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The death of Muhammad Sorour at age 80 in Qatar has gone almost entirely unremarked upon in the West, but arguably signals the end of an era for Sunni Muslim religious extremism. Sorour – a former member of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood who broke with the group because, in effect, it wasn’t extreme enough for him – was a seminal figure in the transition from traditional, and essentially apolitical, traditions of Salafism and heralding the emergence of the Salafist-jihadist movement, most notoriously embodied in the rival groups al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. An article by Hassan Hassan in The National, which expertly unpacked the complicated and contested legacy of this hinge figure, may be the only noteworthy appreciation of his passing thus far in English. However, the death of Sorour bears greater scrutiny and recognition than it has received outside of the Arabic-speaking world.
Sorour’s greatest claim to fame, and notoriety, is that he may have been the most important individual in helping to import the activist and revolutionary ethos developed by the Muslim Brothers of the Arab republics like Egypt and Syria into the then largely politically quietist Gulf-based Salafist and Wahhabist movements that had lacked them before that transformative cross-pollination. Born in the Hauran Plateau in southwestern Syria, near the border with Jordan, in 1938, Sorour joined the Muslim Brotherhood at a fairly young age. But by the mid-1960s, he was already denouncing the group for a variety of alleged transgressions, including the toleration of Sufis and other “heretics.” His radical break with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and incompatibility with any of the Syrian regimes from independence onward, caused Sorour to relocate temporarily to Saudi Arabia, where he developed his signature movement of “Sorourism.” He arrived in Saudi Arabia in 1965, but by 1974 he was forced to leave the country for Kuwait because his political activities were being increasingly regarded as dangerous and subversive.
The essence of his movement was, as Bernard Haykel has aptly described it in his essay “Al-Qa’ida and Shiism,” to combine “the organizational methods and political worldview of the Muslim Brotherhood with the theological puritanism of Salafism.” The Sorourist critique of the Muslim Brotherhood was not, in fact, the group’s revolutionary agenda or its politicization of Islam, which were the standard critiques aimed at the Brotherhood by most of its detractors, both religious and secular, in the Arab world in the 1960s and 70s. Sorour, instead, argued that the Brotherhood was, in effect, too “soft” on deviations from supposedly strictly orthodox, or at least literalistic and reductionist, ultraconservative Sunni traditions. His critique, on the other hand, of the Salafists and Wahhabists in the Gulf was, to the contrary, that they were sufficiently puritanical but insufficiently political. The idea, then, was to marry the political and revolutionary zeal of post-Sayyid Qutb iterations of Muslim Brotherhood ideology with the rigorous puritanical zeal of the Salafist traditions in the Gulf.
This intervention was crucial for setting the stage, and providing the intellectual, theological, and political framework, for the emergence of the Salafist-jihadist movement that began to take shape after 1979. A series of events that year proved a crucial turning point: the Iranian Revolution, which inspired Islamists everywhere with the sudden and unexpected prospects of success, even if Sunni Muslims could not embrace Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s distinctly Shia political model of the rule of jurisprudential scholars, and fueled a renewed Sunni-Shia and Arab-Persian set of rivalries; the war against the Soviet invaders in Afghanistan in which jihad was defined, for a widespread audience for the first time, as both an individual calling and a global anticolonial insurgency; and the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by puritanical fanatics led by a charismatic, messianic, and anti-royal family religious demagogue preaching violence and right-wing religious revolution. In this context, Sorourism played a crucial role in the Muslim fundamentalist sahwa (awakening) of the 1970s that eventually provided the intellectual and political framework for Salafists to turn political, revolutionary, and, ultimately, extremely violent.
Sorour himself did not particularly advocate terrorist violence, especially not the indiscriminate kind that came to characterize al-Qaeda, and even worse perhaps, ISIL (although he did support the Syrian uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and was certainly not a pacifist). But he did prepare a thorough rationale, as well as a programmatic, moral, and intellectual basis for the current maelstrom of Salafist-jihadist violence in the Middle East and around the world. Moreover, he was profoundly influential in helping to stoke the sectarian tensions that are racking the Middle East under the current circumstances. His extremely popular 1984 anti-Iranian book, “Now Comes the Era of the Magi,” was hardly unique in its anti-Shia and anti-Iranian rhetoric, but it was undoubtedly among the most influential texts in Arabic to promote the calumnies that the Iranian Shia Muslim majority, and “Islamic Revolution,” were not in fact Muslim at all, but were seeking to restore and spread the influence far and wide of the pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian (and hence “heretical”) Persian Empire.
The nefarious influence of this book, and Sorour’s deeply inflammatory anti-Shia rhetoric more generally, was seldom more vividly demonstrated than the frequent citation of it for anti-Shia propaganda by the founder of Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the immediate precursor to ISIL, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Even when the titular head of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, chided Zarqawi in a widely circulated letter for excessive violence, particularly against Shias, and above all against Shia mosques, Zarqawi’s responses to these critiques of his group’s excesses were frequently couched in rhetoric that had been formulated and popularized by Sorour.
After leaving Saudi Arabia in 1975, Sorour made his way to Kuwait, then the United Kingdom, onto Jordan and he finally passed away in Qatar. Because he never specifically advocated a systematic program of terrorist violence, and primarily provided the intellectual framework and political rationalization for the brutal terrorism of groups like al-Qaeda, Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and ISIL, he was able to reside in these various countries that would have rejected or arrested someone who had actually promoted direct acts of terrorism. Nonetheless, this “in-between,” hinge-like role he played made him a controversial figure among fundamentalist and radical Muslims. Indeed, as Hassan Hassan notes, both nonviolent Salafists and violent Salafist-jihadists use the accusation of “Sorourism” against each other as epithets in their endless arguments, particularly online.
Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who may be the most influential of the living Salafist-jihadist ideologues (although he is bitterly reviled and despised by ISIL, because he has criticized their excesses), was initially drawn to Sorour’s approach, though Maqdisi later found Sorour too compromising with existing Arab and Muslim regimes. Perhaps Maqdisi’s experience is widely representative of the reaction of the next generation of radicals. He was first drawn to Sorour as an inspiring source of revolutionary ethics. But he was later disappointed with his lack of programmatic revolutionary commitment and unwillingness to endorse specific political measures, and particularly a generalized reliance on violent means (again, with the exception of the Syrian uprising). This indicates exactly where much of contemporary Salafist-jihadism has both been drawn toward, and pulled away from, Sorour and his approach.
Perhaps Sorour’s last grasp for major direct political and regional relevance and engagement was at the early stages of the Syrian uprising, where he played a major role in inspiring much of the leadership of the Turkey and Qatar-backed Syrian Islamic Council. That group, like all others that do not have major armed militias on the ground, has receded greatly in relevance in the Syrian political context as the conflict has become increasingly militarized, regionalized, and sectarian. Yet the Syrian National Council, a broad-based and widely respected Syrian political opposition umbrella organization, did eulogize him at his passing. This is yet another unfortunate indication of the ongoing, if not increasing, prevalence of religious extremism among the armed Syrian opposition as well as pro-government forces.
The Syrian National Council statement memorializes him as an important religious and even political figure, and “a great symbol of moderation.” Indeed, virtually all of the eulogies and obituaries for him found from Arab sources elide, or at least significantly downplay, his role in establishing the intellectual and theological basis for the Sunni side of the religious and sectarian extremism that has been increasingly tearing the Middle East apart in recent decades. Yet any honest evaluation must conclude that this malign contribution to the rise of religious extremism, and laying the groundwork of the theological and political rationale for Sunni Muslim terrorist violence, in the contemporary Middle East is easily his most significant and lasting legacy.
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