The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claims to be waging “jihad.” This is one of the group’s most essential assertions, a sine qua non of everything else the group says or does. Therefore, these claims must be carefully examined.
The roots of ISIL’s armed struggle may be traced back to 1999 when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi created a small band of fighters under the name Jama‘at al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad (“Organization for Monotheism and Jihad”). The group’s initial target was the Jordanian monarchy. However, it acquired a new set of enemies and a new lease on life when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, toppled the Baathist regime, and established a new government led by Shia-dominated political parties. Zarqawi then changed his group’s name to Tanzim al-Qa‘idat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (“Organization for Jihad’s Base in Mesopotamia,” more commonly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI) after pledging his group’s allegiance to Osama bin Laden. But from the start, relations were strained between Zarqawi and the leaders of al-Qaeda. They differed over strategy and tactics, as well as the grounds for waging jihad.
Zarqawi was at odds with al-Qaeda over who ought to be the primary target of a Salafi jihad. Whereas bin Laden had convinced other al-Qaeda leaders that the “far enemy”—namely, the U.S.—ought to be the main focus, Zarqawi subscribed to the majority view in radical Salafi circles that the “near enemy”—the local rulers whom the radicals dubbed apostates—should be the principal targets. However, Zarqawi expanded the category of “near enemy” well beyond the ruling elites to include just about everyone who opposed him, especially the whole of the Shia population. Two months before he was killed in June 2006, Zarqawi released a four-hour-long videotaped message titled Hal ataka hadith al-rafida? (“Has news of the traitors reached you?”). Rafida (“turncoats” or “renegades”) is a derogatory term historically used by Sunnis in anti-Shia polemics. During his long tirade, Zarqawi railed against all Shia as enemies of true Islam. According to him, all Iraqi Shia were traitors and enemies of the mujahedeen in Iraq because they were openly aiding the American-led invasion and occupation of Muslim land. Near the end of his statement, Zarqawi declared that Muslims will have no chance for victory over their Jewish and Christian enemies until they have first destroyed the apostates who work with them, the most dangerous of whom are the Shia.[i]
In March 2007, the renamed Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) released a 19-point manifesto under the byline of its putative leader at the time, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.[ii] The document opens with the complaint that lies are circulating about ISI’s creed (aqida), claiming “that we hereticize the generality of Muslims, that we deem licit the shedding of their blood and the taking of their property, and that we compel people to join our state with the sword.” The document proceeds to list at length the true enemies of ISI, clearly enunciating the “near-enemy-first” approach: “We believe in the unbelief and apostasy of all the rulers and armies of these states and fighting them is of greater necessity than fighting the occupying crusader.” In Iraq, this requires war against secular parties and movements as well as against members of religiously inclined political parties who are apostates. Anyone serving in the army or police of the apostate rulers must also be fought. Anyone who materially aids the occupiers is similarly an apostate and should be killed.
The statement declares without equivocation or qualification that the rafida—all Shia—are idolaters and apostates. It also states that on matters of faith, ISI occupies a middle ground between the “extremist Kharijites” and the “lax Murjites”—a reference to early Islamic disputes on who was or was not a Muslim—that it did not render a judgment of infidelity (takfir) against anyone who “utters the two professions of faith and manifests to us Islam—so long as he does not engage in one of the nullifiers of Islam.” The “nullifiers of Islam” is a reference to a list ascribed to Salafi ideologue Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792). The list enumerates 10 actions or beliefs that disqualify a person from being considered a Muslim, including the denial of monotheism or mocking the Quran. Less clearly defined offenses are also listed, such as permitting people not to implement sharia (Islamic law) and “turning away from God’s religion, not learning it, and not implementing it.” The ambiguity of these latter offenses provides room for radical Salafis to pronounce takfir on any Muslim who disagrees with their own dogmas on what is sharia or what implementing “God’s religion” entails. This effectively excommunicates the target and renders them worthy of justifiable death.
Furthermore, ISI’s manifesto deems all Christians, Jews, and “those of their kind” to be enemies devoid of any status of protection. They are at war with ISI because “they have violated what they agreed on in numerous, countless regards.” They can obtain security only by renegotiating a new pact in accordance with the terms that the caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab extended to People of the Book (Jews and Christians) in the seventh century. This implies that they tolerate non-Muslim communities (dhimmis) if they pay the poll tax (jizya) and submit to a number of other discriminatory measures. Finally, the document singles out other jihadists for criticism. They are not charged with apostasy as such. Yet they are sinners because they fail to unite under a common banner—presumably that of ISI—to combat their common enemies.
ISI was renamed the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Since ISIL has thus far failed to issue a detailed manifesto of its own, the 2007 statement remains the most detailed account of the group’s ideology. There is no reason to think that ISIL has moved away from any aspect of the 2007 manifesto. The group appears to be fully committed to its predecessors’ near-enemy-first strategy as well as to their exhaustive list of enemies. Current leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seems to share his predecessors’ wide-ranging hatred and their obsession with the Shia—no longer just the Twelver Imamis of Iraq but now also the Alawites of Syria and the Zaydi Shia of Yemen. In a November 2014 statement, Baghdadi called for the clearing of the Arabian Peninsula first of its Shia population, then toppling of the Saudi monarchy, and finally the eviction of the “Crusader forces.” He also called on supporters in Yemen to be harsh with the Zaydi Shia Houthis, labeling them as kuffar (infidels).[iii] The pertinent question is not who is an enemy of ISIL, but rather who is not their enemy?
ISIL is by no means unique among radical Salafi groups in its deployment of takfir against Sunni Muslims, its deep sectarian hatred of Shia, and its general loathing of Jews, Christians, and secularists. But this fact does not deem them representative interpreters of the Quran and sunna, the broad mainstream tradition of Muslim interpretation of these sources. Since this is a vast topic, we must confine ourselves to a few salient points.
First, regarding takfir, the Quran and hadith admonish Muslims not to quickly judge anyone a non-Muslim, not even an enemy in the thick of battle, who to save his own life proclaims his faith. Verse 4:94 states: “O you believers! When you go forth in the cause of God, investigate carefully, and say not to anyone who offers you a salutation, ‘You are not a believer!’ coveting the goods of this life, for with God are profits abundant. Even so were you yourselves before, until God conferred on you His favors. Therefore, carefully investigate. For God is well aware of all that you do.” Several hadiths reinforce this verse by relating that the Prophet became angry at his followers who admitted to killing opponents who proclaimed their faith because they judged such last-minute conversions as insincere. “Did you open their hearts and look inside to see if they were lying or telling the truth?” the Prophet is reported to have asked in rebuke.[iv]
Nevertheless, Muslims succumbed to an epidemic of pronouncing infidelity against one another within decades of the Prophet’s death. The Kharijites were the most extreme: they developed legal justifications for the killing of anyone they dubbed an apostate or an infidel. But they were hardly the only ones to deploy takfir as a weapon to silence their opponents. In an attempt to curb the excesses of takfir, the medieval Islamic scholar al-Ghazali (d. 1111) takes aim in his Faysal al-tafriqa bayn al-Islam wa al-Zandaqa (“The criterion for distinguishing between Islam and Unbelief”) at the “ignoramuses” who all too easily fling takfir against their opponents. Anyone who considers the proponents of a doctrinal creed other than his own to be a kafir (infidel) is a fool, Ghazali writes, for he blindly follows one or another authority, when no rational possibility exists to differentiate the truth or falsehood of their interpretations of Islam. Such blind devotion to the founders of various creeds elevates them unduly to the status of the Prophet.[v]
The 19th century saw a resurgence of the takfir mentality with the birth of conservative Salafi movements. The most extreme of these groups, labeled by some as “Takfiri Salafists,” deploy takfir not just in polemics to denounce their opponents but also—like the Kharijites—to justify their killing. As the broad mainstream of Muslim society in the seventh and eighth centuries rejected Kharijite extremism, so has the broad mainstream of contemporary Muslim societies rejected modern takfiri Salafism. The most prominent example of this repudiation is probably the Amman Message of July 2005, in which a large group of Islamic scholars from a wide range of traditions rejected extremists’ interpretations of core Islamic doctrines. In a short but direct statement, it forbade takfir among Muslims.[vi] More than 500 prominent Muslim scholars from more than 50 countries and a number of political and legal organizations including the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), have endorsed the declaration.
In a September 2014 open letter, more than 100 Muslim scholars from around the world specifically condemned ISIL’s use of takfir to terrorize and murder Muslims. The letter stated that it is forbidden to interpret the intent behind a person’s actions and thereby judge him an unbeliever. It is forbidden to declare Muslims to be unbelievers based on any issue in which there is a difference of opinion among Muslim scholars. It is forbidden to declare an entire group of Muslims to be unbelievers based on the actions of a few of their community. Finally, it is forbidden to declare Muslims unbelievers if they fail to doubt the belief of other Muslims or to declare them unbelievers.[vii]
The carnage wreaked by ISIL is many levels of magnitude greater than anything AQI managed. The group has waged total war, not discriminating between Muslims and non-Muslims, or between combatants and noncombatants. ISIL’s justifications for its destructive actions are manifestly insufficient by any standards. This has led to a proliferation of explanations among analysts for its barbarism, ranging from psychopathy to calculated, pragmatic, and political terrorism. What is apparent is that ISIL seems to have adopted the view prevalent among violent extremists that the ends justify all means. Because, in its own worldview, it is waging a jihad to establish and expand a true Islamic state against an array of infidel forces, it may use whatever means are required to achieve its aims. Necessity releases the normal restraints on jihad, including the prohibition on the deliberate killing of noncombatants.[viii]
In one of the most detailed justifications for its methods, ISIL issued a fatwa in February 2015 on the permissibility of “burning an unbeliever to death.”[ix] This was in response to its immolation weeks earlier of captured Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh. The short statement refers to a hadith of the Prophet that was central to classical jurisprudential debates on whether the use of fire was permissible to Muslim armies in battle: “Do not punish the creatures of God with the punishment of God.” The statement affirms that scholars of the Hanafi and Shafi‘i schools read this hadith only as a call for restraint and not an absolute prohibition. “The Hanafi and Shafi‘i schools hold that burning is completely permissible,” the statement declares, stating that the basis for this view among Hanafis and Shafi‘is was some incidents of the use of fire against opponents by the Prophet and Khalid ibn al-Walid, one of the Companions. Moreover, even those scholars who held that burning was “generally prohibited” agreed that it becomes permissible when done in retribution for enemy use.
This statement speaks volumes about ISIL’s methodology. First, the Jordanian pilot is subjected to takfir without explanation. His death was licit because he was an infidel. Second, extensive jurisprudential debates are reduced to a caricature. The Hanafis and Shafi‘is do seem open to the possibility of retaliating with fire if the enemy initiates its use. But generally their discussion does not concern burning individuals alive but rather using incendiary devices such as naphtha, or, as the ancients called it, “Greek fire,” hurled by catapults at enemy fortifications. The other two schools of Sunni jurisprudence, the Hanbalis and Malikis, had reservations about this weapon. The reason for their qualms was the famous hadith of the Prophet. The Malikis read the ban on not punishing with “the punishment of God” most broadly and expressed strong reservations about the use of incendiary weapons in general. The other schools expressed fewer qualms, especially if the enemy initiated the use of incendiary devices, with the Hanafis being the most permissive.
However, the hadith was generally understood as banning the deliberate or premeditated burning of individuals.[x] That is why Islamic history contains widespread reports of the use of incendiary weapons in war but very few reports of the immolation of individual soldiers. Indeed, “burning at the stake” was not an Islamic punishment, in contrast to its widespread use in Christendom. Finally, ISIL turns to isolated and controversial stories about the Prophet or his Companions to negate the broad interpretative tradition based on accepted hadiths. The fatwa ultimately amounts to nothing more than propaganda to rationalize a preordained conclusion.
ISIL’s justifications for its barbarism and crimes rely on selective, decontextualized, and distorted readings of texts which place them outside the mainstream of the tradition and often inconsistent with even the most extreme interpretations. Certainly ISIL’s approach to legitimizing its actions by appealing to religious justifications has been met with scorn and rebuke by the overwhelming body of Muslim clerical opinion. In short, ISIL’s version of “jihad” is simply not recognizable in light of 14 centuries of Muslim thinking about jihad and is rejected by a broad range of opinion among contemporary Muslims.
[i] Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, “Hal ataka hadith al-rafida?” June 1, 2006. http://www.archive.org/stream/Abu-Musab-Zarkawi-Speechs/AMZ-Ver1#page/n524/mode/2up.
[ii] Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, “Some of Our Fundamentals,” March 13, 2007, in Cole Bunzel, “From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State,” March 2015. http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2015/03/ideology-of-islamic-state-bunzel/the-ideology-of-the-islamic-state.pdf.
[iii] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “Even If the Disbelievers Despise Such,” November 13, 2014. https://archive.org/details/krh_en.
[iv] Sahih Muslim, Book 1: The Book of Faith (Kitab al-iman), hadiths no. 173-178.
[v] For a translation and commentary, see Sherman A. Jackson, On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam: Abu Hamid al Ghazali’s Faysal al-Tafriqa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
[vi] “The Amman Message,” http://ammanmessage.com/.
[vii] “Open Letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” September 19, 2014. http://www.lettertobaghdadi.com/.
[viii] For a survey of classical and contemporary juristic views on discrimination in war, see Khaled Abou El Fadl, “Between Functionalism and Morality: The Juristic Debates on the Conduct of War”; and Sohail H. Hashmi, “Saving and Taking Life in War: Three Modern Muslim Views,” in Islamic Ethics of Life: Abortion, War, and Euthanasia, ed. Jonathan E. Brockopp (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003), 103-154.
[ix] “ISIS Issues Fatwa to Justify Burning of Jordanian Pilot,” February 4, 2015. http://www.memrijttm.org/isis-issues-fatwa-to-justify-burning-of-jordanian-pilot.html.
[x] Sohail H. Hashmi, “Islamic Ethics and Weapons of Mass Destruction: An Argument for Nonproliferation,” in Ethics and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Religious and Secular Perspectives, ed. Sohail H. Hashmi and Steven P. Lee (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 328.