November 24, 2015 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1205

Delegitimizing ISIS On Islamic Grounds: Criticism Of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi By Muslim Scholars

November 24, 2015 | By Ella Landau-Tasseron*
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1205

The following is the executive summary of Prof. Ella Landau-Tasseron's paper. The full paper is available here.

On September 19, 2014, a group of 126 Muslim scholars addressed an open letter to the ruler of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In it they severely criticize ISIS' policies and actions, claiming that they are deviations from Islam, which is a merciful religion. In justifying their position, the critics sometimes cite the same texts used by ISIS, giving their own interpretation. It should be mentioned that the letter did not spark public debate in the Muslim world.   

Below I present the points of the clerics' criticism, with a short analysis of each point (marked by an asterisk).

Cover of the Open Letter (

1. A Muslim claiming religious authority must have a formal education; he must correctly apply Koran, hadith and legal theory, consider all the texts relevant to any issue discussed, and avoid selective reading. ISIS religious authorities do not meet these requirements.

* Al-Baghdadi has a PhD in Islamic legal studies (Shari'a) from Baghdad University. This certainly makes him quite knowledgeable in Shari'a. Furthermore, reading sacred texts selectively is unavoidable because they always contain contradictions. The critics read selectively too, omitting or explaining away texts that do not fit their arguments.

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in the Grand Mosque in Mosul

2. A religious authority must possess a mastery of Arabic. ISIS presents itself as the fulfilment of Allah's promise in Koran 24: 55, "Allah has promised those who believe and do good works that He will establish them as successors (la-yastakhlifannahum) [to those who preceded them] on earth..." ISIS maintains that the word la-yastakhlifannahum, derived from the same root as the word khilafa, refers to Al-Baghdadi's Caliphate. This interpretation discloses ignorance of Arabic, as it distorts the true meaning of the verse.

* This verse has always been interpreted as foretelling the victory and conquests of the Prophet and the early caliphate in the seventh century. ISIS, emulating the pristine model, understandably applies the verse to itself. True, the word la-yastakhlifannahum does not literally refer to a caliphate, but some pre-modern Muslims thought that it did. This means that ISIS has not introduced a new uninformed interpretation.

3. It is forbidden to oversimplify the Shari'a and ignore established Islamic sciences and experts.

* The critics protest here the current trend of "democratizing religious knowledge," in which autodidact Muslims read the sources for themselves and sometimes reach legal conclusions. This trend is facilitated by the internet and its appeal is great.

4. Leniency is always preferable in religious matters. The propagation of Islam has always been done by preaching, not by coercion. ISIS' actions contravene this Islamic principle.

* In devising this argument the critics resort to a practice that they censure ISIS for, namely take verses out of their context or rely on verses that are traditionally considered abrogated. It is also erroneous to say that Islam was always propagated only by preaching. Both history and Islamic law books prove otherwise.

5. The Shari'a must not be applied rigidly and literally, as done by ISIS, but flexibly, according to circumstances of place and time.

* Indeed, Muslim scholars have always shown ingenuity in adapting Shari'a laws to changing realities. In modern times the debate around adaptability has intensified, as Muslims face problems resulting from a clash between Islamic and Western cultures and values. ISIS represents an ultra-puritan attitude which, in part at least, is precisely a response to Western and Westernized modernity. The critics take a more flexible approach.

6. It is forbidden to kill the innocent, as ISIS often does. There must be a lawful cause for killing.

* "Lawful cause" is mentioned in the Koran but without specification, so the term is vague. Pre-modern Muslims debated whether unbelief was sufficient cause for killing, or only unbelief combined with aggression. Both positions are supported by Koranic verses and various interpretations and Prophetic sayings.

7. ISIS kills journalists and aid-workers; these are comparable to envoys, whose killing is forbidden.

* This analogy drawn by the critics illustrates the feasibility of applying lenient traditional norms to modern circumstances by deduction. Another such analogy is made between the modern visa and the pre-modern aman, i.e. the legal institution that protected foreign visitors in Islamic lands and vice versa, on condition that they keep the laws of the host country. After 9/11, many Muslims argued that the perpetrators had American visas, comparable to aman given to Muslims in foreign countries. By committing a crime against their American hosts, these Muslims thus broke Islamic law.

From Issue 10 of ISIS's English-language magazine Dabiq

8. ISIS attacks Muslims, but jihad must be defensive and waged only against non- Muslims. Furthermore, it must be waged with a lawful cause, right intention, lawful goal and lawful conduct. The cause must be prior aggression against Muslims, the intention must be to fight in Allah's way, the goal must be "to make Allah's word supreme," and the right conduct is to kill combatants only. ISIS deviates from all of these. The goal of jihad was achieved when the Arabian Peninsula was Islamized by the Prophet in 630-31 CE, so that offensive jihad has become redundant. The post-Prophet Islamic conquests cannot serve ISIS as a model because they were merely defensive. The Prophet's execution of prisoners cannot serve ISIS as a model, because those prisoners were war criminals like those tried in Nuremberg. ISIS also errs by urging every Muslim to participate in jihad, because jihad is incumbent upon the community as a whole, not upon each and every Muslim.

*Most of the terms and categories used by the critics here are borrowed from the Western doctrine of just war. However, the rules of jihad are not entirely compatible with that doctrine. Contrary to the critics' claim, the Koran, the hadith and pre-modern Islam did preach offensive war. In fact, the Islamic lawful goal of "making Allah's word supreme" means establishing the reign of Islam by converting or subduing non-Muslims - either by preaching and persuasion or by violent means. Thus there is a contradiction between the critics' two statements ("jihad is only defensive" and "jihad's goal is to make Allah's word supreme"). To resolve this contradiction the critics devise an innovative interpretation: The goal of jihad has already been achieved by the Prophet, they say, so only defensive jihad is now legitimate. To my knowledge, no pre-modern Muslim scholar has offered this interpretation.

 As for the right conduct of war, early Muslim scholars set some rules, such as "do not kill children," but these were later voided of content by means of ingenious interpretations. Similarly, the Koranic rules concerning prisoners of war stipulated that they may be released for a ransom or gratuitously. Muslim jurists complemented these rules based on reported actions of the Prophet, so that prisoners could also be executed or enslaved. It seems that the earliest rules of conduct for jihad are more compatible with current international norms than are the classical Shari'a regulations.

The critics do not take into account all the Koranic verses and reports relevant to the issue of jihad (thus contravening their own advice to al-Baghdadi). In particular, they omit to mention the traditional interpretations of the so-called "sword verses," and many other verses and hadiths, which enjoin the Muslims to fight infidels "in the way of Allah" regardless of the need for defense.

Furthermore, the terms lawful cause, right goal, and right intention are fuzzy. They appear to be means to restrict offensive war, but they are not necessarily so. In Islam there is precedent for regarding as aggressors all non-Muslims who refuse to convert, thus providing a "lawful cause" for attacks on them even if they have not committed actual aggression against Muslims. The goal of making Allah's word reign supreme is "right" in Islamic terms, but it does not stipulate restrictions on offensive war. As for the conduct of war, ISIS can easily find in the Islamic sources precedents or justifications for most of their actions. 

9. It is forbidden to label other Muslims "unbelievers" (takfir), as ISIS does.

* Labeling other Muslims "infidels" or "unbelievers" has serious consequences, because in Islam apostates must be executed. The consensus in pre-modern Sunni Islam has been to refrain from excommunication as much as possible. Since the mid-twentieth century, radical Muslims use takfir in order to legitimize violence against governments in Muslim countries, and against other Muslims in general.

10. ISIS persecutes Christians although they have had a covenant with the Muslims for 1,400 years (dhimma, meaning that they paid a poll tax, abided by certain restrictions, and were protected in return).  Moreover, Koran 9:29 - "Fight those who have been given the Scripture but do not believe in Allah... until they pay the poll tax, humiliated" - applies only to those amongst the Peoples of the Book (Christians, Jews and Sabians) who are aggressors. The Christian of Arab descent, who were allies of the Muslims, had a special status, in which they did not pay a humiliating poll tax but rather a non-humiliating tax equivalent to the zakat tax paid by Muslims.

* The dhimma was abolished by the Ottomans in 1856. Nevertheless the predecessor of ISIS, "The Islamic State of Iraq," declared the dhimma contract null and void in 2007 on the grounds that the dhimmi had violated it. A new dhimma covenant was drafted by ISIS in 2015. Thus the organization in fact offers Christians the same three options traditionally offered to most non-Muslims: Convert to Islam, pay tribute and become protected-humiliated subjects (dhimmi), or face the sword. By this measure ISIS equates itself to the second caliph, Umar bin al-Khattab (d. 644 CE), considered to be the initiator of the dhimma arrangement.

As for the historical arguments regarding the special status of Christian Arabs, it has some basis. The Christians of the Arabian Peninsula were part of Arab Muslim society, and apparently experienced no discrimination. The Christian Arabs in the Fertile Crescent did pay tribute, but were treated more leniently than Christians of other descent.

I know no basis in the sources for the argument that Koran 9:29 only applies to defensive war against aggressive Christians (or Jews, etc.) 

ISIS vandalizing church in Iraq

11. ISIS harshly persecutes the Yazidis, but they belong to the Peoples of the Scriptures, like Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists and many others. All of these were recognized by the greatest pre-modern Muslim scholars as eligible for the protected-humiliating status, and the Yazidis must be accorded the same status and must not be persecuted.

* The Koran accorded the protected status only to "the Peoples of Scriptures," identified as Jews, Christians and Sabians. Other idolaters must either convert or face the sword. However, early Muslim scholars recognized most non-Muslims as comparable to the Peoples of the Scriptures, and accorded them the protected-humiliating status; this is the basis of the critics' demand regarding the Yazidis. ISIS, however, claims that the Yazidis are idolaters, on the basis of research conducted by ISIS scholars.

12. ISIS takes slaves, but enslavement is forbidden. Islam always strove to abolish slavery, which indeed has been banned throughout the world based on a universal, including Muslim, consensus.

* Contrary to the critics' claim, the Shari'a never strove to abolish slavery but only to regularize it. It was, however, considered virtuous to set Muslim slaves free. Slavery has indeed been abolished, at least in theory, by the international community, but ISIS members do not regard the international community as a model. They see themselves as reviving a custom of the Prophet when they enslave prisoners of war and take slave girls as concubines.

13. It is forbidden to coerce anyone to convert to Islam. Many verses in the Koran express toleration of non-Muslims. It is also forbidden to enforce the Shari'a in the public sphere, because, as the Koran says (13:31, 26:4), Allah wants there to be infidels and sinners on earth.

* Pre-modern Muslim scholars had to determine the attitude of Islamic law towards non-Muslims, given the contradictory Koranic verses such as: "No compulsion is there in religion"(2:256) versus the recurrent injunction to fight non-Muslims "until all religion belongs to Allah" (Koran 2:193, 8:39, 48:16). Pre-modern Muslim scholars considered as abrogated, or otherwise explained away, the tolerance verses; the injunction to wage jihad was considered binding, superseding all the verses expressing tolerance. Differences in detail notwithstanding, the scholars established that some groups must be coerced to convert to Islam or die, such as Arab idolaters, apostates and Manicheans. Others must not be coerced, but they must surrender to the Muslims. The critics in fact refute the pre-modern consensus by reestablishing the validity of the tolerance verses.

Enforcing the Shari'a in the public sphere is by no means an ISIS innovation. In pre-modern Shari'a books it is considered one of the major tasks of the Muslim ruler. Religious police (hisba) in some modern Muslim countries and in ISIS territories continues this tradition.

14. ISIS denies women their rights, their freedom of movement, and their right to study, work, and dress according to their taste. Forced marriages are also practiced under ISIS. Islam forbids all this.

* The Shari'a contains many rules that, by modern liberal standards, are discriminatory against women. However, these may be interpreted and applied in a variety of ways. The critics point at ways to improve social conditions for Muslim women without renouncing the Shari'a or adopting a foreign system of law.

15. ISIS kills children and forces children to participate in fighting and other atrocities. Islam forbids such practices.

* As far as I can tell there are indeed no Islamic legal precedents, or reports about the Prophet, that can justify ISIS' treatment of children.

ISIS implementing Koranic punishment for theft

16. ISIS enacts the Koranic punishments (hudud) without following the correct procedures that ensure justice and mercy.

* The Koran stipulates specific punishments for certain crimes, such as public stoning for unlawful sexual intercourse and amputation of hand and/or foot for theft. Pre-modern Islamic law usually evinces a strong tendency to limit the application of the hudud as far as possible, by complex procedures for establishing guilt and by defining mitigating circumstances. Apparently, a nascent, controversial Islamic regime such as ISIS may attempt to show Islamic fervor through strict application of the hudud.

17-18. The torture and abuse inflicted by ISIS on both the living and the dead are un-Islamic, and they harm Islam's image among other nations.

* The Shari'a does not enjoin torture and abuse; sometimes it bans such conduct explicitly. For example, Prophetic sayings forbid abuse of the dead and execution by fire. ISIS justified the latter atrocity as a measure-for-measure act: The Jordanian Pilot was executed by fire because he caused innocent people to burn by bombing them.

19. ISIS members attribute their conquests to Allah, thus attributing to Him the atrocities that they commit during their conquests. It is forbidden to imply that Allah is responsible for evil acts.

* The critics adduce here an innovative theological argument against the perpetration of atrocities.

20. ISIS destroys tombs of prophets and of Companions of the Prophet; but visiting such tombs is permitted, even beneficial, and destroying them is forbidden. This is indicated by the Koran and hadith, and by the fact that the Companions buried the Prophet and the first two caliphs near the mosque in Medina.

* The issue of pilgrimage to holy graves has been hotly debated among Muslims for centuries. Some regarded it as an infringement upon monotheism. Vehement opponents to these customs were, among others, Ibn Taymiyya and Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab. ISIS is not the first Islamic movement to oppose the veneration of the dead and the cult of tombs.

ISIS destroys holy tomb in Mosul

21. ISIS has rebelled against legitimate rulers, which the Shari'a forbids. A legitimate ruler may be deposed if he becomes an avowed apostate or prevents Muslims from practicing Islam. However, a ruler may not be deposed merely for being unjust, hated or even for failing to implement the Shari'a.

* Apparently, the critics assume that no Muslim ruler is likely to openly renounce Islam or ban the Shari'a; therefore, no rebellion is likely to be licit by Islamic law. They cite Koranic verses to the effect that failure to judge by Allah's law brands one as a sinner, a wrongdoer or an unbeliever (Koran 5:44-45, 47) - but not such that falls beyond the pale of Islam. This quietist attitude developed under the traumatic impact of the early civil wars (fitan, 656-661, 680-692 CE) and became a Sunni consensus. Radicals despise this attitude and rise against Muslim governments precisely because these governments fail to judge by Allah's law as they understand it. The radicals cite precisely the same verses as do the critics to justify their revolutionary view. 

22. It is forbidden to declare a caliphate without the consensus of all Muslims, lest internecine wars ensue. If ISIS regards the 1.5 billion Muslims currently living around the globe to be believers, then al-Baghdadi cannot be caliph, because they do not all accept him. Conversely, if ISIS considers all Muslims except its followers to be infidels, then the number of its followers is too small to establish a caliphate, because a small community of Muslims does not require a caliph.

* Here the critics again express the attitude born of the historical Sunni trauma of internal wars (fitan) and reflect the theories banning opposition to government. The argument that a small number of Muslims needs no caliph has no basis in the Islamic sources. Indeed the early history of the caliphate points to the opposite, since the first caliph was rejected by most of the Arab tribes and even by some of the Companions of the Prophet. Tradition dealt with the problem by reporting that all the Companions eventually complied, and by branding the remaining dissidents as apostates (i.e., as non-Muslims).

23-24.It is forbidden to abolish the boundaries of nation states, as ISIS does. It is also unjust to call upon foreigners to immigrate into Syria and Iraq at the expense of the local population; in fact, it is similar to Israel's crime of replacing Palestinians with Jewish immigrants. Contrary to ISIS' doctrine, migration ceased to be an obligatory or a meritorious Islamic act after the conquest of Mecca in 630 CE.

* Arabs and Muslims did not reject the concept of nation-states even though, in the Middle East, it was related to the demise of the Ottoman caliphate and was artificially implemented by imperial powers. However, the concept of nation-states has no root in the Shari'a. For radicals who wish to emulate pristine Islam, nation-states are a foreign element that must be uprooted, and migration to the one true Islamic caliphate is currently the right course of action, just as it was in the Prophet's time. Long after the Prophet's time, Muslim scholars usually held that Muslims should not live in a land where they were not free to practice their religion. ISIS can easily claim that the restrictions in Europe on the veil, and on the level of the sound of the call for prayer (adhan), are restrictions on Muslims that necessitate their migration to a truly Islamic land.


The critics are appalled by ISIS' atrocities and do their best to delegitimize it. They make no reference to the fact that ISIS is building an Islamic state that revives past Islamic institutions, such as the contract between community and ruler (bay'a), the seizure of war booty, the poll tax on Christians, the Koranic punishments for specific crimes (hudud), Shari'a courts and civil courts (mazalim), the choice offered to polytheists between conversion and the sword, and the owning of slaves. ISIS' goal, to make Allah's word supreme (by force if necessary), is directly derived from pre-modern Sunni consensus. In modern times most Muslims are not driven to commit atrocities in order to implement this goal. However, objecting to it explicitly or refuting it convincingly is a difficult task, as this goal and the jihad needed to achieve it, are based on the core texts of Islam.

Both ISIS and its critics rely on Islamic texts, sometimes the very same texts. The nature and content of these texts require selective reading and allow various and even contradictory conclusions.


 *Ella Landau-Tasseron is a retired professor at the Department for Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her research fields are early Islamic history, the Arabian tribal system, Islamic political institutions, hadith, Islamic historiography, and jihad. Among her publications are a series of articles on the tribal society in pre- and early Islamic times, two monographs on the institution of the Islamic "oath of allegiance," and a monograph on non-combatants in Islamic thought.


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