Once the Prophet Muhammad and his followers, on their way back from a bloody engagement with the Christian Byzantines (circa 628 CE), stopped at a Bedouin camp next to an oasis. When afternoon prayers were finished, the Prophet began to preach to his rapt listeners about the various types of hellfire awaiting sinners in the afterlife: nar, laẓa, saqar, ḥuṭama…
Meanwhile, a Bedouin woman with a baby tied to her hip crouched down nearby and baked bread for the visitors over the flames of her saj. At one point some grease fell into the fire and it surged. The mother leapt back to protect her infant, and then turned wrathfully on Muḥammad:
“Are you the one they call the Messenger of God?” she demanded.
“I am,” he replied.
“And you teach that He is our Progenitor, our Creator?” she queried.
“Indeed,” acknowledged Muhammad.
“And you claim that He is ‘the Merciful, the Beneficent’?” she pressed on.
“He is,” confirmed the Prophet.
“If so,” continued the woman, “then you are a liar! A loving parent would never throw His children into the fire.”
So saying, she stormed off — and Muḥammad wept.
There were two main reactions on the international scene to the ineffably horrific ISIS video recording the execution by fire of the captured Jordanian pilot Mu’adh al-Kasasbah. The first reaction was typical and expected: a flood of Western pundits who lie in wait for every opportunity to besmirch the Muslim religion had a field day. Here, they gloated, was the true face of Islam unmasked: medieval barbarity enshrined in immutable statutes carried out by sadistic torturers. This much, at least, may be adduced to bolster their argument: that while movements like the Muslim Brotherhood among the Sunnis or the Khomeinist revolutionaries in Shi’ite Iran have always been restrained by the considerable element of modernism with which their ideologies are interlarded, the caliphal doctrine of the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” suffers from no such eclecticism. The actions of ISIS — including the modes of execution they choose — are motivated by Islam and Islam alone.
Then ISIS follows Islamic law?
Well, no. There was a second and no less vociferous reaction to the burning video — among a relative few Middle East specialists in Western academe and, far more importantly, among the legions of Muslim clerics and intellectuals throughout the Islamic world who have been seeking desperately for a way to distance their creed from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s headline-grabbing decapitators. Here was their chance.
Affected as he may have been by the censure of the Bedouin woman — or by any number of other factors and circumstances — Muhammad could not very well alter the myriad fire and brimstone revelations that he had received from Allah over the years and enshrined as the Qur’an. But he did see to it that incinerating human beings would remain a solely divine prerogative. La yu’adh-dhibu bi’l-nar illa rabb al-nar, he insisted on more than one occasion: “Only the Lord of Fire punishes by fire.”
“Ah hah!” the cry resounded across the warp and woof of the Islamic Internet in the wake of the Kasasbeh video, emanating even from the mouths of Muslim scholars at Cairo’s Al-Azhar Seminary and (on the other side of the Sunni-Shi’i divide) Qom’s Howze-ye Elmiyeh. “Not only is ISIS unrepresentative of the Muslim religion, it is in direct and flagrant violation of its precepts, indeed, appears to be abjectly ignorant of those same precepts. Otherwise how explain its boastful display before the entire world of an execution by incineration, when even a mildly knowledgeable Muslim knows that ‘Only the Lord of Fire punishes by fire’!?” (And here is the proper place to note, pace the Islam-baiting propagandists cited above who are almost invariably Christian or Jewish, that of the three monotheistic religions Islam is the only one that does not prescribe, and indeed explicitly proscribes, death by burning. Indeed, not a few Muslim sages, embarrassed by the actions of ISIS, saw fit to accuse — vu den? — the Jews of insinuating execution by fire into Islam via a disgraced Muslim literary genre known as the Isra’iliyyat). Here, at any rate, was the proof that the more traditional exponents of Islam had been seeking that ISIS was, as it were, in flagrante delicto.
Then…ISIS does not follow Islamic law?
Well, not so fast. These Muslim apologists jumped too soon. First of all, not every Muslim figure of the religion’s formative period felt bound by this prophetic prohibition or even accepted its authenticity. Abu Bakr, the first Caliph or Successor to Muhammad, commanded that a bonfire be built in the “Prophet’s Mosque” itself and the traitor Iyas bin Abd Ya’lil, who had joined the infidel forces against the Muslim believers in the “Wars of Apostasy,” be thrown into it. Ali, the fourth Caliph, did the same with a group of “extremists” who sought to deify him (they were called Ali Ilahis — “those who claim that Ali is God” — and their theological descendants, the Alawites, are currently fighting for their lives against ISIS in Syria). As these enthusiasts were consumed by the flames they purportedly cried out to the Caliph: “Now we know that you are God, since ‘Only the Lord of Fire punishes by fire!’”
But ISIS was not relying solely on such counter-precedents; their self-justification is more sophisticated than that. Indeed, the specialist who watches the Kasasbeh video from beginning to end (not just skipping to the “juicy” part) and with close attention to the many individual “vignettes” and how they all fit together, quickly realizes that not profound religious ignorance but — in point of fact — impressive Islamic erudition is on display here. Much of the first half of the video is devoted to depicting the horrific results of bombing from the air: men, women and children on fire — writhing and twisting and falling to the ground — or their seared corpses after the fact. Many a charred limb was shown thrusting up from a pile of rubble, many a bereaved mother was shown shrieking in unspeakable agony over little blackened bodies — instances and symbols of the indescribable devastation wreaked from afar by callous pilots who nonchalantly dropped their payloads.
A relatively obscure hadith — one of tens of thousands of “reports” concerning the statements and actions of the Prophet Muhammad that form the bedrock of Muslim religion even more so than the Qur’an — describes how on a particular occasion Muhammad crushed the head of a Jew with two large rocks. Why did he do this? Because the same Jew had murdered his servant girl by crushing her head with two large rocks. I call this hadith “obscure” because in the countless anthologies of such reports assembled after the ninth century CE it appears rather seldom. It was, on the other hand, picked up and put to comparatively heavy use by Muslim legal literature, where it provided support for the position that capital punishment via “measure for measure” — killing the killer in the manner that he killed — is masnun, that is, a praiseworthy and preferable method of execution. Similarly, Muhammad once plucked out the eyes of a band of men because they had gouged out the eyes of his shepherd — an eye for an eye.
This is the Islamic legal principle that the ISIS video was unquestionably designed to invoke: the propriety of execution via measure for measure. Kasasbeh the fighter pilot dropped bombs that caused the incineration of dozens if not hundreds of people — as “documented” by the footage shown in the first half of the film — therefore it is only right that he should be punished for this crime specifically through incineration. And this principle, as at least some Muslim fuqaha or medieval legal scholars argue, trumps the prohibition against execution by fire.
Moreover: in the most awful moments of the video, when the poor pilot was literally melting alive and his terrible screams were only partially drowned out by the crescendo of martial-music-meets-pious-liturgy that has become the ISIS execution soundtrack, another quote from the Islamic classical sources was plastered across the screen. Based on a different hadith — one in which Muhammad is declared to have been “favored over all the previous prophets…in that my enemies begin trembling a full month before my armies arrive” — this citation from a fourteenth century text permits the implementation of extraordinary measures (such as burning prisoners at the stake) for the purpose of striking fear into the hearts of the foe.
Finally, ISIS spokesmen delved deep into the recesses of hadith exegesis and legal responsa in order to adduce minority opinions to the effect that the prophetic utterance “Only the Lord of Fire punishes by fire” is not to be construed as a statement of law but rather as a statement of fact, the purpose of which is to encourage humility before the deity: see how great and terrible Allah is! In that case there is no prohibition at all. The monstrous manner in which Kasasbeh paid the ultimate penalty was, based upon such logic as well, shown to be a legitimate one by Muslim standards.
Nor, while we are on the subject, is this the only example of ISIS’ “learnedness” and loyalty to the shari’ah (Islamic law). Another video that made the rounds recently sought to demonstrate that the purportedly pious members of ISIS are in reality just as randy and shameless as the rest of us. It documented a squadron of fighters who had stumbled upon a pool in the back of an abandoned house in Northern Syria. It was a hot day and the perspiring warriors didn’t hesitate for a minute: they stripped down and headed for the diving board. But what the gleeful circulators of this video apparently missed was not only that most of the fighters kept enough clothing on to abide by the Islamic male modesty code — which requires that the area between navel and knees be covered — but that just before jumping, every half-naked jihadist made it his business to declaim the same hadith (which, by the way, has its origins in the Talmud): “The Messenger of Allah said: It is the duty of every father to teach his son how to swim…” One after another they cited their Prophet to this effect in loud, boisterous voices, and then took the plunge.
And then there was the poster put up in the beginning of July in several ISIS-held cities to celebrate the advent of Ramadhan. It announced a Qur’an memorization contest, detailing the chapters of the Holy Book to be learned by heart and listing the mosques where registration would take place (“the Osama bin Laden mosque, the Abu Musa al-Zarqawi mosque…”). The poster then enumerated the prizes. Those in fourth through tenth place would receive considerable sums of money, whereas the reward for placing first, second or third was… “a slave girl.”
ISIS, as we pointed out above, is sui generis among Islamist organizations of our time in resisting the temptation to make allowances for modernist influence: not even al-Qa’ida was willing to reinstitute the bondage that has ever remained on the Islamic books — to say nothing of Saudi Wahhabism, Hizbullah, Hamas, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and the like (and this is probably the appropriate place to point out that Judaism, Christianity and pretty much every other major religion also has slavery on the books. Indeed, the Arabic word for “slave girl” used in the announcement, sabi, is the etymological sibling of the biblical Hebrew shevuya: the female prisoner of war who is pressed into servitude by her captors [see Deuteronomy 21: 14]). If Allah and Muhammad allowed the keeping of and trafficking in slaves — and their distribution as prizes — then that is what will happen in ISIS held territory. ISIS is about living the classical Muslim sources, and doing so unapologetically.
Then…ISIS does follow Islamic law?
Well, no. Not really. There is one thing that the above analysis left out, and it’s a big thing. Arguably Islam’s premier “claim to fame” — the characteristic that Muslim tradition flaunts proudly at every possible opportunity as its indelible hallmark — is that it is din al-yusr, “the religion of facility” and din al-rukhsa, “the religion of leniency.” “It is by God’s mercy that you dealt with the people gently,” Allah informs His Apostle in the Qur’an, “for had you been stern and fierce with them, they would surely have deserted you” (Q. 3: 158). “Religion is ease,” seconded Muhammad himself in a well known hadith, “and anyone who makes it rigorous will in the end be overcome by it.”
Confronted with manifestations of human frailty, the Muslim God is almost invariably shown “going soft.” Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas, one of the Prophet’s Companions (the sahaba, those who followed Muhammad during his lifetime), had avenged the death of his brother in battle by killing an enemy polytheist and despoiling him of his sword. He met Muhammad afterward and exclaimed, “O Messenger of God! With this sword God has quenched my thirst for vengeance!” The Prophet, however, chided him: “That sword is neither mine nor thine — go and throw it in with the common booty!” Sa’d recounted:
“So I went and threw it in, and then I turned to go, my heart heavy with that which only God knows because of the murder of my brother and the confiscation of my plunder. I had not gone more than a few steps, however, when the [Qur’anic] ‘Chapter of Spoils’ was revealed [by Allah to Muhammad, in which allowances were made for situations like Sa’d’s], and the Prophet called out to me and said: ‘Go back and take your sword!”
On another occasion a follower of Muhammad’s named Harith son of Suwayd “defected to the Byzantines and converted to Christianity.” In response to this combination of treason and apostasy, Allah waxed wroth and, as it were, hurled down the following verses:
How shall God guide those who lapse into unbelief after embracing the Faith, and after acknowledging the Apostle and receiving veritable truths? God does not guide the evil-doers! Their reward shall be the curse of God, of the angels and of all men; under it they will abide forever. Their punishment shall not be lightened, neither shall they ever be granted a reprieve…(Q. 3: 89).
All possibility of pardon having been expressly denied, one would have expected Harith to remain in Constantinople. Instead he soon thereafter wrote to Muhammad, asking: Is there any repentance for me?” Immediately, “Allah abrogated those verses, and revealed [their mitigating, indeed counteractive, conclusion]: ‘…except for those who repent and mend their ways, for God is forgiving and merciful’” (Q. 3: 89).
If Allah is so malleable, then who is Muhammad to be strict? And the Prophet of Islam certainly engaged in imitatio dei in this regard. His inclination towards alleviation, eagerness to accommodate, readiness to retract and indomitable soft-spot form a central motif of Muslim classical literature. He shortened congregational services for the sake of a mother with a difficult child, instructed a young man who found it hard to rise early to “pray whenever you get up,” granted amnesty to an erstwhile amanuensis who had defected from Islam and declared him an imposter, and threatened to thrash a maidservant who returned late from an errand…with a toothpick. Elaborating on the many activities forbidden in Mecca’s Sacred Precinct, Muhammad reached the subject of flora: “There shall be no gathering of shrubs or grasses there, for such was forbidden by God himself on the day He created heaven and earth, and it will remain thus forbidden forever, from now until Resurrection Day!”
The Companion Abdullah Ibn Abbas interrupted: “O Messenger of God — except for the Idhkhir bush, yes? For it is used by the people to ornament their persons and their houses.”
“Except for the Idhkhir bush,” retreated Muhammad, without losing a beat.
Allah set the tone as archetypal and forgiving Mufti On High, handing down indulgences in response to, and in compassion for, the endemic weaknesses of human flesh — and Muhammad was His Prophet: clement, pliable, forbearing, moderate (not always, to be sure: Allah’s Apostle could not abide satire, for instance, which he regarded as blasphemy, and regularly had satirists assassinated — the “Charlie Hebdos” of their time. Nor could he, in general, abide Jews, and he persecuted and massacred them on more than one occasion. And there is, of course, jihad — though few nations or religions in history have not been characterized by the urge to conquest. When all is said and done, however, Muhammad was, contrary to popular belief, a true moderate in his time). And because the Prophet was and is seen by Islam as the qudwa hasana, the Excellent Exemplar, Muslim jurists throughout Islamic history have followed Muhammad and his God in consistently seeking the way of palliation and extenuation. They cultivated and eventually standardized notions such as istislah (easing of regulations based on considerations of public weal), istihsan (dismissal of difficult rules at the jurist’s discretion), umum al-balwa (leniency based on “ubiquity of hardship”), even hiyal (the science of constructing countless loopholes through which to escape the law). Few truths are more central and unique to Islam than the fact that almost unlimited flexibility is built into the Muslim legal system. The tendency toward leniency is part of the very DNA of fiqh (jurisprudence) and shari’a (positive law). Islamic law is not Islamic law unless it is constantly busy finding ways to mitigate itself.
The leaders of ISIS unquestionably know their texts. But they are literalists, fundamentalists, in their reading of those texts, taking the letter of the law at face value. Genuine Islam is anything but literalist or fundamentalist: it is interpretive, creative, tractable and compassionate (this is not some feel-good liberal or reformist Islamic line; as we have striven to show above, it is the most orthodox of Islamic outlooks). When ISIS hears a rumor about a homosexual, an adulterer, a Shi’ite, or even a magician who performs at children’s birthday parties living in a neighborhood they have recently taken over, there is no due process, let alone any creative exegesis or thought of mercy: they throw him off of a tall building, bury her up to her waist and stone her to death, drown him in a cage or lop off the “sorcerer’s” head with a scimitar. Then they make videos that mock the terror of the victims of their executions and inflict unspeakable agony on their loved ones, including the recent and unprecedentedly disgusting “Fifty Ways to Kill an Infidel” blockbuster. (This last may have been too much even for ISIS: according to certain reports the “caliph” al-Baghdadi recently instructed that his followers desist from videoing executions).
But when capital offenses were brought to the attention of the Prophet — so the hadith tells us repeatedly — he would close his ears and turn away and pretend he hadn’t heard. If his hand were nevertheless forced he would do everything in his power — employing highly creative and even rather questionable legal means — to get the offender off lightly. And if in the end Muhammad had no choice but to implement the ultimate hadd punishment, he strictly enjoined that it be carried out with the utmost sensitivity and respect, both for the one executed and for his or her family. What a world of difference between the approach of the Prophet and that of ISIS! What a yawning chasm between the outlook and methodology of Islamic law and that of the new, self-styled, Iraqo-Syrian “Caliphate”!
Then…ISIS does not follow Islamic Law?
No. Not by a long shot. ISIS flagrantly violates Islamic law every day. Its executions are murders, plain and simple, and its policies undermine everything that the Muslim religion has always stood for. ISIS spits savagely on the tradition of the jurists, the precedents of the caliphs, and the eternal example of the Prophet Muhammad himself.
ISIS is the anti-Islam.