Sacred Barbarism

Much of the cruel barbarity in the religious world today is being perpetrated by self-confessed Muslims. Though many moderate Muslims are beginning to decry the atrocities of Boko Haram, the Taliban, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, AQIM, al-Shabaab, Hamas, Abu Sayyaf, al-Qaeda, etc., these movements continue to proclaim their Islamic bona fides, justifying their beliefs and actions on the basis of sound, authoritative traditions within Islam concerning Muhammad as well as upon standard jihad and retribution texts in the Quran.

Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, for example, have taken to crucifying Christians and to severing hands and feet of those accused of “causing mischief in the land” (a Quranic phrase capable of application to a wide array of disapproved behaviors). Where did they come up with these tortures, and others such as immolation? The short answer: from the traditions of Muhammad and his companions.

Take this story, for instance, from the most highly regarded of the Hadith collections (second only to the Quran in authority for Sunni Muslims), that of Sahih Bukhari. To be fair, Muslims acknowledge that some of the traditions found, even in Bukhari, are doubtful or even spurious, but the following account occurs no less than ten times in Bukhari’s collection, with minor variations. It is widely accepted by the Sunni world:

A group of people from `Ukl (tribe) came to the Prophet and they were living with the people of As-Suffa, but they became ill as the climate of Medina did not suit them, so they said, “O Allah’s Messenger! Provide us with milk.” The Prophet said, I see no other way for you than to use the camels of Allah’s Apostle.” So they went and drank the milk and urine of the camels, (as medicine) and became healthy and fat. Then they killed the shepherd and took the camels away. When a help-seeker came to Allah’s Apostle, he sent some men in their pursuit, and they were captured and brought before mid-day. The Prophet ordered for some iron pieces to be made red hot, and their eyes were branded with them and their hands and feet were cut off and were not cauterized. Then they were put at a place called Al-Harra [a wilderness region outside Medina], and when they asked for water to drink they were not given till they died. (Abu Qilaba said, “Those people committed theft and murder and fought against Allah and His Apostle.”)  — (Bukhari, Vol. 8, Book 82, Hadith 796)

In a related tradition found in Sunan Abu Dawud, we find a short sequel to the above account:

When the Messenger of Allah cut off (the hands and feet of) those who had stolen his camels and he had their eyes put out by fire (heated nails), Allah reprimanded him on that (action), and Allah, the Exalted, revealed: “The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Apostle and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is execution or crucifixion.” (Bk 39, Hadith 4357).

This tradition, considered weak by many Muslim jurists (no doubt because it reveals that Allah had to reprimand Muhammad, whom Muslim dogma declares to be the moral exemplar of humanity), provides the rationale for the revelation of the Quranic text found in Sura 5:33:

The recompense of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and do mischief in the land is only that they shall be killed or crucified or their hands and their feet be cut off on the opposite sides, or be exiled from the land. That is their disgrace in this world, and a great torment is theirs in the Hereafter. (Hilali-Khan translation)

This text, quite clearly, is one which provides modern disciples of Muhammad the justification for the atrocities they are committing with apparently clear consciences. When you add to texts like this the overarching Quranic ethic of retributive justice (“And one who attacks you, attack him in like manner as he attacked you” – 2:194), it becomes easy to trace the rationalizations of jihadists who feel that the whole Western world is on a personal quest to eradicate them and Islam as a whole.

It’s no use claiming that all “revealed religions” have texts commanding violence, and thus it’s wrong to single out Muslim atrocities. The pertinent texts in the Bible are all limited in time and scope – they were meant for limited periods of history and cannot be stripped of their context to encourage modern expansionist violence against all non-believers. Primary evidence of this is found in the fact that we don’t see any biblical terrorists anywhere reciting holy texts as they decapitate, maim or incinerate enemies.  For Christians, on top of that, we have direct teachings from Jesus that eschew force or violence as a means to Kingdom expansion. In Islam, however, these incendiary texts are taken by and large to be timeless commands, meant to be in force until the whole world converts or is subjugated to Allah and his prophet. Nothing in the Quranic text itself limits the application of these commands. One may appeal to all the scholars one wishes in order to seek to blunt the plain reading of the text, but most Muslims are not tuned in to the nuanced, tiptoeing dances of moderate scholars while their imams wax eloquent in their Friday sermons about Allah’s pleasure in the spilled blood of the infidel.

The example of the prophet, his commands, the actions of Islam’s caliphs, and the history of Islam on the march all have contributed to making certain forms of barbarism sacred in the minds of today’s disciples of Muhammad. If this is not what moderate Muslims want Islam to be known and reviled for, it’s time to stand up and be counted, not just as individual objectors but as a reform-minded movement that squelches the radicals and sterilizes the religion from any future strains of violent jihadism.

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3 Responses to Sacred Barbarism

  1. Tim Woodruff says:

    Thank you for this series. This is a real eye-opener. Keep telling us the truth.
    My understanding is that some later Muslim communities, generally after 1000 AD, were more merciful and did not carry out all these things. Am I wrong?
    I agree with you that ISIS et al can only be discredited if moderate Islamists as a powerful movement denounce and discredit them, but given the texts they have to cast aside in the process, are there enough moderate Islamists of true conviction to do the job?


    • mateenelass says:

      Tim, you are correct that many later Muslim regimes acted with much more mercy or at least tolerance than we see from ISIS or from the early history of Islam. The reason for this, as I see it, is that when Islam is not yet in full control and therefore is focused on conquest and consolidating its control, it feels it must demonstrate its power in ruthless ways so as to demoralize opponents. Once, Islam is the controlling power/dynasty, where its authority is beyond contesting, it can afford to relax its grip over the lives of non-Muslims under its control, although they always remain in a second-class status as dhimmis.

      As to you second question, I think the bigger issue is not whether there are enough moderate Muslims, but whether they can find the legitimacy of argument to convince the radicals that a peaceful reading of Islamic texts should supplant the radicals’ more literal interpretation. Unfortunately, the radicals have history and the early interpretation of Muslim jurists on their side. I don’t see much cause for optimism.


  2. Pingback: The Layman Online » Sacred barbarism

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