A Note on Usama Bin Ladin’s 1998 Declaration of War: al-Kisa’i vs. al-Kasani

[Editor’s note: I am very pleased to introduce a new guest contributor, Sayeed Rahman, a Yale PhD and a fellow with the Truman National Security Project.]

A number of translations analyze and annotate Usama Bin Ladin’s 1998 statement declaring war against the United States and her allies (see here, here, here, here and here). The original Arabic source for this declaration is the February 23, 1998 edition of the London based newspaper al-Quds al-`Arabi.  After citing Qur’anic verses and hadith to support the legitimacy of his call to arms, Bin Ladin and the other signatories cite four well-known post-formative Sunni Muslim jurists to bolster their claim that jihad is an individual duty (fard al-`ayn) when Muslim countries are attacked.  Among the scholars cited is an individual named “al-Kisa’i” and his work al-Bada’i`.  The identification of this al-Kisa’i has eluded American translators.  For reasons I discuss below, I believe this individual to be the Hanafi jurist `Abu Bakr Ibn Mas`ud al-Kasani (d. 1191) and the work referred to is his multi-volume legal compendium Bada’i` al-sana’i` fi tartib al-shara’i`.  This difficulty in identification goes back to the original al-Quds al-`Arabi article in which al-Kasani’s name is misspelled “al-Kisa’i.”  The omission of an alif and mistyping a hamza for a nun plausibly explain this error.    

Among the American translators of this work, Bruce Lawrence, in his reader on Bin Ladin (Messages to the World, p. 60) notes that “al-Kisa’i wrote his book in the 11th century, but very little is known about him outside of his work, which tells numerous stories from the time of the Prophet.”  Although he does not explicitly say so, it appears that Lawrence believes this al-Kisa’i to be the author of the Qisas al-anbiya’ (Tales of the Prophets), a collection of tales about prophets prior to Islam’s messenger, Muhammad.  When this al-Kisa’i lived is not known, but a common opinion holds that he composed the Qisas by 1200.  John Kelsay, in his chapter “Arguments Concerning Resistance in Contemporary Islam,” gives this al-Kisa’i a death date of 805 but offers no further information about him (Ethics of War, p. 69).  Kelsay’s assignment of 805 as his death date implies that he believes this al-Kisa’i is the Qur’an reciter and grammarian Abu al-Hasan `Ali al-Kisa’i (d. 805).  Raymond Ibrahim’s Al Qaeda Reader, which provides a glossary of terms and people mentioned in it, does not attempt to identify al-Kisa’i or his work.  Finally, the translation of this declaration in Al Qaeda in Its Own Words (p. 54) does identify al-Kasani as I have, but it provides no basis for its identification and its variance with those of the aforementioned authors. 

Can a definitive identification of this al-Kasani be made?  Lawrence’s identification of al-Kisa’i as the eleventh-century author of the Qisas and Kelsay’s identification of al-Kisa’i as a grammarian who died in 805 are both untenable for the following reasons:  al-Kasani’s Bada’i` treats individually obligatory jihad; his work was well-known to the signatories of this declaration; and finally, citing al-Kasani fits with the overall purpose of the 1998 declaration.

Al-Kasani’s Bada’i` has a long section explaining why jihad is generally a fard al-kifaya but ends with a short passage explaining when jihad becomes a fard al-`ayn (see 9:382 of the 2003 Dar al-Kutub al-`Ilmiyyah edition).  This indicates that al-Kasani is the author intended by the declaration and not al-Kisa’i.  Moreover, al-Kasani and his Bada’i` would have been familiar to the signatories of this declaration.  Abdullah Azzam (d. 1989), whose writings were certainly well-known to Bin Ladin and al-Zawahiri, cites al-Kasani’s Bada’i` in support of the obligation of individual jihad in a number of his works, and later writings by members of al-Qaida also cite al-Kasani’s Bada’i` for the same purpose.

Finally, it is clear that in this declaration Bin Ladin and other signatories are attempting to garner support for their position among Sunni Muslims worldwide by citing famous post-formative Sunni jurists.  The first is the well-known Hanbali jurist Ibn Qudamah (d. 1223) and his multi-volume legal work al-Mughni.  The second is al-Kasani and his work al-Bada’i`.  The third jurist noted is the Maliki jurist al-Qurtubi (d. 1273); the authors of the declaration claim that his legal exegesis of the Qur’an (tafsirihi), the famous Ahkam al-Qur’an, supports their position.  The fourth and final jurist cited is Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328), another Hanbali jurist, who is referred to by the honorific Shaykh al-Islam.  The text of the declaration provides a quote from Ibn Taymiyyah and cites “his selections” (wa-naqala dhalika…fi ikhityaratihi) as the source for this quote.  This is likely a reference to a selection of Ibn Taymiyyah’s legal positions available under variations of the title al-Ikhtiyarat compiled by a later Hanbali scholar named Abu al-Hasan `Ali al-Ba`li (d. 1400).  The function of citing these Sunni jurists is undoubtedly to appeal to all Sunni Muslims and to justify the reasoning of the signatories.  The authors of the declaration would gain no support for their position by citing non-jurists such as al-Kisa’i the compiler of stories or al-Kisa’i the grammarian.

A greater mystery than al-Kasani’s identity remains.  In an appeal to the entire Sunni Muslim world through the citation of esteemed Sunni jurists, why are representatives of only three of the four Sunni schools mentioned?  Two Hanbali scholars, a Maliki, and a Hanafi are referenced.  Why is there no mention of a Shafi`i jurist?  Without a doubt, the signatories of this statement knew the works of Shafi`i jurists that could be presented in support of their position.  That they neglected to cite even one such jurist might indicate that the declaration was rushed, a possibility that would shed light on the misspelling of al-Kasani’s name as well.  


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3 Responses

  1. It might be of some interest in this context that Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi (d. 2006) referred to al-Kâsâni’s “Badâ” al-Sanâ’i” in his speech “Wa-‘âda ahfâd Ibn al-‘Alqami” (2005).

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