HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal is a member of the Royal Family of Saudi Arabia. Until 2001 he was the Director of the Saudi Arabia General Intelligence Directorate, and later served as Ambassador in London and Washington DC. He more recently established the King Faisal Foundation to promote education in Saudi Arabia, and is the Chairman of the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies. This is a text of a speech which he gave at the Houses of Parliament at the invitation of Rehman Chishti MP on 16 September 2015. It is reproduced exclusively here by HRH Prince Turki’s kind permission.
A year ago, I began a personal campaign to refer to the atrocity that calls itself the “Islamic State,” (“Da’esh” in Arabic) by a name that exposes its true nature: Fahish, or “obscene.” However, commenting on the obscenities or atrocities of Da’esh, or Fahish, has almost become cliché: the world appears to have become desensitized to their bloodthirsty quest to rid Iraq and Syria of all who oppose their radical ideology. This desensitization to bloodshed has also come with desensitization to the power of words. Every barbaric act committed by these ideologues has been reported on, commented on, discussed as, and referred to with their own name for themselves: the “Islamic State.” While the world watches in silent protest, little moved by the images of women, children, families, towns and entire civilizations being destroyed before our very eyes; we in the Arab and Muslim world also watch in silent protest as extremists hijack not only our identity but our faith as Muslims – the very essence of Islam. We are witnessing barbarians attempting to hijack something so core and so relevant to the entire humanity – the very concept and nature of the State.
Today, Muslim citizens can be found in almost every country, leading their lives as law-abiding citizens of all nations, both Muslim and non-Muslim states, in countries where religion plays an official role, and in states where there is separation of religion from the state. To speak of an organization best known for its public executions of innocent civilians as an “Islamic State” is an insult both to the faith of these Muslim citizens of the world as well as to the very institution of the state. The media love discussions of terrorism and violence that treat Islam as a pathology. In the media framework, “Islam” is shorthand for reactionary backwardness, and “Islamic” institutions are those that use violence to disrupt democracy. The term “Islamic State” caters to media preconceptions about the goals and behaviour of a terrorist organization, and its use in the media obscures the fact that Muslims in Iraq, Syria, and everywhere, of all creeds, Sunni and Shia alike, are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence. In this way, allowing a fundamentally ideological and godless nongovernmental violent organization the free publicity of the name “Islamic State” crosses the line from ignorance to active harm, not only to Muslims, but to the very institution of the State. This is speech and politics that does violence – speech and politics that are fahish, obscene.
The idea that “Islam is a religion of peace” has become an empty cliché and a lazy rejoinder to media depictions of Muslims as bloodthirsty or reactionary. “Islam,” more often than not dismissed as a monolithic bloc, is an extraordinarily diverse and rich religious and historical tradition and a way of life for billions of ordinary people from many cultures and societies. In the Arabian Peninsula, in my homeland of Saudi Arabia specifically, the Islamic tradition bases its understandings of the practice of Islam on the example of the first three generations of Muslims after the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). They were known as al-salaf al-salih, the righteous forefathers. This tradition of understanding Islam through these first generations is often termed pejoratively as “Salafism,” with negative associations of being puritanical. What the tradition of the Salaf actually prescribes is the seeking of guidance from scripture, as well as from the words and deeds of the Prophet and of those who lived in community with him. In practice, this translates into a religious life centred on devotion to God; respectful behaviour to others; a peaceful, well-run society; and an emphasis on self-improvement. Peace is not only the absence of violence but also, and more importantly, peace is the active cultivation of social unity. Fahish is a direct threat to social unity: not only in Iraq and Syria, where they target Muslims as well as religious and ethnic minorities alike; but it is also a direct threat to the Muslim majority states and societies throughout the world, if its claims to the monikers “Islamic” and “State” are accepted and continued. The organization’s gleeful degradation of fellow believers in the name of God is perhaps its greatest offence against Islamic law. The tradition of the forefathers, the Salaf, practiced and observed by many Muslims, abhors violence against the innocent and divisions within the Islamic community. Those who know the tradition know that emulating the Salaf advocates political quietism as a way of preserving the unity of the Islamic community and preventing internecine violence. The famed scholar al-Tahawi (d. 933) wrote a famous definition of the Salafi creed that is the main theology text taught in Saudi universities. On the topic of violence, politics and government, it teaches that, and I quote:
We do not agree with killing any of the community, Ummah, of Muhammad, may God bless him and grant him peace… We follow the teaching of the Prophet and the community of Muslims and avoid deviation, differences, and divisions. We love the people of justice and trustworthiness and hate the people of injustice and treachery.
These main aspects of the Salafi creed, and the heart of traditional political thought in the Sunni tradition, as this statement illustrates, are:
- It is imperative to respect the Muslim community and to avoid causing any division within society by labelling others unbelievers or hypocrites. No one has the right to judge others’ faith in this life.
- Killing others is a major sin; indeed it is close to apostasy. Such killing is the Fahish practice.
Contrast the dignity and wisdom of that statement with the public profile of Fahish, who have built much of their reputation by filming and releasing tapes of some of the more than 300 beheadings they have carried out over the past few years. While the group’s utter disrespect for human life, both Muslim and non-Muslim, is well known: another interesting contrast lies in the difference between Salafi tradition’s edict to respect legitimate leadership against Fahish’s attempt to win Muslim allegiance through a toxic mix of propaganda and terror.
Fahish’s current leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is not a religious scholar. He is certainly no caliph. His assumed name is a theft of the name 14 of the first Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr, a rebranding that preceded his self-nomination and self-appointment as the so-called “caliph” of the so-called “Islamic State” in 2014. The meaning of the term “caliph” is somewhat elusive, as the position has a long history. The first caliph, with the consensus of his people, led the entire Muslim community in the wake of the Prophet’s death and provided spiritual as well as political guidance. Centuries later, as the Islamic world grew, splintered, and grew even more, his successors were more like kings. In Islamic law and philosophy, the notion of a caliphate became more an ideal than a description of reality, with various scholars debating the attributes of a true caliph, his behaviour, and the type of community he would lead. Islamic scholarship on the caliphate is vast and complex, although certain core principles are easy to discern. In the tradition that follows the Salaf, the caliph was seen as a leader who preserves the unity of the global Muslim community and who, if he guides absolutely, is committed to the safety of his people and abdicates his authority if he rebels against God. Together, the so-called Islamic State and the media have capitalized on the glamour and the vagueness of the word “caliph” to suggest that al-Baghdadi has seized (global) power based on laws he and his people do not understand and on responsibilities he refuses, willfully, to fulfill.
Fahish is the latest terrorist group to bring the word “jihad” back into fashion as a catchall term for violent uprisings, acts of zealotry, and unwarranted barbaric aggression. The term is abused in the news multiple times a day, mentioned casually as a core principle of Islam as if most Muslims would rather wave battle flags than take care of their families. Jihad, which carries meanings of striving and struggle, can involve battle: all just causes have their battles. But the greater jihad is and always has been jihad al-nafs, the jihad of the self, and the struggle to ascend above the lowest impulses and to do good. There is no jihad al-nafs in the cowardly, ugly posturing of Fahish. No group that treats humanity with such contempt and disdain can claim any jihad at all, no matter how many flags it waves and weapons it wields.
Another word beloved of the media and attributed to Fahish and other terrorist groups is “Wahhabi.” The term refers to Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, the eighteenth-century religious scholar who allied himself with Muhammad bin Saud to establish the first Saudi state, which lasted from 1742 to 1818. Ibn Abdul Wahhab followed the teachings of the tradition of the Salaf, and his preaching was characterized by adherence to the Tahawi creed mentioned earlier. Despite these credentials, the media and so-called experts on the Middle East associate the mention of his name with extremist, if not terrorist, teachings. Moreover, Sheikh Ibn Abdul Wahhab understood the tradition of the Salaf from the teachings of Imam Ahmed bin Hanbal (d.855) one of the four great theologians and jurists of classical Sunni Islam, whose jurisprudence forms the basis of the juridical system in the modern-day Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. When advising one of his students against joining seditions that terrorized the community and promoted extrajudicial killing of citizens in the second century of Islam, the Imam advised his student in the following manner:
“I do not consent nor do I command it [the seditions]; to observe patience in our situation is better than sedition that causes the shedding of blood, the plundering of wealth, and violations [of women.]”
For me, it is difficult to hear the word “Wahhabi” used as if it were a slur. My own great, great, great, great grandfather was Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, and the religious leader of his time. I grew up in a household where the teachings of Ibn Abdul Wahhab were practiced wisely and with care. The adults I admired modelled obedience to God, knowledge of the world, and respect to others through their own devotion to Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s tradition. Scholarship and knowledge of Islam revealed in the tradition of Ibn Abdul Wahhab have influenced every part of my intellectual and spiritual development. The doctrines of this sheikh are put into practice every day by honourable, well-respected co-workers, family members, and friends. It is impossible for me to reconcile my own experience of abiding by the tradition of the forefathers, Salaf, in Islam, with the ignorance and dogmatism that so many seem to associate with the word, let alone the chaotic violence that threatens Muslim lives and tramples on Muslim dignity.
All of this leads to one conclusion. Fahish, the media, pundits, and some political leaders in our region as well as in the West are in cahoots to steal from me and from the more than one-and-a-half-billion Muslims our religion, Islam, in all of its traditions. These heretics, or khawarig, as they are known in Islam, have destroyed revered sites of worship and contemplation in the name of “destroying idols,” including millennia-old sites of civilization. They have collectively judged and sentenced to death all Muslims who disagree with them, Sunni and Shia, for being blasphemers. For those of us Muslims who follow the traditions of the Salaf and the teachings of Imams Ahmad bin Hanbal and Abdul Wahhab, our ideals of self-improvement through personal struggle to overcome (or “jihad”); our reverence for our righteous ancestors, the salaf al-salih, have been hijacked. God willing, we will reclaim them and rid the world of these barbarians, sooner, rather than later.