Mourning Morsi: The Death of an Islamist and Jihadi Divisions

Following the death of Mohamed Morsi, the former Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, on June 17, 2019, a contentious debate broke out in the world of Sunni jihadism over the proper reaction to his demise. The Islamic State exhibited no grief whatsoever, its Arabic weekly noting the passing of “the Egyptian apostate idol-ruler … [who] rose to power by means of polytheistic democracy and spent one year in power, [ruling] by other than what God has revealed.” For the Islamic State, Morsi’s loss was no loss at all. He was no better or worse than any other apostate ruler in the Islamic world. But for those jihadis in the orbit of al-Qaida, the matter was not so black-and-white. Some rued his loss, others objected to their doing so, and passions ran high. The debate highlights the significance and endurance of a widening ideological divide in this segment of the jihadosphere.

Al-Maqdisi vs. Abu Qatada

The leading parties to the debate were the Palestinian-Jordanian scholars Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filastini, longtime friends who have fallen out in recent years over the matter of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Syrian jihadi group that broke ties with al-Qaida in attempting to present a moderate face. In short, al-Maqdisi, the more ideologically intransigent of the two, has condemned HTS for abandoning al-Qaida and diluting the principles of jihadism, while Abu Qatada, the more open-minded one, has championed HTS and its seemingly moderate turn. Al-Maqdisi, it could be said, represents a more exclusivist form of jihadism, one concerned with defining and policing the boundaries of the faith, while Abu Qatada stands for a more inclusive version, one that deemphasizes the strict Salafi-Wahhabi theology adored by al-Maqdisi and appeals to the umma broadly. For al-Maqdisi, then, a man such as Morsi has committed the unforgivable sins of partaking in democracy (understood as polytheism) and failing to implement the Sharia. Abu Qatada is willing to overlook these faults.

On June 17, less than an hour after the news of Morsi’s death broke, Abu Qatada took to Telegram to bemoan his loss. “May God have abundant mercy on him and accept him among the righteous,” he wrote. “May God have mercy on you, Dr. Mohamed. We give condolences to his family, and we say, ‘Surely we belong to God, and to Him we return’ [Q. 2:156].” A few minutes later, in a second note, he urged all Muslims to join him in mourning the late president: “[This is] an appeal to every Muslim on this earth to beg pardon for him and to ask God to have mercy on him, for he died unjustly. Not for a moment did I doubt that he possessed a heart sincerely devoted to his religion and his umma.” He added shortly thereafter, “Dr. Morsi—I bear witness before God that I loved him for the sake of God.”

Al-Maqdisi could not contain his exasperation. Writing on Telegram a few hours later, he declared that his stance was unchanged as regards “Morsi, Erdogan, Hamas, and the likes of them who have chosen the path of democracy, having been misled and having misled their followers thereby.” “We do not love them,” he continued, in an obvious reference to Abu Qatada’s remarks, “and it is not permissible for us to love them, as do those whose balance of association and dissociation (al-wala’ wa’l-bara’) has become defective; and we do not ask God to have mercy on them; nor do we call on people to ask God to have mercy on them when they die. For theirs is a heresy warranting excommunication.” While he took care not to name Abu Qatada here, it was clear to all concerned who stood accused of having a faulty theological compass. In the same post al-Maqdisi attacked the selfsame unnamed person for “turning his back on his old method.”

A day later, on June 18, Abu Qatada responded to al-Maqdisi, among other critics, in a written Q&A with his London-based student, Abu Mahmud al-Filastini. Reaffirming his belief that Morsi was a Muslim sincerely devoted to the faith, Abu Qatada clarified that he did not support everything the man had said or done. But his sympathy for him was evident. He remarked that the burden of responsibility borne by Morsi as president of Egypt constrained him severely, and that in any case one cannot expect perfection from an Islamic leader given the circumstances of the age—“the reign of idol rulers, the corruption of education, and the drying up of the springs of guidance.” Abu Qatada was likewise careful to avoid mentioning his antagonist by name. His student, Abu Mahmud, however, did not show the same compunction.

In a post following the Q&A, Abu Mahmud quoted an essay by al-Maqdisi from a few years prior, one that appears to defend the Muslim Brotherhood from excessive criticism. Al-Maqdisi had argued that it was wrong to accuse every member of the Muslim Brotherhood of unbelief, or to equate the Brotherhood with those far worse than it, such as secularists. “If I said these were the words of the one who has been condemning and denouncing and acting enraged because of asking God to have mercy on Morsi, would anyone believe it?” Abu Mahmud wrote. He then referred to the Taliban’s recent eulogy of Morsi, which he quoted in full. Let’s see al-Maqdisi get worked up over the Taliban’s statement, he wrote.

The next day, al-Maqdisi uploaded a pair of audio messages to Telegram in an attempt to clarify his position. In the first he explained that his main issue was not with asking God to have mercy on Morsi, that is, saying “may God have mercy on him.” While he was opposed to it himself, he did not deem it such a big deal so long as one refrained from praising Morsi and leading people to believe that democracy was acceptable. “My only problem,” he said, “is with him who asks God to have mercy on him and in doing so leads people to believe that his method is correct; or adds to asking God to have mercy on him praising him and endorsing him, even endorsing the contents of his heart that only God knows.” In the second audio message he elaborated on his reasons for not saying “may God have mercy on him” with respect to Morsi, citing the practice of the Prophet and earlier Muslim scholars not to use such statements with respect to various “innovators.” For whatever reason, here and elsewhere al-Maqdisi avoids denouncing Morsi as an unbeliever in explicit terms, preferring to describe his behavior—not necessarily the man—as unbelieving.

Secondary contributors

Meanwhile, other notable names in the jihadi world contributed opinions on the matter. Among them was Abu ‘Ubayda Yusuf al-‘Annabi, a senior leader in al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, who sided passionately with Abu Qatada in a short interview. Al-‘Annabi wrote that Morsi had died “unjustly and oppressed … so how could we not ask God to have mercy [on him]? … If we could we would seek revenge on his behalf.” Regardless of what errors he may have committed while in office, he continued, Morsi’s “independent reasoning and interpretation” shielded him from charges of unbelief. Also in Abu Qatada’s corner, unsurprisingly, were the scholarly voices of HTS, including its leading Sharia official Abu ‘Abdallah al-Shami. HTS as a group would also issue an official statement of mourning.

More critical of Morsi, but still willing to say “may God have mercy on him,” were the Egyptian scholars Hani al-Siba‘i and Tariq ‘Abd al-Halim, allies of al-Maqdisi who reside in the United Kingdom and Canada, respectively. Each of them, however, was careful to distance himself from the methodology of the Muslim Brotherhood (see here and here). ‘Abd al-Halim added that while he disagreed with al-Maqdisi’s position on asking God to have mercy on Morsi, he certainly understood where he was coming from—Morsi had no doubt uttered words indicative of unbelief.

As can be seen, it was the two Palestinian-Jordanians who were setting the terms of the debate. And it was not over yet.

A mirage of unity

On June 20, al-Maqdisi released a more aggressive attack on his critics, this time in written form. His target was the more inclusive form of jihadism advocated by Abu Qatada. “Certain persons,” he wrote, “are calling on the jihadi current to revise itself and to purify its ranks and its writings of extremism.” Indeed, he said, “the time has come for full and comprehensive revisions to the methodology of the jihadi current,” but this was “to defend and protect it,” not from extremism, but “from attempts to corrupt it by certain characters, groups, and individuals.” These were people who did not belong to the jihadi movement at all:

It appears that the current has, over the past decades, been united with certain individuals as in a mirage. As facts have come to light in incidents and convulsions, it has become clear that we are united with them neither in methodology nor in politics nor in jurisprudence nor even in sentiments.

In years prior, he suggested, it had been possible to paper over the differences between the real and the faux jihadis, but this was no longer the case:

The agreed principle of global jihad and enmity for the idol-rulers, and the principle of rebelling against them and fighting, united us with many, but as for methodology, jurisprudence, political theory, and the firmest bonds of monotheism … they have opposed us in these for decades … The time has come to purge this imaginary and flimsy union.

The idea of unity with Abu Qatada and his allies was a fantasy no longer worth indulging. This was a civil war, and it could not be avoided. Now more than ever, he said, it was imperative to define our core jihadi principles sharply and definitively, to “lay a foundation of monotheism, creed, and methodology above all things,” and on that foundation to “build a true and honest union.”

Abu Mahmud, the student and ally of Abu Qatada, replied on Telegram that it was al-Maqdisi who was the “intruder upon the current,” not his opponents.  “The jihadi current has never embraced the methodology of extremism,” he wrote, and al-Maqdisi has never been considered the principal “theoretician” (munazzir) of the movement. This was the view of al-Qaida’s leaders and scholars, who, he claimed, did not subscribe to al-Maqdisi’s exclusivist theology. Days later, al-Qaida would seem to prove his point.

Al-Qaida’s eulogy

On June 27, the “general leadership” of al-Qaida put out a statement eulogizing Morsi and advising the Egyptian people to rise up in armed jihad. “May God pardon him and forgive him,” it read. “We have no doubt that he was killed unjustly and oppressed, and we give our condolences to his family and to all his children and loved ones.” The two-page statement was no endorsement of Morsi or the Muslim Brotherhood, however, as it urged Egyptians to reject “the religion of democracy.”  The message was similar to an earlier al-Qaida statement from 2017 eulogizing Mahdi ‘Akif, the former spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. While registering its “disagreement” with ‘Akif on unspecified matters, al-Qaida had nonetheless underscored a shared “brotherhood of Islam.”

The reaction from Abu Qatada’s allies was predicable enough. Abu Mahmud, in an audio statement, suggested that al-Maqdisi would now have to accuse al-Qaida of diluting jihadism. Another ally of Abu Qatada’s hailed the statement as evidence of al-Qaida’s pan-Islamist orientation, saying the group does not subscribe to “the religion of the jihadi current” that some people are trying to found. Al-Qaida “sees itself as a part of the umma, not as an alternative to it,” he wrote. (Islamic State supporters, for their part, also felt vindicated. One of them took the statement as further proof of the “Brotherhoodization” of al-Qaida under the leadership of Zawahiri.)

Al-Maqdisi sought to downplay the apparent difference between himself and al-Qaida in light of the statement. In an audio message he once again stressed that his problem was with praising and expressing approval of Morsi, not so much with asking God to have mercy on him. And the al-Qaida statement had been clear in criticizing the democratic and pacifist inclinations of the Muslim Brotherhood. Therefore, the statement was for the most part unobjectionable.

In any case, he asserted, it would not be long before he was vindicated, as always happens. “Those who follow our history,” he said, “know that we have disagreed with al-Qaida before, and we have disagreed with some of the leaders of al-Qaida … and by the grace of God all those we have advised, in the end and after a certain time, not because I am infallible but by the grace of God … it has become clear that we were correct.” As evidence of his sterling record in this regard, al-Maqdisi cited the time in 2009 when he publicly took issue with an al-Qaida leader’s comments on Hamas—an episode described by Daniel Lav in his book (p. 171). The leader, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, had said an interview with Al Jazeera that “we and Hamas share the same thinking and the same method.” Al-Maqdisi objected in an essay, whereupon Abu al-Yazid recanted in a clarifying statement, acknowledging his error and thanking al-Maqdisi for his intervention.

In recounting this ten-year old story, however, al-Maqdisi invites the question whether al-Qaida would show him the same level of deference today as it did then. At a time when it is seeking to distinguish itself from the “extremism” of the Islamic State and appeal broadly to the umma, the likely answer is no.

Al-Qaida amid the storm

While al-Maqdisi’s views, particularly as regards theology, are highly popular among jihadis who support al-Qaida, the latter is trying to cultivate a broad base of support in the Islamic world. It needs the likes of al-Maqdisi for ideological legitimacy, but it also needs the support of Abu Qatada and his ilk if it is going to succeed in generating pan-Islamist appeal. The jihadi civil war being waged by the two men is thus an unwelcome development as far as al-Qaida is concerned. The group would like to hold on to the supporters of both, not choose between them. But the case of Syria, where HTS decided to cut ties with al-Qaida in pursuing the vision espoused by Abu Qatada, and where al-Qaida loyalists aligned with al-Maqdisi have formed a new al-Qaida franchise, suggests this may not be possible. The divide between these two ideological camps may well be unbridgeable, as al-Maqdisi suggests. He is always proven right, after all.

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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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