A purity contest: Abu Basir and al-Maqdisi slug it out

The policies of the Islamic State (IS) have already led to some fierce debates and scholarly disputes among radical Islamic ideologues. This post looks at one of these disputes that is interesting for various reasons, one of them being that it takes place not between proponents and opponents of IS, but between two men who are both critics of IS.

Regular readers of Jihadica will recall that one of the latest developments in the discussions surrounding the Islamic State, as Cole Bunzel recently pointed out, is the Mauritanian scholar Abu l-Mundhir al-Shinqiti’s reversal on IS. Whereas al-Shinqiti used to be a strong supporter of what was then still called the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), the latter’s announcement of the caliphate apparently caused him to switch sides.

As Cole pointed out, there were some doubts about the authenticity of al-Shinqiti’s critical book of the caliphate. These doubts seemed to fade, however, when the Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad, the website that belongs to Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and whose Shari’a Council‘s question and answer forum was once more or less dominated by al-Shinqiti, published a communiqué on his behalf, stating that another book had falsely been attributed to him. The communiqué also included words from al-Shinqiti, claiming that he had requested the Minbar to publish this message himself.

This renewed connection between the Minbar and al-Shinqiti, who had not issued a fatwa on the Shari’a Council’s behalf since he strongly came out in favour of ISIS – which al-Maqdisi opposed – in 2013, was confirmed in mid-August of this year, when the Minbar issued another communiqué. This time, the Minbar openly stated that al-Shinqiti “will return to answering questions” on behalf of its Shari’a Council “soon, with God’s permission”. The communiqué even went so far as to ask another IS-affiliated ideologue and former member of the Council, the Bahreini Abu Bakr Humam b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Athari, to rejoin them. While the latter has not actually done so, al-Shinqiti’s latest writings can now indeed be found on the Minbar again.

Minbar, minbar on the wall…

So far, so good, one might say if one took a radical Islamist perspective. Not so. Long-time critic of ISIS/IS Abu Basir al-Tartusi, whose views on the group can be seen here and here, is highly critical of this reconciliation between al-Shinqiti and the Minbar. In a recently released communiqué, Abu Basir wonders how al-Maqdisi’s often-expressed “warning against extremism and extremists” (see here, for example) can be reconciled with his website’s renewed acceptance of scholars such as al-Shinqiti and perhaps al-Athari too. How can the Minbar be represented by men who support the Islamic State? The Minbar – whether al-Maqdisi is still in control of it or not – cannot accept this, Abu Basir states.

The subjects of Abu Basir’s ire, the Minbar and al-Maqdisi, kept quiet for some time after this. The latter did, however, publish a letter addressed directly to mujahidun in Syria, in which – “without looking at the faction that you have pledged fealty to or have joined” – he warns fighters against excesses and extremism. Instead, he calls on them to keep jihad pure by not straying into any kind of deviance and says he feels compelled to speak out on this. None of this is particularly strange coming from al-Maqdisi and you might think that especially his emphasis on the purity of jihad should not be controversial with generally like-minded ideologues such as Abu Basir. Well, think again.

…who’s the purest of them all?

In late August, Abu Basir published “remarks” about al-Maqdisi’s letter. Although this is not the first time the two men engaged in an ideological debate – see here for an analysis of their discussion of ignorance as an excuse for committing acts of unbelief – the tone is somewhat harsher this time. Abu Basir seems to make an effort to portray himself as more nuanced in his ideas than al-Maqdisi. In what amounts to a doctrinal purity contest, Abu Basir criticises al-Maqdisi for the latter’s statement that he and his books are “among the most prominent” and “the most famous” in Jihadi-Salafism. If this is true, Abu Basir asks, where does this leave the first three generations of Islam (the pious predecessors (al-salaf al-salih)) and the works of mediaeval scholars like Ibn Taymiyya, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya and others?

Abu Basir further scolds al-Maqdisi for not naming the jihadi factions he criticises in his letter. “Who are these factions that fight in Syria?”, Abu Basir asks, wondering whether al-Maqdisi sees them as unbelievers or not. Al-Maqdisi’s unwillingness to name these groups, Abu Basir claims, will only confuse the young men in Syria, leading them to excommunicate whoever they wish and ascribe their verdicts to him. This is obviously a stinging attack from Abu Basir on al-Maqdisi, knowing that the latter has often warned against the casual use of excommunication (takfir) and that such behaviour is one of the main reasons that caused al-Maqdisi to speak out against some jihadis.

This line of thinking is taken even further by Abu Basir when he cites al-Maqdisi’s words about there being “deviance” among “most of the fighting factions in Syria today”. Abu Basir wonders who these factions might be and asks whether al-Maqdisi, who apparently sees deviance among most groups in Syria, isn’t doing exactly what “extremists” are doing too, namely criticising others for their doctrinal impurity. He states that al-Maqdisi’s words can only be explained in two ways: al-Maqdisi believes that the “deviance” he discerns among fighting factions is either less serious than unbelief (kufr) or equal to unbelief. In the first case, there is no reason to warn Muslims against them, while in the second case al-Maqdisi is applying takfir to them, which – again – is precisely what the “extremists” against whom al-Maqdisi warns do so often. In effect, Abu Basir is thus suggesting that al-Maqdisi is expressing sentiments that are just as extreme as those of his ideological enemies. Given Abu Basir’s earlier criticism of the Minbar’s re-acceptance of al-Shinqiti, this may well have been intended as an attempt to show how the Minbar and its owner are slowly but surely being drawn into IS’s supposedly extremist camp.

Al-Maqdisi responds

Although al-Maqdisi did not respond to Abu Basir’s earlier criticism of the Minbar’s decision to allow al-Shinqiti back on its Shari’a Council, he did respond to al-Tartusi’s latest critique. In his “Remarks about the remarks of shaykh Abu Basir”, he dismisses his detractor’s words suggesting that he sees himself as greater than Ibn Taymiyya and others. “I’m [merely] talking about the modern trend [of Jihadi-Salafism] in which I and my books have played a prominent role”, al-Maqdisi states, “which even my enemies do not deny”. Al-Maqdisi repeatedly expresses amazement at what he sees as Abu Basir’s apparent unwillingness to understand his choice of words. He lists several issues on which he slightly disagrees with Abu Basir and wonders whether al-Tartusi wants to discuss all of these in detail as well.

Al-Maqdisi’s amazement increases as his letter goes on to the question of fighting factions in Syria. “I’m really astonished about you, Abu Basir”, he writes. “Do you only know, see or believe the perversions of IS and the extremists in religion?” Al-Maqdisi goes on to list several secular factions in Syria that supposedly cooperate with “apostate” regimes. “If these are good to you and deserve respect and support, what purity of method has remained with you and what purity of banner has been left with you!??” Al-Maqdisi further states that he acknowledges that many fighters are good people and that he does not apply takfir to the majority of them at all.

The core of Abu Basir’s problem, al-Maqdisi claims, is that he doesn’t see the positive intentions in his writings. Al-Maqdisi seems to understand Abu Basir’s appartent attempt to portray him as an “extremist” and links this issue to al-Tartusi’s earlier criticism of the Minbar’s decision to allow al-Shinqiti back on the Shari’a Council. “Despite the fact that Abu l-Mundhir [al-Shinqiti] has retracted his words and has corrected his position [on IS], Abu Basir insists on tarnishing him as a Khariji [extremist].” Al-Shinqiti, al-Maqdisi states, has rejected IS and has withdrawn his support for them after he saw what they did. “Is is fair to continue to defame him in spite of this??”, al-Maqdisi asks, only to add sarcastically, “oh, you who writes about good manners of criticism and advice in Islam!!”

Brothers slugging it out

Although both men end their criticism with brotherly words, it is clear that they annoy each other with their statements and actions. This may well continue, since al-Maqdisi penned two more letters related to IS just a few days ago. One of them is “Advice to the Sensible Ones among the Supporters of ISIS”, in which he calls on them to refrain from excessive violence and takfir and focus on the real enemy instead. In the other, al-Maqdisi goes so far as to criticise shaykh Sa’d al-Shithri for the latter’s “extreme” criticism of IS. While al-Maqdisi acknowledges that IS has made many mistakes, he refuses to go so far as to label IS “apostate” and “unbelieving” and to state that they are “greater in unbelief than the Jews, than the Christians and, in fact, than the polytheists”, as al-Shithri apparently stated.

This continued advice to stay away from “extremism”, the willingness to appeal to “the good guys” among IS’s supporters and the rejection of excessive criticism are all vintage al-Maqdisi. To Abu Basir, however, they may be further proof that al-Maqdisi and the Minbar are starting to lose their marbles. Being as it is, one can already conclude that the subject of IS has not only divided radical Islamists but has apparently even divided some of the group’s opponents. This can only increase if this dispute escalates even further.

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