On May 31 of this year, Turki al-Bin‘ali, one of the Islamic State’s foremost religious authorities, was killed in Mayadin, Syria in an airstrike carried out by the U.S.-led coalition. Three weeks later, U.S. Central Command confirmed the death of “Turki al-Bin’ali, the self-proclaimed ‘Grand Mufti,’ or chief cleric, of ISIS.” His supporters online bemoaned his loss, circulating his “last will and testament” from June 2015, and in some cases composing commemorative poems (see here and here). The international media also took an interest in his death, CNN, for instance, reporting that “[o]ne of ISIS’ most important figures has been killed by an airstrike.” The Islamic State’s own media outlets, however, were noticeably silent on the matter. There was to be no official statement regarding the demise of the 32-year-old cleric from Bahrain, let alone any kind of eulogy. The reasons, it now seems, are clear.
At the time of his death, al-Bin‘ali was involved in a highly contentious theological controversy that has been roiling the Islamic State for some time. The dispute concerns the group’s position on takfir, or excommunication—namely, the excommunication of fellow Muslims—and al-Bin‘ali was on the losing side. On May 17, 2017, the Islamic State’s Delegated Committee, its executive council, issued a memorandum setting out the official stance on takfir, and for al-Bin‘ali it was too extreme. Two days later, he refuted the memorandum in a letter to the Delegated Committee, and twelve days after that, he was killed. More such refutations by Islamic State scholars followed, and in at least one other case the result—death by airstrike—was the same. In mid-September, in a highly unusual move, the Delegated Committee rescinded its controversial memo on takfir; al-Bin‘ali seemed to be posthumously vindicated. But before this, the several refutations of the Delegated Committee, including al-Bin‘ali’s, as well as some additional statements of dissent, found their way online. Together, these form an extraordinary window onto the theological turmoil in the Islamic State.
The caliphate’s “mufti”?
The first thing that should be addressed is the question of what role Turki al-Bin‘ali actually played in the Islamic State. As I wrote more than two years ago, there were rumors in late 2014 that al-Bin‘ali had been elevated to the position of chief mufti, and the accounts of certain Islamic State defectors seemed to corroborate that report. In 2016, a U.S. Treasury designation described him as the Islamic State’s “chief religious advisor,” noting that he “provides literature and fatwas for ISIL training camps.” Similarly, the U.S. Central Command statement referred to him as the group’s “Grand Mufti” and “chief cleric.” Some Arabic newspapers had taken to calling him “the mufti of Da‘ish.”
Al-Bin‘ali, as it turns out, was the emir of a body known as the Office of Research and Studies (Maktab al-Buhuth wa’l-Dirasat), which was previously known as the Committee for Research and Fatwas (Hay’at al-Buhuth wa’l-Ifta’), and before that as the Department of Research and Fatwas (Diwan al-Buhuth wa’l-Ifta’). The office has been responsible for preparing the religious texts studied in the Islamic State’s training camps and published by its printing press. At one point, it was also responsible for issuing fatwas. In the summer of 2014, as the Department of Research and Fatwas, it put out the infamous monograph justifying the group’s practice of slavery; in late 2014 and early 2015, as the Committee for Research and Fatwas, it produced a set of fatwas on a range of issues, from foosball to immolation. By late 2015, it was signing its publications as the Office of Research and Studies.
As one can see, al-Bin‘ali’s scholarly unit was demoted from department to committee to office, and in the process stripped of its prerogative of giving fatwas. The fact that al-Bin‘ali was in charge of what was the fatwa-issuing body of the Islamic State did make him, in a sense, the “chief mufti,” but this was never his official title. He was the emir of an office whose name and responsibilities varied over time.
According to a 2016 Islamic State video on the “structure of the caliphate,” the Office of Research and Studies is “concerned with researching shar‘i issues and expounding on any matters referred to it by various bodies”; it is “supervised” by the the Delegated Committee (al-Lajna al-Mufawwada). The Delegated Committee, so named because its members are “delegated” by the caliph, is “a select group of knowledgeable, upright individuals with perception and leadership skills … a body of individuals that supports [the caliph] … communicating orders once they have been issued and ensuring their execution.” It supervises all the Islamic State’s provinces, departments, committees, and offices. The impression given by the documents reviewed below is that the Delegated Committee, increasingly dominated by the allies of uber-extremists in takfir, gradually sidelined al-Bin‘ali and his office—and possibly even had a hand in his death.
“Hazimis” and “Bin‘alis”
As is well known, the Islamic State and al-Qaida are divided over the question of takfir, the former being more takfir-prone than the latter. But within the Islamic State itself there has also been a division, one sometimes described as between the more extreme “Hazimis” and the more moderate “Bin‘alis.”
“The Hazimis” (al-Hazimiyya), or “the Hazimi current” (al-tayyar al-Hazimi), who have been discussed by Tore Hamming and Romain Caillet, among others, are named for the Meccan-born Ahmad ibn ‘Umar al-Hazimi, a Salafi scholar in Saudi Arabia believed to be in his fifties. Though imprisoned by the Saudis since 2015, al-Hazimi is not known for his jihadi leanings, and there is some debate among jihadis as to whether he in fact belongs to the movement. A relatively obscure scholar, al-Hazimi earned a reputation in the jihadi universe only after the 2011 revolution in Tunisia, traveling there to preach on several occasions. In his lectures, he espoused a controversial doctrine known as takfir al-‘adhir, or “the excommunication of the excuser,” which became something of the watchword of the Hazimis.
The notion of takfir al-‘adhir is derived from two concepts in Wahhabi theology. The first is the requirement of takfir; the second is the inadmissibility of al-‘udhr bi’l-jahl, or “excusing on the basis of ignorance.” According to the founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792), it is incumbent upon all true believers to excommunicate—that is, to make takfir of—those deemed unbelievers, as well as to excommunicate those who fail to excommunicate them. As Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab stated—and this is the line around which the Hazimi-Bin‘ali debate revolves—“Whoso fails to make takfir of the polytheists, or has doubts concerning their unbelief, or deems their doctrine to be sound, has [himself] disbelieved.” The duty of takfir is generally accepted in Jihadi Salafism, but there is some debate over al-‘udhr bi’l-jahl, that is, over whether ignorance may serve as a legitimate excuse for holding errant beliefs, and so shield one from the charge of takfir. For al-Hazimi, who follows the traditional Wahhabi view, al-‘udhr bi’l-jahl is categorically invalid, meaning that the ignorant heretic is to be declared an unbeliever; moreover, as he says, anyone who regards ignorance as an excuse for the heretic’s unbelief is also to be declared an unbeliever. Hence the idea of “the excommunication of the excuser.”
When al-Hazimi elaborated this doctrine in a series of recorded lectures in late 2013, he met with a great deal of opposition from jihadis. In mid-2014, Turki al-Bin‘ali denounced al-Hazimi’s concept of takfir al-‘adhir in a strongly-worded tweet, calling the phrase an innovation. Not long after, Abu Sulayman al-Shami, a Syrian-American official in the Islamic State’s media department, authored a scathing critique of al-Hazimi and his ideas. The main criticism leveled against al-Hazimi by his detractors was that his doctrine amounted to takfir in infinite regress (al-takfir bi’l-tasalsul). Takfir al-‘adhir, they said, necessarily entails a sequence of excommunication in which there is seemingly no end. (To put this in terms of Tom, Dick, and Harry: If Tom is an unbeliever and Dick excuses Tom’s unbelief, then Dick becomes an unbeliever; and if Harry excuses Dick’s unbelief, then Harry becomes an unbeliever; and so on and so on ad infinitum.)
The danger of al-takfir bi’l-tasalsul was explicitly warned against in the creedal manuals prepared by al-Bin‘ali’s division (see, for example, here, pp. 30-32, and here, pp. 58-60). The approach taken in these works was to affirm that while ignorance cannot be an excuse for major unbelief, the one who excuses unbelief on account of ignorance should not be immediately declared an unbeliever. Thus the endless series of takfir is forestalled. It was al-Bin‘ali’s role in promoting this relatively more moderate position that led some to speak of “the Bin‘alis” (al-Bin‘aliyya) and “the Bin‘ali current” (al-tayyar al-Bin‘ali) in contrast to the Hazimis and the Hazimi current. The terminology goes back to at least 2014.
In later 2014, the Islamic State’s General Committee (al-Lajna al-‘Amma), presumably the forerunner of the Delegated Committee, issued a statement prohibiting any talk about “the secondary issues” pertaining to al-‘udhr bi’l-jahl, and threatening to prosecute anyone distributing related audio, visual, and written material. The implied target of this threat was of course the Hazimis and their doctrine of takfir al-‘adhir. Certain “ignorant people,” the statement read, have sought to “sow conflict and division among the soldiers of the Islamic State” by raising these issues.
Also in later 2014, the Islamic State rounded up a number of Hazimi activists within its borders. In September, it executed two well-known shari‘a officials, Abu Ja‘far al-Hattab and Abu ‘Umar al-Kuwaiti, accused of adopting the Hazimi view on takfir, and in December released a video highlighting the arrest of a cell of “extremists”; the video was accompanied by an article in English discussing the “disbanding” of this cell. Those rounded up were accused not only of espousing dangerous ideas about takfir but also of plotting a rebellion against the caliphate. This was not to be the end of the Hazimis, however.
The next official statement on takfir came from something called the Central Office for Overseeing the Shar‘ia Departments (al-Maktab al-Markazi li-Mutaba‘at al-Dawawin). Bearing the number 155 and dated May 29, 2016, this statement, like the first, prohibited discussion of the secondary issues related to al-‘udhr bi’l-jahl; it also explicitly warned against al-takfir bi’l-tasalsul and banned the use of the term takfir al-‘adhir. At the same time, in an attempt to compromise with the Hazimis, it affirmed that there is no excuse for hesitation in takfir, and said that this ought to be clear to anyone living in the Islamic State. For whatever reason, this statement was not put into circulation until April 2017, when it was shared online in both written and audio form and published in the Islamic State’s Arabic weekly, al-Naba’.
If the Central Office statement was a kind of overture to the Hazimis, the next statement, the memorandum by the Delegated Committee from May 17, 2017, was even more so. Titled “That Those Who Perish Might Perish by a Clear Sign, and [That Those Who] Live Might Live by a Clear Sign” (a quotation of Q. 8:42), it was addressed “to all the provinces, departments, and committees.” While the memorandum condemned “the extremists” who adopt the “innovative” idea of al-takfir bi’l-tasalsul, the bulk of its venom was reserved for “the postponers.” The latter are those who refuse to acknowledge takfir as “one of the unambiguous foundations of the religion” and so exhibit undue hesitation in excommunicating “the polytheists.” The final three pages of the memorandum counsel obedience to those in authority. The statement was styled “an important memorandum” in a summary published by al-Naba’ in late May and by Rumiyah in early June.
The Bin‘alis strike back—and are struck
Turki al-Bin‘ali and his allies wasted little time in responding. On May 19, al-Bin‘ali addressed a long letter to the Delegated Committee with his critical “observations” of the memorandum. The letter appeared online in late June. While maintaining a mostly respectful tone, al-Bin‘ali complained bitterly that the memorandum was issued in undue haste, not having been subjected to the scrutiny of “the scholars.” This was in stark contrast to the way in which the Central Office’s statement had been carefully crafted with the input of multiple scholars, including himself. The man who organized that earlier statement, he noted, was Abu Muhammad al-Furqan, the Islamic State’s media chief who was killed in an airstrike in September 2016.
Some of al-Bin‘ali’s criticisms were trivial or pedantic—the new statement contained typographical and grammatical errors, and it relied on a few weak hadith—but his main objections were substantial. Everyone is agreed, he said, that the memorandum was intended to appease “the extremists,” i.e., the Hazimis. The extremists were celebrating that “the Islamic State had repented and returned to the truth,” since the memorandum declared takfir to be “one of the unambiguous foundations of the religion.” For al-Bin‘ali, the implication of this phrase was without question takfir in infinite regress. Another concession to the extremists was a line to the effect that professed Muslims beyond the Islamic State’s territory are not necessarily to be regarded as Muslims. What “most people” have taken away from this line, al-Bin‘ali regretted, is that “the Islamic State excommunicates everyone outside its borders.” He then quoted several earlier speeches by Islamic State leaders seemingly contradicting this position. The letter closes with an appeal to the Delegated Committee to revise and correct what it has written. As noted above, al-Bin‘ali was killed on May 31.
On May 23, Abu ‘Abd al-Barr al-Salihi, a Kuwaiti-born Islamic State scholar of lesser renown, had written his own refutation of the memorandum, reiterating many of the points raised by al-Bin‘ali. He likewise lamented the fact that it “has pleased the extremists,” advising the Delegated Committee to withdraw the memo “in its entirety.” According to news reports, al-Salihi was imprisoned for his dissent, and ultimately died, like al-Bin‘ali, in an airstrike.
Next up was an even more obscure author, the Saudi Abu ‘Uthman al-Najdi, who denounced the memorandum in a brief essay. He urged the Delegated Committee to make a retraction, saying, “I am quit before God of this memorandum.” In late June, Khabbab al-Jazrawi, another Saudi describing himself as within borders of the Islamic State, wrote a refutation accusing the Delegated Committee of engaging in “ideological terrorism”: marginalizing, imprisoning, and threatening “the scholars.” He paid tribute to al-Bin‘ali and al-Salihi, whose blood, he said, had been spilt in defense of the truth.
It was not until July and August that there appeared another batch of refutations by Islamic State scholars, these directed against not only the Delegated Committee’s memorandum but also the leadership of the caliphate more generally. The picture that they paint is of a group in utter disarray.
The first of these refutations was written in Mayadin, Syria by a shari‘a official named Abu Muhammad al-Husayni al-Hashimi, a Saudi of Syrian origin. Dated July 5 and titled “The Hashimi Advice to the Emir of the Islamic State,” it takes the form of a letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on whom the author pours out his anger and frustration. The caliphate, he says, “is being eaten up region by region … Those who once feared us are now raiding us, and those who used to flee us, our soldiers now flee them.” The Islamic State has become “an entity in which innovations and extremism have spread,” and in which “the most important positions” are occupied by oppressive and impious men allied to the “Kharijites,” meaning the Hazimis. “O ‘caliph,’” he says, “you are looking on and you are powerless to do anything.” “O ‘caliph,’ where is ‘the prophetic methodology’ in the balance of what has gone before? If it is a caliphate, then certainly it is not a caliphate of the Muhammadan message; it is the farthest thing from the prophetic methodology.” If there is “harshness” in these words, he writes, it is because “the sick patient” is in need of “shock therapy.” Al-Hashimi does not shrink from naming names. There is, for example, ‘Abd al-Nasir (“may God damn him”), the one-time Iraqi head of the Delegated Committee (“may God damn it and curse it”), who put his stamp on the dreadful memorandum; and Abu Hafs al-Jazrawi, a Saudi in the security apparatus who is repeatedly condemned (“may God spread hellfire out for him as a resting place”).
Al-Hashimi reveals that he used to work in the Office of Research and Studies under al-Bin‘ali and his deputy, Abu Muhammad al-Azdi. There he witnessed first-hand its devaluation from department to council to office, and the corresponding decline of its influence in the face of the ever-greater concentration of power in the hands of the Delegated Committee. The latter was waging war on “the scholars,” which was to say al-Bin‘ali and his allies. Al-Bin‘ali’s death, he muses, was no accident: al-Bin‘ali and the other scholars who opposed the memorandum were arranged to die in airstrikes, their coordinates being leaked to “the crusaders.” “Perhaps [the Delegated Committee] has killed some of them and said, ‘the planes of the Crusaders.’” Al-Hashimi also speculates that al-Salihi, along with “more than sixty” of his supporters, perished in this way. Arrested in late June, they were confined to an old prison subsequently obliterated in an airstrike. All of these concerns, he says, are shared by a great many others in the Islamic State. “If you wish, I could name for you more than 30 scholars and judges, all of whom would speak in favor of what I have written or of part of it.”
One of al-Hashimi’s allies was the forenamed Khabbab al-Jazrawi, who in mid-August released a statement on the death of Abu Bakr al-Qahtani. Al-Qahtani, a Saudi scholar in the Islamic State known for his strong opposition to the Hazimis (see his hours-long debate with them on takfir), was himself reportedly killed in an airstrike on August 11. The “murky circumstances” of his death reminded al-Jazrawi of the way that al-Bin‘ali was killed.
Al-Jazrawi goes on in this statement to explain the rise of those he calls the Kharijites. While a few years ago they seemed to have been subdued, it was in reality only one group of them, that led by Abu Ja‘far al-Hattab, that had been put down, and this for excommunicating the caliph and attempting to rebel. It was not for their “extremism” that they were persecuted, but rather for the threat that they posed to the caliphate’s security. This episode notwithstanding, the Delegated Committee sensed that the Hazimis enjoyed considerable popular support, and so drew close to them as a means of protecting itself. “The [Islamic] State started to treat the Kharijites favorably … and [ultimately] adopted the Kharijites’ doctrine in order to hold on to power and out of fear that the Kharijites would turn on them.”
At the end of August, another Islamic State scholar gave voice to the concerns of al-Hashimi and al-Jazrawi in a lengthy statement. This was an open letter addressed by Abu ‘Abd al-Malik al-Shami, in Deir al-Zor, “to all those who care about the caliphate and the establishing of God’s law on earth.” The letter is titled “Sighs from the State of Oppression,” which sets the tone for what follows. Al-Shami, about whom no information seems to be available, describes the current state of affairs in the Islamic State as “a true nightmare threatening to annihilate us.” Events have moved quickly, with one city being lost after another, and now “all that we have left is a small piece of land encompassing Mayadin, al-Bukamal, and some of the villages between them.” The causes of all this misfortune are many, in his estimation, but three in particular: (1) an elite caste of traitorous evil-doers dominating the Islamic State’s leadership; (2) the “Hazimi extremists” protected and empowered by these evil-doers; and (3) a lying and deceitful media constantly reassuring us that all is well.
The caliph, he says, has been out of the picture for some time, the all-powerful Delegated Committee calling the shots in his absence. After Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani and then Abu Muhammad al-Furqan, its leader was the Iraqi ‘Abd al-Nasir, who gave even more support to the extremists than his predecessors. Al-Furqan, he claims, had set up the Central Office for Overseeing the Shar‘ia Departments “in order to please the extremists”; al-Bin‘ali had raised objections to its statement on takfir (no. 155), but al-Furqan had reassured him. Later, ‘Abd al-Nasir, during his tenure, established something called the Office for Methodological Inquiry (Maktab al-Tadqiq al-Manhaji)—al-Bin‘ali refers to this in his letter as the Council on Methodology (al-Lajna al-Manhajiyya)—the purpose of which was to enforce ideological purity by investigating those accused of holding moderate beliefs. It was a bastion of Hazimis. Then came “the great calamity,” the Delegated Committee’s memorandum, which was intended to affirm “some of the doctrines of the extremists,” and which rightly provoked a backlash.
Al-Shami mentions the refutations by al-Bin‘ali, al-Salihi, al-Najdi, and al-Jazrawi, all of whom, he says, were killed or persecuted after speaking out. The extremists, according to al-Shami, are primarily Tunisians and Egyptians, but also Saudis, Azerbaijanis, and Turks. Indulging in some conspiracy theories, he surmises that the Saudi government dispatched al-Hazimi to Tunisia in order to corrupt the minds of young jihadis who would later emigrate to Iraq and Syria. He also considers the leadership of the Islamic State to have been penetrated by the spies of regional intelligence services working on behalf of the Hazimis.
The media, meanwhile, “is hiding from [the mujahidin] news of losses and withdrawals,” all the while enchanting them with outrageous fantasies and illusions. One such illusion is the claim that we are living in end times, that “this state is the one that will conquer Istanbul and then Rome, and that one of its caliphs will be the one to hand over the banner to the mahdi or to Jesus.” Such talk, says al-Shami, is completely unwarranted. “The establishment of a caliphate does not necessarily mean that we are the ones who will fight in Dabiq, and that we are the ones who will conquer Rome, etc.” Two other illusions are the comparison between the Islamic State today and the early Muslims during the Battle of the Trench, in which the Prophet and his companions prevailed over an extend siege by their enemies, and the suggestion that the Islamic State can somehow “retreat to the desert,” recover its strength, and reconquer everything it has lost. There can be no “state” without territory, he insists.
Al-Shami ends his letter with an appeal to “my mujahidin brothers” to demand that the caliph step forward, state his views clearly on what has happened, and dissolve the corrupt Delegated Committee. “The only one who can put an end to this catastrophe is the caliph.” Yet al-Shami is not hopeful. Expecting to die soon, he writes that perhaps future generations of jihadis can learn from the experience that he has recorded here.
“Returning to the truth”
On September 15, the Delegated Committee put out a new memorandum addressed “to all the provinces, departments, and councils” rescinding the earlier one of May 17. “Observance of the content of the memorandum titled ‘That Those Who Perish Might Perish by a Clear Sign’ … has been annulled … on account of its containing errors of knowledge and misleading and unreliable statements that have given rise to disagreement and division in the ranks of the mujahidin in particular, and the Muslims in general.” The memorandum also reauthorized two books by al-Bin‘ali’s Office of Research and Studies that had been withdrawn by the Delegated Committee in early July. Finally, it reminded its readers of “the virtue of returning to the truth,” a phrase that would be the title of an article in the next issue of al-Naba’. The Bin‘alis seemed to be back on top. What had prompted the reversal?
In early September, there were rumors that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had returned to the scene after an extended absence; in doing so, he had come down hard on the Hazimis, detaining many of them, including two of their leaders, Abu Hafs al-Jazrawi and Abu Maram al-Jaza’iri. Following the September 15 memo, Arabic news outlets corroborated those rumors, telling of Baghdadi’s retaking the reins, his sacking of the Hazimis and their supporters, and his appointment of Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Shami, a veteran Islamic State scholar, to the Delegated Committee (perhaps as its leader). Al-Shami was also assigned the role of clarifying the group’s official doctrine on issues of takfir, which he soon did in a series of audio statements (see here, here, here, and here). In the series, al-Shami denounces the Hazimis in all but name, rejecting takfir al-‘adhir on the grounds that takfir is not part of the “foundation of the religion” (asl al-din) but rather only one of “the requirements of the religion” (wajibat al-din). The general effect of this distinction is to diminish the primacy of takfir, creating room for disagreement on such matters as al-‘udhr bi’l-jahl.
For the Bin‘alis, there is poetic justice in Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Shami’s selection for this role. Not only was he known as a major opponent of the Hazimis; he was, not long ago, investigated by the Office of Methodological Inquiry and imprisoned for his insufficiently extreme views. A three-hour recording of one of his sessions with the Office of Methodological Inquiry was recently made available on Telegram (see here and here). Throughout the interview, the investigators, led by Abu Maram al-Jaza’iri, rudely address al-Shami as Abu Fulan (i.e., “Abu Somebody,” “Abu So-and-So”), and al-Shami repeatedly corrects them, demanding respect: “I am not Abu Somebody. I am Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman … I am Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Shami … I have been a judge with this community since 2005. I am not new.” Indeed, al-Shami is also known as Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Zarqawi, on account of his close ties to the former leader of al-Qaida in Iraq. While he seems to have kept a mostly low profile in the organization, he is known as the author of a lengthy rejoinder to Abu Qadata al-Filastini’s criticism of the Islamic State back in 2015.
With Baghdadi having reasserted his authority and al-Shami in charge of religious affairs, the question now is whether the Bin‘ali-Hazimi divide has finally been overcome, or whether it has simply been swept under the rug. Whatever the case, it is clear from the foregoing that the discontent in the Islamic State goes well beyond the issue of takfir. There is frustration with a corrupt administration, a dishonest media, unmet prophecies, and, most of all, interminable territorial defeat. Whether the Islamic State can manage to keep its theological house in order may be the difference between survival and implosion.