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.

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(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.