What Moral Authority is in there in Islam?

The Guardian is to be commended for its report of the killing of the Jordanian Air Force pilot, Muadh al-Kasebeh by the so-called Islamic State. It called it murder, which is what it was; by contrast, it called the killing of terrorists in Jordan, executions, correctly, for the terrorists had been sentenced according to law, with at least an opportunity to defend themselves. Whether or not you are in favour of the death penalty, there was an important difference between the two modes of proceeding, a difference important to preserve by means of the words used to describe them. All too often the distinction is not made in our prints.

The Guardian also reported King Abdullah’s statement that ‘this cowardly terror by a criminal group has no relation to Islam.’ I will pass over the unfortunate use of the word cowardly; it is inapposite because the act could not have been redeemed in the slightest by any bravery in carrying it out, for example if those who burnt the pilot to death risked being burnt to death themselves in setting fire to him.

Alas, it is not true that the act had nothing to do with Islam, any more than that the brutality of the Soviet regime had nothing to do with Marxism, even though not all Marxists by any means have been brutes. One can understand why the King said what he did, but it does not bear the slightest examination.

Clerics in the Moslem world have been debating for a long time whether beheading, immolation, etc., were sanctioned by Islam. Some say yes and others no; but their method of deciding the issue is a kind of sifting the entrails of the Koran and the Hadith, as once the entrails of chickens, or the disposition of their liver, were sifted in an attempt to foretell the future. Given the equivocal nature of the record, sometimes advocating tolerance and mercy, sometimes advocating the most atrocious ferocity, it is not surprising that answers differ according to taste.

But the whole process of seeking moral authority in records (themselves contestable) of deeds more than a thousand years in circumstances rather different from those reigning today is absurd, to put it no higher (or lower). That is why President al-Sisi was correct when he said in a speech at al-Azhar in Cairo that what is needed is a religious revolution, or rather a revolution in the religion. The problem with that, of course, is that such a revolution would destroy the religion and the extremists know this.

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