Feature

Sheikh to Terrorists: Go to Hell

A Pakistani cleric declares jihad on suicide bombers. And the story is just beginning.

Pakistani newspapers recently picked up an intriguing story from the country's security establishment. Reporters learned that their government had intercepted a secret message circulating within Tehrik-e-Taliban, the most prominent of several militant groups trying to overthrow the government in Islamabad. The jihadists, it seemed, had just added a new target to one of their death lists. His name is Tahir ul-Qadri, and he's no government official. He's one of Pakistan's leading Islamic scholars, an authority on the Quran and Islamic religious law.

It's no wonder the terrorists want to see Qadri dead. Last month he promulgated a 600-page legal ruling, a fatwa, that condemns terrorism as un-Islamic. A few Western media outlets gave the news a nod, but the coverage quickly petered out. And that's a pity, because the story of this fatwa is just beginning to get interesting. "I have declared a jihad against terrorism," says the 59-year-old Qadri in an interview. "I am trying to bring [the terrorists] back towards humanism. This is a jihad against brutality, to bring them back towards normality. This is an intellectual jihad." This isn't empty rhetoric. Last year militants killed one of Qadri's colleagues, a scholar named Sarfraz Ahmed Naeem, for expressing similar positions.

This isn't the first time that a Muslim jurisprudent has denounced suicide bombings as contrary to the spirit of Islam. But Qadri's ruling represents an important precedent nonetheless -- one that could well contribute to the struggle between the suicide bombers (and those who support them) and a more moderate brand of Islamic politics. Many Muslim scholars before Qadri, of course, have denounced terrorism. What makes him significant is the uncompromising rigor of his vision, which deploys a vast array of classical Islamic sources to support the case that those who commit terrorist acts are absolutely beyond the pale. He's especially keen on targeting the coming generation, younger members of the global ummah (the community of believers) who -- he contends -- have lost their bearings in the roiled post-9/11 world.

Qadri's fatwa aims to establish a bit of healthy clarity. His finding, which builds its argument around a meticulous reading of the Quran and the hadith (collections of oral statements attributed to the Prophet Mohammed), makes the case that terrorist acts run completely counter to Islamic teaching. While quite a few scholars before have condemned terrorism as haram (forbidden), the new fatwa categorically declares it to be no less than kufr (acts of disbelief). "There was a need," says Qadri, "to address this issue authentically, with full authority, with all relevant Quranic authority -- so that [the terrorists] realize that whatever they've been taught is absolutely wrong and that they're going to hellfire. They're not going to have paradise, and they're not going to have 72 virgins in heaven. They're totally on the wrong side."

So it's not too hard to imagine why the Taliban aren't amused. "Qadri has been very bold in saying that these terrorists are awaited in hell," says Hassan Abbas, a Pakistani scholar at Harvard University's Belfer Center. "He is clearly provocative, in a positive sense, and this courageous act is also noteworthy." He notes that the fatwa includes a number of specific criticisms of the conservative Deoband movement, whose teachings underlie many of the militant Islamic groups in South Asia -- something that has angered many of the Deobandis. (Qadri himself is a prominent representative of the Barelvi school of Sunni Islam -- a Sufi-influenced group that, says Abbas, has historically outnumbered the Deobandis in Pakistan.) But few of the hard-core jihadis are likely to be swayed by Qadri's formidable scholarly credentials. It's a different constituency that Qadri has in mind -- namely the wavering middle.

Abbas, who describes himself as a member of that Muslim mainstream, says that Qadri's decision to announce the fatwa's publication in London rather than back home in Pakistan might have diminished its initial impact a bit. "Interestingly, the fatwa has generated a debate in the blogosphere -- among young Muslims living in the West," he says. "I think that can potentially be the most important contribution of this work in the short and medium term. The fact that so many of his speeches and lectures are available online (including on YouTube) indicates that he is listened to globally and especially by educated Muslims." It also hasn't stopped the fatwa (originally written in Urdu) from gaining attention in publications ranging from the Middle East to the Philippines -- attention that is likely to build as the entire weighty work gradually finds its way into relevant languages. (The full English translation of the fatwa, for example, has only just been completed. Qadri's aides are still on the lookout for a proper publisher in the West.)

Could it be that some onlookers are making too much of the whole thing? Ahmed Quraishi, a conservative Pakistani commentator based in Islamabad, disputes Qadri's influence, political or otherwise. Other scholars before Qadri have condemned suicide bombings, he insists. "Suicide is outlawed in Islam through clear injunctions in the Quran," says Quraishi. "But fighting and dying in self-defense is not. In fact, it is encouraged. So when a Muslim scholar comes out and says, 'suicide attacks are haram,' you need to see the finer print. It is outlawed if it means killing the innocent. But it is not if it means attacking invaders or occupiers."

That, indeed, is what many have argued before. Yet one of the things that makes Qadri's fatwa so compelling is precisely that it sweeps aside such logic. The claim that terror is a legitimate or excusable response to oppression is, according to Qadri's finding, an "awful syllogism" because "evil cannot become good under any circumstances." (To be sure, he also denounces occupation and acts of aggression against Islam -- but insists that they must be resisted peaceably wherever possible and strictly according to the laws of war where not.) What's more, as noted earlier, Qadri goes well beyond declaring terrorist acts to be merely "forbidden." In his view they're a manifestation of disbelief, not just a profound sin but a veritable denial of Islam.

This is, in a word, pretty strong stuff -- additional evidence, if any were needed, that the so-called "war on terror" pales beside the war within Islam itself, the continuing, subtle, and utterly vital struggle for the soul of the faith. So it will be worth keeping an eye on the impact these 600 pages will have on Islam's restless minds in the years to come. "The real contribution of the fatwa cannot be evident in a matter of a few weeks," argues Abbas. "The message will go out slowly." But go out it will. Stay tuned.

KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images

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