The last week of October 2019 was an eventful one in the history of the Islamic State. On October 26, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, its leader and caliph, blew himself up during a U.S. special forces raid on his compound in Idlib Province, Syria. The next day, official spokesman Abu al-Hasan al-Muhajir, a potential successor to al-Baghdadi, was killed in a U.S. airstrike in nearby Aleppo Province. On October 31, the Islamic State confirmed the fatalities in an audio statement read by al-Muhajir’s replacement, Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, who went on to announce the appointment of a certain Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi as the new “commander of the believers and caliph of the Muslims.” The adjective Qurashi in their names denotes descent from the Prophet Muhammad’s tribe of Quraysh, one of the traditional qualifications of being caliph.
In his statement, Abu Hamza called on all Muslims to proffer the bay‘a, the traditional contract of allegiance between ruler and ruled, to “the mujahid shaykh, the learned, the active, the pious, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi,” portraying him as a “scholar” and “commander” with significant experience fighting the Americans. But apart from this vague description of a veteran jihadi with putative descent from Quraysh, nothing about him has been revealed. With the possible exception of the White House, no one seems to know who Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi is. Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, the new spokesman, is also an unknown quantity, though his voice has been heard in earlier Islamic State videos, and his title of “emigrant shaykh” suggests that he is from neither Iraq nor Syria.
For some opponents of the Islamic State, particularly the network of former supporters turned critics, the anonymity of the new caliph presents an opportunity. For Islamic law, as they argue, prohibits the rule of a caliph who is unknown.
Building up al-Baghdadi
In the run-up to the caliphate announcement in June 2014, far more was known about the intended caliph, al-Baghdadi, than is known about al-Hashimi today. In August 2013, in the context of the Islamic State’s attempted expansion to Syria, the Islamic State scholar Turki al-Bin‘ali produced a biography of al-Baghdadi as part of an essay urging Muslims to proffer the bay‘a to him. The biography discussed al-Baghdadi’s background and education, as well as his involvement in the jihadi insurgency following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, including the positions he held in the Islamic State of Iraq before being named its emir in 2010. And it traced al-Baghdadi’s lineage back to the fourth caliph, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, and the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, thus bolstering his claim to descent from Quraysh.
One of the arguments that al-Bin‘ali sought to refute in his essay was the charge that al-Baghdadi was unknown (majhul), and that therefore one could not proffer the bay‘a to him. To this he replied, pointing to the biographical details just provided, “Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is not unknown; he is eminent and distinguished.” To the related argument that al-Baghdadi’s face was not yet known, al-Bin‘ali retorted that Islamic law did not require it. He quoted the eleventh-century scholar al-Mawardi, author of a famous book on the theory of the caliphate, who had written:
Once the caliphate has been invested in the one assuming the office, either by designation or by election, it is necessary for the whole community to learn of its conferral on him according to his qualities; however, it is not necessary that they know him by his appearance and by his name, save for the electors by whom the evidence is presented and by whose bay‘a the caliphate is conferred.
Eleven months later, al-Baghdadi’s biography was again invoked in the statement announcing the establishment of the caliphate. Read by then Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, the statement referred to al-Baghdadi’s birth and upbringing in Samarra and his studies in Baghdad, and identified him by his real name, even titling him “Caliph Ibrahim.” Days later, al-Baghdadi appeared in a filmed sermon at the al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul, showing his face for the first time.
Evidently, the Islamic State considered al-Baghdadi’s identity and image, which it had been carefully building up, as crucial to his legitimacy as caliph. Not so, at least as of yet, for Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi.
Abu Ibrahim who?
On November 2-3, the al-Wafa’ Media Agency, one of several online media outfits previously aligned with the Islamic State but now decidedly against it, published two essays in response to the appointment of al-Hashimi. The first, by a certain Nasih Amin (“Faithful Adviser”), also known as Muqtafi al-Athar (“The Tracker”), was titled “The Pincers Tearing Apart the Illusions of the Caliphate’s Claimants.” The second, by the pseudonymous Ibn Jubayr, was called “The Collapse of the Fiction.” While little is known about Nasih Amin, Ibn Jubayr appears to be a former scholar in the Islamic State who fled eastern Syria earlier this year. Both men are prolific authors in the network of former Islamic State supporters turned critics. Since the publication in March 2019 of the influential book Withdraw Your Hands from Bay‘a to al-Baghdadi, by another former Islamic State scholar, both men have denounced the Islamic State as wayward and illegitimate.
Nasih Amin begins his essay by ridiculing the idea that “an unknown nobody” (majhul ‘adam) could be appointed caliph by a group of men who are likewise unknown. Ibn Jubayr decries the Islamic State’s leaders for the same reason, telling them, “It is as if you said, ‘O community of Muhammad, we unknowns have conferred and chosen for you an unknown, so come and proffer an ignorant bay‘a to him.’” The jurists of Sunni Islam, Nasih Amin points out, have established certain criteria for determining a candidate’s suitedness for the office. “How are we to know,” he asks, “that your caliph is qualified when he is unknown?” As further support for his position he quotes Ibn Taymiyya, the fourteenth-century Hanbali scholar adored by jihadis, who wrote in his famous polemic against the Shi‘a, “The Prophet decreed obedience to leaders who exist and who are known … not obedience to a nonentity or an unknown.” Ibn Taymiyya was referring here to the hidden imam in Shi‘i Islam, Muhammad ibn al-Hasan, who it is believed disappeared in the year 941 and will reappear in end times.
According to Nasih Amin, the Islamic State’s “secluded paper caliph” (al-khalifa al-kartuni al-mutasardab) is in fact unknown in two senses—in condition and in appearance—and a caliph must be recognized in both. That is to say, one must know both his identity and what he looks like. Nasih Amin acknowledges that the jurists have disagreed as to whether a caliph needs to appear in public, but he contends that the correct view is that he must. Here he cites the opinion of the early jurist and judge of Mecca Sulayman ibn Harb (d. 839), who said that “knowing him [the caliph] by his appearance and his name is required for all the community.”* Ibn Jubayr seems to agree with Nasih Amin on the necessity of the caliph’s appearance, relating that this was al-Bin‘ali’s position back in 2014. While others in the Islamic State, says Ibn Jubayr, strongly opposed al-Baghdadi’s public appearance at the al-Nuri Mosque on security grounds, al-Bin‘ali regarded it as a must. (If this is true, however, it would seem to contradict what al-Bin‘ali wrote in his 2013 essay discussed above.)
Further disqualifying al-Hashimi, in the eyes of both Nasih Amin and Ibn Jubayr, is the nature of the men who selected him. Not only are they unknown to the world, says Nasih Amin, but they are “criminals and innovators,” men patently unqualified for the business of choosing and validating a caliph. Al-Mawardi, notes Ibn Jubayr, stipulated three qualifications for the caliph’s electors: justice, knowledge, and wisdom. All of these, he says, are absent in al-Baghdadi’s coterie, or those he calls the Al Baghdad (“House of Baghdad”), who have shed innocent Muslim blood and embraced extremism in the practice of excommunication (takfir). As regards wisdom, they showed none in sending al-Baghdadi to northern Idlib, a place earlier deemed by them a land of unbelief, when he would have been much safer hiding in the desert.
A final point made by both writers is that, over and above everything else, there is simply nothing left for a would-be caliph to preside over. The Islamic State is an “imaginary state,” writes Nasih Amin: a powerless and hollow organization with none of the trappings of statehood. When al-Bin‘ali wrote his justification of the caliphate back in 2014, Nasih Amin notes, he was clear in stating that “the caliphate requires a certain amount of might and power and territorial consolidation, and this is present in the Islamic State.” But this, Nasih Amin contends, no longer holds. The Islamic State’s leaders, says Ibn Jubayr, have refused to own up to this reality. “You are still living the illusion of the state and the caliphate,” he tells them. “You do not recognize that God has destroyed your state on account of your oppression.”
In the days following the announcement of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi’s appointment, the Islamic State began releasing pictures of its members around the world proffering the bay‘a to him. These were featured in last week’s issue of al-Naba’, the Islamic State’s weekly Arabic newsletter. The bay‘a campaign appears intended to illustrate the legitimacy and unanimous acceptance of the new leader; and to that extent, it may also be intended as a way of getting out ahead of the critics. The images have been shared widely by the Islamic State’s supporters, some of whom have refuted the argument that al-Hashimi is an unknown. One of them, for example, makes the point that Islamic law does not require that we know the caliph’s real name or what he looks like. Al-Hashimi, he says, has been endorsed by the “people of loosing and binding” (ahl al-hall wa’l-‘aqd), and that is more than sufficient.
Indeed, the arguments of Nasih Amin and Ibn Jubayr are unlikely to persuade the most ardent of Islamic State supporters, for whom loyalty to the caliphate is as an article of faith. But they do well to point out a new vulnerability that it faces. Al-Hashimi is not al-Baghdadi, and it is unlikely that he, unknown and untested, and assuming power at the nadir of the Islamic State’s caliphate project, can command the kind of loyalty and generate the kind of enthusiasm that his predecessor once did.
It is true that the Islamic State attempted to depersonalize its project after building up al-Baghdadi to such heights in 2013 and 2014. The leadership understood the folly of centering its enterprise on any one person. Al-Baghdadi came to appear less central. However, the caliphate, traditionally understood, is a personal institution. It is premised on the leadership of an eminently qualified man, one who, according to al-Mawardi, “personally oversees affairs.” One proffers the bay‘a to the caliph, not to the caliphate. Likewise, it is premised on a certain degree of power and territorial control. The death of al-Baghdadi leaves the Islamic State exposed on both counts.
* Al-Mawardi, it should be known, took the opposite view, as did his contemporary Abu Ya‘la ibn al-Farra’, the author of a similar book on the caliphate, which includes the quote by Sulayman ibn Harb.