Not Sunni Insurgents

It is crucial to make the distinction between neo-Khaarijite movements like ISIS and Sunnis Islam, writes Ali Khan Mahmudabad, if we are to defeat the extremist forces currently sweeping parts of the Middle East

Not Sunni Insurgents
‘In Baghdad the faster you drive the safer it is’, is what I was told as we hurtled through the night towards the Green Zone and its onion-layered security. The next day as I was about to drive back to Karbala, news trickled in about the frontal attack on Samarra by the Islamic State for Iraq and Shaam (ISIS). Since then there have been a string of suicide attacks in and around Baghdad, which have killed both Shias and Sunnis, the attacks against Karachi airport, the killing of Shia pilgrims near the Irani-Pakistani border and most recently the invasion of Mosul, Tikrit and other smaller towns. Although the attacks in Pakistan and Iraq find their roots in different socio-political contexts and have been catalysed by local and regional events, they do nonetheless share some views and draw inspiration from similar ideologies.

In a recent conference called Rabee-ush-Shahadah held and patronised by the shrines in Karbala, Maulana Mohsin Najafi of the Jami‘atul Kausar in Islamabad, Pakistan, gave a speech about tahreef and takfeer. Addressing a gathering of both Sunni and Shi‘a Muslims as well as members of the Christian and Druze communities drawn from over 49 countries, Najafi spoke at length about how Imam Hussain’s sacrifice in Karbala protected ‘true’ Islam from distortion and misrepresentation and then went on to state, citing examples from the Quran and ahadith, that the process of declaring takfeer was an untenable proposition, a position that is also echoed by many scholars of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence. In a conversation later in the week he proceeded to elaborate on how the process of takfeer found historical precedent: one was the breakaway Khariji faction, which following the battle of Siffi?n in 657 between Ali ibn Abi Talib and Muawiya, declared both groups kafir. Secondly, takfeer was famously used by ibn Taimiyyah around the time of the Mongol invasions when the latter converted to Islam but continued to use the ‘man-made’ yassa code.  Ibn Taimiyyah deemed the Mongols murtad or apostates and issued a fatwa of takfeer, the Mardin Fatwa, in which he interestingly referred to the breakaway of the Khawarij during the time of Ali ibn Abi Talib.


Later Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, heavily inspired by ibn Taimiyyah, appropriated many of the latters ideas and premised his entire theology on the takfeer of other Muslims. Recently, letters have been produced in Saudi Arabia in which Wahhab is claimed to have refuted these charges within his own lifetime as the work of his enemies but it is likely that these letters are more the result of a need to have a ‘soft’ Wahabism than a misunderstanding of his original position.

The importance of this genealogy of takfeer is underscored by the proceedings of the 2010 conference in Mardin (Turkey) in which some of the most famous Muslim scholars from throughout the world sought to re-habilitate ibn Taimiyyah as a misunderstood Islamic scholar who has been ‘read’ in a particular way as a result of politics rather than any belief he held. Indeed Abdullah Ibn Bayyah, a Mauritian scholar based out of Saudi Arabia has even argued that ibn Taimiyyah’s original fatwa was because of a printing mistake a hundred years ago in Egypt where the word y’amulu, or ‘treat them’ was misprinted as yaqtulu, ‘fight’ or ‘kill them’. Regardless of this, the fact is that ibn Taimiyyah’s Mardin Fatwa has been used for centuries to label entire communities as deviant and therefore apostates. The current spate of internecine and sectarian fighting, premised on the takfeer of all enemies – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – is not the product of our times but has a much longer history albeit one that has mostly been on the fringes of the Muslim world. Of course this has been exacerbated by socio-economic inequality, poverty and geo-politics but these are not the root causes.

This image posted on a militant website shows militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in plain clothes after taking over a base in Tikrit
This image posted on a militant website shows militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in plain clothes after taking over a base in Tikrit

Therefore, although 2001 has increasingly been seen as a turning point in terms of international relations and geo-strategic configurations, it is important to remember that the movements, ideology and people that are associated with September 11th were part of a longer genealogy. The Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri, often regarded as the ‘brains’ behind the twin forces of Al-Jihad and then al-Qaeda successfully fused the ideologies of the Egyptians Muhammad Shukri, the founder of takfeer w’al hijrah – excommunication and exile and Muhammad ‘Abdus Salaam Faraj, founder of a splinter movement of Jama‘at al-Jihad which was responsible for the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Both these men were inspired by the founder of the Jama‘at-e Islami Abul ’Ala‘a al-Mawdudi who was originally Indian and then moved to Pakistan, Hassan al-Banna, the ideological progenitor of the Ikhwanul Muslimeen or Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Sayyid Qutb an inspiration for many Salafi jihadis although he is also someone who is regarded by others as a misunderstood and misinterpreted scholar. Each of these men had their own particular interpretations and versions of what they deemed to be correct Islam but it can safely be argued that they all fall under the overarching banner of Salafi Jihadis.

What tied this disparate group of people together was the belief that true Islam had become contaminated with foreign or outside influence, that this constituted the rise of a new period of jahilliyyah, which in turn meant that Muslims too had become apostates and therefore the need of the hour was to wage jihad in order to re-establish a truly Islamic state.

The methodology of how to do this jihad varied with Shukri advocating hijra or movement away in order to regroup while Faraj disagreed and thought that the intimate enemy – in other words other Muslims – should be infiltrated and fought from close quarters. He even argued that it was valid to disregard certain precepts of the Sharia when waging jihad thus allowing combatants. Zawahiri fused these two ideas and advocated a move away to safe areas, such as Northern Iraq, Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier in Pakistan in order to fight. Crucially, in the 1970s and 1980s the American, Israeli and Pakistani government agencies supported these very mujahideen in fighting the Russians. Abdullah Azzam played a key role in the logistical operations of this jihad by obtaining fatwas from various clerics including Abdul Aziz Bin Baaz the Mufti of Saudi Arabia as well as setting up offices and guest houses to liaise with mujahideen, donors and ideologues in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and other countries. It was inevitable that these fighters would turn elsewhere once the specter of Communism faded. The rise of the Afghan Taleban as well as the return of some of these disaffected men to their own countries along with other arenas of combat, including North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and Chechnya meant they gradually developed a global footprint. As the Cambridge scholar and advisor (whose advice was not taken) to Tony Blair, George Joffe has said, the 2003 invasion of Iraq in many ways created a space for salafi jihadis to occupy.  However, it is also important to remember that irrespective of 2003 these groups have existed and thrived in various parts of the world long before the fall of Saddam Hussain.

[quote]The very jihadis who were being fought in Afghanistan and Pakistan were being supported in Iraq and Syria[/quote]

In order to combat political Islam, many of the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula actively nurtured both active jihadis and ‘quietist’ Salafist movements in order to combat any influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. The recent Arab Spring opened up new theatres of combat and the rise of Shia power in Iraq lead to an almost schizophrenic approach on the part of Western and certain Arab powers, whereby the very jihadis who were being fought in Afghanistan and Pakistan were being supported in Iraq and Syria.

ISIS and Al-Nasra militants
ISIS and Al-Nasra militants

The current upsurge of Salafi Jihadist movements in South Asia and the Middle East, not to mention the support they have in many European countries, then must be seen in a longer context, as well as their internal differences recognized. For instance Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi and his mentor Abu Muhammad Qasim al-Maqdisi disagreed about takfeer, with the latter emphasizing missionary work or d‘awa and a more quietist approach vis-à-vis the Shi‘a. However, the current leader of the ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who so far has remained a shadowy figure, is much more in the mold of Zarqawi than Zawahiri. Interestingly the leadership of Al-Qaeda, through public letters, has reprimanded both men for their extreme and brutal methods as well as advising Jabhat al-Nusra to restrict their operations to Syria and for ISIS to limit itself to Iraq, thus claiming overarching global responsibility for itself.

As the name indicates the goal of ISIS is to establish an Islamic emirate in the region. The recent statement by ISIS spokesperson, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, illustrates the visceral hate the groups has for Shi‘as labeling Karbala ‘the filth ridden city’ and Najaf, ‘the city of polytheism.’ With a border that might as well not exist between Syria and Iraq as well as their control of oil fields, military equipment, banks and the financial support of various state and non-state actors, ISIS is a threat beyond just the Middle East with groups with a similar ideology already existing in North Africa and the Middle East. European and American countries have been relatively quiet about ISIS, which they have tacitly supported as part of the Syrian opposition while ostensibly condemning its actions in Iraq.

Unfortunately, bad governance as well as the alienation of many Sunni tribes by the majority Shia government has meant that the ISIS has gained a large, albeit arguably temporary following and for the time being has also merged with disaffected members of Saddam’s Baath Party as well some Sunni tribes. For the time being Izzat Ibrahim ad-Duri, a senior general in Saddam’s regime who has managed to stay alive unlike many of his former colleagues, is now one of the operational commanders of ISIS. He is also de facto leader of the New Ba’ath Party as well as being the head of ‘the army of the men of the Naqshbandi Order’. It must be remembered that this Ba’athist/Sufi identity is ideologically an anathema to ISIS and so the talk of an alliance between the Naqshbandi Army and ISIS must be treated with caution because both groups ultimately have different goals for Iraq. The only group which has retained its power and arguably has even benefited from the current crisis are the Kurds who have also not been treated as equal partners by Baghdad.

With the call to arms directed at Iraqis and not the Shi‘a by Ayatollah Sistani as well as by the head of the shrine of Imam Hussain in Karbala, Sheikh Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai and the support proffered by Iran, the situation is dangerously likely to escalate with people conveniently labeling this as a Sunni-Shia battle. However, ideologically as well as otherwise, ISIS and other groups of its ilk are much more like the aforementioned Khawaarij than Sunnis, many of whom, including the 12 imams from Mosul, have been killed for refusing to swear loyalty to ISIS.

Therefore it is imperative that the Iraqis form a government of national unity in order to prevent not just the country but the region, from falling prey to this poisonous movement. It is crucial then for the distinction between neo-Khaarijite movements like ISIS and Sunnis Islam be made by members of the ulama in order to make sure that the lay-population is not drawn into the trap of thinking in these binary and frankly wrong terms.

Another step that can be taken in conjunction with the international community in order to curtail the spread of this dangerous group is to try and re-capture the border between Syria and Iraq and also starve ISIS and other such outfits of ‘oxygen’ by sealing off any aid from Turkey and the Arabian peninsula. With the visible and vocal presence of such takfeeri groups in Pakistan, the situation is potentially already primed to explode beyond the Middle East. Therefore it is imperative that regional powers, including both India and Pakistan as well as Western powers come together to redress this crisis.