Salafi-jehadism and its cohorts

Print edition : October 14, 2016

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This image grab taken of the leader of the Islamic State was released on July 5, 2014, and shows him at a mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Photo: AL-FURQAN MEDIA/AFP

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He headed the Islamic State's ideological and organisational ancestor, the Al Qaeda in Iraq. He was killed in a U.S. air strike on June 7, 2006. Photo: U.S. Military/AP

Two books attempt to explain the apparent contradiction between Islam’s precept and its practice in the context of the wanton destruction and violence being perpetrated in its name.

ALMOST every day, there are reports of a jehadi organisation perpetrating some atrocity or the other in which several innocent victims are killed or badly injured. Images of widespread carnage at airports, shopping malls, concert auditoria, hotels, restaurants and busy streets fill our television screens while solemn reporters inform us that security agencies suspect this to be an attack by the Islamic State (or I.S., also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) or its local affiliate or even an individual, a “lone wolf”, who was indoctrinated to carry out a suicide attack by I.S. propaganda on social media. Over the past five years, these attacks have led to a beefing up of security organisations and an increase in intrusive security checks at public places and have generated a climate of fear and uncertainty among ordinary people across the world.

This jehadi violence has also inculcated a deep suspicion and distrust of Muslims, who are increasingly being seen as possible terrorists, so much so that they can be offloaded from domestic and international flights if even one of their co-passengers is uncomfortable about their presence. The problem of “Islam” has now become central to the contentious politics of Europe and the United States, with politicians seeking electoral office competing with each other in xenophobic anti-Muslim posturing and proclamations. Most people are just bewildered about how so much wanton destruction can be perpetrated in the name of a world religion, most of whose adherents claim is a faith that preaches moderation, peace and mutual understanding and accommodation. The two books reviewed here attempt to explain this apparent contradiction between Islam’s precept and its practice.


Shiraz Maher’s work on Salafi-jehadism is a timely and substantial effort to explain the roots of the ideology of jehad. He traces its principal ideas to their origins in Islam’s first texts, the Quran and the Hadith (the “traditions” of the Prophet Muhammad, referring to his words and actions), and the commentaries of the early scholars, and then explains how jehadi ideologues have reinterpreted these ideas to analyse Muslims’ present-day predicament and provide justification for contemporary confrontations between Islam and its enemies. For, he points out at the outset, the ideology of jehad and its modern-day protagonist, the I.S., “sits within the mainstream tradition of Salafi-Jehadi thought”, but whose roots have been shaped “by the experiences of Sunni Islam over the last century and beyond”.

“Salafism” refers to the thought and conduct of the first three generations of Muslims, a period that roughly covers the first 200 years of Islam. On the basis of a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, these first Muslims are said to reflect the characteristics of the best Muslims and hence are worthy of emulation by later generations in order to realise the perfect Islamic life. Thus, as Maher notes, Salafism provides “an idealised version of Islam that enshrines both authenticity and purity”. All through the 19th and 20th centuries, as Muslims experienced defeat and despair, it is to these “righteous ancestors” that their intellectuals turned, seeking to derive from their words and deeds the ability to cope with the present-day dilemmas of their community through a fresh interpretation of their early conduct and precepts.

Their understanding was of course largely influenced by the political context in which the academics or activists were placed. Thus, their first tracts were impacted on by the experience of colonial domination, while in the 20th century the intellectuals responded to Western control over their political order and, later, the installation of authoritarian rule in most Arab polities, with their rulers suborned by Western powers. The understanding that these intellectuals derived was extraordinarily varied, stretching from the extremely conservative and revivalist to very modern and liberal and accommodative of most of the ideas of Western Enlightenment, but it was rooted in the same concern: how to reconcile the beliefs and precepts of Islam to the needs of modern times.

In terms of their political orientation, these Salafi intellectuals have traditionally been divided into three groups: quietists, those who decry political activism by the citizenry and leave decision-making to the ruler, who is then expected to rule according to Islamic precepts; activists, those who advocate an active role for citizens in shaping their political order on Islamic lines; and jehadis, those who are willing to use violence to realise a society that is based on God’s law. The latter approach is clearly explained in a statement by Al Qaeda, the world’s first transnational jehadi movement: “We believe that the ruler who does not rule in accordance with God’s revelation, as well as his supporters are infidel apostates. Armed and violent rebellion against them is an individual duty on every Muslim.” This category of Salafism is referred to as “Salafi-jehadism”, which is the subject of Maher’s investigation in the book under review.

Salafi-jehadism has had numerous ideologues over the past 70 years who have described its various characteristics on the basis of their interpretation of Islam’s texts and the later commentaries on these texts. In so doing, they frequently stretch the limits of old texts and imbue them with meanings that support their present-day interests, even as they compete vigorously with each other to uphold the value of their own offering.

Five attributes

From this copious body of competitive literature, Maher has derived five attributes that define Salafi-jehadism: jehad; takfir, excommunication of those guilty of apostasy; al-wala al-bara, the concept of “avowal and rejection” for Allah; tawhid, the idea of oneness or unity of God; and hakimiyya, the establishment of Allah’s sovereignty in a political order. Each of these concepts is rooted in Islam and has been discussed by scholars for centuries; what makes them relevant in the context of Salafi-jehadism is the unique meaning that jehadi ideologues have imparted to them. Such meanings have usually been derived in periods of conflict and reflect the sense of being at war with dangerous enemies.

Jehad has been a central part of Islamic faith; rooted in the Arabic term that means labour or struggle or effort, it has traditionally meant the individual’s personal struggle against temptation and sin. But, it has also referred to a struggle against the enemies of Islam to defend the faith from external threat. It is the latter meaning that has motivated jehadis, so much so that their ideologues such as Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) and Abdullah Azzam in the 20th century have placed it as the foremost obligation for a Muslim after belief in Islam. Jehad, Azzam says, should be seen as an “ordinary act of worship” on a par with prayer and fasting. The current head of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has said that jehad “takes precedence over feeding the hungry, even if the hungry would starve as a result”.

Contemporary thinking on jehad by its ideologues was fine-tuned on the battlefields of Afghanistan during the “global jehad” of the 1980s. It was here that Osama bin Laden and his companions imbued jehad with its fierce anti-Western value, seeing the U.S. in particular as the evil power behind the thrones of the Arab autocrats, a view that was consolidated when the Gulf countries sought Western help to overturn Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait. Later, as the jehadi assaults on their near and far enemies became more vicious and widespread, the ideologues readily found in Islamic texts justification for the killing of security personnel, government officials, women and children and fellow Muslims. In this war, there were no “innocents”.

Thus, the Quranic injunctions of qisas, the law of equal retaliation, and qital, killing of the protected ones among unbelievers, for which stern rules are provided in traditional texts, have now been expanded to embrace all the victims of jehadi violence on the basis that the West and Arab regimes are the enemies of Islam; hence the killing of all their supporters is divinely sanctioned, so much so that in democratic countries the very act of voting makes the citizens of that nation collectively culpable and hence worthy of annihilation. As Maher has noted: “… it appeared as if Al Qaeda was prepared to develop its own understanding of the rules relating to jehad in such a way that they could license almost anything at all.”

Takfir and tawhid

Similarly, the concept of takfir, declaring a Muslim an apostate, is being used to sanction violence against other Muslims in the name of protecting Islam from unbelievers. Ibn Taymiyya used this idea to vilify the Mongols who had destroyed the Abbasid caliphate and threatened his own home, while 20th century ideologues such as Sayyid Qutb and Shukri Mustafa used it to describe their entire society as un-Islamic and thus make jehad a legitimate weapon against the rulers.

Later, takfir became a potent instrument in jehadi hands after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when the country’s jehadis, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, used it to target the Shia community, describing it pejoratively as rafida (rejectionist), those who have left the fold of Islam and are now collaborating with the U.S. occupiers of their country. This was thus a powerful weapon against attempts by U.S. occupation forces to overturn the historical political order in Iraq and empower Shias.

On the same lines, Salafi-jehadis have used the concepts of al-wala al-bara and tawhid as instruments of war, taking them far beyond their original meanings. The former, which referred to “loyalty and disavowal” for the sake of Allah, had traditionally referred to the personal conduct of Muslims. Over the past two centuries, its meaning has expanded steadily to separate the believing and practising Muslim from “the Other”, the non-believer. More recently, ideologues have imparted to it a “muscular and aggressive” character, positing, in the words of Abu Mohammed al Maqdisi, that “[t]he Muslim has not openly declared his religion until he opposes every assembly in whatever disbelief it is famous for, while declaring his enmity towards it”.

Similarly, tawhid, which initially merely referred to the oneness or unity of God, has acquired a strong political connotation in that ideologues now insist that it requires not just belief in God’s oneness but that this belief should constantly be manifested in action. This means the rejection of all those actions that constitute association with God or seeking intercession (e.g., of a saint or an amulet or an incantation) to reach God. What the jehadis have done is take this idea to an extreme by insisting that Islam as a “living ideal” demands that acceptance of tawhid inform and be apparent in every action of the Muslim.

For instance, if Western powers are accepted as tyrants, it is the duty of the Muslim to be always in conflict with them; if Arab states are hostile to “godless” communism, they cannot support the interests of communist parties in south Yemen; even Saudi attempts to bring Fatah and Hamas together were not acceptable to Al Qaeda since they were supported by the U.S., thus tainting them as a “secular” U.S. project. Tawhid, thus, has become in jehadi thought “a rigid doctrine of political absolutism” that cannot countenance any compromise or accommodation.


This brings Maher to the last attribute of Salafi-jehadism, hakimiyya, the realisation of God’s sovereignty in an Islamic political order. Maher makes the interesting point that this is one idea that is not Salafi in that it is not derived from Islam’s first texts. Also, the idea was not developed in West Asia, like other Salafi-jehadism concepts, but in South Asia. Here, Maher gives due credit to the pioneering contributions of the philosopher-poet Mohammed Iqbal, the ideologue-activist Abul Ala Maududi and the quietist-intellectual Abul Hassan Ali Hasani Nadwi.

The author points out that Nadwi used to translate Maududi’s writings into Arabic, which were then read by Sayyid Qutb. But, Nadwi made his own contribution to Qutb’s thinking by introducing him to the idea of the contemporary Muslim world being in a state of jahilliyya, an age of ignorance, reminiscent of the era that the Prophet Muhammad had corrected with the message of Islam.

Briefly, the concept of hakimiyya posits an Islamic political entity that has God as the sovereign authority, thus providing no space for a constitution, a democratic order or popular sovereignty, all of which suggest a secular system of governance. This approach is thus founded on a sharp separation between an Islamic and a Western political order; indeed, it places the two in confrontation with each other. Maher explains Qutb’s view thus: “Islam would have to survive within its own silo: isolated, distinct, and diametrically estranged from anything other than Islam itself.”

While Salafi-jehadism has thus placed itself in a straitjacket by denying itself any flexibility in shaping its political order, a number of non-jehadi Islamist writers have put forward a wide variety of options to achieve their Islamic state. This is in fact one of the most exciting areas of contemporary Islamist discourse after the debacle of the Arab Spring, when Salafi intellectuals and activists are coming up with ideas to replace the decadent and sterile authoritarian systems in West Asia with alternatives based on new social contracts between rulers and their people, which would provide for participatory forms of government.

Given this background, it is surprising that Maher should assert that “[t]he suspicion of modern politics is perhaps one of the most pervasive and enduring features of Islamic political thought today”, and then go on to say that Arab thinkers, while rejecting their colonial experiences, “were casting aside everything associated with Western political structures”. Maher would have done well to recall that, even as long ago as 1983, Albert Hourani had devoted his book Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939 to a study of several Arab scholars “who saw the growth of European power and the spread of new ideas as a challenge to which they had to respond by changing their own societies… through acceptance of some of the ideas and institutions of modern Europe”. Later works by Anthony Black, Hamid Enayat, Larbi Sadiki and Suha Taji-Farouki and Basheer Nafi discuss Islamic political thought nearer our time. Nowhere do we have the impression that Islamist intellectuals have been reluctant to marry Islamist principles with Western political norms. In fact, even Arab activists such as the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s and the Sahwa in Saudi Arabia more recently have agitated for a constitution, political parties, elections, responsible government, human rights, gender sensitivity, etc. Salman Awda and Abdallah Nasir al-Subayh, both quoted in the book, have advocated a fresh social contract that would accommodate “God as hakim (ruler) and safeguard an individual’s human rights, justice and security”.

To summarise, in response to contemporary political challenges facing the Arab and Muslim people, Salafi-jehadi ideologues, in the well-established Salafi tradition of the past 200 years, have attempted to reconcile their faith with the demands of contemporary times. In their view, their faith, as defined by the first three generations of Islam, is under threat from the allure of a secular order that removes religious belief from the public space, replacing it with materialism and immorality. Linked with this, they see an even more dangerous challenge: that the Islamic realm is in danger of being overwhelmed by Western powers, led by the U.S., that seek to subjugate Muslim lands, plunder their wealth and subvert their political, economic, cultural and spiritual order.

Thus, in their view, Muslims have no choice but to defend themselves from this onslaught, which is being organised by the West with the full connivance of their own tyrannous rulers. The Salafi-jehadi ideologues see a permanent state of confrontation and conflict with these enemies of Islam. They have therefore gone back to the fundamental tenets of their faith and have drawn from them a new belief system that defines the Muslim identity in the narrowest possible terms and sharply separates this Muslim from the apostate and unbelieving “Other”, and by an extraordinary and unprecedented effort of interpretation they have obtained divine sanction for a war that, they believe, permits the use of all instruments of violence against the rest of mankind. The I.S. is the latest movement espousing this belief system.

I.S. literature

Unfortunately, while discussing hakimiyya, Maher does not do justice to the “caliphate” of the I.S., the first instance of a “state” set up by a jehadi group. (The state the Taliban set up in Afghanistan was an “emirate”, and though Mullah Omar referred to himself as “amir ul-momineen”, he did not call himself caliph.) Maher refers to the critics of the I.S. among the jehadi ideologues and, at the beginning of the book, even quotes the I.S. spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani as saying that a meeting of senior scholars had been convened to approve the setting up of the caliphate, but does not provide any insights into this significant development in Salafi-jehadi politics.

For a study of the I.S., we now have a new book by the distinguished West Asia scholar Fawaz Gerges, titled ISIS: A History. This book joins a number of recent works on the I.S. by well-known writers: Abdel Bari Atwan’s Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate, Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger’s ISIS: The State of Terror, Jason Burke’s The New Threat from Islamic Militancy, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan’s ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror and David Kilcullen’s Blood Year: Islamic State and the Failures of the War on Terror. Each of these works provides a distinctive perspective on the I.S.: while Atwan has focussed on the I.S.’ use of social media to lure members, Jessica Stern and Berger have anchored the I.S.’ violence in messianism. Burke has placed the I.S. in the broad tradition of Islamist militancy and ruminated on the various ramifications of the I.S. phenomenon, particularly its outreach to Africa and how it is a source of inspiration for “lone-wolf” jehadis. Finally, while Weiss and Hassan provide a detailed background to the rise of the I.S., Kilcullen is critical of Western efforts to confront this scourge.

So, what new perspectives does Gerges add to the I.S. discourse? At first sight, the book does not make for an easy read: the text is densely packed and the paragraphs are long, sometimes going over two or even three pages. Also, the book could have been better edited; the same ideas, at times the same words, are repeated at different places, suggesting that separate essays have hurriedly been put together. Again, not surprisingly, there is a lot of overlap between this book and earlier works, particularly with regard to the origins of the I.S., since very little material is available and all writers have to depend on the same sources, many of them of doubtful authenticity.

Still, it is worth putting up with these shortcomings for Gerges has relied mainly on Arabic sources and has personally interviewed a number of people associated with the principal developments and personalities in the narrative. He is particularly good on the complex situation in Iraq in Saddam Hussein’s last years and the U.S. invasion, which spawned the I.S.’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the movement he came to head; the role players in the Iraqi Sahwa movement of 2007-10 that defeated the then Islamic State of Iraq and why its members went over to the I.S. a year later; the I.S.’ ties with Baathists from Saddam Hussein’s era; and, finally, the outlook for this lethal organisation that is reshaping the political order in West Asia.

I.S. and identity politics

The I.S. is of course anchored in mainstream Salafi-jehadism, so much so that its ideologues have satisfied themselves with short pamphlets and have not bothered to produce detailed tracts to explain their thinking as earlier ideologues have done. But, it has also been shaped by specific developments in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, particularly the deliberate U.S. policy of defining Iraqi politics in sectarian terms, which was specifically aimed at promoting divide-and-rule policies rather than building a multicultural and united nation. Hence, as Gerges says, besides the Salafi-jehadi tradition, the I.S. is also influenced by “a hyper-Sunni identity driven by an intrinsic and even genocidal anti-Shia ideology”.

Gerges points out that the I.S. has sought to distinguish itself from other jehadi groups “by attempting to revive traditions, rituals and practices that have been dormant for over a thousand years in Muslim history”. For instance, it has revived slavery. One of its booklets cites the Prophet’s sayings relating to the treatment of slaves and recommends that female slaves should not be separated from their children, but they can be used for sex and subjected to rape; this has been the plight of several Yazidi women captured by I.S. forces in Iraq. (In fact, Gerges has dedicated his book to the Yazidi women, applauding their courage “in the midst of the sea of savagery”.)

However, while the I.S. may seek sanction for its excesses from ancient sources, Gerges points out that its unrestrained violence has more recent roots, such as the harsh Baathist order of which it is a legatee and the wanton cruelty of its ideological and organisational ancestor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as also generally the deep sense of exclusion, victimhood and sectarian prejudices of its rural cadres.

Like other jehadi groups in the region, the I.S. too has taken advantage of the prevailing political scenario: the U.S.’ divisive politics in Iraq and the robust sectarian approach of the country’s Shia leaders gave rise to a Sunni backlash that spawned the I.S.’ ideological and organisational ancestor, the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), headed by the Afghan veteran and zealot Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In spite of this, it is noteworthy that in 2007-10 the Sunni community rose up against the excesses of the Islamic State of Iraq —which had been set up in October 2006 to replace the AQI with a coalition of tribal and insurgent militia, signalling the rupture with Al Qaeda and the aspiration for an Iraqi “state” —and nearly annihilated the jehadi group in the country. However, the robustly sectarian policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pushed the Sunnis, tribal chiefs, Saddam Hussein loyalists and resistance militia back to jehad and gave the Islamic State of Iraq a new lease of life.

The ‘caliphate’

In 2011, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took over the leadership of the Islamic State of Iraq at a time of grave crisis for the movement. Gerges applauds him for his “strategic foresight to transform a fragile organisation on the brink of collapse into a mini-professional army, an army capable of waging urban and guerrilla warfare as well as conventional warfare”.

The I.S. clearly benefited from the breakdown in state order in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, from 2011 onwards, it quietly built up support among the disgruntled Sunnis of Anbar province, from where, in June 2014, it launched its dramatic attack on Mosul, which had about 20,000 Iraqi soldiers, who fled from this city of a million leaving behind their uniforms, the treasury and a frightened population. From the pulpit in Mosul’s main mosque, al-Baghdadi proclaimed his caliphate on July 4, 2014.

In Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq began as a small group that tentatively probed the ground situation in late 2011 and within a year emerged as a formidable militia, the Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front), by working closely with local communities and providing them with much-needed aid, services, employment and security. In early 2013, al-Baghdadi reclaimed his leadership of this militia from its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, by proclaiming the merger of the two entities. This led to the emergence of the renamed I.S. as a powerful player on the regional stage, and the separate Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra that remains focussed on the Syrian theatre, frequently aligning with other Islamic militia in the fight against the Bashar al-Assad regime. (In the last few weeks, Jabhat al-Nusra has announced its formal delinking from Al Qaeda under the new name of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham [Syrian Victory Front]; this is generally seen as a tactical move to avoid U.S.-led attacks as it is a designated a “terrorist” grouping.)

Led by the charismatic al-Baghdadi, the I.S. by end-2014 had captured huge swathes of territory across Iraq and Syria, the size of the United Kingdom and a population of around eight million. This caliphate had the attributes of a proto-state, with an army of 30,000 men; a top decision-making leadership; a financial organisation that, until last year, had assets estimated at $2 trillion and generated revenues of about $2.9 billion a year; and security, judicial and bureaucratic systems capable of providing law and order, justice, education and municipal services.

Gerges points out that in Iraq and Syria, the I.S. —following its predecessors, the AQI and the Islamic State of Iraq—has built itself up on the support base of a largely rural and small-town constituency. Outside Iraq and Syria, its appeal has emerged from its dramatic military successes and the imaginative declaration of the caliphate. Its main appeal is to Muslim youth in Arab and Western countries. Gerges points out that “the lure of the caliphate …imbues [them] with a greater purpose in life: to be part of a historical mission to restore Islamic unity and help bring about redemption and salvation”. The I.S.’ appeal has had particularly lethal consequences when it has inspired individuals to extraordinary acts of violence merely on the basis of powerful messages sent through the Internet.

The outlook

Today, the I.S. is clearly at a crossroads: while, on the one hand, it has expanded territorially and in influence and a number of major jehadi groups (or their splinter groups) have pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi, on the other, its successes on the ground and its barbarity have helped unite the U.S., Russia and all the regional states to put together a coalition to crush it militarily. As a result, it has lost about 40 per cent of its territory in Iraq and about 20 per cent in Syria, including some major towns at the Turkish border, to Kurdish forces, which has severely limited the flow of new recruits. However, as the I.S. has lost ground in its home territories, its adherents have fanned out across West Asia, North Africa and Europe to establish new bases and carry out lethal acts of violence against local peoples to terrorise them and demoralise and discredit their governments.

What then is the outlook for the I.S. and, indeed, for Salafi-jehadism in general? Both Maher and Gerges are not particularly reassuring in their responses. Gerges points out that the I.S. “does not offer a positive programme of action, only a bleak future”; its weakest link, he says, is “its poverty of ideas” and opines that over the long term its anti-Shia genocidal ideology “cannot serve as a basis for legitimation”. But, he adds, the I.S. is hardly likely to disappear as a result of military action; it will “mutate and go underground”.

This is because the I.S. and Salafi-jehadism in general have emerged from the “organic crisis” in the Arab political order that is made up of an authoritarianism that is often paternalistic but turns severely tyrannical when challenged, that consists of subjects with no rights of citizenry, that does not foster national unity in an accommodative multicultural way but encourages divisions on ethnic or sectarian basis, that operates in near-total opacity and provides for no accountability regarding state resources or national decision-making, and that provides no opportunity for popular participation in national assemblies or in legislation. It is this political order that imparts resilience to Salafi-jehadism as an alternative idea, a force for dissent and opposition in the sterile cesspool of authoritarian Arab politics and has the advantage of being rooted in the people’s authentic and revered tradition. The I.S., Gerges says, is “a symptom of the broken politics of the Middle East [West Asia]”, particularly after the coalition of autocrats stifled the Arab Spring at birth.

‘Social movement’

Gerges points out that Salafi-jehadism has now “evolved into a powerful social movement with a repertoire of ideas, iconic leaders, worldwide support, theorists, preachers, and networks of recruiters and enablers”. He concludes that regardless of the fortunes of the I.S., this ideology “is here to stay and will likely gain more followers in politically and socially polarised Arab and Muslim societies”. Maher notes that Salafi-jehadism is “extremely resilient” and has survived “three decades of forceful repression”, even when several of its leaders are killed, for it inspires its adherents with the I.S.’ strident slogan: “We remain and we expand.”

Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat and the author of Islamist Challenge in West Asia: Doctrinal and Political Competitions after the Arab Spring .

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