Jihad or Terrorism: The Roots of Salafi-Jihadism

Jihad or Terrorism: The Roots of Salafi-Jihadism

Jihad is a term that is often mentioned in verses of the Quran. In Verse 19 of Surat al-Tawba, the great importance of Jihad in Islam is underlined: “Have you taken the serving of water to the pilgrims and the maintenance of Al-Masjid-ul-Haram as equal to (the acts) of one who believes in Allah and in the Last Day, and carries out Jihad in the way of Allah?”

In the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, also known as Hadith, it is said that, “whosoever did not partake in Ghazou [battles] or thought about partaking in Ghazou shall die the death of Jahiliya [shall die an apostate].”

Islam has made jihad obligatory for Muslims. But if we dig deeper, there is the question of who is entitled to declare jihad today when Muslims have no Caliph to do so. Jihad requires the presence of "Wali al-Amr", or a ruler. That role was played by the Caliph in the past, and is now represented by the political ruler(s).

The birth of Salafi-Jihadism

In the present days, the most notable bearers of the jihadi banners are some Salafi groups that consider themselves dynamic movements seeking to spread Islam and to expel infidels from Muslim lands. These groups accuse other brands of Salafism of being domesticated to serve rulers. This is why the two terms are coupled together, to form the term “Salafi-Jihadism.”

Salafi-Jihadism emerged in Egypt, specifically during the rule of former President Anwar Sadat. The repression against the Muslim Brotherhood pushed some Islamist youths to adopt violence against the ruling “Taghut” – an Islamist term designating infidel regimes. They were inspired by the writings of Sayyid Qutb, notably his book Ma'alim fi al-Tariq (Milestones), where he perceives current Islamic societies as pagan and in need of reordering in accordance with the requirements of Islamic law. It is in this climate that many works emphasizing the importance of jihad were written most notably, Saleh Sarieh's "Risalat al-Iman" (A Treatise On Faith,) Mohammad Abdul-Salam Faraj's “Al-Farida Al-Gha’iba” (The Unfulfilled Duty,) or Sayed Imam al-Sharif's (Abdul-Qader Abdul-Aziz or Dr. Fadel) “Al-Umda fi I’dad al-‘Udda” (The Ultimate Reference on Preparedness).

Some experts believe that Abdullah Azzam, leader of the so-called “Arab Afghans,” was the first to use the term “Salafi-Jihadism”. Today, many ideologues are advocating this line, most notably Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi, Abu Qatada al-Filastini (Omar Mahmoud Othman, author of Jihad and Ijtihad: Reflection on Methodology,) Abu Musab al-Suri (author of The Global Islamic Resistance Call,) Abu Hajar al-Iraqi (Mamdouh Mahmoud Salem,) and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Some jihadists refuse the designation “Salafi-Jihadism,” believing it was their opponents that coined the term. Others do not mind it, despite admitting that its origin come from outside their ranks. Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi says, “We did not call ourselves by this name, but we were labeled with it by people, because of our adherence to the beliefs, actions, and jihad of the pious forebears.”

Jihad against “Infidels”

Shortly after the Soviet army entered Afghanistan, the country became the most famous jihadist arena in modern history. Islamist militants flocked towards it, and many jihadist names rose to prominence, and remained well after the withdrawal of the Soviets. The most notorious of those was Abdullah Azzam, the so-called Islamist Guevara, who oversaw the procurement of Arab jihadists to Afghanistan, establishing funding channels through the Services Office in partnership with Osama Bin Laden. Azzam was assassinated in 1989, a year after the meeting that led to the establishment of what would become al-Qaeda was held.

Most religious scholars agree that jihad in Afghanistan was an individual religious duty of every capable Muslim. When the Afghan conflict ended, most jihadists returned to their home countries. However, their role would not end there.

Bin Laden fell out with the authorities in his country, Saudi Arabia, after they allowed U.S. troops to be deployed on their territory in order to protect the country from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Although the Saudi position was based on a fatwa sanctioning “seeking assistance from infidels” issued by the Council of Senior Scholars, headed by Abdul-Aziz bin Baz. Many clerics (Hammoud bin Uqalaa al-Shuaibi, Safar al-Hawali, Salman al-Awda, Ali al-Khudair, and Walid al-Sinani) objected to this fatwa.

Bin Laden rejected the “desecration” of the birthplace of Islam with military bases belonging to those he called “crusaders”. Al-Qaeda carried out its first attack in Aden in 1992, against American soldiers bound for Somalia. In 1996, he declared jihad to expel foreign troops from all Muslim lands, and U.S. soldiers were attacked in Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia.

Political Islam

To justify targeting Western soldiers, fatwas by Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyyah were cited, calling on Muslims to fight Mongol invaders and all those who collaborate with them. A fatwa issued by Bin Laden and Al Zawahiri in 1998 stated: “The ruling on killing Americans and their allies, civilians or military, is an individual religious duty on every Muslim in every country whenever possible, to liberate Al-Aqsa Mosque [Jerusalem] and Al-Haram Mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and to expel their armies from all the land of Islam, defeated and humiliated”.

Jihad against the enemy within

Throughout Islamic history, jihad was always directed against foreign enemies. Today, some Salafi-Jihadists believe that the duty of jihad must also be observed against the rulers of Muslim countries that they have deemed to be apostates.

As far as this mode of internal jihad is concerned, that is, jihad against Muslim rulers, the debate among its proponents has focused on what exactly Islamic law permits in this regard. Shaykh al-Islam Taqi al-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah, in his book Al-Siyasa Al-Sharyiah Fi Islah al-Ra’i w al-Ra’iya (The Sharia Policy on Reforming Rulers and Subjects), writes: “Whomever is enabled to rule and has the intent to obey Allah, implement whatsoever he may of His religion, observe the interests of Muslims, uphold whatsoever he may of duties, and avoid whatsoever he may of what is prohibited, cannot be reproached for what he falls short of doing.” In other words, in order for any ruler not to be deemed an infidel, they must be convinced of the need to implement Sharia, though they may be excused if they fail to enforce their conviction as a result of circumstances beyond their control.

After Sayyid Qutb’s writings claiming that the modern era was one of Jahiliyya – the Islamic term for the pre-Islamic pagan era – criticism made against the lifestyle of modern Muslims and the policies implemented by their rulers grew sharper.

In his book “The Unfulfilled Duty” Mohammad Abdul-Salam Faraj writes: “The laws by which Muslims are governed today are infidel laws. They are laws drafted by infidels by which they have controlled Muslims. Their status thus is the same status as the Tatars as established in Ibn Khathir’s interpretation of Allah Almighty’s statement: ‘Do they seek the judgment of the Jahiliyya? But - for a people who believe - who can be better than Allah for judgment?’" Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah in the book Al-Fatawa Al-Kubra (The Grand Fatwas) states: "It is known necessarily from the religion of Muslims and the agreement of all Muslims that whosoever justifies following a religion other than Islam or other than the law of Muhammad is an infidel.”

For his part, Maqdisi believes in his book Kashf al-Niqab ‘an Shari’at al-Ghab (Exposing the Law of the Jungle), that modern secular and even sharia-based laws in Islamic countries “trounce Islam and the religion of monotheism”. He writes: “These laws have abolished the punishment for apostasy, protected apostates, and appeased paganism and pagans of various kinds, and protected their false beliefs and allowed them to publicly profess them, and therefore, proselytize them, not just as far as Jews and Christians are concerned, but for every other malicious sect [despite] their rotten nature, and their clear ties of allegiance, cordiality, love, and collaboration with the enemies of Allah, whether Easterners or Westerners.”

Maqdisi continues: “Their laws are a war on true monotheism, a pickax meant to destroy its pillars, and a hand that seeks to build paganism and polytheism. Their laws also manipulate souls and lives; as they protect the lives of pagans and apostates and forbid offensive war, they protect all those whom Allah Almighty ordered to be killed, such as apostates, heretics, adulterers, homosexuals, and so forth.” Based on these premises, this movement believes in the need to rebel against rulers.

But there is another view. Sheikh Nasser al-Din al-Albani argues: “Rebelling against the rulers, even if it is established that they are apostates, is not legitimate at all. We adduce in this question the Almighty’s statement, 'Verily you have in the Prophet of Allah an excellent model' (Al-Ahzab: 21).”

Elaborating on his fatwa, Albani states: “The state in which Muslims live today, with some rulers governing – assuming that their disbelief is clear and established just like the disbelief of the pagans is – if we assume this, then we say: The situation in which Muslims live, ruled by those rulers, and let us say, by infidels to accommodate the proponents of this view in terminology but not in meaning, we say: The life that Muslims lead under those rulers is not different from the life that the Messenger of Allah and his companions led during what scholars term the Meccan Era. The Prophet peace be upon Him lived under their rule and under their regime, and did not speak to them except to say: Worship Allah alone without a partner.”

Based on this, Albani argues that “the righteous faction that wants to establish the true State of Islam must abide by a saying that I consider among the wisdom of our age, spoken by one preacher, but whose followers do not follow, namely: Establish the State of Islam in your hearts and it will be established on your land.”

In another talk addressing the legality of rebelling against openly apostate rulers, Albani says: “Are you prepared to rebel? And by preparedness I mean: spiritual and moral preparedness. I say: If these two conditions are not met in those who want to rebel against the infidel ruler, then rebellion is not sanctioned to avoid bloodshed among Muslims themselves.” In this regard, he recalls the rebellion by Juhayman at the Al-Haram Mosque and the harm this caused Islamic advocacy, which according to him was otherwise going well.

The conditions of jihad

According to some scholars, if rebellion against the ruler is to be sanctioned, there are conditions that must first be met. Albani says that “individual rebellion is akin to suicide, so it is unlawful”. Meeting the substantive conditions for jihad affects all types of jihad.

While addressing the issue of fighting in Afghanistan, Albani said that there are no qualms about going to Afghanistan but, “we do not believe that jihad to repel these enemies can be individual. It has to be organized by Muslims, and must have a leader, who is called in Sharia terms the Caliph of Muslims. It is he who guides them and directs them, and prepares them. The issue should not be about an enthusiastic individual, as the Quran says, ‘Prepare against them whatever force you can, and the war horses to frighten Allah’s enemy and your own enemy.’"

In contrast, there are jihadists who do not give any weight to substantive conditions, and rush to fight wars that are doomed to fail, serving only to disturb the security of citizens and take innocent lives.

Jihad and suicide attacks

Ever since Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi's fatwa sanctioning suicide attacks, the proponents of this practice gained an important Sharia-based argument in support of their view. Hundreds of scholars endorsed his fatwa especially when it comes to suicide attacks against Israel. Qaradawi based his fatwa on the verse of the Quran which says: “And among men is he who sells himself to seek the pleasure of Allah,” in addition to an old fatwa by Ibn Taymiyyah. In Qaradawi’s view, “it is permissible for a person to sacrifice himself for a greater goal”. However, the legitimization of this practice open the way for another debate among scholars: What about the innocent lives that are lost as collateral damage?

Some Islamists sanction the harm of innocent lives based on a fatwa by Ibn Taymiyyah dealing with the issue of “al-Tatarros” – literally meaning shielding oneself. “Tatarros” involves "infidels" using Muslim prisoners, women or children as shields. Ibn Taymiyyah says: “Scholars agree that the army of the infidels, should they seek shelter behind Muslim prisoners in their custody, and if it is feared that those Muslims would be harmed if the infidels are fought, that they should indeed be fought, even if this leads to killing Muslims behind whom the infidels are sheltering.” This opinion is based on a historical event during which the Prophet ordered the city of al-Taif to be bombarded with a catapult.

The matter is simple, according to the slain al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: “Killing the mutamatris [Muslim shield] is less harmful than the prevalence of disbelief”, adding that if human shields are killed they will be deemed “martyrs”.

However, according to the four Sunni schools of "Fiqh" or jurisprudence – the issue is much more complicated than Zarqawi’s oversimplified view. And at any rate, the rules governing the issue of Muslim human shields that previous scholars ruled on involved completely different circumstances than those surrounding present-day suicide attacks.

The former Grand Mufti of Egypt, Nasr Fareed Wasel holds that “al-Tatarros is a rare occurrence in our time. What is happening in Iraq is an unlawful targeting of civilians, killing men, women, and children, something that Islam rejects. Invoking the rules of al-Tatarros requires an enemy that is ineluctably planning to attack us, while shielding itself behind Muslim civilians. When this happens, it is permissible to attack this enemy even if it shields itself with civilians, to prevent a greater harm by means of a smaller one.”  According to Sheikh Albani, “to those who rig cars to explode, and their shrapnel harms the innocent: This not sanctioned by Islam.”

For various reasons, many young people are joining the Salafi-Jihadist movement, and some of them go on to become Emirs of jihadi groups, without any profound knowledge of the teachings of Islam. These people cause disaster wherever they go. Here, it might be worth recalling a statement by Abdullah Azzam in which he said: "Bearing arms prior to receiving a lengthy education…is dangerous, because the bearers of arms could turn into gangs threatening the safety of people and ruining their lives."


Hassan Abbas

Hassan Abbas is a Lebanese writer and journalist specializing in political affairs. His research focuses on peace building in a diverse society.