Commentary: Terrorism Is at Odds With Islamic Tradition
by Khaled Abou El Fadl
With the recent escalation in suicide bombings against civilian targets in Israel and the continuing threat of Osama bin Laden terrorist attacks, the relationship between Islam and terrorism is, once again, the subject of rampant speculation.
Some Muslim scholars have proclaimed such acts of terrorism as jihad and considered the suicide bombers martyrs in the cause of God. Several non-Muslim commentators have gone so far as to suggest that Islamic law actually commands Muslims to wage terrorist attacks against infidels.
Ignoring for the time being that Muslims themselves often have been victims of terrorism, I am sure that there are a number of Muslims who do believe that terrorism, at some level, is justified. It is worth noting, however, that, at a minimum, this belief is at odds with Islamic law. The Islamic juristic tradition, which is similar to the Jewish rabbinical tradition, has
exhibited unmitigated hostility toward terror as a means of political resistance.
Within the first three centuries of Islamic history, Muslim
jurists exhibited a remarkable degree of tolerance toward political rebellion by holding that a political rebel may not be executed nor his property confiscated.
Classical Muslim jurists, however, were uncompromisingly harsh toward rebels who used what the jurists described as stealth attacks and, as a result, spread terror. Muslim jurists considered terrorist attacks against unsuspecting and defenseless victims as heinous and immoral crimes, and treated the perpetrators as the worst type of criminals.
Under the category of crimes of terror, the classical jurists included abductions, poisoning of water wells, arson, attacks against wayfarers and travelers, assaults under the cover of night and rape. For these crimes, regardless of the religious or political convictions of the perpetrators, Muslim jurists demanded the harshest penalties, including death.
Most important, Muslim jurists held that the penalties are the same whether the perpetrator or victim is Muslim or non-Muslim. It is because of this
tradition that pre-modern terrorists had become so notorious in Islamic history.
Some Islamists today argue that the only effective way of resisting oppression or occupation is through terrorism and, therefore, it has become a necessary evil. But this type of unprincipled and opportunistic logic is not supported by the rigorous classical heritage.
Although there is no doubt that Islamic law endorses the right to self-defense, it even regulates self-defense so it is not abused.
As one classical jurist put it, "If political expediency becomes the law, nothing will remain of this religion."
Furthermore, even if one assumes that countries such as the U.S. and Israel wage indiscriminate attacks resulting in civilian casualties, from the
theological point of view this would still not justify acts of terrorism. It is a well-established Koranic precept that the injustice of others does not excuse one's own injustice. Simply put, Israeli helicopters slaughtering
Muslim civilians as they sit in their living rooms does not justify the Palestinian bombers slaughtering Israeli children as they enjoy a meal with their parents in a restaurant.
There is also another dimension to this problem.
Modern Muslim terrorist groups are more rooted in national liberation ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries than they are in the Islamic
Although these terrorist groups adopt various theological justifications for their behavior, their ideologies, symbolism, language and organizational structure reflect the influence of the anti-colonial struggle of the developing world. For instance, the groups often use expressions such as hizb(party),tahrir(liberation),taqrir al-masir (self-determination),harakah(movement),al-kawadir al-fa'alah(the active cadres) or harb muqaddasa (holy struggle). These expressions are imported from national liberation struggles against colonialism and did not emerge from the Islamic heritage.
In short, modern Muslim terrorism is part of the historical legacy of colonialism and not the legacy of Islamic law. According to the Islamic
juristic tradition, terrorists would have no quarter.