The kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls from their school by the Islamist group Boko Haram has shocked the world.
I asked three Muslim religious leaders and experts in Islamic jurisprudence from Lebanon to share their reactions.
The group responsible for the kidnappings, officially “JamÄ’at ahl as-sunnah li-d-da’wa wa-l-jihÄd” (“The Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad”), is known commonly as Boko Haram.
Although disputed, Boko Haram is typically understood to mean that Western education is sinful.
Boko Haram claims that their actions are Islamic, inspired by a particular interpretation of the Quran.
However, there is a voice all too commonly ignored that rejects the basis upon which groups like Boko Haram operate.
A common rejoinder in the West is that Muslims never speak out against the actions of their more violent co-religionists.
Living in Lebanon, however, I know firsthand that such voices exist and are common.
Given the sheer amount of misinformation, I want to allow Muslims to speak for themselves and in their own words.
I am grateful to Sheikh Muhammad Abu Zaid, Sheikh Muhammad Nokkari and Sheik Fouad Khreis for taking the time to answer some of my questions concerning Boko Haram and their beliefs and practices.
These men are each religiously devout Muslim leaders from Lebanon, well versed in Islamic law and tradition.
They provide an authoritative perspective from within specific mainstream Islamic communities (both Sunni and Shi’a), as each sought to confront the beliefs and practices of Boko Haram with Quranic and Islamic sources.
Fouad Khreis is the religious pastorship manager for the Mabarrat Association, a Shi’a social enterprise managing hostels and restaurants whose profits go to schools and orphanages. He expressed his pain that Boko Haram could even call themselves Muslims.
Abu Zaid is the chairman of the Sunni court of Saida [Sidon] in Lebanon, an expert in Islamic jurisprudence, and leader of a local mosque. He affirmed this sentiment:
“As a judge I need to be sure of the facts. Once the circumstances surrounding the situation have been confirmed, I affirm that as Muslim leaders and as the Muslim community, we are completely and wholeheartedly against this action. An authentic Islam, based on a true reading of the Quran, inspires us. We oppose what the group Boko Haram has done in the name of Islam,” he said.
Nokkari is director of the Islamic-Christian Forum for Businessmen in Lebanon, head of the Sunni Court in Chtaura, former general director of Dar-al-Fatwa, which is Lebanon’s top Sunni religious authority, and professor at St. Joseph University in Beirut. He challenged the notion that kidnapping was in any way Islamic.
“There is no excuse for kidnapping in Islam. The Quran teaches against kidnapping innocent people. The operation itself is refused. You will find no Islamic reference or teaching in Islam that supports this,” he said.
“I am not surprised, though, because this is not the first time this group has done such a horrific action. They are against all the teachings of Islam. We can only confront them with discernment and fight against them, especially since they are acting in the name of Islam, because the truth is that they are working against Islam, ruining its reputation,” Nokkari said.
It is believed that Boko Haram may intend to sell these girls into slavery and forced marriage.
Again, all three sheikhs spoke out clearly and in one voice, stating that Islam has worked toward ending slavery.
“In pre-Islamic Arabian history, we heard about slaves being kept. However, Muslims are commanded to set slaves free. How can they then enslave young girls in the name of Islam? Again, we totally reject their actions as anti-Islamic,” Abu Zaid said.
Fouad Khreis insisted that Islam worked on demolishing slavery, quoting a hadith (tradition): “Do not enslave when God has made them free.”
He also referenced zakÄt—almsgiving, one of the five pillars of Islam—which encourages Muslims to donate money in order that slaves, or bonded laborers, might be freed, thus seeking the abolition of slavery where it exists.
Regarding marriage, Abu Zaid said, “And if they plan to sell these girls into marriage, again they go against our beliefs as Muslims. Marriage is a matter of personal choice. In some societies, the father of a daughter can interfere and give guidance. But nowhere do we read or accept that a stranger can take a girl and force her to be married to someone.”
“These people are claiming a right they do not have, and may even go as far as using this ‘right’ that is not theirs. When they do this in the name of Islam, they hurt our Muslim community and go against our authentic religion,” he said.
These sheikhs all affirmed that Boko Haram’s actions oppose rather than support significant elements of the Islamic tradition.
Arthur Brown is the assistant director of the Institute of Middle East Studies based in Mansourieh, Lebanon. A longer version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @arthurandlou and IMES @IMESLebanon.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on Lebanon Muslim clerics responding to Boko Haram’s kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls. Part two is available here. EthicsDaily.com’s documentary, “Different Books, Common Word,” shares stories of goodwill Baptists and Muslims finding common ground to work for the common good.
Arthur Brown is the BMS World Mission Regional Leader for Europe, the Middle East and North Africa and former BMS youth and theological worker based in Lebanon, working with a Christian theological seminary regularly dialoguing with Islamic scholars.