of Hadith, and issue in legal theory in general, the methodology set forth by God in the Quran and the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) in the Hadith is as follows: to consider everything that has been revealed relating to a particular question in its entirety, without depending on only parts of it, and then to judge—if one is qualified—based on all available scriptural sources. God Almighty says:

{… What, do you believe in part of the Book, and disbelieve in part? …} (Al-Baqarah, 2:85);

{… they pervert words from their contexts; and they have forgotten a portion of what they were reminded of…} (Al-Ma’idah 5:13);

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{… those who have reduced the Recitation to parts} (Al-Hijr 15:91).

Once all relevant scriptural passages have been gathered, the ‘general’ has to be distinguished from the ‘specific’, and the ‘conditional’ from the ‘unconditional’. Also, the ‘unequivocal’ passages have to be distinguished from the allegorical ones. Moreover, the reasons and circumstances for revelation (asbab al-nuzul) for all the passages and verses, in addition to all the other hermeneutical conditions that the classical imams have specified, must be understood. Therefore, it is not permissible to quote a verse, or part of a verse, without thoroughly considering and comprehending everything that the Quran and Hadith relate about that point.

The reason behind this is that everything in the Quran is the Truth, and everything in authentic Hadith is Divinely inspired, so it is not permissible to ignore any part of it. Indeed it is imperative to reconcile all texts, as much as possible, or that there be a clear reason why one text should outweigh another. This is what Imam Shafi`i explains in his Al-Risalah, with a universal consensus among all usul scholars. Imam al-Haramayn, Al-Juwayni, says in Al- Burhan fi Usul Al-Fiqh:

Regarding the qualities of a mufti and the disciplines that he must master: … it is imperative that the mufti must be a scholar of language, for the Shariah is [in] Arabic. … it is imperative that he be a scholar of syntax and parsing … it is imperative that he be a scholar of the Quran, for the Quran is the basis of all rulings …

Knowledge of textual abrogation is indispensable; and the science of the fundamentals of jurisprudence (usul) is the cornerstone of the whole subject … He should also know the various degrees of proofs and arguments … as well as their histories. [He should also know] the science of Hadith so that he can distinguish the authentic from the weak; and the acceptable from the apocryphal … [He should also know] jurisprudence.…

Moreover, having ‘legal intuition’ (fiqh al-nafs) is needed: it is the capital of anyone who derives legal rulings … scholars have summarized all this by saying that a mufti is ‘someone who independently knows all the texts and arguments for legal rulings’. ‘Texts’ refers to mastering language, Qura’nic exegesis and Hadith; while ‘arguments’ indicates mastering legal theory, analogical reasoning of the various kinds, as well as ‘legal intuition’ (fiqh al-nafs).

Al-Ghazali has said similar things in Al-Mustasfa (Vol. 1, p.342), as did Al-Suyuti inAl- Itqan fi Ulum Al-Quran (Vol. 4, p.213).


2. Language:

As mentioned above, one of the most important pillars of legal theory is the mastery of the Arabic Language. This means mastering Arabic grammar, syntax, morphology, rhetoric, poetry, etymology and Quranic exegesis. Without mastery of these disciplines, error will be likely, indeed inevitable. Your declaration of what you have termed ‘the Caliphate’ was under the title ‘This is God’s Promise’. The person who phrased this declaration intended to allude to the verse:

{God has promised those of you who believe and perform righteous deeds that He will surely make them successors in the earth, just as He made those who were before them successors, and He will surely establish for them their religion which He has approved for them, and that He will give them in exchange after their fear security. “They worship Me, without associating anything with Me”. And whoever is ungrateful after that, those, they are the immoral.} (An-Nur 24: 55).

But it is not permissible to invoke a specific verse from the Quran as applying to an event that has occurred 1400 years after the verse was revealed. How can Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani say that ‘God’s promise’ is this so-called Caliphate? Even if it were supposed that his claim is correct, he should have said: ‘this is of God’s promise’. Moreover, there is another linguistic error; wherein he has appropriated the word ‘istikhlaf’ (succession) to refer to the so-called caliphate. Proof that this is not the correct usage of the word can be seen in the following verse:

{He said, “Perhaps your Lord will destroy your enemy and make you successors (yastakhlifakum) in the land, that He may observe how you shall act”.} (Al-A`raf, 7:129).

Succession (istikhlaf) means that they have settled on the land in place of another people. It does not mean that they are the rulers of a particular political system. According to Ibn Taymiyyah, there is no tautology in the Quran.[1] There is a difference between ‘khilafah‘ and ‘istikhlaf‘. Al-Tabari says in his exegesis (tafsir) of the Quran:

‘make you successors (yastakhlifakum): Meaning He will make you succeed them in their land after their destruction; do not fear them or any other people.’[2]

This proves that the meaning of ‘istikhlaf‘ here is not rulership but, rather, dwelling on their land.


3. Oversimplification:

It is not permissible to constantly speak of ‘simplifying matters’, or to cherry-pick an extract from the Quran without understanding it within its full context. It is also not permissible to say: ‘Islam is simple, and the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and his noble Companions were simple, why complicate Islam?’ This is precisely what Abu Al-Baraa’ Al-Hindi did in his online video in July 2014. In it he says:

‘Open the Quran and read the verses on jihad and everything will become clear … all the scholars tell me: “This is a legal obligation (fard), or that isn’t a legal obligation, and this is not the time for jihad” … forget everyone and read the Quran and you will know what jihad is.”‘

People need to understand that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and his noble Companions made do with as little material means as possible, without complicated technology, but they were greater than all of us in understanding, jurisprudence and intellect, and yet only a small number of Companions were qualified to issue fatwas. God Almighty says in the Quran: {… Say: “Are those who know equal with those who do not know?”…} (Az-Zumar, 39: 9).

God Almighty also says: {… Ask the People of the Remembrance if you do not know.} (Al-Anbiya’, 21: 7); and:

{… If they had referred it to the Messenger and to those in authority among them; those among them who are able to think it out, would have known it from them …} (Al-Nisa’, 4: 83).

Thus, jurisprudence is no simple matter, and not just anyone can speak authoritatively on it or issue fatwas (religious edicts). God Almighty says in the Quran: {… But only people of understanding remember.} (Al-Ra`d 13:19). And the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “Whoever speaks about the Quran without knowledge should await his seat in the Fire.” [3]

It is also high time to stop blithely saying that ‘they are men, and we are men’; those who say this do not have the same understanding and discernment as the noble Companions and the imams of the Pious Forebears (al-Salaf al-Saleh) to whom they are referring.


4. Difference of Opinion:

In regards to difference of opinion, there are two kinds: blameworthy and praiseworthy.

Regarding blameworthy difference of opinion, God Almighty says in the Quran:

{And those who were given the Scripture did not become divided, except after the clear proof had come to them.} (Al-Bayyinah 98: 4).

As for praiseworthy difference of opinion, God Almighty says:

{… then God guided those who believed to the truth, regarding which they were at variance, by His leave …} (Al-Baqarah, 2: 213).

This is the opinion expressed by Al-Imam Al-Shafi`i in Al-Risalah, the other three imams and all the scholars for over a thousand years.

When there is a difference of opinion among eminent scholars, the more merciful, i.e. the best, opinion should be chosen. Severity should be avoided, as should the idea that severity is the measure of piety. God Almighty says: {And follow the best of what has been revealed to you from your Lord …} (Az-Zumar 39: 55); and: {Indulge [people] with forgiveness, and enjoin kindness, and turn away from the ignorant.} (Al-A`raf, 7: 199).

God Almighty also says:

{[Those] who listen to the words [of God] and follow the best [sense] of it. Those, they are the ones whom God has guided; and those, they are the people of understanding.} (Al-Zumar 39: 18).

In an authentic Hadith, it is related that the Lady `A’ishah said: ‘Whenever faced by more than one choice, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) always chose the easiest one.’ [4]

The more severe opinion should not be considered more pious, religious or sincere to God. Indeed, in severity there is exaggeration and extremism; God Almighty says in the Quran: {… God desires ease for you, and desires not hardship for you …} (Al-Baqarah, 2: 185).

Moreover, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said:

Do not be severe with yourselves lest God be severe towards you. A people were severe with themselves and then God was severe towards them.” [5]

There is delusion and vanity in severity, because severe people naturally say to themselves: ‘I am severe. Anyone less severe than me is deficient’; and thus: ‘I am superior to them.’ Herein lies an inherent attribution of ill-intention to God , as if God Almighty revealed the Quran to make people miserable. God says: {Ta ha. We have not revealed the Quran to you that you should be miserable} (Ta Ha 20: 1-2).

It is worth noting that most of the people who became Muslims throughout history, did so through gentle invitation (dawah hasanah). God Almighty says:

{Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and dispute with them by way of that which is best. Truly your Lord knows best those who stray from His way and He knows best those who are guided.} (Al-Nahl 16: 125).

The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “Be gentle, and beware of violence and foul language. [6]

And while Islam spread politically from Central Asia (Khurasan) to North Africa due to Islamic conquests, the majority of the inhabitants of these lands remained Christian for hundreds of years until some of them gradually accepted Islam through gentle invitation, and not through severity and coercion. Indeed large countries and entire provinces became Muslim without conquest but through invitation (dawah), such as: Indonesia; Malaysia; West and East Africa, and others. Hence, severity is neither a measure of piety nor a choice for the spread of Islam.


5. Practical Jurisprudence (fiqh al-waqi`):

What is meant by ‘practical jurisprudence’ is the process of applying Shariah rulings and dealing with them according to the realities and circumstances that people are living under. This is achieved by having an insight into the realities under which people are living and identifying their problems, struggles, capabilities and what they are subjected to.

Practical jurisprudence (fiqh al-waqi`) considers the texts that are applicable to peoples realities at a particular time, and the obligations that can be postponed until they are able to be met or delayed based on their capabilities. Imam Ghazali said:

“As for practicalities that dictate necessities, it is not far-fetched that independent reasoning (ijtihad) may lead to them [practicalities], even if there is no specific origin for them.” [7]

Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyyah said:

“Indeed, [a jurist] must understand people’s propensity for plotting, deception and fraud, in addition to their customs and traditions. Religious edicts (fatwas) change with the change of time, place, customs and circumstances, and all of this is from the religion of God, as already elucidated.”[8]


[1] Ibn Taymiyyah says in Majmu’ Al-Fatawa (Vol. 13, p. 341), ‘Tautology in [the Arabic] language is rare and in the Quran, it is even rarer or nonexistent.’ Al-Raghib Al-Asfahani says in Mufradat Al-Quran (p. 55), ‘This book is followed … by a book that informs the use of synonyms and their subtle differences. By doing so, the uniqueness of every expression is distinguishable from its synonyms.’

[2] Tafsir Al-Tabari (Vol. 9, p. 28).

[3] Narrated by Al-Tirmidhi in Tafsir Al-Quran, no. 2950.

[4] Narrated by Bukhari in Kitab al-Hudud, no. 6786, and by Muslim in Kitab al-Fada’il, no. 2327.

[5] Narrated by Abu Dawood in Kitab Al-Adab, no. 4904.

[6] Narrated by Al-Bukhari in Kitab al-Adab, no. 6030.

[7] Al-Ghazali, Al-Mustasfa fi Usul Al-Fiqh, (Vol. 1, p. 420).

[8] Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyyah, I’lam Al-Muqi’een ‘an Rabbil-‘Alamin, (Vol. 4, p. 157).