Salafi-Jihadism:The History of an Idea


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The 9/11 attacks, fifteen years ago propelled Al-Qaeda into global infamy; previously little known outside intelligence circles the organisation and its leader Osama Bin Laden almost overnight became household names. Yet the ideology they represented remained relatively obscure in the West. The subsequent dispersal of the organisation from Afghanistan deprived it of its state patronage but it was a state that neither shared their Salafist theology nor irredentist agenda. While the Taliban might also have been Islamic puritans (of the Deobandi Hanafi persuasion) their ambitions terminated firmly at the borders of the internationally recognised state of Afghanistan. In the decade leading on from the attacks in New York, Salafi-Jihadist groups remained primarily a counter- terrorism/insurgency concern for strategists in London and Washington; little effort was invested in understanding the nature of their ideology. All of that changed with the Syrian revolution and the ascent of Islamic State. Their 2014 seizure of Mosul and subsequent declaration of a Caliphate caught Western intelligence analysts unawares and pressed home the need for a serious investigative study into the ideology behind the group and its precursor Al-Qaeda. Shiraz Maher’s book – a work that doubles as his PhD dissertation – represents the culmination of almost four years of research on the topic and provides a comprehensive insight into the origins and evolution of Salafi-Jihadist thinking. An observant Muslim, academic and former member of the Islamic political group, Hizb ut-Tahrir he writes with an air of authoritative fluency few in Western academia can emulate.

Drawing upon earlier research Maher catalogues what he deems the five key differentiae of the Salafi-Jihadi movement viz. Jihad [holy war], Takfir [excommunication], Al-Wala wal Bara [loyalty and disavowal], Tawhid [monotheism] and Hakimyah [political sovereignty of God]. In probably the book’s most defining passage Maher notes that:

“Whilst all of these ideas exist within normative Islamic traditions, and there is nothing particularly unique or special about them, what makes them relevant in this context is that the contemporary Salafi-Jihadi movement has interpreted and shaped them in unique and original ways. Explaining what they have done to those ideas and how they have done it is the overriding aim of this book.”

The term Salafism has become synonymous in Western minds with a maximalist interpretation of Islam deeply antithetical to modernity. As a philosophical current within Sunni Islam it is certainly characterised by its atavism – a yearning for Islam’s nascent period. This, in the Salafist imagination, represents an era of doctrinal (aqeeda) purity; an era conspicuous by the absence of foreign accretions (bid’ah) and shirk (polytheism and associated practises) and by the clear demarcation between the abode of Islam and the abode of kufr (disbelief). The Salafist conception of Tawhid was shaped by the environment of its founder, the 18th century Najdi [a region in modern day Saudi Arabia] scholar, Abdul Wahab – a point Maher astutely notes: “Wahab’s thinking on the matter was shaped by the environment in which it was conceived. Concerned by the growth of mystical practises in eighteenth century Islam, he focused excessively on the promotion of tawhid in order to steer people away from shirk [polytheism]…This meant the creation of a streamlined and barren understanding of Islam that focused almost exclusively on the preservation of doctrinal purity.”  Ibn Abdul Wahab’s obsessive focus on the simultaneous promotion of tawhid and eradication of shirk was to define the Salafi movement not so much in terms of what it represented as much as what it opposed. Based upon his own parochial readings of Islamic texts he and his followers proceeded to first anathematise the Sunni Ottoman governors of the Hijaz, before embarking upon an internecine campaign to uproot their authority and replace it with a purist polity free from all vestiges of supposed idolatry. Defining Islamic doctrine and practise in such astringent terms set Salafism (or Wahabism as its opponents pejoratively referred to it) on an inexorable collision path with the Muslim majority who did not share their views and imbued it with a millenarian vision that required the evisceration of everything that fell outside its diminutive circumference for its attainment. While the Saudi state fulfilled this role for sixty years eventually it too would fall short as Maher discusses in length. Wahab wrote several books and short tracts during his lifetime one of which, Nawaaqid al-Islaam [‘nullifiers of Islam’] still serves as a vade mecum on the subject of Takfir.

How individual Salafis transpose their religious philosophy onto their politics varies widely, leading Maher to devise a tripartite taxonomy: Quietists, Activists-Challengers, Violent-Rejectionists. The first are content to accept the political status quo whatever their reservations around its Islamic propriety – if interventions are forthcoming from this group then they comprise occasional private proffers of (relatively anodyne) advice. Those of the second group are prone to advise and sometimes even publicly challenge the Islamic deficiencies of extant Muslim regimes whilst eschewing violence or explicit pronouncements of illegitimacy. It is the final group which are the subject of Maher’s study and to whom the appellation Salafi-Jihadi applies.

Maher pinpoints the Afghan jihad against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s as the seminal event in the history of the contemporary Salafi-Jihadist movement, specifically the 1979 fatwa of Palestinian jihadist scholar, Abdullah Azzam calling for Muslims worldwide to join the struggle. Entitled The defence of Muslim lands: the first obligation after Iman [faith] it imputes a singular importance to the concept of Jihad – the waging of war in defence or propagation of Islam. The fatwa had a galvanising effect on millions of Muslim men from across the Arab world. Though the fatwa contained nothing particularly controversial from a theological aspect and neither did the period as a whole witness any profound advancements in Jihadist theory, nonetheless the war against the Soviets would prove hugely important from two perspectives. Firstly, as mentioned, it reasserted the primacy of Jihad in maintaining the vitality of Islam, secondly it provided a religious justification for Jihadist expeditions bereft of official state sanction and operating beyond their ambit. Azzam was assassinated in Peshawar in 1989 and although his vision of Jihad had remained limited in scope to the repulsion of non-Muslim forces from Muslim majority lands events were soon to transpire that would irreversibly alter this dynamic.

The centrality of Jihad in the Islamic tradition is not disputed and is evidenced by the multitude of ahadith [Prophetic traditions] – with one describing it as the pinnacle of the faith – on the subject yet I feel here Maher fails (slightly) to sufficiently clarify this point casting it as something peculiar to Salafi-Jihadist thinking. By contrast his exposition of how Salafi-Jihadism has boldly redefined the notion of defensive jihad and rewritten its rule book is ground breaking and hugely instructive.

The presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia during the 1991 operation to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait enraged Bin Laden, a veteran of the campaign in Afghanistan, and many ‘Activist-Challenger’ Salafis even if it was not an ‘invasion’ in the conventional sense. It was to prove the fillip that pushed many former ‘Quietist’ Saudi Salafis into the ‘Activist-Challengers’ camp from where many would then graduate as ‘Violent-Rejectionists’. As British Saudi exile Muhammad al-Massari explained: “The US did not invade Saudi Arabia. It was invited in by the Saudi royal family. The regime invited the US and [therefore] it has to pay the price.”

The invitation by the House of as-Saud to US forces to establish a large scale military presence in the birthplace of Islam stripped it of Islamic legitimacy as it violated the pivotal principle of Al Wala wal Baraa and its corollary isti’ana bil kuffar [forbiddance of seeking aid from disbelievers]. The Saudi state that for so long had been the incubator and chief sponsor of the Salafist movement suddenly became in the eyes of millions of its votaries an enemy and an obstacle to the fulfilment of Salafi ideals.

In contrast to activists such as al-Massari who directed their (non-violent) attacks on the perceived corruption of the Saudi and Arab regimes the refocus on the so-called ‘far enemies’ favoured by Bin Laden and the ‘violent rejectionist’ camp required a more expansive definition of ‘defensive jihad’.  Although written a decade later, in the aftermath of 9/11 and as an explanation for it, Bin Laden’s Letter to the American People explains the shift in thought that took place during this period:

“Under your supervision, consent and orders, the governments of our countries, which act as your agents, attack us on a daily basis; these governments prevent our people from establishing the Islamic shari’a, using violence and lies to do so”

Concomitant to this a whole raft of subsidiary questions were revisited by various Salafi theologians. If the individual Muslim nation states lacked Islamic legitimacy and were unwilling, whether from perfidy or enervation, then who was responsible for waging Jihad? Who could be regarded as a legitimate target? Could attacks likely to exact a disproportionately high non-combatant death toll be justified? Was the principle of reciprocity of harm applicable to entire nations or individuals only? What emerged from this fecund period in the mid-90s was a revolutionary ideology that married traditional Salafi theology to the geo-politics of a divided post-Caliphate Muslim ummah [community].

Through the course of a chapter (‘Applying Jihad in Salafi Thought’) Maher meticulously details the various legal artifices employed by leading Salafi-Jihadist ideologues of the period to circumvent the plethora of restrictions extant in the classical Islamic jurisprudence on Jihad. Cutting through the Shariah legalese one discerns a movement struggling to reconcile dogmatic fidelity to scripture and the practise of the eponymous Salaf (‘predecessors’) with the practicalities of engaging a militarily superior foe. In this battle between principle and expediency it is, as tends to be the case, the latter that wins out – though some mitigate such derogation by terming it ‘compulsion’:

‘He [Zawahiri] arrived at this opinion, at this opinion, not through expediency, but compulsion. Compared to its adversaries, al-Qaeda is a weak and irregular force confronting an enemy who enjoys overwhelming military superiority. “It has become next to impossible to confront them in open warfare,” he argued. It follows that the only practical means available to the group are asymmetrical ones, using tactics that are often crude and indiscriminate. This view was given further legitimacy when viewed from their perspective of being forced into a defensive campaign against a belligerent foe. “Forfeiting the faith is a much greater harm than forfeiting money or lives,” Zawahiri explained…A proposed attack would always goes [sic] ahead regardless of humanitarian considerations because, “expediency makes it so.”

Echoing this line of thought Abu Yahya al-Libi, a senior Al-Qaeda cohort of Zawahiri explained:

“…when the unbelievers attack the houses of Islam, major harm is afflicted on Muslims if jihad is given up. This leads to the hegemony of the unbelievers and their destroying [our] religion and existence.”

These words of Al-Libi’s form part of a tract he wrote on the question of human shields in modern jihad – that is to say on the propriety of visiting disproportionate, even indiscriminate, violence upon non-combatants during an operation. Whilst accepting the rectitude of the numerous classical opinions on the issue (i.e. of prohibition) he, like Zawahiri, employs the juristic principle of ‘the lesser of two evils’ [akhaff al-dararayn], sometimes referred to as the fiqh of balances [fiqh al-muwazanat], in order to countermand them, paving the way for operations such as the 1998 embassy bombings and ultimately the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre (a vital economic target in Al Qaeda’s estimation). Attendant to such thinking was the development of the concept of ‘vicarious liability’ which held the common populace of Western nations responsible for the actions of their governments on the basis that they were freely elected by them and their actions therefore reflective of the popular will. This rationale was cited by the ringleader of the 7/7 bombers, Mohammed Siddique Khan in his valedictory martyrdom recording, posthumously released by Al Qaeda. While Azzam and his companions had prohibited and studiously avoided incurring non-combatant casualties during their operations such scruples were completely abandoned by this next generation of jihadists in whose purview all non-Muslims citizens of belligerent states were ‘fair game’.

Ironically enough the introduction of American troops in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield in 1990 was justified by the establishment scholarship, in part, on the basis of the very same juristic principle. An apparent paradox serving to highlight the inherent multivalence of such principles and how a priori assumptions (and in no small part objectivity) factor heavily in the final determining. As the Islamic State group grapples with the complexities of operating a functional 21st (or 15th as they would view it) century state it also been forced to resort to ancillary juristic principles in order to exculpate itself from charges of contravening the Shariah. The terse post facto justification provided for the immolation of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh was instructive as to their approach to Islamic jurisprudence relying as it did on vague anomalous opinions based upon the principle of qisas [reciprocity of harm].

The influence of time and environment on both Salafi-Jihadist thought and practise – the constant struggle between principle and expediency –  finds further evidence in the dissonance between its theoreticians writing in relative isolation from theatres of active conflict (or who are not actively engaged in militancy) and its on-the-ground commanders forced to contend with its daily realities. Maher makes mention of several ideologues who have condemned Al Qaeda’s seemingly blithe indifference towards civilian casualties and their promiscuous utilisation of principles such as qisas. In a similar vein the falling out between one of Salafi-Jihadism’s most celebrated thinkers, Jordanian-Palestinian scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and his erstwhile student Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (the putative beheader of British hostage Ken Bigley) provides another, and probably the starkest, example of this disconnect between Salafi-Jihadism’s battlefield generals and its remote cadre of religious authorities. Their disagreement stemmed in no small part from Zarqawi’s broad stroke use of takfir against Shias and his employment of indiscriminate violence against the entire community (the majority and power holders in post-Saddam Iraq).

Islamic law strictly forbids the shedding of Muslim blood, regarding it as calamitous a  transgression as the destruction of the Kabah (the cuboid structure in Makkah towards which Muslim face during ritual prayers). This has historically presented a theoretical hurdle for Muslims who wish to fight other Muslims. While takfir – the pronouncement of ex-communication – on other Muslims for theological heterodoxy has always existed as a concept in the normative Islamic tradition, it was a weapon used sparingly in the past and limited in application to individuals or groups with very clearly delineated beliefs. Salafi-Jihadist groups by contrast have been prodigious  in their utilisation of takfir and in the scope of its application. In extremis entire Muslim majority nation states and their inhabitants have found themselves pronounced apostates – for their abandonment of Islamic law – and therefore mete for the sword. Such thinking has been utilised to devastating effect across the Muslim world to justify the commission of atrocities against fellow Muslims (both Sunnis and Shia). Here again though the struggle between theory and practical necessities kicks in with many theorists arguing for a greater degree of caution and restraint than many militant activists are willing to accept. Muslims – as in those who ostensibly fulfil the requirements of Islam – who are killed in the path of fighting the ‘apostate regimes’ (‘Tawaghit’) are regarded as either infidels themselves, for succouring them, or regrettable collateral damage whose deaths ultimately were decreed by God.

If Tawhid, al-Wala wal Baraa and Takfir constitute the bricks and Jihad the mortar then Hakimiyyah – the political sovereignty of God – might rightly be regarded as the resultant edifice, representing the realisation of the former three and the end goal of the latter. Its embodiment is to be found in the state, a polity wherein the divine writ (albeit mediated by mortal scriptural interpretation), not man’s, reigns supreme. Unlike the other four differentiae detailed by Maher, this is one area in which Salafi-Jihadism has not contributed anything original, plagiarising instead mainstream Islamist thinking on the subject – which Maher ultimately traces back to the Indian thinker and activist Maulana Maududi.  His understanding of the aetiology of Muslim socio-political decline inspired the revolutionary thinking of Sayed Qutb who through his writings has provided lasting inspiration to millions of Arab Islamists. Maher’s identification of the prime factors in the birth of modern Islamism as the ascendancy of the West – politically, militarily and technologically – and its colonisation of large tracts of the Muslim world culminating in the abolition and dismemberment of the Ottoman Caliphate, are fairly uncontentious observations. More noteworthy though is how as a concept, Hakimiyah predates these and as evidence he cites the magisterial compendium on Islamic governance, al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyya  [‘the rules of Islamic governance’] written by the celebrated 10th century Iraqi scholar, Abu al-Hasan al-Mawardi: “When we say hakimyya, we mean to protect the right of Allah that we have been entrusted with against his enemies. That right is the right for legislation, judging, and executing the judgements”  

While the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate gave birth to the various Islamist movements – the Muslim Brotherhood of Hassan al-Banna, the Jamati Islami of Maududi and the Hizb ut-Tahrir of Nabhani – it is worth bearing in mind that the origins of the Salafi movement lay in a revolt against it. The creation of the Saudi state satiated the aspirations of all but the most doctrinaire Salafis, the Ikhwan faction, whose revolt was ruthlessly suppressed. The absence of a unifying Caliphate in the Muslim world was not therefore something that concerned most Salafis for decades – they had their Islamic state in Saudi Arabia. The political aspect of Salafi-Jihadism, its view of Hakimyah, can therefore rightfully be traced back not to Ibn Abdul Wahab – whose gripe with the Ottomans centred on mystical practises he deemed polytheistic rather than any shortcomings in their Islamic legal practise – but to thinkers such as Maududi, Qutb and others and its thinking in this sphere therefore has been cross-fertilised by non-Salafis.

The remarkable propensity exhibited by groups such as Al Qaeda for interpretive innovation highlights the paradox at the heart of a movement built upon a philosophy of uncompromising misoneism or as Maher puts it “progression through regression”. Just how firmly anchored in, and faithful to, normative Islamic theology are the aims and methodology of Salafi-Jihadist groups has been a question occupying substantial column space on the sheets (digital or otherwise) of publications across the world ever since Graeme Wood’s seminal piece on the subject in the March 2015 edition of The Atlantic. It is a question which Maher sets out to answer yet to which he ends up only providing an oblique answer over the course of the 12 chapters of his book. Whilst this will prove frustrating to a Western readership no doubt keen for a more direct answer, the reality, as he makes evident, is that it lies mired in the finesses of scriptural hermeneutics. In the final estimation only when despotism finally gives way to popular governance in the Middle East are we likely to receive a definitive answer.

The metanarrative of Islamic humiliation and subjugation by the forces of disbelief (what some dismissively term the ‘victimhood narrative’) pervades Maher’s survey of Salafi-Jihadism and is one with considerable purchase across the Muslim world and diaspora communities – fuelled by Western abetment of Arab despotisms and Israeli transgressions and exacerbated in recent years by the direct interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whilst numerous polls indicate a growing desire amongst Muslim populations for Islam to feature more prominently in the political arena, most accept (ostensibly at least) the need to engage through the rubric of prevailing structures in order to achieve this. What distinguishes Salafi-Jihadism (along with the avowedly non-violent Islamism of Hizb ut-Tahrir) is the totality of its rejection of the status quo – the all or nothing paradigm. In this world view all existing regimes, nation-states, international laws and treaties are denuded of all legitimacy and in need of immediate upending through violent insurrection (Hizb ut-Tahrir agree with the premise but differ upon the transformational methodology). As Maher states in his introduction:

“…because although many violent-challengers [note: suspect this is a typo and activist-challengers was the intended word] are undoubtedly Salafis who also believe in Jihad (and practise it in many cases), their worldview does not believe in the absolute reconstruction of either the international order or the nation-state. To put it another way, were they to achieve power, they would largely behave as a consensus state within the international framework.”

If the Islamic Caliphates of history were coloured by their latitudinarianism its current Salafi-Jihadi incarnation in Syria and Iraq has proved commensurately parochial and Maher’s work adequately explicates how easily Salafi principles can be distended to justify the worst sanguinary depredations.  Yet despite this there remains a glimmer of hope. Amongst sections of the Salafi-Jihadi milieu there has been a growing shift towards a more capacious and nuanced vision of Islamic governance along with the a recognition of the necessity of some form of social contract and accountability. In this respect Maher points towards the writings of both more mainstream Salafi thinkers (who nonetheless command the respect of the Jihadists) as well as the pronouncements and practise of Jabhat an-Nusra (recently rebranded as Jabhat Fath ash-Sham), the Syrian arm of Al Qaeda, over the preceding four years. The previous reductionist approach of equating “establishment of Shariah” with the implemention of the hudud [mandated punishments] has given way to a more panoptic vision adopting some of the nuance and latitude that characterised classical Islamic thinking on the subject. This is reflective of a growing awareness of the need to achieve and maintain popular buy-in for the idea of political Islam if any future Caliphate is to be viable. That Salafi-Jihadism has been a catalyst for seismic changes in the topography of the Middle East is indisputable. As Maher notes it is a remarkably resilient philosophy and is unlikely to vanish anytime soon. The ideational trajectory it takes in the coming decade will carry resonance far beyond the Middle East. That a caliphate is the destiny of the Muslim world, as a believer, I harbour no doubts – what form this caliphate takes is one I am left pondering.

As a monograph on the origins and development of Salafi-Jihadist thought Maher’s debut book is comprehensive, meticulously researched and painstakingly evidenced – it achieves what it sets out to do. There is precious little I can find fault with on this level. Though a dense work and written in the dry academic tone of PhD theses, the language is wonderfully lapidary and limpid. If there is a cautionary note to be struck it would be in respect to the wider historic context of post-Caliphate, post-colonial Muslim experiences, something which largely fell outside the terms of reference of Maher’s study, and the need to understand Salafi-Jihadism in light of it.

May the peace and blessings of Allah (swt) be upon Sayyidina Muhammad. Ameen.

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