Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Refuting ISIS: A Rebuttal of Its Religious and Ideological Foundations: A Review

Review: Refuting ISIS: A Rebuttal of Its Religious and Ideological Foundations, by Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, (Sacred Knowledge press, 2015), £6.95.

Reviewed by Mansur Ali

This is an easy to read book written in clear English prose. Shaykh Muhammad Yaqoubi’s methodology is to present a scholarly robust and yet simple rebuttal of the ISIS methodology without resorting to academic pedantry. Unlike similar books on the abstract subject of terrorism, this book is written by keeping in mind those people whose encounter with ISIS is not a distant news report but their bitter ground reality. The book is to appeal to five types of audiences: (1) the vulnerable Muslim youth who sees in the ISIS propaganda a religiously sanctioned outlet for his machismo; (2) The ISIS neophyte who is in dire need of weaning out of his terrible liminality by demonstrating that the ISIS ‘gangster’ methodology has no place in Islam; (3) the average Muslim who is perplexed by some of the theological and legal challenges brought about as a result of the emergence of ISIS; (4) fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), to pacify their conscience that not only is it Islamically legitimate to fight ISIS but it’s a religious obligation for those in the region to do so; finally (5) to silence the annoyingly clanging crescendo of Western politicians and critics that Muslim scholars are not speaking out against ISIS.  One only needs to enter the search criterion ‘Muslim scholars condemn ISIS’ in to Google search to see how far from the truth their contention is.  

The crux of the book, which really is a fatwa is simple: ISIS is a modern mutation of the terrorist group which emerged in the formative period of Islam known as the Khawarij. There are differences of opinion regarding the Islam of the Khawarij, however the author opts for the opinion that they are not Muslims ( ch. 2, 5); therefore deems it impermissible to pledge allegiance to ISIS’ self-appointed pseudo-caliph al-Baghdadi (ch. 8). The fatwa, then, is not dissimilar to the fatwa issued by Shaykh Tahirul Qadri previously on extremism and suicide bombing.1 The implications of the fatwa is far reaching for the FSA. Not only are they allowed to fight ISIS without the niggling fear of raising arms against fellow Muslims, but if they die in the process they will be graced with the lofty rank of martyrdom (ch. 6, 7). A logical corollary of this is that in order to bring back peace in the region, it is permissible to accept the helpful hand extended by non-Muslim governments against ISIS (ch. 9). This is argued by resorting to well-established Prophetic precedence like the pact of the virtuous (hilf al-fudul) as well as more contemporary fatawa like that of Shaykh Bin Baz, the highest Saudi religious authority in his time. The author further adds two helpful chapters, which although not directly related to the issue at hand, are beneficial nevertheless: chapter 10, legal rulings regarding Muslims in Western countries and chapter 11, legal rulings regarding non-Muslims in Muslim countries.

One may argue that the author is pandering to the sensibilities of Western governments in his critique of ISIS. This is far from the truth. Where the book on the one hand is a refutation of ISIS, on the other hand, it is a plea to the international community to look into the causes of violent extremism and to address those conditions which function as fertile grounds for the grooming of terrorists. Unlike the British government’s official narrative of the cause of violent extremism (the conveyor belt theory), the author is nuanced in his examination of these causes. Sustained academic research has revealed that radical extremism leading to terrorism is a construct which culminates in a vicious regress of action and reaction from government and terrorists (Kundnani 2015). Shaykh Yaqoubi’s razor sharp analysis of these causes of terrorism confirms this body of academic literature. In his conclusion, the author identifies four conditions which function as fodder for violent extremism. These conditions should not be construed as a justification of terrorism, but an explanation of why it happens. The first is that the Iraqi government must recognise that alongside the Shia community, Sunnis also reside in Iraq. They must be given their rights in order to flourish as good citizens. Secondly, Bashar Assad must cede authority and stop bloodshed with immediate effect and let the Syrian people decide how they should be ruled. Third, the oppression of Muslim minorities must stop, such as in the case of Muslims in Myanmar. And finally The West must be more responsible and sensible and must not use its powers to disrespect the values and cultures of those who are less militarily and technologically superior to them. They must not hurt deeply-held beliefs of others just because they can. A cursory glance at these four causes reveal that all of them are related to genuine political grievances. These grievances are garbed in the rhetoric of religion which not only gives terrorists the permission to negotiate in the only language they know: violence, but it gives them the blessings from heaven. The author argues that addressing these conditions will go a long way in pruning the growth of violent extremism.

For this reviewer, the original contribution and the most interesting part of the book is its first chapter: ‘In the words of ISIS’. In this chapter, the author is quoting, evaluating and critiquing quotations taken directly from ISIS literature. The media bias against Muslims has created a deep suspicion amongst Muslims regarding anything which the media reports about Islam. This has led many Muslims to take a non-committed position regarding the atrocities of ISIS as they are reported in the media. Shaykh Yaqoubi’s critical interrogation of ISIS literature, his political activism and intimate knowledge of the conditions in the Levant coupled with his deep understanding of the Islamic scholarly tradition should leave no doubts in the minds of Muslims that the way of ISIS is not the way of Islam.   
Further reading:

Abu Aaliyah Surkheel Sharif (2015), Khawarij Ideology, ISIS Savagery, in The Humble ‘I’,

Arun Kundnani (2015), A Decade Lost: Rethinking Radicalization and Extremism (London: Claystone)

Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti (2005), Defending the Transgressed: Mudafi' al-Mazlum: Fatwa Against the Targeting of Civilians, in

Sherman Jackson, Al-Gama’ah Al-Islamiyah (2015), Initiative to Stop the Violence: Sadat’s Assassins and the Renunciation of Political Violence, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press).

Yasir Qadhi, Daniel Haqiqatjou (2015),  What Is “Islamic”? A Muslim Response to ISIS and The Atlantic, in

1.      1. For my review of Shaykh Tahirul Qadri’s fatwa see:


hassan said...

Dear respected Mufti saab,

Asalamukum w w

Did you not notice similarities between the ISIS narrative and shaykh yaqoubi's narrative. Enough blood has been shed and calling for more killing is not the solution. I agree that ISIS is a problem to some extent. I cannot agree that it is at the scale mentioned by western analysits. However the problem of Asad is far more real. Still the question has to be asked. How much impact will this rebuttal have? As most commentators state that those fighting in Syria are mostly of the salafi persuassion. Why would they want to listen to a fatwa by Shaykh Al Yaqoubi considering the very sectarian rhetoric shaykh yaqoubi has used in the past against salafis. It is enough not to take him seriusly considering the fact that he considers the takfeeri ahmed rida khan al brelvi to be the mujadid of the century and the sign of ahlus sunnah.

Also I find it interesting that shaykh yaqoubi makes takfir of ISIS and then almost takfir (He has some contradictory statements in the book) Is takfir not the speciality of ISIS? It would be interesting to compare the number of times Shaykh Yaqoubi makes statements which are exactly the same rhetoric that ISIS uses.

ALLAH knows best

Mansur said...

Assalamualiakum, I take all your comments on board. And I agree with your observation that their is little difference between the two narratives. The fatwa is also similar to Shaykh Tahir al-Qadri's fatwa on terrorism and suicide bombing. Here is my criticism of this point which also applies to Shaykh Yaqoubi's fatwa (please scroll down this blog to read the full review).

'Although most readers will agree with the bulk of the fatwa, some may find the author’s main thrust of the fatwa (i.e. declaring the terrorists to be non-Muslims) problematic and difficult to accept from a theological and sociological point of view. First of all one may ask what constitutes istihalal. Modern day terrorists are not deliberately rejecting a ma’lum min al-din bi al-darura (that which is necessarily known from the religion), but they are sincerely upholding an interpretation (yuqatiluna ala al-ta’wil) which mainstream Islam rejects. They are guilty of violating ijma’ and not kufr. Therefore, one may say that the author is too absolute in assuming that rejecting a consensual interpretation constitutes kufr. Similarly the author’s position goes against the Amman message which professor Esposito writes about in the forward. Scholars who signed the Amman message, of which the author is also a signatory, agreed that it is not permissible for anyone to declare a person who believes in Allah and the Prophet as an apostate. Ironically, it categorically mentions that the Ibadis are Muslims, the Ibadis being an offshoot of the historical kharijites.

Another problem arising from declaring the terrorists to be non-Muslims is that one may see it as an attempt to shy away from the fact that terrorism is a problem within the Muslim community. A more head-on theological rebuttal to terrorist misreading of the Islamic sources would have been more efficient. And finally one may say that by declaring terrorists as non-Muslims the author is falling into the very same mentality that the kharijites were notorious for. Saying this, the author’s line of argument may help potential terrorists think twice before allowing themselves to be radicalised. We hope this maybe the case.'

Although the book will be of little use to people who have already joined ISIS, I believe that it still can be useful for audiences: 1, 3, 4, and 5 (mentioned in the review).

Yes his anti-Salafi diatribe may inhibit people from reading his fatwa a priori, this is why I've added further readings by other scholars, some salafi and some not.

Inshallah it is a good attempt and is much appreciated despite one's ideological differences.