A Crash Course in Jihadi Theory (Part 2)

In the first part of this series on a book describing what every jihadi ought to know, we saw that the authors of the book, the Shari’a Council of the Jama’at al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad in Gaza, initially seemed to give a purely religious description of things but quickly moved on to the political relevance of what they were saying. In a response to this post, one reader stated that their words were “just a rehash of Qutb”. He has a good point. In Qutb’s famous Milestones (Ma’alim fi l-Tariq), the author does indeed point out that those who fail to rule according to the shari’a and use man-made laws instead are claiming God’s sovereignty (hakimiyya), thereby turning themselves into gods or idols (tawaghit), just like we saw in the previous post. The scholars of the Jama’at al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad go further, however, and show that they have much more detailed ideas than Qutb ever wrote down about such issues, as we will see below.

Judgement and Legislation

Unlike Qutb, the book dealt with in this post gives a much more detailed description of “un-Islamic” rules, laws and legislation and what judging “according to what God has sent down” (Q. 5: 44, an important verse for Qutb and other Islamists) means and distinguishes between “judgment” and “legislation”. The authors point out that, whereas a wrong judgment can be made for several reasons and therefore does not automatically amount to unbelief (kufr) of the person responsible for it, the term “legislation” denotes a system of laws that – when applied in the service of anyone or anything other than God – means that its legislator is placed outside Islam.

After discussing the exact definition of “legislation” and several other issues, the scholars move on to one of the major questions related to the issue of “un-Islamic” legislation: when can something be called “major unbelief” (kufr akbar) and when is it simply “minor unbelief” (kufr asghar)? The difference between the two is that the former places the culprit outside Islam, while the latter merely entails that he is guilty of something awful but not so bad as to expel him from the religion altogether. Perhaps not surprisingly, the list of legislative sins that amount to “major unbelief” is much longer than the list of “minor unbelief” categories. Although the discussion is more detailed and nuanced than can be discussed here, most forms of “major unbelief” entail that the legislator shows that he actually believes “man-made laws” to be superior to the Islamic shari’a, which is a blatant form of kufr. While other Muslim scholars often state that one cannot possibly know a person’s real intentions, that one should therefore be extremely careful in ascribing “un-Islamic” motives to rulers and legislators and that, subsequently, the application of the label “major unbelief” to sinful acts should be highly limited, the authors have different ideas. They contend that certain actions betray a ruler’s true beliefs, making it possible for others to determine whether his “man-made laws” are simply mistakes or are actually forms of unbelief. One example of this (mentioned on p. 81 of the book), is when rulers exchange the shari’a for an entirely different system of laws. This, according to the authors, makes it obvious that the legislator doesn’t want to have anything to do with the shari’a anymore, which constitutes a form of “major unbelief”.

Overthrow the rulers, unless…

The authors’ conclusion of this discussion on different types of kufr is that the rulers of our day and age are guilty of acts of unbelief and apostasy (ridda) because they, among other things, supposedly apply legislation on the basis of “other than what God has revealed” (bi-ghayr ma anazala llah), use constitutions and adhere to international law. This, in turn, means that they may be overthrown. The authors, however, set two conditions for overthrowing the rulers, of which especially the second one is interesting. The first condition tells the reader that the ruler must be guilty of clear (major) unbelief that can be proven. The second condition, however, states that overthrowing the ruler should “cause the strength that enables the Muslims to overthrow [the ruler] to increase”. In other words, the authors seem to point out that radicals wanting to topple a regime should not do so unless they will actually be strengthened by it and replace the “infidel” president or king by “a Muslim ruler who governs them according to the Qur’an and the Sunna”. This apparently excludes simply killing a president or king, since such random actions are unlikely to create an Islamic state. The authors do state, however, that if Muslims’ power is increased by toppling a ruler, they really have no other choice than to do so.

The Imamate

Quite conveniently, the authors also provide an alternative to the regimes that ought to be overthrown: the imamate (Islamic leadership). Quoting the great Ibn Khaldun to point out the difference between Islamic leadership and ordinary kingship, they state that the imamate is meant to establish Islam by spreading, propagating and defending it on the one hand and applying it through the application of the shari’a on the other. The imam himself (i.e. the leader of the Muslims, not to be confused with a prayer leader in a mosque) also needs to fit a certain profile: he should be a Muslim who has come of age, should be in his right mind, must be knowledgeable of the shari’a and he should also be just, among other things. He also has duties and enjoys certain rights, among them the right to be obeyed and advised.

Possibly in order to complete the picture, the authors also include the possibility that the imam himself is overthrown, which may be done if he is guilty of the major unbelief mentioned before, and list the conditions under which this may be done. Although the authors list four different groups willing to overthrow the rulers, of which only one would do so justifiably, they nevertheless leave open the possibility that even the imam himself may not be up to scratch. This brings us to the option of declaring the ruler to be an unbeliever (kafir), i.e. the issue of excommunication (takfir), which will be discussed next time.

To be continued…

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11 Responses

  1. I really appreciate this series, thanks for doing it. Is there any discussion of a mechanism for actually selecting the imam, or just the basic principles for what he should be like?

  2. Very fascinating discussion regarding kufr akbar and kufr asghar. This further suggests that the global jihadists have matured in their understanding of Islamic theory and establishing a fifth school of Islamic law.

    Also, regarding the overthrow of rulers, it appears they have learned from the mistakes of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Farrag’s experience and their failure following the assassination of President Sadat to take power.

    Thanks again for posting this insightful commentary on Jama’at al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad in Gaza’s recent book.

  3. Aron: you’re very welcome. The mechanism for choosing a new imam is actually discussed briefly in the book. The authors offer three options: choosing a new imam, which should be done by “the people who choose and bind” (ahl al-hall wa-l-‘aqd, i.e. the people who have been burdened with choosing a new leader); succession of the previous imam, with the ahl al-hall wa-l-‘aqd declaring their loyalty to him; and through an oath of loyalty (bay’a) to a new imam, meaning that people will listen to and obey him.
    Aaron: my pleasure. I agree that one of the things this books shows is that jihadis have developed beyond the ideas of Qutb, ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj etc., have become more sophisticated and have learned from their mistakes, although this obviously doesn’t apply to all of them. I don’t think, however, that jihadis are in the process of setting up a fifth school of Islamic law. The ideas on kufr akbar and kufr ashgar they use are quite old and discussions on different kinds of unbelief and various types of sin can be found in the writings of Abu Hanifa and other classical scholars as well.
    ‘Amil lil-Rajul: thanks. The Qurashi requirement is indeed mentioned, although only as the last item on the list and very briefly.

  4. Aoron, the detailing of Kufr akbar and Asghar is not new. From 6 centuary this concept has been a part of mainstram Islam and all early jurisprudents inc the 4 imams of the schools have dealt with it. The Quraisii requirment is also old centuary all 4 claiphs wer qurashi.

  5. Joas: Thanks for your comments. From my understanding of the madhahib is that one can cite other scholars from other schools. And I was not trying to say there is a coherent fifth school just that it might be in its infancy if this movement stays around for some time.

    Early Man: Yes, I know that it is not a new term or was suggesting that it was the case. I just thought the discussion of it was interesting.

  6. Joas, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this book and the Islamic State of Iraq’s ‘Informing the People About the Islamic State of Iraq’ which addresses many of the more practical issues you’ve discussed and comes to similar conclusions about succession, choosing an Imam, etc.

    I think a key element of these takfir discussions is not just what the conditions are that qualify someone to be declared kufr, but who is qualified to make that judgment. This will be a key rift among jihadis going forward.

    Best–and great work.

  7. Brian: though I haven’t read the book you refer to, I would guess that it is quite similar to the book I discuss above in the sense of trying to apply a broad ideology to a practical situation in a certain context. The fact that it mentions many of the same issues is therefore not surprising.
    I agree that the question of who is qualified to judge on issues of kufr and takfir is quite important and will indeed be a major issue among jihadis. It has already been a topic of discussion in relation to the issue of jihadi scholars vs. jihadi activists. Both claim to be qualified to speak about jihad but they sometimes contest each other’s authority to do so.

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