Bin Laden’s Fatwa: A Call to Harabah

Aziz H. Poonawalla

Posted Feb 11, 2003      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Osama bin Laden’s “fatwa” against Americans - calling upon Muslims to murder and plunder them - is well known and was widely reported by the media. OBL labeled this as a jihad and a religious duty. However, it was actually neither a fatwa nor a call to jihad, let alone a religious duty of any kind. It is critical for Muslims and non-Muslims alike to understand exactly how OBL has misapproriated these terms and how his call to action goes against the fundamental tenets of Islam in the Qur’an itself.

A fatwa is a religious pronouncement, a call to religious duty. By its very definition, therefore, it can only be invoked by a religious authority. Osama bin Laden has no such authority, and in fact usually fatwas are issued by councils of clerics (in the Sunni tradition) or by religious imams (in the Shi’a). Bin Laden’s family may have built many masajid, but it is certainly doubtful he ever led prayers, or ever acted in a religious advisory capacity. If anything, Bin Laden is a pretender to religious authority. The notion that his pronouncements can be labeled fatwas is intrinsically ludicrous. Even the ruling Saudi family dares not lay claim to the authority to issue fatwas (though in their case, they just let their Wahabi symbiotes do it).

Bin Laden’s ignorance about Islam and the laughability of his claim to religious authority is well-illustrated by his own words:

The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Holy Mosque from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. This is in accordance with the words of Almighty God, “... and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together,” and “fight them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God…”

The very first statement asserts that “killing Americans and their allies” is an “individual duty”. The Qur’an does, in fact, support violence if in defense against attack, but here Bin Laden explicitly describes the targets as “civilians and military.” Note that if you make the argument that there is no such thing as a civilian, then that qualification is unneccessary. Presumably then, Bin Laden does make such a distinction, and thus he is knowingly calls for the murder of innocents.

Contrast this with the words of the Qur’an itself:

We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people. Then although there came to them Our messengers with clear signs, yet, even after that, many of them continued to commit excesses in the land. Those who wage war against Allah and His Prophet, kill the believers and plunder their property shall be disgraced in this world, and for them is a dreadful doom in the hereafter. (5:32-33)
(note - translations of the Qur’an are inherently flawed.)

The contrast is crystal clear. What Bin Laden is calling for violates direct Qur’anic precepts. His assertion that this is the “duty” of all Muslims is thus ignorant and self-refuting. His gross ignorance of the Qur’an demonstrates that he is an impostor of religious authority.

On a minor theological note, the “Holy Mosque” (ie, the Kabba) never needs to be liberated. It is Allah’s - and thus, will always be safe. To say that the Saudis are pagans and that the Kabba needs to be liberated is in one sense an insult to God. Would Allah allow the Kabba to fall into the hands of pagans? The Saudis - despite all their faults - have made it possible for Muslims worldwide to perform the Hajj[1]. As for Masjid al-Aqsa, it still is owned by the Waqf and Muslims do have access, for the most part. Any Muslim who has actually gone there can attest to this. I wonder if Bin Laden has ever bothered?

Finally, the ayats that Bin Laden invokes are taken grossly out of context. Again with a translation (sigh) :

Surely the number of months with Allah is twelve months in Allah’s ordinance since the day when He created the heavens and the Earth, of these four being sacred; that is the right reckoning; therefore be not unjust to yourselves regarding them, and fight the polytheists all together as they fight you all together; and know that Allah is with those who guard (against evil). (9:36)

This is directed at two targets. First, the pagans here are specifically the pagans of Saudi Arabia before Islam, who used to observe a year of 13 months after two years to combine the solar and lunar years, due to which they had to transfer the observance of Muharram to the succeeding month, Safar. This verse condemns their interference with the lunar calendar. Second, taken in a broader context, it says to fight them together as they fight you all together. Since Islam is not under attack by America or her allies (in fact, Muslims reside there as well, and none of the established schools of jurisprudence consider American Muslims to be inferior or non-Muslim), this ayat does not apply.

The other ayat that Bin Laden invokes is also very out of context:

Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors. And kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out, and persecution is severer than slaughter, and do not fight with them at the Sacred Mosque until they fight with you in it, but if they do fight you, then slay them; such is the recompense of the unbelievers. But if they desist, then surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah; but if they cease, let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression. (2:190-193)

These ayats are often used by fanatics for precisely oppsite to their intent. The main points here are that fighting is only permitted in self-defense. If fighting starts, then kill them wherever they are found, unless they ask for mercy (this is also the Jacksonian model as well). Most importantly, show mercy when one has the upper hand.

The Qur’an is also explicit about the fate of those who misuse the words of Allah themselves for their own gain. I’ll let Bin Laden, and any fan of his, look that up themselves. For all the good it shall do them.

Bin Laden continues:

We—with God’s help—call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it.

I have previously blogged about jihad. What OBL calls for here is not jihad, since he has already explicitly targeted non-combatants, but note that he goes further here and calls for plunder as well. This is actually a call to harabah, or “war of intimidation.” Note that harabah is strongly condemned in the Qur’an, for example the explicit reference in 5:33 to those whose intent is “mischief through the land”.

For more discussion on harabah, see this excellent entry on alt.muslim:

Because the word jihad roughly means “religious effort,” the West can come off as attacking the daily life of ordinary Muslims, while terrorists get away with wrapping their crimes in religious phraseology. Muslim scholars are meeting in Washington with US officials to change this. “When people carelessly dump on jihad, it has an immediate polarizing effect,” said Khaled Abou el Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at UCLA who will attend the meeting. “It may not change much, but it allows Muslims and non-Muslims to say something about terrorists without appearing to malign Islamic theology.”

Khaled Abou el Fadl (professor of Islamic law at UCLA) is also an accomplished writer on these topics. His book, Speaking in God’s Name, is a very thorough look at how religious terminology is abused by the extremists. It is vitally important that these differences in terminology are understood - more than merely semantics, it is the framework for understanding the problem of radical fascist Islam and the underlying problem of tribalism. I urge people to make a point of calling terrorism harabah and not jihad, and to avoid labeling every frothing opinion of extremists a fatwa. The distinction is essential.

Islam is actually the solution to the problem. It is in our collective best interest, to understand the classical interpretations of Islam (of which mine is but a single example of many), because that understanding can shape policy. Consider the hypothetical post-war Iraq. If we simply set up barbie dolls and rock and roll culture, then there will be a fundamentalist backlash. The last thing we want to do is turn secular, but tyrannical Iraq, into a defeated but fundamentalist nation. The former can be bombed and deterred and exiled and killed, but the latter is a huge incubator just like Afghanistan was.

If we are to be successful, we have to remove the incubators, the conditions under which they are created, as well. Doing that means that an understanding of classical Islam is essential. That’s the propaganda war we need to fight against Bin Laden.

[1] I drive an SUV. Whether I’m killing the Earth or helping Muslims do hajj depends on your point of view, I guess.

Aziz H. Poonawalla runs the popular weblogs Shi’aPundit and UnMedia.