This story is over 5 years old.


Muslim Scholars Make the Theological Case Against the Islamic State

More than a hundred distinguished Muslim thinkers issued an open letter detailing how the Islamic State's use of scripture is illegitimate and perverse.
Photo by VICE News/Medyan Dairieh

More than a hundred Muslim scholars and leaders from around the world released an open letter addressed to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Wednesday, telling the self-proclaimed caliph, in no uncertain terms, that the group's use of Islamic scripture is illegitimate and perverse.

The document, which was issued in Arabic and English on the website Letter to Baghdadi and is embedded below, begins with a list of practices employed by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) that its authors say are explicitly forbidden by Islam. They include torture, slavery, forced conversions, the denial of rights for women and children, and the killing of innocents.


The letter emphasizes that Baghdadi's claims to a caliphate spanning eastern Syria and western Iraq are void.

"Who gave you authority over the ummah [Muslim people]?" the letter asks. "Was it your group? If this is the case, then a group of no more than several thousand has appointed itself the ruler of over a billion and a half Muslims. This attitude is based upon a corrupt circular logic that says: 'Only we are Muslims, and we decide who the caliph is, we have chosen one and so whoever does not accept our caliph is not a Muslim.' "

The Islamic State. Watch the full-length documentary here.

The Islamic State's call to jihad is also impermissible.

"You have killed many innocents who were neither combatants nor armed, just because they disagree with your opinion," the letter says, addressing Baghdadi and his followers directly. "There is no such thing as offensive, aggressive jihad just because people have different religions or opinions."

"Jihad is a noble concept in Islam," Nihad Awad, national director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told VICE News shortly after the letter's release. "It is the right to defend oneself and one's country. But people cannot take it into their own hands. As an act of aggression, it is a violation."

As for the Islamic State's conduct in war, the letter notes that Islamic law forbids the killing of prisoners.

"Yet you have killed many prisoners," it states, "including the 1700 captives at Camp Speicher in Tikrit in June, 2014; the 200 captives at the Sha'er gas field in July, 2014; the 700 captives of the Sha'etat tribe in Deir el-Zor (600 of whom were unarmed civilians); the 250 captives at the Tabqah air base in Al-Raqqah in August, 2014; Kurdish and Lebanese soldiers, and many untold others whom God knows. These are heinous war crimes."


"Referring to members of ISIS as jihadists defeats the purpose, it makes them legitimate," Awad added. "They claim to be jihadists but they are not. I urge everyone not to refer to them as jihadists."

Much of the criticism of the Islamic State has stemmed from their selective citation of certain Qur'anic passages in an attempt to legitimize atrocities.

"It is not permissible to quote a verse, or part of a verse, without thoroughly considering and comprehending everything that the Qur'an and Hadith relate about that point," the letter notes, undermining the group's legal theory. "It is imperative to reconcile all texts, as much as possible."

Are militants from China's Xinjiang region really being trained by the Islamic State? Read more here.

The letter states that the Islamic State's strict interpretation of Sharia law goes against what is called fiqh al-waq'i, or "practical jurisprudence," which "considers the texts that are applicable to people's 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."

"People should know that what ISIS is doing is not Islam," Muzammil Siddiqi, chairman of the Fiqh Council of North America, an association of legal scholars that helped organized the letter's publication, told VICE News. "It's important that a large number of scholars are speaking up and saying this is wrong."


The open letter singled out the killing of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well the death of British aid worker David Haines.

"It is known that all religions forbid the killing of emissaries," the letter says. "Journalists — if they are honest and of course not spies — are emissaries of truth, because their job is to expose the truth to people in general."

Attacking children and using them in combat is also cited as an irreparable transgression. "In your schools some children are tortured and coerced into doing your bidding and others are being executed," the letter says. "These are crimes against innocents who are so young they are not even morally accountable"

"No scholar of Islam disputes that one of Islam's aims is to abolish slavery," the letter continues. Though the Qur'an does allow slavery, it is couched in emancipatory language, urging that they be freed. But Islamic State militants have captured women from minority communities and forced them to marry fighters or sold them into slavery.

Women abducted by the Islamic State feared trapped in sexual slavery. Read more here.

"For over a century, Muslims, and indeed the entire world, have been united in the prohibition and criminalization of slavery," the letter notes. "After a century of Muslim consensus on the prohibition of slavery, you have violated this; you have taken women as concubines and thus revived strife and sedition (fitnah), and corruption and lewdness on the earth. You have resuscitated something that the Shari'ah has worked tireless to undo."


The letter's release coincided with United States President Barack Obama's speech Wednesday at the United Nations General Assembly, during which he called out the Islamic State and other extremists for their manipulation of Islam.

"Muslims the world over aspire to live with dignity and a sense of justice," Obama said. "The ideology of ISIL or al Qaeda or Boko Haram will and die if it is consistently exposed, confronted, and refuted in the light of day."

Awad said that he welcomed Obama's remarks, but stressed that the ideological critique had to come from within the Muslim community.

"This is one of the most effective written pieces in an effort to refute the ideology that ISIS uses and recruits with," said Awad. "It's intended for a conservative audience — it is very convincing."

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford