Getting the history right about political Islam

It is almost a dogma, even among some conservative commentators, that there is a radical disconnect between moderate Muslims and radical Muslims. A charming young Muslim with an Australian accent and dressed modestly in a nijab appears on television to tell us that radical Islam is not true Islam. Islam is as peace-loving as she is. Indeed, she radiates peace as well as charm. ISIS warriors, brandishing their swords and mockingly dangling severed heads in front of us assure us otherwise.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the current President of Turkey has angrily rejected the distinction between moderate Islam and radical Islam. There is only one Islam he has insisted. Indeed, but what is it? Dangerous fish swim in calm waters. The ordinary person in the West is inclined to think of Islam in terms of Western thought and traditions, rendering their knowledge of it seriously deficient.

Paul Stenhouse MSC Ph.D, an acknowledged expert on Islam and the Middle East, wrote the following article for Annals Australasia a couple of years ago. Circumstances have changed in the meantime – the crushing of ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Syria – but the message (and warning) is still current.

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ISIS, stratagems, lies, Islamist terror, and political totalitarianism


By Paul Stenhouse, MSC

YOUNG RELIGIOUS MUSLIMS from western democracies, impressed by the military hardware and the ruthless butchery and mayhem that the psychopathic, self-styled Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, spreads in the name of Allah in Iraq and Syria, have joined his band of young, brainwashed jihadists calling themselves The Islamic State.

Ai-Baghdadi has gone through many name changes; his latest nom de guerre is the title adopted by the legitimate Caliphs or Successors of Muhammad, viz.: Amir al-Mu’minin[Commander of the Faithful]. And he now wants to be called Caliph Ibrahim.

Whatever his name and his claims, would-be followers need to be aware that in the middle of the eleventh century AD there were no fewer than four self-styled Caliphs in Spain, each claiming to be the Commander of the Faithful, each claiming to be Sovereign over all Muslims in Andalusia: Hisham II at Seville; Muhammad I al-Mahdi at Malaga; Muhammad ben al-Qasim at Algeciras; and Idris II ibn Yahya [known as al-‘Ali] the rightful Caliph of Malaga.(1)

Their internecine quarrels unleashed murderous tribal, clan and personal vendettas between Andalusians, Berbers, Arabs, Slavs and Black Muslims in Andalusia that resemble the internecine bloodbaths still engulfing Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and of the Arab Spring in Egypt and North Africa.

The tragedy is that in the 21st century we find what had been a feature of Islamic rule in Spain from the moment the Muslim Berber army entered Andalusia in 711, and throughout the Middle East since the death of Muhammad in 632, is continuing unabated and even spreading. And while Christians and other non-Islamic minorities are butchered and pillaged by al-Baghdadi and his pawns, the majority of their victims are Muslims.

Feuds between Arab tribes, based on mutual hatred that existed in Arabia from time immemorial, in the words of historian Reinhart Dozy who was speaking specifically of the Yemenites and the Kaisites [or Ma’addites], would ‘in the years to come … drench Spain and Sicily, the deserts of Atlas and the banks of the Ganges, with blood.'(2)

It was ever thus: from the attack in Muhammad’s lifetime on the village of Mu’tah in today’s Jordan in 629 AD [to steal the renowned Mashrafiyeh swords manufactured in Mu’tah, for the imminent attack on Mecca] to the terrorist outrages of September 11, 2001, and the continuing bloody ‘insurgent’ attacks in Afghanistan, post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, and Syria.

Al-Baghdadi is just one of the more recent in this long line of Islamic ‘prophets’ and fanatics who have appeared after Muhammad’s death, beginning with Abu Bakr – the first of the Caliphs – the successors of Muhammad  – and al-Baghdadi’s namesake.

Abu Bakr’s ruthlessness when Caliph – towards ‘infidels’ and allegedly apostate Muslims – is well documented. Al-Tabari, the ninth century AD Islamic historian, tells us that Abu Bakr advised Khalid bin Walid not to spare any of the Arab tribes that would not accept Islam. He commanded him to torture the tribesmen with fire and kill them pitilessly, and capture their wives and children. This grim advice is repeated in a letter written by Abu Bakr to the Arab tribesmen who had repudiated Islam when Muhammad died.(3)

Ibn Khaldun, a Tunisian scholar who died in 1406 – regarded by some as one of the founders of modern sociology and economics -had this to say about Christians in his day: ‘We should not blacken the pages of this book [the Muqaddimah] with discussions of their doctrines of unbelief. … to discuss or argue these things with them is not up to us. It is for them [to choose between] conversion to Islam, payment of the poll tax, or death’.(4)  Al-Baghdadi and his horde are not exceptions, they are the norm for political Islam.

Towards the end of the thirteenth century AD, an anonymous Arab author wrote a handbook on artifice and subterfuge entitled Raqa’iq al-hilal fi daqa’iq al-hiyal, which translates as ‘Fine weapons in subtle deceits’. The word hiyal is the plural of hila, which means ‘artifice’ ‘cunning,’ ‘ruse,’ ‘stratagem,’ ‘trick,’ ‘subterfuge,’ ‘evasion,’ ‘machination,’ ‘plot’: a tactic that misleads, and thereby enables someone to circumvent the law, to act in fraudem legis. Its root hala principally means ‘to change,’ and can mean ‘withdraw,’ as in the sense of withdrawing from or repudiating a covenant or agreement.

The handbook’s content makes its point clear: to prevail in difficult and uncertain circumstances may call for refinement of skill in persuasion and, if necessary, in cheating and misleading in order to outwit an adversary or gain an ally. And not just in political or military matters. The book ranges widely, dealing with artifice, strategems and lying ruses in politics, commerce, social intercourse and religion.

All the ploys, plots and ruses have a familiar and modern ring to them. Machiavelli would have recognized a kindred soul in our anonymous author, and would have been impressed.

The Abbasid Caliph Ma’mun [AD 813-833], for example, loved precious stones, and indulged in a spot of insider trading by devising a clever ruse to bring the price of gems down so that he could buy them more cheaply.(5)

Desire for revenge motivated Hamid, son of al-Abbas, who managed to dupe the honest Vizier Ali bin Isa Ibn al-Jarrah who had imprisoned him for tax fraud (6).

When Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin ‘Ali was Caliph, Mu’awiya, who was to become first of the Umayyad Caliphs in Damascus, tricked ‘Ali into dismissing a most loyal friend and ally – Qais bin Sa’ad who was Governor of Egypt – by spreading lies about his loyalty in letters that he knew would reach ‘Ali. ‘Ali believed them, summarily dismissed Qais and Mu’awiya was able to seize control of Egypt.(7)

We even hear of an unnamed Sultan who was strapped for cash, and whose soldiers’ salaries had not been paid. He had ingots made of copper and covered with a light coating of gold, that he deposited in his treasury. When his soldiers demanded to be paid immediately he showed them the spurious gold ingots and promised to pay them after he had coins struck from the gold. They agreed to wait. Afterwards, when taxes were paid, the Sultan paid his soldiers from the money he received.(8)

This tale is reminiscent of fraud perpetrated in AD 1078 by Mu’tamid king of Seville on Raymond Berenger II, Count of Barcelona. Mu’tamid paid in debased coinage thirty thousand ducats which he owed the Count – having minted the coins with a large admixture of alloy.(9)

In his introduction to the French edition of this book, Syrian-born Rene Khawam notes the modern ring to much in the MSS: ‘Nothing has changed in the soul of these desert dwellers who can be consecutively, and sometimes simultaneously, the proudest warriors and the most deceitful negotiators.'(10)

From the seventh century onwards, early and late mediaeval Christendom was aware of what modern western democratic governments and intellectuals, and even many Muslims, seem to have forgotten – that ruses, deceit, wiles and betrayal were essential and respectable and even at times mandatory parts of the armoury of Arab and Islamic strategists and polemicists.

They also form part of the armoury of radical Islamic polemicists and propagandists who today are multiplying in Western countries as the numbers of Muslim refugees and other migrants living in non-Islamic countries, increase.

Flowing from its nature as a seventh-century politico-religious ideology of Arabian origin, Political Islam draws heavily on its religious texts to justify such devices aimed at subjugating heretics and infidels, and extricating believers from uncertain situations.

The neophyte Islamist being groomed as a suicide bomber, or a mujahid [jihadist], approaching the thirteenth century handbook to which I referred above, will find good grounds for confidence and lack of scruple. Muhammad is quoted by the anonymous author of the Handbook as advising his followers thus:

Put more trust in a ruse than in your military prowess; attach more importance to being circumspect than to being courageous in battle, for war is a series of actions aimed at deceiving the enemy. It will truly prove to be a war if you throw yourself blindly into skirmishes, but it will be a mere passing cloud for anyone who is circumspect.(12)

The teachings of Sayyid Qutb – twentieth century ideologue for the radical Islamist sect the Ikhwan al-Muslimun, the Muslim Brothers – are rightly considered to be – along with those of the Pakistani Islamist teacher Abu A’la Mawdudi – the inspiration behind modern-day militant Islamic extremists, including the barbarous fighters of The Islamic State led from a safe distance by their self-styled Caliph Abu Bakr Baghdadi.

Sayyid Qutb may seem to be an unlikely model for straight talking and honest dialogue. Nevertheless he vehemently deplored dissimulation, and criticised flattery and sychophancy.(13)

It is not too late for modern-day Islamic spin doctors and their influential dupes in Western political parties and media, to take at least this one leaf from Sayyid Qutb’s book. Fewer young men may be tempted to follow the persuasive ranting of ‘Caliph’ Ibrahim/ Baghdadi and his ilk.

Like Niccolo Macchiavelli, the anonymous Arab author of the handbook on deceit described above has presented a disregard for the difference between good and evil as the very ‘rule … of human politics’.(14)

I should like to make my own, comments by the noted Thomistic philosopher Jacques Maritain on IL Principe, The Prince, by Niccolo Macchiavelli, and I suggest that what follows applies not only to Machiavelli but equally well to the anonymous thirteenth century Arab author quoted above:

Machiavelli belongs to that series of minds, and some of them more profound than his, which … have endeavored to unmask the human being. … Yet in unmasking the human being he maimed its very flesh, and wounded its eyes. To have thoroughly rejected ethics, metaphysics and theology from the realm of political knowledge and political prudence is his very own achievement, and it is also the most violent mutilation suffered by the human practical intellect and the organism of practical wisdom. Radical pessimism regarding human nature is the basis of Machiavelli’s thought. … his crude empiricism cancels for him the indirect ordaining of political life toward the life of souls and immortality, so his concept of man is merely animal, and his crude empiricism cancels for him the image of God in man – a cancellation which is the metaphysical root of every power politics and every political totalitarianism.(15).

Stopping the bloodshed in Iraq, Syria, Palestine and throughout the Islamic world, ending the religious and ethnic intolerance, the suicide bombings, the vendettas, the kidnappings, rapes and wholesale destruction, and facing a brave new world with courage and realism, is a nobler quest for young religious Muslims, than following a spurious self-proclaimed Caliph into totalitarian barbarism and oblivion in the name of Allah – two of whose most mentioned attributes are mercy and compassion.

It is the path of mercy and compassion – not the path of intolerance, racism and bloodshed -that is God’s path; and all who walk it will be blessed.

Muslims killed since 1948

1. Reinhart Dozy, Spanish Islam, London. Chatio and Windus, 1913, p.626.

2. Ibid. p.68.

3. Abu Ja’afar Muhammad bin Jarir at-Tabari, Tarikh al-Umam wa al-Muluk [History of Peoples and Kings]. 2 vols. Dar ibn Hazim. Beirut. |Arabic text undated) vol. 1. p. 876. See also Dozy, op.cit. p. 21.

4. Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah. Franz Rosenthal trans. 3 vols BoIIingen Series. Princeton University Press, 1980 ed.Vol. 1, p. 480.

5. According to Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Abd Rabbihi, born Cordova in 860 AD. See Le Livre des Ruse: la strategie politique des Arabes, Phebus. Paris 1976. pp. 206, 207.

6. Vizier of the Caliph al-Mouktadir from 918-923 AD. He amassed a great fortune during this time. Ibid. pp. 319-320.

7. The dismissal of Qais bin Sa’ad was a preamble to the eventual death of ‘Ali and the killing of his sons. Ibid pp.190-191.

8. Le Livre des Ruse: la sirategie politique des Arabes. Phebus, Paris 1976, p. 287.

9. Reinhart Dozy, op.cit. p.681.

10. ibid. Introduction, p.10.

11. ‘makr’ [Makara]. See John Penrice, Dictionary and Glossary of the Koran. Biblo and Tannen. New York. 1969 [reprint of 1873 ed.] p.139.

12. Op. cit. p.43. Neither the name of the narrator nor the tide of die collection in which this hadith is preserved was given bv the author. But for a similar sentiment expressed by Muhammad and narrated bv Kaab Ibn Malik, in the Sunan of Abu Dawood. see Hadith 1113.

13. Youssef M. Choueiri, Islamic Fundamentalism, Pinter Publishers. London. 1990. p.136.

14. The Social and Political Philosophy of Jacques Marilain, Image Books. New York. 1965 p. 284.

15. Ibid. p. 285.

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