Al-Qaida Advises the Arab Spring: The Case for al-Baghdadi

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.

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