The three powerful scholars fueling Islamic State’s hate
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.