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Fact Checking Dr. Qadhi:
the number of ISIS fighters
& how it relates to all Muslims

Listen to this article:

A lot has been said about the recent interfaith dialogues between Dr. White and Dr. Qadhi. As fellow apologist from Europe, who have a deep respect and gratitude towards several men on both sides, we can only say that we regret the – God willing temporary – disunity in a particular part of American ministry towards Muslims. Because of this we want to make clear that our response to some of the statements made by Dr. Qadhi does not stem from any kind of rejection of the events held in Tennessee and Mississippi in January of 2017.

At the same time we feel the need to address some of the apologetics of Dr. Qadhi in hopes of furthering the ongoing debate on Islam. The category in which our topic falls is as much a necessity as a disappointment, for we too would rather discuss theological differences between Christianity and Islam. But in the times we live, we cannot ignore the need to revisit the topic of Islam and violence.

Our efforts concern an argument that is often utilized to demonstrate a lack of legitimacy owned by ISIS to call themselves the Sunni Caliphate. Because we haven’t heard of a response like the one we think is the most fitting and truth seeking at the moment, we decided to publish our thoughts.

In Mississippi, where Dr. Qadhi was invited to answer questions about Islam, he made the following statement:

ISIS at max, at max has 15 to 20,000 people in that cult and that movement. If you do the math out of 1.6 billion people, this crazy Caliph has called the entire Muslim world to come and said “join us, I am the true Caliph”. If out of 1.6 billion barely 15,000 have taken up that call, do the math, and I did it: 0.0003 percent. You are going to consider 0.00003 percent the normative…

The Calculation

We begin by simply examining the math presented by Dr. Qadhi because it is foundational to the effect his argument may have had on the unbiased listener. We note that he gave us two different percentages of ISIS fighters: first he mentions 0.0003% and the second time this becomes 0.00003%. To be safe, we’ve examined both.

Dr. Qadhi claims to have done the math and saw that 15 to 20,000 fighters out of 1.6 billion Muslims equal these extremely low percentages. When we go back the same way, we see that 0.0003% of 1.6 billion in reality equals merely 4800 fighters and that 0.00003% would come down to 480. Not 15 to 20,000.

It is safe to say that Dr. Qadhi either forgot the exact percentage or did not do the math at all. It’s clear that the percentage he used to emphasize the smallness of the Islamic State’s army is way lower than in reality. We have noticed a trend among Muslim apologists who come up with miniscule percentages like these which – besides not always being accurately generated – are always an erroneous claim to make since the global Muslim population has nothing to do with the number of fighters within a local Islamic state, as we’ll discuss in a moment.

Fact checked: false. Dr. Qadhi’s percentage results in a far smaller number of ISIS fighters than he himself admits to be factual. There can be no debate on the fact that Dr. Qadhi’s math was incorrect and that he therefore gave the audience the wrong idea about the number of ISIS fighters compared to all Muslims.

Comparing the number of local fighters to all Muslims

As we delve into the point Dr. Qadhi wanted to make, we’d like to set the parameters first. If we understand Dr. Qadhi correctly, he is arguing that the Islamic state cannot be truly Islamic because so few people have responded to the Caliph’s call to join their Jihad. This implies that if a certain higher number of Muslims would have responded, the Islamic state would increase in legitimacy.

Firstly, this is a logical fallacy, more specifically an argumentum ad populum: if more people would believe something is true, the possibility of it being true would increase. However this would mean that Islam wasn’t true when Muhammad had a handful of followers and gradually became more true, but not as true as Christianity for instance, which at least statistically has more subscribers. It is not hard to see the fallacy up to this point.

But more importantly, to our understanding there is no basis on which to build the idea that Muslims should ever respond to the Caliph’s call by the millions. To our knowledge there has never been an Islamic state in history that could rely on (or even want) the physical support of millions upon millions of soldiers. This would even be impossible to facilitate, especially for a state still in its infancy years.

Seen from this angle, the relevance of comparing any number of Islamic state fighters to the global Muslim population, becomes a hard one to defend. Sure, if you lay them side by side, the former will seem extremely small and this will undoubtedly have an effect on the listener’s mind. But this effect is only possible when overlooking a number of wrong assumptions. The most crucial mistake is the assumption that all Islamic duties are compulsory on an individual level as we’ll discuss in the next paragraph.

Instead of comparing the global number of Muslim, we suggest looking at the local population that the army is actually serving or controlling. This point will be illustrated later on when we compare Western and historically Islamic armies to that of ISIS.

The Collective Duty that is Jihad

First we would like to focus on the wrong assumption that all Islamic duties are individual. Because religion in the West is mostly experienced as something personal, it is easy to overlook the fact that Islamic duties go beyond the things we can do on our own, like praying, fasting, giving to the poor and making pilgrimage. But Islam knows a number of communal or collective tasks that are supposed to be taken up by whatever number is sufficient for their respective circumstances. The Islamic jurists call such a collective duty Fard al Kifayah. As a reference to this fact, we’ve chosen the Oxford Dictionary of Islam. Please note that the example of military struggle is added for clarification.[i]

This legal jurisprudence is backed up by the Quran:

And it is not (proper) for the believers to go out to fight (Jihad) all together. Of every troop of them, a party only should go forth, that they (who are left behind) may get instructions in (Islamic) religion, and that they may warn their people when they return to them, so that they may beware (of evil).” – 9:122 (Hilali-Khan)

So there is good reason to accept, not the idea that all – or even many – Muslim men should go out to fight, but merely a fluctuating number of the local Muslim population. Hence Fard al Kifayah is understood to mean that when a sufficient number has taken up this task, all other Muslims are immediately exempt. That is why, before concluding anything based on the number of ISIS fighters, one must first assess how many fighters ISIS needs.

We do not intend to overlook the part where Dr. Qadhi said that this current Caliph “called the entire Muslim world” to come and fight. However, we need to try and understand how a man with a PhD in Islamic studies (as the Caliph is said to be) would have meant such a statement. It is unlikely that he literately wishes all Muslims to come and join his active army. They would get flooded and simply do not have the resources to facilitate them. In fact they would have more soldiers than people to control! So for Dr. Qadhi to understand Al Baghdadi’s words to mean that all Muslims should come and join an army which currently controls a few million people seems unrealistic.

Also, as we already mentioned, it would be a first for this to happen since even Muhammad and the great Ottoman Empire did not count on (or wish for) all Muslims to take up arms and fight. Ironically, all Muslims coming to fight would be un-Islamic. Dr. Qadhi seems to have implied however that it is, which is why we must disagree for now.

The number of ISIS fighters does not have to be large to prove a broad support. In fact, studies on those staying at home show worrying amounts of support for ISIS and some of the more horrific sides of Sharia. And those numbers do run in the millions in several Muslim countries.[ii]

Fact checked: false. There are no grounds in Sharia or plain logic on which to base the idea that a particularly large amount of all Muslims in the world must respond to the call for local Jihad. Therefore, pointing out a seemingly small number of ISIS fighters is not a way of proving that their Islamic state is broadly rejected by the ones staying at home. In fact quite a few studies, showing the support for ISIS per country, seem to prove the opposite. One can still accept the Caliph’s authority while staying out of the military. Effectively the same goes for most of us in the West, who support our nation’s army but have never enlisted as an active soldier.

Comparing Western Armies

This brings us to the first leg of our comparative study. We’ll start by comparing the number of ISIS fighters to the population they are controlling. As mentioned, this is the only comparison that makes any sense in order to determine whether an army is big or small.

When we looked for any assessments of the number of ISIS fighters, we found that the one Dr. Qadhi mentioned saying “at max. 15 to 20,000” is among the most conservative estimates out there, even back in 2015. The CIA however, has estimated around 31,500 fighters in late 2014. [iii] These numbers are still quite conservative compared to some of the other estimates going around, but we’ll use this figure to demonstrate our willingness to be as open as can be to the viewpoint stated by Dr. Qadhi.

When we did the math we concluded that 31,500 fighters out of the 6.2 million people ISIS was controlling around that time, comes down to 0.51% of soldiers. This percentage is not only more fact based than Dr. Qadhi’s 0.00003% it is also the only one that makes any practical sense. This percentage is much higher than the one given to us by Dr. Qadhi but still doesn’t tell us much if we do not compare it to the populations and active armies of other states.

The Netherlands

Since we are based here, we thought it would be interesting to see how large the army of The Netherlands is compared to its population. Based on core data provided by the Dutch government the army equals 0.25% of the population of The Netherlands.[iv] This means that, relatively speaking, ISIS has twice the army of a modern Western European country. And this makes sense, considering that the Islamic State is currently active in offensive warfare, targeting people within and without their borders. These motives would no doubt increase the percentage of required soldiers in any state. More importantly, what this percentage tells us is that the army of the self-proclaimed Islamic State is far bigger than some would have us believe.

The mentioned collective duty, which Islamic jurists have always applied to warfare, must be fulfilled by as many Muslims as needed to meet the expansion driven state’s goals.  Whether 31,500 or more is the ideal number is a new discussion altogether. For now we can determine that they need to (percentagewise) enlist more soldiers than the Netherlands and they do. At the same time, no real case can be made for the idea that ISIS should be able to enlist thousands and thousands more in order for them to be Islamic, as Dr. Qadhi seems to have implied in Mississippi.

The United States

We have also looked at the United States Army for the same type of comparison. Again, to give Dr. Qadhi all the benefit of the doubt we’ve included reservists to the total number of soldiers. Here we found that a military staff of 2,159,596 compared to a population of 321.5 million Americans results in 0.67%.[v] This means that (percentagewise) the largest active army in the world is only slightly bigger than that of ISIS. If we then take reservists out of the equation the percentage drops below that of ISIS to 0.41%. If we bring Dr. Qadhi’s presumed logic to the table, we would have to say that the United States Army has very little to do with the United States.

Chinese Hypothesis

Because Dr. Qadhi compared the global Muslim population to a local army, let us briefly look at a hypothesis of something more similar. Although many people live in China, not all Chinese people live there, to say it mildly. Many of them live all over the world. But should the Chinese government concern themselves with the global population of Chinese people, while reviewing the condition of their army, or just the population within the Chinese borders added by the possibility of threats by other countries? The former should sound somewhat absurd to the balanced reader.

Fact checked: false. We have no choice but to also reject Dr. Qadhi’s argument based on the fact that any state in the world enlists only a small percentage of its population. Expecting any percentage higher than 2 or 3 percent to enlist in the active army seems fantastical. And within the Islam debate it is unfortunately an argument likely to mislead, because it can be viewed as an attempt to take away the focus of the relationship between Islam and violence based on flawed argumentation.

Comparing the Ottoman Empire’s army

Consistency has been an ongoing problem in the world of Islamic apologetics. To demonstrate the same issue in Dr. Qadhi’s reasoning, we wanted to compare the statistics of an Islamic state from the past which is widely accepted as full-fledged Islamic by Sunni Muslims today.

When we look at the peak years of the Ottoman Empire, around 1609, and combine the estimated numbers for the Sultan’s standing army and the largest cavalry departments, we arrived at the sum of around 245,000 soldiers.[vi] Compare this to the estimated population of 22 million[vii] and we end up with a percentage of 1.1% being soldiers. This is substantial compared to The Netherlands or even the USA but none the less still only one percent of the population. Should we compare this to the global Muslim population at that time in history (of which we found no reliable data) the percentage would drop down substantially.

We must also consider that the Ottoman Empire was geographically a very large empire when this army walked the earth. ISIS, which is still in its infancy years and controls the territory of a small country, may have plenty of time to make up for the gap. Also consider the obvious fact that the Ottoman’s did not have the approval of all Muslims nor did all of them feel the need to come and support the Caliphate.

Fact checked: false. Therefore we must also reject the final implication of Dr. Qadhi’s argument. Even historically accepted Islamic state’s never had ten, five or even three times the percentage of soldiers that ISIS currently has. So if Dr. Qadhi truly believes that an aspiring Islamic state cannot be a true Caliphate because only a small percentage of the population is enlisted in the army, he must consider all previous states equally un-Islamic.

References

[i] http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t125/e625

[ii] Pew Research Center 2015: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/17/in-nations-with-significant-muslim-populations-much-disdain-for-isis/

The Polling Company, inc./WomanTrend 2015; Nationwide online survey among 600 American Muslims, p. 5: http://www.centerforsecuritypolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/150612-CSP-Polling-Company-Nationwide-Online-Survey-of-Muslims-Topline-Poll-Data.pdf

Pew Research Center 2016: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/01/06/a-new-estimate-of-the-u-s-muslim-population/

Pew Research Center 2013: http://www.pewforum.org/2013/04/30/the-worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-beliefs-about-sharia/

Koopmans, Ruud 2013: https://www.wzb.eu/sites/default/files/u6/koopmans_englisch_ed.pdf

[iii] https://southfront.org/the-isis-militants-how-many-are-they/

[iv] “Core Data Defence Department The Netherlands, Facts and Numbers”, page 25; data per 1 July 2015; brochure found at rijksoverheid.nl

[v] US Army data: https://www.dmdc.osd.mil/appj/dwp/dwp_reports.jsp data September 30th 2015; Population data: https://www.census.gov/popclock/ data September 30th 2015

[vi] http://www.worldlibrary.in/articles/eng/Demographics_of_the_Ottoman_Empire – This website seems to have been taken off since we checked it some months ago. We do still have a print screen of the used table:

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[vii] Murphey, Rhoads; Ottoman Warfare 1500-1700; UCL Press 1999, page 42;45

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