The rebel offensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) in northern Syria, which broke out on January 3, 2014, has dramatically heightened tensions between Jihadi-Salafi thinkers. As noted previously, two tendencies predominate among jihadis insofar as the Syrian war is concerned: one favoring the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and cooperation with all rebel groups, and another favoring ISIS and its exclusionary political designs as the reborn Islamic state, or proto-caliphate.

On the ground at least, the uprising against ISIS has not for the most part opposed the more pragmatic JN backers to the more ideological ISIS devotees. Although driven violently out of Raqqa by the Islamic State in mid-January, JN has largely stood aloof during this confrontation. Rather those arrayed against ISIS—what one jihadi author has termed “the tripartite aggression”—consist of two upstart groups, the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front and the Mujahidin Army, and the Islamic Front (IF), an Islamist umbrella organization founded in November 2013. Nonetheless, the fighting has aggravated intra-jihadi tensions as the ongoing hostilities focus attention on ISIS’s unique claim to statehood and the inviolable sovereignty that this implies.

The Maskana prelude

It was an escalating dispute between ISIS and IF affiliates in December in the town of Maskana, located on the eastern outskirts of Aleppo, which precipitated the present crisis. The Islamic State’s refusal to submit the dispute to arbitration pushed its rivals over the edge. The same recalcitrance in the current conflict has forestalled any progress in reaching a solution.

On January 1, the Islamic Front announced that one of its revered commanders, Abu Rayyan of Ahrar al-Sham, had been brutally tortured and killed by ISIS in Maskana. Abu Rayyan had headed to the town to mediate the month-long conflict there, which had led to tens killed and many prisoners taken by each side. For weeks Ahrar al-Sham had asked ISIS to allow a third-party—“an independent shar’ia court”—to make an independent ruling on the conflict, but a response was never forthcoming. In mid-December a shari’a consultant (shar’i) of Ahrar al-Sham issued a stern warning to ISIS: “I call openly on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: restrain your soldiers and reconsider your policy. We are in one ship and will all drown if it sinks. May he perish who refuses to submit to the judgment of the shari’a!” Following the death of Abu Rayyan, the Islamic Front’s political committee issued a further warning: “We warn the Islamic State organization not to follow in its its regular manner by standing in the way of…an independent court.” In an interview five days later, the local leader of ISIS in Maskana, one Abu Dujana al-Kuwaiti, blamed the Islamic Front for instigating the current anti-ISIS uprising, seen as part of a larger “global conspiracy” aimed at uprooting the Islamic State.

Before the death of Abu Rayyan, the events in Maskana drew the attention of two prominent jihadi thinkers, the pro-JN Iyad Qunaybi (@EYADQUNAIBI), a Jordanian and U.S.-trained pharmacologist who served in prison with Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and Abu Humam al-Athari, a well-known Bahraini member of the pro-ISIS camp. Qunaybi condemned what he saw as the Islamic State’s refusal to answer requests for third-party arbitration. Addressing ISIS leaders, he wrote: “You command the people to submit to the ruling of God’s book…Then when you yourselves are called upon to do so, you say, ‘We have our own courts’… If the Islamic State organization only pays heed to itself, is its agenda really the agenda of the Islamic community?” Al-Athari responded with a refutation of Qunaybi’s “bizarre judgments.”[i] These he chalked up to Qunaybi’s irrelevant background in pharmacology. Qunaybi’s first mistake, said al-Athari, was his mischaracterization of the Islamic State as an “organization” (jama’a), as in reality it is a sovereign state (dawla). As such it cannot accept external legal supervision or mediation (except in coordination with an ISIS court), for that would “infringe on the right of the Muslim sovereign and his state.” Since the offensive against ISIS began, the question whether the Islamic State should accept arbitration has remained a central feature of the expanding intra-jihadi debate.

Initiatives

A series of initiatives has since called on the belligerent parties to authorize an independent tribunal to arbitrate the conflict. Predictably, ISIS has proved unwilling to accept any such thing.

The first initiative, presented by JN leader Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani in an audio message on January 7, proposed that a “legal commission” be formed by “all concerned parties” with a mandate to impose a solution. ISIS gave no public response to Jawlani, who in the same statement had blamed the Islamic State’s “wrongheaded policy” for “a large role in instigating the confrontation.” The pro-ISIS Abu Humam al-Athari, for his part, quickly came out with an aggressive refutation of Jawlani—“the renegade leader.” The real cause of rebel infighting in Syria, as he saw it, was not ISIS’s policy but rather Jawlani’s original defection from the ISIS ranks, a precedent for further revolt.

On January 19, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi presented a counter-initiative, essentially a plea for an unconditional ceasefire. In an audio statement he explained that his state was only fighting in self-defense, and so anyone who desisted from fighting would not be harmed.

Two days later a second initiatve was proposed by two jihadi thinkers of Egyptian origin, the London-based Hani al-Siba‘i and the Canadian-based Tariq ‘Abd al-Halim. While both have tended to favor JN over ISIS—they do not recognize ISIS as a state—their proposal praised Baghdadi’s ostensible offer of peace. Yet like Jawlani, they too premised their initiative on the formation of an independent shari‘a court empowered to issue a binding judgment. The result: no response.

The Siba‘i-‘Abd al-Halim gambit soon gave way to the so-called “Community Initiative” of prominent Saudi preacher ‘Abd Allah al-Muhaysani. The latter called on all concerned parties “to place the interest of the Islamic community ahead of the interest of the group.” Al-Muhaysani presented a detailed reconciliation plan again involving an independent tribunal of sorts. It required all parties to assent to the terms of the initiative within five days, which all but the Islamic State did (see here and here). At the last moment, as the initiative expired on January 27, ISIS published a statement informing that it would participate if all parties first agreed on what position to take on cooperating with the Syrian National Coalition, its Supreme Military Council, and the neighboring governments of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey. Since ISIS rejects cooperation with all of them (ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani has essentially hereticized them) while the other parties do not (even Jawlani has indicated a willingness to work with the Gulf countries) the statement served to preempt all discussion of mutual arbitration. In closing, ISIS reminded its adversaries that “the initiative of the commander of the believers”—that is, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s peace offering—remained on the table.

A pro-IF jihadi

While most jihadi thinkers have tended to support either ISIS or JN as the epitome of the jihadi movement in Syria, one prominent jihadi ideologue, the Syrian Abu Basir al-Tartusi, has instead favored the Islamic Front and particularly Ahrar al-Sham, accusing the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra of representing foreign interests. In mid-January, Abu Basir took his criticism of ISIS to another level, issuing a fatwa branding the Islamic State a band of “extremist Kharijites,” a reference to the violent exclusionary sect in early Islamic history. Among other things, he accused ISIS of unduly hereticizing other Muslim rebels in Syria, torturing its prisoners, targeting fellow Muslims with suicide tactics, and  exploiting the phrase “the Islamic State.” “Their state,” he wrote, “exists only in their imaginations and feeble minds.” Jihad against ISIS is thus warranted till such time as they desist from their “injustice, oppression, and aggression.” Some IF members, including the leadership of Liwa’ al-Islam and the Suqur al-Sham Brigades, have recently made similar remarks comparing ISIS to the Kharijites.

While Abu Basir’s stature in jihadi discourse has suffered since last year when he denounced Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Athari apparently found that this fatwa merited a detailed response. This he delivered in a booklet intended to explain “the difference between the men of the [Islamic] State and the Kharijites.” Its main argument is that the accusations brought against ISIS today—especially that of excessive hereticization (takfir)—were precisely those leveled against the first Saudi state inspired by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab.

Pro-JN jihadis

The jihadi thinkers favoring JN have not gone so far as to brand the Islamic State a group of Kharijites. Rather their critique consists in a rejection—sometimes subtle, sometimes not—of ISIS’s claim to constitute a state with unimpeachable sovereignty. Iyad Qunaybi is an example of a pro-JN jihadi who has been outspoken in this rejection. Those who used to make it more subtly have started to join him.

Whereas two months ago Abu Qatada al-Filastini and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the two best-known jihadi thinkers alive, erred on the side of subtlety in  criticizing ISIS, since the offensive started they have quite noticeably sharpened their tone. During a court hearing in Amman in mid-January, Abu Qatada called on al-Baghdadi to scrap the “Islamic State” name and fight under Jabhat al-Nusra’s banner. He thereafter made his views clearer in an open letter, advising ISIS members in Syria to join JN and pleading with Baghdadi to follow the orders of Ayman al-Zawahiri and retreat to Iraq. According to Abu Qatada, while it is unlawful for Muslims to fight ISIS, the causes of the war against it lie in its stubborn insistence on statehood and in its unwarranted killing of other Islamist groups’ members. In his letter he is pessimistic that the conflict can be peacefully resolved, noting that since it “refuses to accept arbitration” of disputes, the Islamic State will not likely lend “receptive ears” to any call for reconciliation. That seems a pretty accurate prognosis.

In a leaked message from mid-January, al-Maqdisi likewise voiced his frustration with ISIS’s stubbornness. Additionally, he chided fellow jihadi ideologues al-Athari and Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, both of whom have contributed extensively to his popular website, for lending their support to the Islamic State’s radical policies. “I hope,” he is reported to have said, “that my anger reaches them.” Subsequently, in an open letter online, he struck a more conciliatory tone, though still managing to ridicule the idea that any jihadi group had become something “like the caliphate.” Reportedly al-Maqdisi was supportive of al-Muhaysani’s “community initiative.”

Pro-ISIS jihadis

Apart from al-Athari, two other noteworthy exemplars of the pro-ISIS jihadi camp are the Mauritanian al-Shinqiti (named by al-Maqdisi) and the Jordanian ‘Umar Mahdi Zaydan. Recently, neither has exhibited much restraint in criticizing ideologues of the competing camp. In an essay from early January, al-Shinqiti took aim at the argument of some thinkers (including Abu Qatada and al-Maqdisi) that the Islamic State is not a “lawful emirate” but rather a mere “battlefield command.” “O you who have made war on the [Islamic] State with your fatwas,” he said, “you have created this state of division (fitna).” The proper course for all Muslim fighters in Syria, in his view, and the only way to avoid dissension, is that they give allegiance (bay‘a) to ISIS leader Baghdadi. In a mid-January audio address, Zaydan praised al-Athari and al-Shinqiti for defying “their shaykh” al-Maqdisi, “with whom they are associated” and to whose website they once contributed. Instead of heeding the wrongheaded opinion of their teacher, they had obeyed God and His messenger.

A deepening divide

The protests of the pro-JN camp, which includes those thinkers generally considered most influential within the jihadi movement at large, seem unable to shake the resolution of the partisans of the Islamic State. Over the last month the latter have only grown more resolute, even mustering the courage to refute their presumed elders. The Islamic State, which was meant to unify jihadis and expand their base of support, has in Syria created a stark division. As the ideological divide in jihadi discourse becomes more and more pronounced, the likelihood grows that the consequences for jihadi unity will be dire.

 


[i] According to unverifiable information from @wikibaghdady (on which see here), Abu Humam al-Athari is the pseudonym for Bahraini religious scholar Turki al-Bin’ali and has considerable ties to ISIS.

In policy circles as well as among both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian activists, the question of whether, how and why the Palestinian-Israeli conflict plays a role in al-Qaida’s global jihad is hotly debated. The reason for this is clear: pro-Israeli politicians and activists obviously don’t want to conclude that American support for Israel, for example, causes people to become jihadis fighting the US, while people with a more pro-Palestinian point of view are often keen to point out that there is a correlation between the two, presumably hoping for a more even-handed American approach towards the conflict.

Research

Despite the fact that this question has often come up in debates, suprisingly little research has been done on the connection between transnational or global jihad on the one hand and the Palestinian question on the other. To address this issue, Jihadica alumnus Thomas Hegghammer and yours truly have edited a special issue of the journal Die Welt des Islams about this subject. It includes several articles as well as extra documents that will surely be of interest to Jihadica readers.

In the first article, Thomas and I address the question of “The Palestine effect“: what role do Palestinians and the Palestinian question play among global jihadis? Are Palestinians overrepresented among al-Qaida members or not? What role have Palestinian played in the global jihadi movement since its beginning? How has the Palestinian question developed from one seemingly monopolised by Arab nationalists to a cause championed by global Islamists? Does Palestinian suffering serve as a recruitment tool for al-Qaida? You can read our answers here.

Palestinian Ideologues

The next four articles of our special issue are dedicated to one Palestinian jihad ideologue each. The first of these is written by Mark Sanagan, a PhD-candidate at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, on ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam. Mark’s article (“Teacher, Preacher, Soldier, Martyr: Rethinking ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam“) deals with al-Qassam’s Palestinian identity during his lifetime (he was killed in 1935 by the British) and his Palestinian legacy thereafter. Click here to read this fascinating article.

Thomas has written an article about the second ideologue dealt with in this issue, ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam. As many readers of Jihadica will know, Thomas has done extensive research on this man’s life, which becomes quite clear in this article, in which he shows that ‘Azzam is probably the most Palestinian of the ideologues dealt with in this special issue. We’ll have to wait for Thomas’ book on ‘Azzam for some time, but while waiting his article – which you can read here – is a good alternative.

As befits someone who’s written a book and many articles about him already, I dedicated my paper to Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s Palestinian identity. While I have often heard (at conferences, sometimes during field work and even in peer review reports) that al-Maqdisi’s Palestinianness is quite important to him, no serious research has been done on this issue so far and the people saying this don’t always seem to know what they’re talking about either. Luckily, this has changed with the publication of my article, which you can read here.

Finally, Petter Nesser of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) in Oslo, Norway, has authored an article on the Palestinian identity of a radical ideologue who’s been in the news a lot lately: Abu Qatada al-Filastini. Although this man’s name actually means “the Palestinian”, thus suggesting that he may be quite aware (and perhaps even proud) of his national identity, Petter comes to some interesting conclusions about Abu Qatada’s loyalties and how he feels about his Palestinian background. You can read the article here.

Documents and Active Citation

One of the added features of our special issue of Die Welt des Islams is that we also included several translated documents that are related to the subject. Thomas has selected three texts by ‘Azzam about the Palestinian question (“The Defence of Muslim Lands“, “Hamas” and “Memories of Palestine“), which you can read here, here and here. I have chosen two texts by al-Maqdisi: one about his ideas on jihad and another on his criticism of Hamas (read them here and here). Petter added an interview with Abu Qatada and an article describing the latter’s explanation of why a jihad should be waged (see the full texts here and here). All of these documents help explain how these ideologues feel about the Palestinian question.

Finally, all authors of this issue have decided to engage in what is referred to as “Active Citation“. As many readers will know, the links to jihadi documents often break because websites are taken down. To prevent the publications to which we refer in the footnotes from disappearing or becoming hard to find, we have uploaded them to our dropboxes and have provided direct links to these documents. This is not only a sign of academic transparency, but it also ensures that readers will continue to be able to read these documents, even if the websites from which they originally came disappear. You can find the direct links to “The Palestine Effect” here and here. The direct links to Mark’s article on al-Qassam can be accessed here, while Thomas provides his links here. The links to the sources used in my article can be found here and Petter gives his here.

What all of this adds up to is a fascinating special issue of Die Welt des Islams on a subject that should be of interest to a broad spectrum of specialists, academics and policy makers. Anyone interested in global jihad, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and/or Islamist ideology cannot afford to miss it.

Since the mid-November beheading in Aleppo of allied commander Muhammad Faris of Harakat Ahrar al-Sham, a barrage of negative media attention has afflicted Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). ISIS was concerned by its public image problem even before this signal mistake. In a September statement, Islamic State official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani defended his emirate from a perceived media onslaught, thought to be led by “the unbelieving West” and its regional allies and aimed at discrediting ISIS: playing up its feuds with other mujahidin in Syria and playing down its battlefield accomplishments. Another campaign to discredit the Islamic State, however, cannot be attributed to Western origin. It arises from within the jihadi community itself.

In November the two most high-profile jihadi ideologues alive today issued searing critiques of ISIS and its emir, al-Baghdadi. Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filistini, imprisoned in Jordan in the Umm al-Lu‘lu‘ facility in Zarqa‘ and the Muwaqqar prison outside Amman, respectively, came out in quick succession against the underlying premise of the Islamic State: namely, that it constitutes the reemergence of the original Islamic state, or caliphate, and that its leader, who adopts the title amir al-mu’minin (Commander of the Faithful), is the putative head of this renascent caliphate. ISIS has argued that it cooperates with other mujahidin in Syria, which is true. Yet it also quite clearly aspires to absorbing them all within its state structure. (On the political ideology of ISIS, see here.)

Over the past year most jihadi literature seems to have supported ISIS and its implied caliphal claims (see here and here for previous analysis). The double-headed rebuke from al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada marks a departure from this praise chorus, possibly with painful consequences for the Islamic State.

Abu Qatada’s letter

Abu Qatada al-Filistini’s critique was the first to surface, appearing online on November 1. Born in 1960, Abu Qatada is a Jordanian of Palestinian background whose real name is ‘Umar ibn Mahmud Abu ‘Umar. Forcibly repatriated to Jordan in July 2013 after a decade-long detention in the United Kingdom, where he received asylum in 1994, he currently stands accused of supporting terrorist activities in his home country.

His short rebuke of ISIS and al-Baghdadi takes the form of an open letter to the mujahidin in Syria, advising them as a veteran jihadi and witness to countless battlefield gains squandered by infighting. The mistakes of “previous experiences,” he warns, ought to be heeded, for the current “disunity and disputation” among Syrian mujahidin “terrify and horrify every admirer.”

This division he attributes first of all to jihadi “leaders” enamored of power and leadership. The context suggests that he has al-Baghdadi foremost in mind. Challenging his title of amir al-mu’minin, Abu Qatada avers: “There exists no emir firmly established such that he should be treated as the caliph—or with similar names and titles.” Jihadi groups today are fighting to achieve strength for establishing “the Islamic state.” But no organization is yet worthy of that name. It is an error for mujahidin to fight for their organization “as if it is an end in itself and not a means [to an end].” In the harshest words of his letter, Abu Qatada accuses anyone who would call himself “caliph” or “amir al-mu’minin” of espousing Shi‘i political doctrine, wherein “commanders and leaders are seen as divinely appointed rather than chosen by human beings.”

Abu Qatada also attacks fellow jihadi ideologues for lending support to ISIS. Their fatwas, he says, reflect “naïveté and childishness,” and their authors are “elementary students” or “pretenders to religious knowledge.” By categorically supporting one side in Syria they make unity and reconciliation ever more difficult. Abu Qatada advises the formation of a “shari‘a elite” composed of learned religious scholars with authority to issue binding judgments on political disputes.

The “Zarqawi” wing responds

Five days after it was published, a leading jihadi ideologue in Jordan, the Irbid-based shaykh ‘Umar Mahdi Zaydan, issued a five-page rebuttal of Abu Qatada’s letter. While Zaydan is a lesser-name figure compared to Abu Qatada or al-Maqdisi, he has according to two recent media reports (see here and here) played a key ideological role in supporting ISIS against its jihadi detractors. A former acquaintance of both al-Maqdisi and Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, Zaydan, about 40 years old, represents the latter’s more intransigent political tendency.

Jordanian researcher Mohammad Abu Rumman recently identified “two principal trends” in the jihadi movement in Jordan and Syria: “The first is the more pragmatic wing, represented by al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada; it adopts a position favorable to Jabhat al-Nusra, considering it a corrective to the path of al-Qa`ida in Iraq. The second trend is the extremist wing, represented by the followers of al-Zarqawi, or those who have been called neo-Zarqawis. One of their most prominent leaders is ‘Umar Mahdi [Zaydan], who has called publicly for allegiance to be given to the [Islamic] State [of Iraq and Sham] and al-Baghdadi.” In Jordan, Abu Rumman notes, the pragmatic wing of jihadism is the intellectually and culturally more powerful. The Zarqawi wing, however, has had more influence on the ground; far more Jordanians fight for ISIS than for Jabhat al-Nusra.

Zaydan’s rejoinder to Abu Qatada is entitled “Refuting the Statement of the One Who Considered the Islamic Caliphate a Part of the Shi‘i Religion.” According to Zaydan, Abu Qatada’s comparison of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham to the Sh’i imamate is offensive. This letter, he notes, despite its oblique language not specifying names or groups, is doubtless an attack on ISIS and al-Baghdadi: “a clear accusation against him, his leaders, and his soldiers of ignorance, capriciousness, and love of power.”

Abu Qatada goes wrong, according to Zaydan, by refusing to recognize the special significance of the Islamic State, which is not just one jihadi “group” among others. It is the reborn Islamic state. Quoting Osama bin Laden, Zaydan asserts that ISIS is an “imara shar‘iyya” (lawful emirate) or “imara kubra” (supreme command). It is not, as Abu Qatada claimed, an “imarat jihad” or “imarat harb” (battlefield command). Zaydan makes clear elsewhere that he views al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State as nothing else but “the Islamic Caliphate.”

Zaydan is clearly offended by Abu Qatada’s further claim, which is that ISIS’s supporters are invariably “childish and naïve.” Listing the names of twelve jihadi ideologues and their works supporting ISIS, Zaydan asks, “Are all of these naïve…and childish?” The list of supporters includes Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, Abu Sa‘d al-‘Amili, Abu Humam al-Athari, Abu al-Hasan al-Azdi, and Abu Ja‘far al-Hattab. (All of them have been discussed previously on Jihadica.)

In his conclusion, Zaydan suggests that al-Maqdisi, his former teacher, would agree that Abu Qatada chose an inappropriate time to “attack the mujahidin” of ISIS. Unfortunately, Zaydan was unaware that on November 5 al-Maqdisi too had authored a short rebuke of ISIS. (On al-Maqdisi, see here, and see Joas Wagemakers’s new book.)

Al-Maqdisi’s letter

Al-Maqdisi’s critique of ISIS appeared twelve days later on November 17 as a short memorandum to certain mujahidin in Syria soliciting his advice: “They informed me that they attach importance to my advice and are not heedless of my guidance; indeed they teach my books to their soldiers.” Calling for greater unity among the mujahidin in Syria, al-Maqdisi’s letter is more measured and less admonishing than Abu Qatada’s. It likewise denies, however, the Islamic State’s claim to emirate or proto-caliphate status.

Al-Maqdisi stresses “the clear difference between battlefield commands…and the politically capable [Islamic] state.” The path to proper Islamic statehood, he affirms, follows certain “stages” that lead to “political capability.” Skipping any of these stages—i.e., declaring a state prematurely as ISIS has done—is dangerous as it foments internal warfare. Addressing “our brothers in Jabhat al-Nusra and our brothers in the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham,” al-Maqdisi advises that they fight “under one banner and under one emir.” That emir is obviously not al-Baghdadi, for he also advises that before this they “seek unity under the aegis of a shura council.” In a more explicit rejection of al-Baghdadi’s status as emir, he emphasizes that Syria’s jihadi leadership ought to be of Syrian origin, the better to appeal to the Syrian people. Al-Baghdadi is of course Iraqi.

Al-Maqdisi ends his letter with an appeal to fellow jihadi scholars to support the banner of tawhid (unity) in Syria and not show partiality to one group or another. With these words he seems intent on curbing junior jihadi ideologues’ excitement over ISIS. The implication is that they should refrain from calls for bay‘a, or the pledge of allegiance, to be given to al-Baghdadi.

An enduring debate

The debate over the Islamic State’s readiness for statehood, or its “political capability” (tamkin), is by no means new. In 2006 the Islamic State of Iraq’s shari‘a council issued a 90-page document addressing just this issue. It noted that the original state of the Prophet Muhammad was founded on much less territory and with far less capability than the new Islamic state in Iraq.

This is just one of a number of points of contention over ISIS that has generated a daunting amount of disputatious literature. One jihadi author, claiming to represent Jabhat al-Nusra, recently produced several hundred pages of rebuttal to the three pro-ISIS works of Abu Humam al-Athari, Abu al-Hasan al-Azdi, and Abu Ja‘far al-Hattab (see here, here, and here). This in turn inspired a counter-refutation—a merciful 25 pages—by yet another pseudonymous author.

Until now the momentum in this debate has favored ISIS and al-Baghdadi, but the new contributions from Abu Qatada and al-Maqdisi may prove a serious obstacle in their advance. At the very least they highlight the stark divide in the jihadi movement today between supporters of a hardline, “caliphate now” strategy and those of more pragmatic mind.

A Little-Known Syrian Jihadi Magazine

Posted: 8th November 2013 by Joas Wagemakers in Jihadi media, propaganda, Syria

In various previous posts, I have paid attention to the Syrian-British Jihadi-Salafi ideologue Abu Basir al-Tartusi, for example because of his criticism of other jihadis and his support for the Free Syrian Army at the expense of Jabhat al-Nusra. His position, differing somewhat from that of other major radical scholars, was interesting because it was more conciliatory towards non-Islamists and remnants of previous regimes and also because it was less dismissive of the widespread calls for democracy that the Arab Spring showed.

The Arab Spring also pulled Abu Basir out of the semi-isolation that he was in when he was still living in Britain. Since the early protests against the Syrian regime, he has been very active in promoting the downfall of President Bashar al-Asad, with an unprecedented amount of footage of his speeches, lessons, etc. appearing on YouTube. Part of this greater exposure in the media was a Facebook page that al-Tartusi had, called The Islamic Resistance to the Syrian Regime. This “Islamic Resistance” also published a magazine that I have not heard mentioned anywhere and that I also could not find on Aaron Zelin’s Jihadology website, which probably means it’s not very well-known. This post looks at the topics dealt with in this magazine.

Short-lived

The first thing that you notice about the magazine, entitled simply “The Magazine of the Islamic Resistance, is that publishing it must have been a rather short-lived affair. The entire magazine numbers only five issues (here, here, here, here and here), with the first one appearing in March/April 2012 and the latest one – despite the fact that it was supposed to be published every fortnight – in May 2013. Given the long time period between the different issues, one could argue that no. 5 is not the last one and that no. 6 has simply not been published yet, although it has been over six months since the last issue, so that does not seem likely.

The second thing that is striking about the magazine is the fact that Abu Basir plays a very prominent part in it. (Parts of) his articles feature regularly in the magazine’s pages and the back pages of issues 2-5 explicitly mention al-Tartusi’s website, as well as the aforementioned Facebook page of the Islamic Resistance to the Syrian Regime. The magazine as a whole often features material that has been published elsewhere before and is also quite thin (12 pages), thereby giving the impression that not too much work has been put into producing it. One could argue that such magazines are made under less than ideal circumstances, what with the country being embroiled in a civil war, but that has not stopped other jihadi magazines from looking rather slick.

Information, Encouragement and Defamation

The magazine’s contents are diverse, but can basically be summed up by the words information, encouragement and defamation. Particularly at first, the magazine sought to inform its readers by giving them a list of attacks perpetrated by the Free Syrian Army (no. 1, p. 3) or a story about the history of Dar’a (no. 1, p. 5). This continued by posting bits from Abu Basir’s “scrapbook of the revolution and the revolutionaries” (for more on this, see here), yet as time went by these became less and less informative and more and more crudely anti-regime.

As I recall from my research several years ago on Saudi jihadi magazines such as Sawt al-Jihad and Mu’askar al-Battar, both published by Al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula (and about one of which Nico Prucha has written a very interesting book, by the way), one of the things the editors of such magazines try to do is to encourage their readers to continue the fighting, to keep the faith and not to lose hope. (Such behaviour is often seen among social movements trying to ensure the support of their followers.) This can be done by celebrating victories, showing progress that has been made or pointing to goals that have already been reached, for instance. In this magazine, such encouragement is found in singing the praises of the people who actually go out and fight in Syria (no. 2, p. 7), lauding Syria as a country worth fighting for (no. 2, p. 8) or calling on people to help free prisoners (no. 3, p. 10).

The most “encouraging” aspect of the magazine, particularly in the later issues, was undoubtedly the increasing number of rather graphic photographs of dead Syrian children and gruesome wounds suffered by the people hit in attacks. Perhaps such photographs were simply published to show what the regime had done, yet it is tempting to see them as implicit (or sometimes not so implicit) calls for revenge. This dovetails with the third thing the magazine tries to do, namely to defame the Syrian regime and its ‘Alawi beliefs. Perhaps the most frequent theme of articles in the magazines is the crimes of the Syrian regime, which is quite understandable, and the supposedly deviant nature of the ‘Alawites in general.

Epitome

Two things come to mind when flicking through the pages of these magazines: firstly, the increasing emphasis on defaming the regime and ‘Alawis seems to reflect the more and more radical nature of the Islamist groups fighting the Syrian regime; secondly, given the small number of issues published, the early demise of this magazine seems to mirror the fortunes of the Free Syrian Army and the moderate Islamist opposition that Abu Basir supported at the beginning. If recent reports are correct, these factions play a much smaller role than they did at the beginning, with groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) now calling the shots. As such, the magazine seems to be the epitome of the moderate Islamist opposition in Syria: it started out with plenty of ambition, but eventually seems to have been reduced to something small and relatively irrelevant.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), the leading jihadi fighting force in northern Syria, is often described as “an al-Qaeda group.” Its historical ties to Ayman al-Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda Central (AQC) notwithstanding, this characterization is unhelpful and possibly misleading. The Islamic State, in its own conception, is no ordinary jihadi group; nor is it strictly beholden to al-Qaeda as such. Describing ISIS in this way, moreover, overlooks the dramatic rupture that has set in between the Islamic State and AQC over the past several months.

Today ISIS persists in a state of outright disobedience to its supposed seniors in AQC, Zawahiri among them. The following examines both the extent of this state of disobedience and the nature of the Islamic State itself that has given rise to it.

Anguished forums

Shumukh al-Islam, al-Qaeda’s semi-official online forum, signaled alarm last week over enduring tensions between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), the al-Qaeda-aligned jihadi group in Syria that al-Baghdadi secretly organized in summer 2011 but now pledges allegiance (bay‘a) exclusively to Zawahiri. Evidently, ISIS and JN are engaged in a war for influence on the jihadi internet. In its very first Tweet, @shomokhalislam complained of being caught in the middle of this fight dividing the jihadi community: staunch supporters of ISIS and JN issuing demands to the forum to censor and delete rival content. Shumukh vowed to maintain a neutral stance in the dispute and, in the spirit of jihadi unity, threatened to terminate the account of any user casting aspersions on one side or the other. For more positive encouragement, it posted a doctored photo of JN and ISIS fighters standing together beside the caption, “Hand in hand…brothers in faith and religion.”

The Shumukh statement and threat owe much to the recent ascendancy in the Syrian jihad of ISIS and its much-vaunted emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi and Joas Wagemakers recently noted the increasing level of jihadi support for al-Baghdadi, in both public displays of support worldwide and in jihadi ideological production (see here and here). All this reflects an intra-jihadi conflict opposing ISIS to both JN and AQC. While Syria’s jihadis on the ground may have achieved a modus vivendi in many areas (JN and ISIS fighters have been filmed playing tug-of-war in Aleppo), tensions in jihadi media remain pronounced.

A case decided

The Shumukh administrators are not the first jihadis to try to mediate the ISIS-JN dispute. To remind readers, this dispute broke out in April last year when al-Baghdadi, emir of the then-Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), declared JN to be a mere “extension” of ISI and henceforward dissolved. Simultaneously, he extended the Islamic State’s writ to Sham, or greater Syria, thus begetting the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). When JN’s leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, rejected al-Baghdadi’s instruction to disband, Ayman al-Zawahiri stepped into the fray to “decide the case.”

In late May he issued a written directive, leaked to al-Jazeera, pronouncing against al-Baghdadi. The AQC emir annulled the Islamic State’s incorporation of Syria, ordering ISI and JN to remain separate entities observing separate jurisdictions—Iraq and Syria respectively.

Zawahiri, however, had overestimated the weight of his authority. From the Islamic State’s perspective, it was he, and not al-Baghdadi, who had overstepped his bounds.

2549 days and counting

The first thing one sees on many jihadi web forums (www.shamikh1.info/vb, www.alfidaa.org/vb/, www.alplatformmedia.com/vb/, among others) is a banner marking time passed since the Islamic State’s founding in 2006. Today the banner reads: “2549 days have passed since the announcement of the Islamic State and the umma’s forthcoming hope…and it will continue to persist by the will of God.” The symbolic centrality of the Islamic State across jihadi media goes some way in explaining the current outlook of the Islamic State qua a state—not a group—and its wide appeal among jihadis.

While it began as a purely Iraqi entity—announced on October 15, 2006 by a “council” of eight jihadi groups including the infamous al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia—the Islamic State has since its very beginning entertained a vision of limitless territorial expansion. In its founding statement, the state’s anonymous spokesman claimed to draw inspiration from the model of the original Islamic State (al-dawla al-islamiyya) founded in 622 by the Prophet Muhammad in Medina, whence it became the capital of the caliphate and global Islamic empire.

This prophetic model has been a standard feature of the Islamic State’s propaganda and intellectual production. A 90-page document from 2006 explaining the state’s raison d’être, authored by a member of ISI’s Shari‘a Council, likewise portrayed ISI as “the new Islamic state”: “This state of Islam has arisen anew to strike down its roots in the region, as was the religion’s past one of strength and glory.” As to its claimed jurisdiction, the author wrote: “There exists no legal proof-text from the Qur’an or sunna stipulating a decreed limit to the territorial expanse on which the Islamic state ought to be erected.”

Zawahiri, for his part, spoke similarly of the Islamic State’s unique role as the proto-caliphate. In a 2009 question-and-answer forum he stated: “The State [i.e., ISI] is a step on the path to establishing the caliphate. It is superior to mujahid groups. These organizations [in Iraq] must give allegiance to the State, not vice versa.”

Problem child

Beyond public pronouncements, AQC and ISI do not seem to have ever enjoyed happy relations. The Abbottabad documents in fact indicate that AQC never approved of the Islamic State’s establishment and that a leadership-to-leadership relationship hardly ever existed. This is at least according to American al-Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn, who in 2011 recommended that al-Qaeda publicly “sever its ties with the Islamic State of Iraq.” Gadahn feared that ISI’s engagement in sectarian violence had tarnished al-Qaeda’s reputation.

While AQC leaders did not follow his advice, ties between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State were indeed to become practically severed—on the initiative, however, of the Islamic State.

Rupture

Some three weeks following Zawahiri’s leaked decree, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who in mid-2010 succeeded Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi as emir of the Islamic State with the latter’s death in an American bombing, signaled the rupture with AQC. In a seven-minute audio statement issued June 15, al-Baghdadi decried “the document attributed to Shaykh Ayman al-Zawahiri.” He declared defiantly: “The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham shall endure, so long as we have a vein that pulses and an eye that bats.” He added, in a nod to its expansionist nature, that “[the Islamic State] shall not retreat from any spot of land to which it has expanded, and it shall not diminish after enlarging.” Zawahiri’s was a “command at variance with the command of God,” unacceptable on account of “numerous legal and methodological objections.” The decision to defy Zawahiri, he said, was made not by him alone but rather in consultation with the Islamic State’s Shura Council and in accordance with the ruling of its Shari‘a Council.

Al-Baghdadi was firm yet respectful in this rejoinder. It was left to another ISIS leader, Islamic State “official spokesman” Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, a Syrian, to sharpen the tone.

Ayman who?

The Syrian al-‘Adnani, in a follow-up audio message to al-Baghdadi’s, denounced Zawahiri’s edict more aggressively and systematically. “No one,” he thundered, “will stop us from aiding our brethren in Syria! No one will stop us from fighting the ‘Alawis and waging jihad in Syria! No one will stop us from remaining in Syria! Iraq and Syria will remain one theater, one front, one command!” “Car bombs,” he threatened, “will strike the shi‘a (rawafid), from Diyala to Beirut…and we will repel the ‘Alawis and Hizballah.”

Al-‘Adnani elaborated on seven “objections” to Zawahiri’s order. First, it was an order to commit a sin (ma‘siya) in the form of dividing the ranks of the mujahidin: splitting a united fighting force into an Iraqi and a Syrian force and thus weakening the community. Second, it affirmed the Sykes-Picot division of the Arab Middle East into artificial nation-states like “Iraq” and “Syria,” a division without basis in Islam. Third, it validated those “disobedient renegades” in the JN leadership who split, unlawfully, from the Islamic State by withdrawing bay’a from al-Baghdadi. Fourth, it set a precedent for other factions within the Islamic State to branch off and declare their independence. Fifth, Zawahiri’s judgment was made without properly consulting either party to the dispute, not to mention that the JN leadership’s testimony would be invalid on account of their sinning. Sixth, JN’s public rejection of al-Baghdadi’s ISIS announcement had gratified the enemies of the mujahidin and divided the community; this was not on par with the error Zawahiri attributed to the Islamic State of mistiming the announcement of its expansion to Syria. Seventh, Zawahiri was demanding that the mujahidin and their leadership withdraw from Syria at a time when all the mujahidin in the world were trying to join the fight there—a senseless demand.

The Islamic State, it would appear, does not recognize—at least for the moment—the higher authority of AQC. On July 29, the seventh anniversary of the Islamic State’s founding according to the Islamic calendar, al-‘Adnani issued yet another audio address reaffirming its expansionist doctrine in contravention of Zawahiri’s decree. “Our objective,” he averred, “is the formation of an Islamic state on the prophetic model that acknowledges no boundaries, distinguishes not between Arab and non-Arab, easterner and westerner, but on the basis of piety. Its loyalty is exclusively to God: it relies on only Him and fears Him alone.”

Bay‘a for al-Baghdadi

Apart from repudiating Zawahiri, ISIS’s recent media efforts have focused on promoting bay‘a, or the pledge of allegiance, to al-Baghdadi. In large measure this seems aimed at discrediting JN’s al-Jawlani, but it is also a more general effort to attract new Islamic State loyalists. One example of the effort is a widely publicized nashid (religiously sanctioned chant or anthem) calling on listeners to “close ranks and give allegiance to al-Baghdadi,” described as “our emir of Iraq and Sham.” Another item of interest is a short essay by a Syrian ISIS member explaining to readers “why I chose the State,” and why they should too. In short, the reason is that its leader dealt a severe blow to the Sykes-Picot division of the Middle East by expanding to Syria and that his Islamic State has the momentum to carry it to Jerusalem.

Even greater effort in promoting bay‘a for al-Baghdadi has come from beyond ISIS’s media organs in the form of lengthy treatises by big-name jihadi scholars like the Jordanian Abu Humam al-Athari. Joas Wagemakers has detailed al-Athari’s arguments, which center on al-Baghdadi’s peerless credentials as a scholar and warrior. Two other jihadi scholars worth noting here are the Tunisian Abu Ja‘far al-Hattab, a member of the Shari‘a Council of Ansar al-Shari‘a in Tunisia, and the more anonymous Abu al-Hasan al-Azdi, who appears connected to the Shumukh forum.

In his treatise, al-Hattab discusses at length the institution of bay‘a in Islamic law as a prelude to declaring invalid any bay‘a directed to JN leader al-Jawlani. The thrust of the argument is that al-Baghdadi had received bay‘a first and so al-Jawlani was outside his prerogative in receiving a competing bay’a. Moreover, because al-Jawlani had originally pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi as a member of ISI, his retraction of that pledge constituted a betrayal and a “grave sin.” The only legitimate bay‘a can be to al-Baghdadi.

In “Obligations for Joining the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham: Objections and Responses,” al-Azdi also stresses the gravity of al-Jawlani’s withdrawal of bay’a from al-Baghdadi. He summarizes his support for al-Baghdadi in a number of points: his eminent qualifications as emir, the legal inadmissibility of giving additional bay‘as, and the Islamic State’s evident superior strength compared with mujahid groups. Finally, al-Azdi argues, even if al-Baghdadi erred in declaring the expansion of the Islamic State to Syria, that State had become a reality that must be accepted in light of the harm that multiple bay‘as in Syria would do to jihadi unity.

Al-Baghdadi triumphant

To be sure, there are jihadi ideologues who have supported JN or taken a more neutral stance on the ISIS-AQC-JN debacle. Journalist Hussein Jamo has identified some of them. The momentum, however, both material and intellectual, appears to favor the Islamic State, al-Baghdadi, and his contempt for Zawahiri’s effort to restrain him.

The sudden ascendancy of al-Baghdadi marks a signal achievement for the defiantly reborn Islamic State. Contrary to popular perceptions, this achievement is in no way a triumph for AQC but rather comes at its expense. Al-Baghdadi, the rising standard-bearer of the jihadi ideology traditionally undergirding al-Qaeda, appears for the moment the triumphant leader of something quite distinct from an “al-Qaeda group.”

The once fledgling Islamic State of Iraq has appeared to be going strong again since its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, merged it with the jihadi efforts in Syria to become the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Although this merger was apparently rejected by Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the leader of the Syrian Jabhat al-Nusra, at first, things now seem to be going smoothly. (See here for a recent report on Syria’s military opposition, by the way.)

Since the start of the ISIS in April of this year, much support for this state and al-Baghadi has been expressed among jihadis across the world. Not everybody seems to be convinced, however, and apparently some still see the need to criticise al-Baghdadi as a proper leader of the ISIS. For this reason, Abu Hummam Bakr b. ‘Abd al-’Aziz al-Athari, one of the scholars who used to be on the Shari’a Council of the Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad (and in theory still is) but now just publishes random articles every now and then, has written a tract in which he makes the case for swearing fealty to al-Baghdadi. As such, it gives interesting insight into the question of leadership of an Islamic state.

The man

Al-Athari starts his case by singing the praises of al-Baghdadi’s background. First of all, he writes, Abu Bakr al-Qurashi al-Husayni al-Baghdadi is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad himself. Although this does not guarantee in any way that jihadis will like you – just think of the Jordanian and Moroccan royal families, who also claim to descend from Muhammad – it does give honorary status to al-Baghadi, which al-Athari stresses by citing hadiths in which the Prophet’s family is lauded.

Apart from al-Baghdadi’s family background, he is also a scholar of Islam according to al-Athari, having obtained an MA-degree in Qur’anic studies and a PhD in Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) and having written a book on tawhid (the unity of God). This comination of Islamic knowledge and Prophetic descent makes him a special man indeed, al-Athari claims.

The mujahid

Al-Baghdadi’s qualities cannot just be found in his person, but also in his activities as a jihad fighter. He has taught at several mosques in Iraq, where he also served as an imam and preacher, al-Athari states, and he has led several jihadi groups. He is also a member of the Majlis al-Shura (consultation council) of the mujahidun and heads the shari’a and judicial councils of the Islamic State in Iraq.

Besides mentioning the many jobs al-Baghdadi has, al-Athari stresses that his leadership of ISIS was achieved through the pledge of fealty by the state’s Majlis al-Shura and the scholars in it, who agreed that al-Baghdadi should succeed the previous two leaders, Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, to become the new amir.

In his various capacities, al-Baghdadi has actively resisted the American invasion of his country “against his religion and his honour” and was instrumental in setting up and organising the Islamic State of Iraq, which was ruled on the basis of the Qur’an and the Sunna, al-Athari claims.

Throughout the period that preceded his leadership, al-Athari states, al-Baghdadi tried hard to listen to people, both young and old, in order to make Islamic rule pleasant for them. As such, he met with tribal representatives, jihadi groups and militias and called on all of them to pledge fealty to his predecessor.

The amir

Despite the man’s alleged abundant qualities, al-Athari dedicates several pages to “proving” that al-Baghdadi is indeed suitable for the job of amir. He lists ten conditions for leadership: the amir should be male, free, an adult, sound of mind, just, courageous, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad’s Quraysh tribe, knowledgeable and suitable to lead the umma and serve its interests. Suffice to say, al-Athari believes that al-Baghdadi fits all the criteria.

Al-Athari then asks whether someone can actually be a good amir if not all Muslims have pledged fealty to him. He answers in the negative, stating that only the scholars responsible for this, the ahl al-hall wa-l-’aqd, need to swear their loyalty to him and even they needn’t necessarily all agree on this. The idea that all members of the ahl al-hall wa-l-’aqd should give their pledge of fealty (bay’a) to the amir is a Mu’tazilite idea, al-Athari claims, and the notion of popular support is derived from the concept of democracy. It will come as no surprise that al-Athari rejects both.

The fact that scholars from areas conquered by the ISIS may not necessarily endorse al-Baghdadi’s rule is no problem, al-Athari writes. These areas were not ruled by the shari’a, so the fact that al-Baghdadi’s state controls them now is great in and of itself, but even if these areas had been under shari’a rule, the consensus of the scholars is that the new ruler should be obeyed. The idea that al-Baghdadi is unknown to people and that this may hamper his ability to rule is false, al-Athari states, since he is not unknown at all. Even if this were the case, however, this would pose no problem to his leadership because individual people obviously do not have to know the leader personally to follow his rule.

Al-Baghdadi’s incomplete rule over Iraq and his lack of agreement with scholars in Syria about ISIS do not impede his leadership abilities either, according to al-Athari. The Prophet Muhammad did not rule everywhere on the Arabian Peninsula either and his leadership was certainly not in doubt. As for the scholars in Syria, al-Athari claims that the amir does not necessarily have to consult them to be allowed to incorporate this area into his state.

The caliph?

Al-Baghdadi’s descent of the Prophet Muhammad, his scholarly credentials and his actions as a mujahid who clearly builds his activities on the consensus of scholars and tries to work with others are the reasons why al-Athari believes he is such a great leader. He refutes all arguments that one may have against al-Baghdadi’s leadership and calls on Muslims in both Iraq and Syria to follow his lead and unite. In fact, al-Athari states that “we ask God that the time will come in which we will see our shaykh sitting on the thrown of the caliph”.

Much of this praise seems rooted in the idea that is also found in the work of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and the Shari’a Council he started – of which, as mentioned, al-Athari is nominally still a member – namely that jihad should be legitimate, effective and fruitful. In other words, it should consist of exactly the type of scholarly sanctioned, thoroughly considered and widely consolidated actions that al-Baghdadi apparently engages in. Al-Baghdadi seems to combine the qualities of a thinker with those of a fighter and, in a nutshell, therefore seems to be precisely the type of “philosopher jihadi”, to use Nelly Lahoud’s phrase, that scholars like al-Maqdisi and al-Athari are searching for.

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.

Attachment

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?”

In our earlier post, together with Ali Fisher we detailed and assessed 66 accounts listed by Shumukh al-Islam jihadi Forum member Ahmad ‘Abdallah as ‘important jihadist’ members on twitter. We looked primarily at the users individually, using the data of these 66 accounts to create this infographic to give our readers an overview of these users.

In this post we focus on what we are able to find out about them as a group and provide an interactive network map to show the links between these advocated ‘important jihadist’ twitter accounts.

Relational dynamics

Analysing the relational dynamics between these accounts as a group and those who choose to follow them is a key part of understanding the online strategies of The most important jihadi and support sites for jihad and the mujahideen on Twitter”.

As we identified previously, the accounts had been categorized in different types by Ahmad ‘Abdallah. This underlines the diverse range of information, which was recommended to further the jihadist endeavour in general. In addition to understanding the specific accounts, the data can be used to analyse the network of individuals who follow the 66 ‘important jihadist’ accounts. The relationships are important as they influence the way individuals search for information, what they find and the behaviours they adopt.

We began by identifying the followers of the 66 ‘important jihadist’ accounts. If each of these accounts were followed by a different group of Twitter users, then this would mean that collectively they were reaching 1.8 million users. However, @mujtahidd alone is followed by over 1.1 million followers, and the real number following the remaining important jihadi accounts is much lower than 700,000. This is because some users follow more than one of the ‘important jihadist’ accounts. Using network analysis, we found that the network following one or more of these accounts (excluding @mujtahidd) was 377235 users and 852948 follower/following relationships. The image below represents the network of important accounts and their respective followers. Each Twitter account is represented by a dot, and those with a follower / following relationship are connected by a line.

The graph (above) shows the network of users identified to be following at least one of the ‘important jihadist’ accounts (excluding @mujtahidd). The colours have been used to highlight the groups of users who follow the same users (or same combination of the 66 ‘important jihadist’ accounts). A quick view of the network image reinforces the previous observation that most of the users are following only one or two of these high-profile accounts in the jihadist online media mind-set. The importance of this combined approach is the ability to analyse the combinations of accounts which users have chosen to follow.

For example, this view of the network shows the concentration of user names near the bottom of the image, (highlighted in red) indicating that there are a number of accounts with fewer followers where the overlaps in follower groups are more pronounced. The Jabhat al-Nusra twitter account (discussed in greater detail here) also has a number of followers in common with the cluster of users highlighted.

Focusing on the Network of the 66 ‘important jihadist’ Accounts

In addition to the potential to look at the followers of the 66 accounts claimed to be ‘most important’ by the Shumukh al-Islam posting, their profiles and time zones, the relationships between these specific 66 accounts can also provide analysts with insights. For example, JbhatALnusra, WaleedGaj2002, AsadAljehad2 are most frequently followed by the 66 ‘important jihadist’ accounts. Conversely, SaveArakan4, Mhaajrr, housse_100, and alassra2012 appear on the list of the 66, but few other ‘important jihadist’ accounts follow them.  The ranking (shown below) is based on frequency of being followed by the 66 ‘important’ accounts are also reflected in the eigenvector calculations for the network. The relationships between the 66 accounts are shown in the image below, and be explored in greater detail by clicking on the image, which will open the interactive version. When using the interactive image, clicking on a node will focus on the connections of that user, double click to open the twitter account of that user.

Please note that the interactive image works best in the Chrome Browser.

The network as a whole represents 958 relationships between the 66 ‘important jihadist’ users with a network diameter of 5 (the distance between the furthest two nodes calculated on the directed graph). The network density is 0.2 on the directed graph (1 would represent a complete graph, where all connections would exist).

Key nodes in the network

In our previous post, we emphasized “we are analyzing these accounts that are defined in this [Shumukh al-Islam] posting as most important for jihadi sympathizers, but it does not necessarily mean that the individual Twitter accounts are an integral part of this worldview.” In this follow-up work, however, we, perhaps not surprisingly, found that the majority of the connected accounts are hard core jihadi media activists. From the above listed, we shall have a look at some of the high-profile hard core jihadist Twitter accounts.

As we analysed JbhatALnusra previously (here, here),  let’s have a look at

@WaleedGaj2002

The account has over 45,000 followers while only following 387. Apparently this is the account of “former Guantanamo detainee and eyewitness of the Qila-e-Jangji massacre in Afghanistan” Walid [Muhammad] al-Hajj, from Sudan. According to his latest tweets, he still seems to be on the same page as the mainstream al-Qa’ida jihadis are, appraising Bin Laden and being cherished by other Twitter members for having known the shaykh personally. For further details, here is an interview with al-Jazeera. He was released in 2008. His leaked file is available via The New York Times.

@Strategyaffairs

This is a prolific and quite industrious jihadi media activists with over 100,000 followers and just over a little of 4,000 tweets. He is also active in most classical jihadist forums as ‘Abdallah bin Muhammad. Occasionally he has tweeted statements by the Yemeni AQAP prior to the ‘official’ broadcast within the forums and contextualized as well as posted the statements both within the forums and Twitter. Other Shumukh al-Islam members, for instance, used his Twitter-input to further the AQAP statements within the forum raising @Strategyaffairs status in general (example).

@EYADQUNAIBI

Doctor Iyad Qunaybi is somewhat of a rising star within the radical on- and offline scene. He is active on all social media outlets and his videotaped speeches are also transcribed and published within the jihadist forums. He rose to fame within this subculture in the past year and a half during the troubled times in Egypt and also responded to the jihadi affairs of life in general. By being included on Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s database tawhed.ws, his standing was boosted. Few of his writings and audiobits are available on his author page on tawhed.ws under Iyad al-Qunaybi. His input is valued, re-tweeted and re-disseminated within the forums, on Facebook, and further published on sites such as justpaste.it, see here for example.

@as_ansar

This is the official Twitter account of the bi-lingual Shabakat al-Ansar al-Mujahideen. The main forum is in Arabic and down and out for some time now. The English forum works. With the main forum gone for the while being, this is a good example on how Twitter has become a tangible alternative to the media driven jihadists, for the Twitter accounts remain alive and very active with their over 26,000 followers, untouched by any disruptions of the forums. The YouTube link above is an “invitation to Muslims to visit the forum” and recommends and instructs the use of Tor to conceal one’s identity online.

@Al_nukhba

This account could be described as a jihadi media hub. The members, active on the forums for years, are highly committed and regularly produce transcriptions of jihadist media productions. This is naturally very helpful for any analyst but is also quite a service for the jihadi audience. Usually speeches of main leaders and ideologues as well as major video productions of as-Sahab, al-Malahem etc. are transcribed and can be conveniently downloaded as a PDF or Word document. For a first hand impression on the quantity and quality of this media department’s work, check out their contributions on the Shumukh al-Islam forum here.

On their main website data collections and videos can be downloaded and also searched for. It is a well built and maintained datawarehouse for extremist content that is first and foremost uploaded and disseminated via the classical forums. The Twitter account has about 6,000 followers, over 500 tweets, and is following no one.

This had been one of the pioneer jihadi Twitter accounts and advertised their social media passion as early as 2009. Perhaps the name nukhbat al-I’lami al-jihadi, “the Jihadi Media Elite”, stems from Abu Mus’ab al-Suri’s “Message to the British and European Peoples and Governments regarding the Explosions in London”, July 2005, where he outlined the Internet as the most important medium to propagate and spread the jihadists demands and frame of reference in general. He referred to “the jihadi elite” residing in Europe to partake in this venture.

The ‘betweenness’ calculation highlights those users through which the shortest paths across the network most frequently pass. These users are often found near the centre of the network image. From the perspective of ‘betweenness’, in addition to some of the users mentioned above, also appear to have an important role bridging between different elements of the network.

To provide some additional insight in this, here is some basic information on

@Caucasusaffairs

The name of this account is program, everything related to the Caucasus, the Caucasus Emirate (analysis) with the focus on Chechnya is published here in mainly Arabic but also Russian. With over 44,000 followers while following over 400 and about 8,000 tweets this account is a valuable asset besides the main forums and their pertaining subsections. It mainly retweets the Arabic language media outlet “Echo of Caucasus” which is one of the main media hubs in Arabic for many years. You may note the four fingered black hand on the yellow background, a symbol to the Rabaa al-Adawiya protest camp whereby many pro-Mursi citizens were killed in Egypt recently. For more on this topic, check out the fantastic Closer blog here. The use of this icon in the Chechen context is yet another attempt by the media savvy jihadists to globalize their agenda and serves as proof for the repeated claim of the “war against Islam”. In the meantime this icon has been further ‘jihadised’ by adding the typical black banner, see here for example.

What does this tell us?

The density of the network has two results. First it creates mutually reinforcing clusters of information which can crowd out other perspectives and contribute to the development of a zeitgeist, or a new electronic propaganda frontier, as discussed in relation to activity of Jabhat al-Nusra.

Second, the density of the network tends to protect it against basic disruption strategies, for example the removal or suspension of individual accounts. As Paul Baran’s work On Distributed Communications has demonstrated only a small level of redundancy is required to build a communications systems to withstand heavy enemy attacks. Although this work was done in the context of the 1960s and was particularly focused on challenges faced in the 1970s, the insight provided by the study also relates to online activity and the need for more complex strategies to disrupt dense communication networks.

Recently two videos emerged on Twitter of Denis Cuspert aka Dego Dogg aka Abu Maleeq aka Abu Talha al-Almani who is allegedly shown in Syria as part of a group called Junud al-Sham. Both videos are “trailers” with the promise of full versions to be released soon.

The first video, published on August 14th, is entitled “Abu Talha al-Almani Dokumentation Teaser”. The short clip was published by ShamCenter on YouTube and also disseminated via Twitter. It has been viewed about 180,000 times by August 25. As of August 28 it has over 190,000 views. It was also published with the Turkish title “Deso Dogg Suriye’de muhaliflerin safında Esed’e karşı savaşıyor” (“Deso Dogg fighting on the side of the opposition against al-Assad in Syria”). This had an additional 50,000 views as of August 25th and is up to over 90,000 views as of August 28.

The second video only has about 4,000 views as of 25 August and was also published by ShamCenter via YouTube and Twitter on August 20. This video is entitled “Abu Talha al-Almani Vortrag Trailer”, a preview of a forthcoming sermon for his fellow Mujahideen of the Junud al-Sham. In the description, the audience is reminded that this will be a “brief admonishment by your brother Abu Talha al-Almani.”

Twitter member @almnther posted a picture of Denis Cuspert, showing him before his reversion to Islam and transition as a “Salafist” now turned “jihadist”. The picture on the right shows the former rapper with limited fame after his migration to Syria.

The caption reads:

“He was one of the most famous rap singer in Germany, known as Deso Dogg. He embraced Islam and his name became Abu Malik with his nickname “Abu Talha al-Almani”. He left Germany for today he is [among] the rows of the Mujahideen in Syria.”

The picture on the left is taken from his album “all eyes on me” (sound bite here).

“Malik” was transliterated as “Maleeq”. When searching for “Abu Maleeq” on YouTube within the related SalafiMedia channels, the vast number of his appearances provides interesting insight into the progress of Cuspert’s reversion to Islam and his embrace of radicalism (see here, for example). It should be noted that the jihad music videos are sometimes enriched by pop-cultural aspects, or electronic game elements, such as the latest Call of Duty main theme which had been popular in jihadist circles (see here, other examples: Assassins Creed, Counter Strike, Facebook/CoD). His most recent Jihadi hit, al-Jannah al-Jannah, was published as usual by the Global Islamic Media Front and received some coverage in the German media. According to the article, German authorities warn that Cuspert has previously been involved in burglary, blackmail, armed robbery, assault, and manslaughter. “And today he doesn’t seem to be taking the rigid Islamic lifestyle too serious: investigators grade him as a “consumer of narcotics”, according to an internal LKA document.” As mostly the case, the “al-Jannah al-Jannah” nashid was advertised for on the Arabic and non-Arabic jihadist forums.

In the tweet, @almnther further states:

“to whoever looking at my tweets ((now)); repent to God; go forth to the land of jihad; await the extraordinary; embrace Islam, then go forth [to jihad], then fight. What will you do?”

Sham Center maintains a multilingual website of most likely German dominance where videos and news in general are posted, both from jihadi as well as mainstream media sources. Naturally, Twitter (note the German car sticker in the picture), Facebook, Google+, Skype (shamcenterinfo), email and other contact information is available.

The Twitter account has a mere 90 followers, with the majority consisting of mainly academics, journalists and CT analysts. The tweets replicate a typical jihadi style of content and rhetoric.

The Twitter activity consists of mostly provocative messages directed to German authorities (here) and some basic information on the conquest of parts of the area of the Jabal Akrad and Jabal Durin, as promoted in one of their videos in German, Russian, and Arabic. The claim to be soon advancing on the city of Latakia is repeated (visiting the German Mujahideen, Chechen fighters). The Chechen commander Abu al-Walid Muslim is prominently advertised by ShamCenter and is seen in a video explaining the territorial gains made in Russian (Arabic dubbed version here). Al-Walid has previously been one of the key leaders of the “Liwa’ al-Mujahideen bi ard al-Sham” (Latikia) and received some social media fame for his eulogy of a fellow Chechen explosives expert.

A German and Arabic language video of the attack and conquest of the Jabal Akrad and Durin was published by the Center and most tweets are related to the film (here, here, here).

The two videos

Let’s have a look at the first video, the “documentary about Abu Talha al-Almani”. The clip starts by visualizing his reversion to Islam, smiling into the camera with his “Thug Life” shirt and his movie styled crew before committing – what seems like – some kind of robbery. The title “A Documentary about Abu Talha al-Almani” flashes into the screen, summarized by the statement, “from the darkness, into the light.” This scene is concluded by Cuspert in his make-shift combat fatigue, sitting at a natural water spring splashing with water.

The teaser starts with an Arabic nashid which is then carried on in German by Cuspert smiling and claiming to now reside in the “land of honor” (Boden der Ehre), calling to Jihad in Syria. This is a reference to two German jihad videos of the same title by the Chouka brothers from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

The second video with far lesser views is of a more serious nature with Abu Talha being presented as both a real-deal mujahid and an ideologue who will give a lengthier sermon in the forthcoming film. Cuspert allegedly joined up with an unkown group called Junud al-Sham (“The Soldiers of al-Sham”, in short a reference to greater Syria). The video starts with a masked man hushing the audience to be silent, switching to perhaps the same water spring in the first video. It states “in cooperation with Junud ash-Sham, a talk by Abu Talha al-Almani: Holiday Greetings (Urlaubsgrüße)”. The following scene shows Cuspert in a military outfit, armed with a commando version of the AK47 marching in a forest area with an armed troop detail following in line. Most of the men are masked with last guy carrying a small AQ / ISI (or ISIS) flag. The “trailer” concludes with Cuspert sitting and apparently lecturing these Mujahideen who he has just, according to the video, led to this meeting point.

A very brief note on Denis Cuspert, aka Abu Talha al-Almani

Denis Cuspert, born 1975, (Deso Dogg) renounced his former rap-star career in an emotional video some time ago before he then started to rise as a new German-language nashid singer. He chose the name Abu Maleeq and is now known as Abu Talha al-Almani. At least in his hometown Berlin he was a known rapper and has become “somewhat as the first Jihad-Pop Star of Germany” (Schmidt, 2012).

He seemed to have been ideologically guided by his companion and leader, the Austro-Egyptian Mohammed Mahmoud (Steinberg, 2012), who took advantage of Deso Dogg’s musical skills to convey specific ideological notions and sentiments by nashid. A nashid is an a cappella styled Jihad-rhyme that in the meantime is an essential genre on- and offline to convey the content of jihadist ideology (for example here). Such battle-songs became popular during the 1980s but have since gained broader popularity thanks to online dissemination. German nashid, freely available on YouTube, are easy to comprehend, rhythmical, and contain religious Arabic code words. The effect of the ideological content is strengthened and emphasized by pictures or short video sequences. The ambition of Deso Dogg certainly is and had been to be one of the most important German nashid singers. The perhaps most impressive German hymn is “mother remain steadfast” (Mutter bleibe standhaft), recorded by Mounir Chouka, originally from Bonn, who is one of the key German media activists for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. He and his brother Yassin produce lots of videos and nashid from their base in the Pakistani Tribal areas (Prucha, 2012).

Deso Doggs appearance in two trailers, claiming to have travelled to Syria and joined the Junud al-Sham is intended to portray him as a mujahid who acts on his words and who now finally has the chance to engage in combat. The question remains for now to what extent he will fight, or even if he will fight at all, and go beyond acting merely as a media-mujahid / singer and preacher for the cameras, splashing around in waterfalls.

 

Al-Qaida Advises the Arab Spring: Al-Maqdisi

Posted: 23rd August 2013 by Joas Wagemakers in democracy, Ideological trends, Jordan

As Cole Bunzel pointed out some time ago, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the famous Jordanian radical Salafi scholar, has published several fatwas and other documents in the last few months. Cole mainly dealt with only two of al-Maqdisi’s recent publications, however, while there are several others he wrote afterwards that are quite interesting as well.

Joining rallies

Several months ago, al-Maqdisi started publishing a series of short documents containing one or more fatwas. It’s not clear who’s asking the questions, but this doesn’t make his answers any less interesting. In the first installment of the series, al-Maqdisi discusses questions that are quite similar to some that his brother in arms Abu l-Mundhir al-Shinqiti also dealt with several years ago, namely whether or not it is allowed to participate in rallies against the regime. Al-Maqdisi’s answer is similar to al-Shinqiti’s – it is allowed – but far more detailed.

Al-Maqdisi states that every period in history has its own methods and weapons to demand people’s rights and that one would be foolish not to make use of these. The period that we are in now – that of the Arab Spring – has shown, al-Maqdisi states, that the regimes in the Arab world fear the masses. In fact, the revolutions that have taken place are based on these massive demonstrations against the regimes, al-Maqdisi maintains.

He further claims that Muslim scholars have stated that every legitimate method that instills fear in the enemies of Islam can and should be used as a means to repell them and wage jihad against them. If mass rallies in which people demand their rights, call for the application of the shari’a, insist on fighting corruption or ask for help for the Syrian people constitute such methods, then Muslims should use them.

Al-Maqdisi subsequently mentions several hadiths to “prove” that Islam allows instilling fear in the hearts of the Muslims’ enemies. Al-Maqdisi would not be al-Maqdisi, however, if he didn’t add that jihadis should try to coordinate such activities and organise them well so that no sinful things will happen and the enemy is not able to drive a wedge between them.

Alliances

The emphasis on unity among Muslims is an issue that al-Maqdisi dwells on further in his answer to the second question of the same document. Asked whether Muslims are allowed to enter alliances with other (non-Salafi) Islamist movements, al-Maqdisi again answers in the affirmative. Interestingly, the questioner draws a parallel with the hilf al-fudul, an alliance between several polytheist Qurashi clans during the life of the Prophet Muhammad. The latter is said to have claimed later in life that, had he been given the chance, he would have joined this alliance. This suggests that the Prophet would not have objected to alliances with polytheists.

The interesting aspect about the hilf al-fudul and Muhammad’s comments on it for our discussion here is that they are sometimes used as prophetic legitimisation of “political” cooperation between Muslims and non-Muslims. Islamists have sometimes used this example as a justification of their willingness to engage in the parliamentary politics of secular or less than perfectly Islamic states. Jihadi-Salafis have always rejected the parallels between this example and modern-day politics, which makes al-Maqdisi’s response all the more surprising.

Al-Maqdisi quickly makes clear, however, that such alliances should be forged with Islamic movements – not with “apostate” regimes – and should serve the propagation of Islam (da’wa). Any cooperation, moreover, should be based on piety and, of course, nothing can be done that violates the absolute unity of God (tawhid).

For the same reason, al-Maqdisi also allows people to ask the authorities for permission to set up charitable organisations. As long as Islam is served by it and no Islamic rules are violated in asking for such permission, one should not be like the “zealots” (mutashaddidun) who forbid such requests, simply because they are directed at “apostate” regimes. Al-Maqdisi has long maintained that not all rules in non-Islamic states are necessarily bad or “anti-Islamic” and laws that allow people to do good and pious things through charitable organisations are apparently among the “good” laws.

Organisation

Another question deals with the organisation of jihadis. How does al-Maqdisi feel about organising their affairs by setting up a council (majlis) for every region, with a media spokesperson for all of them? Given al-Maqdisi’s tendency to stress organisation and collective efforts in his writings, he wastes no time in saying that “the true scholars” see this as “one of the most necessary duties”.

Al-Maqdisi stresses, based on several hadiths, that every group, no matter how small, should have a leader and contends that if “the ant and the bee” live in a very organised way, so should human beings. (The more Biblically inclined readers of Jihadica may recognise a touch of Solomon in this remark, by the way, of which a partial Qur’anic parallel can be found in Q. 27: 18-19.)

Palace scholars

A second important treatise that al-Maqdisi published recently deals with a fatwa written by what al-Maqdisi calls “palace scholars” (my rough translation of ‘ulama’ al-sulta). This fatwa was published by the General Fatwa Department in Jordan and seems to be part of a wider effort by Jordanian Muslim scholars to provide so-called “moderate Islam” with theological underpinnings. This process was kicked off by the “Amman Message”, a speech by the Jordanian King ‘Abdallah II on what Islam is all about, delivered in 2004.

Since 2004, King ‘Abdallah II has presided over several meetings with Muslim scholars who denounce radical Islam and provide a more tolerant alternative. As the people who follow me on Twitter know, a major meeting with scholars from all over the world was held just this week in Amman (see here and here, for example). Al-Maqdisi has explicitly denounced the Amman Message in a separate treatise. Although neither is explicitly linked to the Arab Spring, they were published this year and deal with issues that are quite relevant for the post-revolutionary phase that several Arab countries are in right now.

Al-Maqdisi believes that Islam is complete and perfect the way it is and that any additions to it, for example in the form of the Amman Message, are entirely unnecessary and even sinful. Moreover, the brotherhood and tolerance that is spoken of in the Amman Message should, in al-Maqdisi’s view, not be extended to non-Muslims but should strictly apply to Muslims only. There is, furthermore, no equality between Muslims and adherents to other religions. Such talk, al-Maqdisi claims, deviates from the shari’a and should have no place in Islam.

The type of scholars who support these messages are also responsible for the fatwa of the General Fatwa Department mentioned earlier. They claim that elections are legitimate and Islamic means to choose representatives in parliament that even the companions of the Prophet Muhammad used. Al-Maqdisi disagrees with this, of course, since he believes that democracy gives people the power t0 legislate, which is a right that belongs only to God. Democracy therefore infringes on God’s sole right to be sovereign in every sphere of life, which in turn violates his absolute unity. This is polytheism (shirk), which cannot be forgiven.

Shura and ‘Urafa’

He further contests the scholars’ use of shura (consultation), which many Islamists see as an Islamic form of democracy since the idea behind it is to ask people for advice before taking a decision. Al-Maqdisi claims, however, that shura only means consultation in areas in which the shari’a is not clear; whenever there is a clear rule, this should simply be followed. Thus, al-Maqdisi claims, shura is consultation within the bounds of the shari’a, while democracy is people power within the limits of a secular constitution.

Al-Maqdisi further objects to the scholars’ use of the term ‘arif (pl. ‘urafa’) to describe members of parliament (MPs). ‘Urafa’ in early Islam were civil or military leaders recognised by Muhammad. By equating MPs with these ‘urafa’, the scholars seem to legitimise the former on Islamic grounds. Al-Maqdisi dismisses this comparison, however, since MPs are engaged in creating “un-Islamic” legislation, while ‘urafa’ were not. If MPs were truly ‘urafa’, they would refrain from making “man-made laws”, al-Maqdisi maintains. The job of MP, in short, is kufr (unbelief), although al-Maqdisi explicitly denies calling every voter an unbeliever.

While the Arab Spring has brought new challenges and new opportunities, al-Maqdisi thus sticks to his old ideas. He is willing to adopt new measures in the new circumstances that the Arab Spring has brought about, but still rejects democracy in every form. Although it is unlikely to change his mind, it would be interesting to see if al-Maqdisi could keep up this attitude if real democracy were ever to take root in countries such as Egypt and Syria. With the situation being as it is now, however, it seems unlikely that al-Maqdisi will ever see that day.