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Muslims discharged from Chennai hospital make Islamic gesture popularised by ISIS while posing for photos: Here is what it means

Given the context of the gesture, it is not unthinkable that the gesture could mean sympathy or affiliation to ISIS, however, even without the affiliation to ISIS, according to some experts, the gesture itself pertains to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.

Amidst the gloomy Coronavirus outbreak that has gripped the world and in India specifically, the spread of the virus due to Tablighi Jamaat, images of patients being released from a Chennai hospital after being treated for Coronavirus were released by a journalist today. Journalist Sanjeevee Sadagopan with Republic TV tweeted three photographs of patients, mostly Muslims, being released from the Chennai Hospital.

Of the pictures, two of the pictures tweeted by the journalist caught everyone’s attention. In one of the pictures, two patients in the photograph were seen making the Islamic gesture popularised by ISIS, where the index finger is raised to the sky. In the other, one patient was seen making the same gesture.

Picture of patients being released from Chennai hospital
Picture of patients being released from Chennai hospital

Speculations of connection to ISIS

There were several people on micro-blogging website Twitter who speculated whether the patients have connections or sympathies with ISIS since they were seen making the hand gesture which was popularised by the terrorist organisation.

There were Netizens who tweeted and said that the National Investigating Agency (NIA) should get involved and investigate the 3 Jamaatis seems to be showing the ISIS salute.

What does the one-finger-raised gesture mean in Islam

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Nathaniel Zelinsky writes in Foreign Affairs that the gesture refers to the tawhid, “the belief in the oneness of God and a key component of the Muslim religion.” 

In an essay published on the CIA website, Tawheed is described as follows:

“Literally Tawheed means “unification” (making something one) or “asserting oneness”, and it comes from the Arabic verb (wahhada) which itself means to unite, unify or consolidate.1 However, when the term Tawheed is used in reference to Allaah (i.e. Tawheedullaah2), it means the realizing and maintaining of Allaah’s unity in all of man’s actions which directly or indirectly relate to Him. It is the belief that Allaah is One, without partner in His dominion and His actions (Ruboobeeyah), One without similitude in His essence and attributes (Asmaa wa Sifaat), and One without rival in His divinity and in worship (Ulooheeyah/’Ebaadah). These three aspects form the basis for the categories into which the science of Tawheed has been traditionally divided. The three overlap and are inseparable to such a degree that whoever omits any one aspect has failed to complete the requirements of Tawheed. The omission of any of the above-mentioned aspects of Tawheed is referred to as “Shirk” (lit. sharing); the association of partners with Allaah, which, in Islamic terms, is in fact idolatry”

Zelinsky was of the belief that the raised finger gesture pertains to the fundamentalist interpretation of Tawhid, “which rejects any other view, including other Islamic interpretations, as idolatry”.

In a website called www.dar-alifta.org, which explains the basic tenets of Islam, the requirement of the finger-hand-gesture is explained win details and the explanation also cites the relevant Hadiths that require the hand gesture to be made by Muslims.

According to the website, the raised-fingers signifies three tenets of Islam. They are:

 Raising one’s index finger in tashahud signifies tawheed [monotheism].
– The index finger must be raised when saying ‘illa Allah’. 
-The phrase ‘La illaha’ [there is no deity] refutes shirk [associating partners with God].
– ‘Illa Allah’ demonstrates tawheed.

Further, the website cites examples from the Quran and explanations by Imam’s that talk about the significance of the finger-raised hand gesture.

  1. Al-Bayhaqi reported in Al-Sunan Al-Kubra through Ibn ‘Abbas that the Prophet of Islam said: ” ‘This,” and he pointed to his index finger “signifies ikhlas [sincerity of faith] and this,” and he raised his hands to his shoulders “signifies du’a` [supplication] and this,” and he raised his hands high “signifies ibtihal [invocation].’” 
  2. In another phrasing of the hadith, Imam Abu Bakr Ibn Abu Shaybah and Al-Bayhaqi in Al-Sunan Al-Kubra reported through Ibn ‘Abass that the Prophet of Islam said: “It is ikhlas” i.e. lifting the index finger when saying ‘illa Allah’. 
  3. Ibn Shaybah reported through Ibrahim Al-Nakh’i who said: “It is recommended to point with one’s finger when saying ‘illa Allah’ because it is tawheed. But it is disliked to point with two fingers.” 

It is pertinent to note here that when the article spoke of ‘Illa Allah’ it was probably referring to the Islamic Shahada ‘La Illaha Illallah’ which means ‘there is no God but Allah’.

Significance of the raised-finger gesture in ISIS

Nathaniel Zelinsky writes in Foreign Affairs that “when ISIS uses the gesture, it is affirming an ideology that demands the destruction of the West, as well as any form of pluralism. For potential recruits around the globe, it also shows their belief that they will dominate the world”.

The gesture, though rooted in Islamic tenets is deeply connected with the terrorist organisation ISIS. In fact, even Baghdadi had used the gesture in his first Friday speech from the Mosque after ISIS had taken over Mosul.

Baghdadi delivering first speech after ISIS taking over Mosul

“The gesture has been used by jihadis for years, including high profile ones like Osama bin Laden. Within the jihadi context, the raised index finger takes on political meaning as well, widely rejecting any form of government not under Shariah law,” she said.

Since then, it is not only used by fighters and supporters of IS but by those celebrating weddings in IS-held areas.

In fact, the one-finger gesture has become a common way for journalists and investigators to identify people with affliations or sympathies to ISIS.

Thus, while the one-finger gesture is intrinsically connected to Islam, it is to be noted that several analysts believe that the gesture itself pertains to the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam and that it has now become synonymous with ISIS.

What about the Chennai patients?

The hand gesture in itself can be considered a simple expression of faith by the Muslims, however, given the context of today’s world where it has become synonymous with a terror organisation like the ISIS, it is bound to raise some eyebrows and questions.

In the UK, Islamophobia Awareness Month is run by an organisation called the Muslim Engagement and Development (Mend). Mend says the logo of a finger pointing upwards signifies the “oneness of God in Islamic prayer ritual” but due to the gesture’s association with ISIS, Bedfordshire Police had once deleted the poster it had tweeted after severe backlash.

Poster deleted by Bedofrdshire Police

Thus, given the context of the gesture, it is not unthinkable that the gesture could mean sympathy or affiliation to ISIS, however, even without the affiliation to ISIS, according to some experts, the gesture itself pertains to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.

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