At the recent White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, President Barack Obama urged Muslim leaders to oppose the ideologies of groups like the so-called Islamic State. The same week, Saudi Arabia’s top cleric Sheikh Abdul Aziz al Asheikh declared that “the misuse of the religion by extremists is greatly damaging the image of Islam.” 

Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, with Sheikh Hamza Yusef, Vinya Ariyaratne

That declaration illustrates how Muslim leaders and organizations have for many years condemned and worked to address the causes of violence in their communities. As with most faiths, no one leader speaks for all followers of Islam. But a wide range of Muslim clerics, scholars and organizations – like religious actors of other faiths working within their own traditions – have taken a vocal stand against violent extremism in the name of Islam, including by issuing fatwas and statements of condemnation in Islamic terms.

“Part of what gives me … confidence is the overwhelming response of the world community to the savagery of these terrorists -- not just revulsion, but a concrete commitment to work together to vanquish these organizations,” Obama said at the summit, referring to Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, as well as al-Qaida and others. Still, the president said, more needs to be done. “Just as leaders like myself reject the notion that terrorists like ISIL genuinely represent Islam, Muslim leaders need to do more to discredit the notion that our nations are determined to suppress Islam, that there’s an inherent clash in civilizations.  Everybody has to speak up very clearly that no matter what the grievance, violence against innocents doesn't defend Islam or Muslims, it damages Islam and Muslims.” 

Opinion polls indicate that the vast majority of people in Muslim-majority countries, as elsewhere, have a negative view of violent extremism. A September 2014 poll commissioned by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy shows that the Islamic State has almost no support in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or Kuwait.  Similarly, a Pew Research Center report from July 2014 shows that most people living in countries with large Muslim populations are greatly concerned about Islamic extremism, and most oppose extremist groups like al-Qaeda, Hamas, Boko Haram and Hezbollah.

Yet despite the sentiment against violent extremism, Muslim voices of moderation face a number of challenges in getting their message across and in reminding the broader public that they represent the majority of Muslims, rather than a minority. Religious leaders also say they need support from multiple sectors, including civil society and political activists, to address the many causes of violent extremism, including socioeconomic factors. Media also play a large role.

“We don’t have the media channels. We don’t have the capacity to spread these [messages against extremism] around the world,” said Mauritanian scholar Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, at an event last September hosted by USIP’s Religion & Peacebuilding Center and the Network of Religious and Traditional Peacemakers.

Bin Bayyah, who issued a fatwa against ISIS last fall, was lauded by Obama at his U.N. General Assembly address for his exemplary leadership in denouncing violence.

Challenging justifications for violence

In his remarks at the Institute, Bin Bayyah referenced the March 2010 Mardin conference, at which he was among 15 scholars who discredited and recast the medieval Ibn Taymiyya fatwa that some Muslim extremists have used to justify militant jihad. Declaring the document outdated and not applicable to the modern world, the scholars issued a declaration that proclaimed: “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.”

Additionally, Bin Bayyah, along with hundreds of other Muslim leaders and scholars, signed a 16-page open letter against ISIS. The document, which was addressed to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, lists in Quranic terms the manifold reasons that ISIS violates the tenets of Islam.

“It is forbidden in Islam to harm or mistreat—in any way—Christians or any ‘People of the Scripture,’” the treatise states. “It is forbidden in Islam to torture people,” it adds, directly addressing some of the horrific acts committed by ISIS in recent months.

Speaking at the Institute in February 2014, Sheikh Rachid al Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda (Renaissance) Party, warned against “linking Islam and violence [which] will only give extremists greater scope to attract broad sectors of youth.”

“We also need to tackle this at the religious, intellectual level by showing that the extreme understanding of Islam that they have is wrong,” Ghannouchi said. At a USIP discussion on religious pluralism in Egypt in June 2013, Sheikh Mohamed Ali Goma’a, former Grand Mufti of Egypt, urged Muslims and Christians to work together constructively to promote peace.

Several of the Institute’s partner organizations have also released statements against violence in the name of Islam. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), whose then-secretary general H.E. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu spoke at USIP in 2009, has issued multiple statements and initiatives in response to acts of terrorism in the name of Islam. 

In response to last month’s beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by ISIS in Libya, the OIC’s Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission (IPHRC) reported the following on its website: “IPHRC reiterated its firm view that extremism was alien to Islamic ethos and reminded that murdering innocent people was not just a crime under international law but was also deplored under Islamic teachings as one of the worst crimes. It recalled that Islam was a religion of peace and serenity, which highly values the sanctity of human life and promotes non-discrimination in all aspects of one’s life.” 

The League of Libyan Ulema (LLU), a representative group of Libyan Muslim scholars who have worked with USIP partners in Libya, also expressed outrage at the beheadings, issuing a statement that  condemned ISIS and sending condolences to the victims’ families, calling them “Christian brothers.”

“It should be emphasized that the Islamic religion does not permit the heinous killings, destruction and other abominable acts committed by ISIS affiliates in different regions of the world,” a translation of the statement reads. “These crimes are incompatible with the rules and pillars of the tolerant Islamic religion because the religion of Islam is a religion of love, fraternity, peace, and harmony.”

Imams Online is an online portal serving prospective Islamic leaders in the U.K. It organized a group of more than 100 British imams to decree that ISIS is an “illegitimate, vicious group” that does not represent Islam in any way. The group produced a video promoting unity in the U.K. and arguing that attempts at division violate the teachings of the Quran.

Tracking statements

The Islamists Are Coming website, a joint project by the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has been tracking the statements of Muslim clerics and scholars since ISIS declared its caliphate in summer 2014. Some of the religious authorities are using 21st century media extensively, including Twitter and Facebook, to spread their messages. The following is a short sampling of condemnations of ISIS by individuals and groups. Follow the links to see further statements and video interviews with prominent Muslim leaders condemning extremist violence.

The International Union for Muslim Scholars, headed by the influential Qatar-based Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi, includes members from more than two dozen countries across the Middle East, Asia, Europe and North America:

“The ISIL declaration of their so-called Islamic Caliphate is but an indication of their lack of knowledge regarding the reality-based jurisprudence.”

“It is totally unacceptable and entirely rejected to deny the legitimacy of all Islamic organizations around the globe as a result of a sheer unilateral declaration of a so-called Caliphate and Caliph by a single group in a complete absence of the Ummah [Muslim community].”
July 2014

Grand Mufti Shaqi Allam is Egypt’s highest-ranking cleric and has repeatedly renounced radicalism:

“An extremist and bloody group such as this poses a danger to Islam and Muslims, tarnishing its image as well as shedding blood and spreading corruption.”
August 2014

Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh is Saudi Arabia’s highest-ranking cleric:

“Extremist and militant ideas and terrorism which spread decay on Earth, destroying human civilization, are not in any way part of Islam, but are enemy number one of Islam, and Muslims are their first victims.”
August 2014 

Sheikh Salman al Odah, once Osama bin Laden’s idol, is now a vocal opponent of extremism. In 2007, he denounced bin Laden in an open letter on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Based in Saudi Arabia, Odah has a wide reach in the Arab world through more than 6 million Twitter followers, appearances on television shows and the website “Islam Today.” He ranked number 16 on the 2014-2015 “Muslim 500,” a list of the world’s most influential Muslims published by the Amman, Jordan-based Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre. In a tweet, he condemned the burning of Jordanian pilot Moaz Kasasbeh by ISIS, citing a saying of the Prophet Mohamed:

“Burning is an abominable crime rejected by Islamic law regardless of its causes, whether the crime is committed on an individual, a group or people. Only God punishes by fire.”
February 2015

For more extensive lists of remarks by Muslim leaders and clerics, see:

Cameron Glenn is a senior program assistant and Garrett Nada is a program specialist, both for USIP’s Iran and Middle East programs. Melissa Nozell is a program specialist in the Institute’s Religion and Peacebuilding Center.

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