By David D. Kirkpatrick
Caliph Ibrahim, the leader of the Islamic State, appeared to come out of nowhere when he matter-of-factly proclaimed himself the ruler of all Muslims in the middle of an otherwise typical Ramadan sermon. Muslim scholars from the most moderate to the most militant all denounced him as a grandiose pretender, and the world gaped at his growing following and its vicious killings.
His ruthless creed, though, has clear roots in the 18th-century Arabian Peninsula. It was there that the Saud clan formed an alliance with the puritanical scholar Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab. And as they conquered the warring tribes of the desert, his austere interpretation of Islam became the foundation of the Saudi state.
Much to Saudi Arabia’s embarrassment, the same thought has now been revived by the caliph, better known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the foundation of the Islamic State.
“It is a kind of untamed Wahhabism,” said Bernard Haykel, a scholar at Princeton. “Wahhabism is the closest religious cognate.”
The Saudis and the rulers of other Persian Gulf states — all monarchies — are now united against the Islamic State, fearful that it might attack them from the outside or win followers within. Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have all participated with Washington in its attacks on the Islamic State’s strongholds in Syria.
For their guiding principles, the leaders of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, are open and clear about their almost exclusive commitment to the Wahhabi movement of Sunni Islam. The group circulates images of Wahhabi religious textbooks from Saudi Arabia in the schools it controls. Videos from the group’s territory have shown Wahhabi texts plastered on the sides of an official missionary van.
This approach is at odds with the more mainstream Islamist and jihadist thinking that forms the genealogy of Al Qaeda, and it has led to a fundamentally different view of violence. Al Qaeda grew out of a radical tradition that viewed Muslim states and societies as having fallen into sinful unbelief, and embraced violence as a tool to redeem them. But the Wahhabi tradition embraced the killing of those deemed unbelievers as essential to purifying the community of the faithful.
“Violence is part of their ideology,” Professor Haykel said. “For Al Qaeda, violence is a means to an ends; for ISIS, it is an end in itself.”
The distinction is playing out in a battle of fatwas. All of the most influential jihadist theorists are criticizing the Islamic State as deviant, calling its self-proclaimed caliphate null and void and, increasingly, slamming its leaders as bloodthirsty heretics for beheading journalists and aid workers.
The upstart polemicists of the Islamic State, however, counter that its critics and even the leaders of Al Qaeda are all bad Muslims who have gone soft on the West. Even the officials and fighters of the Palestinian militant group Hamas are deemed to be “unbelievers” who might deserve punishment with beheading for agreeing to a cease-fire with Israel, one Islamic State ideologue recently declared.
“The duty of a Muslim is to carry out all of God’s orders and rulings immediately on the spot, not softly and gradually,” the scholar, Al Turki Ben-Ali, 30, said in an online forum.
The Islamic State’s sensational propaganda and videos of beheadings appear to do double duty. In addition to threatening the West, its gory bravado draws applause online and elsewhere from sympathizers, which helps the group in the competition for new recruits.
That is especially important to the Islamic State because it requires a steady flow of recruits to feed its constant battles and heavy losses against multiple enemies — the governments of Iraq and Syria, Shiite and Kurdish fighters, rival Sunni militants and now the United States Air Force.
For Al Qaeda, meanwhile, disputes with the Islamic State are an opportunity “to reposition themselves as the more rational jihadists,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a researcher at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The Islamic State’s founder, Mr. Baghdadi, grafted two elements onto his Wahhabi foundations borrowed from the broader, 20th-century Islamist movements that began with the Muslim Brotherhood and ultimately produced Al Qaeda. Where Wahhabi scholars preach obedience to earthly rulers, Mr. Baghdadi adopted the call to political action against foreign domination of the Arab world that has animated the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda and other 20th-century Islamist movements.
Mr. Baghdadi also borrowed the idea of a restored caliphate. Where Wahhabism first flourished alongside the Ottoman Caliphate, the Muslim Brotherhood was founded shortly after that caliphate’s dissolution, in 1924 — an event seen across the world as a marker of Western ascent and Eastern decline. The movement’s founders took up the call for a revived caliphate as a goal of its broader anti-Western project.
These days, though, even Brotherhood members appear almost embarrassed by the term’s anachronism, emphasizing that they use caliphate as a kind of spiritual idea irrelevant to the modern world of nation-states.
“Even for Al Qaeda, the caliphate was something that was going to happen in the far distant future, before the end times,” said William McCants, a researcher on militant Islam at the Brookings Institution. The Islamic State “really moved up the timetable,” he said — to June 2014, in fact.
Adhering to Wahhabi literalism, the Islamic State disdains other Islamists who reason by analogy to adapt to changing context — including the Muslim Brotherhood; its controversial midcentury thinker Sayed Qutb; and the contemporary militants his writing later inspired, like Ayman al-Zawahri of Al Qaeda. Islamic State ideologues often deem anyone, even an Islamist, who supports an elected or secular government to be an unbeliever and subject to beheading.
“This is ‘you join us, or you are against us and we finish you,’ ” said Prof. Emad Shahin, who teaches Islam and politics at Georgetown University. “It is not Al Qaeda, but far to its right.”
Some experts note that Saudi clerics lagged long after other Muslim scholars in formally denouncing the Islamic State, and at one point even the king publicly urged them to speak out more clearly. “There is a certain mutedness in the Saudi religious establishment, which indicates it is not a slam dunk to condemn ISIS,” Professor Haykel said.
Finally, on Aug. 19, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, the Saudi grand mufti, declared that “the ideas of extremism, radicalism and terrorism do not belong to Islam in any way, but are the first enemy of Islam, and Muslims are their first victims, as seen in the crimes of the so-called Islamic State and Al Qaeda.”
Al Qaeda’s ideologues have been more vehement. All insist that the promised caliphate requires a broad consensus, on behalf of Muslim scholars if not all Muslims, and not merely one man’s proclamation after a military victory.
“Will this caliphate be a sanctuary for all the oppressed and a refuge for every Muslim" Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a senior jihadist scholar, recently asked in a statement on the Internet. “Or will this creation take a sword against all the Muslims who oppose it” and “nullify all the groups that do jihad in the name of God"
Another prominent Qaeda-linked jihadist scholar, Abu Qatada al-Falistini, echoed that: “They are merciless in dealing with other jihadists. How would they deal with the poor, the weak and other people"
Both scholars have recently been released from prison in Jordan, perhaps because the government wants to amplify their criticism of the Islamic State.
The Management of Savagery
Section 4: Using violence
By Abu Bakr Naji
Those who study theoretical jihad, meaning they study only jihad as it is written on paper, will never grasp this point well. Regrettably, the youth in our Umma, since the time when they were stripped of weapons, no longer understand the nature of wars. One who previously engaged in jihad knows that it is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, frightening (others), and massacring — I am talking about jihad and fighting, not about Islam and one should not confuse them. (Moreover, he knows) that he cannot continue to fight and move from one stage to another unless the beginning stage contains a stage of massacring the enemy and making him homeless [or "frightened"]. However, there is often a need for this violence in the other stages. (Further), he cannot continue the jihad with softness, whether the softness is in the mode of inviting others to join (the jihad), taking up positions, or (undertaking) the operations, since the ingredient of softness is one of the ingredients of failure for any jihadi action. It is better for those who have the intention to begin a jihadi action and are also soft to sit in their homes. If not, failure will be their lot and they will suffer shock afterwards. Whoever wants to verify and understand what I mean, he should (read) biographies and histories and examine what happened to the modern jihadi movement. Regardless of whether we use harshness or softness, our enemies will not be merciful to us if they seize us. Thus, it behooves us to make them think one thousand times before attacking us.
Those who have not boldly entered wars during their lifetimes do not understand the role of violence and coarseness against the infidels in combat and media battles. The stage of domesticating the Muslims which they have already passed through has had an effect on them. The reality of this role must be understood by explaining it to the youth who want to fight. They are different from the Arabs at the beginning of the Prophet?’s mission. The Arabs used to fight and know the nature of wars.
If we are not violent in our jihad and if softness seizes us, that will be a major factor in the loss of the element of strength, which is one of the pillars of the Umma of the Message. The Umma which possesses strength is the Umma which is able to protect the positions it has won and it is the Umma which boldly faces horrors and has the firmness of mountains. These are the good qualities which we have lost in this age.
The books of history tell us about the differences between some of the reformist jihadi movements and the righteous among the seekers (of truth), such as the Pure Soul and others, and between the Abbasid movement. Among the differences and one of the reasons for the success of the Abbasids and the failure of the others is the Abbasids' violence and the others' softness and protection of the blood (of others). This was to such an extent that the Pure Soul even used to ask the leaders of his army — who might have won — to protect the blood (of others) as much as possible. The leaders of his army were surprised at the request of the ruler and his method. Of course, the Pure Soul and other peacemakers [or "reformists"] were right to a certain extent in advocating that, since they were fighting Muslims and the rules governing the killing of (Muslim) tyrants are conflicting. However, praise be to God, we are confronting the Crusaders and their helpers among the apostates and their army [i.e. the current enemies of the mujahids are not Muslim]. Thus, there is nothing preventing us from spilling their blood; rather, we see that this is one of the most important obligations since they do not repent, undertake prayer, and give alms. All religion belongs to God.
Thus, the Companions (may God be pleased with them) understood the matter of violence and they were the best of those who understood this after the prophets. Even the Friend (Abu Bakr) and Ali b. Abi Talib (may God be pleased with them) burned (people) with fire, even though it is odious, because they knew the effect of rough violence in times of need. They did not carry it out and the leaders (among the Companions) and their troops did not undertake it because they loved killing; they were certainly not coarse people. By God! How tender were their hearts! They were the most merciful of creation by nature after the Prophet (peace be upon him). However, (the Companions) understood the nature of unbelief and its people and the nature of a need, in every situation, for severity and tenderness. In this regard, that which the people of knowledge of related regarding the Ridda Wars will clarify (this point): "The people returned to their Jahiliyya state and disassociated themselves from the obligations of the Sharia.
Among them were those who abandoned (these obligations) completely. (Also) among them were those who rejected alms giving, claiming that it was only necessary to pay it to the Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) and that Abu Bakr had no right to it. Also among them were those who publicly declared that they would perform it themselves and not send it to Abu Bakr, the Friend. The people of weak faith thought that the blade of the sword of Islam was withdrawn after the death of the Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) and they seized the opportunity to exit this religion. Thus, apostasy took hold of the Arabian Peninsula and nothing remained to Islam save Mecca, Ta'if, Jawathi in Bahrain, and Medina. Apostasy encompassed tribes, villages, and groups and the Companions of the Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) rightfully rose against it and they zealously repulsed it and kept it at bay and they raised the head of diligence and jihad against it. An unfamiliar coarseness was seen in Abu Bakr (may God be pleased with him) that had not been witnessed previously. This was to such an extent that when messengers came to him with bad news which terrified the men, he only instructed (them) to increase the war and the fire. Dirar b. al-Azwar said: "I saw no one other than the Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) who was more filled with the ruthlessness of war than Abu Bakr.
We once informed him of evil news about the apostasy and its magnitude and it was as if what we had told him did not bother him at all. His orders for the army dealt only with the matter of severing the neck without clemency or slowness. And he (may God be pleased him) even burned a man named Iyas b. `Abd Allah b. `Abd Yalil, nicknamed al-Faja?’a, when he cheated him by taking the money for the jihad against the apostates and then joined them, or more accurately became a brigand. The war spread across the whole peninsula and none of the Companions of the Messenger of God were concerned about it; rather, they were men of war and its people until the peninsula returned to the rule of Islam and its authority". We are now in circumstances resembling the circumstances after the death of the Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) and the outbreak of apostasy or the like of that which the believers faced in the beginning of the jihad. Thus, we need to massacre (others) and (to take) actions like those that were undertaken against the Banu Qurayza and their like. But if God should give us power and we take control and justice spreads, how tender the people of faith will be at that time and they will say to the people: "Go, for you are free."
In addition to this, one should note that violence and coarseness must not transgress the limits of the Sharia and that one must pay heed to the benefit and harm (that results from) it, which the Sharia considers to be, in the rules of jihad, as one of the most important subjects for the guidance of creation, if not the most important subject. Pertaining to this, whenever there are reasonable people among the enemy who recognize the truth which every rational mind must assent to, we can lighten the severity of the violence against them. As for the haughty enemy and his troops and his supporters, that is another matter.
Among the things connected with the subject of violence is "the policy of paying the price": No harm comes to the Umma or to us without (the enemy) paying a price. Thus, in this stage of "the power of vexation and exhaustion," following the strategy of "paying the price" spreads hopelessness in the hearts of the enemy. Any preventative [lit. "aborting"] act of any kind against the groups of vexation should be met with a reaction which makes the enemy completely "pay the price" for his crime so that he will be deterred from doing its like again and think one thousand times before undertaking an attack against us, such that he stops even at the mere thought of committing a crime and his actions are limited to defending himself.
"Paying the price" must be accomplished even if it is after a long period, even if it is years. The enemy should be reminded of that in a statement justifying the operation of "paying the price," which will make a deep impression on the leaders of the enemy that there is no hostile action they can undertake against Islam and its people, or against the mujahids for which they, their supporters, or their most powerful institutions will not pay a price over a long or short period of time. On account of that, feelings of hopelessness will creep into the enemy and he will begin to think about leaving the arena on account of his hopelessness because of his love for the world in the face of generations of mujahids who will persist in the battle and not be agitated by upheavals, but rather motivated by them to respond. As for the stage of "the administration of savagery," we will confront the problem of the aerial attacks of the enemy ?– crusader or apostate ?– on military training camps or residential regions in areas which we administer. Even though defensive fortifications and trenches are put in place to deal with that problem, we should also follow the policy of "paying the price" when confronting the crime of the enemy. The policy of "paying the price" in this situation will deter the enemy and make him think one thousand times before attacking regions managed by a regime of the administration of savagery because he knows that he will pay the price (for doing so), even if (the retribution) comes later. Thus, the enemy will be inclined toward reconciliation, which will enable the regions of savagery to catch their breath and progress. This reconciliation means a temporary stop to fighting without any kind of treaties and concessions. We do not believe in an armistice with the apostate enemy, even if it was brokered with the primary infidel.
Here is an important point: It is best if those that undertake operations of "paying the price" are other groups in other regions against which no hostility has been directed. There are a number of benefits in this, which we will expand on in the section concerning "power" [shawka]. Among the most important benefits is making the enemy feel that he is surrounded and that his affairs are exposed. If the enemy undertakes a hostile action against a region in the Arabian Peninsula or in Iraq, then the response will occur in Morocco or Nigeria or Indonesia. This will cause embarrassment for the enemy, especially if the region in which the operation of "paying the price" occurred submits to the control of the regimes of unbelief or the regimes of apostasy. Thus, (the enemy) will not find a good arena in which to respond. Further, that operation will work to raise the morale of those who had received (the initial) hostility and communicate a practical message to Muslims in every place that we are one Umma and that assistance is not limited by borders.
In the preceding depiction, "paying the price" is not limited to the Crusader enemy. By way of example, if the apostate Egyptian regime undertakes an action to kill or capture a group of mujahids, the youth of jihad in Algeria or Morocco can direct a strike against the Egyptian embassy and issue a statement of justification, or they can kidnap Egyptian diplomats as hostages