umm Abdillah, Radio Islam Programming | 2015.03.07 | 15 Jumadal Ula 1436 H
Early February when a video was released of “ISIS” burning Jordanian pilot, Muath al-Kaseasbeh, we all recoiled in horror. “Barbarians!” the headlines screamed. As the media machination died down, we at Radio Islam sought answers to the innate nature of man: - good or evil? How do we define barbarism? Would it be better to call it a barbaric reaction to barbarism? And if ISIS is barbaric, what are the origins of said barbarism? Who is a barbarian? umm Abdillah explores.
Lieutenant Muath al Kasasbeh (26) was on a bombing spree over Syria in December when he was forced to eject and captured by his targets – his enemies. The video of his immolation that horrified the world allegedly shows Lt. al-Kaseasbeh being interrogated, made to describe the operation that preceded his plane being brought down on December 24 last year. Footage is shown of innocent people being pulled from the wreckage of a bombing raid he was engaged in. He is then paraded in front of heavily armed men, walking towards a cage, and then standing inside the cage wearing an orange jumpsuit that is doused in flammable liquid. An executioner uses a torch to light a trail of gasoline that leads to his feet. Lt. al-Kasasbeh is engulfed in flames and remains alive for over 1 minute and half and collapses to the floor. Militants then pour broken masonry and other debris over the cage which is then flattened with a bulldozer with his body still inside. Jordanian state TV reported that the pilot had been killed on Jan. 3, a month before the graphic video was released. It was natural that Jordan reacted by executing Sajida al-Rishawi and a Ziad al-Karbouli who were being demanded in ransom for him by ISIS.
Caught up in the spin of the story and a wholly emotional reaction to the horrific video, we often fail in accountability to ourselves - asking pertinent questions is an important part of remaining critical and unbiased. Further, the gruesomeness of his death aside, we can’t allow ourselves to become yarn for an imperialistic and anti-Muslim tapestry.
Did Ali (r) burn anyone?
The first thing we’re told is that it is unIslamic to burn any live thing. This is true.
Narrated by Abu Dawud - The Prophet (saw) saw an anthill that one of the Companions (ra) had burned with fire and he said: “No one should punish with fire except the Lord of fire.”
Message received loud and clear.
What then of Ali (ra) who allegedly burnt apostates with fire?
Ikrimah (ra) relates that some heretical rebels were brought before Ali (r) and he had them set alight. When news of this reached Ibn Abbas (r), he said: “If it had been up to me, I would not have burned them, because of Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) prohibited this, saying: ‘Do not punish with Allah’s punishment.’ I would have merely executed them…” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî]
At the time Ali (ra) was the Caliph, the Commander of the Believers. He was being confronted by the challenge of the Saba’iyyah, a recalcitrant group led by a Jewish man named Abdullah ibn Saba’ who was inciting people with the false doctrine that Ali (ra) was divine. Ali (r) exercised his judgment in this extremely serious matter and ordered a fire to be kindled. He said on this occasion: “When I saw that the affair was an affair of evil, I had a fire kindled and summoned my aide.”
This was a very unique and singular case, as has been pointed out by eminent jurists. It’s ruling cannot be construed in a general context. Moreover, there is disagreement among scholars how this event really took place. Some give the opinion that he burned their bodies after executing them. Others state that what really happened was that he had openly resolved to burn them but never actually carried it out. In any event, the decision made by Ali (ra) on this occasion was the conclusion that he reached in the matter according to his own juristic discretion (ijtihad).
“We attacked a foreign people and treated them like rebels. As you know, it's all right to treat barbarians barbarically. It's the desire to be barbaric that makes governments call their enemies barbarians.”
― Bertolt Brecht
A barbarian is a human who is perceived to be uncivilised, or a tribal society who is deemed as inferior by an urban civilisation. The term “Babarian” comes from the Greeks (pas mē Hellēn barbaros) which literally means "whoever is not Greek is a barbarian". In ancient times, Greeks used it mostly for people of different cultures. In the early modern period and sometimes later, Greeks used it for the Turks - in a pejorative way. In the Roman Empire, Romans used the word "barbarian" for many people, such as the Germanics, Celts, Iberians, Thracians and Parthians they fought against.
Sadly, the “barbaric position” used in the case against ISIS illustrates the extent of the civilisatory crisis the world has gone through in the last fifty years. It has a whole lot to do with “otherness” - to imperial hegemony and the inferiority of some civilisations, rather than actual deeds.
In the case of said ISIS militants, zone in for a minute on the circumstances of Muath al-Kaseasbeh’s immolation. The militants captured an enemy – a man who had declared war on them; a man who was part of an army bombing their people. What happens when you bomb a house? It burns. The people inside are burnt alive. Parts of the building fall on them. Even if they are alive they suffocate when debris collapses on them. In the minds of said ISIS militants they weren’t being evil or bad (or barbaric)– they merely did to the pilot what they had already witnessed in airstrikes against their own people. Calling them barbarian means we call the entire US/Jordanian coalition barbarian. Yet, we don’t. Calling them barbarian means we call Assad’s army barbarian too – yet the US and her allies haven’t.
Further, even if we deem ISIS and these fringe militant groups “Khaariji’s” or extremists, Allah has said: "And if you punish (your enemy, O you believers in the Oneness of Allâh), then punish them with the like of that with which you were afflicted. But, if you endure patiently, verily, it is better for the patient ones." Quran [16:126].
Are humans innately evil?
“And [by] the soul and He who proportioned it, and inspired it [with discernment of] its evil and its righteousness. He who purifies it has succeeded. And he has failed who instills it [with corruption]. Quran [91:7-10]
The reason Man cannot be described as exclusively good or evil is because the state of good and evil is undefined. It is not a question of whether man is innately good or innately evil, it is natural instinct that drives us to do those evil or good deeds based upon what society leads them believe. People are born with an instinct that drives them to do what is necessary in extreme measures. This instinct overtakes any other preceding thought and becomes the need for survival.
The Islamic view of the nature of man is very realistic and well balanced. Human beings are not believed to be inherently evil or sinful, but are seen as equally capable of both good and evil as displayed in the verse above. Islam also teaches that faith and action go hand-in-hand. God has given people free-will, and the measure of one's faith is one's deeds and actions. However, human beings have also been created weak and regularly fall into sin. This is the nature of the human being as created by God in His Wisdom, and it is not inherently "corrupt" or in need of repair.
"Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone"
Burning a person is a sin in Islam. And the reason we follow the Quran, a Prophet, his companions and the righteous thereafter is a means of defining the borders of good and evil. In the case of Muath al-Kaseasbeh (may his soul rest in peace) good and evil aren’t so clear. The "let he who is without sin, cast the first stone" incident is one of the most well known lessons of the Bible. Who cast the first stone is a clearly a chicken-egg question in the case of Iraq and Syria.