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.

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.

Salafi armed groups and the sectarian dimensions of their armed struggle

Often different Salafi armed groups focus on a perceived sectarian identity of their enemy, however absurd the construal of this identity may be. Regardless, why would many of these armed groups identify their struggles in this sense? I believe this is partly due to an uncritical application of what is largely medieval Islamic juristic tradition to to all contexts and times. For example, medieval Muslim jurists defined ‘Jihad’ as ‘qital al-kufar’ i.e. specifically to fight the disbelievers. There are other types of combat, that include Muslims (e.g. to fight rebels or bughat that revolt against a Muslim authority) but this is strictly, according to jurists, not a form of ‘Jihad’. ISIL, for example, label Abu-Muhammed al-Jolani (head of Jabhat al-Nusra) as a sinner and ‘baghi’ or a rebel against what they view as their legitimate Islamic authority.

Jihad, by medieval jurists, was then differentiated to include defensive and offensive warfare, with any offensive war requiring the sanction of a Muslim ruler. However, the legitimacy of an offensive war has been challenged by contemporary Muslim scholars e.g. Muhammad al-Ghazali, Muhammad Sa’id Ramadhan al-Bouti, Wahbat al-Zuhayli and many more. The opinion that ‘Jihad’ is restricted to a defensive military struggle to defend the Muslim community or life and property is now the given orthodoxy (Salafi scholars still, by far, reject this opinion).

Thus to justify any military combat as a ‘Jihad’, Salafi groups will seek to ‘other’ their enemies along strictly religious categories, even if these categories are absurd and make no sense even to their enemies. Following from this, Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIL and others state their enemies as Zoroastrians, Nusayris, Rafidha and ‘secular’ apostates etc. There is also demonisation of their enemy as they are on the wrong end of a cosmic struggle and all of them are destined for eternal damnation and they, on the other hand, are the group of righteous believers foretold in scripture carrying the banner of ‘Jihad’ to the end times.

ISIL and reasons for excommunication

The ISIL are not the Khawarij documented by medieval Muslim heresiologists in their encyclopaedias of sects and religions; historically the Khawarij, as a sect, were not uniform but are now largely extinct. Nevertheless there remains the ‘Ibadia‘ that exists in Oman as a state sponsored form of Islam and also, as a lesser presence, followers of this sect can be found in Kenya and North Africa; but this sect is significantly different to the Khawarij of earlier centuries. The ISIL, on the other hand, are Salafi in doctrine and similar to other Jihadi Salafi groups, view other Salafi factions as misguided in understanding the writings of Ibn-Taymiyyah and Muhammad ibn-Abdul Wahhab. For example, there is the accusation that Muhammad Al-Albani (his writings remain a guide to the global Salafi movement and his many sittings with his students were recorded and some transcripts published), fell into errors regarding the relation between belief and works.

For Jihadi Salafis he distinguishes between belief and works, to the extent that no practice affects the status of belief and hence the plausibility of excommunication (takfir). Instead, in their position (e.g. see the writings of Abu-Muhammad Al-Maqdisi), the genus of religious practice is both fundamental and a condition for sustaining belief. Further, there is an accusation that he denied what they describe as acts that intrinsically justify excommunication and this includes, for example, mere utterance of blasphemy and importantly adopting ‘secular’ laws as state legislation or even joining the armed forces in any of the nation states that exist in ‘Muslim countries’ and so maintaining these ‘secular’ states. These acts are labelled as ‘kufr ‘amali’ or actions that intrinsically denote disbelief, as they relate to issues of belief and disbelief directly and hence become a basis for excommunication. It should be noted that excommunication does not extend to committing greater sins, as is the position of the classical Khawarij sects and hence they state their view, regarding excommunication, as the correct position of Sunni Islam (Sunni Islam means, in a very strict sense, a strand of Hanbali Islam that can be identified, predominately, in the writings of Ibn-Taymiyyah). This far groups such as the ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are in agreement.

The issue of difference is the view, by Jabhat al-Nusra, that ISIL have gone into extremes in their expansion and application of this category (actions that intrinsically denote disbelief) to include dissociation from any faction receiving funding from these states; this includes even explicitly Islamist coalitions such as the Islamic Front. This is further exasperated, according to the ISIL, as these groups receive funding on the condition they collaborate to uproot the ISIL from their territories (they are likened, in ISIL literature, to the Iraqi ‘sahwat’). To not dissociate and even worse abet these groups is to make allegiance with the enemy at times of war and this alone is a basis for excommunication (Quran 5: 51, for example, is cited to justify this as ‘kufr ‘amali’). The FSA, on the other hand, are viewed as a ‘secular’ coalition invested in a democratic state and aligned to the National Coalition that is directly supported by the US and the Saudi monarchy and that alone is sufficient to make outright excommunication of those under this coalition. Jabhat al-Nusra only agree regarding the excommunication of the leaders of the FSA and the National Coalition but hold the Islamic Front as believers and are willing to cooperate with them in military operations. The ISIL also accuse the Islamic Front and the FSA, with others, in attacking their positions and this, to them, is a broader conspiracy to exterminate the organisation from Syria.

In future posts I will attempt to note different Salafi discourses pertaining to collective guilt, de-humanising through identifying individuals to opposing religious collectives and the necessity to dissociate and despise all those considered outside the pale of Islam (the doctrine of ‘Al-Wala’ Wal Bara”). These different discourses figure, to different degrees, in all Salafi groups and play a part in how they perceive and treat the ‘other’.

A Salafi preacher calls for arming the uprising

For the first time an identifiable, though not prominent, Salafi preacher (Loay az-Zoabi) has expressed the necessity of arming the uprising. Claiming the leadership of an unknown group calling itself ‘Believers participate’, Loay az-Zoabi states he has always advised activists, until now, not to take up arms for themselves but would advise defecting soldiers to use their arms to defends protesters.

However, things have changed, not only does he believe taking up arms to be a necessity but calls on other nation states to arm activists to confront the regime militarily. He further calls for a full military intervention in Syria, viewing it as the only viable strategy to prevent further massacres.

Loay az-Zoabi also openly acknowledges that he has met with prominent individuals, both Lebanese and Syrian, though no names are provided. It is likely support comes from the Saudi monarchy’s allies in Lebanon(led by the Harriri family), as he notes the first enemy to be Iran, then Hezbollah and finally the Syrian regime. This type of agitation has been stoked in Saudi funded media outlets, since the beginning of the uprising.

Loay az-Zoabi does distance himself from the more militant Salafists, such as Al-Qaeda, and condemns their indiscriminate targeting of civilians. His group does not seek to impose any vision onSyriaand believes free elections should arbitrate between political factions. He also views all Syrians, whatever their affiliations, to be equal participants and citizens.

An armed ‘Salafi’ insurrection?

‘Syria Comment’ has published a very good article by Omar S. Dahi. The article contains the writer’s reflections and observations, from his visit to Syria. There is also a detailed account of the protests and activism in the city of Hama, prior to the massacre committed just one day before Ramadan.

However, there is a point that I disagree with – a segment of the opposition, however small, are indeed armed Salafi organisations:

The fifth category, which the regime claims is the main obstacle, but which is in fact a very small fraction, is the armed Salafi groups. Some may have traveled toIraqto fight the US invasion. (They do not fit into Ghalioun’s three “no’s”, because they espouse violent revolution, are overtly sectarian, and welcome intervention by fellow Salafists, whether Syrian or not.)

There is no evidence of an armed ‘Salafi’ insurrection in Syria, if that is Omar Dahi’s intention, even if it is marginal and not representative of the largely peaceful nature of the Syrian uprising. If there was an armed ‘Salafi’ revolt, however small, then the groups responsible would be known and open. This has always been the case in many ‘Salafi’ insurrections e.g.Yemen, Algeria, Saudi-Arabia etc. The internet is full of websites that adopt this thought and their communiqués and literature are widely distributed, including the writings of leading revolutionary ‘Salafis’ – yet, there are no communiqués or any group that has made itself known.

Abu-Basir al-Tartousi (Abd-al Mun’em Mustafa Halima), a popular figure within this trend, who is also a Syrian, has published a pamphlet that gives his personal advice to Syrian activists. If there was an insurrection, then being a prominent Syrian figure and also a religious reference point for many of this trend, he would have provided guidance in that direction. However, he affirms that the uprising must continue in its peaceful path. While saying this, he does note that his position is not some form of absolute pacifism. If there are regime henchmen known for targeting protesters, then they can be targeted back. Second, if regime henchmen attack citizens within their homes or target their families, then they have the right to fight-back. However, this is very different from the idea of an armed and organised group, as in the past, that have declared a revolt to establish a ‘Salafi’ emirates in Syria. An operation of that size, with that objective, requires thousands of fighters, a developed logistics and stocks of firepower. Again, if such scenario exists, what is the name of this organisation? Who are their leaders? Who are their religious guides?

Prejudice masquerading as social critique

Syrian opposition figure Burhan Ghalioun

In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Burhan Ghalioun (a prominent Syrian opposition figure), claims that the regime bears responsibility for the rise of a ‘Salafist’ trend in Syria; thus to blame ‘Salafists’ for an armed uprising, assuming there is an armed uprising, is rank hypocrisy. The evidence provided by Burhan Ghalioun is surprising and it is alarming that a Middle-East professor could make such an ignorant remark – the regime’s lifting of a niqab ban in schools, an Islamic television channel and the promise of opening an Islamic higher learning institution, promised to the ‘Salafist’ preacher Muhammad Said Ramadhan al-Buti!

Three points could be raised, considering Burhan Ghalioun’s response:

  1. A prejudice against Islam – in other words, Burhan Ghalioun has labelled regressive, i.e. ‘Salafist’, the provision of choice in wearing a ‘niqab’ or a sponsorship of an Islamic institution of learning! Hence any concession to anything resembling religious practice is viewed as the regime sponsoring a ‘Salafism’, with Burhan Ghalioun completely ignorant of what this label entails. ‘Salafism’ is thus any public role provided for Islam in public life and so a social problem in itself.
  2. Muhammad Said Ramadhan al-Buti is a known critic of ‘Salafism’ and has written a book, with this objective! He is a known proponent of traditional Sunni practice, including the following of its fathers in creed (Ash’arite and Maturidi), Sufi spiritual discipline and an adherence to the traditional schools of Islamic law. Not all Islamic practice is ‘Salafism’, nor is the ‘niqab’ restricted to followers of this movement! Claiming Al-Buti as a ‘Salafist’, is akin to labeling Nicolas Sarkozy a Socialist!
  3. There is a pervasive ignorance of Islam and the nuances of Islamist movements, amongst many commentators and academics. If there is an interest, there is often a reductionist and dualistic view of the religious and secular – Adunis and Burhan Ghalioun being examples of this approach. Often, these views carry orientalist caricatures of the ‘Arab mind’ or psyche; Adunis, for example, speaks of the contemporary all encompassing social authority of the Muslim jurist. Further, the jurist draws his authority from his blind followers, who are regressive ‘Salafists’, caught in the past ( ‘antiquated minds’ is the term utilized by these writers). Here ‘Salafists’, leading the Arab masses, becomes synonymous with any Islamic observance and is rendered almost vacuous and useless. The problem, with many of these writers, is a near absence of any critical view of either the processes of modernity or notions of the modern nation state, thus we are left with a circular self-appraisal that leads us back to liberal conceptions of representative democracies. If we are to diagnose why the ‘Arab world’ has ‘failed’ to achieve this supposed objective, we are left with collectivizing responses on an assumed psyche. A gloss of renewal or civilizational project is given to this analysis, by its proponents, despite it carrying no serious attempt to critically study these said societies – this is ironic, as they often define their roles as ‘social critics’.