ISIS & Wahabi Salafism

daesh mural
An ISIS mural citing an adopted slogan of the group and derived from the writings of Ibn-Taymiyyah – “The foundation of this Deen is a guiding Book and a supporting sword”

The Saudi Mufti (Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al al-Sheikh ) condemned ISIS as a the number one threat to Islam. I find it somewhat ironic that this condemnation comes from a leading authority of the state sponsored Wahabi school that shares many doctrinal similarities with ISIS. For sure, the state sponsored religious institutions and authorities do not share with ISIS its extremity in ‘takfir’ and violence to opponents but there is significant agreement in many tenants and veneration of similar authorities in Islamic history (1). It was Ibn-Baaz, Ibn-Uthaymeen, Ibn-Jibreen, all were part of the official religious establishment, that issued edicts declaring Twelver Shi’ism as an idolatrous sect, with some edicts advocating separation from Shi’ites as any polytheists (Ibn-Jibreen, for example, was known for these type of views). Other similarities across the Salafi spectrum, include a view of loyalty and allegiance to the believing community as a foundational aspect of belief, so that it is prohibited to befriend a non-Muslim; more than that, the manifestation of allegiance is to despise both non-Islamic faiths and non-Muslims in toto (more of this below).

The destruction of mausoleums  and Mosques with graves, is another issue that ISIS share with the state sponsored Wahabi establishment. This is something that returns to an idiosyncratic reading of scripture in matters pertaining to monotheism and its entailments (the source of authority being the writings of early Wahabi Najd scholars). To substantiate, Salafi Jihadists, Salafi activists and quietist Salafis all agree regarding the ten nullifiers of belief as penned by Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab. This short document establishes general points whose application has led to considerable difference between Salafis e.g. what is intended by ‘mediums’? Who are the ‘polytheists’ (according to the early Wahabi understanding of polytheism, it included Ottoman sponsored Hanafi Islam, with its encouragement of Sufi paths and rituals; a fortiori it would include Twelver Shi’ism)? What would the preference of ‘tawaagheet’ entail in matters of judgement and when is it a nullifier of belief (Salafi Jihadis disagree with both activist and quietist Salafis in this matter and hold all rulers in Muslim majority countries as apostates)?

Of greater importance, is the question of violence that may follow from the application of these shared ideas. Early Wahabi fighters (first Saudi state), committed atrocities as they instigated a ‘Jihad’ against neighbouring countries (the invasion of Iraq and sacking of Kerbala is one example of this). Often these wars were instigated in the name of proper monotheism; this being an application distinctive ideas relating to correct monotheism and from this, a judgement on other sects held to associate partners in matters of ritual worship, in their veneration of imams, holy men (allies of God) and prophets. In a future post I will brief on how Wahabi-Salafism approached monotheism, as it is insights into the practices of ISIS in their destruction of ancient places of worship and why they categorise other Islamic sects and practices as polytheistic. The destruction of these sites is not something restricted to ISIS – the Saudi sponsored religious establishment has adopted a policy of incrementally destroying ancient sites in Mecca and Medina, under the pretext of purifying monotheistic worship.

The mania of categorising people into groups also takes its root in shared Salafi doctrines. In the nullifiers of belief, Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab sets a broad but an important template between monotheistic Islam, as understood by the Wahabi movement, and others; it is a collisionist theology between groups or categories of people. Here the importance of relation to the ‘other’ is sanctioned in terms of allegiance and dissociation. Technically many jurists, outside the Wahabi fold, detailed juristic questions of allegiance in matters of war between the believing community and enemies. Due to this some judged that to aid and assist the enemy, in times of war, against fellow believers, is to commit disbelief and apostasy. Wahabi theology takes this further and makes enmity a permanent state, so that at all times separatism and separation is established as a constituting aspect of belief. The implication in this is that the believer must dissociate from disbelief and disbelievers in all manners, even in dress and appearance. Further, it is obligatory to despise and dissociate from disbelief and non-Muslims in general. This doesn’t necessitate coarse treatment to others – in missionary work, e.g., courtesy should be taken. However, in general, it is important believers cultivate character traits that habituates a sense of despisement of disbelief, disbelievers and sin (the relationship with a sinning believer is not one of outright dissociation as it is with disbelievers). Popular Salafi preachers such as Saleh al-Munajjid (non-Jihadi Salafi), for example, prohibits friendship between Muslims and non-Muslims.

The Wahabi school further differentiates between smaller and greater signs of allegiance. Smaller ones would be issues of sin, such as appeasing disbelievers for personal gain. The greater form is to aid or assist, in any way, even words, disbelievers and polytheists against fellow believers during times of war. The greater form is considered an issue of apostasy and it is this specific issue that ISIS has taken to such extremes that many senior Jihadi Salafi ideologues penned treatises to censure them. It is due to a judgement of apostasy pertaining to greater allegiance of disbelievers, that other rebel factions in Syria were designated as apostate groups, due to accusations of external aid conditioned with a military collision with ISIS.


(1) Establishment Salafism view the Saudi state as a legitimate authority that must be obeyed and this near absolute obedience has led to a moderating effect on larger sections of Wahabi-Salafism. However, the virulent sectarianism of state sponsored Salafi authorities is institutionalised in official religious instruction and is often used by the Saudi state when repressing dissent in Shi’ite majority areas in the east.

The spectrum of Salafism

I wish to comment on this article on Salafism in Kuwait. This post is not concerned with the details of Salafism in Kuwait but the typology of Salafism noted in the article. The article makes the point that ‘purists’ are more inclined to some sort of outreach to other Muslims, while harakis (activists) are prone to theological sectarianism and even violence to achieve their goals.

Purists mainly focus on peaceful proselytization and daily religious practices and are willing to cooperate with other religious groups. Activists, or haraki, believe in broader political involvement and often see violence as acceptable to achieve their aims.

First, binaries like this tend to flatten the nature of differences within not only Salafism but also generally trends and movements. I would prefer to state that Salafism is a spectrum that from one end may include quietists to violent activists. Second, it is the strong quietists, stated as purists, that are known for their theological exclusivism and refusal to cooperate with other groups and trends, lest they dilute the distinctives of Salafi Islam. Strong quietists include trends such as Al-Jaamiah, Al-Madkhaliah and followers of Muqbil bin Hadi al-Wadi’i in Yemen. At this end harakis are aberrations and not part of Salafism proper, due to the accusation of external influences of Islamist factions on their beliefs and practice (this is often identified with Muslim Brotherhood writings in general and specifically the writings of of Sayyid Qutb). As stated this is a spectrum, so that the stronger quietists are willing to identify these opposing Salafis as blameworthy innovators (mubtadi’a) that should be shunned and warned against. For this reason one of the key distinctives of this stronger form of quietist Salafism is ‘al-jarh wa al-t’adil i.e. who is to be critiqued as outside the correct view of Salafism and who may be identified as a worthy follower of what is deemed as the correct Salafi methodology. The distinctives of what is held to be the correct understanding of Salafism is also applied to all Muslim sects and groups and thus theological sectarianism is a key feature of their approach to other trends; ironically this approach is stated as a following of a Qur’anic junction against sectarian factionalism. The problem with activist Salafis, according to this strong purist quietism, is their appropriation of ideas from outside groups, specifically teachings pertaining to open political activism and missionary work that may challenge political authorities. The correct Salafi methodology is one that applies only secret advise to political authorities and is otherwise obedient and patient to any transgressions from these authorities.

This is a spectrum and some softer quietists  may be open to some form of cooperation and even cordial relations with other Muslims on shared objectives. Thus there are known edicts by Salafi scholars such as Abdul-Aziz ibn Baaz, Muhammad ibn al-‘Uthaymeen and Muhammad al-Albani that encouraged Kuwaiti Salafis to participate in political life and vote for Salafi candidates. Other edicts, for example, would admonish other Muslim groups but also praise them for what they view as praiseworthy attributes (e.g. Deobandi Tablighi Jamaat). It should be stated that reformist Salafis and strong quietists both venerate these notable scholars and their views are a point of contention and even vitriolic debate between stronger quietists and reformist Salafis. In my opinion esteemed scholars, especially state sanctioned Saudi ones, can show conflicting opinions or sympathies with different Salafi positions but are broadly softer quietists in their practice.

Accordingly as we move along this spectrum, then activist inclined Salafis are more willing to identify what are deemed as good attributes of other groups, rather than practising shunning, and even recommend their literature for worthy and useful instruction; often the literature read would be from prominent Muslim Brotherhood cadres. Hence we have reformist Salafi scholars, such as Abdul-Rahman Abdu-Khaleq, who are known to legitimate this haraki turn, write tracts that admonish other Muslim factions and trends, yet write other tracts encouraging political group activism and working with other Muslims outside the Salafi fold. He accuses stronger quietist Salafis of excessive sectarianism in their exclusivist and partisan misapplication of scripture warning against factionalism in Islamic practice (for strong quetists factionalism includes any form of political activism). Activist Salafis are thus more open to other Islamist groups and movements, while quietists can be anything from high exclusivists to a more restrained and restricted Islamic ecumenism.

Finally, at the hard end of the activist spectrum would be Jihadi Salafi groups that view reformist practice as a misdiagnosis of the nature of political authority in what they terms as ‘Muslim lands’. It is here that violence is legitimated, though the application of violent means is open to strategy and timing (differences on the legitimacy of certain strategies and application of junctions can turn into significant normative disputes, as happened between Jabhat al-Nusrah and the ISIL). Despite the adoption of violent means and polarizing rhetoric, or may be due to it, Salafi Jihadi trends are themselves open to the writings of Islamist writers, even if not Salafi, such as Sayyid Qutb and Abul A’la Maududi. Highlighted texts would be those that polarize belief/disbelief or Islam/Jaahiliyah, as part of an ongoing cosmic struggle.

I would end by stating that it would be expected that Kuwaiti Salafi harakis are funding Salafi armed groups in Syria but this funding is broadly restricted to the ‘Islamic Front’ and their leaders such Zahran Alloush. This part of the Salafi armed struggle is not Salafi Jihadi but more broadly inclined to the ideas and views of haraki Salafis. The uprising to the Islamic Front is against a disbelieving tyrant and sect(s) rather than it being an issue of violence as an obligatory means of struggle against rulers in ‘Muslim lands’. Jihadi Salafi groups such as the ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusrah may receive funding from Gulf sources but this is likely funnelled from illegal underground networks of Salafi Jihadis than open and tolerated Salafi haraki groups.

ISIL affirming their Salafi Jihadi credentials

This is statement by the ISIL spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-’Adnani, seeks to affirm the Salafi Jihadi credentials of the ISIL and reasons for their differences with Al-Qaeda and their official affiliate Jabhat al-Nosra (the latter accused of deviating from the Salafi methodology):

So what has changed to cause the leadership of Al-Qāʿidah to cause us grief, and to label us as the descendants of Ibn Muljim, and to label us as Khawārij?! Fear Allah regarding your selves! Fear Allah regarding the Mujāhidīn! What is your evidence for this that you incite people against them, you cause their blood to flow, you work for the destruction of their State and standing in its way! Tell us, by your Lord, what is your evidence?! 

ISIL, penal laws and atonement

ISIL when amputating the hand of a man it claims confessed and voluntarily submitted to the ascribed punishment, commented that the punishment given would be a purification for his sin. The view that penal punishments are an atonement for sins and so lift any possible punishment in the hereafter, is with precedence in the Islamic tradition. There are similarities to this in Judaism; according to Hanina b. Gamaliel:

If by the commission of a sin one forfeits his soul before God, so much the more reason is there for the belief that, by a meritorious deed, such as voluntary submission to punishment, his soul is saved.

This idea of atonement is significantly present in Islamic scripture e.g. the ritual slaughter of animal livestock is considered as an atonement and a ‘qorban‘ or means to obtain a closeness to God. This understanding of animal sacrifice exists among observant Jews too and the Qur’an indicates the sanctioning of this practice as a continuity to previous revelations (Qur’an 22: 34). Christian scripture depicts Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God’ that takes away (atones) the sin of the world (e.g. John 1: 29), relating to the passover sacrifice.  Of course, the topic of atonement is more encompassing (also see here) and includes other forms that can be found in both Judaism and Islam e.g. suffering or tribulations are an atonement for sins, as is fasting and almsgiving.

Differences within and between armed groups

There is much being said regarding a joint statement by a number of armed groups in Aleppo. The statement mentioned the establishment of an Islamic state and denounced the ‘National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces’ as part of a conspiracy. Expectantly Jabhat al-Nusra was one of the armed groups supporting the statement but more surprisingly the At-Tawhid Division were also initially supportive. The former is a Salafi Jihadi group, while the latter is an umbrella group consisting of many smaller armed factions. Leaders of At-Tawhid Division do not display a strong Salafi Jihadi ideology, though some of its constituent factions may be more inclined to this trend.  Further and significantly, the organisation’s emblem also features the colours of Syria’s independence flag.

Later At-Tawhid Division published another video statement dissociating themselves from their previous statement (both statements are still carried on their website), this time announcing their support of the ‘National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces’ and a civil state, with an Islamic reference point. It is plausible, considering the organisation is the largest armed coalition in Aleppo, that they came under intense pressure to renounce the initial statement, after worries that it could affect funding and supply of weapons.

That Jabhat al-Nusrah were part of the initial statement is telling. The group is more centralised and with a clear and strict Salafi Jihadi world-view. For example its emblem is (exclusively) a black banner with an Islamic testimony of faith inscribed.  This is with the purpose – the group established and set itself apart from other more nationalist groups, with the idea of ‘clarity of banner’ (وضوح الراية). Clarity of banner is that any armed struggle should be for the sake of raising the word of God and to establish Islamic law. For this purpose it refuses to join groups such as the At-Tawhid Division, due to this lack of clarity.

Most of the groups mentioned in the video declaring the formation of an ‘Islamic state’ are Jihadi Salafi, while it is the name of the At-Tawhid division that stands out. That the division would renounce the statement indicates there may be friction within the organisation (understandable, considering that over one hundred armed factions operate under its name) and this also points to significant differences between and within  different armed groups in the future. With arms already stringent in supply and channelled to certain groups vouched by the ‘National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces’ (one of the main pressing reasons for the formation of the coalition) and differences in political vision before and after the regime’s fall, then eventual confrontations between anti-regime groups could be a possibility.

From an uprising to a civil war dynamic?

Der Spiegel have published an interview with an injured fighter from Homs, seeking treatment in Lebanon. The account he provides confirms a ‘Human Rights Watch’ report on human rights violations by anti-regime armed groups. The executioner, interviewed, declares the communal identity of his victims (“Shi’ite”), with another identifying the three enemies as “Hezbollah, Iran and the Assad regime”. The account shows not only a confrontation with regime forces but also a civil war dynamic between communities in Homs. Of course, the scale of killing could be exaggerated, a form of boasting from the interviewee, but the sentiments shown are very clear. Arabic and opposition media continue to represent events as an uprising, which still exists, but the spectre of a civil war has now emerged. Despite evidence of sectarian revenge killings, torture and kidnapping, leaders of the SNC still deny this dynamic. Growing claims for ‘arming the uprising’ assume a uniform leadership and central command, rather than an assortment of armed groups, often sectarian, within what is a civil war dynamic. A plethora of brigades and armed groups regularly kidnap, torture and kill on mere suspicion; the idea that weapon supply can discriminate in its delivery, with a chaotic situation on the ground, to reach ‘heroic revolutionaries’ is fictitious.

So far, imperialist powers have committed to “non-lethal” support for opposition fighters, while discouraging their client states from arming the rebels. The fear, for US imperialism, is the sprouting of Al-Qaeda type groups and broader security fears for US hegemony in the region (controlling the political solution). The key issue is to control the situation through backing the opposition as a leverage and directly working through its client states. Hopes are placed on diplomatic efforts, initially through Kofi Annan’s UN backed plan but there remains eventualities if it fails. The Gulf countries (the Saudi and Qatari monarchies) adopt a more hawkish stance and seek to instigate a full armed revolt that they believe will implement their strategy of regime change. In other words, they have no interests in any eventuality that any part of Bashar al-Assad’s regime should survive (the SNC, for example, have released a document arguing for a nation building policy for Syria [post-Bashar al-Assad] that includes what is termed as a ‘Marshall plan’. Such ideas of ‘nation building’ are similar to US policies in Iraq and signal a strategic shift and dependency in the new institutions and structures of the Syrian state – in the parlance of the Obama regime an ‘administered and orderly transition’).

It is not clear if a decision to directly arm rebels has been taken in Riyadh or Doha, though already Saudi-Arabia has pressed Jordan to opens its borders to arms:

Saudi Arabia has pressed Jordan to open its border with Syria to allow weapons to reach rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, officials from both countries say, a move that could buoy Syria’s opposition and harden the conflict in the country and across the region.

While Saudi-Arabia may have not yet shipped arms, it has, since the beginning of the uprising, funded or allowed/encouraged sectarian channels, that preach hatred and the need for ‘Jihad’ against Shi’ites. For example, a known pro-Saudi ‘Salafi’ preacher, states it is a religious obligation for every Syrian to take up arms against the regime and for others, outside Syria, to join the struggle. The struggle, in his terms, is against a Shi’ite menace of Hezbollah, Iran and the Alawite sect. These preachers are not Al-Qaeda affiliates/supporters, the very opposite, but Saudi monarchy aligned preachers.

Al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria?

A shadowy group calling itself ‘Jabhat Nusrat al-Shaam’ has recently appeared and supposedly declared responsibility for recent bombings in Damascus and Aleppo. It is difficult to vouch for the authenticity of this group or the claimed responsibility for recent bombings (the statement of responsibility, cited by BBC Arabic, was published on a discussion board), with suspicions raised that they are another regime ploy. Abu-Baseer al-Tartousi, a prominent Syrian Salafi-Jihadi, views them as an unknown group led by unknown individuals (as they are masked in their own messages).

However, more extreme Salafi Jihadi groups and individuals (e.g. more aligned to the ‘Islamic state of Iraq’ and ‘Ansar al-Shar’iah’ in Yemen) view them as not only authentic but also calls on fighters to join them. The Syrian regime may seek to infiltrate like groups but the language and debates raised by these groups are very centric to a Jihadi-Salafi sub-culture.