The Caliphate’s Scholar-in-Arms

With the Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or Caliph Ibrahim, seeking to displace al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri as the leader of the global jihadi movement, a parallel displacement effort is taking place in the more recondite realm of jihadi ideology. The old guard of jihadi intellectuals—Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Abu Qatada al-Filastini, and Hani al-Siba‘i, among others—has come out unanimously against the Islamic State and its caliphal pretensions, denouncing the “organization” as hopelessly extremist and out of touch with reality. Their reproach has left a younger generation of pro-Islamic State jihadis no choice but to take up their mantle. One in particular, decrying his jihadi elders and their fierce opposition to his beloved caliphate, appears to be peerless in this effort. He is also the Islamic State’s most prominent and prolific resident scholar, based in Syria since at least February 2014.

Known previously to Jihadica readers by his pseudonym, Abu Humam al-Athari, this young ideologue from Bahrain now uses his given name, Turki al-Bin‘ali (@turky_albinali), or kunya, Abu Sufyan al-Sulami.

The Caliph’s cause

While few outside jihadi circles have probably heard of the young Turki al-Bin‘ali, the twenty-nine-year old Bahraini has played the role of ideological lodestar for the Islamic State since at least 2013. In April of last year, for instance, when Baghdadi announced the expansion of his emirate to Syria, it was Bin‘ali who penned the first monograph in support of his move. Entitled “Extend Your Hands to Give Bay‘a [loyalty] to Baghdadi,” it called on all Muslims in the vicinity of the Islamic State to pledge loyalty to its emir. Moreover, the work anticipated Baghdadi’s caliphate in no uncertain terms: “We ask God for the day to come when we will see our shaykh seated upon the throne of the caliphate!” In addition, Bin‘ali’s biography of Baghdadi, included in this tract, is the most frequently cited by jihadis; already in July of last year he had detailed the future caliph’s lineage going back to the Prophet Muhammad, establishing the crucial caliphal qualification of descent from the Prophet’s tribe.

More recently, at the end of April 2014, Bin‘ali authored another essay portending the Islamic State’s caliphate announcement of June 29, 2014 (Ramadan 1, 1435). In this work, on the permissibility of declaring the caliphate before the achievement of full political capability (al-tamkin al-kamil), Bin‘ali set forth the very legal arguments and scriptural evidence that the Islamic State’s official spokesman would use in his Ramadan announcement—most importantly, the gloss of Q. 24:55 by the Andalusian scholar Abu ‘Abdallah al-Qurtubi (d. 1275). Bin‘ali had identified the Islamic State as “the kernel of the anticipated, rightly guided caliphate.” “Doubtless,” he wrote, “the caliphate requires some measure of power, might, and political capability, and this is present in the Islamic State.” Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Bin‘ali’s former teacher, claims to have remarked upon hearing the title of his pupil’s work: “The announcement declaring their organization the caliphate must be imminent.”

From Bahrain, with jihad

According to a short biography written by one of his students, Turki ibn Mubarak al-Bin‘ali was born in September 1984 in Bahrain, where he began his religious education at an early age. At some point he moved to Dubai for higher education in Islamic studies, but was arrested and deported for jihadi inclinations. Thereafter he studied in Beirut and again in Bahrain. The biography mentions numerous other detentions, both within and without Bahrain, and the fact that the shaykh has been banned from the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Egypt, Qatar, and others.

The greater part of the work aims to inscribe Bin‘ali within the larger Salafi and smaller Jihadi-Salafi networks, detailing his studies with both quietest scholars like the Saudi ‘Abdallah ibn Jibrin (d. 2009) and Syrian Zuhayr al-Shawish (d. 2013) and jihadis like the Palestinian-Jordanian al-Maqdisi and Moroccan ‘Umar al-Haddushi. A whole other biography is dedicated solely to detailing these scholarly connections.

The most celebrated of these is by far Bin‘ali’s link with al-Maqdisi, the biggest-name jihadi scholar alive. While the details of their relationship are not given, the two scholars’ writings bear witness to what was once a profound mutual affinity and extensive collaboration. Bin‘ali has several books in defense and praise of al-Maqdisi, while the latter has returned the favor by certifying his student’s religious knowledge. Al-Maqdisi provided Bin‘ali with a general ijaza authorizing him to teach all of his works. As he wrote in 2009 in the introduction to one of Bin‘ali’s books, “I provided him with an ijaza to teach all of my books when I saw in him extraordinary passion and support for the religion, for God’s unity (tawhid), for jihad, and for the mujahidin. Such passion as this ought not to be met but with backing and support and encouragement. If a shaykh has the right to take pride in any of his students, I am proud of this beloved brother.” In terms of collaboration, when al-Maqdisi set up a Shari ‘a Council on his website in fall 2009, he appointed Bin‘ali one of its muftis. And according to Bin‘ali’s own testimony, al-Maqdisi made him his successor at the council’s helm, presumably when al-Maqdisi was in prison.

In most of his writings for al-Maqdisi’s website Bin‘ali has used the name Abu Human Bakr ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Athari. Only in April 2014 did he finally clarify the matter of his pseudonym, noting that he has used several others as well (including Abu Hudhayfa al-Bahrayni and Abu Hazm al-Salafi), all with the intention of hiding his true identity from the “tyrants and oppressors” of Arab states. As the Islamic State has gathered strength, Bin‘ali has dispensed with the aliases. According to press reports, he arrived in Syria in late February 2014, though he may have been living there even earlier.

In April Bin‘ali wrote that the Bahraini government was threatening to withdraw the citizenship of all Bahraini citizens fighting in Syria unless they return home within two weeks. His response was to compose a poem disparaging the very notion of citizenship, and vowing to stay on in the Islamic State. “Is it reasonable,” he asked, “that we would return, having arrived in the Sham of epic battles and warfare?… A land wherein the rule is Islam is my home; there is my dwelling and there do I belong.”

The Refuter

Bin‘ali’s signature public role for the Islamic State has been to refute its many enemies, his refutations being the most wide-ranging and most publicized of any Islamic State shar‘i (shari‘a specialist). The sharpening of the pen began in December of last year, just before the January 2014 uprising against the Islamic State in northern Syria led by fellow Islamist groups angry at its refusal to submit disputes to third-party arbitration. The accusation—which seems to have been fair—inspired a number of key Islamist and jihadi thinkers to incite their followers against the Islamic State, on the grounds that it refused to submit to God’s law. Bin‘ali, leading the charge against this allegation, argued that the Islamic State was a sovereign polity with courts and a legal system sufficient for such matters.

Between December 2013 and March 2014, Bin‘ali took aim at fellow jihadi ideologues like the Jordanian Iyad Qunaybi and Syrian Abu Basir al-Tartusi, at Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, and at more mainstream Islamists like the Saudi-based ‘Adnan al-‘Ar‘ur and a member of Harakat Ahrar al-Sham’s Shura Council. In the period April-June 2014 he put even larger targets in his crosshairs, refuting al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the two biggest-name jihadi ideologues, al-Maqdisi and the Palestinian Abu Qatada al-Filastini. It is his refutation of al-Maqdisi that is most significant.

Issued June 7 and entitled “My Former Shaykh,” this refutation is Bin‘ali’s last in a busy six-month period. It came in response to a long document published on al-Maqdisi’s website on May 26 detailing the many efforts of the senior shaykh to mediate between the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra. Al-Maqdisi’s plan was to sponsor a reconciliation initiative that would involve a third-party arbiter, much like other initiatives being proposed by different shaykhs at the time. Bin‘ali acted as his intermediary with the Islamic State leadership, whom al-Maqdisi threatened with dire consequences should they fail to participate.

In the event, his message to the Islamic State went unheeded, and so the shaykh did as threatened. His statement on “the obligatory position” to be adopted toward the Islamic State was harsh, describing it as “deviating from the path of divine truth, being unjust to the mujahidin, following the road of extremism…refusing arbitration, declining reform, [and] disobeying the commands of its senior leaders and shaykhs.” This last comment concerns the Islamic State’s disputed status as a former al-Qaeda affiliate. In the document, al-Maqdisi follows al-Zawahiri in claiming that it was indeed an affiliate and thus obligated to obey its leaders’ commands.

What really piqued Bin‘ali was the insulting approach his former teacher had suddenly adopted toward him. Al-Maqdisi had included in this document long excerpts from emails between himself, Bin’ali, and the administrator of the website, and thrown occasional grammatical errors into Bin‘ali’s excerpted writing. In his discussion of the correspondence al-Maqdisi had furthermore referred disparagingly to his Bahraini pupil as the Islamic State’s “most vaunted mufti” or “most vaunted shar‘i.”

The content of Bin‘ali’s response is not worth examining in great detail. The main points of contention are the Islamic State’s stubbornness in refusing arbitration—which they both acknowledge—and its alleged insubordination against al-Qaeda—which they do not agree on. What is noteworthy is Bin‘ali’s authorship of such a refutation to begin with.

Rejecting seniority

In another statement from early May 2014, al-Maqdisi had written critically of younger jihadi shaykhs dismissing their elders, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Qatada al-Filastini. “Take heed of seniority,” he warned his juniors, accusing them of “wanting to stand upon the shoulders of our best and brightest and then discredit their intellects.” Indeed, just days before this statement was issued, Bin‘ali had written that age was a likely cause of Abu Qatada’s “confusion” surrounding the Islamic State.

Bin‘ali’s refutation of “my former shaykh” (shaykhi ‘l-asbaq) is in its very title a rejection of the idea of “seniority” (asbaqiyya). It represents the assured spirit of a younger generation of jihadis ready and willing to break with an established cadre of jihadi intellectuals and carve their own path. It also represents the assured spirit of Bin‘ali himself, who for years has disputed the notion that he is too young to be a religious authority. Visited in prison some six years ago in Bahrain by a Saudi religious official, who was shocked that a twenty-three-year old was issuing religious opinions, Bin‘ali retorted with an essay on the inadmissibility of age restrictions on such practice in Islam.

Whether Bin‘ali can succeed in leading this younger generation of pro-Islamic State jihadi thinkers is yet to be seen. For the moment he remains the closest thing that the caliphate has, after the caliph himself, to a big-name religious authority.

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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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