Last month (on 17 July, to be precise), the Jordanian Jihadi-Salafi scholar Abu Qatada al-Filastini posted a brief obituary on his Facebook page about his fellow Jordanian Muhammad Ibrahim Shaqra, who had died that day. In his obituary, Abu Qatada called him “the father shaykh” and praised him for his qualities. This is not surprising, perhaps, since Shaqra had also appeared in a YouTube video in which he seemed to be quite chummy with another Jordanian Jihadi-Salafi scholar, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. When I interviewed Shaqra in his home in Amman a few years ago, he praised Abu Qatada, al-Maqdisi and the Syrian-British Jihadi-Salafi scholar Abu Basir al-Tartusi. All of this seems quite consistent. Yet when Shaqra died, his passing away was also lamented on the website of the Jordan Islamic Scholars League, a decidedly un-radical organisation of traditional scholars. This organisation praised Shaqra as having lived “a life filled with knowledge and calling [people] to God”. How could one man’s death be talked about in such terms by both radical Jihadi-Salafi shaykhs and traditional, mainstream Muslim scholars?
“The Father Shaykh”
The words “father shaykh” used for Shaqra by Abu Qatada were not new. This had been the title that many quietist Salafis – not the radical Jihadi-Salafis – in Jordan had long used for him. It was a fitting label, since – as I have described in more detail in my book on Salafism in Jordan – Shaqra was one of the founding fathers of Salafism in the Hashimite Kingdom. Although Salafism in Jordan is often associated with the famous scholar Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani (1914-1999), who did indeed have a tremendous influence on that trend there, it was really Muhammad Ibrahim Shaqra who got things started.
Born in 1933 in the West Bank, he fled to Jordan as a child during the 1948 war for Palestine and, in 1952, went to study at the famous al-Azhar University in Cairo. By the time he graduated, however, he had become convinced – through books and contacts with like-minded others – that the traditional, mainstream Sunni Islam he had been taught at al-Azhar was not the way to go, but that Salafism was the true path. As such, he returned to Jordan and started preaching a quietist Salafi message in mosques in Amman. The trend that he started was later given a great boost by the presence of al-Albani, whose knowledge was unparalleled among Salafis in Jordan .
The above would explain why the Jordan Islamic Scholars League praised Shaqra, but it doesn’t tell us why such a man would also have good ties with Abu Qatada and others. Moreover, Shaqra had always been against Jihadi-Salafis and their radical, anti-regime message and, through his job as a senior civil servant, had established close personal ties with several of Jordan’s most prominent people, including King Husayn (r. 1953-1999). The explanation for this seemingly contradictory situation can be found in the conflicts that arose between Shaqra and his fellow quietist Salafis in Jordan.
After working as a professor of Arabic in Saudi Arabia for some time, Shaqra returned with certain theological ideas on what constitutes faith that did not entirely square with what other quietist Salafis in Jordan – most notably al-Albani – believed, thereby laying the groundwork for a theological dispute. This only turned into a full-blown conflict, however, when Shaqra was passed over for the leadership position of the quietist Salafi community in Jordan when al-Albani died in 1999. Shaqra – as one of the founders of Salafism in Jordan, a senior civil servant, advanced in age and with scholarly credentials from al-Azhar – felt entitled to this position, however, and was not happy when a younger generation of scholars, particularly the increasingly prominent ‘Ali al-Halabi (b. 1960), seemed to be calling the shots.
Resentment and recognition
Shaqra’s disappointment over not being picked as the quietist Salafi movement’s leader quickly seemed to turn to resentment and he began revising some of his books to bring them in line with his new theological views. This would not have been a problem in and of itself, were it not for the fact that he also began discrediting his former friends and allies among the quietist Salafi community, including al-Albani after the latter had already died, for their supposedly faulty theological ideas. Al-Albani’s students, who did not like their teacher and themselves being slandered, hit back at Shaqra by discrediting his views and blaming him for bad-mouthing al-Albani.
Shaqra, meanwhile, having lost his standing in the eyes of his former supporters, turned to Jihadi-Salafis, with whose views on faith he did agree, even if he differed with them on their radical ideas on takfir and jihad. They, unlike his former friends and allies, were willing to accept him and give him the recognition and respect that he felt he deserved. As such, Jihadi-Salafis welcomed him as someone who had “seen the light” and had abandoned the supposedly deviant quietists in order to join their side. This does not mean that Shaqra ever became a Jihadi-Salafi himself. It was clearly their recognition of him as a scholarly authority that he craved, not their radicalism. In fact, when I spoke to Shaqra, he was unapologetic about his ties with the Jordanian regime.
The story of Muhammad Ibrahim Shaqra shows how ideology, scholarly authority and personal ambitions can lead to a shift away from the quietist Salafi community to becoming close with various Jihadi-Salafi scholars and how, on the occasion of his death, people from various sides lament the same person for different reasons. It also shows that scholars who easily fit into one of the different categories of Salafism usually distinguished (quietist, political and jihadi) may actually grow closer to one they do not really belong to. This way, Jihadi-Salafis in Jordan embraced a man who actually remained a quietist till the day he died. The story above is far more complicated than a short blog post can convey, however, because it was part of a series of conflicts that plagued quietist Salafis after the death of al-Albani. To know more about those, you’re just going to have to read my book, I suppose…