WHEN Ramadan came late last month, it marked the beginning of intense devotion by Muslims to spiritual activities and acts of kindness and charity. However, the sanctity of this blessed month has been tarnished by Islamic State (IS) fighters, who took the opportunity to launch more terror attacks. At least 149 people have reportedly been killed during Ramadan in three separate attacks.
IS fighters claim that Ramadan is a month of jihad and martyrdom. They justify the attacks by twisting the true meaning and spirit of Ramadan; rather than emphasise the lofty ideals of Ramadan, they chose to focus on war and the offensive spirit. Their focus on violence has stirred revulsion among many Muslims who consider Ramadan a time for intensified spirituality and increased religious activity.
On May 22, IS launched a suicide attack at the Manchester Arena in Manchester, England, following a concert by American singer Ariana Grande. The suicide bomber, identified as Salman Ramadan Abedi, a 22-year-old British Muslim, detonated a shrapnel-laden homemade bomb at the exit of the arena after the show.
In a video message entitled “Where are the lions of war?”, which was broadcast after the Manchester attack, IS called for an ‘all-out war’ to mark the start of Ramadan by attacking innocents and civilians in their homes, markets and streets. The message said: “Do not despise the work. Your targeting of the so-called innocents and civilians is beloved by us and the most effective, so go forth and may you get a great reward or martyrdom in Ramadan.”
Two days after, two suicide bombers attacked a bus station in East Jakarta. IS news agency, Amaq confirmed that they were IS fighters. On May 26, the eve of Ramadan, IS fighters attacked a bus carrying Coptic Christians in central Egypt. The bus was travelling to the Monastery of St Samuel from Minya province when it came under fire.
On the ninth day of Ramadan, IS fighters killed seven people with knives near London Bridge. The attackers came out from a van at London Bridge shouting, “This is For Allah”. Earlier, they had sent out a call via message app Telegram, urging followers to carry out attacks with trucks, knives and guns against “crusaders” during Ramadan.
IS attacks in Ramadan are not new. Last year, IS launched attacks in many places, making it the worst Ramadan ever on record. The attacks in Madinah, Dhaka and Baghdad occurred in the last 10 days of Ramadan. According to Islamic tradition, the Night of Destiny, or Lailatul Qadar, when sins are forgiven, will occur during the last 10 nights of Ramadan. Muslims are encouraged to perform more devotional acts such as night prayers and seeking forgiveness from God. IS holds that killing their enemies in the last 10 days is one of the most preferred forms of devotional act and a way to gain martyrdom.
IS claims that Ramadan is historically a month of armed struggle for Muslims. They believe that it is a month of conquest and jihad. While Muslims use the month of Ramadan to perform jihad against their temptations and desires, IS claim that Muslims must also perform the physical jihad, or armed struggle in this holy month. The attacks during Ramadan are based on their interpretation of the Battle of Badr, the first battle in Islam, which occurred during Ramadan. In this battle that took place in 624 CE, Muslims were granted victory against their opponents, the Quraish of Mecca.
These fallacious claims by IS are another misuse of the notion of jihad in the Islamic legal tradition. While the Battle of Badr was justified as a legitimate physical struggle, IS attacks are random and indiscriminate killings, which do not adhere to the classical prescriptions for jihad and war. Their ideology largely rests upon the centrality of armed jihad without considering the ethics of war.
Hence, armed jihad becomes the means to expand the territories of Islam. To justify their resort to violence, they define jihad as fighting alone.
During Ramadan, Muslims believe in the abundance of spiritual rewards as the benefits of their actions will be multiplied during this month. However, IS fighters have twisted this concept of spiritual rewards for their own corrupted beliefs. They believe that they will receive more rewards from God should they unleash terror during the month.
The attacks are a clear indication of IS’ perverse interpretation of Ramadan and its objectives. These attacks are against the true spirit of Ramadan when Muslims are motivated to perform good deeds and be compassionate towards all mankind.
The Quran highlights that the ultimate objective of fasting during Ramadan is to gain piety (taqwa), or the sense of God fearing. How can Muslims gain taqwa by killing innocent lives and causing destruction? IS’ focus on violence is a contradiction of, not just of the spirit of Ramadan, but the very essence of Islam.
Mohamed Ali is an Assistant Professor with the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies (SRP) Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. This comment first appeared in the RSIS Commentary