Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi Responds to al-Julani’s al-Jazeera Interview

by Matthew Barber

Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi is a respected Sufi scholar and teacher from Damascus who has been an outspoken voice against IS and other extremist groups in Syria. Throughout the course of the uprising, he has been consulted by rebel fighters seeking guidance regarding their conduct in the war. In this capacity, the Sheikh has provided numerous fatwas against acts of extremism, violence against civilians, sectarian violence, and the killing of prisoners. Sheikh Yaqoubi has previously been interviewed for Syria Comment, and more information on his background and activities can be found in that article.

Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi speaks in Chicago 2014

This past week, Sheikh Yaqoubi published a short book containing a detailed religious argument against the behavior and tactics of IS. The first of its kind, the book is entitled The Obligation to Fight ISIS: A Detailed Fatwa Proving That ISIS Have Strayed from Islam, Opposed Sharīʿah and That Fighting Them is Obligatory. (The title of the Arabic version is: إنقاذُ الأمَّة: فتوﻯٰ مفصلة في إثبات أن داعش خوارج وأن قتالهم واجب) A strong refutation of IS’ ideology, this work is designed to influence Syrian fighters against IS as well as to curb IS’ recruitment of Muslim youth around the world. It can also serve to encourage IS fighters to leave the organization. An Arabic version of the book has just been published in Turkey and is available here; an English version is forthcoming. The book refutes IS on theological grounds for many aspects of its practice and positions, including their revival of slavery practices (for information on IS’ project to enslave Iraqi Yazidis, see: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

Also this past week, al-Jazeera ran an in-depth interview with Abu Mohammed al-Julani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s al-Qaida organization. Highlights of this interview, translated into English can be read here, and theprevious post on Syria Comment deals extensively with the interview. Eyebrows have been raised by what has appeared as an attempt to improve Nusra’s image as a more moderate alternative to IS that does not practicetakfir (the practice of declaring a Muslim an unbeliever or apostate).

I spoke with Sheikh Yaqoubi on Friday. He shared with me his current efforts to ideologically combat IS, as well as his thoughts on the way that al-Jazeera handled the interview with al-Julani, the ranking representative of al-Qaida in Syria. Below is our discussion.

Sheikh Muhammad, what did you make of al-Jazeera’s interview with Abu Mohammed al-Julani?

The interview was fifty minutes of mockery—a scandal for professional journalism. It is unbelievable that al-Jazeera is doing the dirty job of beautifying this man before tens of millions of viewers, ordinary Muslims, telling them that he is a good man who is doing a good job, helping the Syrian people, a good Muslim, a moderate Muslim—he’s not! It was clear from the interview that the ideology of al-Nusra Front has not changed. Al-Julani twice confirmed his allegiance to al-Qaida, saying that he receives orders from its leader Dr. Aymenn [al-Zawahiri], and the interviewer never interjected any question about this. All the interviewer did was attempt to portray him as a nice man. He never asked him a critical question; he never challenged him.

What do you think is happening today that allows an important representative of al-Qaida to be featured on television in an accepting way by a mainstream voice of the media?

This question should be directed to Qatar’s government. Why are they doing this?

The man clearly stated that he hasn’t abandoned any of his principles. He only stated one thing that differs from his earlier positions: he says that he has received orders from al-Qaida leader Dr. Ayman to not target the West. This is the only real [ideological] change from what he conveyed in his earlier interview in 2013. Now they are just trying to get statements from him to the effect that “we do not do takfir.” And yet in the same interview, he confirmed the extreme position that visiting shrines of saints is kufr or shirk, accusing people who visit shrines of being mushrikiin [those who “commit polytheism” by ascribing “partners” to God]. This means he is going to have to consider most Sunni Muslims apostates (which for him could mean having to kill them) because they have shrines of saints and visit them, such as our shrine for Ibn ‘Arabi in the heart of Damascus, or in Konya the shrine for Mawlana Rumi, the most famous Muslim saint in the world. You have saints everywhere, from Morocco to South Africa, from Indonesia to Istanbul. All these Muslims are mushrikiin—non-Muslims, unbelievers—according to him? How can this be? This ideology is alien to the Syrian people and to the nature of Islam in Syria.

And ironically—or perhaps even sarcastically—they are trying to present him as so friendly toward [minority] sects.

As he said that Nusra will not kill Alawites or Druze.

Druze and Alawites—“if they don’t fight us, if they don’t work with Assad,” then they will not kill them.

But he made changing their religion a prerequisite for this.

This is the key moment where the interviewer failed to interrupt to pose any hard questions. He [al-Julani] gave two conditions. The first was that they abandon Assad, or defect—and this is the understandable politics of war. But the second condition, at which the interviewer did not pause to question him, was, when talking about the Druze villages in Idlib, he said “we have sent them duʿāt” [proselytizers], people to correct their dogma or their Islam.” And about Alawites, also he repeated that “if they accept Islam, we’ll be fine with them.” His approach to Druze and Alawites is that they should become Muslims and “then we will accept them,” which differs from the long-established position adopted by Sunnis, such as the Hanafis and Malikis, who accepted these groups and made them equal to the People of the Book. Al-Julani’s position means that Alawites have the only the choices of converting to Islam or being killed; they would not even be extended the option of deportation.

Now, these Alawites and Druze, along with the Isma’ilis, have lived side by side with Sunni Muslims for over a thousand years, and Muslims did not attempt to erase, eradicate, or convert them, even though Muslims had power, as the rulers of the land, such as the Ottomans. This is because it is part of our legal system that these people could be treated as the People of the Book, which means they are full citizens of the countries where they live. It is in the Hanafi school, the Malaki school, it is even one opinion of Ahmad ibn Hanbal.

Now I understand the position of the Shafi’is, but it was never practiced, so why pick it up after all these centuries? While the majority of Muslim scholars say that even mushrikiin can be treated as the People of the Book? Imam Malik says this very clearly and so does Abu Hanifa. This was practiced for many centuries in Syria, so why now? Why turn the tables after all of this history and begin forcing people into Islam? Al-Julani wants to claim to be more loyal to Islam than the Muslims? More than the Ottomans, more than the Ayubids, more than the Abbasids, more than the Umayyads, more than the companions of the Prophet? This is very strange.

What Shafi’i position were you referring to?

The Shafi’is said that jizya can only be taken from Christians, Jews, and Magians [Zoroastrians], not from others. But this has never been practiced; the Shafi’i opinion on this has never been followed. We have a rule in fiqh: “Practice takes priority.” In other words, the position of a madhab that becomes majority practice is validated, whereas an opposing position of another madhab, if not followed in a certain land, cannot be practiced there. Therefore the Shafi’i position on this has become invalid in Syria and neighboring countries because it was never adopted by any Muslim government. This is even echoed now by one of the major leaders of the current Salafi-jihadi movement, Abu Basir al-Tartusi, who states that the majority opinion on this is superior and should be practiced, and that all should be considered as People of the Book and should not be forced into Islam. He says this on his website.

Help me understand the difference between the Shafi’is on the one side, and the Hanafis and Malikis on the other. Both would agree that the option to pay jizya [rather than convert] is provided to the People of the Book, but the difference is about who is considered People of the Book?

The difference is about who can be annexed to the category, i.e. who can be merged into the People of the Book. It is about whether the “People of the Book” can be extended to include others who can be treated as the People of the Book, or not. Because in the past, when Muslims waged wars, they always offered the enemy three options before fighting: 1) the enemy could become Muslim, 2) they could remain non-Muslim and pay jizya, or 3) they could choose to fight. So for mushrikiin, the payment of jizya was not considered an option, in some opinions. But this was in regards to pagans among the Arabs. And the Hanafis, for example, and the Malikis on a larger scale, and even Ahmad ibn Hanbal according to one narration from him, all quote hadith from the Prophet, salla Allah ‘alayhi wa sallam, reporting that when he sent people to fight pagan mushrikiin, he asked them to offer [to the latter] all three options. This means that even pagans cannot be forced into Islam, if they choose to pay jizya. There is also another hadith, one about the Magians, in Sahih Bukhari, that says “treat them like the People of the Book.”

So from these proofs, these portions of hadith tradition, among others, scholars and Muslim jurists went on to say that all non-Muslim sects are annexed to the People of the Book. Let me state it clearly: Muslims were not keen on killing people. Muslims tried to save the lives of people under any pretext when any proof was available. They valued human life as God’s creation, so when they found these clear proofs from among the words of the Prophet, they knew that Islam was a religion of mercy, because this is the higher purpose of the shariʿa: mercy—not killing people, not harshness, not savagery.

This was the practiced pattern when Muslims had power. Today Muslims are weak, and a group like al-Nusra thinks that it can survive and become a superpower? This is ridiculous. Muslims were superpowers and controlled two thirds of the world, and they did not eradicate sects. They did not force them into Islam.

So when al-Julani mentioned placing duʿāt among the Druze in Idlib, the interviewer did not interrupt him to question the practice.

He didn’t challenge him at all. The way that al-Julani put it was “we sent missionaries, duʿāt, to them, to correct for them their misunderstandings of Islamic dogma.” But Julani is very aware that Druze are considered non-Muslims in books of theology. When they have freedom, they will identify as Druze.

There is no basis for forcing or pressuring others to enter Islam. In my new book on fighting ISIS, I mention that it is even forbidden to slander a Christian or another non-Muslim. Ibn Nujaim, one of the greatest scholars of fiqh anduṣūl al-fiqh in the Hanafi school, said that it is haram, forbidden, to say to a non-Muslim: “you kāfir,”because it upsets him, and you are not supposed to upset him by pointing out his difference in beliefs. This has been established in Islam for centuries. This is why when I once spoke in America at the Catholic University in Washington, I said that the concept of “tolerance” is alien to us, because tolerance means “bearing up with difficulty,” i.e. doing a favor to the other. It is derived from the Latin verb tolerare which means “to endure pain.” The Muslim relationship toward other sects was not based in “doing the favor” of tolerating them; they considered their separate beliefs as their right. Ibn ʿĀbidīn even says in his book Radd Al-Muḥtār that oppression against non-Muslims is worse than oppression against Muslims.

So where do these people like Julani and Baghdadi come from? But this is what results when they destroy the twelve-century-long corpus of law of the four schools. This is what you get: everyone is implementing his own opinion. Everyone who carries a gun is now a mujtahid or a mufti, producing his own fatwas and acting as judge. They claim to act in reference to the book of Allah and the sunna of his Prophet, salla Allah ‘alayhi wa sallam, but they act according to their own understanding—or misunderstanding.

Islamic law develops [over time]. One of its beautiful characteristics is its flexibility. We have certain things that are constant over time, things like the pillars of Islam (prayer, fasting, and so forth), but then we have things that may evolve and change over time. There are a lot of these things, includingjizya. It is not something that is rigidly defined, even though it is mentioned in the Qur’an.

So what do you think was the goal of that interview?

The purpose of the interview seemed to be just to elicit certain statements from al-Julani, particularly that “we don’t do takfir to anyone,” in a way that would increase his appeal to the public. It was a very dangerous interview.

And in the interview we don’t really see a renouncing of takfiri practice or ideology?

No. And even if we did, there is more at issue with al-Qaida than the practice of takfir. For example, anyone who believes in democracy, for them, is a heretic. Another example: any Muslim ruler or country that enters an alliance with or seeks assistance from a non-Muslim country—they become unbelievers. There are many problems with al-Qaida, and the ideology is basically the same as that of ISIS, though ISIS has more extreme practices that have now made al-Qaida look nice. But we know that several thousand fighters moved from al-Nusra to ISIS.

Throughout the Syria conflict, every time a more radical group would appear, it would make the groups preceding it look less bad. People were concerned about Islamist groups, but after Nusra emerged, it began to appear as the bigger threat, making the other Islamists appear more moderate. After ISIS emerged, even Nusra began to look better, simply because it was not as extreme. People would perceive any opposition to whatever was the more extreme party as a good thing.

[laughing] Well if you believe in relativity, then that is the case! But we don’t believe in relativity in this criminal arena. You can’t say that a murderer who kills one person is a saint because someone else is killing more.

Let me ask you how you perceive the recent successes of Nusra and other Islamists. You are someone who wants to see a future peace in Syria, and you see both the Assad regime and Nusra as obstacles to that peace. So when you see Assad losing ground and Nusra or other Islamist groups gaining ground, do you interpret this as a positive or negative development, or neither?

Kicking the regime out of areas like Idlib is definitely good, but the ultimate solution for the crisis in Syria will be political. Sometimes people are happy that a piece of land is liberated, but then you see barrel bombs falling on people morning and night in that area, killing civilians and innocents. So it is good that the regime is now weaker, that more people are safe from the torture of the regime’s prisons, from its special art in killing people. But what we need is to finally reach a political solution, where no fighting takes place.

Until now the regime has refused to talk seriously about any political solution. Do you think that with all its recent losses it may experience enough pressure that going to the negotiating table will become a real possibility?

I think that there may now be an agreement to get rid of Assad. Even Russia and Iran now believe that he has become a burden. But what system would follow? Of course Iran wants to guarantee its own interests in the country, and Russia wants to guarantee its interests. We do not want the major destruction of Damascus. So what is happening now is more military pressure on the regime to bring it to the negotiating table, where hopefully Assad could step down, an interim council would be created to which power would be handed over, and we would eventually witness a new Syria.

If that doesn’t happen and the present fight continues to move, say to Latakia or Damascus, the destruction will just go on.

Let me say this: continuing the fight is no longer in the interest of Syrians.

Including the opposition.

Including the opposition because the opposition is not in power and is not represented by the people fighting on the ground. Those fighting are mainly extreme groups like ISIS and others who want to impose their own version of Islam, which is alien to the moderate Sunni Islam that the region has known for centuries. When you look at the four schools you realize that Islam is not about killing. For example, Islamic penalties could not be implemented in times of war, times of famine, times of ignorance and so forth. By putting Islamic penalties on hold, I am not challenging the book of Allah or the sunna. I am not challenging the books of fiqh. I am precisely following the reliable opinion of every school of law. Shariʿa is not about Islamic penalties; these extreme groups have reduced shariʿa to Islamic penalties, they have reduced shariʿa to jizya for non-Muslims. What about truthfulness, what about mercy, what about respect for citizens, what about protecting life? Islam is about these things.

Tell me about the new book you have written. It is a long fatwa about IS. What do you hope to accomplish with it?

First of all, I have seen a lot of need, from inside Syria and from around the world. From inside Syria I receive questions from fighters and commanders, from certain military groups, asking whether they should engage in the war against ISIS, asking whether ISIS are Muslims and whether they can fight against Muslims. And from non-Muslims around the world, you are aware how much fuss there is about ISIS and its crimes, especially after the burning alive of the Jordanian pilot Muaz al-Kasasbeh, Allah have mercy on him. So I saw the strong need [for an authoritative religious response to this], and there was only the one letter that was issued before, that I cosigned [www.lettertobaghdadi.com], but which did not go into enough detail regarding the proofs for the refutation of ISIS, but which mainly presented the basics. So I wrote this book directing the reader to the major positions held by ISIS, such as allegiance to Baghdadi and its validity, kidnapping, burning, slavery. Slavery is one of the major issues and I mentioned that as jurists, doctors of the law, from an Islamic point of view we are bound by international law on the issue, which we [Muslim countries] have signed, and Muslims must not breach their promises. Slavery should not be practiced and cannot be practiced; it is now forbidden in Islam for it to be practiced. This does not contradict the book of Allah or the sunna of the Prophet; it is rather in conjunction with them, because in Islam we are ordered to respect our covenants and contracts. Before the coming of Islam, the Prophet Mohammed participated in a covenant called the Hilf al-Fudūl that was made among tribes in Mecca to protect the oppressed. And after the message of Islam had come, the Prophet said that if he was again invited to such an accord that he would agree to it. So slavery in Islam is not obligatory; it is not the only option. Slavery was one option in Islam only because it was practiced in the world into which Islam came, and if the world comes to agree on abolishing it, we are bound by this. Even more so because our enemies do not enslave us. The only case in which slavery could still be applied would be if the world were to abolish the Declaration of Human Rights and begin to enslave Muslims. In such a scenario, Muslims could enslave their enemies as a kind of reciprocity. But this is impossible, an entirely imaginary hypothesis. There is now no place for slavery at all; it is out of the question.

Now when we spoke in 2013, you mentioned that many fighters were seeking your religious guidance, sometimes about relations with other groups, sometimes about fighting the regime. As the first sheikh to issue a fatwa validating resistance against the regime after its use of violence against the peaceful protesters, you played an important role in legitimizing the armed struggle of the opposition. I wonder now, in early 2015, whether similar numbers of fighters still consult you.

No. The reason is that many moderate fighters, for financial reasons or for lack of weapons and arms support, moved to join with al-Nusra or others. Three years ago there were so many military groups on the ground. Many of them were moderate and were fighting for a new Syria, and their goal was to take out the regime, not to create that form of a state which Nusra or ISIS is seeking to establish now. We all know that many Syrian fighters are now with ISIS or Nusra—they are well paid. Many looked at the international community with frustration, because they didn’t see any support.

But some still contact me and I have received requests from some of the major military groups that still exist, from around the country. Their questions now are not about the regime but mainly concern fighting ISIS.

How much practical influence do you think that you book can have?

It is designed to impact three target groups. The first group is the fighters inside Syria.

And can it physically reach them?

Yes. One major rebel group inside Syria has already requested 10,000 copies of it. A second group has requested 5,000 copies. These are good signs. They want to educate their fighters, to discuss what is right and wrong, who represents Islam, and what kind of Islam is to be practiced. So this is very encouraging. And this is just in the first few days. By the way, I have published 25,000 copies [in Turkey, to be distributed to Syrian fighters] at my own expense. I have had no sponsors. But we are expecting that 100,000 copies will eventually be needed.

The second target group for the book is the youth outside of Syria, around the world, who are at risk for recruitment. They can be reached online, and when they read this book they will realize that ISIS does not represent Islam. Through this effort we will try to minimize the levels of recruitment. That is why there are versions in both Arabic and English.

And the third target group is academia and the media. I receive a lot of questions from both academia and the media about the legal stance of Islam and the various schools on these issues, and this work can help answer those questions from concerned observers.

We are hopeful about the potential of this book and feel that its reception is promising.

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