Fatwa on the Permissibility of Killing an Ambassador

I have to admit that it makes me feel rather uneasy choosing a title like this and writing a post about last week’s death of four staff members of the American embassy in Libya, including the ambassador himself, Christopher Stevens. Yesterday, however, a fatwa was published on the permissibility of killing ambassadors that I think Jihadica readers should know about.

Three questions

The fatwa, published by Abu l-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, is in response to three different questions by three different people. The first question deals with the permissibility of killing an ambassador who doesn’t approve of insults against Islam and has a positive attitude towards Muslims. For those readers thinking this is a direct reference to ambassador Stevens, who was apparently known for his affection for the Libyan people, think again. The person asking the question adds that he’s not talking about the American ambassador since “targeting American embassies in all corners of the world is permissible without them having insulted the Prophet”.

The second questioner wants to know if the post of ambassador can be compared with that of “messenger” (rasul), a job specified in Islamic law that is given to a representative of a non-Muslim country to bring a message to the rulers of the abode of Islam (dar al-Islam). Such a person was given some sort of aman (temporary protection) under Islamic law so that he could do his job safely. If there is indeed a parallel between a messenger and an ambassador, this could mean the latter is not allowed to be killed.

The third question is related to the second since it deals with the concept of ‘ahd (covenant). In the course of Islamic history, Muslim scholars have come up with ways to avoid calling all non-Muslim countries dar al-harb (the abode of war; i.e., those countries with which the Muslims are at least nominally at war). One of the alternatives they chose was dar al-‘ahd (the abode of the covenant), denoting countries with which the Muslim empire has a treaty. Such countries, Islamic jurists held,  should not be attacked since their treaty with the Muslims forbade fighting between them. Some modern scholars have argued that a visa can be seen as a modern equivalent of such a covenant or treaty and that persons who hold a visa or are citizens of a non-Muslim country are not allowed to fight these countries. Similarly, this questioner wants to know whether the ambassador’s legal status in Libya should have protected him from being attacked.

Messenger or ambassador?

While al-Shinqiti refers to an earlier fatwa of his for the third question, he does answer the first two questions. He denies the existence of any direct references to ambassadors in the sacred texts and also disagrees that ambassadors are the modern-day equivalents of the messengers dealt with in Islamic law. To prove his point, al-Shinqiti lists three differences between the two jobs. Firstly, an ambassador is a representative of a state that has sent him to do a job, while a messenger is simply a person sent with a message and nothing more.

Secondly, and closely related to the first argument, an ambassador has a whole range of tasks that his government sets for him, which depend on the relationship between the two countries. A messenger, by contrast, only brings a message and that’s it, al-Shinqiti states.

Thirdly, an ambassador is only dispatched to a country with which his own country has friendly relations. If these relations sour, ambassadors are called home. Messengers, on the other hand, could be sent to another country no matter what its relations with Muslims were like – peaceful, hostile or subject to a truce – and are therefore incomparable to ambassadors.

War on Islam

Because of the supposed differences between messengers and ambassadors, al-Shinqiti rejects any parallels between them and thus dismisses the argument that non-Muslim ambassadors cannot be killed by Muslims. Al-Shinqiti seems to believe, however, that this whole question of whether ambassadors are modern-day messengers is entirely beside the point with regard to ambassador Stevens.

In recent days, I have explained several times to people my conviction that the riots currently going on in the Middle East should be seen in the broader context of a) the dire political and socio-economic situation many Arabs are in; and, especially, b) the alleged war on Islam that is supposedly being waged by Western countries, in which the film “Innocence of Muslims” is perceived by many as simply the latest attack. I believe that the attacks on the American embassies have very little to do with Muslims’ rejection of images of the Prophet Muhammad as such, as some media would have us believe, but should be ascribed to the more specific factors mentioned by Will within the context mentioned above. In other words, if the Middle East had been a free and nice place to live and relations with America had been strong and widely supported by the people, I believe the reception of this film would have been entirely different.

The importance of this context is underlined by al-Shinqiti’s fatwa, which states that ambassadors are not only incomparable to messengers, but even if they were, it wouldn’t apply to the American ambassador. This is because the inadmissibility of killing messengers depends on them not being spies whose presence and jobs are damaging to Muslims. American embassies, al-Shinqiti claims, are not like other embassies. The Americans try to increase their influence in Muslim countries, wage war on Islam and spread “the democratic religion”, he contends, and all of this is planned from inside the American embassies.

There is no legitimate need for the presence of American embassies in Muslim countries, al-Shinqiti believes. On the contrary, he states, relations with the United States should be severed. Al-Shinqiti claims America has killed more Muslims than Israel and while Muslim states are always arguing for cutting ties with the latter, they don’t do the same with the former and, in fact, even assist the United States in its war on Islam. American embassies are expressions of a country that is at war with Islam and, he maintains, should be treated as such.

The Film

Not only does it not make any difference whether the American ambassador can be seen as a messenger or not; al-Shinqiti also states that whether such a person agrees or disagrees with the film “The Innocence of Muslims” is irrelevant since the country as a whole is responsible for that. American ambassadors, even if they disagree with the film, do agree with the “killing of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan that their government is engaged in”, with “the occupation of the lands of Islam” and with “the plundering of the revolutions of the Muslim countries”.

Interestingly, al-Shinqiti states that American embassies are not the biggest insult to the Prophet. That role is ascribed by him to “the deserting opportunists who reject violence and want to help the Prophet with words, not deeds, like [the famous Egyptian Muslim scholar Yusuf] al-Qaradawi and [former head of the IAEA Mohammed] El Baradei and others”.

“Killing all American ambassadors and destroying all American embassies won’t quench our thirst for those who have attacked the sanctity of our Prophet”, al-Shinqiti states. Muslims should therefore not show sympathy for the American ambassador and the other diplomats killed in Libya, as many did, and neither should they call for non-violence, as other Muslim scholars have done. Instead, al-Shinqiti insists, the proper response to the film is “to attack [American] interests, to attack their security, to attack their existence and to attack their economy because this is the language they understand”.

Just so you know.

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2 Responses

  1. Wonderful post, as usual. Only one thing, I’m guessing Al-Shinqiti meant “plundering the islamic treasures (tharwat)” and not “plundering the islamic revolutions (thawrat)”.

    1. You’re quite right! What with the Arab revolutions going on, I guess I automatically read “thawrat” instead of “tharwat”. The latter obviously makes more sense in this context, of course. Thanks!

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