Babylon Brigade: Christian Militia That Fought ISIS On Muslim Cleric’s Call

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistanis fatwa urging able-bodied men to assist Iraqi forces in fighting ISIS was a turning point in the war on ISIS

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the 91-year-old head of Iraq’s clerical establishment Hawza, is known to be reclusive. He mainly issues messages through his representatives and rarely appears in the public, on the television, or receives visitors. Sistani, however, made an exception when he hosted Pope Francis at his modest home on Najaf’s Rasool Street. Sistani stood outside his austere meeting room to greet the pope when Francis walked a few hundred meters to meet the ayatollah for the 40-minute meeting in March 2021. Francis, the head of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, took off his shoes before white doves symbolizing peace were released when the pontiff entered the doorway. He cradled Sistani’s hands during the meeting as the two discussed ways of stopping violence in the name of religion.

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Sistani told Francis that Iraq’s Christians deserve to ‘live like all Iraqis in security and peace and with full constitutional rights’ as Francis thanked the ayatollah for raising ‘his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted.’ The meeting came amid increasing acknowledgment of Sistani’s role in unifying Iraq, which helped it defeat the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the terrorist group masquerading as Caliphate, in July 2017.

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Sistani’s fatwa urging able-bodied men to assist Iraqi forces in fighting ISIS was a turning point in the war on ISIS. It encouraged thousands of volunteers to sign up for Popular Mobilization Forces better known by its Arabic acronym Hashd to fight the group. ISIS controlled a bigger territory than Austria and 40% of Iraq and a third of Syria at its peak when the Iraqi state almost collapsed when its American-trained forces fled Mosul in June 2014 and allowed the terrorist group to overrun the city.

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Francis’s visit would not have been possible without the bridge-building Sistani played a key role in and helped unify the country to take on ISIS effectively. ISIS’s brutality triggered a sense of urgency that helped Iraqis rise above regional, ethnic and sectarian divides to help defeat it. Rayan al-Kildani’s Christian Babylon Brigade militia was among those who fought ISIS under the Hashd umbrella. A resident of a predominantly Christian village in a mountain range with crosses even taller than lampposts every 100m near Mosul, Kildani described to BBC in 2016 how they fought side by side with the Muslim militias. Kildani added they have really good defense forces now and no one is ‘going to do anything bad to the Christians’ and that their suffering is over.

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Francis echoed Kildani when the pontiff visited Mosul as the Iraqi government rolled out a red carpet for him. Children in festive dresses lined the streets and waved Iraqi flags to welcome Francis as he arrived at Mosul’s Hosh al-Bieaa Church Square years after the city was virtually reduced to rubble in the fighting against ISIS. He said Christians received assistance from Muslims when they returned to the town. Francis underlined the need for reaffirming their conviction ‘that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than death, that peace more powerful than war.’ His audience held olive branches as Francis led prayers in Mosul.

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The pontiff led the first prayers at the renovated Church of the Holy Immaculate Conception, which was damaged during the war, in the Christian town of Qaraqosh, where Christians trace their roots back to almost as far as Jesus’s lifetime. He visited Mosul as a pilgrim for peace and said terrorism and death never have the last word. The pope said even amid the ravages of terrorism, they can see, with the eyes of faith, the triumph of life over death. He referred to Iraq’s history of pluralism and hoped its legacy would be ensured. Francis called religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity ‘a hallmark of Iraqi society for millennia.’ He said it is a precious resource on which to draw, not an obstacle to be eliminated.

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A cross made from wooden chairs from churches across the region was also erected in Mosul’s Church Square in the honour of Francis, who visited Erbil in northern Iraq to express his gratitude to the local community for offering refuge to Christians during the war on ISIS.

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Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi earlier welcomed Francis when he arrived in Baghdad. A choir was also arranged for the pope when he entered the airport. Crowds waved Iraqi and Vatican flags as Francis left for a welcome at the presidential palace. Traffic circles en route were decorated with the Vatican’s yellow and white flags. At the presidential reception, the pope spoke about Iraq’s diversity, which he said is to be treasured. He addressed leaders of several denominations at the cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad and held a mass at the Chaldean Catholic Cathedral of St Joseph.

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The papal visit was a major boost to inter-faith harmony in Iraq as it emerges from terrorism, dictatorship, occupation, and the civil war. As the New York Times rightly emphasized: ‘[…] in some ways [Sistani is] an ideal interlocutor for Francis: holy, credible and powerful. His decisions carry weight.’ Theirs was a meeting of the minds. It was a step towards realizing unity among the world’s major faiths. The pope made a case for it at a multi-faith gathering he addressed during the same trip in Iraq’s Ur, which is believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, whom Muslims, Christians, and Jews trace their roots to. Francis quoted a passage in the Bible in which God asks Abraham to look at the stars and imagine how countless his offspring will be. He emphasized Abraham saw the promise of his progeny in the stars. ‘[…] he saw us,’ Francis said, referring to Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The pope urged his audience to see in the stars a message of unity while underlining they illuminate the darkest nights because they shine together.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

More Unites Than Divides Abrahamic religions Islam, Christianity, Judaism

Ur in Iraq is among myriad examples of how Abrahamic religions Islam, Christianity and Judaism, which trace their roots to and revere Abraham, are intertwined

Pope Francis listens as Mufti Rahmi Yaran reads verses from the Quran at the Blue Mosque in Turkey in November 2014. Getty Images

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

At a March 2021 multi-faith gathering in Iraq, Pope Francis quoted a passage from Genesis, the Bible’s first book, in which God asks Abraham to look at the stars and imagine how countless his progeny will be. For Francis, Abraham saw the promise of his descendants—Muslims, Christians, and Jews—in the stars. ‘[…] he saw us,’ Francis told the gathering in Ur, which is believed to be Abraham’s birthplace. The pontiff urged his audience to see in the stars a message of unity. They, the Pontiff underlined, illuminate the darkest nights because they shine together as he appealed for unity. The Pope called Ur ‘the land of our father Abraham’ where faith was born. ‘[…] from [Ur], let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters.’ He called hostility, extremism, and violence betrayals of religion, which are not born of a religious heart.

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The Pope’s call for unity was in consonance with shared traditions of the world’s three major religions, which have more that unites rather than what divides them. Ur is among myriad examples of how Abrahamic religions Islam, Christianity and Judaism, which trace their roots to and revere Abraham, are intertwined. It is in Ur that their spiritual forefather, Abraham, whose followers account for over 50 per cent of the world’s population, is believed to have first heard the voice of God. Ur is mentioned in the Quran and Christian scriptures as Abraham’s homeland, which he is believed to have left on God’s command to found a new nation in Canaan spanning Palestine and Syria to become the founder of monotheism. God is believed to have promised Abraham that his ‘seed’—Jews, Muslims and Christians—would inherit the land. The Prophet Muhammad traced his lineage to Abraham’s first son Ishmael. Jews and Jesus are believed to be the descenders of Abraham’s younger son, Isaac.

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Around 300 km from Abraham’s birthplace, biblical prophet Ezekiel’s tomb in Kifl with Hebrew carvings is another example of shared veneration for Abrahamic religious figures. Ezekiel is known as Dhul Kifl in the Islamic tradition and Kilf, which is located at the centre of routes to Muslim pilgrimage cities of Najaf, Karbala, and Mecca, gets its name from that. A synagogue and a mosque surround the tomb of Ezekiel, who preached in modern-day Iraq in the sixth century BC and is believed to have seen God’s visions there. Mentioned twice in the Quran, both Muslims and Jews revere him. In July 2016, Kilf was designated as a Unesco World Heritage site years after the restoration work centred on Ezekiel’s tomb began in 2009. The outer courtyard of the shrine has a mosque and the inner sanctum retains the Hebrew markings to protect its Jewish heritage.

In 2010, the tomb’s Muslim caretaker, Sheik Aqil, told journalist Steven Lee Myers of The New York Times that they take care of both the Islamic and the Jewish sections of the shrine as they are both part of Iraq’s history. ‘It’s a Muslim’s duty to protect it,’ Aqil told Myers. In 2019, writer Alex Shams wrote Ezekiel’s Tomb ‘is one of those rare, beautiful places where Arabic and Hebrew flow freely into each other.’ The Arabic calligraphy on Ezekiel’s tomb wishes peace upon him. Shams wrote the shared veneration for Abrahamic religious figures is common across the region, citing examples of Daniel’s tomb in Shush and Esther and Mordechai in Hamedan (Iran). The reverence is rooted in Muslim beliefs perhaps best reflected in the 13th-century Persian poet Saadi’s poem which likened Adam’s children to valuable limbs of one body:

When the world gives pain to one member, the other members find no rest. Thou who are indifferent to the sufferings of others does not deserve to be called a man. 

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Muslims have considered Jews and Christians as allies since the days of the Prophet. When Muslims faced persecution in Mecca, the Ethiopian Christian kingdom offered asylum to them. Christians from Najran (modern-day Saudi Arabia) were allowed worship in his mosque when the Prophet ruled Medina. The Prophet signed the Charter in Mount Sinai in 628 pledging the freedom of worship, movement, and protection during war for Christians. The prophet promised ‘there shall be no interference with the practice of their faith. … No bishop will be removed from his bishopric, no monk from his monastery, no priest from his parish.’ This was in line with the Quranic mandate, which says God protects ‘monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of God is much mentioned.’ The Quran, which calls Jews and Christians the ‘People of the Book’ 31 times, also refers to them as alladhīna ūtū al-kitāb (those who have received the Book), ahl al-dhikr (the people of remembrance). The Quran also addresses the Christians as ahl al-Injīl (the People of the Gospel), and mentions the Jewish holy book Torah 18 times as a true revelation and source of guidance and wisdom.

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Medina Charter, which was adopted when the Prophet Muhammad founded the first Muslim state in the seventh century and is considered its constitution, sought to end conflicts and maintain peace among Muslims, Jews, Christians, and pagans. It underlined ‘a believer will not kill another believer for the sake of an un-believer.’ The charter outlined the political rights and duties of all inhabitants of Medina, which is also the Prophet’s final resting place, irrespective of their faith. Medina was governed under the principles of socio-political justice enshrined in the charter.

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The charter, which is perhaps the first such document to have incorporated religious and political rights, provided for means for conflict resolution by promoting mutual respect, tolerance, and pluralism. Based on the commitment to human lives and religious minorities, it drew inspiration from the Quran, which mandates Muslims to respect all previous messengers, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, and to honour their followers. The charter, which said ‘no Jews will be wronged for being an unbeliever,’ recognised equality to all residents, their rights to peaceful coexistence. It gave all tribal, religious and ethnic groups protection and the right to live as per their beliefs. The charter’s Article 30 said ‘the Jews will be treated as one community with the believers.’

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When Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab conquered Jerusalem in 637, he offered security for Christian possessions, churches, and crosses as the commander of the faithful. He declared the churches ‘shall not be taken for residence and shall not be demolished … nor shall their crosses be removed.’ Umar declined Jerusalem patriarch Sophronius’s invitation to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher saying he did not want Muslims to use this as an excuse later to lay claims over the holiest Christian shrine. 

It has, however, been a slippery slope since the Crusades sought to eradicate Islam in the name of religion. But there have been attempts to revive the spirit of the Medina Charter to end the violence for political ends in the name of religion, which has created havoc since the West brazenly used it in the 1980s to defeat the USSR. In January 2016, Muslim scholars put their heads together at a conference in Morocco and reaffirmed the values of the charter. Moroccan King Mohammed VI, who hosted the gathering, recalled the charter affirmed unity by promoting pluralism and religious freedom while seeking the revival of its spirit for a peaceful and inclusive world. 

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Essence Of Ramadan: Charity, Sacrifice, Reflection

Muslims believe the transfer of wealth to the poor helps purify them

A Muslim’s 2.5% of savings, investments, and the value of items such as gold and silver, have to be paid as zakat. Picture courtesy sociable7.com

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

For years, Usman, a fisherman in Indonesia’s Sumatra, could barely make ends meet. He did not have the resources to augment his income. Usman’s rickety fishing boat would only take him up to a point of a river before it merged into the sea. The catch was never enough for him to fetch enough income to have him even properly feed his family of five. Usman’s life changed when funding generated through zakat (charity), the third of Islam’s five foundational pillars, helped him buy a new boat equipped for venturing deeper into the sea to catch more fish. As Usman’s income increased, he could not just fund his children’s education but also give them pocket money.  

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Zainulbahar Noor of Indonesia’s National Zakat Agency (BAZNAS) and UN Development Programme’s Francine Pickup cited Usman’s story in a 2017 Guardian article about the untapped potential of zakat, which literally means something that purifies, and how it can boost livelihoods by reducing poverty globally. In 2015, Muslims, who account for 22% population of the world, are believed to have offered almost $2 trillion in charity. By 2020, the charity was expected to surpass $3 trillion, which is equal to the size of the French economy. A Muslim is obliged to pay 2.5% of savings, investments, and the value of valuables such as gold and silver, as zakat. It is believed this transfer of wealth to the poor helps purify the donors.

Testament of faith in monotheism, namaz (five daily prayers), zakat, month-long Ramadan fasting, and the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca are Islam’s five foundational pillars. Haj, fasting, namaz are the most visible symbols of Muslim piety. Zakat is the least talked about due to the importance of secrecy related to charity for protecting the dignity of its recipients. The Prophet Muhammad is quoted to have said God loves those who offer charity but remain anonymous and uncelebrated.

Ramadan, which began this week, is particularly important in the context of charity. Muslims prefer offering the mandatory zakat, which is one of many forms of charity in Islam, during the fasting month. They believe good deeds bring bigger rewards during the blessed month of Ramadan, which is much more than abstaining from food, water, and worldly pleasures. Ramadan is a month of sacrifice, reflection and charity.

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The Quran mentions zakat and sadaqa (general charity alms) over 80 times and underlines the importance of charitable giving. Every adult Muslim, who possesses disposable wealth, is obliged to offer charity, which is not limited to monetary help. For the Prophet, even smiling was an act of charity. He is quoted to have said those who have nothing to give should work, benefit themselves and also do charity from what they earn, or help the needy who appeal for help. He also regarded good deeds, staying away from evil, helping the indebted repay their debt, showing mercy and giving debtors more time to pay back loans, cancelling debt, removal of stones, and thorns, also as acts of charity.

Sadaqat-ul-fitr, which is one of the subcategories of sadaqah, is also mandatory. It is also paid behalf of children and is equal to the rate of 1.6 kg of wheat or 3.2 kg of barley. Sadaqat-ul-fitr has to be distributed before the Eid prayers to make sure the participation of the poor in the festivities. Other forms of charity include Nadhr, which is paid to express gratitude. Fidyah and Kaffarah are paid to compensate for the inability to pray or fast or keep an oath, etc. An unbinding charity can be offered to hospitals, schools, orphanages, etc, under sadaqah nafilah. Spending on long-term causes comes under sadaqah jaariyah.

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Muslims pay a bulk of the charity through non-banking channels, leaving its real potential untapped. The estimated zakat paid is believed to be a fraction of the actual money given. In Indonesia, BAZNAS has sought to tap into the potential of Muslim charity and utilise it better. It has tied up with UNICEF to mobilise zakat funding to help protect and empower children caught in humanitarian crises and to ensure their access to education, healthcare, nutrition, and clean water. Zakat is estimated to contribute up to 3% of Indonesia’s Gross Domestic Product of $1.11 trillion. Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, was rated as the most generous country in the 2018 CAF World Giving Index. A bulk of charity in there also is transferred through non-banking channels.

In their 2017 article, Noor and Pickup referred to ‘striking commonalities’ between zakat and the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs)’, the global plan of action the world leaders adopted at the UN in September 2015 in New York for alleviating poverty, hunger, and inequality by 2030. Noor and Pickup referred to Maqasid al Sharia, the five foundational Islamic goals, and said much of the SDGs are reflected in these values.

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Zakat is one of the largest forms of wealth transfer to the poor. Noor and Pickup wrote developmental organisations have overlooked zakat’s importance as source of finance despite its tremendous potential for contributing to the SDGs. As much as $3 trillion to $5 trillion were projected to be needed every year to achieve the goals. The investment for it in 2017 fell short at around $1.4 trillion. Noor and Pickup emphasised by working together with religious organisations, development bodies can fill the $2.5tn gap and also promote peace and development.  

Zakat is mostly channelled informally between individuals and paid in cash to needy acquaintances. Noor and Pickup wrote just a quarter of contributions were thought to be channelled through certified organisations. They underlined a growing recognition among Islamic organisations for addressing challenges such as poverty by routing zakat contributions to more people for a sustainable solution. Noor and Pickup called for seeing zakat as more than just charity, changing the mindset and realising zakat needs professional management for positive change. They added this will enhance the development impact of zakat in poorer countries.  

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According to development organisation Development Initiatives’s data, at least US$5.7 billion was collected in zakat annually from Indonesia, Malaysia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen alone. There has been no reliable value of zakat. Its estimates have varied from US$200 billion to US$1 trillion annually while the international humanitarian assistance was US$22 billion in 2013. The actual zakat paid is believed to be significantly higher as much of it is paid informally. Development Initiatives research found that 23% to 57% of zakat was used for humanitarian assistance. It cited evidence and added it suggested zakat in Indonesia and Pakistan could potentially meet all ‘current requirements to respond to domestic humanitarian emergencies, with significant amounts remaining to cover other areas of zakat spending.’  

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In 2017, Islamic Relief USA charity alone received $19.3 million in zakat contributions in the United States, where Muslims (3.5 million) account for just 1% of the population. The charity receives $25 to $1 million in zakat and spends it on food programmes for the poor, disaster relief, and medical clinics globally. In a 2019 report, Institute for Social Policy and Understanding said Muslims were just as likely to support causes for solving hunger and poverty as a religious duty.   

An ICM Research poll in 2013 found Muslims in 2012 gave an average of $567 in charity in the UK, which was more than Jews ($412), Protestants ($308), Roman Catholics (around $272), and Atheists ($177). A global 2012 Pew Research Center survey found a bulk of Muslims paid zakat in 36 of the 39 countries surveyed. The charity component as a share of money spent on religious activities was largest among Muslims in India, according to a research based on the 72nd round of National Sample Survey. A higher level of charity among Muslims was seen among the reasons behind lower inequality of consumption among India’s Muslims. The Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP) has been among the organisations routing the zakat donations for education and employment. In 2016, it estimated Zakat collections to be around $1 million to over $5 million annually in India, which has the second-biggest Muslim population globally.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan