Memories of Mardin - S Iftikhar Murshed - Monday, March 28, 2011

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The writer is the publisher of Criterion quarterly

Paakistan, which is the world’s foremost victim of terrorism, is not even in the periphery of the dialectic among reputed Muslim scholars to defeat the ideology of extremist violence. Despite its pretensions of being a leader of the Islamic world, Pakistan was conspicuous by its absence from one of the most important meetings on this issue last year in the ancient city of Mardin in south-eastern Turkey. Today it is exactly one year that the New Mardin Declaration was adopted by globally renowned theologians and academics from across the Islamic world including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, India, Senegal, Kuwait, Yemen, Bosnia, Mauritania, Iran, Morocco and Indonesia.

The conference, which was held on March 27-28, 2010, at Mardin’s Artuklu University, effectively deconstructed any religious justification for acts of terror. The focus of the meeting was the “Mardin fatwa” of Taqi al-Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). Al Qaeda and its affiliated networks have repeatedly invoked the decree to justify mass murder in the name of Islam.

The scholars collectively examined what they described as “one of the most important classical juridical foundations of the relations between Muslims and fellow human beings, namely: the (classical juridical) classification of ‘abodes’ (diyar) as Islamically conceived, and related concepts such as jihad, loyalty and enmity, citizenship, and migration (to non-Muslim territories).”

Ibn Taymiyya was born in Haran, a sleepy little town in the Mardin region, and was only seven at the time of the Mongol conquest of the area. Though he was forced to flee along with his family, vivid memories of the atrocities haunted him for the rest of his life. Several years later he was asked whether Mardin was an abode of war (Dar al-Kufr) or of peace (Dar al-Islam). Little did he know that centuries later his response would be distorted to justify violence and insurrection.

More specifically, his opinion was sought whether the Muslims who did not emigrate after the Mongol occupation of Mardin were to be condemned as hypocrites and also whether the region continued to be a part of the Muslim world. His answer, which came to be known as the Mardin fatwa, was: (i) the lives and property of the Mardin Muslims were inviolable and they were not to be accused of hypocrisy; (ii) there was no obligation for them to emigrate as long as they were able to practice their religion; (iii) they should not provide assistance to those who fight against Muslims; and, (iv) Mardin was not wholly a part of the Muslim world because it was under Mongol rule but neither was it a non-Muslim territory for the reason that its people adhered to Islam.

The critically important part of the fatwa was: “The Muslims living therein should be treated according to their rights as Muslims, while the non-Muslims living there outside the authority of Islamic law should be treated according to their rights.” This brilliantly nuanced formulation, which sought to avoid violence, was subsequently corrupted thereby completely reversing its peaceful intent.

The distorted text reads “...while the non-Muslims living there outside the authority of Islamic law should be fought as is their due.” This was the outcome of the inadvertent substitution of two letters in a single word. The original decree contains the word yu’amal (should be treated) but was rendered as yuqatal (should be fought) and this minor error was to have disastrous consequences in the contemporary era.

According to Sheikh ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Turayri, former professor at Riyadh’s al-Imam University, the only known copy of the original fatwa is archived at the Asad Library in Damascus and was correctly quoted by Ibn Taymiyya’s student, Ibn Muflih, in his work Adab al-Shariah. The Syrian born reformer, Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935) also used the uncorrupted version of the decree in the scholarly journal al-Manar which he published from Cairo in association with the famous Muhammad Abduh.

It was in the 1909 edition of Ibn Taymiyya’s Fatawa published by Faraj Allah al Kirdi that the distorted text of the original decree made its first appearance. The error was not rectified and was not only repeated in several subsequent publications of Fatawa but also translated into English, French and other languages.

So widespread did the corrupted text become that even leading scholars did not question its veracity. For instance, the former rector of al-Azhar, Sheikh Jad al-Haqq and the chairman of the al-Azhar Fatwa Board, Sheikh Attiyyah Saqar, were constrained to painstakingly refute the al-Kirdi edition of the Fatawa by citing several passages of the Qur’an and the Traditions. At the Mardin Conference, Sheikh al-Wahhab al-Turayri observed: “Had they known the authentic wording of the text, it would have saved them a lot of trouble.”

The distorted version of the Mardin fatwa provided the ideological justification for terrorist violence in the guise of religion. The Egyptian engineer turned revolutionary theorist, Muhammad abd al-Salam Faraj (1954-1982) used the corrupted text for his book Al Farida al Ghaiba which posits jihad as the sixth pillar of Islam and has become the handbook for terrorist groups. Faraj was inspired by Maulana Maududi and Sayyid Qutb of the Islamic Brotherhood and in particular their interpretations of Ibn Taymiyya’s writings. He later broke away from the Muslim Brotherhood because it sought integration with the Egyptian political process on the ground that fighting Israel took precedence over toppling the regime.

Faraj also had sharp differences with the Takfir w’al Hijra, an extremist group led by Shukri Mustafa (1942-1978), which believed that the Muslims should separate from “infidel society” and refrain from fighting till they were strong enough to launch jihad. In contrast, Faraj wanted to attack “infidels and apostates” immediately. He established the Jama’at al-Jihad in 1981 which assassinated President Anwar Sadat on October 6 of that year. Faraj was executed six months later.

The policy adopted by Al Qaeda synthesises Shukri Mustafa’s concept of migration to safe havens beyond the reach of domestic and foreign security forces and Faraj’s call for immediate jihad. Thus Al Qaeda relocated to sanctuaries primarily in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s tribal areas, north-eastern Iraq and Yemen from where terrorist attacks can be launched.

It was the distortion of Ibn Taymiyya’s teachings emanating from the corrupted text of his fatwa that the Mardin Conference effectively exposed. Its final declaration, which was the collective endeavour of some of the most eminent theologians from different persuasions within Islam, clearly stated that only the lawful leader of the Muslim community, and not individuals or groups, could declare “combative jihad” solely for the purpose of repelling aggression.

This had an impact as was apparent from the reaction of extremist outfits who described the participants of the Mardin meeting as “the scholars of desertion”. Al Qaeda denigrated the conference as a “contemporary surrender movement” which sought to advance the interests of the west which had embarked on the “fiercest crusade” against the Muslim world.

Pakistan continues to bleed from the wounds of extremist violence but the government is not even aware of the ideological battle Muslim scholars are waging to defeat terrorism. If President Zardari is at all serious about his pledge at the joint session of parliament on Tuesday to vanquish “the mindset that preaches violence and hatred,” the first step should be the widest possible dissemination of the New Mardin Declaration.


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