Perhaps the most important reason mentioned by a lot of people why the United States should not bomb targets in Syria is that the possible downfall of President Bashar al-Asad’s regime may lead to a situation in which jihadis come to power, who may be even worse than the country’s current leader. Such fears are certainly justified. Yet we should also be careful not to exaggerate the threat that these men supposedly represent.  In this post, I look at a specific series of fatwas from the Shari’a Council of the Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad that deals with the problems and questions that potential jihadis have (these, these, these, these and these), which shows that jihadis – their sometimes radical views notwithstanding – can be quite human too.

Refusing parents

Many of the questions that Abu l-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, the shaykh who has long been the sole scholar on the Shari’a Council, has to answer deal with questions related to the classical jurisprudence (fiqh) of jihad that go back centuries: “Am I allowed to wage jihad if I am in debt?”, “I am able to do jihad. Does that mean I have to?” etc. One of the questions that also falls into this category is that of parental permission. Quite a few budding jihadis ask whether it is allowed to go to Syria if their parents refuse to let them go. According to the classical laws of Islam, parental permission is needed for someone to wage offensive jihad.

It is obviously easy to make fun of such questions (“I want to kill Nusayris but my mum won’t let me. What should I do?”). I believe this misses the point of why these jihadis ask such questions, however. They seem to be motivated primarily by a great concern for what is going on in Syria – and aren’t we all? – and want to take armed action to stop it, but are afraid they will violate Islamic law at the same time.

Some youngsters admit to lying to their parents about their true intentions when going abroad and wonder whether this is allowed. Others clearly don’t want to go to Syria and mention that their parents won’t permit them either, but apparently feel compelled to ask the shaykh anyway, perhaps hoping that he will excuse them from their jihadi duty. For similar reasons, several questioners ask if it is okay if they just donate money to the jihad, without actually going to Syria themselves. One potential fighter even asks al-Shinqiti to tell him what legitimate excuses exist that allow him to refrain from waging jihad.

Unfortunately for some of these hesitant youngsters, shaykh Abu l-Mundhir points out to them that the jihad against the al-Asad regime is a defensive one, meaning that it is an individual duty (fard ‘ala l-‘ayn) for every able-bodied male Muslim. This, in turn, means that parental permission is not needed and that lying to them about this is permitted as well.

Family problems

Although al-Shinqiti comes across as someone whom one would perhaps not easily qualify as “a good family man”, he does take into account that problems at home may excuse one from waging jihad. Several questioners indicate that if they went to Syria, their parents would not be able to cope without them for financial reasons. Others state that their parents are old and need to be cared for, which these men will not be able to do from abroad. Still another questioner tells the shaykh that if he leaves for Syria to wage jihad, he fears his mother will die of grief and pain.

As mentioned, al-Shinqiti is somewhat more understanding of such problems. He encourages people to find others to take care of their parents and their (financial) needs, but also states that if this does not work the jihadis are allowed to stay home. He is less compromising with regard to marital problems – in the broadest sense of the word. One person wants to know if it is a sin to go off to Syria if it means leaving behind a sick child and a wife who is five months pregnant, a question that is posed several times in various forms. Another wants to wage jihad, but also wants to get married. Realising that he desires both, he asks al-Shinqiti what to do. There is even a person complaining that his family in his homeland have abandoned him financially, that he has no education and no job and that he wants to wage jihad, but that his wife starts crying every time the subject comes up.

Al-Shinqiti does not prove particularly helpful with regard to recalcitrant wives (“Try to go to the jihad together with your wife.”), but he does understand that spouses cannot simply be left to their own devices and therefore encourages the questioners to let them stay with their families if possible. He is much more accommodating, however, when it comes to the somewhat related problem of potential fighters wanting to finish their education. Some men point out that they study something that is useful to the jihad and that they themselves will also be of greater use if they are allowed to graduate. Abu l-Mundhir is quite forthcoming in this respect, allowing such youngsters to finish their studies, even if it means putting jihad on hold for the moment.


Such expressions of doubt, hesitation and concern by jihadis obviously do not mean that we should dismiss fears about their goals and behaviour. The ideas of some of the men going to Syria are clearly problematic and there is indeed reason to fear sectarian strife and even all-out war between some of the various sects if the al-Asad regime should fall. The ideas about ‘Alawites expressed by some Jihadi-Salafi groups and scholars are quite explicit in this respect and do not bode well for the future.

At the same time, however, the fatwas mentioned above do show that those men wanting to join Jabhat al-Nusra and similar groups have plenty of other things on their mind besides jihad. In fact, quite a few fatwas betray their attachment to earthly things such as their families, their wives and children and even their careers. This, in turn – and without wanting to negate the real threat that some of these men may pose, means that they are  perhaps not the wide-eyed extremists hell-bent on world-wide jihad that some believe they are. In fact, they look surprisingly human in these fatwas and none more so than one questioner who asks:

“Is a mujahid who is killed fighting also considered a martyr if he is afraid to die?”

  1. […] Memo about Syria: Jihadis are people too Posted: 6th September 2013 by Joas Wagemakers in foreign fighters, Ideological trends, Motivations, Syria 0 […]

  2. Terry Tucker says:

    This was excellent, as usual! all your work is excellent. Considering that there is discount for Huntington’s work over at The Diplomat and FP, i disagree with them and feel that Huntington was right. Local politics is about ethnicity and culture, geopolitics is about civilizations. If the Current US Administration would take the time to read analysis like yours they could better craft narratives and response that would be meaningful at the local and regional level as well as the geopolitics and strategy.

    When i read all your analysis, i lament dearly, the wasted effort and treasure over the last decade. Just so you know. I relied on your analysis while I was in Afghanistan as an adviser and trainer from 2006 to 2010. I never could get the Defense Language Institute to use your stuff, although when i gave seminars to the students, i would always share your work. Keep it up! Great Work. I no its a thankless task but just want you to know you have positively impacted at least one person when assessing and planning training and engagement strategies.

  3. Sajjad Haider says:

    Unfortunately everyone is using terminology Jihad for their objectives – some to justify killing people in the name of Islam and others to demonise Islam. It is not important that people wanted to participate in ‘Jihad’ in Syria against Assad regime need permission from their parents or need excuses for avoiding the Jihad but the important question is whether this ‘jihad’ or any other ‘Jihads’ currently being waged in different parts of the World are declared by the competent authority which is entitled to declare under Shariah. I am afraid that this is not the case thus no religious backing. Whatever is happening in Syria is nothing but fight for power.

  4. Aqram says:

    Sajjaj Haider, who is the competent authority to declare jihad at the moment? And whose declaration of jihad would make the declaration credible for you? If your are looking for fatwas, leading Sunni scholars have already delivered them, among them is Yousuf al Qardawi. Your point is not clear.

  5. johao says:

    hi i am from Chili in southamerica and i want to be united with jihadis,i want to convert to islam and fight, tell me, what i should do?