ISIL claims to be Islamic. Now, a letter signed by over 100 highly respected Muslim scholars has decisively condemned ISIL’s rhetoric and behavior, and urged the ISIL leader to desist and repent. The signatories describe their views as representative of the “overwhelming majority of Sunni scholars over the course of Islamic history”. Given that ISIL draws some recruits from Sunni Muslims in its fight with Shii Muslims, this letter has the potential to dissuade some recruits, provided that media outlets and social networks help publicize it.
The letter makes 24 points on ISIL’s assertions and activities. Taking a traditional jurisprudential approach, the document cites religious reasoning forbidding virtually all the abhorrent acts feeding ISIL’s notoriety, such as mutilation, killing emissaries, enslavement, torture, desecration of graves and shrines, and ill treatment of women, children, and other religious groups (especially Christians and Yazidis). In these alone, the letter is noteworthy.
Yet this document does more: it addresses the extraordinarily consequential question of who can interpret Islam, and what assertions count as religiously authoritative interpretations. To better explain this, consider that Islam in general, and Sunni tradition in particular, is decentralized in religious authority structures: there is little in the way of a clerical hierarchy. Social conflicts and new communications technologies have added to the crowded field of self-proclaimed religious voices.
Decentralization means that it is hard to mobilize an authoritative response to misguided religious claims. However, decentralization does not necessarily mean interpretative anarchy. There are established norms governing religious interpretation. The first point made by the signatories is that fatwas (religious legal opinions) cannot be offered without the necessary learning requirements, and must be grounded in Islamic legal theory. From this follow points about specific prerequisites for religious legal interpretation, such as mastery of language and refraining from “cherry-picking” sacred texts, and several points related to ISIL’s wrong assertions about jihad.
Religious vigilantes are those with rudimentary Islamic education who arrogate to themselves to the roles of judge, jury, and executioner. Religious vigilantes like ISIL deviate from the norms that guide traditional religious deliberation. By condemning ISIL’s behavior, this document condemns vigilante brutality in the name of Islam. By affirming the prerequisites of religious interpretation, this document demands a more elevated religious deliberative community.
In one religious ideal, a non-coercive setting would permit the coexistence of different religious interpretations, with people effectively agreeing to disagree. This would allow for thoughtful public deliberation where diverse views are aired and carefully examined. The reality is that some refuse the ground rules, and disputes can turn into shouting matches, where the biggest megaphones and fists prevail. To work for long-term peace, the wider community should breathe life into norms of public deliberation, opening avenues for the redress of grievances, and ensuring that all injustices are held to account.