National Review Online published a piece yesterday by Mustafa Akyol, director of the Intercultural Dialogue Platform in Istanbul. Akyol argues that the beheadings of Nick Berg, Paul Johnson, etc. are un-Islamic.
Yesterday I opted simply to let it go by, but I have decided this morning to comment upon it instead. I know that NRO, like everyone else in the world, is searching for a moderate Islam, and that’s why they published this piece. But that moderate Islam, for it to have any power to neutralize terror, has to be convincing not just to Western non-Muslims, but to radical Muslims themselves. It has to take their Islamic justifications for murder and mayhem and show that they are wrong on Islamic grounds.
Akyol’s piece doesn’t do that. Here are some of the reasons why. Akyol asserts that “nothing could be further from the truth” than the idea that the beheadings were carried out in the name of Islam. Why? Because:
Islam presents the principles of just war, and kidnapping noncombatants, killing them, or threatening to do so are overtly against those principles.
Let’s go to a source I often quote: ‘Umdat al-Salik, a Shafi’i manual of Islamic jurisprudence. I rely on it because it is readily available in English, so that any reader can check the book and see that what I say is true; and more importantly because it was endorsed by Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most respected authority in Sunni Islam. Al-Azhar certified that it “conforms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni community.” Anyway, Al-Azhar says this about what are almost certainly noncombatants:
When a child or woman is taken captive [by jihad warriors], they become slaves by the fact of capture, and the woman’s previous marriage is immediately annulled. [o9.12]
But is Akyol correct at least that Islam forbids the killing of captives? No:
When an adult male is taken captive, the caliph considers the interests … (of Islam and the Muslims) and decides between the prisoner’s death, slavery, release without paying anything, or ransoming himself in exchange for money or for a Muslim captive held by the enemy. [o9.14]
The caliph? But there is no caliph. Is that a way out? Probably not. The manual says that “It is offensive to conduct a military expedition against hostile non-Muslims without the caliph’s permission,” but “if there is no caliph, no permission is required” (o9.6).
Akyol, however, is not working from legal manuals, but from the Qur’an itself:
In the Koran, there are several verses about prisoners of war. First of all, you can’t take noncombatants as captives. On the contrary, another verse makes it clear that non-Muslims, even the least sympathized pagans, are to be protected whenever they ask for asylum:
“If one amongst the Pagans ask thee for asylum, grant it to him, so that he may hear the word of God; and then escort him to where he can be secure. That is because they are men without knowledge” (Koran, 9:6).
Since Nick Berg, Kim Sun-il, and Paul Johnson were not combatants, their request for asylum “” it is reasonable to assume that they asked for it “” should have been accepted. So, they should have been kindly escorted to wherever they wished to go.
Let’s assume that they were regarded as combatants. Berg, Johnson, and Sun-il should therefore have been regarded as prisoners of war. The verdict of the Koran is clear about them: They should be taken as captives during the battle, then, after the war, they should be released for free or ransomed (Koran, 47:4).
It’s interesting that he quotes 47:4, because that verse contains one of the Qur’an’s justifications for beheading:
Therefore, when ye meet the Unbelievers (in fight), smite at their necks; At length, when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind a bond firmly (on them): thereafter (is the time for) either generosity or ransom: Until the war lays down its burdens.
This is the key to Akyol’s whole argument: he says that “after the war, they should be released for free or ransomed,” in line with this verse’s call for “generosity or ransom” at the point when “the war lays down its burdens.” But the jihadists in Iraq do not believe that the war is over; far from it. They just declared jihad anew. As such, they would argue that it is not time for “generosity or ransom,” but for the smiting “at their necks.”
The legal manual ‘Umdat al-Salik actually bases its choices on this verse: the Muslims may decide to kill, ransom or release prisoners based on what is best for the Islamic community. And that decision will no doubt be made on the basis of judgments about the status of the war and the prospects for a cessation of hostilities, however temporary.
Akyol also invokes the Prophet:
There are also historical accounts reporting Prophet Muhammad ordering his men to treat captives very humanely. According to one account:
“After the Battle of Badr, prisoners of war were brought. Among them was al-AbbÃ¢s. He did not have a shirt on, so the Prophet looked for a shirt for him. It turned out that a shirt of Abd Allah bin Ubayy was the right size, so the Prophet gave it to al-AbbÃ¢s to wear and compensated Abdullah with his own shirt” [Al-BukhÃ¢rÃ® (3008)].
So, even the torn-up shirt of Johnson “” seen in his captivity photos “” let alone all the abuse that might be related to it, is inherently un-Islamic.
Unfortunately, there are other stories of Muhammad — particularly his notorious treatment of the Jewish Qurayzah tribe of Arabia. After they were captured, Muhammad executed them. According to his earliest biographer, Ibn Ishaq: “The apostle went out to the market of Medina (which is still its market today) and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for [the men of Banu Qurayza] and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches.” One of the Prophet’s fiercest enemies among the Banu Qurayza, Huyayy, proclaimed: “God’s command is right. A book and a decree, and massacre have been written against the Sons of Israel.” Then Muhammad struck off his head.
Akyol also invokes Islamic jurists:
Throughout history, many Muslim jurists have also emphasized that POWs cannot be killed or tortured. Ibn Muflih, the jurist from the HanbalÃ® school, writes: “The correct position on the matter is that if an enemy soldier is captured, it becomes unlawful to kill him.” There is also a historical account: The governor of Iraq, al-HajjÃ¢j, brought a prisoner in irons to Ibn Umar and ordered him to come up and kill him. Ibn Umar refused, saying: “This is not the way we do things. Allah says: ‘either generosity or ransom’ and He does not say anything about killing them.”
But another revered jurist, Al-Mawardi, agrees with ‘Umdat al-Salik. Mawardi says:
As for the captives, the amir has the choice of taking the most beneficial action of four possibilities: the first, to put them to death by cutting their necks; the second, to enslave them and apply the laws of slavery regarding their sale or manumission; the third, to ransom them in exchange for goods or prisoners; and fourth, to show favor to them and pardon them. [Al-Ahkam As-Sultaniyyah (The Laws of Islamic Governance), 4.5]
Why am I doing this? To make life difficult for a moderate? No. I am only trying to point out that Akyol’s conclusion (the beheadings “stem from a kind of necrophilic nihilism, not from the essence of Islam”) is unwarranted, and his argument will be unconvincing to a radical Muslim, who can invoke the authorities I have cited here and others.
So in sum: Akyol’s piece is not the kind of moderate Islamic presentation we need in order to neutralize the radicals. We need one that confronts and refutes their arguments; his simply ignores them. Those who are looking for moderate Muslims to rise up and refute the radicals should keep looking.
UPDATE: To NRO’s credit, they run a piece today by Andrew McCarthy that also points out some of the problems with Akyol’s analysis.