– Does Classical Sunni Islam Support Terrorism?


(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

Does Islam Teach Terrorism?

There is no specific verse in the Qur’an that supports the basic and commonly understood definition of terrorism, i.e. the threatening or killing of civilians to make a political point. There is no command in the Qur’an to threaten or kill civilians for any reason. Rather, the Qur’an’s verses of “violence” have been historically understood by mainstream Sunni jurists to refer to combative jihad, which is a war of armies against armies with its many conditions and limitations. Combative jihad is very similar to Christian “Just War” and has parallels with today’s laws of war.

Finding “violent” verses in the Qur’an and any scripture is insufficient to support the claim that the specific scriptures support terrorism because all violence is not synonymous with terrorism. For purposes of comparison, while the Old Testament has verses commanding the destruction of entire villages, including civilians, it is still insufficient to conclude from such verses that the Old Testament teaches or supports terrorism. The causes of terrorism go beyond linear relationships of scripture and terrorist acts, and include a combination of political, social, and psychological factors. Any “experts” who simplify the more complex subject of terrorism by solely or mainly attributing terrorism’s cause to any religion, or any single factor, are guilty of ignorance or intentional promotion of personal agendas against honest and sound understanding.

Muslim Jurists Oppose Terrorism

In addition to the fact that the Qur’an does not support terrorism, the views of Muslim jurists against terrorism further substantiate this understanding. Classical religious jurists would not have labeled terrorist actions as violations of Islamic Law, would not have prescribed severe punishments for those crimes, and would have commanded rather than opposed the killing of innocent civilians had they supported terrorism. The following sections discuss the equivalents of modern day terrorism to terms and acts describing such actions in classical and contemporary Sunni tradition. It is imperative to note that those most critical of Islam refuse to discuss Islam’s view of terrorism. For the minority of jurists that support, for example, suicide bombings, they are from modernist-salafi groups that do not represent classical Sunni Islam.

Hirabah, Muharib, and Muharibun/Hirabiyyun  – Terrorism, Terrorist, and Terrorists

Hirabah in classical Sunni tradition is broadly defined as the spreading of corruption and terror in the Islamic community, though the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence (Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanbali) have specific differences in its nuances. Professor and author, Abdul Hakim Jackson, quotes some classical Sunni scholars to provide a more detailed understanding of hirabah:

“The Spanish Maliki jurist Ibn `Abd al-Barr (d.463/1070) defines the agent of hirabah as ‘Anyone who disturbs free passage in the streets and renders them unsafe to travel, striving to spread corruption in the land by taking money, killing people or violating what God has made it unlawful to violate is guilty of hirabah…be he a Muslim or non-Muslim, free or slave, and whether he actually realizes his goal of taking money or killing or not.’”

“The Hanafi jurist, al-Kasani (d.587/1191) defines hirabah (or qat al-tariq) as ‘attacks upon pedestrians for the purpose of taking money by force and in such a way that people are rendered unable to pass freely through the streets…’”

Imam Nawawi (d.676/1277) states that, ‘Whoever brandishes a weapon and terrorizes the streets (akhafa al-sabil) inside or outside a city must be pursued by the authorities (al-Imam), because if they are left unmolested their power will increase and through their killing and taking money and corruption will spread.’”

Ibn Qudamah (d.620/1223) defines hirabah as ‘the act of openly holding people up in the desert with weapons in order to take their money.’ He notes, however, that many of his fellow Hanbalites held that such wanton brigandage constituted hirabah whenever it occurred, ‘because it is even more frightening and detrimental inside cities”[[1]] (names bolded by writer).

Ahmed Al-Dawoody in The Islamic Law of War (p.171) says that Sunni “jurists commonly agree on the following main characteristics of the perpetrators of this crime” as:

“a group of Muslims who under the threat, or use, of arms attack or merely intimidate or terrorize their victims in order to overtly and forcefully rob, kill or merely terrorize their victims.”

Al-Dawoody then explains the differences among the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence in their understanding of hirabah. The Hanafis

“focused on on the taking of money by force as the usual objective of this crime and the fact that it causes people to feel intimidated about using roads where highway men are active. This focus may be the result of Abu Hanifah’s restricting the application of the law of hirabah to certain crimes committed in the desert or in unpopulated areas…”

Regarding jurists from the Shafi’i and Hanbali schools, they

“emphasize the element of the criminals’ use of arms — Hanbalis add even a stick or a stone — mujaharah (overtly, openly, unlike thieves and other criminals). This shows a sort of mukabarah, a determination on the part of the criminals to challenge the state authorities” (pp. 171-172).

The Maliki jurists

“explicitly emphasize the importance of the element of spreading terror among the victims as a principal intention behind this crime, even, these Maliki jurists add, if the criminals do not intend to rob their victims…. Interestingly, the Maliki jurists include under the law of hirabah the crimes of killing by stealth, poisoning, and armed burglary, because the victims are helpless” (p.172).

The Sunni punishment for people who commit the crime of hirabah – who spread disorder and corruption in the land – is severe, as stated in the Qur’an:

“The punishments of those who wage war (yuharibun) against Allah and His Prophet and strive to spread disorder (fasad) in the land are to execute them in an exemplary way or to crucify them or to amputate their hands and feet from opposite sides or to banish them from the land. Such is their disgrace in this world, and in the Hereafter theirs will be an awful doom save those who repent before you overpower them; you should know that Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Ever Merciful.” (5:33-34)

The discussion of terrorism in Sunni Islam is not only confined to hirabah. Rather, Sunni jurists differ on the more precise understanding of terrorism according to Sunni Islam, as explained below.

Irhab, Irhabi, and Irahabiyyun – Terrorism, Terrorist, and Terrorists

While some scholars find hirabah to be the closest in meaning to how terrorism is generally understood today, other scholars recommend other possible terms. For example, analyst Douglas Streusand says, “[A] potentially useful word is irhab, the Arabic word for terrorism,” rendering irhabi “the literal translation of ‘terrorist.’” He says this in the context of rejecting the words jihad, jihadi, and mujahidun to describe terrorism and terrorists:

“[D]escribing [our enemies]…as jihadis or mujahidun not only validates their claim to legitimacy, but also implies that we consider Islam itself our enemy.”[[2]]

Irjaf, Irjafi, and Irajafiyyn/MurjifunA Better Translation of Terrorism, Terrorist, and Terrorists

However, according to Shaykh Ali Goma’a, the Mufti of Egypt, describing terrorism and terrorists as irhab and irhabi are “mistaken translations and a strategic error.”[[3]] The reason why, author Waleed El-Ansary explains, is because

“The classical usages and meanings of the root from which irhabi derives, rahiba, are overwhelmingly positive, for the Qur’an employs this root to refer to the fear of God (‘the beginning of wisdom’ in the Abrahamic traditions) or holding God in awe.”

Osama bin Laden had used the word irhab himself, thus

“exploiting the difference between classical and modern usages to argue for the possibility of commendable rather than reprehensible terrorism.”[[4]]

To separate Bin Laden’s distorted usage of a term rooted in the Qur’an to justify his unIslamic actions, Mufti Goma’a suggests the term irjaf, “which denotes subversion and scaremongering to bring quaking and commotion to society” and “is derived from the root rajafa, which means to quake, tremble, be in violent motion, convulse, or shake.”[[5]]

Mufti Goma’a’s recommendation of using irjaf as a more appropriate translation of the word terrorism is, El-Ansary explains, because

“From a linguistic perspective, he points out that the term unambiguously connotes the cowardice, deceit, and betrayal associated with terrorism in striking from the back, unlike hirabah. The grand mufti’s discussion of the usage of murjifun not only deflates bin Laden’s pompous and grandiose ideology, but reduces him from monk to criminal. Moreover, irjaf is clearly distinguished from conventional warfare, harb, since the murjifun (or irjafiyyun) do not constitute a legal entity, whereas their target does.”[[6]]

El-Ansary continues,

“The legal sanction for irjaf is also much clearer than hirabah, for the punishment – execution – is unambiguous. Finally, from a practical point of view, it is far more difficult for bin Laden and al-Qaeda members to argue that they do not cause commotion within cities, and that their critics attempting to prevent such violence do. The term irjaf thereby effectively eliminates the possibility of extremists turning the tables on their critics.”[[7]]

The Khawarij as Murjifun/Irjafiyyun and Today’s al-Qa’eda

It is interesting to note that Mufti Goma’a describes the early Khawarij in Islam who rebelled against the Companions of Prophet Muhammad as murjifun/irjafiyyun.[[8]]

Pakistani scholar Shaykh Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri, who authored the well-known Fatwa on Terrorism and Suicide Bombings, also described the Khawarij as the first terrorists in Islam, saying that al-Qaeda and other militants[9] carry the Khawarij banner today. According to Shaykh ul-Qadri in his comprehensive Fatwa, classical Sunni scholars are divided into two groups in their verdict of the Khawarij. The first group of scholars impugns them with disbelief. The second group impugns them with sin, though not with disbelief. Both groups, however, are in general agreement that the Khawarij should be fought for their extreme actions. Of greater interest is the first group to illustrate that the Khawarij, like al-Qa’eda and other militants today, were seen as disbelievers by prominent classical Sunni scholars.

Classical Sunni Scholars Who Accused the Khawarij of Disbelief

Some classical Sunni scholars who accused the Khawarij of disbelief are Imam al-Bukhari,[[10]] Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali,[[11]] Imam Ibn Jarir al-Tabari,[[12]]Al-Qadi `Iyad,[[13]] Imam al-Qurtubi,[[14]] Imam Taqi al-Din al-Subki,[[15]] Imam Ibn Ishaq al-Shatibi,[[16]] Imam Badr al-Din al-`Ayni,[[17]] and Mulla `Ali al-Qari.[[18]] Below are examples of the positions of Imam al-Bukhari and Imam al-Ghazali.

Imam Bukhari

Of the famous scholar of hadith, Imam al-Bukhari, well known Imam Ibn Hajar al-`Asqalani said,

“A large body of scholars said that the Kharijites are to be charged with disbelief, such as al-Bukhari, who compared them to apostates and heretics, and only singled out individuals [amongst them] who were subject to faulty interpretations, mentioning them in a separate chapter: ‘On the One Who Refrains from Fighting the Kharijites for the Sake of Drawing Hearts Near and so People Will Not Flee.”[[19]]

Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali

Of the famous Sunni scholar and Sufi, al-Ghazali, Ibn Hajar said:

“In al-Wasit, al-Ghazal said (following others): There are two opinions regarding the judgment on Kharijites: ‘They take the ruling of apostates or the ruling of rebels,’ and al-Rafi’i declared the first view preponderant.”[[20]]

Had those classical Muslim scholars been alive today, they would certainly have opposed al-Qa’eda and similar militant groups and accused them of disbelief due to the similarity of their actions with past actions of the Khawarij. This contradicts the claims of both Islamophobes and “Muslim” militants who claim that militants represent the continuation of the classical Sunni tradition. Rather, classical Sunni scholars repudiate terrorists in the strongest terms possible, with many accusing them of disbelief. As discussed, execution is the punishment of terrorists according to Islamic Law.

Unfortunately extremists of all colors seem unaware of hirabah, irhab, and irjaf, and how they differ with classical Sunni jihad. They erroneously conflate all words as if they mean the same and compromise an accurate understanding of today’s actions by militants and of the understanding of classical Sunni jurists of the past.

Muslims Condemn Terrorism

The above also opposes the erroneous understanding that Muslims do not speak out against terrorism. Muslims have been speaking out against terrorism for the past 1,000-plus years, and their condemnations of terrorism continue. More contemporary views against terrorism by Muslims can be found in A Common Word Between Us and You [[21]], The Amman Message [[22]], the Fatwa Against al-Qa’eda by the Islamic Commission of Spain [[23]], the Fatwa against terrorism by Shaykh Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti [[24]], the Fatwa on Terrorism and Suicide Bombings by Shaykh Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri (as discussed earlier),[[25]] and many other denunciations of terrorism by influential Muslims (click A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H. [[26]]).


[[1]] Sherman Jackson, “Domestic Terrorism in the Islamic Legal Tradition,” The Muslim World 91 (Fall 2001): 293-310, accessed May 19, 2013, http://www.hartsem.edu/sites/default/files/macdonald/articles/jacksonart1.pdf

[[2]] Qamar-ul Huda. Crescent and Dove: Peace and Conflict Resolution in Islam. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2010. p. 64.

[[3]] Ibid., p. 65.

[[4]] Ibid., p. 65.

[[5]] Ibid., p. 67.

[[6]] Ibid., p. 68.

[[7]] Ibid., p. 68.

[[8]] Ibid., p. 68.

[[10]] Muḥammad Tahir ul-Qadri. Fatwa on Suicide Bombings and Terrorism. London: Minhaj-ul-Quran International, 2010. p. 358.

[[11]] Ibid., p. 360.

[[12]] Ibid., p. 358.

[[13]] Ibid., p. 361.

[[14]] Ibid., p. 363.

[[15]] Ibid., p. 366.

[[16]] Ibid., p. 367.

[[17]] Ibid., p. 370.

[[18]] Ibid., p. 371.

[[19]] Ibid., p. 358.

[[20]] Ibid., p. 360.

[[21]] A Common World Between You and Us, October 13, 2007, accessed May 29, 2013, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/11_10_07_letter.pdf

[[22]] The Amman Message, July 2005, accessed May 19, 2013, http://www.ammanmessage.com/

[[23]] “Fatua Contra el Terrorismo,” Comision Islamica de Espana, October 3, 2005, accessed May 29, 2013, http://www.webislam.com/noticias/43520-la_comision_islamica_de_espana_emite_una_fatua_condenando_el_terrorismo_y_al_gru.html (English translation available, http://makkah.files.wordpress.com/2007/09/fatwa-against-osama-bin-laden-and-al-qaida.pdf)

[[24]] Shaykh Muhammad Afifi Al-Akiti, Defending the Transgressed by Censuring the Reckless Against the Killing of Civilians (Germany: Warda Publications), accessed May 23, 2013, http://www.warda.info/fatwa.pdf

[[25]] Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri, Fatwa on Terrorism and Suicide Bombings (London: Minhaj-ul-Quran International), accessed May 22, 2013, http://www.quranandwar.com/FATWA%20on%20Terrorism%20and%20Suicide%20Bombings.pdf.

[[26]] See, for example, the list of denunciations of terrorism by influential Muslims and organizations at Charles, Kurzman, “Islamic Statements Against Terrorism,” accessed June 2, 2013, http://kurzman.unc.edu/islamic-statements-against-terrorism/, Sheila, Musaji, “Muslim Voices – Part I – Fatwas & Statements by Muslim Scholars & Organisations – updated,” The American Muslim, updated January 28, 2012, accessed May 17, 2013,  http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/muslim_voices_against_extremism_and_terrorism_part_i_fatwas/0012209, Sheila, Musaji, “Power Point Presentations on Islam and Muslims,” The American Muslim, updated July 1, 2007, accessed May 17, 2013,  http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/powerpoint_presentations/,Sheila, Musaji, “Muslim Voices Promoting Islamic Non Violent Solutions,” The American Muslim, updated June 6, 2011, accessed May 17, 2013,  http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/promoting_islamic_non_violent_solutions/, Sheila, Musaji, “Muslim Voices Against Extremism and Terrorism – Part IV A few Quotes A-K,” The American Muslim, December 13, 2006, accessed May 17, 2013,  http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/muslim_voices_against_extremism_and_terrorism_a_few_quotes/0012273, Sheila, Musaji, “Muslim Voices Against Extremism and Terrorism – A few Quotes L-Z,” The American Muslim, December 7, 2006, accessed May 17, 2013,  http://www.theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/muslim_voices_against_extremism_and_terrorism_a_few_quotes_l_z/0014337, Sheila, Musaji, “Muslims & Arabs in the U.S. Military – article collection,” The American Muslim, updated March 22, 2008, accessed May 17, 2013,  http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/muslims_in_the_military/0013612, Sheila, Musaji, “Selective Hearing of Muslim Voices Against Extremism and Terrorism,” The American Muslim, December 9, 2006, accessed May 17, 2013, http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/selective_hearing_of_muslim_voices_against_extremism_and_terrorism/0012212