Just recently, a high ranking Pakistani cleric, one Munib ur-Rehmen, asserted that “Islam does not allow anybody to take lives of innocent people by any means.” However, when he was grand mufti, two years earlier, he also said that “truly Islamic” states must kill the apostate from Islam. Considering his former statement, that Islam forbids the taking of “innocent” lives, has Munib been caught fibbing? Either way, this anecdote occasions the question: who is “innocent” in Islam?
Whereas other Muslims may shy away from this question, opting for the naïve Westerner to simply assume that “innocence” in Islam is akin to the liberal West’s notions of “innocence,” al-Qaeda—which seems to be supported by nearly half of the Muslim world—has been only to happy to clarify this matter.
Back in December, the terrorist organization’s primary media conduit, al-Sahab (the “clouds”) announced that al-Qaeda’s number two, Ayman Zawahiri, would be taking questions from the public and that he would “respond as soon as possible.”
Then, a few months later in April, according to the Associated Press, Zawahiri released a 90 minute audio tape, “billed as the first installment of answers to the more than 900 questions submitted on extremist Internet sites by al-Qaida supporters, critics and journalists.”
In response to a question that suggested al-Qaeda was responsible for the deaths of innocents in Baghdad, Morocco, and Algeria—Muslim areas where countless terrorist attacks in the name of al-Qaeda still occur daily—Zawahiri adamantly maintained that “We haven’t killed innocents,” not in any of those regions mentioned; “nor,” added Zawahari, “anywhere else”—which obviously includes 9/11, the London and Madrid bombings, and the rest.
Was Zawahiri being facetious, or does he truly deem all those killed in the aforementioned attacks as not “innocent”—that is, guilty?
As for Western infidels, Osama bin Laden himself has announced on various occasions that, since America is a democracy, and thus responsible for its government (which is always portrayed as one of the greatest enemies of Islam), “Every American man is an enemy—whether he fights us directly or pays his taxes,” (The Al Qaeda Reader, 281). Accordingly, al-Qaeda issued its famous fatwa in 1998 concluding that “The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilian and military—is an individual obligation incumbent upon every Muslim who can do it and in any country” (AQR, 13).
What of women and children? What of fellow Muslims? Surely all these are innocent? In fact, Zawahiri, in one of his major treatises written for Muslim-eyes only, “Jihad, Martyrdom, and the Killing of Innocents” (see AQR,141-171), demonstrates the opposite. After quoting several anecdotes from authoritative hadith and sira sources documenting Muhammad legitimizing haphazard attacks against infidel strongholds—including by utilizing catapults (al-manjonil) and fire—even though women and children were known to be sheltered there, Zawahiri quotes the observations of a prominent exegete: “It is well known that whoever follows such a course, bombarding infidels, will inevitably hit their women and children, who are otherwise forbidden from being killed. Likewise, the same goes if Muslims are among them. It is compulsory that this [the possibility of hitting women, children, and Muslims] not dissuade the launching of an incursion against them… even if one dreads hitting another Muslim” (AQR,165).
As for “hitting another Muslim,” in Zawahiri’s April response, he concluded that “If there is any innocent [i.e., Muslim] who was killed in the mujahedeen’s operations, then it was either an unintentional error or out of necessity.” Again, this response accords perfectly with what he wrote in “Jihad, Martyrdom, and the Killing of Innocents”: after discussing the inevitability that faithful Muslims may be “accidentally” killed during the jihad, Zawahiri quoted the renowned Muslim jurist Ibn Taymiyya, who declared some 700 years ago that, “Based on the consensus of the ulema [Islamic scholars], those Muslims who are accidentally killed are martyrs; and the obligatory jihad should never be abandoned because it creates martyrs” (AQR,168). In other words, yes, Muslims who are slain “accidentally” are innocent; however, their recompense is to be deemed “martyrs,” that is, to attain the highest level of paradise, with all the sensual bliss that only Islam promises.
Also, the concept of “necessity” alluded to above—”any innocent who was killed…out of necessity”—seems to permeate Islam’s worldview. Quoting yet another prominent sheikh, Zawahiri writes “If necessity compels one to fire at them [Muslims interspersed among infidels, e.g., the "apostate" governments of Algeria, Afghanistan, and Iraq], one should do so with impunity… For if we lay off them, they will emerge triumphant and cause even more harm…. It is better that one group [of Muslims] bear the burden and be destroyed in order to defend Islam and its territory and the welfare [of Muslims].” To this, Zawahiri concludes, “The evils produced by attacking impetuously [thereby accidentally killing Muslims] is forgiven due to the good of defending Islam” (AQR, 166).
Finally, as Zawahiri makes clear, the question of whether it is permissible to kill women, children, et. al. during the jihad was decided upon by the jurists (fuqaha) when Islam was on the ascendancy, and engaged in offensive warfare simply to conquer infidels and usurp their lands; in other words, the question of killing “innocents” was relevant only when Muslims were the aggressors, invading infidel territory. Writes Zawahiri: “But when Muslims are defending their religion and their sanctities, and the infidels are surrounding them from every corner, and instead they [infidels] are the ones seeking them out and pursuing them… —in these situations it becomes a binding obligation on every Muslim to fight them anyway he can… [even if] some Muslims might be killed mistakenly” (AQR, 168).
Indeed, this view is based on “ulemaic” consensus—which is often seen as binding on the umma. Ibn Taymiyya makes this clear: “As for defensive warfare, this is the greatest way to defend sanctity and religion.This is an obligation consensually agreed to [by the ulema]. After faith, there is nothing more sacred than repulsing the enemy who attacks religion and life” (AQR, 13).
In other words, in those Muslim countries where infidels and apostates are perceived as having the upper hand—such as Afghanistan, Algeria, and Iraq—far from worrying about whether infidel women and children are killed, Muslim women and children themselves are individually obligated to participate or at least support the jihad.
Most problematic of all is the fact that, neither Pakistani cleric Munib ur-Rehmen, nor Ayman Zawahiri, nor yet Osama bin Laden are responsible for these notions or what constitutes “innocence” in Islam. Rather, their views are grounded in the verdicts of Islam’s revered ulema and fuqaha, who, in their turn, came up with these conclusions after grappling (ijtihad) with Islam’s core texts—the way all of sharia law has been articulated. In short, though much of what was quoted here comes from the writings of al-Qaeda, such notions are not original to al-Qaeda but trace back to the ulema and sharia.
In closing, this somewhat idiosyncratic concept of “guilt” and “innocence” should better highlight the epistemic difficulties the Westerner may encounter when trying to understand Islam—a religion, it should be recalled, that deems even the Muslim who simply and peacefully wants to convert to another religion, “guilty” and worthy of execution.
As the Pakistani Munib indicated at the beginning of this discussion, only the “truly Islamic” state will execute the apostate, which itself is truly telling about Islam’s notions of innocence and guilt and how radically different they are from Western ideals.