Why Syria's Devout Oppose ISIS, as Told by a Cleric That Fled Their Rule

This February, we conducted a series of interviews in southern Turkey with those who have fled ISIS rule in Syria. In the city of Sanliurfa, we met rebel fighters, Islamic judges, and scholars, among them, Ahmed Saleh, a prominent imam from the Syrian city of Deir Ezzour.
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Co-authored by Umar Farooq

This February, we conducted a series of interviews in southern Turkey with those who have fled ISIS rule in Syria. In the city of Sanliurfa, we met rebel fighters, Islamic judges, and scholars, among them, Ahmed Saleh, a prominent imam from the Syrian city of Deir Ezzour. Saleh fled the city in June, 2014, a month before ISIS eliminated all rival groups and took control.

Rebels spoke to us about how ISIS fought them instead of the regime. People like Saleh explained to us why the group's understanding of Islam is alien to Syria. A son of the city's former mufti (an official title which denotes one's authority to interpret Islamic law), Saleh led the Ali Bin Abi Talib mosque. A respected religious figure, his mosque grew into a popular site of anti-government protest early in the uprising. It was ultimately bombed by the embattled president Bashar al-Assad's military.

Saleh and his family now live as refugees among some 1.7 million other Syrians in Turkey, who await the day they are able to return and rebuild Syria. We were connected with him through a group of politically-active supporters of the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella of moderate rebel groups fighting Assad's government.

This interview has been edited for length and translated from Arabic.

When you left Syria, the Islamic State was a small group. What were they known for then?

The Free Syrian Army and the other Islamist groups [like al-Qaeda's Jabhat al-Nusra], even when you disagree with them on some points, they understand very well that you are a Syrian, they understand the society is multicolored.

The Islamist groups, for example, they don't like smoking. They consider it a sin, but they understand very well that in this Syrian society, people smoke, so they don't want to be harsh in making people quit smoking. They believe through advice they can make you quit this bad behavior.

So where is the problem with ISIS? [Jabhat al] Nusra or the Islamists or the FSA, they believe in the idea of citizenship in Syria, they believe those people are citizens of Syria, and they have rights. The concept of Syria as a country is clear for them. Even when they say "we want an Islamic system," they are talking about an Islamic system inside Syria only.

This is the big difference between them and ISIS.

And the most dangerous thing: a majority of ISIS fighters are not Syrian, and they have decision-making power. While Nusra is maybe 90 percent Syrians, and the rest foreigners.

Another difference is their understanding of takfir [declaring someone an infidel]. For the Islamists and Nusra, they don't accuse other people of being an infidel, while ISIS does so liberally. They start by saying "all of you are infidels."

ISIS has attracted foreign fighters from all over the globe. Why is foreign membership a problem?

First of all, they don't even understand the concept of Islam that we believe in as Syrians.

Secondly, they don't understand the historic transition Syria is going through now. They have not understood why Syrians stood up against Bashar al Assad. The goal of the Syrian people in this revolution is completely different from the goal of ISIS.

ISIS did not understand when the Syrians started this revolution against Bashar al Assad, they did not stand up because he was an Alawite [a minority sect], but only because he was an oppressor. ISIS thinks the Syrians started the revolution because Assad was an Alawite. This is proof they do not understand the nature and culture of the Syrian people.

I participated in the revolution to get my rights and dignity, and not to be ruled by a stranger that does not know the nature of the society, or the value of citizenship. More importantly, the people who want to rule us, they are already not welcome in their own countries. If they were honest about their goals, why didn't they establish the Caliphate in their own countries?

How would you describe the ideology of ISIS, do they follow certain Islamic scholars, follow certain books?

[Note: ISIS leadership is drawn from former Iraqi military members and insurgent fighters. ISIS has never disclosed the identities of most of its top leadership, including its 18 governors. Its public leaders, like the proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, are known only through aliases. Its Islamic judges, we were told, wear masks in court.]

First of all, they do not belong to any well-known Islamic schools of thought or universities.

In Islamic scholarship, when I receive knowledge, I get it from a well-known scholar, and we know where that scholar got his knowledge; we know the chain of knowledge. So I trust a scholar because I know this scholar received his knowledge from someone I know, but these people, we do not know where they received their knowledge.

Secondly, in Islamic scholarship, the scholar must introduce himself to the people, "I am so and so, son of so and so." While ISIS, they don't even give their real names. They are unknown, where they studied is unknown, and so they are not trustworthy.

Thirdly, they do not take rulings from what we do, the Quran, the Sunnah [the practices of Prophet Muhammad], Qiyas [making analogies for new rulings], Ijmah [scholarly consensus]. They don't depend on those elements. They depend on reading some books, or specific texts, and quote parts of different sources, not the complete text. They take things out of context.

Can you give an example?

We can take the burning of the Jordanian pilot [Moaz al-Kasasbeh, who was burned to death in February, 2015]. They didn't take this punishment from books of jurisprudence. They took it from a story about Khalid ibn Walid [a 7th Century general and Islamic ruler], who burned someone as a punishment. The book that narrated this wasn't vetted by Islamic scholars [to deduce that it was a proper precedence for a punishment].

This is one of the differences. They don't depend on scholars or the Islamic science of jurisprudence, [or on those] who studied in Islamic universities or with well-known scholars. So their understanding of Islam is wrong.

They depend on a historical event for a precedent, even though it contradicts a very clear saying by Prophet Muhammad. The Prophet said "No one can punish by fire, except the creator of fire [God]." In Islamic law, this kind of hadith supersedes a historic precedent. When we want to make a judgement, we look at the hadith. But these people of ISIS overlooked the hadith and followed the historical narration because it served their benefit.

But for many of their punishments, they do point to the Qur'an, hadith, and other traditional sources.

But the basic elements of a state are not there. Applying the law needs a state to be stable, with no war. Because in Islam, during wartime, you suspend [some of the] laws [like those prohibiting theft]. You don't impose the laws during war. People are displaced, and hungry, they're poor, so ISIS should first provide people with basic needs, then they can start to apply their rules.

What would you tell young people attracted by ISIS?

Always we recommend young people who want to gain knowledge to know their teacher. Which ideology does that scholar follow? He should be a well-known scholar. The biggest problem we have is that these people came to us, yet we don't even know them. They cover their faces, and they speak under the guise of Islam.

[When he was preaching to his tribe of Quraish] Prophet Muhammad went up a mountain and said "I am Muhammad the son of Abdullah." And all the tribe of Quraysh knew him very well. He said God has sent me to you, to call you to become Muslims. He didn't cover his face. And he declared his true name. He didn't say "I am Abu [the father of] Ubaydah, or Abu so and so."

The sheikh added...

I do believe as well as many other citizens of Syria, these people, they shed a lot of Muslim blood. And they were unfair to many Muslims. An unjust person will have to face a very harsh end, even if he holds the flag of Islam. He's not worthy of holding that flag.

Why did they kill supporters of the revolution? Peter [Kessig, an American aid worker killed by ISIS in October 2014], all the citizens of Deir Ezzour knew him very well. And they loved him very much. And they cried hard for him when he was killed. So why?

God will be their judge.

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