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The tragedy and lost of life at the Boston Marathon has captured the attention of the world. The suspects of this terrible crime, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his deceased brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev have been identified as Muslims. As Muslims, how should we now view the suspects? Do we “excommunicate” them? Should we abandon our communal obligation to bury Tamerlan Tsarnaev? Shaykh Abdullah Ali explores these issues by providing a historical context in this thought-provoking article.
“The Kharijite Rebirth”-Shaykh Abdullah Ali
The Kharijites (or Khawarij) throughout most of Islamic history was considered by the majority of Muslims to be a deviant sect of Islam. For those unfamiliar with who they were, the Kharijites first appeared during the first Muslim civil war for succession between Imam ‘Ali b. Abi Talib (r), the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin (pbuh), and Mu’awiya b. Abi Sufyan.
The Kharijites and their leader, ‘Abd Allah b. Wahab al-Rasibi, incensed by Imam ‘Ali’s willingness to accept human arbitration in his dispute with Mu’awiya split from the former’s ranks declaring them both to be unbelievers, and later plotted their assassination the success of which claimed the life of only Imam ‘Ali (r). On one occasion when asked whether or not the Kharijites were unbelievers (kuffar), Imam ‘Ali responded, “No!” When pressed, “Then they must be hypocrites (munafiqun)?”, he responded with remarkable balance and wisdom, “Rather, they are our brothers. They transgressed against us. So, we fought them in light of their transgression (baghy).”
This response from the Imam is one of the great testimonies to his wisdom, courage, and piety which forms part of what made him worthy of the Prophetic characterization of him related by Imam Khatib al-Baghdadi in his History of Baghdad, “I am the city of knowledge, and ‘Ali is its gate.”
A similar degree of restraint was exercised by ‘Ali’s senior and predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Siddique, who was faced with a rebellion not long after being appointed the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) worldly successor (khalifa). Faced with three separate ideological splits: 1) those who denied the obligation to pay him Zakat; 2) those who apostatized from Islam; and 3) those who followed the false prophets. Though he fought against all three, his demand from the rebels who denied him the poor-tax was to return to their religious obligations. In other words, his justified fighting them, not because they were NOT Muslims. It was, rather, that they were, and had a duty to uphold the pledge they gave to the Prophet (pbuh) to give the poor their right which was usually collected and distributed by his designee.
The salient characteristics of the Kharijites that led them to be labeled a heretical group were: 1) their belief that the commission of major sins made a person an apostate; 2) their concomitant declaration that the blood of the said sinners held no sanctity, likewise, for those who disagreed with their views, and 3) their displays of gentleness toward non-Muslims as a way of encouraging them to accept Islam while simultaneously showing Muslims who disagreed with their views nothing but harshness even to the point of declaring most of the Prophet’s companions to be unbelievers.
When one reflects upon these characteristics, it is easy for many of us to see a similar trend develop amongst Muslims in recent times. To be called a Kharajite has always meant to be one who finds it easy to declare a Muslim to be an unbeliever, and as a consequence paving the way for the massacre or murder of those given the label. We can see this at work with the fatwa of Muhammad b. ‘Abd Al-Wahhab which facilitated the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by declaring so many of the peninsula’s Sufi inhabitants to be “grave-worshipers” and therefore “unbelievers.” We see this again during the Iran-Iraq War when so-called Sunni muftis justified Saddam Hussein’s instigation of the war with his Iranian “Shiite” neighbor based on the argument that Shiites were not Muslims, and therefore the shedding of their blood was lawful.
During the turn of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century, we saw the efforts of groups like the Hizb at-Tahreer and Al-Muhajiroon who strove hard to convince Muslims that the reconstitution of the caliphate was the most important obligation in every Muslim’s life, and they even went so far as declaring all Muslim rulers who did not implement the divinely revealed penal code (al-hudud) to be unbelievers. A similar fatwa was later reiterated by people like Usama bin Laden, and most of our scholars responded by reiterating the Sunni doctrine that a Muslims could not become an apostate from committing a major sin unless he/she believes that sin to be permissible. Otherwise, they remain within the fold of Islam. Hence, Muslim rulers were given the protection of being included in the fold of Islam.
On the other hand, today, we see many Muslims (especially those living in Western countries), adopting the same exact doctrines that have been held to be unorthodox for most of Islam’s history under the pretext of disassociating themselves from the acts of violent Muslims. To them, people like, Usama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Bashar Asad, Muammar Qadhafi, Anwar Aulaqi, and any other people labeled as “terrorist” or “evildoers” by the Western powers all become “unbelievers” or simply “not Muslims”, thinking that by public disassociation with such people or passing a “fatwa against terrorism” truly helps to resolve the matter of Muslim association with violent extremism.
Similar to this also is how some Muslims today in light of recent developments in Boston, in spite of the fact that all the details surrounding the incident and those accused of carrying out the shameless act still have neither been gathered nor processed, have taken the time to announce their poise to not pray over the bodies of those accused of the crime and others to not even consider them to be Muslim. While there is a precedent for any highly influential Imam NOT praying over the bodies of Muslims guilty of serious crimes, this has never led in the Islamic legal tradition of scholars abandoning the “communal” obligation of praying over our dead…and that includes those we deem to be impious. Furthermore, we still haven’t heard the version of the accused in this case; whose parents deny their sons’ direct involvement in the explosion.
Not that I’m surprised. But, I think that Muslims once again in their excitement, fear, and/or love of the spot light have once again made another damaging rush to judgment and rash declarations whose long term effects will do far less than they think to make members of the dominant culture accept them as equal members of secular society with an acceptable alternative way of being “American” or “European.” I say that with no care in the world about whether or not they ever accept my way of being an “American” as legitimate in their eyes (not that they haven’t already accepted that). I do it out of concern for those who still are involved with this struggle.
You may think all the evil thoughts in the world about ostensibly “evil” people. But in the end, Allah’s justice and even mercy far outweigh anything we can surmise. Because we don’t wish for Allah to forgive someone, doesn’t mean that it will be as we desire. Who can really say? Even Saddam Hussein could be forgiven by God. You just never know.
Abdullah bin Hamid Ali