Professor Sarıtoprak: ‘ISIS uses eschatological themes extensively for their ideology’

Zeki Sarıtoprak
Zeki Sarıtoprak

Date posted: July 30, 2015


“ISIS [the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham] is far from following ‘Prophetic methodology.’ ISIS preaches hatred and contempt for human life. Nowhere are these parts of anything that could be remotely described as the Prophetic methodology, and their killings and brutal treatment of other Muslims, Christian, Jews and others show that their methods are truly illegitimate,” according to Professor Zeki Sarıtoprak, who underlined that the Quran describes the Prophet as merciful to all human beings and asks Muslims to take the middle path, to avoid the temptations of extremism.

“ISIS methodology is extremist. In this regard, ISIS is nothing new. Throughout the history of Islam, there have been Muslims who follow the path of extremism,” said Sarıtoprak, a professor of Islamic studies at John Carroll University. Sarıtoprak added that President Barack Obama was right when he said last week that ISIS is un-Islamic because Obama was addressing the general public, which does not see the complexity in the term “Islamic.”

However, it is not the first time Obama has underlined the idea that violent extremists in Syria and Iraq have nothing to do with Islam. In a UN speech in 2014, Obama explicitly drew a line between the growing threat of terrorism in the Middle East and discussions about religion. Obama’s insightful speech last week, which clearly described ISIS as un-Islamic, took place not long after The Atlantic magazine published a piece in which ISIS was termed “very Islamic.”

The Atlantic also claimed that ISIS, in following the Prophetic methodology, actually follows the teachings and examples of Muhammad. However, The Atlantic failed to separate two important fields. The prophecies, which referred to the Prophet Muhammad, are examined in the field of Islamic eschatology but not the example of Prophet Muhammad. Professor Sarıtoprak notes that the hadiths (the sayings of Prophet Muhammad) related to these prophecies are weak and not reliable.

“According to the methodology of hadith evaluation, these hadıths are considered weak and unreliable.”

Professor Sarıtoprak emphasizes that ISIS uses eschatological themes extensively in their ideology, especially certain narratives found in the hadiths, or the collection of reports of sayings and teachings of the Prophet.

“In fact, the bulk of Islamic eschatology is based on the sayings of the Prophet rather than what is found in the Quran. These hadiths are generally compiled under the title ‘Kitab al-Malahim,’ ‘The Science of the Hour’ or, more literally, ‘The Book of the End-Time Events.’ As far as I can see, ISIS uses some of these symbols to include itself under the reflection of those Prophetic traditions.”

Today’s Zaman interviewed Professor Sarıtoprak about the debate over whether ISIS is Islamic or not and how the group uses Islamic eschatology.

Today, ISIS is considered one of the biggest security problems in the world. Some in the West agree with ISIS’ claims that it is Islamic. What is your response to that?

I have been following events in the media in order to understand ISIS as well as discussions of scholars of religion and the social sciences, which are relevant to this question. Much of the debate, it seems to me, hinges on how we interpret the term “Islamic.” There are two primary ways I see of defining Islamic, and I think we need to have an agreement on what Islamic means if we are ever to move on from such debates.

But before moving forward about defining “Islamic,” I have to clearly state that President Obama was right when he said ISIS is un-Islamic because President Obama was addressing the general public, which not see the details in the term Islamic. It seems to me that from the point of view of the general public, if something evil is considered Islamic, all religion is indicted and becomes evil. This is certainly not true, but unfortunately it is how debate seems to get categorized in the media. Islam should not be blamed for the actions of ISIS. Narrow-mindedness, inattention, and fanaticism are to be blamed. These are not problems with Islam and Muslims, but problems with the human psyche.

Could you elaborate on that?

Let me explain the two meanings of the term Islamic. The first meaning is the mainstream Muslim comprehension of Islam, which is that when someone relates something to Islam it means it is compatible with the core teaching of religion. I think this is the Islam that the Quran principally speaks to. Famously, the Quran says that the true religion of God is Islam (3:19). Thus, the religion of Abraham, Noah, Moses, and Jesus (pbut) was islam in their time. This is why when in the Quran the Queen of Sheeba accepts the religion of Solomon, she says that she has become a muslim (literally she submitted to the will of God) (27:44). In other words, islam with a lower case “i” is more encompassing and includes the true religion of all prophets of God.

Islam with a capital “I,” then, is the true religion that came to the Prophet Muhamad (pbuh). Hence, we can understand “Islamic” to mean something compatible with the true religion of God as found in the Quran and shared by the majority of Muslims, or ijma al-ummah. As the Prophet said, “God has prevented my community from coming together around an error.” By this definition, ISIS is not Islamic at all.

The second way to define “Islamic” is as something that happens in the milieu that is dominated by Muslims and by those who profess to follow the teachings of the Quran. If we understand “Islamic” as a simple adjective in this way, ISIS is Islamic. With this line of thinking, the leader of ISIS who adopted the name Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is “Islamic” just as Abd-al-Rahman ibn Muljam, the notorious Kharijite and murderer of Ali, was “Islamic.”

Simply quoting verses from the Quran or sayings of the Prophet in no way justifies one’s actions. Abd-al-Rahman ibn Muljam grew up in the Islamic tradition, and we have a hadith that indicates that the Prophet foresaw Ali’s murder. The Prophet said to Ali: “The worst of earlier generations is the murderer of the camel [of the prophet Salih].” He then asked Ali who the worst of the later generations was. Ali said that only God and his Messenger know. The Prophet then said, “The worst of the later generations is your murderer.”

If Abd-al-Rahman ibn Muljam — being the worst of later generations — is “Islamic,” then I would say that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is also “Islamic.” The beautiful name of Abd-al-Rahman just proves that names are not important. What is of importance is the reality. You can call ISIS “Islamic,” but doing so doesn’t make ISIS Islamic.

But ISIS claims that they are following “the Prophetic methodology.”

I would argue that ISIS is far from following the Prophetic methodology. ISIS preaches hatred and contempt for human life. Nowhere are these parts of anything that could be remotely described as the Prophetic methodology. Their killings and brutal treatment of other Muslims, Christian, Jews and others show that their methods are truly illegitimate. The Quran describes the Prophet as a mercy for all the worlds. The Prophet asks Muslims to take the middle way to avoid the temptations of extremism. ISIS’ methodology is extremist. In this regard, ISIS is nothing new. Throughout the history of Islam, there have been Muslims who followed the way of extremism. An example from early Islam is the Kharijites. The Kharijites accused some companions of the Prophet, including Ali, the last of the rightly guided caliphs, of being a “kafir,” or infidel. They specifically accused Ali because he made a peace agreement with Muawiyah, the governor of Damascus. In their argument they referred to a verse in the Quran which says that those who do not rule according the rules sent down by God are truly disbelievers (5:44). According to extremist groups, all judges who do not rule in line with God’s message are disbelievers. This mentality is still alive today not just in ISIS, but also other groups that profess versions of political Islam. I even encountered individuals who used this verse against judges and the government during my time at divinity school in Turkey.

How do you think they justify their terrorism then?

Just like verse I just mentioned, there are some verses in the Quran which, when read against the mainstream of Islamic thought, could be used as a justification for such violence. For instance, a famous verse says: “You are the best community ever raised up for human beings. You command what is good and forbid what is evil (3:110).” If you take this verse without knowing the full context or how the Prophet interpreted this verse, you could easily take it to be commanding one to take up arms against “evil.” This leads us to what I think is the main problem with ISIS, and the same goes for Wahhabism in general: literalism. Literal interpretations of the texts in many cases lead to narrow-mindedness and extremism. This judgmental view is an example of literalism. As the example of the Kharijites shows, historically there have been representatives of literalism in the tradition, but the majority of Muslim scholars have read the Quran interpretively. There is danger at the opposite end of the spectrum as well. Strict esotericists like al-Babtiniyyah also fail to follow the middle way. The majority of Muslims have rejected both ways of understanding the Qur’an. It might help then to define what is meant by the middle way. In some cases the text can and should be interpreted, while in some cases the literal meaning is meant. The Quran is literal when it says to give charity, or zakat, but interpretation is needed to fully understand what charity means. This middle way has been the view of the majority of Muslims throughout history. Extremism is such a problem that God commands believers to the middle path and Muslims, in their daily prayers, ask God to guide them to “the straight path” at least seventeen times a day.

Why do you think they are so obsessed with the idea of establishing an Islamic state or caliphate? Does Islam prescribe a particular form of rule? How central do you think the caliphate is in Islam?

First, let me say that nowhere in the Quran or hadith does it say that the duty of Muslims is to establish a caliphate, and in fact, the idea of an Islamic state did not exist prior to middle of the 19th century. I think that ISIS is so obsessed with a state because they have forgotten how to apply the rules to themselves, and so they have a desire to impose the rules on others. ISIS is thus a version of political Islam which as a governing philosophy holds that Islam can be imposed on a population from the top down. This actually goes against Quranic principles, which focus on the individual as a universe in and of her or himself. One thing that followers of political Islam are generally not aware of is that time is an interpreter of the Quran. Some Quranic verses should be interpreted under the conditions of our time and not under the conditions of the Middle Ages. Therefore, I do not think that a caliphate or an Islamic state is necessary for Islam to flourish in the 21st century. It seems the future of Islam is in cooperation with the West and with Christianity. There is no imperative in the Quran to destroy the West or Christians. Quite the opposite, Islam should build upon Western civilization, not seek to destroy it. Those who see problems in the West should take solace in the words of Said Nursi, who said that eventually the negative aspects of the West will dissipate and there can be a coming together of Western and Islamic civilizations.

Methodologically speaking, establishing an Islamic state may sound very attractive to many Muslims, but in reality it may not solve the problems of human beings. If you provide the best rules and put them in the hands of corrupt people, those rules will be used for corruption as well. I think that the attraction of an Islamic state blinds many Muslims to the reality of their situation and morality. It can be argued that helping one person to have faith in God is more rewarding than creating an Islamic state. Therefore, I think that any state that develops justice in society is compatible with the core teachings of Islam. Today there are many Western countries that follow Islamic values more closely than many states that claim to be Islamic.

You are one of the experts on Mr. Gülen’s works as well. What do you think about Mr. Gülen’s thoughts about political representation of Islam and democracy?

In 2005 I had an interview with Mr. Gülen, the text of which was published in “The Muslim World,” and what I understand from Mr. Gülen is that humanity has not yet found a better system than democracy and that Islam enriches democracy rather than rejects it. As Mr. Gülen mentioned in my interview with him: “The spirit of Islam … promotes the rule of law and openly rejects oppression against any segment of society. This spirit also promotes actions for the betterment of society in accordance with the view of the majority.” Still today Mr. Gülen strongly supports democracy over tyranny and despotism even if this threatens him and the movement he symbolizes. I would agree that democracy is indeed highly compatible with Islam and vice versa. Muslims then should embrace democracy and work to further the space that it gives them to grow and nurture their relationship with God. During the debates on constitutionalism in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, Said Nursi was asked if the sultanate could be reestablished. He emphatically responded, “The old system is impossible. Either the new system or annihilation.”

You have also published work on Islamic eschatology. What do you see about ISIS in Islamic eschatology?

It is true that ISIS uses eschatological themes extensively for their ideology, especially some narratives that take place in the Hadith, the collections of the saying of the Prophet. In fact, the bulk of Islamic eschatology is made up of sayings of the Prophet as opposed to being found in the Quran. These hadith are generally compiled under the title “Kitab al-Malahem,” literally “Book of the End Time Events.” As far as I can see, ISIS uses some of these symbols to include itself under the reflection of those Prophetic traditions.

To give a few examples, its name includes Sham, which means greater Syria and as eschatological term is believed to be the place where Jesus will descend and the struggle between Jesus and the Antichrist will occur. The name of its magazine “Dabiq,” too, is a place in that area of eschatological significance. I also think that the black flag is used to indicate that they are the people mentioned in one of the hadith. That hadith says: “The people of my family will face trials and torture and rejection until a nation comes from the east that carries with them black flags. They ask for goodness and they are not given. And they fight and they become victorious.” According the methodology of hadith evaluation, this hadith is considered weak and not reliable. Even if it is accurate that the Prophet said this, in another hadith, the Prophet clarified that the people who carry black flags are Abbasids, who are known historically as helping the members of the Prophet’s family against the oppression of the Umayyad dynasty.

In some hadith, there is a term “khalifa” or successor and I think ISIS uses this term intentionally to attract Muslims especially those that are not very familiar with the interpretations of the Hadith. They have been led by ISIS recruiters to believe that ISIS is what is mentioned in these statements of the Prophet. In one of the chapters of my book “Islam’s Jesus” I elaborated on the descent of Jesus as one of the Signs of the Hour and how the details of the narratives, especially the specific location, are not found in the hadith themselves, but are added by narrators. Furthermore, I emphasize that those hadith should not be taken literally. Instead, many of them are allegorical and metaphorical. Historically, many charlatans used those hadith as a reference to themselves and it seems al-Baghdadi is doing the same when he says he is the khalifa. Many charlatans have claimed that they were the Mahdi or Jesus, sent by God to rescue the community from oppression. Most Muslims however have not accepted these individuals and even today, by my calculation, only about 0.02 percent of Muslims are followers of ISIS.

According to ISIS’s interpretation of Islamic eschatology they claim that they are preparing for the final war with the armies of Evil. What do you think they mean when they say they will conquer Rome?

I don’t know whether or not this is just rhetoric on their part or whether they actually believe they will conquer the Italian capital, but it has no basis in reality. We are not living in the Middle Ages and the age of violent conquest is over. Many Muslim scholars have emphasized that the age of swords is no more. Instead, the shining proofs of the Quran should take the place of swords. We are now in a civilized world and the relations of civilized people are based on convincing others with words, not attacking them with steel. There are many long hadith which mention specific places and details of the fight between Jesus and the Antichrist, and some of these mention Romans, but none of these hadith should be taken literally. They are allegorical and any attempt to make them sound as if they apply to a certain group like ISIS would be a distortion of the text. In many cases, when the Prophet speaks about future events, he intentionally used allegorical language because future events are considered al-ghayb or the unseen and if God did not show the future to the Prophet, even the Prophet did not know about the future.

What about the second conquest of Constantinople? Is that another interpretation of the Hadith mentioning Rome?

As far as I know, there is one hadith about the conquest of Constantinople, which is believed to have been fulfilled by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II. Chapter 30 in the Quran is called al-Rum and what is meant is the eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. All prophetic statements about eschatological events cannot be considered as basis for theological decisions because they are not essential to the principles of religion and their meanings are not clear enough since they are allegorical. Muslims have to avoid making pronouncements regarding any sayings of the Prophet whose meanings are not known clearly to them. It is evident that ISIS is taking some such hadith on Romans and applying them to our time. In fact, there are so many hadith that one can find which oppose each other. Therefore all hadith have to be very well scrutinized in order to distinguish the sound ones from the weak ones methodologically.

What are the roots of these eschatological views? Does the Quran say anything about the resurrection Jesus and the coming of the Mahdi or Dajjal? And how reliable are the hadith related to these issues?

All of these views are mainly to be found in the hadith. In fact, the Quran itself does not speak explicitly about eschatological figures such as the Mahdi and al-Dajjal (the Antichrist) nor the eschatological descent of Jesus. There are more than 100 hadith which mention the descent of Jesus and the Antichrist but only a handful that mention the Mahdi by name. It would lead us off topic to discuss these hadith in detail here, but chapter six of my book is dedicated to this topic. Unfortunately many charlatans have used the title Mahdi for themselves to exploit the hopes of people. Even today in the Islamic world there is a surplus of self-styled or appointed mahdis. Those who take literal approaches to the texts find it necessary to alter their situation to fit the description of the hadith. In an article I wrote on the Mahdi, I argue the Mahdi should not be understood as a physical person who can change the world in one day but instead should be understood as a broad spiritual enterprise, what I call a “collective personality,” that is dedicated to good works and the betterment of human beings.

I do think that there is hope in the Islamic tradition for redemption and this is why the eschatological tradition has been so strong in Islam. However, it is clear that ISIS is misusing this hope among people for their own ends and not for the betterment of society and humanity.

Don’t you think that these concepts might be a result of Christian and Jewish influences on Islam?

There is no doubt that there has been Muslim-Christian-Jewish interaction on the concept of eschatological themes and there are many long hadith that seem to be influenced by either Jewish or Christian traditions. But, I should emphasize that being influenced by Jewish or Christian traditions does not mean that they are intrinsically wrong. Scholars of the hadith have scrutinized and categorized the hadith on eschatology and they have distinguished many reliable sayings of the Prophet on eschatology and end time events. I think the problem is not the reliability of the sayings of the Prophet; the problem is our understanding of the sayings of the Prophet. The Prophet spoke in Arabic and as such used the metaphors and allegorical language which are the hallmark of Arabic eloquence.

Recently, you wrote a book about Jesus. Do you think Christians are knowledgeable enough about how Jesus played a crucial role in the Quran? What are the similarities and differences concerning Jesus in Islam and Christianity?

As I mention in the introduction to my book, not only do Christians not know enough about the place of Jesus in the Quran and in Islam but many Muslims do not know enough about this as well. To mention similarities and differences in much detail would need more time than we have given to the questions at hand. In my book I discussed the place of Jesus in the Quran and the bulk of the book is about the eschatological place of Jesus in the Quran and Hadith and how Muslim commentators have understood the descent of Jesus, and I argue for the importance of an interpretive approach to the Islamic eschatological tradition. Furthermore, the last chapter of the book is dedicated to the importance of interfaith dialogue and the importance of Jesus and his inherent goodness as a common ground between Christians and Muslims. I end the book by saying that “when the Prophet said that Jesus will come as a just ruler, he emphasized the importance of justice and peace on earth. If the trend toward dialogue leads to justice and peace in our world, it will mean the fulfillment of the messages of both Muhammad and Jesus, peace and blessings be upon them.”

Zeki Saritoprak is a professor and holds the Bediüzzaman Nursi Chair in Islamic Studies at John Carroll University. He holds a Ph.D. in Islamic Theology from the University of Marmara in Turkey. Professor Saritoprak is the author of “Islam’s Jesus” (University Press of Florida, 2014) and over 30 academic articles and encyclopedia entries on topics in Islam. He has served as guest editor for issues of the journals “Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations” and “The Muslim World.” He is editor and co-translator of “Fundamentals of Rumi’s Thought: A Mevlevi Sufi Perspective” (in English; New Jersey: The Light, 2004) and the editor of a critical edition of al-Sarakhsi’s “Sifat Ashrat al-Sa’a” (in Arabic; Cairo, 1993). He is currently preparing a book on Islamic spirituality tentatively titled “Islamic Spirituality: Theology and Practice for the Modern World.”

Source: Today's Zaman , March 02, 2015

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