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The new Mardin declaration

Friday marked the fourth anniversary of the adoption of the New Mardin Declaration by globally renowned Muslim theologians and academics from across the world including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, India, Senegal, Kuwait, Yemen, Bosnia, Mauritania, Iran, Morocco and Indonesia. They convened at the picturesque south-eastern Turkish city of Mardin on March 27-28, 2010 and accomplished more in a few hours than what that grotesquely inept outfit known as the Organisation of the Islamic Conference has been able to achieve in the four decades of its futile existence.

The meeting, which was jointly organised by the Artuklu University and the Global Centre for Renewal and Guidance, was chaired by the famed scholar and former vice president of Mauritania, Sheikh Abdullah bin Mahfudh ibn Bayyih. In the two days that the conference lasted, it critically examined and then exposed the deliberate textual distortions of the Mardin fatwa of Taqi ad-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328). It is from the corrupted version of this decree that Al-Qaeda and its affiliated networks have derived their ideology which justifies mass murder and destruction in the name of Islam.

Though the fatwa was issued more than 700 years ago, its relevance to the terrorism-plagued contemporary world is undiminished. This was recognised by the Mardin scholars who accordingly decided “to take the fatwa from the specific geographical focus for which it was intended to a broader global focus and from the contingencies of Ibn Taymiyyah’s time to a timeless understanding.”

Ibn Taymiyyah was born in Haran, an obscure little town in the Mardin region, and was only seven at the time of the Mongol invasion of the area. His family, which consisted of some of the most well-known theologians of the times, was forced to flee to Damascus which was then ruled by the Mamluks of Egypt. But the damage insofar as Ibn Taymiyyah was concerned had already been done. At that tender age he had witnessed the atrocities perpetrated by the Mongols and was traumatised. Hideous memories of Mardin haunted him for the rest of his life.

In Damascus he was taught Islamic jurisprudence by his father and steeped himself in the teachings of the Hanbali school of thought. Although Ibn Taymiyyah was soon acknowledged as the foremost religious authority of his times, he also became controversial. As early as 1293, he came into conflict with the local authorities for protesting the sentencing of a Christian on charges of blasphemy. Five years later he was accused of anthropomorphism (ascribing human characteristics to God) as well as for contemptuously criticising the legitimacy of dogmatic theology.

Around that time Ibn Taymiyyah accompanied a delegation of the ulema to Mahmud Ghazan, the ruler of Mongol Empire’s Ilkhanate branch in Iran in order to persuade him to stop attacking Muslims. But suddenly ghastly scenes and images from his early childhood in Mardin came back to Ibn Taymiyyah, and, unable to restrain himself, he told the ruler bluntly: “You claim that you are a Muslim and you have with you muftis, imams and sheikhs but you have invaded us and reached our country for what? While your father and your grandfather, Hulagu, were non-believers, they did not attack and kept their promise. But you promised and broke your promise.”

This impassioned outburst brought Ibn Taymiyyah to the adverse notice of the authorities. He was subsequently jailed on several occasions for contradicting the opinions of the jurists and theologians of his day. On the orders of the Mamluk rulers of Cairo he was imprisoned in Damascus from August 1319 to February 1321 for propounding a doctrine that curtailed the ease with which a Muslim male could divorce his wife. He was incarcerated again in 1326 until his death two years later for issuing edicts that conflicted with the thinking of those in authority.

But his fame had spread far and wide and his bier was followed by 20,000 mourners, many of them women who considered him a saint. It is ironic that Ibn Taymiyyah’s grave became a place of pilgrimage even though he was an exponent of the fundamentalist strand of Islam and is considered one of the principal forerunners of the Wahhabis.

It is against this background that the scholars at the Mardin conference moved on to a textual examination of Ibn Taymiyyah’s actual decree. He was pointedly asked whether his beloved land, Mardin, was an abode of war (dar al-kufr) or the home of peace (dar al-Islam). His answer was that an unprecedented composite situation had emerged. Mardin was neither an abode of peace where the Shariah prevailed nor was it a land of war because the inhabitants of the region were believers. Therefore, he decreed that “the Muslims living therein should be treated in accordance to their rights as Muslims, while the non-Muslims living there outside the authority of Islamic law should be treated according to their rights.”

This superbly nuanced ruling, which came to be known as the Mardin fatwa, was unmistakably peaceful in intent and was in accord with the teachings of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855) who prohibited rebellion even against unjust authority in order to stave off anarchy and indiscriminate bloodshed. But the text was subsequently changed to read: “…while the non-Muslims living there outside the authority of Islamic law should be fought as is their due.”

This was done through the substitution of two letters in a single word. In the second version the word ‘yuamal’ (should be treated) had been rendered as ‘yuqatal’ (should be fought) as a result of which the purport of the decree was drastically altered. According to Sheikh Abd al-Wahab al-Turayri, an internationally acknowledged authority on Islamic jurisprudence and a former of professor at Riyadh’s al-Imam University, the only known copy of the original fatwa was the Zahiriyyah Library manuscript which had been archived at the Asad Library in Damascus. But unfortunately this was either not widely known or had been deliberately ignored.

The corrupted version made its first appearance more than a hundred years ago in the 1909 edition of Ibn Taymiyyah’s ‘Fatawa’ that was printed and published by Faraj Allah al-Kirdi. This did incalculable damage because the error was never rectified and was not only republished time and again but also rendered into English, French and several other languages.

It was used by the Egyptian ideologue Muhammad abd al-Salam Faraj (1954-1982) for his book ‘Al-Faridah ahl-Gaibah’ which posits that jihad is the sixth pillar of Islam and, in the words of Sheikh Abd al-Wahab al-Turayri, “has become a manifesto for militant groups” including Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Faraj established the Jamaat al-Jihad in 1981 which assassinated President Anwar Sadat on October 6 of that year. He was executed six months later.

For the first time ever the distortions in the text of Ibn Taymiyyah’s fatwa were exposed and corrected by the Mardin conference. This was a remarkable achievement and was acclaimed worldwide as a crippling blow to the ideology of terrorism. The New Mardin Declaration which was adopted on the conclusion of the conference affirms unambiguously: “Anyone who seeks support from this fatwa for killing Muslims or non-Muslims has erred in his interpretation…It is not for a Muslim individual or a Muslim group to announce and declare war or engage in combative jihad…on their own.”

This is a sobering thought for the Pakistan government which has committed the supreme folly of initiating direct talks with the TTP, the first round of which was held on Wednesday. The outcome of the Mardin conference was summed up by its spokesman who said that the meeting had brought together “scholars and theologians from different persuasions within Islam. But united they stood: Islam condemns terrorism and indiscriminate murder.” This is the message that the government’s panel of negotiators should convey to the TTP shura as the futile talks with the outlawed group gathers momentum.

The writer is the publisher of Criterion Quarterly.

Email: iftimurshed@gmail.com

S Iftikhar Murshed, "The new Mardin declaration," The News. 2014-03-30.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Al-Qaeda , Government-Pakistan , Terrorism , Corruption , Blasphemy , Sheikh Abdullah bin Mahfudh ibn Bayyih , Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah , Mahmud Ghazan , Saudi Arabia , Turkey , India , TTP