Open Essay

Behind the God’s War

Shiraz Maher is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College, University of London, and teaches at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.
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Salafism and the return of the Caliphate

ON 4 JULY 2014 the leader of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, defiantly ascended the pulpit of the Mosul Grand Mosque, slowly and deliberately, leading with his right foot. “Your brothers, the mujahideen, were blessed with victory by Allah,” he told congregants listening to his Friday sermon. “After long years of jihad, patience, and fighting the enemies of Allah, he guided them and strengthened them to achievethis goal. Therefore they rushed to establish the Caliphate.” Baghdadi was confirming a statement made several days earlier by Islamic State’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who first announced the revival of the Caliphate as a fulfilment of the “promise of Allah.” It had been timed to coincide with the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and penance. “Today the nations of kufr [disbelief] in the West are terrified. Today the flags of Satan and his party have fallen. Today the flag of tawhīd [monotheism] rises with its people. Today the Muslims are honoured,” declared Adnani in a triumphalist audio recording on behalf of Islamic State. “Now the khilāfa [Caliphate] has returned, humbling the necks of the enemy. Now the khilāfa has returned in spite of its opponents. Now the khilāfa has returned.”

It was the first time since 1924 that a Sunni Muslim leader could make such a claim with any credibility. Other groups had claimed smaller patches of land as enclaves or emirates over the last half-century, but none could realistically claim to have revived an actual Caliphate. Perhaps the most serious claims to the institution came from Mulla Muhammad Omar, who previously led the Taliban, when he gave himself the honorific title of Amīr al-Mu’minīn, or leader of the faithful. Although the title emerged by chance during the reign of the second Caliph, Umar ibn al-Khattab (583–644), it has endured ever since and is generally regarded as a marker for claims to the Caliphate.

Even for the group that has called itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) before rebranding to Islamic State (IS), a distinction is made between statehood and the Caliphate. Its members regard the former as a necessary precursor to the latter and believe statehood can be achieved simply by capturing parcels of land. For the Caliphate, however, an additional series of conditions must be satisfied before it is declared. Before ISIS consolidated control across large parts of eastern Syria and pushed into northern Iraq to grab major urban centres like Mosul, they only considered themselves worthy of statehood. Now that the group enjoyed a substantial powerbase and territorial control which reached into significant parts of Syria and Iraq, they convened a meeting of their legal scholars to assess whether the conditions of a Caliphate had been met. “The Islamic State, represented by the ahl al-hal wa-l-‘aqd (its people of authority), consisting of its senior figures, leaders, and the shura [consultation] council— resolved to announce the establishment of the Islamic khilāfa,” Adnani declared.

That announcement has been a controversial one, even within the community of militant Salafism to which the fighters of Islamic State belong. Whatever his detractors argue, few figureheads in recent history can make such strong claims to the institution of the Caliphate as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Certainly, none has so dramatically or effectively captured its essence. His Caliphate has defied the odds and represents the revival of “an obligation that was abandoned for centuries.” It is the most dramatic physical manifestation of Salafi-Jihadi doctrine in the modern era, serving a dualistic purpose between temporal and cosmic ends. Baghdadi explained the group’s worldly aims when he declared, “Allah created us to practise tawhīd, worship him, and establish his religion.” In that sense, the Caliphate represents a forgotten duty where God’s sovereignty is both supreme and absolute. The wider ambitions of Islamic State are more eschatological and involve hastening the day of resurrection, yawm al-qiyāma, when all of mankind will account for its actions. The group’s purpose can therefore appear contradictory: practically constructive insofar as it wishes to engage in the process of state building, yet philosophically destructive in its desire to precipitate the end of the world.

Islamic State is a Salafi-Jihadi movement, although the broader soteriology of Salafism from which it is derived remains poorly understood by the public. Salafis are typically viewed with suspicion and are often characterised as extremists because of their religious conservatism and aesthetic conformity. For men this would typically include a long and unkempt beard with a robe that stops just short of covering the ankle. For women in public it is most closely associated with the niqab, an enveloping veil which reveals only the eyes. To reduce Salafism to this alone is to compress a vast and complex tradition into a few lazy caricatures.

The Islamic State is a Salafi-Jihadi movement, although the broader soteriology of Salafism from which it is derived remains poorly understood by the public

Recent events in the Middle East have been accompanied by a wider unravelling of world order. This turbulence has stimulated public interest not just in the political dimensions of the crises currently engulfing the Levant and North Africa, but also in the ideas which drive millenarian militants on the ground. That much is clear from the extraordinary reception to Graeme Wood’s hugely influential essay for The Atlantic in February 2015, titled “What ISIS Really Wants.” The magazine’s commissioning editors can be forgiven for having assumed that an article on the religious and theological dimensions of ISIS might attract only a niche audience, choosing to first publish it online before making it their cover story the following month. It was an instant success. Wood’s piece is now the most read article in The Atlantic’s almost 160-year history and was the most read digital story of 2015—receiving more than one million page views the day it was published online. After the Paris attacks in November 2015 it received just under two million hits in 24 hours.

Wood set himself the task of examining the religious roots of Islamic State by asking, “What is the Islamic State? Where did it come from, and what are its intentions?” These are basic but important questions. What he found is that “the Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs.”

There is clearly an urgent need to better understand those beliefs, not least because they partly inform the activities of so many groups currently redefining the contours of power in the Middle East. Yet, the ideology of Islamic State is neither new nor entirely novel, and its intellectual framework appears to sit within the mainstream tradition of Salafi-Jihadi thought. This might seem unusual given that Islamic State has captured global attention in a way that not even al-Qaeda was able to achieve. Where it does differ from other groups is in its style and approach. Yes, Islamic State is more brazen and ruthless than its predecessors but the ideas that guide it are well established in radical Sunni thought. Their roots are grounded in the experiences of Sunni Islam over the last century and beyond. Salafi- Jihadi soteriology is a broad and varied ecosystem of dense Islamic jurisprudence that has licensed the actions of militant movements across the word. Islamic State is just the latest and most successful group it has spawned.

Salafism occupies a peculiar place in our lexicon as one of those exotic terms imported from the Orient, frequently used but rarely understood. This is not entirely surprising. As an idea it relates to a reactionary soteriology which first emerged from the deserts of Arabia before growing in very different ways. “The term Salafi, and those it designates,” wrote Bernard Haykel, “remains ill-defined and often misunderstood in the literature on this movement, and in studies on Islamism more generally.” In its simplest construction, Salafism “refers to the righteous predecessors of the first three generations of Muslims,” according to the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Fatwas, Saudi Arabia’s highest clerical authority.12 Salafism is therefore a philosophical outlook which seeks to revive the practices of the first three generations of Islam, who are collectively known as the al-salaf al-sālihīn, or “pious predecessors.” The salaf consist of three components: the first are the prophet’s contemporary companions who are known as the Sāhaba, the last of whom died around 690. The next generation are known as the tābi‘īn, the last of whom died around 750. They were followed by the tābi tābi‘īn, the last of whom died around 810.13 These three generations are held to constitute a golden age of authenticated and orthodox Islam, based on a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad in which he was asked about the characteristics of the best Muslims. He described them as follows:

Of the generation to which I belong, then of the second generation (generation adjacent to my generation), then of the third generation (generation adjacent to the second generation).

Viewed in this way, Salafism is a philosophy that believes in progression through regression. The perfect life is realised only by reviving the Islam of its first three generations. Taken as markers of both authenticity and purity, the legacy of the alsalaf al-sālihīn provides the praxis for contemporary Salafism. The message is consequently a revivalist one, seeking to bring Muslims back to what is regarded as the “authentic” and “pure” Islam of its early generations. Their doctrine is principally concerned with the realisation of God’s unity, tawhīd, and maintenance of doctrinal purity, ‘aqīda. By attempting to emulate the practices of Islam’s supposedly golden era, Salafis believe that only they constitute the so-called “victorious group” (tā ’ifa al-mansura) or “saved sect” (al-firqa al-nā jiya). This comes from a reference in another had••th which states Islam will splinter into various movements of heresy and deviance. Only one faction will practise Islam as God intended and will consequently be saved.

It is therefore best to think of Salafism as a redemptive philosophy based around an idealized version of Islam that enshrines both authenticity and purity. There are plenty of ways to realise that vision, with different scholars outlining various methods (manhaj) for its realisation. This distinguishes the Salafi philosophy about key issues such as tawhīd and ‘aqīda from manhaj which, according to shaykh Salih ibn Fawzan is, “more general than the ‘aqīda,” meaning that greater degrees of variance and divergence are tolerated.

MILITANT ISLAMIC GROUPS have proved themselves to be committed, dangerous and resilient. They have endured decades of domestic repression and an international “War on Terror,” but have nonetheless flourished in both North Africa and the Levant following the Arab uprisings of 2011. The behaviour of the groups and individuals operating in these environments, although sometimes brutal and distasteful, is not irrational. All of it is grounded, somewhere, in a particular reading of scripture. This is not to make subjective value judgements by suggesting that one interpretation is inherently “correct” while others are not. The theological positions presented by all Muslim participants in this debate—between jihad and quietism; fundamentalism and liberalism—are deeply contested. The approach adopted in this book is therefore to merely present the fault lines of these debates with dispassionate observation.

Whatever his detractors argue, few figureheads in recent history can make such strong claims to the institution of the Caliphate as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

This has been done before, albeit in different ways. When Josef Van Ess studied the formation of political ideas in early Islamic thought he argued that scholars should examine the proposed models and theories while offering explanations of what has happened. Historians have thus far shied away from the study of contemporary jihadism, instead leaving its pursuit to political scientists, linguists, and religious and area studies specialists. Consequently, there remain glaring blind spots in our knowledge of the movement. “The number of studies on the ideological development of al-Qaeda and jihadi Salafism has been relatively limited compared to the enormous amount of attention paid to their operational capacity,” noted Roel Meijer. This book is presented as an antidote to the dearth of historical inquiry into the intellectual culture of militant Salafism by exploring the expansive body of Salafi- Jihadi literature which explains its ‘aqīda, manhaj and fiqh. Leading members of al-Qaeda have already stated that this body of work constitutes the foundations of their distinct worldview. During an interview with al-Qimmah, a now defunct internet forum previously run by members of al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s late financial officer, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid (also known as Saeed al-Masri) stated that:

…[our] ideology is spreading, thank Allah, and all the young people of the umma [Islamic nation] are receptive to this ideology which is, as we said, the ideology of Islam, not just the ideology of al-Qaeda.

In many respects, the ideological nature of the Salafi-Jihadi creed accounts for the resilience of the movement it has spawned. Being based around an idea, rather than a particular leader or personality, it is extremely difficult to undermine Salafi-Jihadism decisively. When senior members of these groups are killed, their networks largely carry on as before. Consider the eulogy of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq:

They [the American Armed Forces] think that we fight for money and prestige—and what they do not understand is that our arteries are filled with the ideology of jihad. Even if they managed to reach Zarqawi, praise be to Allah, we have a million more Zarqawis because our umma is the umma of jihad, and jihad is at the top of our religious hierarchy.

This is not an atypical statement from the group following the assassination of one of its leaders. When American Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, al-Qaeda reaffirmed the enduring ideological aspect of its message:

Are the Americans able to kill what shaykh Osama lived and fought for, even with all their soldiers, intelligence, and agencies? Never! Never! Shaykh Osama did not build an organisation that would die with him, nor would end with him.

A similar message of ideological defiance followed the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, when al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) declared, “America has killed shaykh Anwar, but they can never kill his ideology.” AQAP understood this better than most, having done more than any other chapter of al-Qaeda to proliferate the group’s message to a global audience. Perhaps the greatest manifestation of this came with the rise in so-called “lone wolf ” terrorism, a doctrine first theorised by Abu Musab al-Suri who served in al-Qaeda’s central leadership, before it was spread by Awlaki. Lone wolves are typically those individuals who have no, or negligible, direct contact with al-Qaeda. They have not trained in its training camps. They are not connected to any discernible network. Nonetheless, they are sufficiently inspired by its cause that they choose to act in its name. Their connection to the movement in this regard comes from both proximity to and empathy (in varying degrees) with its worldview. This is not to suggest that motivations for lone wolf terrorism can be explained by reference to ideology alone, but its role in the process of binding individuals to a cause larger than themselves cannot be dismissed.

(This is an excerpt from Shiraz Maher's book Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea | Hurst & Company, London | £25 | Pages 296 pages)