The three powerful scholars fueling Islamic State’s hate

March 29, 2016
Militant Islamist fighters waving flags, travel in vehicles as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014. The fighters held the parade to celebrate their declaration of an Islamic "caliphate" after the group captured territory in neighbouring Iraq, a monitoring service said. The Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot previously known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), posted pictures online on Sunday of people waving black flags from cars and holding guns in the air, the SITE monitoring service said. Picture taken June 30, 2014.  REUTERS/Stringer (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT) - RTR3WKTZ

Militant Islamist fighters waving flags, travel in vehicles as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria’s northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

After Islamic State militants claimed responsibility for last week’s terrorist attacks in Brussels, a now common debate ensued on social media and elsewhere: does Islam condone violence against civilians?

With its extreme violence and nihilistic mindset, Islamic State seems a death cult bent on senseless destruction. But the group justifies its violence, especially against civilians, with selective interpretations of Islamic texts and scholars that are rejected by the vast majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. According to a long-term survey by the Pew Research Center, at least three quarters of the world’s Muslims reject terrorist tactics such as suicide bombing or other attacks on civilians.

Like other militant movements, especially al Qaeda and its offshoots, Islamic State is inspired by a group of religious scholars across Islam’s history who advocated the idea of declaring other Muslims as infidels or apostates, and justifying their killing. This notion of takfir is central to the ideology of most contemporary Islamic militant groups, who have killed far more Muslims than non-Muslims. Islamic State’s leaders cherry-pick the sources and scholars they choose to imitate, so they end up with austere interpretations of Islamic texts that run counter to a millennium of moderate understandings, including tolerance for other faiths. Three scholars, in particular, have had an outsized influence on Islamic State’s religious ideology.

The first dates back to the 13th century, a period when Islam’s early empires began to decline after five centuries of expansion. As the Mongols swept across Asia and sacked Baghdad, the Mongol warrior Hulagu, a grandson of Genghis Khan, threatened to overrun the Levant, an area of the eastern Mediterranean centered around modern-day Syria and Lebanon. While many Muslim scholars at the time lined up to support the Mongols, one jurist forcefully rejected the invaders. Ibn Taymiyya, an Islamic scholar from Damascus, issued several fatwas (religious rulings) against the Mongols — and al Qaeda, Islamic State and other militants still quote those rulings today.

After Hulagu, some Mongol leaders nominally converted to Islam, but Ibn Taymiyya considered them infidels. He also argued that it was permissible for believers to kill other Muslims during battle, if those Muslims were fighting alongside the Mongols. Ibn Taymiyya is the intellectual forefather to many modern-day Islamic militants who use his anti-Mongol fatwas — along with his rulings against Shi’ites and other Muslim minorities — to justify violence against civilians, including fellow Muslims, or to declare them infidels, using the concept of takfir. Islamic State often quotes Ibn Taymiyya in its Arabic tracts, and occasionally in its English-language propaganda, as it did in its magazine, Dabiq, in September 2014.

Ibn Taymiyya also inspired the father of the Wahhabi strain of Islam that is dominant in Saudi Arabia today, the 18th century cleric Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who decreed that many Muslims had abandoned the practices of their ancestors. Wahhab believed Islamic theology had been corrupted by philosophy and mysticism. Many of the practices he banned were related to Sufism and Shi’ism, two forms of Islam he particularly abhorred.

Wahhab argued that Islamic law should be based on a literal interpretation of only two sources: the Koran and the Sunnah, a collection of the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings and stories about his life. (The word Sunnah means path, and it’s the root of the designation “Sunni” — those who follow the prophet’s path — the dominant sect in Islam.) Wahhab dismissed analogical reasoning and the consensus of scholars, two other sources that had helped Islamic law evolve and adapt to new realities over time.

Today, Saudi Arabia is built on an alliance between two powers: the ruling House of Saud and clerics who espouse Wahhabi doctrine. Wahhabis seek to return the religion to what they believe was its “pure” form, as practiced by Muhammad and his followers in 7th century Arabia. The Saudi regime has also used its oil wealth to export Wahhabi doctrine by building mosques and dispatching preachers throughout the Muslim world.

But radicalism needs more to breed than just rhetorical and religious inspiration. As Arab nationalist leaders and military rulers rose to power in parts of the Middle East in the 1950 and 60s, they violently suppressed Islamic movements, including peaceful ones. In Egypt, the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser clamped down on the populist Muslim Brotherhood, and that helped lay the ideological foundations for the emergence of violent Islamic movements in the following decades.

The most militant thinker that emerged from that period was Sayyid Qutb, a Brotherhood leader who was swept up in Nasser’s crackdown. After enduring nine years of prison and torture, Qutb published a manifesto in 1964, Milestones Along the Road, in which he argued that the secular Arab nationalism of Nasser and others had led to authoritarianism and a new period of jahiliyya, a term that has particular resonance for Islamists because it refers to the pre-Islamic “dark ages.” Qutb declared that a new Muslim vanguard was needed to restore Islam to its role as “the leader of mankind,” and that all Arab rulers of his time had failed to apply Islamic law and should be removed from power. Qutb argued that it was not only legitimate, but a religious duty for “true” believers, to forcibly remove a leader who had allegedly strayed from Islam.

Nasser’s regime executed Qutb in 1966, but his ideas lived on and they inspired a new generation of militant leaders, especially Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is now the leader of al Qaeda after bin Laden’s death. And while Islamic State’s ideologues do not quote Qutb as frequently as al Qaeda’s leaders have, he clearly inspired the group’s rejection of contemporary Arab regimes and its effort to create a transnational state in parts of Syria and Iraq.

Like its predecessors, Islamic State reads Islam’s history and its foundational texts selectively, choosing the parts and thinkers who fit into its vision of Sunni dominance, brutality and constant war with pretty much everyone else.


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The 1.6 billion muslium’s need to rise up against this cancer. It’s giving the majority a bad name. The teachers of hate need to be identified and dealt with, before there is an all out war on the religion. Modern civilizations can not and will not continue to put up with mass killings in the name of a twisted view of the religion. No God would justify killing his creation.

Posted by cheeze | Report as abusive

“at least three quarters of the world’s Muslims reject terrorist tactics” So of the 1.6 billion of the world’s Muslims, up to 400 million don’t reject the terrorist tactics? That’s more than the combined populations of the United States and Canada (or a number of combinations of major European countries). That is a horrible statistic…

Posted by DD.V | Report as abusive

The Quran and the Bible are used as weapons many times to justify one’s own interpretation of such. As one who has read both books, I see that some people use their own dogma to justify their actions. People of the Book(s) need to take them back. Although, . . . the creator has a plan woven into both of these Books that will play out anyway regardless. Peace

Posted by carl1954 | Report as abusive

Christianity, Judaism, Islam: Patriarchal broken religions. There can be no peace when men thump chests over which myth is the most true. None of them are true. They’re called myths for a reason.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

The 3 major patriarchal religions are largely structured as business deals or business contracts. If the adherent does certain things, then paradise or prosperity will follow. Likewise, if the non-believer or adherent does the wrong things, then bad things and eternal suffering are promised. One wonders if the creator of >10^23 star systems really has agreed to the terms of the contracts issued in his/her/its name.

Thank you Reuters for a very interesting article.

Posted by mikejp83 | Report as abusive

These three are the Muslim equivalent of the US neocons, who fuel hatred and war in the Middle East.

Posted by cautious123 | Report as abusive

I am sure way less than a,quarter of muslims agree with this violent ideology.
I think its an ideology that gives a platform to troubled people with violent tendencies. Normal people want peace. I have not met a single muslim that agrees.
Another thing this article leaves unclear , in fact, sort of gives the impression that their brand of islam is on accordance with mohammedan teachings of original islam.
They are not just anti islam, in fact, prophet mohammad pbuh actually predictrd tammaya and abdul wahab and warned against them. He also predicted that when me ca is ruled by a tribe from najd thry would pull islam down to its datk ages. The house of saud is from najd, and abdul wahab rise under their protection. He warned his followers to not follow these ppl.

Posted by Teehale | Report as abusive

I was struck by the statement as well that over 75% of Muslims reject terrorist tactics.

I wonder what the proportion would be for Hindus, Catholics, Anglicans, Atheists or Agnostics…?

Seems like 75% is a pretty low bar and a sign of how backward the Islamic world is that this statistic even gets quoted.

Posted by bummedout | Report as abusive

Islam needs to self-police better. Religion is not an ethnicity or race. It is a choice. Similarly, Christianity should receive no special protections in the United States. Tax churches, they operate as businesses. It’s all a scam.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive