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Sherman Jackson – An Islamist’s Response to Isis

More than 250 people turned out on a chilly February evening to hear Dr. Sherman Jackson, one of the country’s leading Islamic scholars, frame the actions of ISIS against the history of violent opposition in the context of the Islamic struggle as well as contemporary Islamic theology.

Jackson, who holds the King Faisal Chair in Islamic Thought and Culture and Professor of Religion and American Studies and Ethnicity at USC, began the evening by defining his role as an Islamicst in America, as well as Islamicism in the global sphere.

“I am not the Islamist whose response to ISIS I shall attempt to summarize tonight,” Jackson explained. ‘Islamicism as a movement is primarily dedicated to restoring Islam in general and Sharia in particular to a place of recognition and authority in predominately Muslim majority societies which it ahs lost over the last 100-150 years. It is not dedicated to establishing that authority in predominately non-Muslim societies in which it did not previously exist.”

Jackson then went on to unpack some of the more complex – and fascinating – responses from the Muslim world to ISIS and the violence perpetrated by the group in the name of Islam.

According to a theological principal in Sunni Islam, Muslims cannot be excommunicated for sins or actions that they commit, he explained. If, for example, he explained, “a Muslim drinks wine and Muslims unanimously agree that alcohol consumption is forbidden, that Muslim is a bad Muslim. But they cannot be excommunicated from the faith” for these actions or sins. The only basis for excommunication in Islam is the rejection of “the authority of God and/or the Prophet.”

Yet Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, one of the most prominent leaders of the anti-Assad uprising in Syria, co-signed an open letter to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi saying “misinterpreted Islam into a religion of harshness, brutality, torture and murder…”[1] and refuting the ideological foundation of ISIS, banning Muslims from joining it and making it clear that this is non-Islamic, anti-Islam.” In a subsequent interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, al-Yaqoubi went a step further and called for ISIS leaders’ excommunication.

What followed was a fascinating overview of the many condemnations of ISIS by of many conservative Muslim leaders – including those who had previously expressed support for, or even committed violence, in the name of Islam, as Jackson took the audience back to the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

The audience – which included several members of nearby Muslim congregations as well as many students from USC – engaged in a lively post-presentation conversation that lasted well beyond the evening’s scheduled closing – a sure indication that the talk had touched a thoughtful nerve among participants.

If you weren’t able to join us, however, don’t despair—you can view the talk and the subsequent discussions here on our website.