Shari’a and Homegrown Terrorism

by David L. Johnston

Especially since the 9/11 attacks on US soil, we Americans have struggled to come to terms with the concept of Shari’a. One of the (secondary) justifications for our invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of those murderous attacks was to “liberate” their women from the clutches of “this medieval and repressive system.” True, the Taliban’s legal code forbade women from going to school, working, and wearing anything in public but the traditional village burqa – in effect causing women’s faces to disappear.

For the record, this innovative interpretation of Shari’a flies in the face of all the traditional schools of Islamic law. Still, there are plenty of provisions in the Qur’an and Sunna (the texts reporting on what the Prophet Muhammad said and did) that contravene contemporary notions of gender justice. That said, less than a handful of Muslim-majority countries have such laws on their books and, as I have written elsewhere, Muslim jurists – and Muslim publics – display a large spectrum of views on the issue.

But our fear of Shari’a is not just about women’s rights, or even some of the prescribed punishments (hudud) for theft or adultery that seem barbaric to us – they’re rarely applied even in places like Saudi Arabia. Our real fear, understandably, is terrorism.

The FBI recently caught a 21-year-old Bengladeshi student, Quazi Mohammad Nafis, who thought he was detonating a 1,000-pound bomb in front of the Federal Reserve building. Fortunately for those present, he was only signing his arrest warrant on the tail end of a successful sting operation.

In the months leading up to his attack, the FBI revealed, he had been in conversation with a friend in the US who repeatedly pointed out to him that what he was about to do was against Shari’a law. Nafis insisted that “he was not bound by such rulings.” Indeed, there is a vigorous debate about such things among Muslims today, and the jihadists have clearly lost the argument in the face of an overwhelming majority of Muslims who favor international norms of human rights and democracy.

As I say, though you do find some jurists outside the mainstream in places like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan who call for it, the vast majority of Islamic scholars who give legal opinions (muftis who give fatwas) condemn any act of terrorism – defined as the indiscriminate killing of innocent people for a political or religious cause. Islamic law in all four main Sunni schools and the remaining Shi’ite one plainly forbids the killing of women and children, elderly, and clergy in the course of war. What is more, suicide is strictly forbidden.

Here I recommend you look at a short article by Yale political scientist Andrew F. March, who wrote a book on Islamic law, covenants and citizenship. Writing as he does in September 2010, he focuses on the American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki’s fatwa calling on American Muslim soldiers to kill their non-Muslim fellow soldiers because the US is killing Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. He was writing from his hiding place in the Yemen and was subsequently killed, as you will remember, by an American drone attack.

This was especially problematic because a US soldier, Nidal Hasan, took this ruling as his inspiration to kill over a dozen soldiers at Fort Hood the year before. March tries to disentangle the issues involved here, as far as Islamic law is concerned:

1. Is it permissible to serve in a non-Muslim army?

2. Is it permissible to fight Muslims on behalf of non-Muslims?

3. What should a Muslim citizen of a non-Muslim state do if asked to fight Muslims?

4. Is it ever permissible to attack soldiers within your own non-Muslim army as an act of

Then March comments:

“Suffice it to say that for the first three questions, the majority of Sunni religious scholars have said that (1) Muslims shouldn't serve in non-Muslim armies if possible, that (2) they may never fight fellow Muslims on behalf of non-Muslims or "assist in killing a believer even by half a word," and that (3) if asked to kill fellow Muslims believers should submit to torture or even execution. However, in the contemporary period, pragmatic scholars like Yusuf al-Qaradawi have given fatwas allowing Muslims to serve in non-Muslim armies, even against Muslims if they can serve in non-combatant capacities.”

In that last paragraph I want you to retain two statements. The first is “in the contemporary period.” This is crucial, because Islamic law as it basically coasted from the eleventh to the nineteenth century was worked out in the crucible of a worldview in which a dominant Islamic empire (though ruled by different regimes in many areas – the “Abode of Islam”) felt God-impelled to conquer the rest of the world (the “Abode of War”) in the name of Islam. No one (theoretically) would be forced to convert, but at least the People of the Book (Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians; but later in India, Buddhists and Hindus) could pay the poll tax in exchange for not serving in the army and enjoying a modicum of religious freedom. That’s the famous dhimmi status.

A brief parenthesis – and that’s the second bit I want you to remember from that quote: “scholars like Yusuf al-Qaradawi …” Qaradawi is the most famous and influential traditional Islamic jurist, mainly because of his weekly program on al-Jazeera TV in Qatar (where he’s lived since 1961). He also came back to his native Egypt barely a month into the “January 25 Revolution” of 2011 and led the Friday Prayers in Tahrir Square with close to a million worshipers present. Read about the paper I presented on this man’s writings at a conference on Islamic Law at the Hamline University in September 2012. 

Fast forward to the modern period and you find Muslim jurists reinterpreting jihad as permitted by God only for defensive purposes (see my blog on this for a fuller picture). A classic statement on this is the Islamic Society of North America’s 2005 position paper, “Against Terrorism and Religious Extremism: Muslim Position and Responsibilities.” 

From his own research Andrew March discovered another prominent reason for most jurists condemning acts of terror by Muslim-American citizens: the utter priority of fulfilling contracts and the utmost importance accorded to loyalty once it is sworn to a particular state. In his words,

“All Islamic scholars believe that Muslims living in the West, whether native born, naturalized or legal residents, are under a firm ‘contract of security’ (‘aqd al-aman) which renders all non-Muslim life, property and honor inviolable. Even Muslim scholars who support certain jihadi activities by and large tend to believe that Muslim citizens of non-Muslim polities may not engage in such activities against their own states.”

I’ll let you read March’s article in more detail for yourself about how seriously scholars denounced the sin of ghadr (treachery or perfidy), but I’ll have to quote the hadith (saying of the Prophet) which he uses to close his piece – Muhammad definitely had a sense of humor:

"He who betrays a trust will have a flag stuck in his anus on the Day of Judgment so that his treachery may be known."

Now, none of this guarantees that there won’t be more Muslims – US citizens or not (Nafis is not!) – who commit acts of terrorism on US soil. Sadly, that is bound to happen sooner or later, just as there will be other mass shootings for other reasons. But it does mean that the chorus of condemnation from official Islamic sources and from the Muslim street will ring out even more urgently.


More from David Johnston can be found on his blog,