Caliphate Now: Jihadis Debate the Islamic State

Since the mid-November beheading in Aleppo of allied commander Muhammad Faris of Harakat Ahrar al-Sham, a barrage of negative media attention has afflicted Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). ISIS was concerned by its public image problem even before this signal mistake. In a September statement, Islamic State official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani defended his emirate from a perceived media onslaught, thought to be led by “the unbelieving West” and its regional allies and aimed at discrediting ISIS: playing up its feuds with other mujahidin in Syria and playing down its battlefield accomplishments. Another campaign to discredit the Islamic State, however, cannot be attributed to Western origin. It arises from within the jihadi community itself.

In November the two most high-profile jihadi ideologues alive today issued searing critiques of ISIS and its emir, al-Baghdadi. Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filistini, imprisoned in Jordan in the Umm al-Lu‘lu‘ facility in Zarqa‘ and the Muwaqqar prison outside Amman, respectively, came out in quick succession against the underlying premise of the Islamic State: namely, that it constitutes the reemergence of the original Islamic state, or caliphate, and that its leader, who adopts the title amir al-mu’minin (Commander of the Faithful), is the putative head of this renascent caliphate. ISIS has argued that it cooperates with other mujahidin in Syria, which is true. Yet it also quite clearly aspires to absorbing them all within its state structure. (On the political ideology of ISIS, see here.)

Over the past year most jihadi literature seems to have supported ISIS and its implied caliphal claims (see here and here for previous analysis). The double-headed rebuke from al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada marks a departure from this praise chorus, possibly with painful consequences for the Islamic State.

Abu Qatada’s letter

Abu Qatada al-Filistini’s critique was the first to surface, appearing online on November 1. Born in 1960, Abu Qatada is a Jordanian of Palestinian background whose real name is ‘Umar ibn Mahmud Abu ‘Umar. Forcibly repatriated to Jordan in July 2013 after a decade-long detention in the United Kingdom, where he received asylum in 1994, he currently stands accused of supporting terrorist activities in his home country.

His short rebuke of ISIS and al-Baghdadi takes the form of an open letter to the mujahidin in Syria, advising them as a veteran jihadi and witness to countless battlefield gains squandered by infighting. The mistakes of “previous experiences,” he warns, ought to be heeded, for the current “disunity and disputation” among Syrian mujahidin “terrify and horrify every admirer.”

This division he attributes first of all to jihadi “leaders” enamored of power and leadership. The context suggests that he has al-Baghdadi foremost in mind. Challenging his title of amir al-mu’minin, Abu Qatada avers: “There exists no emir firmly established such that he should be treated as the caliph—or with similar names and titles.” Jihadi groups today are fighting to achieve strength for establishing “the Islamic state.” But no organization is yet worthy of that name. It is an error for mujahidin to fight for their organization “as if it is an end in itself and not a means [to an end].” In the harshest words of his letter, Abu Qatada accuses anyone who would call himself “caliph” or “amir al-mu’minin” of espousing Shi‘i political doctrine, wherein “commanders and leaders are seen as divinely appointed rather than chosen by human beings.”

Abu Qatada also attacks fellow jihadi ideologues for lending support to ISIS. Their fatwas, he says, reflect “naïveté and childishness,” and their authors are “elementary students” or “pretenders to religious knowledge.” By categorically supporting one side in Syria they make unity and reconciliation ever more difficult. Abu Qatada advises the formation of a “shari‘a elite” composed of learned religious scholars with authority to issue binding judgments on political disputes.

The “Zarqawi” wing responds

Five days after it was published, a leading jihadi ideologue in Jordan, the Irbid-based shaykh ‘Umar Mahdi Zaydan, issued a five-page rebuttal of Abu Qatada’s letter. While Zaydan is a lesser-name figure compared to Abu Qatada or al-Maqdisi, he has according to two recent media reports (see here and here) played a key ideological role in supporting ISIS against its jihadi detractors. A former acquaintance of both al-Maqdisi and Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, Zaydan, about 40 years old, represents the latter’s more intransigent political tendency.

Jordanian researcher Mohammad Abu Rumman recently identified “two principal trends” in the jihadi movement in Jordan and Syria: “The first is the more pragmatic wing, represented by al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada; it adopts a position favorable to Jabhat al-Nusra, considering it a corrective to the path of al-Qa`ida in Iraq. The second trend is the extremist wing, represented by the followers of al-Zarqawi, or those who have been called neo-Zarqawis. One of their most prominent leaders is ‘Umar Mahdi [Zaydan], who has called publicly for allegiance to be given to the [Islamic] State [of Iraq and Sham] and al-Baghdadi.” In Jordan, Abu Rumman notes, the pragmatic wing of jihadism is the intellectually and culturally more powerful. The Zarqawi wing, however, has had more influence on the ground; far more Jordanians fight for ISIS than for Jabhat al-Nusra.

Zaydan’s rejoinder to Abu Qatada is entitled “Refuting the Statement of the One Who Considered the Islamic Caliphate a Part of the Shi‘i Religion.” According to Zaydan, Abu Qatada’s comparison of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham to the Sh’i imamate is offensive. This letter, he notes, despite its oblique language not specifying names or groups, is doubtless an attack on ISIS and al-Baghdadi: “a clear accusation against him, his leaders, and his soldiers of ignorance, capriciousness, and love of power.”

Abu Qatada goes wrong, according to Zaydan, by refusing to recognize the special significance of the Islamic State, which is not just one jihadi “group” among others. It is the reborn Islamic state. Quoting Osama bin Laden, Zaydan asserts that ISIS is an “imara shar‘iyya” (lawful emirate) or “imara kubra” (supreme command). It is not, as Abu Qatada claimed, an “imarat jihad” or “imarat harb” (battlefield command). Zaydan makes clear elsewhere that he views al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State as nothing else but “the Islamic Caliphate.”

Zaydan is clearly offended by Abu Qatada’s further claim, which is that ISIS’s supporters are invariably “childish and naïve.” Listing the names of twelve jihadi ideologues and their works supporting ISIS, Zaydan asks, “Are all of these naïve…and childish?” The list of supporters includes Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, Abu Sa‘d al-‘Amili, Abu Humam al-Athari, Abu al-Hasan al-Azdi, and Abu Ja‘far al-Hattab. (All of them have been discussed previously on Jihadica.)

In his conclusion, Zaydan suggests that al-Maqdisi, his former teacher, would agree that Abu Qatada chose an inappropriate time to “attack the mujahidin” of ISIS. Unfortunately, Zaydan was unaware that on November 5 al-Maqdisi too had authored a short rebuke of ISIS. (On al-Maqdisi, see here, and see Joas Wagemakers’s new book.)

Al-Maqdisi’s letter

Al-Maqdisi’s critique of ISIS appeared twelve days later on November 17 as a short memorandum to certain mujahidin in Syria soliciting his advice: “They informed me that they attach importance to my advice and are not heedless of my guidance; indeed they teach my books to their soldiers.” Calling for greater unity among the mujahidin in Syria, al-Maqdisi’s letter is more measured and less admonishing than Abu Qatada’s. It likewise denies, however, the Islamic State’s claim to emirate or proto-caliphate status.

Al-Maqdisi stresses “the clear difference between battlefield commands…and the politically capable [Islamic] state.” The path to proper Islamic statehood, he affirms, follows certain “stages” that lead to “political capability.” Skipping any of these stages—i.e., declaring a state prematurely as ISIS has done—is dangerous as it foments internal warfare. Addressing “our brothers in Jabhat al-Nusra and our brothers in the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham,” al-Maqdisi advises that they fight “under one banner and under one emir.” That emir is obviously not al-Baghdadi, for he also advises that before this they “seek unity under the aegis of a shura council.” In a more explicit rejection of al-Baghdadi’s status as emir, he emphasizes that Syria’s jihadi leadership ought to be of Syrian origin, the better to appeal to the Syrian people. Al-Baghdadi is of course Iraqi.

Al-Maqdisi ends his letter with an appeal to fellow jihadi scholars to support the banner of tawhid (unity) in Syria and not show partiality to one group or another. With these words he seems intent on curbing junior jihadi ideologues’ excitement over ISIS. The implication is that they should refrain from calls for bay‘a, or the pledge of allegiance, to be given to al-Baghdadi.

An enduring debate

The debate over the Islamic State’s readiness for statehood, or its “political capability” (tamkin), is by no means new. In 2006 the Islamic State of Iraq’s shari‘a council issued a 90-page document addressing just this issue. It noted that the original state of the Prophet Muhammad was founded on much less territory and with far less capability than the new Islamic state in Iraq.

This is just one of a number of points of contention over ISIS that has generated a daunting amount of disputatious literature. One jihadi author, claiming to represent Jabhat al-Nusra, recently produced several hundred pages of rebuttal to the three pro-ISIS works of Abu Humam al-Athari, Abu al-Hasan al-Azdi, and Abu Ja‘far al-Hattab (see here, here, and here). This in turn inspired a counter-refutation—a merciful 25 pages—by yet another pseudonymous author.

Until now the momentum in this debate has favored ISIS and al-Baghdadi, but the new contributions from Abu Qatada and al-Maqdisi may prove a serious obstacle in their advance. At the very least they highlight the stark divide in the jihadi movement today between supporters of a hardline, “caliphate now” strategy and those of more pragmatic mind.

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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."
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