Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the famous Egyptian Muslim scholar who’s often described as the most influential Sunni scholar alive, is well known for his comments on politics, society and other practical issues that believers have to deal with. Yesterday, I read in an article that he has added a new comment of that type to an already long list: he has called upon the United States to “hit” Syria. This may not come as a surprise to some, but it is nevertheless a position that is worth taking a closer look at.
“Please sir, I want some more”
In a recent Friday sermon delivered in the Qatari capital Doha, al-Qaradawi thanked the United States for giving 60 million dollars’ worth of weapons to the Syrian rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Asad. This is remarkable enough in itself, but al-Qaradawi even added to that by asking for more help from the US.
Interestingly, after claiming that the US fears Israel and dreads the idea that Syrian rebels will cross the border into that country, he makes his request for more American aid to Syria quite explicit and asks: “Why hasn’t America acted [in Syria] the way it acted in Libya? America must defend the Syrians and adopt a position of masculinity (waqafat rujula), a position for God, what is good and what is just.”
As mentioned, it may not come as a surprise that al-Qaradawi takes this position. After all, the article states, al-Qaradawi had more or less the same view about Libya when that country’s leader, Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi, was still in power and faced revolts against his rule: “Whoever can kill Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi”, al-Qaradawi is quoted from an earlier speech or sermon, “let him kill him. Whoever can shoot him, let him do it, so that the people and the umma are rid of the evil of this madman.”
Like al-Qaradawi supported the call for (the “un-Islamic”) NATO to help the Muslims in Libya, so he now supports asking the Americans for aid in Syria. Apart from the Libyan case, such calls for non-Muslim help in conflict or even jihad are not without precedent. The most famous contemporary example of this is probably the Saudi King Fahd’s 1990 plea for American protection against a possible attack from Iraq, which had just invaded Kuwait at the time.
This decision to invite 500,000 US troops in 1990 was not only highly controversial in Saudi political circles, among the Saudi public and in the Middle East in general, but it was also a fiercely debated religious issue. The major Saudi scholars at the time legitimised their decision to allow the US troops to come by pointing to the necessity of keeping the country secure.
Asking unbelievers for help
Not everyone agreed with the decision of the major Saudi scholars, however. In fact, as I pointed out in an article published in the International Journal of Middle East Studies last year, this decision sparked a debate over whether it was allowed in general to ask unbelievers for help (al-isti’ana bi-l-kuffar) in conflicts, particularly when this help was directed against other Muslims.
The famous Salafi scholar Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani (1914-1999), argued that such calls for non-Muslim help were not allowed against other Muslims. Scholars stating that former Iraqi President Saddam Husayn was no longer a Muslim because he was a member of the socialist Ba’th Party were dismissed by al-Albani since the Iraqi army, which was going to do the actual fighting, did consist of mostly Muslim soldiers, he said.
The example of the Prophet
According to some Muslims, there are indications in the main sources of Islam – the Qur’an and the Sunna – that asking non-Muslims for help during conflicts is, in fact, not permissible. Q. 5: 51, for instance, says: “O believers, take not Jews and Christians as friends; they are friends of each other. Whoso of you makes them his friends is one of them.” Similar words are expressed in Q. 60: 1, although the statement there is more specific and clearly refers to a particular episode in Islamic history.
Perhaps more clearly military in nature are some sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, in which he rejected seeking assistance from unbelievers in certain battles. At the same time, however, one hadith does state that the Prophet sought help from the Jews of the Medinan tribe Banu Qaynuqa’ against another Jewish tribe, namely the Banu Qurayza.
Fighting against whom?
The above suggests that the sources may not be entirely clear on asking unbelievers for help against others, despite assertations by some Muslims to the contrary. The last example given above, however, deals with asking unbelievers for help in fighting against other unbelievers, not against fellow Muslims. This is obviously an important distinction and one that could explain why al-Qaradawi made his statement.
Bashar al-Asad, important parts of his regime and parts of his elite troops are ‘Alawi Muslims, who are often seen by Sunnis as being so heterodox that they are really not considered Muslims anymore. If al-Qaradawi agrees with this, asking American unbelievers for help against the Syrian regime is then, in his view at least, not directed against Muslims, but simply at other unbelievers. This, in turn, would justify making a theological distinction between asking the Americans for help in fighting, say, Iraqi soldiers and ‘Alawi special forces from Syria.
Of course, it has to be borne in mind that all of this theological reasoning may well act as nothing more than a religious justification ex post facto, rather than an actual reason for al-Qaradawi to make his call for American help in the first place. Al-Qaradawi may well have been inspired to call on the US to help by the killing which the Syrian regime is responsible for and nothing more. Still, his statements did provide me with an opportunity to expound on an important ideological issue among jihadis, which is never a bad thing I suppose.