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How Islamic scholars reacted to the Taliban takeover

September 10, 2021

Some Muslim intellectuals criticize the reserved reaction of Islamic representatives to the Taliban's power grab. Among other things, they argue that the Taliban's view of Islam is theologically untenable.

People wave a Taliban flag as they drive through the Pakistani border town of Chaman
'There's no god except god,' the writing on the Taliban flag readsImage: Asghar Achakzai/AFP/Getty Images

Ali Mohieddin al-Qaradagh, the Doha-based Islamic scholar, was among the first to congratulate the Taliban as soon as they toppled the elected government in Kabul in mid-August.

The chairman of the International Union of Muslim Scholars also applauded the population "for driving these occupiers of various kinds" out of the country.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, al-Qaradaghi, however, called on the Taliban to form a government that includes all segments of Afghanistan's population "so that the tragedy (of the war, ed.) does not return."

He explicitly also welcomed the Taliban's reportedly open attitude toward its neighbors and the international community.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid holds a press conference in Kabul
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid has come across as fairly moderate so farImage: Bilal Guler/AA/picture alliance

Meanwhile, though, it has become clear that his assessment was at least partly wrong: The Taliban's recently presented government contains only their own forces. There are no representatives of other groups.

Al-Qaradaghi's words are exemplary of many reactions of Islamic scholars. In part, there has been cautious praise for the Afghan co-religionists, often born out of demonstratively anti-colonial attitudes.

In some cases, the statements came with a few cautious recommendations or warnings. Equally often, however, there has been a discernible effort to keep a low profile or stay out of it altogether, as political interests are also at play, and criticism among Muslims could quickly be understood as paternalism or even betrayal. 

Yet it is quite obvious that the triumph of the Taliban might contribute to reviving the old cliché of a "backward" Islam worldwide, at least among non-Muslims.

Just as al-Qaradaghi does not directly criticize the Taliban's theological premises, at least publicly, there have been hardly any critical statements on the ideology of the new-old Afghan from other parts of the Islamic world.

Workers paint over murals on a concrete wall along a street in Kabul
The Taliban have painted over murals they disapprove of, including those showing women's facesImage: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

'No clear theological rejection'

According to Milad Karimi, deputy director of the Center for Islamic Theology at the University of Münster in western Germany, reactions by Islamic scholars to the Taliban's seizure of power have been "marginal."

He said that it was true that there have been a few, rather subdued critical statements about the Taliban's actions. "But overall, there was no clear theological rejection of the Taliban's positions," the Islamic scholar said in an interview with DW.

A number of religious leaders have expressed political rather than theological views on the change of power in Afghanistan.

For example, the Grand Mufti of Oman, Ahmed bin Hamad Al-Khalili, congratulated the Afghans on the "unequivocal victory" over the "invaders." He congratulated the "entire Islamic nation" for "fulfilling God's sincere promises."

The chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD), Aiman Mazyek, however, described the Taliban's seizure of power not only as a "disastrous defeat for the West." In an interview with German public radio, he rather spoke of a "disaster for Muslims worldwide, because the vast majority of Muslims, and Afghans anyway, do not want an archaic life coupled with tribal doctrine."

Critical words from Germany

For lawyer Murat Kayman, the reactions of the Muslim associations in Germany overall are too weak. He argues that we should have seen several statements from the Muslim umbrella organizations on Afghanistan in quick succession, Kayman wrote in the blog '"Friday Words" ("Freitagsworte") of the German "Alhambra Society - Muslims for a Plural Europe," which he co-founded.

Previously, Kayman was a lawyer on the federal board of the Turkish-Islamic Union of the Institute for Religion (DITIB) until 2017, but then broke away from the association, which is affiliated with the Turkish government.

Kayman has argued that the silence of many German Islamic associations actually conceal a "great willingness to show solidarity with the Taliban and to idealize their supposedly religious motives."

He also wrote: "The Taliban have implemented what many Muslims, including not just a few association representatives, regard as the ideal of social development. Explicitly, the unrestricted assertion of their own unrivalled claim to political power."

Similar criticism has been voiced in the Arab world, but only sporadically. For example, in an online article for the Dubai-based media outlet Al Arabiya, author Heba Yosry criticized Egyptian voices that called for embracing the Taliban's success and supporting the Muslim cause.

"These voices are insidious and dangerous," Yosry wrote. "When a young person without much education hears about the Taliban's successes, they might be inclined to attribute the success not to their military capabilities, but to their closeness to god."

"They are Islam," Yosri described the Taliban's self-image, and added: "They are the representatives of god. Whoever goes against the Taliban goes against god."

This dangerously religiously charged self-portrayal of the Taliban means it is important to keep a clear distance from them, the author writes - and finally sums up in no uncertain terms: "The Taliban do not represent Islam."

Taliban intervene in women holding a demonstration for women
The Taliban have banned demonstrations like this one by women in KabulImage: Bilal Guler/AA/picture alliance

Theological reservations

The Taliban base their ideology on the teachings of the "Darul Uloom" (House of Knowledge") in Deoband in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, which is considered one of the largest theological centers in the Islamic world.

However, their teachings are hardly theologically tenable, says Islamic scholar Karimi in an interview with DW: "What speaks against it is first of all the fact that they equate their own understanding of god's will with their will," which leaves no free space for interpretation.

"That is dangerous! For if someone is convinced that his view corresponds to the truth, then he equates every other voice with untruth. But if one equates his own idea with the idea of god, then that is pure blasphemy."

It remains to be seen how the Taliban will deal with the Shiite Hazarareligious minority against this backdrop, or whether they are at least to some degree willing and able to accept social pluralism, including in the digital space.

Karimi finds the Taliban's interpretation of Shariah law particularly problematic. "The Taliban overlook the fact that we humans never have god's judgment at our disposal, but must strive to comply with god's judgment as best we can by behaving ethically."

Sharia, he said, is not a fixed code of law whose rules must be implemented one-to-one. "Such a notion is completely untenable theologically."

'They lost the war to a small group of terrorists'

The reduction of women to beings primarily serving reproduction is also unacceptable, Karimi said. "This no longer represents a particular reading, it is already a contempt for god's creation."

Guardians of a religious facade?

Karimi finds it all the more problematic that many Muslim representatives have so far remained silent about the Taliban. Like Murat Kayman, he says it gives rise to the suspicion that there is to some extent a secret approval among them of the Taliban's worldview: "They keep silent because they see their own fantasies fulfilled."

However, there may be another reason for the reservation, says Milad Karimi — and takes another verbal swipe at established Muslim representatives worldwide: Many of these religious scholars are "spiritless and powerless, too lazy and too comfortable to fulfill their deep spiritual responsibility," he argues.

"They have completely lost their sense of religiosity. They are only interested in the facade of religion, a facade that has long since been eroded from within," he adds.

This article has been adapted from German. 

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East