International man of mystery.

The U.S. quickly fell back into Cold War habits after the attacks

When terrorist hijackers caused unspeakable tragedy on Sept. 11, 2001, killing 2,977 people, destroying the twin towers and striking the Pentagon, the day’s horrors, the conventional wisdom had it, changed everything. Many Americans feared that the country had entered a new stage in which large-scale domestic attacks by foreign terrorists would become commonplace. But they also voiced confidence in the capacity of the U.S. government to vanquish foes and eliminate threats. In words that President George W. Bush often repeated, “We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.”

Twenty years later, the state of affairs is very different. The anniversary of 9/11 is inescapably intertwined with unfolding events in Afghanistan, marked by the Taliban’s swift return to power, the chaotic American exit, the deadly Kabul airport attack and concerns for the fate of Afghans who supported the long U.S. war there. While the terrorism threat proved much less severe than initially feared, the United States appears to be reckoning with the limits of its power. Why did things turn out this way? And what accounts for the foreign policy quagmires that ended up defining the “war on terror”?

For all the shared belief that 9/11 had launched a new chapter, the response involved an intense look backward. Politicians sought to recapture a past definitively gone — especially the mid-20th-century golden age of American global standing — and embraced a caricatured version of those years that emphasized military adventurism, Manichaean us-vs.-them thinking and national security excess. The problem, though, was that the world had changed. As a result, 20 years on from 9/11, recalling the devastation of that terrible day invites reflection too on the forever wars, rights abuses and xenophobia that have come to define its legacy.

After 9/11, references to World War II and the Cold War were ubiquitous. ABC News anchor Peter Jennings quickly likened the attack to Pearl Harbor and called it an “act of war,” and both USA Today and the New York Post adopted the phrase for front-page headlines the next morning. Comparisons between the Greatest Generation and the new era’s young people abounded, with Newsweek dubbing them “Generation 9-11,” who might feel called to action by “working for the government, maybe joining the FBI or the CIA.”

Bush leaned heavily into these parallels. His 2002 State of the Union address famously proclaimed the United States’ enemies an “axis of evil,” invoking the Axis powers of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and imperial Japan. He emphasized how the “war on terror,” like the Cold War, would be a generational struggle, a “campaign” that “may not be finished on our watch, yet it must be and it will be waged on our watch.” Linking more explicitly to mid-century foes, Bush declared that groups like al-Qaeda “follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism,” later calling them “Islamic fascists.” Even the name of the period’s key institutional legacy, the new Department of Homeland Security, invoked the garrison state and national security infrastructure built in the wake of Pearl Harbor.

It was not surprising that, faced with 9/11’s horrific violence, Americans would embrace the metaphor of war and draw comparisons to Pearl Harbor. But the invocations of World War II and the early Cold War also spoke to something deeper. Those mid-century years were a time of American ascendance and clear mission. Conflicts with Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union solidified a shared story about the nation: that the United States from the founding had been committed to principles of equality, democracy and personal liberty. In this narrative, the United States served as a beacon on the global stage, with a built-in project to safeguard freedom and peace and a concomitant right to intervene wherever instability arose.

What was Flight 93′s target on 9/11?

The Soviet collapse only supercharged a bipartisan triumphalism, promoting too a broad belief in the inevitability of aggressive market capitalism. It also reframed political debates about the legitimacy and excesses of U.S. Cold War interventions, including coups, assassinations, illegal bombing campaigns, the war in Vietnam and support for countless dictators. At home, the FBI and CIA conducted surveillance and disruption of civil rights groups and antiwar activists, and the political fallout of foreign and domestic actions had cut short both Lyndon Johnson’s and Richard Nixon’s presidencies. But in the afterglow of Soviet defeat, such reflection on the Cold War’s means gave way to overwhelming pride in its end: fulfillment of American destiny and victory over an existential foe.

Although the start of the 21st century retained this triumphalism, the nation increasingly seemed unmoored. A decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, politicians and commentators worried that the country was bereft of national purpose, especially without a unifying antagonist. Both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton had turned to volunteerism, whether in the form of “a thousand points of light” or AmeriCorps, as a way of instilling shared commitment and service. Still, by the early days of George W. Bush’s presidency, American politics appeared most defined by growing polarization and bitter infighting, as exhibited by Clinton’s impeachment and the contested 2000 presidential election.

All of this created a striking status quo on the eve of 9/11. Both parties criticized “big government” with respect to the economy, but the state’s security apparatus — the military, the CIA, the FBI, the police — enjoyed broad approval. U.S. willingness to use force featured prominently in conventional explanations for Cold War success, buttressing popular support for the national security establishment. As Barack Obama would later assert, while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, the world had been made safe in the 20th century by “the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.”

Beginning in 1989, the military was the American institution that consistently held the highest public confidence in Gallup surveys, with approval rates rising by double digits since the 1970s. This had ripple effects even among liberals, where the most common critique of U.S. foreign policy during the 1990s came from those — like future Obama (and Biden) official Samantha Power — who argued for more military action, but on behalf of human rights. Rather than an intervener in thorny Asian and African political struggles over colonialism or socialism, the U.S. military seemed recast as an apolitical moral agent to stop bad global actors or “rogue states.”

This sentiment was part of a real bipartisan embrace of the state’s potential to address even domestic social issues by force. “Broken windows” policing was in vogue, along with the notion that more aggressive law enforcement and stiffer prison sentences would keep Americans safe, no matter that the result was a system of mass incarceration that targeted minority communities and intensified racial and class disparities. At the border, Clinton-era laws created a massive detention and deportation apparatus, exponentially increasing the number of people jailed. On the morning of 9/11, Bush sat atop a security infrastructure — already expanding in the contexts of policing and immigration — that enjoyed a profound degree of goodwill, especially by comparison with the 1960s and 1970s. But it lacked a unifying focus.

For those around Bush, 9/11 shifted everything, in part because it ended that political drift. When Bush declared, in the “axis of evil” speech, that all Americans who lived through the day’s events “have been changed by them” and that the country had been “called to a unique role in human events,” he turned the page on the previous decade’s uncertainties — including whether, with few overarching threats to the global order, the world still needed the United States. But in asserting the end of post-Cold War malaise, the president did not usher in a genuine search for new worldviews and approaches. Bush’s rhetoric highlighted how 9/11 instead returned Americans to the mid-century era of indispensability. And since the United States was to engage again in the type of existential struggles that had given the country meaning, the policies should follow suit — even if they failed to match the new moment.

Partly, this framing was a product of Bush’s foreign policy team, composed of inveterate Cold Warriors, from national security adviser and Soviet specialist Condoleezza Rice to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had held the same job in the 1970s under Gerald Ford. They drew from the past a combination of militarism and absolute moral certainty: The world had been divided into friends and enemies, and the United States had won the Cold War because it was willing to get its hands dirty in Asia and Latin America, and had refused to cede ground to its foes. When Bush declared, nine days after the attacks, “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” he returned to that familiar playbook.

One problem with this approach was that it steadily became clear that al-Qaeda, a relatively small group of terrorists mostly encamped in Afghanistan, was dangerous but hardly an existential threat — certainly not on the scale of the Nazis or the Soviets. As Rumsfeld himself noted of the fall 2001 bombing campaign in Afghanistan, “There is not a lot of al-Qaeda to hit.” In the 20 years since, more Americans have been killed inside the United States by far-right extremists than by Islamists (114 as opposed to 107, with about half of the latter dying in the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting).

Still, in embracing an expansive vision of the United States pitted in battle against the enemies of freedom, officials moved well beyond holding accountable the specific actors involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. They turned instead to the project of overcoming “terror” itself. And when Bush named Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the main “axis of evil” — countries with no connection at all to 9/11 — the fight morphed into one against any state or entity, especially in the Middle East, that opposed American dominance or security objectives. Framed that way, for Bush officials, and for many Democrats, it made sense to expand the war to an invasion of Iraq. Thomas Friedman infamously declared that the Iraq War demonstrated American commitment to maintaining its global standing: “What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying: ‘Which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think we care about our open society? . . . Well, suck on this.’ ”

All this Manichaean posturing erased any likelihood of seriously reconceiving the American role, in the Middle East or elsewhere. A decade before 9/11, the United States fought a war against Iraq and became, for all intents and purposes, a key regional power, aligned with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel. Though our Persian Gulf allies’ internal politics had created the cauldron for al-Qaeda’s development, focusing instead on Iran and Iraq redoubled the existing strategic configuration. It also compounded a long-term problem for the war on terror, one that had plagued the Cold War as well: Officials couched specific and problematic security alliances in vague and sweeping language of freedom and democracy. When faced with opposition on the ground or the collapse of U.S. strategies, they time and again read hostility as a product of local inadequacies rather than of competing political desires and rivalries. Lawmakers in both parties blamed reversals in Iraq on Iraqis themselves, with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) stating in 2006, in near-identical terms, that Iraqis seemed “incapable of solving their own problems” or “unable or unwilling” to “stabilize their country.”

To make matters worse, Bush officials also revived old Cold War means, updated for the new anti-terrorism agenda. Those around Bush seemingly had few doubts about the tactics used in that earlier struggle. Whatever the 1970s recriminations about rights abuses and overseas violence, officials after 9/11 repeated past arguments that global victory required a willingness to operate at the edges of the law. As CIA Director George Tenet bluntly stated in 2002, “There’s nothing we won’t do, nothing we won’t try” — which seemed to absolve practices including the use of black sites, disappearances, indefinite detention and torture. In addition to failing on their own terms, such tactics undermined any U.S. effort to claim a global moral high ground.

Initially, the war on terror appeared to change the country’s political trajectory, forging a common mission and providing the unifying effect that elites believed America needed. Against the extreme polarization of 2021, it can be hard to recall the degree of support Bush enjoyed shortly after the attacks: His approval rating reached 90 percent in late September 2001 and again rose to 71 percent in the heady days of Saddam Hussein’s fall in Iraq in April 2003. There were few of the generational disagreements that mark our current political divisions. Young people after 9/11 showed a remarkable amount of faith in the judgment of those in power, with 85 percent of “young Americans” supporting the war in Afghanistan and 83 percent approving of Bush in November 2001.

All of this translated into formal policies. The Patriot Act, which dramatically expanded domestic surveillance powers, passed the Senate 98 to 1 (only Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin voted no). Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) was the only lawmaker to vote against the sweeping 2001 military authorization that gave Bush the broad power to use “all necessary” force against any person or group “he determines” was linked to 9/11. That authorization became the White House’s legal basis for actions from the war in Afghanistan to targeted killings and detention and interrogation practices worldwide. Despite domestic and global protests, the Iraq War enjoyed the approval of a sizable American majority in 2003. And even among opponents of that particular conflict, questioning the overarching war on terror was a political nonstarter throughout the decade that followed.

But as the country moved further away from the events of 9/11, the galvanizing ambitions behind the war on terror — including the notion of restoring national purpose — curdled. Americans found themselves grappling with images from Abu Ghraib, or stories of innocent people, such as Mohamedou Ould Slahi, tortured and detained for years at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere. Most critically, these means did not appear to further any discernible ends. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq became defined by premature and repetitive declarations of victory, news reports of civilians mistakenly killed, and seemingly endless bloodshed.

Partly, that was because the ultimate goal had never really been clear. Creating “democracy” remained a vague objective, especially as U.S. officials often engaged in a kind of wish fulfillment — that regional strategic interests, to check Iran or to promote pliable allies, would somehow have widespread local support.

The tensions instead created a cycle of making dubious alliances, facing opposition on the ground, intervening as a response, then sparking more violence and recriminations. Future administrations seemed trapped into repeating the cycle. Obama entered office declaring that the prison at Guantánamo would be closed, but he left with it still open. He announced a withdrawal plan for Afghanistan in the summer of 2011 but made little headway. Rather than a break from the Bush years, the Obama presidency became closely identified with drone strikes and more “collateral damage.” The war on terror may have been renamed “overseas contingency operations,” but much of the security approach and the drift persisted.

Domestically, these endless conflicts in Muslim-majority countries created a growing politics of xenophobia. Part of this resulted from the disconnect between official proclamations that the United States was not at war with Islam, as Bush emphatically stated, and the reality of a massive counterterrorism framework directed specifically at Muslims. The Justice Department oversaw the detention of more than 1,000 Muslims without cause immediately after 9/11, then created registration systems for the monitoring of immigrants and travelers from 24 Arab- or Muslim-majority countries, alongside the “axis” nation of North Korea. Eventually it became evident that such communities in the United States posed no more of a terrorism threat than any other. And, as it turned out, 9/11 appeared to be a singular event, rather than a harbinger of repeated attacks on American soil. Still, of the 38 groups designated as foreign terrorist organizations after 9/11 — such that providing “material support” to them became a crime, including speech supporting a group’s lawful activities — 35 were Islamist. Scholars concluded that Muslim surveillance was so extensive, between local police and the FBI, that there was “reason to believe that there are informants at each and every mosque in the United States.”

The intensity of the counterterrorism orientation made it hard to maintain that Muslims were not being treated as a community apart. But notably, although the immediate post-9/11 period produced a spike in anti-Muslim assaults, those numbers soon declined. It was only after a decade of sustained government targeting that assaults dramatically rose again during the 2010s, with the 127 reported incidents in 2016 well exceeding 2001 figures. This increase had little to do with any objective threat, given the long distance from 9/11, the overwhelming opposition among Muslim communities to al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism and the real weakness of terrorist groups.

Regardless, these assaults highlighted how some Americans had come to internalize more than a decade of war: Fifteen years of policy had emphasized fears about Muslims. At the same time, more Americans, especially on the right, explained the country’s strategic failures in the war on terror — with thousands of U.S. soldiers dead and hundreds of thousands of civilians killed overseas — as a function of racial and cultural flaws in Muslim societies. These societies, the argument went, could not be made free, no matter what Americans tried.

Donald Trump gave voice and clarity to this bigoted position, referring to Muslims during his 2016 campaign, for instance, as “a group of people that is very sick.” That year’s explosion in anti-Muslim incidents was not a coincidence. Trump both attacked the Iraq War — which he had initially supported — and called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, the latter idea an extreme version of existing counterterrorism policy. According to Trumpian logic, the problem with the Bush years was the belief that culturally threatening outsiders could ever be part of Friedman’s “open society.” Rather, Americans had to reassert the value of the homeland and build a wall to protect against racial foreigners of all kinds. None of this, however, meant curtailing the dramatic expansion of security spending or reevaluating the war on terror paradigm. Keeping America safe still required a belligerent us-vs.-them stance toward the world, especially the non-White world.

So the choices made after 9/11 did transform American life, but not necessarily in ways most Americans in 2001 would have expected or wanted. These decisions dramatically expanded the security apparatus, led to wars of occupation, and fed a domestic politics of Islamophobia and discontent that helped fuel the rise of white supremacy. And the rapid collapse of Afghanistan’s government as the United States withdrew last month underscores perhaps the most surprising legacy of 9/11: the profound breakdown of public confidence in political elites and governing institutions over the last 20 years.

In the early 2000s, faith in an America at war and in unbridled capitalism was at a fever pitch. Officials like Paul Bremer, the Coalition Provisional Authority boss in Iraq, often joined the two, as when he imagined that Iraq’s state-run economy could be replaced in one fell swoop with a flat tax and systematic deregulation. But the following years paired the intelligence failures and reversals of the war on terror with a near-collapse of the global financial system, raising questions about the trustworthiness and legitimacy of both national security and economic expertise.

Still, the current environment does seem to repeat that of 2001 in one key way — namely, in the political desire to turn back the clock. Trumpism is infused with a nostalgia for a mythic past, one before threatening outsiders. And part of the popular support for President Biden can be read as the hope simply to go back to any time before the present, when American politics felt normal.

But an important lesson of the response to 9/11 lies in the pitfalls of nostalgia. Bush-era rhetoric and policy used a simplified, triumphalist account of the Greatest Generation’s conflicts to pursue destructive ends. Twenty years later, pressure is growing again, especially given the failures in Afghanistan, to find new ways to display American power, to prove that, as Biden has said, “America is back.” That impulse was present in the president’s speech after the Kabul airport attack, with his vow to “make you pay” sounding like a continuation of the war on terror’s vengeance and collective punishment. Discussions of pivoting away from the Middle East to different hot spots — such as calls to focus on the Asia-Pacific theater and a new Cold War with China — appear caught in the same loop. Even if officials wrap up what remains of the war on terror, if they simply redirect the same mid-century, Manichaean, militarized framing revived after 9/11, it shows that little was learned. The quest for dominance has generated neither peace nor democracy at home or abroad. Returning to the same well is unlikely to produce a different outcome.

This weekend, along with remembrances of the lives lost on 9/11 and in the wars that followed, perhaps Americans can begin the genuine rethinking that the end of the Cold War invited and that the attacks in 2001 ended up foreclosing. This starts by seriously confronting what the war on terror produced and its institutional footprints. Should we endorse use-of-force authorizations that give presidents near-total discretion to fight forever wars? How much of the overgrown domestic security infrastructure around mass surveillance, detention, deportation and aggressive prosecution is actually necessary? What should be done about the culture of impunity that has allowed officials who oversaw abuse to evade political, let alone legal, consequences? What about the defense contracting that in Afghanistan gave billions of dollars to private U.S. companies, but did very little to sustain a local army or a government with internal credibility? Those trillions plowed into overseas conflicts stand in sharp contrast to decades of disinvestment at home, a reality made even starker by unfolding health and economic crises. Finally, what responsibility do we have to people caught up in American actions — whether Afghans today fleeing the return of the Taliban or innocent detainees denied their day in court?

Truly moving forward will require accounting for the past. But that can’t happen if we remain entranced by a flawed image of a bygone America.

By Aziz Rana Aziz Rana is the Richard and Lois Cole professor of law at Cornell Law School and a fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is the author of “The Two Faces of American Freedom.”

Washington Post

What does it mean to switch faiths? What is it like for Muslim “converts” in particular? (For lack of a better term!) What are the typical highs and lows that new Muslims experience? What happens to those open-minded seekers that when joining a group are led to exclusivism and narrow-mindedness? In this episode Dr. Farhad Shafti and Veronica Polo are joined by James Coates, who helps us with these questions as he walks us through his own particular journey.

A July, 6 1959 fatwah from Al-Azhar made great strides towards healing and reconciliation in the historic divide between Sunni and Shi’a.

After 9 years of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq which allowed the Shi’a government of Iran to make significant political gains in the Middle East, Al-Azhar saw a massive increase in Salafist influence. The Salafi movement is a Saudi Arabian based movement, a nation that is Iran’s historic enemy. Consequently, in 2012, the 1959 fatwah was reversed.

As a consequence of both of these events, we have a proxy war raging between two Muslim nations in multiple third party nations while their leaders vie for public support among Muslims worldwide for their cause against each other based on religious grounds.

As Muslims we need to remain committed to following Allah’s command. Our struggle, fisabilillah, is to remain a united community and resist the dividers.

“Hold fast to God’s rope all together; do not split into factions. Remember God’s favour to you: you were enemies and then He brought your hearts together and you became brothers by His grace; you were about to fall into a pit of Fire and He saved you from it- in this way God makes His revelations clear to you so that you may be rightly guided.” – Qur’an 3:103

Today, I’d like to talk to you about “apple pie”.  If there is one fundamental cultural icon in America today, it is apple pie.  But why?  Where did apple pie come from?  What makes it “American”?

Long ago, before homo sapiens roamed the planet, there was the apple.  Some Christian depictions of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden sometimes depict the apple as the fruit Adam and Eve ate.

No, the apple wasn’t a fruit in the Garden of Eden, but a fruit indigenous (millions of years ago) to an area of the planet we now know as Kasakhstan.  Yes, that 70% Muslim country and former Soviet republic is the ancestral home and cradle of civilization among apple trees.  The origin of apples lies in the heart of the Tien Shan mountains where,  “forests of wild apples, some growing at 10,000 feet, others in 1300 foot-deep canyons, show a wealth of diversity and resistance to disease and pests.” ~Cornell University

As people began to travel west, they brought with them apple seeds which eventually found their way to Europe.

Upon the settling of the America’s there were no apples in the western hemisphere.  Early settlers had to rely on shipments from Europe while their planted seeds began to grow.

The first cultivation was in Jamestown in 1607, but the apples were so bitter they were not for eating.  The bitter apples were only good for the colonists to make cider.  Instead, the colonists were more likely to make meat pies.

Thousands of years of cultivation created a large array of species of apple in many shapes, colors and sizes.  In the American colonies, countless orchards began to spring up and apple trees began a huge genetic change.  John Chapman (1768-1847), also known as Johnny Appleseed, made it his life’s quest to supply many states with countless new seedlings.

By the 18th century, apples used in pie began to become a popular desert in America and remains so today.

It is evident that the apple is woven into the fabric of America.  The presence of the apple, which predated the country by millions of years, has been among us since the beginning, at first in bitter form.  It’s presence has served us, been cultivated by us, and become a positive contributor to building our culture and society.

Likewise, Islam has been woven into the fabric of our society and culture from the beginning.  Similar to the first bitter apple that the colonists tasted, you can choose to say it is too bitter and want nothing to do with it or you can make something positive from it.

Like the apple, once being planted by colonists in an ecosystem where no apples existed, Islam too has already been planted here by colonists where it had not existed.  It is, and will forever be what you make of it.  You can chose to help integrate it to help Muslims make a positive contribution to a society they love and have been a part of for over 238 years, or not.  Regardless, Islam, like the apple, is here to stay.

Islam is as American as apple pie.

““You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’   But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,   that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?   And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” ~The Bible

A few days ago, a fundamentalist Christian I knew from long ago was having a Facebook conversation with some of his friends about Islam in American history.  His friend (another Christian) was citing history on the existence of Muslims who helped build America from it’s earliest beginnings.  To my amazement, my friend denied the existence of Muslims until the mid-1900’s.  As with many fundamentalist Christians that I know, the conversation then quickly digressed off topic to debating (self affirming) to each other as to how you must be saved, Muslims are the enemy and they all are going to hell.

My “friend” (now former) must not have realized that I was reading the thread.  Their “Spirit filled, speaking in tongues and baptized in fire” Pentecostal sect believes that I am guided by the dark forces and deceived by Satan because I converted to Islam.  So, when I imparted my knowledge affirming his friend’s assertions, I was soon after removed from his friends list!

Ordinarily, I’d think that a person who denies the existence of Muslims in early America is poorly educated on American history or at least has not put much thought on the topic.  The problem for me by thinking that in this case is that this friend of mine is a scientist working on things like the cure for AIDS and is in his late 60’s.  Not only has he had enough time on this earth and debated the topic enough to know better, but he is a well read and educated individual in his area of study.  One would think that someone like him should know how to research topics that concern him enough to vehemently oppose such a notion.

It is typical of many political minded evangelical “Christian conservatives,” to believe that America is a “Christian” country and therefore no one else has played a role in it’s creation, existence or advancement.  Despite the early colonies being founded by people fleeing religious persecution by other Christians in Europe, they still assert that America is a “Christian country” founded on “Christian values”. The ideology leads people to insinuate that no other religion played an integral part (Jews, Muslims, Hindu’s, Buddhists, Native Indian religions) or at least if they did, contrary to the Declaration of Independence, they are not equal and deserving of acknowledgement.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” ~Declaration of Independence

Of course, according to the history of the African and indigenous Indian in America, we know that American Christians in those days did not view everyone as equal.

“Most colonists were intolerant and fearful of American Indians whom they perceived to be a single, standard, homogeneous, and heathen Indian nation – and as such, a threat to white progress, humanity, and most importantly – Christianity.” ~Humbolt State University

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Muslim Lands and Slave Ports

To find Islam in America, one does not have to look far beyond the question of, “Where did America get it’s slaves?”  Everyone can agree it’s Africa that provided the supply of slaves to the Americas.  What is one of the main religions on the continent of Africa?   Just because Christian slavers captured, bought or kidnapped (in the case of freemen) Muslim black people and sold them to other Christians in the west, does not mean they were not Muslims, nor does it mean that they did not retain their identity as Muslims in many cases.  It also does not negate their contributions to the founding and building of America.  In fact, when bringing religion into the discussion, I’d even argue that to negate these facts (while claiming credit for Christendom) is to be complicit with colonial slave owners.  It was a predominantly Christian slave owning society that denied, and took credit for, the contributions of Muslim (and other non-Christian) slaves on the basis of their African heritage.

A similar dubious argument is often made by Americans when they teach in schools that Christopher Columbus discovered America.  The fact is, it wasn’t a European at all who “discovered” America.  Who do we think the ancestors of the Navajo, Apache, Cherokee, Souix natives where (to name a few)?  How much earlier did they land on the continent than Christopher Columbus or any European for that matter?  How did Europeans (and later Americans) end up with “possession of the land”?

The American Indian paid perhaps the greatest contribution (forcibly) to the creation of America, not to mention the Aztecs, Mayan and other tribes in South and Central America.

It is a common theme of us “European” westerners to re-write history to our liking in an effort to feel a sense of pride or nationalism but lets give some credit here.  Before we knew what a “Native American Indian” was, they were already here!  And, from the moment we began bringing African Muslim slaves to the Americas (North, Central and South), Islam began it’s legacy among the colonial countries that now exist.

Did Muslims contribute significantly to the early colonies, the American revolution, creation of America and even the rebuilding of the nation after the revolutionary and civil wars?  Absolutely.  One cannot in good conscience deny the blood, sweat and tears of the African people brought here, many of whom were Muslims, on the basis that they were slaves.

In closing, I find it curious that it took a national tragedy for Americans to wake up and realize there were Muslims living in their country.  We have been here since the beginning.  We may not have looked like “those people” who came over upon the advent of the discovery of oil in the middle east.  Our facial representations may evolve as a community, but Islam has always been woven into the fabric of society.

We are part of America’s heritage.

Here is the dichotomy, Muslim brothers and sisters.

One one hand, if Muslims do not report dangerous ideas and an investigation ensues involving a load of agents that don’t know the people, culture, faith or religious idea and even the meaning of Arabic words, there is a greater chance of the government getting it wrong and building a case against a person out of ignorance or misunderstandings.

On the other hand, if Muslims do report it, members of our community look at us as government spies who were only there to “entrap” innocent Muslims, nevermind that they were out training in jihadi camps, had radicalized online, had tons of evidence against him/her proving otherwise.

Important things to note:

1. The Muslim community in the US (since I am from the US), is largely distrustful of law enforcement.
2. Most convictions in the community are not entrapment, especially ones involving Muslim agents/informants. If they are entrapped, then the convictions can be overturned on appeal.
3. People around those individuals who have been convicted or carried out a terrorist plot all report seeing signs of radicalism but few report (out of apathy or distrust of authorities) and the cases (or attacks) could have been averted.
4. De-radicalization programs are relatively new and most people (Muslims and FBI) rarely look at those as options, if they even know about them.

In my opinion, especially in this climate of fear and mistrust of Muslims, we need to embrace a pro-law enforcement view rather than a distrustful one (not just pay lip service to it). We need to police our own communities otherwise people in law enforcement agencies who don’t know our faith will trample it trying to solve the problem of extremism which leads to attacks, a problem that only we can solve. If we all don’t take a part, even if it be against our own flesh and blood, then the system fails, mistrust grows and more idiots call for Muslims to be banned, rounded up, interned or even “ethno-religiously” cleansed through mass deportation. Dare I even mention (aside from what Nazi Germany did to the Jews) what happened in Bosnia to cite as one example.  In the end, clowns like ISIS will win through our apathy.

Some of my long time friends suggest that it is not our responsibility to be proactive but passive in our action to confront extremist ideology that can lead to attacks.  It is totally backwards from the teachings of Islam in my opinion.  The Prophet (pbuh) not only established a system of social justice by founding Islam as the religion, but he actively set in place guidelines among Muslims to regulate our behavior.  He actively corrected the Sahabah (companions) when they were in error.  Allah also made us responsible to protect each other from anything amounting to evil

“The Believers, men and women, are protectors one of another: they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil: they observe regular prayers, practise regular charity, and obey Allah and His Messenger. On them will Allah pour His mercy: for Allah is Exalted in power, Wise.” Qur’an 9:71

“You are the best nation produced [as an example] for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allah . If only the People of the Scripture had believed, it would have been better for them. Among them are believers, but most of them are defiantly disobedient.”  Qur’an 3:110

“O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah , even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. So follow not [personal] inclination, lest you not be just. And if you distort [your testimony] or refuse [to give it], then indeed Allah is ever, with what you do, Acquainted.” Qur’an 4:135

We are to avoid suspicion and spying for the purpose of gossip and fault finding, but we still have an Islamic duty to confront extremist ideology and to protect, not only Muslims, but society at large from criminal acts and terrorism.

“The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “Beware of suspicion, for suspicion is the worst of false tales; and do not look for the others’ faults and do not spy, and do not be jealous of one another, and do not desert (cut your relation with) one another, and do not hate one another; and O Allah’s worshipers! Be brothers (as Allah has ordered you!”)” – Sahih Bukhari Book 78, Hadith 94

In light of all of these evidences, we need to be diligent and proactive. Our reactive behaviour that has been our modus since 9/11 is creating huge problems for our communities.

Our survival depends on it.

The following will be a highly controversial topic and a hard pill to swallow for many Muslims in our communities.  I hope that it provokes contemplation,  creates understanding and promotes mutual cooperation for the betterment of our Islamic communities.  After years of experience, I can see that there needs to be an understanding of the nature, role and methods of law enforcement among the communities they serve.

When I was young, this understanding was commonly taught to us school kids as police officers paid regular visits to our classrooms to help us learn through the local police department kids program.  It is something that is rarely done among Muslims in the US, though I did arrange a police department kids program with Muslim school children in 2004 at an Islamic school which was a big success with the kids.  The children especially loved questioning the officers and brought out some really good questions to resolve their own misunderstandings, fears and general curiosity.

There are many levels of cooperation.  However, for the sake of this article, I will focus on the use of confidential informants in law enforcement.

Confidential informants have been used as a tool in domestic law enforcement for a long time in many Muslim countries and the west.  They continue to be considered an invaluable tool by all law enforcement agencies against extremism by Muslims or other (non-Muslim) groups, organized crime, in drug enforcement and other crimes.  However, in some cases they are not without controversy.  Due to the social stigma of “informing” authorities about the criminal acts of one’s family or friends, there is a lot of confusion and misinformation on surrounding the use of informants.

“Not many people know very much about informants: and to many people, it’s a queasy area. People are not comfortable with informants…the informant is THE with a capital “T” THE most effective tool in law enforcement today – state, local, or federal.” ~William Webster

Motivations of informants can very widely.  Some can be the upstanding citizen either on the lookout for, or who happen to come to the knowledge of, criminal activity.  Informants are not necessarily random law abiding citizens, but can be the leaders of our organizations, President, Imam, Sheikh, etc.  They may also be people who have been involved in a group that turns to criminal activity, themselves being involved in a crime and turning on an individual or group to reduce sentencing or reducing prison sentence if already convicted.

Some informants are not paid for their information and many others are.  Informants are not used legally by law enforcement in the US to subvert religious groups, act as Agent Provocateurs to incite religious communities or unjustly accuse people, but rather in intelligence led investigations on criminal activity.

“Informants are not official employees of the FBI, but many receive compensation for their services; they are screened for suitability before they enter into relationships with the FBI and are screened periodically thereafter.” ~PBS

There are three basic classifications:

  1. Confidential Informant – Used to provide additional information in and investigation.
  2. Cooperating Witnesses – Used to testify and have agreement regarding their obligations and expectations.
  3. Sources of Information – Unlike CI’s and CW’s do not collect information but provides legitimate routine access to information (Example).

The ability to use informants has historically provided an invaluable tool to law enforcement agencies to bring to light secretive crimes that would ordinarily not present themselves for investigation.

The use of such sources has become essential to FBI operations, with informants — including “privileged” informants, such as attorneys, clergy and physicians — supplying short — to long-term services. ~PBS

The use of informants have been standard procedure for the FBI in the fight against organized crime since 1961.  In 1978 was created a program which could provide informants to assist in active FBI investigations.

Informants have been used most notably against the mafia and other organized crime, drug enforcement, right wing radical groups and terrorism or radicalism (international and domestic) cases with a great degree of success.


The use of confidential informants in terrorism related cases is highly controversial among Muslims in the west, particularly the United States.  The tendency among many Muslims is to view their use as government invasion of privacy, entrapment and the unjust targeting of “Muslims” in general.

Like in many cases involving general crime, some people can get caught up in an investigation due to abuse of the use of informants by law enforcement.  This is a rare exception and not the rule.  Government agencies understand that there is a need for ethics in the use of informants.  It is important for our communities to insure proper oversight of agencies that use informants and even more important that these agencies follow through to maintain a factual case, integrity and professionalism while using informants.

In light of world affairs, it seems especially prudent for the Muslim community to prevent acts of terrorism or radicalism before it happens rather than react to it after the fact.  Muslim informants from within the Islamic community are better suited to act as a guide for law enforcement than an outside investigator reacting after the fact.  They are also better suited than someone who doesn’t know how to navigate the community, interpret and understand the language or to identify what someone has expressed intentions to do.Muslim informants are the most likely people to insure that the government does not make an unjust case based on misunderstandings and prejudice.

Plots are not hatched in the open and cannot be discovered by ordinary means.  If there is a possibility of a threat from radicalism in our communities then these types of investigations are necessary due to the nature of secrecy involving plotting such acts.

Double Standard

In a time when the Islamic community has serious problems with people traveling to Iraq and Syria to join groups like ISIS or Al Qaida, it is just as important that we deal straight with the government instead of acquiescing radicalism or terrorism and then reacting against law enforcement when a plot is uncovered by an investigation involving an informant.

The double standard among us Muslims and our organizations is glaring.  On the one hand we claim that we condemn extremism or terrorism.  On the other hand we don’t want the government to investigate us nor want our people to work with them to root out radical plots among us.  The Muslims who do become informants or FBI agents are often ostracized or have articles and web pages dedicated to rail against them or encourage violence and abuse.  In the social media, informants and agents often cannot publicly rebut the abuse and accusations of wrongdoing due to ongoing cases which can last years, making it very easy for family and friends loyal to the accused to mislead public opinion and create a conspiracy.  The job of law enforcement and supporting informants is not to engage in a social media battle, but deal with investigations and the courts.

Interestingly, Islamic organizations publicly are telling members to work with law enforcement if they come across information regarding extremism and terrorism.  However, within the Islamic community, we often choose as a default to focus on government investigative methods and defend perpetrators rather than consider the evidence or support someone (an informant) who tried to help prevent a crime affecting the community by approaching authorities with information.  It’s a catch 22 in logic.

I can identify with this catch 22.  I remember in 2004 when I was attending a seminar at the Department of Justice (DOJ) with a friend from the DOJ who was interested in my diversity training program for government agencies on Islam and Muslim communities.  At the time, I was heavily involved with a national Islamic organization who supported my activist work, putting on anti-war and pro-Palestine protests, defending the Muslim community in the media, and seminars.  I met my first “Muslim” FBI agent.  I didn’t know he was a Muslim FBI agent at the time.  I sat next to him.  When he told me his name and that he was a FBI agent I perked up in intrigue.   He went on to explain that he was a Muslim.  My heart sank as if I was talking to Satan himself.  It was time for prayer, so I reluctantly made Thuhr Salat (afternoon prayer) with him and then began to talk to him again afterwards.  As we talked more, he explained that his motivation was to help the Muslim community fight against terrorism but that most of his Muslim friends and even some of his family had disowned him when he told them he was going to become an FBI agent.  I walked away with dismay, intrigue, confusion and a lasting question as to why and how a “Muslim” could do this (become an FBI agent).  I fought back the notion to think that he had abandon Islam and is fighting against Muslims.

“O you who have believed, when you go forth [to fight] in the cause of Allah , investigate; and do not say to one who gives you [a greeting of] peace “You are not a believer,” aspiring for the goods of worldly life; for with Allah are many acquisitions. You [yourselves] were like that before; then Allah conferred His favor upon you, so investigate. Indeed Allah is ever, with what you do, Acquainted.”  ~Qur’an 4:94

I didn’t believe that Islam teaches us to make Takfir (pronounce not-Muslim) on another Muslim.  It stuck with me for a long time, until I deprogrammed from the community narrative that the intentions of government and their investigations are out to “get” Muslims or round us up.  It may be the talk of right-wing conservative pundits.  However, there is no such grand conspiracy among a any of the thousands of law enforcement agents and officers that I came to know through my classes, many who were very conservative leaning.  The Muslim FBI agent had the right intention, to investigate and find out who is a threat to the Muslim community and society at large.

Focusing on Wrong People

The fact is that in any country or national, state, or local jurisdiction in the US, there may be bad agents, bad informants, bad investigations.  It is the reason to insure proper oversight, not a reason for Muslims to distrust law enforcement.  It is not a reason to be overly suspicious of the system put in place to protect us from radical behaviour and acts of terrorism or to jump the gun on claiming entrapment.  Many more good agents, informants and their investigations are there to protect (not just the general public) the Muslim community as well.

Investigations involving informants can run into the millions of dollars.  There is no institutional motivation to waste millions of dollars falsely accusing people or creating new cases, just to make a case against a Muslim.  Intentionally focusing on the wrong people would be counterproductive and make room for the real threats to fall through the cracks.

Conversely, in many Muslim countries (countries that most Muslims in the United States are from) the system does have a motivation to suppress Muslims.  Many more Muslim organisations exist in those societies that are often viewed as a direct threat to the ruling party, dictatorships or military power structure (just look at the Arab Uprising).

“Government critics say Malaysia’s sedition laws have been increasingly used to silence dissent.”  ~BBC

That is not to say that those countries are justified in their actions of suppression towards their own people, but to say that those Muslims who come to the west and occupy our Masajid (Mosques) carry the same cultural attitudes towards the US government and law enforcement that they had back in their home country.  The attitudes are often taught to us converts as if it is “Islamic” to view our own government in the same way.  You often hear the attitude parroted from many of us Muslim activists, from the minbar (pulpit) at Jummah (friday prayers), or in special talks, conventions and programs.

In a US court, because we are presumed innocent and cannot convict if there is “reasonable doubt“, it’s important that we understand that it is the defense lawyer’s job to create reasonable doubt, even if the truth is that the defendant is guilty.  It is why, given the overwhelming evidence against an individual, the defense claims entrapment in the majority of extremism cases in the US.  As a community we cannot take defense arguments as “Scripture” and begin campaigns against the government or it’s informants, on behalf of people claiming entrapment and being falsely accused.  We have to weigh the facts ourselves, listen to the court evidence and understand the legal definition of entrapment.

“When they disregarded the warnings that had been given them, We rescued those who forbade Evil; but We visited the wrong-doers with a grievous punishment because they were given to transgression.” ~Qur’an 7:165

The Entrapment Bandwagon

It is important for Muslims to see the usefulness of law enforcement activity, support it and refrain from jumping on the “entrapment” bandwagon.  Just because a case involves a paid or unpaid informant does not mean that they or the government set out to “entrap” the would be perpetrator, nor does it reflect on the quality of their information.

There is a lot of confusion about what “entrapment” means and in most extremist plot cases where there is a claim of entrapment people have no clue what it means.  All that is required to begin an investigation using an informant is that idea or engagement of a criminal act originate from the would be criminal.  Anything after that which the agency provides goes towards discovering the extent of a plot, those involved and collecting evidence to support the case in court that intent exists.

“The key to entrapment is whether the idea for the commission or encouragement of the criminal act originated with the police or government agents instead of with the “criminal.” ~Online Legal Dictionary

If us Muslims want to stay out of the criminal justice system, stay far away from the anything to do with extremism.   When I was a young Catholic boy (long before I converted to Islam) playing with my siblings, my grandmother would always warn me, “Don’t say, ‘I’ll kill you’ to your brothers and sisters.  Someone might believe you.”  Muslims need to live by this rule.  Don’t talk about wanting to do violent things.  Someone just might believe you.  Don’t even broach the topic if someone mentions it first. If someone begins the topic, walk away and have nothing to do with it.  If they are being investigated, they might drag you in with them if what you say can be interpreted as intent.  If you are not involved, you have nothing to fear.  Otherwise, as explained later in this article, it becomes your Islamic duty to approach the authorities.

The fact is that the majority of cases involving informants and Muslims who plot to commit acts related to radicalism are solid cases based in well documented evidence and not entrapment.

Rage Against the Informant

It is also important for the community to realize that “rooting out” informants by posting their names, pictures and video railing against them on the internet is a futile exercise.  It shows to the public the Muslim community’s unwillingness to be trusted by society (and law enforcement) to help protect the public from extremist plots.  By doing this we subvert our community leader’s statements against extremism given to the public, whom we are trying to get to accept us as not being law abiding citizens and not “terrorist sympathizers”.  It does nothing to prevent more people within the community from becoming informants.  It does more harm to the peaceful existence of the Muslim community in the west than good and does not do anything to further the cause of the person charged with a crime.

We must get away from the culture of revenge commonly seen in Muslim countries.  Revenge is a personal act of vigilantism that is more than often misguided and commonly seen in the cultures of many Muslim countries (revenge killing for example).  It is our duty as Muslims to stand for justice and if we feel that there has been an injustice it is not our place to take revenge.  In Islam from the earliest time of the creation of the Islamic Ummah in Madina, the rule of law has been central to social justice.  If we truly believe in the innocence of a person, or an injustice has been done, then it becomes our duty to insure that the truth comes out without taking revenge.

“Twice will they be given their reward, for that they have persevered, that they avert Evil with Good, and that they spend (in charity) out of what We have given them.” ~Qur’an 28:54

“The Messenger of Allah replied: An angel came down from Heaven and he was rejecting what he had said to you. When you took revenge, a devil came down. I was not going to sit when the devil came down.”  ~Abu-Dawud, General Behavior, Book 41, Number 4878

It could be that the informant that you are trying to take revenge against is the person that has not done something wrong.  It is our duty as Muslims to stand for justice even if it be against someone we love from our families, tribes, nation, and yes even religion, etc.

“O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah , even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. So follow not [personal] inclination, lest you not be just. And if you distort [your testimony] or refuse [to give it], then indeed Allah is ever, with what you do, Acquainted.”  ~Qur’an 4:135

Many criminals, be they in business, drug bosses, mafia bosses, etc., are often otherwise upstanding citizens and involve themselves in charity work and other community services.  Charity work or the fact that we know them as upstanding people in the community does not mean they have not been involved in secret criminal activity that can only be discovered through a covert investigation using informants, the only way the crime would otherwise be discovered.

Sense and Sensibility

Let’s be sensible.  Wouldn’t it be better that the criminal activity was discovered than to have your sons, daughters or friends blow something up or set off for Iraq or Syria to become a suicide bomber, kill people including other Muslims, lop off peoples heads or burn people alive on youtube?  Or maybe returning to set off a bomb in our own country?  Thinking even further up the investigative ladder, would you rather it be discovered prior to a person using your charitable or religious organizations as a springboard to do something that could lead to this?  You tell me.

Gathering intelligence from people to protect Muslims has been central to survival in the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad and the basis for Allah’s granting the them permission to make hijra (immigrate) to Madina.

Today, like non-Muslim countries, every Muslim country in the world has domestic intelligence services designed to root out extremism, drugs, and organized crime.  Still, there remains a huge taboo and a great degree of suspicion among Muslims regarding the use of informants in investigations in the United States.

In the United Arab Emirates, there are undercover plain clothes police officers on the streets making arrests.  The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) goes undercover to make arrests.   Who do we think the Inter-service Intelligence agency (ISI) is in Pakistan?  What about the Al Mukhabarat Al A’amah (General Intelligence Presidency; GIP) of Saudi Arabia?  Do we think these agencies announce their terrorist investigations to the extremists they are investigating?  How do we think they gather intelligence on plots?  It is “human intelligence”, i.e. informants.

O ye who believe! Avoid suspicion as much (as possible): for suspicion in some cases is a sin: And spy not on each other behind their backs. Would any of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? Nay, ye would abhor it…But fear Allah: For Allah is Oft-Returning, Most Merciful.  ~Qur’an 49:12

The fact is, in the United States (and most western countries) a person stands a better chance at being accused objectively and/or having a fair trial and appeals than they would in many Muslim countries, like for example, Egypt or Pakistan.

Though the Qur’an forbids individuals spying for personal reasons such as backbiting or gossip, it is clear by the Seerah (history), Qur’an and scholars in Muslim countries that informing authorities so that they can investigate criminal activity, which could harm Muslims or society at large, is permitted.  One would be hard pressed to find a scholar to say the opposite.

Our Islamic Duty

Once a Muslim discovers that another has intent to break the law, he/she has an obligation to bring it to the attention of authorities and cooperate in any way necessary to protect all parties involved.

“And cooperate in righteousness and piety, but do not cooperate in sin and aggression. And fear Allah ; indeed, Allah is severe in penalty.” ~Qur’an 5:2

“O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah , even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. So follow not [personal] inclination, lest you not be just. And if you distort [your testimony] or refuse [to give it], then indeed Allah is ever, with what you do, Acquainted.” Qur’an 4:135

Fatwa from The Fiqh Council of North America

  • All acts of terrorism targeting civilians are haram (forbidden) in Islam.
  • It is haram for a Muslim to cooperate with any individual or group that is involved in any act of terrorism or violence.
  • It is the civic and religious duty of Muslims to cooperate with law enforcement authorities to protect the lives of all civilians.

Don’t let radicalized Muslims carry out acts in your name, the name of your religion that you hold dear.  If you have information, it is up to you to stop it.

If you know someone who is thinking that they are going to go on hijra (immigration) to a Muslim land to fight in a Jihad (struggle) to establish “Justice in the Land” and establish the Calipha (Caliphate), think ahead of what they might be doing and how it will affect Muslims and their organizations in your country.

The Caliphate cannot be established through violence and injustice.

“We must remember that injustice cannot be removed by another injustice.” ~IslamOnline – Muzammil Siddiqi

Over the years, I have had the pleasure of working with many types of people in the Islamic community, a cross section of ideologies, cultures and sects. I have taught classes with them, represented them in the media and learned about them, from them. When someone opens themselves up to learning about others, understanding comes, fears subside and stereotyping dissipates. One of the divisive ideological topics among Muslims is that between those with an agenda to malign the Saudi Kingdom and their brand of Islam dominant on the Arabian Penninsula by labelling Salafis ‘Wahhabi’.  Interestingly, it is also a term propagated by anti-Islam haters to describe all of us Muslims.  I will explain how the term is misleading, divisive, offensive and, yes, even racist in it’s use by Muslims and non-Muslims alike and should not be used. However, before I explain, it is important that anyone who discusses this topic understand the basic history of the Saud’s rise to power and the modern politic.  There are a lot of support link references throughout the article for you to study if you really wish to delve into the topic.

The purpose of this write up isn’t for the defence of the Salafi movement or the Saudi Kingdom.  However, as a Muslim, it is my duty to draw the line where the facts and sound reason exist, to stand firm for justice.  Far too often innocent bystanders (and new Muslims) are caught up in a viscous propaganda campaign of hate waged by some Muslim groups and non-Muslim hate groups on this topic.

“You who believe, uphold justice and bear witness to God, even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or your close relatives. Whether the person is rich or poor, God can best take care of both. Refrain from following your own desire, so that you can act justly- if you distort or neglect justice, God is fully aware of what you do.” Qur’an 4:135

Basic History

Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was born and lived in ‘Uyaynah, Arabia from 1703-1792, though he spent many years abroad and taught in Basra, Iraq. He completed his education in Madina. In Iran, 1736 he taught against the ideas of various prominent Sufi leaders.  The movement he founded never extended beyond Arabia, save the concepts of Tawheed.

Since the sack of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongols, the Islamic Empire struggled with decline. Europe in the period after the Dark Ages, benefited from educating in Islamic territories and began to increase with technological and cultural innovation.  By the 1700’s, it eventually had fully experienced the renaissance and began exporting this cultural innovation back to Islamic lands. Seeing these things as corrupt western innovation (biddah) of religion, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab began a peaceful (non-violent) revivalist response to the decaying beliefs, morals and Islamic practice in the Arabian Pennisula.  He preached the removal polytheism from Islamic society and return to the roots of the Salaf (ancestors).  The Salaf movement was mainly concerned with issues of Tawheed (monotheism), shirk (polytheism) and western modern innovative influence among Arab Muslims seen to be the cause of moral decay. Today, the movement views the world in much the same way.

In 1744 Muhammad bin Saud sought to use his immense military forces to found the first Saudi state but didn’t have the influence he desired among all of the people to secure his rule. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was well known among these same Arabian tribes for his revivalist work. The two movements officially allied. Muhammad bin Saud married his son with Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s daughter to seal the deal.  Under the new Saudi state, Muhammad bin Saud was to be charged with political and economic affairs.  Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was in charge of religious affairs.

The alliance became strong as the Saud’s conquered much of the Arabian peninsula.  Religious enforcement (sometimes religious violence) was sanctioned and backed by the government of the newly formed state.   To bolster Muhammad bin Saud’s forces, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab began to use his influence as a religious leader to recruit people to join the military for deployment in battlefield jihad on behalf of the state.

The mix of fundamental revivalist teaching coupled with strict state sanctioned enforcement lends outsiders to have the ‘illusion’ of orthodoxy in Islam where Salafis are concerned. The madhab (school of thought) dominant in Saudi Arabia where Salafi movement originates is Hanbali.  There are many schools of thought in Islam and thus there is no ‘orthodoxy‘ in Islam.

Salafi groups generally do not partake in protests or even the political process, considering it a sin. They believe in obedience to government and are generally peaceable.  Such an idea may work well in a monarchy, like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  However, as with any group there are varying degrees of those (a minority) who grow disillusioned with pacificity and become militant within the same ideology. Militant groups in all movements often go to the extent of replacing reputable established Islamic jurists with their own leaders in order to pronounce takfir (declaring disbelievers) on other Muslims to sanction and attack them for not acting on the same ‘triggers’ deemed legitimate by the group.  Duality is human nature and within individuals or groups the reversal of moral value or opinion can happen for many reasons and often has triggers.  It is not an event that is specific to the Salafi movement or Islam and happens all over the world (Example).

Modern Politic

Attempts are often made to say that the Salafi movement is the ‘exporter’ of extremist ideology because groups like ISIS are ‘Salafist’, but the facts to not support the idea of such sinister ideological ‘export’.  The spread of terrorism misusing the Salafist ideology is incidental.  ISIS is not the only terrorist group in the world.  There is no evidence to support that all terrorist movements are ‘Salafist’ and most of these terrorist movements engage in acts that contravene the teachings of the movements from which they came.

The root cause for the current terrorism crisis is simmering political instability caused by United States foreign policies that began in the 1980’s.  To advance the interests of the United States to fight communism, the US secured an agreement with the Saudi Arabian government (in coordination with Pakistan, Egypt and Israel) to drive the communist Soviet Union from Afghanistan by funding, arming and training extremist groups with US taxpayer money and resources. The problem was made worse by Operation Desert Storm in 1990 and subsequent 12 years of sanctions that reduced a middle class nation (Iraq) to one of the poorest in the world. These same CIA funded and equipped jihadist assets based in Afghanistan became disillusioned with US foreign policy later went on to attack the United States on September 11, 2001.  The problem of global terrorism metastasised after the destabilisation of Iraq in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and continues to grow with US foreign policies that include endless bombing campaigns, attempts at nation building and interventions across the Middle East, Asia, Europe and North Africa.

Today’s middle east crisis with ISIS is born directly out of political instability created by the United States invasion of Iraq, the attempt to ‘de-Baathify’ the Iraqi civil and military services leaving hundreds of thousands of Sunnis formerly loyal to Saddam Hussein without a job and removing the only security apparatus from the nation.  The United States established a Shi’a led Iraqi government that marginalised Sunni groups.  Al Qaida Iraq chose to capitalise on this and in 2006 is renamed Islamic State of Iraq.  The group has re-branded itself many times since (ISIS/ISIL/IS; all the same group).

If countries are not stable, there is either no security apparatus or it is too weak to be effective.  Lawlessness becomes the norm.  Misuse of religion, iconography and ideology is commonplace in unstable or lawless countries.  (Examples 1, 2) In fact, a large number of the recruits of these criminal enterprises or gangs also have criminal histories.  The most notable global misuses of religion in human history has been the pogroms, Crusades and Inquisitions inflicted on the world by Christendom.

“Whether Sunni or Shia, Salafi or Sufi, conservative or liberal, Muslims – and Muslim leaders – have almost unanimously condemned and denounced Isis not merely as un-Islamic but actively anti-Islamic.” – New Statesman

The Council of Senior Scholars of Saudi Arabia have issued a ruling against terrorism and groups like ISIS, irrespective of the political establishment’s support for using them in the proxy war to confront Iranian influence in the region.

It’s also worth noting that in political foreign affairs that most governments have employed or supported terrorist groups to achieve their goals.  In the case of the United States, examples range from the jihadist groups fighting ‘godless’ Soviet communism to the Bay of Pigs disaster to even funnelling arms and money to Al Nusra front in Syria (an Al Qaida affiliate).  The current regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia (supporting groups like ISIS against Iran) and Iran (Hezbollah & Revolutionary guards against the Saudi Kingdom), should be seen with these facts in mind as we try to make sense and solve the crisis of terrorism.  If one condemns one nations terrorism, we must face the fact and condemn our own nation’s terrorism equally.  The coordinated efforts by the United States, Israel, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (circa 1978) to fund, arm and train these extremist groups to fight Soviet communism gave the initial credibility and rise to jihadist groups that we despise, like Al Qaida and ISIS.  The problem of terrorism (a tactic of war) lies primarily with government entities, not Islam or any one Islamic movement.

Now that we have waded though the politic and how Islamic movements have been distorted and misused for political gain of both Muslim and non-Muslim governments, let’s go on to draw the lines where they belong.

The Myth of Wahhabism

Do not speak ill of one another; do not use offensive nicknames for one another. How bad it is to be called a mischief-maker after accepting faith! Those who do not repent of this behaviour are evildoers.” Qur’an 49:11

“The Messenger of Allah said, “Do you know what is backbiting?” The Companions said: “Allah and His Messenger know better.” Thereupon he said, “Backbiting is talking about your (Muslim) brother in a manner which he dislikes.” It was said to him: “What if my (Muslim) brother is as I say.” He said, “If he is actually as you say, then that is backbiting; but if that is not in him, that is slandering.“” (Riyadh as-Salihin [Muslim])

  • Taymiyyan? – The Salafi do not follow Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. They rarely make mention of any of his teachings instead referencing various hadith from common sources (Bukhari, Muslim, Ibn Majah, Thirmidhi, etc).  In fact, if one is  lucky they may just find a biography of his life in a bookstore where Salafis patronise.  Of the four Islamic schools of thought their madthab is Hanbali. Why are they not named after the madhab, Hanbalian?  The Salafi rely on a host of scholarly opinions but orientalist scholars claim that they rely more heavily on Ibn Taymiyyah. If they reference Ibn Taymiyyah extensively and rarely if ever (I’ve never heard one in my 21 years as a Muslim) reference Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, how can they be ‘Wahhabi’?  Why not ‘Taymiyyan‘?
  • Follow Muhammad (PBUH) – Salafi never call themselves Wahhabi. In fact, it is considered a derogatory designed to malign their movement by making the false claim that their movement is synonymous with terrorism (much like Islam-haters do to all Muslims).  Like any other Muslim with our pet ideologies or favourite movement, they are followers of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).  Consequently, this is the same logic that is used by the Islam hate industry to slander all Muslims.
  • Islam-hate – It is a term also used by many non-Muslims to promote anti-Islam agendas.  The term ‘Wahhabi’ means different things to different people. It means nothing (other than slander) to the Salafi because they don’t follow Wahhab. It is misapplied to them by other Muslims.  It is a term applied by media pundits at times to identify terrorism.  It is applied to all Muslims by the Islam-hate industry.  The term is the source of confusion and hatred used not against just Salafi, but all Muslims be one Sunni, Sufi, Shi’a, liberal or conservative, whatever your persuasion.
  • Sectarianism – Muslim political and religious opponents (like some Sufi, Shi’a, even fellow Sunnis and others) intentionally mislabel Salafi as ‘Wahhabi’.  It is commonplace among those opposing Muslim groups with an agenda to stereotype and malign both the militant and the pacifist among the Salafi, Saudi citizens or Arabs in general, painting them with a broad brush as the monolithic ideological source of all that is evil in the world (convenient for those swayed by alternate religious or national agendas).  It also is used by some Muslim groups with an agenda to disqualify, dehumanise and demonise a fellow group of Muslims through labelling them extremists and spread unjustified fear and abhorrence for them.  The fact is that we have already discussed the factors that brought extremist groups into existence and gave them credibility, no one group is the source of all evil.  Muslim groups are being played in a game of divide and conquer by corrupt governments (Muslim and not) to advance their own interests.
  • No clerical system – Catholics believe that Jesus himself is God.  Yet, not all Catholics follow the dictates of the Pope despite among Catholics the Pope is the head of the clergy and Jesus Christ’s divine representative on earth.  In Islam there is not even a clerical system, let alone God’s divine representative in earth.  It should be a no-brainer that not all Salafi side with the dictates of the Saudi political/religious establishment.  Like other religious groups of people, despite perceived religious hierarchy or clergy they are still not homogeneous.  Salafism has developed several schools of thinking.  “There are Salafis who have become close to centrism, which is based on combining the opposites, combining mind and matter, combining the spirit and the material, sometimes interpreting and at other times abstaining from interpretation, and combining intellect, action, religion, and politics. Moreover, we cannot disregard the development of the Salafis; in the past they did not talk about politics, but now they participate in the political battles…” – Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi
  • Just plain stupid – In it’s mislabelling, the efforts of these Muslim opponents to keep people away from the teaching of the Salafi are made futile. As people become familiar with the slanderous label and then enter the mosque or community center there is no one there that calls him/herself ‘wahhabi’, but you will find people that refer to themselves as Salafi or following the Salaf. So, mislabelling may seem like semantics but all it does (besides the obvious slander and misleading people) is keep people from recognising them in the mosque.  So, if one seriously fears their ideology so much to want to preach to people against them, why not want them identified by their proper name?  Again, a no-brainer here.
  • Discouraging Converts – Intentionally mislabelling them a name that they don’t call themselves is divisive. The slander creates needless trouble between religious leaders (and their followers) who have agendas of hatred for the Salafi, the Salafi who don’t want to be maligned and those who want learn about Islam. It confuses people, especially new Muslims, who don’t know better and struggle to decipher Islamic groups that may be approaching them in the mosque. The agenda is more easily seen by new Muslims who get turned off by the divisiveness in a religion they chose, more than likely, to get away from this same kind of behaviour in a Church.  Perhaps they just don’t have the time in their lives for such childish behavior either.  You aren’t doing da’wah here, you are doing anti-da’wah. People will leave Islam and probably not even take the time to tell anyone.  How is that going to look in our book of deeds?  “The record of their deeds will be laid open and you will see the guilty, dismayed at what they contain, saying, ‘Woe to us! What a record this is! It does not leave any deed, small or large, unaccounted for!’ They will find everything they ever did laid in front of them: your Lord will not be unjust to anyone.” Qur’an 18:49
  • Racism – There is a conglomerate of groups that engage in this type of smear campaign. Western media and pundits, Islam-haters and even other Muslims who are using the term ‘Wahhabi’ are using the term to identify a particular type of extremism (or terrorism) that they oppose. Yet, there are no ‘Wahhabi’. Instead what they are tacitly referring to without being forthright is ‘all Salafi’ or ‘all Saudis’ or in some cases ‘all Arabs’ and even in the case of non-Muslim Islam-haters who use the term: all practising Muslims.

Racism isn’t merely maligning someone based on ethnicity.  It is a legacy construct of colonialism, which places value on European civilisations over that of the occupied ‘savage’ colonies. The implication being an ‘us versus them’ attitude where all of ‘them’ are savages worthy of hatred, pogroms, or civilising campaigns based on ‘their’ grouping. By the same token, these former colonies have began using these ‘superior’ attitudes against others based on ethnicity, nationality, madhab, religion, etc. It is an attitude of ‘supremacy’ once particular to colonial Europe (that still exists among White Supremacists today) which has been learned by the colonised who are using it against each other, in this case the mythical demon named the ‘Wahhabi’.  Racism is also not always expressed in explicit terms, but tacit. Racism may also entirely cast aside ethic markers. This is known as ‘cultural racism‘.

There are many groups of Muslims and western non-Muslims that use the term ‘Wahhabi’ in the derogatory sense to imply ‘all Arabs’ or ‘all Saudis’ are extremists. Recently, I experienced a group on Facebook who will go unnamed.

It was a 7000 member strong facebook group with a stated goal to ‘help new convert Muslims‘. In reality the group was mostly a cross section of ‘Asian’ Muslims who had repeated threads about the evil ‘Wahhabi’ and how to defeat them.  The discussions rapidly descended into hate speech against Arabs.  When prodded what was meant by some of the anti-arab statements, one of the members (again unnamed) joked, “All Arabs are killing machines”. I reasoned with him that mislabelling them and grouping all of them together coupled with making a statement like that is what leads to hate speech against peaceful ‘Salafi’ (fellow Muslims) and it does no practical good to mislabel them. Needless to say he didn’t take that well, sent me a message cursing at me, accusing me of calling him a hater and calling on the admin in the group to try to get me banned. In the spate of a few hours of this discussion followed by this group member’s threats to get me banned.

The point is that, though the group may have started with the best of intentions, the entire group was whipped up into a frenzy of ‘us versus them’ to the point that no one could reason and it didn’t take long. It was a flash response to challenging the social norm of anti-Arab (Muslim on Muslim) hate. If I were to believe their psychological projection onto the Salafi, it would be something I might have expected from these so-called ‘intolerant’ people they hated.  It was no longer a forum of learning but a forum of anti-arab hate speech.  Stereotyping, educating new Muslims (their stated goal), teaching them not to paint people with a broad brush of blind hatred, giving reasons to objection to the Salafi movement, didn’t matter. Anyone who questioned their blind stereotyping was a threat and needed to be cursed at and strong armed into silence. What mattered more was that they are Malay and they don’t like Arabs, our Islam is more valuable and valid while someone else’s is not. It is ‘us versus them‘. It’s the same thing Muslims often are seen complaining about when non-Muslims stereotype Islam, but on a micro level. I suspect in addition to ethnicity, religious persuasion played an ‘us versus them‘ role in this hateful response also.

“The Messenger of Allah said, “Four are the qualities which, when found in a person, make him a sheer hypocrite, and one who possesses one of them, possesses one characteristic of hypocrisy until he abandons it. These are: When he is entrusted with something, he betrays trust; when he speaks, he lies; when he promises, he acts treacherously; and when he argues, he behaves in a very imprudent, insulting manner.“”  [Al-Bukhari and Muslim].


Bottom line is that it doesn’t solve the problem of extremism to mislabel Salafi (or anyone) ‘Wahhabi’. Most Salafi, most Muslims, are peaceful. Extremist militants do exist among them but extremist militants have existed among Jamaat-e-Islami, Iqwan, Sufi, Shi’a, etc. and in all other non-Muslim faiths, even Buddhism.  In all cases, most people (Muslims and those of the Salafi movement included) value peace and security and militants are very much a small minority.  Triggers and variations in these groups and their numbers often are relative to the politics in the region or globe and governments asserting their interests.

It’s okay to  to disagree with how Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab did things, to criticise the Salafi or their scholars, to criticise how the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does things, to think they have an ideological problem that needs fixing or to have fundamental disagreements between each other, but maligning others by calling them by false names is unbecoming of a Muslim and fraught with error.  Instead, our language should be precise and accurate. Reasonable discussion, intellectual education and debate needs to happen for any of us to benefit or solve the problems that plague our global community.

The term  ‘Wahhabi’ is a manufactured-from-history and inaccurate name created by people with the intent to malign. It is incoherent, divisive and slanderous. If one is a Muslim and sincere in their faith, they should ask themselves if this is the kind of thing Allah would want us to be doing. I suspect, He wouldn’t.

Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best. Indeed, your Lord is most knowing of who has strayed from His way, and He is most knowing of who is [rightly] guided.  Qur’an 16:125

Long History of Islamic Art

In dealing with the issue of photography, we naturally have to reach back and talk about Islamic art since they both deal with the thing people object to, images.  Art creativity has been around since long before the time of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), but as Islam expanded to new regions different attitudes towards the arts emerged.  As Islam spread rapidly throughout the middle east, the Umayyids (661–750CE) made some advances in the arts but were the predecessors of the Islamic Golden Age.  The Umayyids spread Islam as a dynamic religion which adapted to local cultures and the arts within the limitations of Islamic civilisation.

The Umayyids were a ruling tribe from the tribe Banu Umayya. The Banu Umayya were a tribe of Quraysh who converted to Islam during the time of the Prophet, the most notable of them Uthman ibn Affan who went on to become the third Caliph during the Rashidun period.  Uthman ibn Affan is considered the third of four ‘Rightly Guided Caliphs‘ who Sunni look to (in addition to Qur’an and Hadith) when interpreting Shari’ah.  Caliph Uthman is also attributed with completing the very first full edition of the Qur’an begun under Abu Bakr’s term as Caliph.

The Umayyid Caliphate was established by Caliph Muawiya I ibn Abu Sufyan who succeeded Caliph ‘Ali ibn Abi-Talib. The Umayyid period (661 CE – 750 CE) is the second to rule Islamic civilisation after the Rashidun Caliphate period (the four Rightly Guided Caliphs, 632 CE – 661 CE).  Islamic civilisation since thrived in the sciences and arts, some of which have survived until today.

Umayyid Caliphate 727 CE. Her features are those of an Arab woman. Archaeologists believe she is a songstress from the palace. Historical sources mention that songstresses were brought from the Hijaz region, in the western Arabian Desert, to sing in the Umayyad palaces of the Syrian Desert. (Source)

Umayyid Caliphate 734 CE. Mosaic of Hisham’s Palace representation of the lion attacking the gazelle. It is thought the be the peace that follows the victory of Islam.

The Abassids where direct descendants of Al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib, the youngest uncle of the Prophet Muhammad and overthrew the Umayyids in 750 CE.  The Abassid reign under Caliph Harun al-Rashid built upon the culture and sciences of the Umayyids.  The result was an explosion of advances in art, music, literature, science, medicine and much more that led Islam into a full blown Golden Age, while Europe plunged itself into the Dark Ages.  It was this age that Europeans traveled to Islamic lands to study in Islamic universities to acquire education which they would carry back to Europe.  Eventually, this led to the renaissance in 1300 CE pulling Europe out of the Dark Ages.

In the illustration on the right, a doctor and his assistant or patient stand on either side. (Source)

The Abbasid rule lasted from 750 CE until the Mongol invasion and sack of Baghdad in 1258 CE and killed Caliph al-Musta’sim.  Dynastic struggles brought about political instability and declining institutions but it was this moment that marked the decline in Islamic civilisation.  Islamic civilisation has not fully recovered since.

Traditionally, as seen in Islamic History, even human portrayals can be found in all eras of Islamic art.  In addition to humans, animals and plant portrayals are common even in Islam’s fourth most revered mosque, The Great Mosque of Damascus.  Since the earliest days of the Islamic empire Muslims have designed coinage and miniatures with depictions as well.

Islamic coin featuring human figure in art. American University of Beirut, Lebanon

Abbasid Bowl, 9th Century, Iraq. Qatar Museum of Islamic Art

Since the beginning, Islamic civilisation has been familiar with depictions of Allah’s creation. 1400 years of Islamic history tells us that these depictions were mostly permitted unless there was an element of shirk (idolatry) associated with it.  Even in the case of art that had idolatrous significance that became owned by Muslims, it was often marked but not destroyed. Human (or any) representation for the purpose of worship is shirk (idolatry) and is strictly forbidden.  However, the evidence shows that Muslims from all eras have never conclusively viewed representation of mundane figures as forbidden.

However, if we reach back to the Prophet’s example, although shirk is forbidden, we still do not see a total destruction or defacement of works of art among non-Muslim communities who were in alliances with Muslims.  The Prophet himself demanded that Muslims respect other faiths and even participate in maintaining and repairing their religious buildings, which were decorated with paintings, statues and other works that would naturally have items of religious value considered shirk by Muslims.  Examples:

“No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it… Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants.” – Prophet Muhammad, Promise to the Monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery Until the End of Days

“Assist in reconstruct (patch, remodel) their churches and monasteries, and this would be as aid to them in their religion and for their commitment to the covenant.” – Prophet Muhammad, Covenant penned in the Prophet’s Mosque by Ali bin Abi Taleb

In recent centuries an effort to re-establish the past glory of Islam’s Golden Age, many Muslims have come to believe that instead of building from where we were at the height of the Golden Age that we must dial back Islamic civilisation by viewing it all as bid’ah (innovation) involving varying degrees of shirk (idolatry).  In doing so, there is considerable effort put into regressive ideologies that do not consider the ‘larger picture’ of the facts of Islamic history, modern living, culture, science, economy and governance.  One such movement today, the Salafist movement, is preoccupied with forbidding the things that were once the pinnacle of Islamic civilisation from its earliest days to its decline at the hands of the Mongols.  This movement began 300 years ago in the mid 1700s and is rooted in Saudi Arabian history. The fundamentals of this revivalist Salafist movement seems sound on the surface. It is more often overly zealous to avoid what it identifies as unnecessary bid’ah (innovation) and ascribes shirk (polytheism) where none exists. It’s marriage to the Saudi Arabian government often is problematic when interpreting Islam as it applies autocratic ideology within the country and in the movement worldwide.  Since the earliest days, Islam has always been a more dynamic faith.

O people, beware of exaggeration in religious matters for those who came before you were doomed because of exaggeration in religious matters. – Sunan Ibn Majah 

There is nothing wrong with being overly cautious, however, this seemingly monastic outlook is unnecessary and shouldn’t be put off as the only correct Islamic view.  Furthermore, it is over-burdensome in a way Allah and the Prophet (PBUH) never intended for the believers.  Such puritan ideas in the arts (among other things) are themselves a destructive bid’ah (innovation) of religion in my view.

God wants ease for you, not hardship. He wants you to complete the prescribed period and to glorify Him for having guided you, so that you may be thankful. – Qur’an 2:185b

God does not wish to place any burden on you: He only wishes to cleanse you and perfect His blessing on you, so that you may be thankful. – Qur’an 5:6

A bedouin urinated in the mosque and some people rushed to beat him up. The Prophet said: “Leave him alone and pour a bucket of water over it. You have been sent to make things easy and not to make them difficult.” – Riyad as-Salihin (Bukhari)

Interestingly, one of the things that most Muslims do not think about is the representation of one celestial body (sometimes accompanied by a second) that were once used by pagan idolaters that exists on most Mosques, many national flags or religious accessories today (like carpets).  Like representations of humans, animals or plants, and unlike other symbols of faith, they are representations of Allah’s creation and people in the past have gone astray to worship them or use them for polytheistic purpose.

The Star and Crescent signifies victory, sovereignty and divinity. According to tradition, in 339 BC a brilliant crescent moon saved Byzantium (now Istanbul) from attack by Philip of Macedon. To mark their gratitude, the citizens adopted the Crescent of Diana as the city’s emblem. After Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, Byzantium became a Christian city in 330 AD and was renamed Constantinople.  The Crescent was adopted from the goddess Diana and given a Star by the Emperor as symbolic of the Virgin Mary.

After 1299, during the reign of Sultan Osman Gazi of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan had a dream of a crescent moon in every corner of the world with a “mighty wind, and turned the points of the sword-leaves towards the various cities of the world, but especially towards Constantinople.”  The dream then became a symbol of the Ottoman dynasty. When Constantinople was conquered by Mehmed II in 1453, the crescent came to represent both Islam and the Turkish empire.

It is understood by all Muslims that this is merely symbolic and has no religious significance or polytheistic merit despite its idolatrous origins.

The night, the day, the sun, the moon, are only a few of His signs. Do not bow down in worship to the sun or the moon, but bow down to God who created them, if it is truly Him that you worship. – Qur’an 41:37

Yet, the Crescent and Star decorate our Islamic societies in the same way as picture art since the earliest days of Islam (unlike the Crescent and Star, such Islamic art never had any polytheistic or religious merit).  We know with certainty that picture art decorated Mosques, town centers, palaces, homes, etc. since the Umayyids.  There is one similarity between these two things (Crescent decoration and art) that tie this up into a neat bundle of understanding and is perfectly in line with Quran and Hadith.  In creating and using these items, there is no intent to create a relic for people to venerate.  No shirk is involved.

Modern Photography

Since the development of the camera, there has been the ongoing debate over whether or not taking a photograph is forbidden or permitted in Islam, but there has been little understanding about what photography actually is.  There are two forms of photography addressed by the scholars, ‘still photo’ and ‘video’.

Though it shares all of the characteristics of imagination involved in creating a painting, photography today is not creating a picture, nor is it taking a picture.  A photograph is a reflection of a scene that already exists.  Photography is the control of reflective light bouncing off of a subject.  Controlling this light is similar to the control of water if you were to open a water tap and fill a jug for use at a later date. Photography is both an art form and a science.  Photography is applying the talent that Allah has given you to see something and adjusting the mechanisms to control light which in turn determines how it is recorded on a micro storage chip, resulting in a great photograph for you to consume (use) at a later date.  Here is how it works:

In the above diagram light rays already exist, even in total darkness.  You can adjust light with a flash or simply have a longer exposure.  Light bounces off or radiates from something in the world and is constantly travelling towards your camera. When you point the camera at a subject, the image is bouncing off of your mirror (or shutter in the case of mirror-less).  The aperture in your lens can be adjusted for a faster (larger) or slower (smaller) light setting. The shutter can be set slower to allow more light or faster to allow less light.  The sensor that will record the light can be set to more or less light sensitive.  When the settings are optimal the shutter is released for the specified time.  When the shutter is released, light that is already travelling into your camera continues on its way to the sensor.  The sensor is electronic and the light from the scene is interpreted by the CPU, converted to data and stored in your data drive.  The still photo is called a ‘frame’.  The data from the photo frame can be exported for data manipulation on your PC, stored or printed for whatever reason.

Whether you have a camera dedicated for television or movies, DSLR or mobile phone, all digital cameras are video capable. A video is a series of still photo frames that are taken with the correct lighting controls (aperture, shutter speed and sensor strength) that are recorded for playback into what is called ‘frame rate’.  When they are played back, the frame rate is the number of images that are played back, displayed or projected per second.  Although video can be viewed as a separate art form, it works in the exact same way that still photography works, with one exception:  audio.  Audio breathes life into the collection of rapidly projected photographs and is imprinted on what we call television, computer screens, tablets and mobile phones.  It can also be frozen by frame and printed the same as a still photo with the right software.  Although this is less quality and overlooked in place of more appropriate still photography, Ultra-High Definition is making for clearer television pictures as technology advances.

Photography has many beneficial uses and as with anything that exists can be abused.  It has some very relevant purposes, such as to communicate, tell a story, inspire, capture history, innocent retention of memories and challenge creativity.  All of this can be used for good causes like remembering lost loved ones, making a record of your life for your family, communicating beauty on various subjects, conveying emotions, identification for ID cards or social media profiles, journalism, education in all sciences, and much more.

Scholarly Opinions, are Opinions

In large part, scholars do ‘permit’ photographs, even if they forbid painting art. However, most Salafis, who have now propagated their movement worldwide with the support of the Saudi Arabian government, have taught that still photography is forbidden except for photo ID like passports, etc.  Interestingly, in the same stroke of a brush they claim that taking video is permitted.  In fact, there is no difference between the two from a photographic standpoint.

It seems a lot of us Muslims get amnesia when it comes to leaders like the Saudi Arabian King Salman and a number of other Muslim dictators across Arab ‘Muslim’ countries.  Their imposing portrait paintings and photographs are plastered all over our Islamic societies.  These types of paintings and photos are designed to remind us who is in charge, who we should fear and who we should admire, and I don’t think they have Qur’an, Sunnah or Allah in mind.  Still two wrongs wouldn’t make a right and someone’s disingenuous argumentation doesn’t allow us a free pass, so lets examine this topic further.

Saudi Arabian King Salman

The evidences the scholars use to come to these conclusions are not based in Qur’an.  There is no prohibition on drawing, painting, or creating art of any type in the Qur’an.  The core message of Allah to Muslims is Tawheed (Oneness) and in the Qur’an He warns us about engaging in forms of idolatry.  In other words, ascribing a supernatural quality, partnership, or divinity to corruptible things, either in Creation or that we create.  If one examines the totality of hadith on the topic, there is a clear line in Islam between permissibly and discretion that indicates to us at what point our intent becomes the idolatrous behaviour which is prohibited in the Qur’an.  Allah does not prohibit us from enjoying his creation through the arts, but limits us in our acts of divine adoration, supplication and worship to Him only.  What I am speaking of is plain in the Quran:

If any, after this, invent a lie and attribute it to Allah, they are indeed unjust wrong-doers. – Qur’an 3:94

Say: He is Allah, the One and Only; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; And there is none like unto Him. – Qur’an 112

Further to the discussion, according to the Qur’an Allah even blessed Prophet Sulaiman (a.s.) and his family to enjoy these things that were made for them.

They made him whatever he wanted- palaces, statues, basins as large as water troughs, fixed cauldrons. We said, ‘Work thankfully, family of David, for few of my servants are truly thankful.’ – Qur’an 34:13

The Qur’an is our primary source as it is the most authentic source.  The hadith are our secondary source because they are not the words of Allah but a series of chain narrations that have been authenticated and recorded hundreds of years later (longer than it took for parts of the Bible to be put on papyrus), hence all hadith must be looked at in light of the Qur’an.

The prohibitions imposed by scholars who prohibit photographic art are entirely based on a group of hadith that if seen together, in light of Qur’anic verses and the history of what purpose many images served in the time of the Prophet, they can be easily understood as they always have been since the time of the Prophet Muhammad when Islam was perfected.

This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed My favour upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion. – Qur’an 5:3

Here is what the scholars say:

According to Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the subject matter of a photograph is factor in prohibition.  For example, nude or semi-nude photographs, drawings or paintings would be forbidden because they go squarely against Islamic morals.  Such a prohibition would also include portraits of tyrants or people who are leaders or celebrities that propagate immoral behavior.  He also includes subject matter like religious symbols, such as crosses, idols, etc.

Sheikh Ahmad Kutty, says, “Photography as a medium of communication or for the simple, innocent retention of memories without the taint of reverence/shirk does not fall under the category of forbidden Tasweer [picture/image].

One finds a number of traditions from the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, condemning people who make Tasweer, which denotes painting or carving images or statues. It was closely associated with paganism or shirk [association of partners with Allah]. People were in the habit of carving images and statues for the sake of worship. Islam, therefore, declared Tasweer forbidden because of its close association with shirk. One of the stated principles of usul-u-Fiqh( Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence) is that if anything directly leads to haram [forbidden acts], it is likewise haram. In other words, Tasweer was forbidden precisely for the reason that it was a means leading to shirk.

The function of photography today does not fall under the above category. Even some of the scholars who had been once vehemently opposed to photography under the pretext that it was a form of forbiddenTasweerhave later changed their position on it – as they allow even for their own pictures to be taken and published in newspapers, for videotaping lectures and for presentations; whereas in the past, they would only allow it in exceptional cases such as passports, drivers’ licenses, etc. The change in their view of photography is based on their assessment of the role of photography.

Having said this, one must add a word of caution: To take pictures of leaders and heroes and hang them on the walls may not belong to the same category of permission. This may give rise to a feeling of reverence and hero worship, which was precisely the main thrust of the prohibition of Tasweer. Therefore, one cannot make an unqualified statement to the effect that all photography is halal. It all depends on the use and function of it. If it is for educational purpose and has not been tainted with the motive of reverence and hero worship, there is nothing in the sources to prohibit it.”

Imam Afroz Ali, writes, “…the dominant opinion of the modern Scholars of High Knowledge is that photography is permissible as long as they are of benefit and not for any harmful or prohibited purposes, and that photographs of humans and animals not be displayed [on a wall].”

Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah bin Baz (Source)

Sheikh Ibn Baz and other more restrictive scholars expressly forbids photographs and art, claiming that the areas that he deems ‘doubtful’ should be avoided. I’ve included a portrait of him here to illustrate that this type of outright restriction seems disingenuous.

The swiftness that Shiekh Ibn Baz and others exchange ‘avoidance’ (or other qualifiers) with ‘forbidden’ regarding photography is concerning.  Qur’an says:

Be a community that calls for what is good, urges what is right, and forbids what is wrong: those who do this are the successful ones. – Qur’an 3:104

God wants ease for you, not hardship. He wants you to complete the prescribed period and to glorify Him for having guided you, so that you may be thankful. – Qur’an 2:185b

You who believe, do not forbid the good things God has made lawful to you- do not exceed the limits: God does not love those who exceed the limits – Qur’an 5:87

Allah has never given a command forbidding picture making, but he has forbidden shirk, that we know in the Prophet’s time was more often associated with picture making.  In the same ease of saying it is a ‘doubtful’ area (since it isn’t mentioned directly in Qur’an, hadith and history seem to conflict) that the Sheikh forbids it, we can also say that it is permitted unless shirk is involved.  With the same logic to forbid it we can also make it permitted as something good for us, unless misused in ways against Qur’anic teaching of Tawheed.  It’s important to note also that where these scholars used to expressly forbid it in all cases, many have now changed their views regarding some of it.  Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi has even noted this among some of these Salafist scholars:

“The Salafis also have developed in several jurisprudence issues, such as “photography,” which they used to consider one of the major crimes, but now they consider it allowed.”

My viewpoint

As a photographer, I would also say that there is legitimate reason to photograph some of these things Sheikh Al-Qaradawi mentions depending on circumstance.  For example, education, journalism, news reporting, etc.  The line to draw is in the intent of the photograph.  For example, a picture of a cross can tell a story that can illustrate to the audience a valid educational opportunity or simply can serve as a mere collection of memories on a holiday trip to the Vatican, etc.  Conversely, a portrait of a nation’s regime leadership is intended to portray them in a false light that exalts them, normalises them, reinforces their rule or washes out their crimes.  I agree with Sheikh Kutty that the line is drawn at the use and function of it.

According to the sum of the hadith that even Sheikh Ibn Baz lists, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) dealt with issues where the images were closely associated with promoting shirk, which was common in the culture of his time.  The intent of such art was towards advancing beliefs contrary to Islam.  Centuries of Islamic civilisation dating back to the earliest surviving examples from the 7th century through the Islamic Golden Age serve as an indicator of how this topic was interpreted by the early sahabbah [companions] and subsequent scholars. Surviving documents dictated by the Prophet Muhammad himself tell us how even in some cases Muslims were ordered to repair and maintain properties of other faiths that (as common in that time) would have had religious statues, paintings and other image art incorporated into their architecture. Such a notion is still completely in line with Qur’an that expressly forbids Muslims from engaging in all forms of shirk while serving a higher purpose of Islamic civilisation.

If we consider the sum of all hadith, the Qur’an, historical context since the time of the Prophet and sahabbah, agreements the Prophet Muhammad has made with non-Muslim groups and even later Islamic history leading into the Golden Age, we can see that the hadith that many people today use to prohibit all image making is really only prohibiting Muslims from the making of relics.

I’ve also found that many scholars do not understand what photography is and have not properly consulted the industry and educated themselves on the science.  When making rulings on any topic this is imperative. In the end we are responsible to Allah for ourselves. Photography is a beautiful art that has many purposes.  When you take photographs, consider your subject matter, is it haram?  What is the intent of the image, education, saving a memory?  In the end, you are the best qualified to chart the course of your life.  Don’t surrender your mind to others who wish to use the ‘just in case’ reasoning to ban photography.

We have bound each human being’s destiny to his neck. On the Day of Resurrection, We shall bring out a record for each of them, which they will find spread wide open, ‘Read your record. Today your own soul is enough to calculate your account.’ Whoever accepts guidance does so for his own good; whoever strays does so at his own peril. No soul will bear another’s burden, nor do We punish until We have sent a messenger. – Qur’an 17:13-15

My view is that if you feel you need to go that extra mile to avoid something, then do it. However, such personal convictions shouldn’t be imposed on others. It could be that Allah has permitted it, as I believe is clearly shown in in light of all of the facts of Qur’an, hadith and history.  The one who does not transgress the limits set by Allah (shirk) is exercising a creative right given by Allah to enjoy for a better purpose. There are things Allah has made clear and other things He has not.  Of the things He hasn’t made clear He has left us room for growth. Both the conservative and liberal thinker can be right within the confines of what Allah has set out for us in the Qur’an.  In the end, we must have faith in Allah that He is the God He says He is, the Most Merciful.  Niyyah (intentions) is the foundation for every act in Islam.

Messenger of Allah said, “The deeds are considered by the intentions, and a person will get the reward according to his intention. So whoever emigrated for Allah and His Messenger, his emigration will be for Allah and His Messenger; and whoever emigrated for worldly benefits or for a woman to marry, his emigration would be for what he emigrated for”. – Riyad as-Salihin [Bukhari and Muslim]

Allah would, however, raise them according to their intention. – Sahih Muslim

Pray: Muhammad Berkati, Indonesia, Arts and Culture; 2015 Sony World Photography Awards

Allah has given us a beautiful gift and it should be used for His glory and our enjoyment.  An art that portrays a sense of skill, pride, joy and beauty in the world is not forbidden from Allah, it is a gift of Allah.

And (He has created) horses, mules, and donkeys, for you to ride and use for show; and He has created (other) things of which ye have no knowledge. – Qur’an 16:8

Article by BrJimC © 2017


As I have established in my articles on ‘The Hadith‘ and ‘Shariah‘, the Qur’an is the primary source that guides a Muslim’s belief system, lifestyle and values.  The hadith supplement these things in interpretations of Shariah that scholars make.  In this decision making process, Shari’ah which does not relate to religious life (See: Islam is a 3 Dimensional Religion) or practice is “dynamic” and able to change based on time, place, the people and technology.  Interpreting hadith is a science that many scholars devote their entire lives to.  There is a historical and cultural context to hadith.

The hadith were written between 200-300 years after the Prophet and he never saw them or authorized them as he did the Qur’an, so we have to ‘authenticate’ the narrators.  We call this ‘isnad‘ (chain of narration) and this tells us that the people who narrated the hadith are trustworthy or not.  Isnad does not tell us that  what was recorded in the hadith is definitively what was said or happened. Hadith are basically “hearsay evidence” and have many classifications of authenticity of isnad, not accuracy of content.  This is why the hadith are a secondary source that supplement the Qur’an.

Keep in mind that although Muslims believe in the Bible (New Testament), we don’t rely on it for our belief system partly for the reason that the earliest writings are from 132AD (in Aramaic) and wasn’t canonized until 325AD (in Greek). More precisely, it has no isnad (chain of narration). That’s 100 to over 300 years after Jesus. The Prophet never saw our books of hadith and Jesus never saw the Bible to authorize it.

There is a logical fallacy by antagonists of Islam claiming that Aisha was too young to marry based on one or two hadith.  People who claim this have little knowledge of what they are talking about and don’t have the desire or know how in order to find out.  Hopefully, I have simplified it here for anyone to easily understand.

Aisha’s marriage was arranged by her father Abu Bakr and she was not married until she was legally able to accept the marriage. The age is highly debatable due to the contradictions of many hadith, compounded by people’s lack sourcing hadith and understanding how to fit them together, hence why it is considered a ‘science’.  In fact, tallying up all of the contradictions on her age mentioned in various hadith averages out to age 19.

To arbitrarily say Aisha was six or nine years old without taking into account the many other hadith that contradict this is a serious logical error.  To put faith in that assertion and deliberately hang on to the belief that Islam teaches Aisha was this young,  the Prophet Muhammad was a sexual predator or Islam teaches Muslims to do this is simply half-baked and absurd.

Unlike in much of today’s western world, in seventh century Arabia, the onset for puberty defined adulthood. As late as five centuries later, this was the case also in Europe. King John of England was 33 years old and married Isabella of Angoulême, who was 12 at the time.

Also, it’s important to mention rarely thought of facts about our western societies before making negative judgments about the issue of ‘marital age’.  “Modern standards” in the United States alone very greatly but all states allow early marriageable ages, some as young as 12. According to various US state law, a girl with her parents consent can marry and have sex in that marriage in her early to mid teens.  There is no top end cap on the age of men, either.  In Europe, many countries limit the legal age of consent to sex as low as 14 years old. It may or may not be acceptable to most of us for these ages, but before holding a double standard on 7th century Arabian cultural norms, we need to consider these facts, because they aren’t much different.

The fallacy of believing the error of Aisha being too young to be married involve these contradictions in the hadith:

  1. Abu Bakr is reported in Tabari to have wished to spare Aisha the harsh trip to Ethiopia shortly after 615 CE and tried to marry her to Mut’am’s son sooner than planned (she was engaged once prior to the Prophet marrying her).  Mut’am refused because Abu Bakr had converted to Islam.  If Aisha was old enough to be engaged (of marriageable age) in 615 CE she would have been much older than nine in 622 CE when she married.
  2. Tabari also reports that during Jahiliyyah (days before he accepted Islam) all of his kids were born.  His jahiliyyah ended in 610 CE.  This would make Aisha twelve when she married in 622 CE.
  3. The earliest surviving biography of the Prophet (Ibn Hisham) says that she converted to Islam before one of the Prophet’s main companions (Umar ibn Al-Kattab) in the few years around 610 CE.  In order to convert to Islam she had to be of the age of talking and understanding. Assuming this is around age three, that would make her at least 15 in 622 CE when she was married.
  4. Fatima was five years older than Aisha according to Ibn Hajar.  Fatima was born when Muhammad was 35 years old. This means that Aisha was born when the Muhammad was 40 years old which would make Aisha twelve years old when she was married.
  5. Sahih Bukhari states that Aisha participated in both the battle of Badr and Uhud.  According to Bukhari’s Kitab Al’ Maghzi (Book of History), Ibn Umar said that the Prophet did not allow him to participate in the battle of Uhud because he was 14 years old.  No one younger than 15 was allowed to accompany raiding parties. However, on the day of the Khandaq battle Ibn Umar was 15 and he was allowed to participate.  Since it was not allowed for people younger than 15 to participate in raiding parties, Aisha who participated in the battle of Uhud was at minimum 15 years old. This would put her at 13-14 at the time of marriage.
  6. According the Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, Aisha was at the battle of Badr, which took place in 624 CE.  It is not possible for her to be at the battle of Badr without being at minimum age 15 because no one younger than this was allowed to accompany raiding parties.  If she was at the battle of Badr (which she was according to Qur’an) she would have been 15 or older. So, when she was married following the hijra (migration to Medina) in 622 CE she would have been 13 or older.
  7. Aisha is said also to have been born eight years before Hijra (migration to Medina) in 622 CE. Yet, in Sahih Bukhari that at the time of the 54th chapter of the Qur’an was revealed (Surah Al-Qamar) Aisha is reported to have said, “I was a young girl”.  However, the 54th Chapter of Qur’an was revealed nine years before Hijra. According to this, Aisha had not even been born yet. So, if Ashia, as an adult after the death of the Prophet, relayed a hadith remembering to a time when she was a young girl (during a time when she wasn’t even born yet) she would most likely be referring to being between 7-14, which would make her between 14-21 at the age of marriage.
  8. It is generally accepted among historians that Aisha’s sister Asma was ten years older than her. Two sources (Taqreeb al-Tehzeeb and Ibn Kathir’s Al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah) state that Asma died in the 73rd year after Hijra (migration to Madina) when she was 100 years old. If Asma was 100 at that time, she would have been 27 or 28 during Hijra in 622 CE.  This would make Aisha 17 or 18 years old at that time.  If Aisha got married a year or two later in 1 AH or 2 AH (After Hijra) she would have been somewhere between 18-20 years old at the time of marriage.
  9. Ibn Sa’d’s Tabaqat and Ansab al-Ashraf books are in disagreement concerning Aisha’s marriage. Accordingly, her marriage would have been two to five years after Hijra (migration to Madina) and would make her about 17-20. (Source)

Important points:

  • Aisha was at minimum the age of puberty at the time of marriage according to 7th century customs, possibly older.
  • Aisha deeply loved the Prophet Muhammad long after he died and until the day she died.  She was in love with him her entire life and he with her.  Many hadith support how close and intimate their love was for each other.
  • Of all the demonizing from local tribes claiming he was demonically possessed, insane or altering the market economy by making their gods obsolete, etc., no one ever accused him of marrying a girl too young to be married.
  • Aisha was a warrior who commanded men from her tribe in battle.  She was a strong woman with high status in Islam and Arabia.  She relayed the majority of the Prophet Muhammad’s hadith after he died.  Since she had the power to do so, there is no evidence that she reflected in her stories of the Prophet’s life that he victimized her by marrying her or that her marriage or relationship made her unhappy.  She was totally devoted to him until she died.
  • Aisha never gave any indication that she was forced to marry and forced marriages is against Islamic teaching. Her marriage was willful and accepted by her as per custom among Muslims.
  • Aisha had a healthy relationship with the Prophet and no serious scholar of Islamic history has ever noted signs of a forced or sexually abusive relationship.

Article by BrJimC © 2017