Who is Iyad Qunaybi?

For years, many Jihadi-Salafi scholars and fighters from several countries have been dealt with in articles about global jihad (and here on Jihadica, of course). One country that has supplied quite a number of these people is Jordan. Men such as Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filastini have long been involved in or have commented upon all things jihad. One person who could be included in this group but has not received anywhere near the attention that the three mentioned above have received is the relatively unknown Iyad Qunaybi.


According to Qunaybi’s website, he was born in Kuwait on 22 October 1975, although he and his family moved to Amman in Jordan when he was still a baby. Given that his parents were Palestinians from Hebron, they were officially Jordanian citizens (the Hashimite kingdom controlled the West Bank from 1948-1967 and made all its inhabitants citizens) so moving to Jordan was presumably a relatively easy step to take. This nevertheless makes Qunaybi a bit of an outlier, however.

Although there are hundreds of thousands of Palestinian-Jordanians with roots in Kuwait, where they moved to in two different waves (immediately after 1948 and, later, in the 1950s and 1960s), the overwhelming majority of them only returned in the early 1990s, when Kuwait expelled virtually all its Palestinians after the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) had implicitly supported Saddam Husayn’s Iraq in its invasion of the tiny Gulf kingdom. As we will see, the fact that Qunaybi moved to Jordan in the 1970s – rather than the early 1990s, like most other Kuwaiti Palestinians – is not the only thing in which Qunaybi is slightly different than other jihadi thinkers.


Qunaybi apparently showed an interest in literature as a child, according to his website, did well in school and went on to get a BA-degree from the Jordanian University of Science and Technology in 1998. Interestingly, he also practised taekwondo at this time and, perhaps more importantly for his future career, started reading Islamist literature by Sayyid Qutb while studying in Jordan. He subsequently went to the University of Houston to get a PhD in pharmacology in 1999, which he obtained in 2003.

Thus, unlike some have said, Qunaybi is not a “cleric” or a scholar of Islam. This, again, makes him a bit of an odd one out, since many of today’s radical jihadi ideologues do make some claim to having studied Islamic law, creed or another, related subject at university or elsewhere. On the other hand, he is also not one of the many Islamists with a degree in engineering. While jihadis with a medical background are also not unheard of – Ayman al-Zawahiri comes to mind, of course – Qunaybi also seems to be an outlier in this respect.


Qunaybi’s lack of formal training in the Islamic “sciences” has not stopped him from engaging in calling others to Islam (da’wa). Starting in 1997, his website says, he and his friends started producing tapes that they handed out among Muslims after Friday services at various mosques. During this period – which coincided not only with his studies but also with Qunaybi’s publishing of a fair number of academic articles on pharmacological topics – he also engaged in listening to scholars’ tapes and reading Qur’anic exegesis. Interestingly, the ‘ulama’ whose books he read appear to have been rather diverse, including classical scholars like Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, radical Muslim Brothers like Sayyid Qutb, quietist Salafis like Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani and Jihadi-Salafis like Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.

If Qunaybi’s website is to be believed, he also took individual lessons from numerous and – again – rather diverse scholars, which – after he returned to Jordan from the United States in 2003 – he began translating into da’wa activities in Jordan. His message was not uncontroversial, however, and his being influenced by some radical scholars as well as his choice of politically sensitive subjects such as the validity of democracy or the characteristics of the Khawarij ensured that he attracted the attention of the authorities in Jordan.


Given the sensitivity of the topics Qunaybi talked about in his sermons, talks and other da’wa activities and considering that the Jordanian regime was highly suspicious of such things at the time, it was perhaps not surprising that Qunaybi was arrested and imprisoned for twenty days in 2010. Only afterwards, some seven months after he’d been released, he was told what he had supposedly done wrong – having ties with foreign nations and recruiting for the Taliban – and was rearrested and imprisoned for two-and-a-half years.

Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi was also involved in this case at the time and was imprisoned along with Qunaybi. Given that the charges against al-Maqdisi were probably trumped up and used to take away the freedom of a man who was preaching a radical message relatively unimpeded, the same may well be true for Qunaybi. Both men were probably seen as a nuisance by the Jordanian regime, attracting followers and perhaps even gaining new adherents while not engaging in terrorist acts themselves.

Although al-Maqdisi had to serve his entire sentence, the public outcry that Qunaybi claims followed his own sentencing resulted in his having to serve only 470 days in prison and he was subsequently released on 4 January 2013, after which he went back to teaching at university and publishing on pharmacological topics. Qunaybi nevertheless speaks positively about his time in prison, stating on his website that he benefitted greatly from the isolation that it gave him, enabling him to read a lot, write a lot of poems and learn from the experiences of other Islamist prisoners, “their morals, their patience, their love for God the most high and the contemplation of the Qur’an”.

“Arab Spring”

Once out of prison, Qunaybi started making full use of social media, including YouTube (on which he has his own channel), Twitter (in English (@DrEyadQunaibi) and Arabic (@Dr_EyadQun)) and Facebook. Since then, Qunaybi has been extremely active on social media to state his points of view on a host of issues, perhaps particularly on what was still called the “Arab Spring” at the time. The revolts against Arab regimes were at their most successful when Qunaybi was in prison, but they had already begun to show signs of being derailed when he was released. It is this aspect that Qunaybi has commented on in particular.

Qunaybi takes a view of the revolts in the Arab world that differs entirely from how quietist Salafis – who reject the demonstrations and revolutions altogether – feel about them, but also from what the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – which saw the revolution as a good thing – believe. Unlike them, Qunaybi claims that the revolutions that have taken place should be completed by cleansing the states affected by these revolts of the deep states that are actually pulling the strings, rather than merely getting rid of the dictator at the top. While many a political scientist may sympathise with this analysis or even agree with it, it’s not one found (or at least not one talking as explicitly about “deep states”) among many Jihadi-Salafis.

A Jihadi-Salafi?

This brings up the question of whether Iyad Qunaybi can actually be seen as a Jihadi-Salafi. If we define Salafism – as I do in many publications on the subject, including this one – as the branch of Sunni Islam whose adherents claim to emulate “the pious predecessors” (al-salaf al-salih) as closely and in as many spheres of life as possible, we can see from the list of scholars whose work he read mentioned above that he was certainly no stranger to Salafism. Moreover, if we define Jihadi-Salafism – as I have done many times, for example here – as the branch of Salafism whose adherents do not limit jihad to fighting non-Muslims outside of the dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam) in either offensive or defensive wars, but who believe that jihad may also be used to fight the “apostate” rulers of the Muslim world itself, Qunaybi again seems sympathetic to that. His reading of Qutb and al-Maqdisi suggests as much, as do his personal closeness to the latter and his statements on the war in Syria (more on both these matters later).

Yet when I asked Qunaybi about this matter in a telephone conversation once, he refused to be labelled a (Jihadi-)Salafi. A more elaborate statement on this issue can be found in an article he wrote entitled “Does Iyad Qunaybi belong to Jihadi-Salafism?” In this article, he tells his readers that he’s often asked this question and replies that he is not part of any trend or movement. He does, however, like Jihadi-Salafis and calls for the release of their prisoners. They are closest to him, he claims, and advises them without actually being part of their trend or movement itself.


Whatever the label he uses for himself, it is clear that Qunaybi’s views are rooted in ideas shared by many Jihadi-Salafis. He clearly rejects democracy, for example, and one reason he does so is that its rule is based on man-made laws (qawanin wad’iyya), rather than the shari’a. That, in Qunaybi’s view, is clearly sinful, as scholars established long before the “Arab Spring”. Islamist parties, he states, should not get involved in the democratic process, because that will cause them to moderate their views and abandon their principles. This, interestingly enough, is precisely what some political scientists have labelled the “inclusion-moderation thesis”: the idea that inclusion in the political process – with its need to compromise, forge coalitions and gain and retain power – will cause ideologically rigid groups to moderate their views.

Qunaybi’s alternative to Islamist political participation is simple: da’wa (the call to Islam) or jihad. This is more or less also the advice he gives to his readers and specifically to some of the people who have actually got involved in the political process in countries affected by the “Arab Spring”. He advises the former Egyptian Salafi presidential candidate Hazim Abu Isma’il not to get into politics, partly because “we want you to be with the dedicated callers [to Islam”. Qunaybi is also very much against cooperating with non-shari’a courts and founding political parties. Citing a fatwa by al-Maqdisi issued via the the Shari’a Council of the latter’s website, Qunaybi advises the Tunisian Ansar al-Shari’a group to refrain from appealing to secular courts. He similarly scolds the Egyptian Salafi political party Hizb al-Nur for their support for a “polytheistic” constitution and their ties to the army.


Another aspect of the “Arab Spring” – the revolt against the regime of President Bashar al-Asad in Syria – has also been discussed much by Qunaybi. From the start, it has been pretty clear that Qunaybi’s preference lies with Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qa’ida. In May 2013, he praised its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, in an article and wished that he would be “a sting in the throats of the criminals”. Still, he advises all jihadis in Syria to stop fighting each other and to realise that all groups fighting the regime consist of Muslims. He even advised the then Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and had good things to say about its spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani.

Yet in late 2013, Qunaybi was forced to defend himself against the charge of singling out ISIS for criticism by pointing out that he had actually criticised a number of groups fighting in Syria. Still, Qunaybi was getting increasingly critical of ISIS, as were many others. In an article written in early 2014, he laments the fact that ISIS-leaders refuse independent arbitration between themselves and other militant groups in Syria and wonders whether, if ISIS only sees itself as legitimate, their project is really meant for the entire Muslim community, as the organisation claims it is. In the same article, he also regrets that jihadi infighting in Syria shows ordinary people that even jihadis themselves do not agree on the shari’a.

Beaten up

Qunaybi’s criticism went further than simply complaining about ISIS’s and later IS’s behaviour, however. In July 2014, after the organisation had changed its name into IS, Qunaybi published a series of articles (here, here and here) in which he clearly states that the announcement of a caliphate does not add anything to an organisation if it cannot back up its words with facts on the ground. Although he makes clear that establishing a caliphate is something he supports in principle, it needs to be viable through power and control over land. Crucially, Qunaybi also states that a caliphate should be there for the entire Muslim community, not just part of it, and that establishing a caliphate does not become a duty until Muslims are actually capable of doing so.

Not surprisingly, supporters of the Islamic State in Jordan did not take too kindly to Qunaybi’s criticism of IS. In response, several IS-supporters attacked and beat up Qunaybi with clubs, smashed the wind screen of his car, while apparently shouting pro-IS slogans. The attack was not only condemned by leaders of the Jordanian Jihadi-Salafi movement, but Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi – with whom he used to be imprisoned – even came round to his house to pay him a solidarity visit in which he strongly condemned the attack on Qunaybi and the use of such methods to deal with those who disagree with you.

Imprisoned again

And then, exactly a year ago today, amid his criticism of IS, it was reported that Qunaybi had been arrested again, this time for apparently “destroying the ruling regime“. A few days later, it became clear that he was actually accused of inciting against the regime and speaking ill of the American ambassador to Jordan on Facebook. Although it thus appeared as if Qunaybi was not as dangerous as reported at first, he was nevertheless refused bail the next month and his trial did not actually start until September 2015. As with so many other court cases in Jordan, the verdict of this one was announced as planned for late October but was actually delayed.

In December last year, however, Qunaybi was sentenced to two years in prison for inciting against the regime. Although the sentence was lower than the prosecution wanted (three years imprisonment), Qunaybi’s lawyer nevertheless protested that his client was not guilty of incitement against the regime at all. The original Facebook post that started all this, one article stated, had merely protested “the visit to Jordan by [then] President of the Zionist entity Shimon Peres, the meeting of homosexuals in Amman with the participation of the American ambassador to Jordan and normalisation practices with the Zionist entity”. Interestingly, the original Facebook post – which, surprisingly, can still be read here – is called “Jordan and the rush to the abyss” and does, indeed, deal with these issues and not so much with direct attacks on the regime.

Given his apparent innocence of the charges levelled against him, it was perhaps not surprising that Qunaybi sought to protest his sentence and he did so by going on hunger strike while in prison. It is not clear whether this was a factor in the Jordanian Court of Cassation’s decision, in March 2016, to reject Qunaybi’s original sentence, but in May it was decided that his original sentence should be reduced to the time he had already served. The fact that Qunaybi was not simply found “not guilty” annoyed his lawyer, but – in any case – on 17 May 2016, Qunaybi was released. Given the flimsy evidence against him, one might wonder why the regime decided to arrest him in the first place. The reason, quite simply, seems to be that the regime periodically wants to show people such as Qunaybi – i.e., people with radical ideas who do not pose a threat to the regime themselves – that they are being watched and that they must not overstep certain undefined boundaries or they will be arrested. Whether this “reminder” to Qunaybi to be careful and watch his words has actually worked remains to be seen: almost immediately after being released, Qunaybi was posting things on Facebook again.


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