Al-Qaeda’s Quasi-Caliph: The Recasting of Mullah ‘Umar

The Islamic State’s June 29 declaration of a caliphate has yet to win mass support among the global jihadi community but it has succeeded in provoking an embattled al-Qaeda leadership to respond—in unforeseen fashion. Rather than immediately denouncing the Islamic State’s new “caliphate” as one would have expected, al-Qaeda has responded in kind: that is, with the proposition of a counter-caliph of sorts.

The mooted quasi-caliph is none other than Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad ‘Umar, head of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan since 1996. Like the Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Mullah ‘Umar holds the title amir al-mu’minin (commander of the believers), the traditional title of caliphs in Islamic history. The Afghan amir’s title has rarely seemed more than rhetorical but over the last week al-Qaeda has played up the ambiguity of the title. It has reaffirmed its loyalty to Mullah ‘Umar and distributed a video of Osama bin Laden describing him as essentially caliph. Naturally, Islamic State supporters are up in arms at the suggestion of a challenger to Baghdadi.

Old video, new newsletter

Two developments in mid-July have given the impression that al-Qaeda is attempting to recast Mullah ‘Umar as quasi-caliph. The first of these was the July 13 release by its official al-Sahab Media Foundation of an old video of Osama bin Laden. The poor-quality film, 70 minutes in duration, is from mid-June 2001, and shows Bin Laden delivering a lecture on the significance of a recent meeting between George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Al-Sahab gave no reason for releasing the video, but Islamic State supporters claim to have discovered the motive—to use Bin Laden to dispute Baghdadi’s claim to the caliphate.

In the question-and-answer session following Bin Laden’s lecture, a questioner asks the al-Qaeda leader to clarify the nature of his bay‘a to Taliban leader Mullah ‘Umar. Bay‘a is the traditional Islamic contract of agreement between ruler and ruled, and it is widely known that al-Qaeda members operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area give bay’a to him. Exactly what the terms of the bay’a are is less certain. The questioner inquires into them: “You have remarked that you gave bay‘a to the Commander of the Believers Mullah ‘Umar. Is this bay’a the supreme bay‘a, or is it [merely] a temporary bay’a leading toward the supreme bay‘a?”

The term “supreme bay’a” (al-bay’a al-‘uzma) here relates to the “supreme imamate” (al-imama al-‘uzma), a synonym for the caliphate. The questioner is thus asking Bin Laden if he has a contract of allegiance to Mullah ‘Umar as putative caliph. His answer is an emphatic yes.

Bin Laden says: “Our bay’a to the commander of the believers is a supreme bay’a. It is founded on Qur’anic prooftexts and prophetic hadith…” After citing scripture, he continues: “It is incumbent upon every Muslim to affirm in his heart that he has given bay’a to the Commander of the Believers Mullah ‘Umar. This is the supreme bay’a.” Although Bin Laden does not use the term caliph or caliphate, he does appear to have the caliphal institution in mind. In the same query the questioner asks: “What are the necessary qualifications that the caliph of the Muslims must meet?” Traditionally one of these qualifications is descent from the Prophet Muhammad’s tribe of Quraysh, and in this regard Mullah ‘Umar does not qualify. But Bin Laden argues that the Taliban leader is not disqualified on this count (“the bay’a is not withheld because he is not of Quraysh”), citing the legal precedent that the qualification can be ignored in the event of necessity or weakness.

The second development came July 19 in al-Qaeda’s release of a new newsletter called al-Nafir, the first words of which reaffirm Mullah ‘Umar as al-Qaeda’s supreme leader. The first sentence reads: “[Al-Nafir] begins its first issue with the renewal of the bay’a to the Commander of the Believers Mullah Muhammad ‘Umar, the jihad warrior (may God protect him), and it affirms that al-Qaeda and its branches in all locales are soldiers in his army, acting under his victorious banner, by God’s help and His grant of success, until the shari’a prevails…until every part of the land of Islam is liberated…until the Islamic conquests again take place…and return all the violated lands of Islam to the coming caliphal state, God willing.”

The message here seems to corroborate Bin Laden’s words to the effect that Mullah ‘Umar is his caliph. Yet if Bin Laden’s words are ambiguous to the extent that he does not use the word caliph, then al-Qaeda’s newsletter is even more ambiguous. While it clearly aims to recast Mullah ‘Umar as the undisputed leader to whom all al-Qaeda branches must ultimately give bay’a, it also speaks of “the coming caliphal state,” suggesting that there is no caliph. Furthermore, the newsletter does not suggest that Muslims beyond al-Qaeda are obligated to give bay’a to Mullah ‘Umar, as Bin Laden’s words do seem to suggest.

Shinqiti’s fatwa

It is not only the Bin Laden video and al-Qaeda newsletter that have pro-Islamic State jihadis in an uproar. On July 18, the day before the newsletter was released, the influential jihadi ideologue Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti released a fatwa disputing the Islamic State’s right to the caliphate and arguing that, in principle, it belongs to Mullah ‘Umar. Shinqiti, who is presumably Mauritanian but otherwise anonymous, is a well-known jihadi authority online, previously affiliated with the Shari’a Council of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s website.

What has made his fatwa so controversial is that he has been one of the Islamic State’s strongest ideological proponents. Three of his essays (see here, here, and here) have been widely promoted by pro-Islamic State media outlets. In them Shinqiti argues that the Islamic State is possessed of a “general bay’a” (bay’a ‘amma) and that all Muslim militant groups in its vicinity are therefore obligated to give bay’a to its leader. Accordingly, he has vehemently attacked Jabhat al-Nusra and all those arguing on its behalf, such as al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filastini, who claim that the Islamic State has only a “war bay’a” (bay’at harb) like any other group fighting jihad.

His latest work, entitled “The Caliphate Announcement in the Balance of the Shari’a,” appears to represent a reversal of his position. Here Shinqiti argues that the Islamic State’s announcement does not have the interests of the Muslim community in mind, aimed as it is at settling a score with Jabhat al-Nusra, a ploy that will only deepen the rivalry between the two groups. He furthermore criticizes the Islamic State for failing to consult with the Taliban’s Mullah ‘Umar in making its declaration. This failure is particularly negligent since, according to Shinqiti, the Taliban leader has been the Islamic world’s caliph since 1996, when he was given bay’a in Afghanistan. Shinqiti holds that his caliphate has obtained since then, at least in theory if not in practice, and whether Mullah ‘Umar has claimed the title for himself or not. This is because, in his thinking, the shari’a does not strictly speaking distinguish between amir and caliph. Therefore the first Muslim leader to be given bay’a ipso facto becomes caliph, with priority claim to the title. Like Bin Laden, Shinqiti also counters the charge that Mullah ‘Umar is disqualified on grounds of not descending from Quraysh, drawing on the same legal precedent.

Some jihadis have disputed the authenticity of Shinqiti’s latest fatwa, but they are almost certainly in error. In May 2013, in a fatwa for al-Maqdisi’s Shari’a Council, Shinqiti actually reached the same conclusion: that Mullah ‘Umar is the “commander of the believers” into whose bay’a “all Muslims must enter.” The only difference was that he did not explicitly call him “caliph.”

Defending Baghdadi

Shinqiti’s fatwa and al-Qaeda’s recent moves have inspired a rash of refutations from the pro-Islamic State jihadi community. The first of these, by a certain Abu Maysara al-Shami, quotes numerous statements of al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders explicitly rejecting the idea that Mullah ‘Umar is caliph.

In a 2008 forum, for example, now-al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri was asked the same question posed to Bin Laden above: “Is Mullah ‘Umar the commander of all believers, or is he [merely] the amir of an Islamic emirate in the land of Khurasan?” Zawahiri responds: “Mullah Muhammad ‘Umar (may God protect him) is the amir of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and whoever joins it, Shaykh Osama bin Laden (may God protect him) being one of his soldiers. As for the commander of the believers across the world, this is the leader of the caliphal state that we, along with every faithful Muslim, are striving to restore, God willing.” Here Zawahiri clearly denies that all Muslims must give bay’a to Mullah ‘Umar, the global commander of the believers having as yet not emerged.

The statements from Mullah ‘Umar himself likewise show the Taliban to have a restricted political vision. He is quoted as saying that “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has strategic and political objectives related to Afghanistan only…as it wants to establish good relations with all the world’s countries in the spirit of mutual respect.” Indeed, as Shami notes, jihadi scholars have been extremely critical of Mullah ‘Umar for seeking normal relations with the international community, as in its holding a seat at the United Nations.

The several refutations of Shinqiti’s fatwa (see here, here, here, here, here, and here) give even more reasons why the Taliban leader cannot possibly be caliph. In addition to criticizing Mullah ‘Umar for participating in the international community, they dwell on the following points: the caliph cannot exist only in theory but must enjoy real political power; the terms of his bay’a as caliph must be clearly understood by all concerned (“How can Mullah ‘Umar be caliph and no one has known this until now?”); the caliph has to be from Quraysh, as is Baghdadi but not Mullah ‘Umar; and the caliph must espouse proper salafi theology as jihadis do, not the Maturidism of the Taliban.

Fostering ambiguity

In assessing the motives of al-Qaeda’s recent recasting of Mullah ‘Umar, one anonymous jihadi writer pointed to the insight of the 14th-century North African Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun, who wrote: “The vanquished always want to imitate the victor in his distinctive characteristics, his dress, his occupation, and all his other conditions and customs.” The jihadi author hereby suggests that al-Qaeda, having been vanquished by the ascendant Islamic State, feels the need to imitate the victorious Caliphate’s strategy. There may indeed be some truth to this. The noted anti-Islamic State jihadi scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi recently stated, in an essay rejecting Baghdadi’s caliphate: “Had we been looking to win the favor of the people…we would have ridden the wave of the [Islamic] State.” The implication of his words is that the caliphate strategy is an increasingly popular one in the jihadi community, at least in al-Maqdisi’s Jordan.

Yet al-Qaeda clearly has more subtle aims than outright declaring a counter-caliphate. Its two statements, in the video and newsletter, indeed concentrate an unusual amount of attention on the Taliban leader, apparently intending to recast him in a more caliphal role. Yet al-Qaeda also seems intent on preserving a certain ambiguity in its embrace of Mullah ‘Umar, as if he is at once caliph and yet not quite so. This is just the kind of ambiguous role that the Islamic State’s Baghdadi used to play before declaring the caliphate last month. He was the “commander of the believers,” but not necessarily the commander of all believers. This ambiguous role, which had proven so popular in Baghdadi’s case, now appears the preserve of Mullah ‘Umar. Or at least the al-Qaeda leadership is testing it out.

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Cole Bunzel

Cole Bunzel, the editor of Jihadica, is a Hoover Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is the author of "Wahhābism: The History of a Militant Islamic Movement."

31 Responses

  1. You say that Mullah Mohammad Omar does not qualify to be Caliph because he doesn’t descend from the Quraysh, but this isn’t correct. All Pashtuns claim descent from the Quraysh via their ur-ancestor, Qais.

  2. The Pashtun are not descended from Arabs. Recent direct to consumer genetic tests which have exploded in popularity among Arabs and Afghans have confirmed this and few, if any, Pashtun seriously believe of a link to Arabs and view the tale of Qais Abdur Rashid as mythological.

    The precedent was set by the Ottomans though, the Caliph does not need to be a Quraysh Arab.

  3. I don’t think these fools care about precedent though. They say the Caliph must have Salafist ideology but none of the Caliphs going back to the Rashidun Caliphate followed Salafist ideology. Ali was killed by Salafists (Kharijites)!

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