Historical Origins of the Ideology of ISIS and other Militant Groups Who Commit Terrorism in the Name of Islam - Part 1:
Islam is a conservative religion that teaches obedience to authority.
This is a topic that people in the West are desperately curious about but rarely feel competent enough to know where to begin making sense of it all. When approaching this topic with non-Muslims the first thing I always point out is that while the issues of terrorism and conflict that takes place in the Muslim world may very well be the narrative in which Muslims most readily appear in the media, and therefore the issues that non-muslim in the West are most likely to create mental associations with when they hear the words “Muslim” or “Islam” - these issues are not, in my experience, especially common topics for Muslims to talk about with one another. That is to say that when we congregate in the mosques and socialize together, it is rather uncommon that the issues of terrorism or ISIS, or whatever the media is taking about, to really come up. No, rather we are much more concerned with our work, our families, our family’s education and our own, practicing our religion, and the various recreational activities we might undertake with our children.
But nevertheless, ISIS and its ideology is a difficult issue in the modern world, and if you live in the state of Minnesota we have recently been confronted with an extra dosage of media attention due to the conviction of 9 youth from Minneapolis for terrorism chargers. All of this causes educators to make mental associations with their students and terrorism and terrorist recruitment; and the public at large as well. While the amount of Muslims in the United States who have actually even tried to approach supporting ISIS in any way is exceedingly small; it is still true that disaffected Muslim youth are most vulnerable to fall suspect to it and indeed are the main targets of ISIS propaganda.
Muslims themselves vary largely in their degree of education about Islam beyond its basic tenets, and while rejection of terrorism and a radical ideology ought to be easy for any rational thinking person, we know that adolescents are susceptible to lapses in rationality due to the particulars of their psychological development. Risky behavior is exhibited in adolescents of all backgrounds, but susceptibility to the ideology of ISIS is something that will particularly affect Muslim youth due to the nature of the identity conflicts they are more likely to undergo in life. Therefore, it is the responsibilities of the Muslims themselves to untangle this ideology and its origins and expose its illegitimacy, fallacy, and corruption under the guise of Islam itself.
This article series will do exactly that, and along the way it will highlight points educators can use to enlighten the Muslim youth and others to the historical phenomena that have taken place to lead to the development of this corrupt ideology; as well as how to decode general gaps in knowledge and understanding of the characterizations made by media and academia in the West that can have the side affect of reinforcing the corrupt messages about Islam that ISIS and other terrorist groups espouse. There will be three main points to that this series is centered on. There are as follows:
POINT 1 - Islam is a conservative religion that teachers obedience to authority. (The focus of this article)
POINT 2 - The extremist ideology of ISIS and other militant groups is a revolutionary ideology of rebellion and was authored by ideologues who were educated in Marxist-Leninist ideologies and western philosophies and under-educated in Islam. (Proving this point, and showing the Islamic evidences that refutes this ideology, will comprise the majority of this series)
POINT 3 - - Young Muslims who fall into this ideology are religious novices at best and are typically rancorous over politics and emotionally manipulated while in the throes of adolescent identity conflict.
Proving the first two points is something that doing a better job of is incumbent on the Muslim community, and the first two points are essential to mitigating the phenomenon described in the third point. To begin:
Islam is a conservative religion that teachers obedience to authority
In recent times, the post World War 2 era in particular, the Muslim world, and especially the Arab world, has been wrought with conflict and civil strife. But why? It has not always been so chaotic. If you look at the maps of the major Muslim empires below and the time periods of their rule you notice a pattern of stability that existed. Parts of the Arab world today (particularly the Levant) that have experienced multiple civil conflicts within just the past four decades experienced centuries of continual stability under these empires. Even when transitions of power took place in the locale of the authoritative provincial centers of these empires the transition was often rather seamless for the provincial authorities and its citizenry. This is a generalization to be sure, but also generally true. They did have some major external conflicts with the crusades and the invasion of the mongols, but these were external. Civil and domestic strife was relatively rare and exceptional during this long era of history. But in the post World War 2 era rebellion and civil conflict has taken on a whole new scale of frequency in the Muslim world.
Islam provided the cushion and bedrock for this stability throughout history with its edicts against rebellion, and injunctions of obedience to rulers and guidance to err towards decision making that provides stability, security, and reconciliation when conflicts do arise. That rebellion against rulership is forbidden in Islam was well established and clear cut through the better part of the history of these empires and from the time of the inception of the first Muslim empire, and the fact that the Muslim world has seen so much conflict in modern times has to do with the Muslims losing their grip on this aspect of their religion to a fair degree. It is something that they need to get back, take ahold of, and preach to their youth.
The Islamic sources of information for the religion are the Qur'an, the sayings, reported actions, tacit approvals, and rulings of the Prophet Muhammad (which are recorded in a body of work called hadith), and elucidation of these matters from the Prophet's companions and the Islamic scholars with deference to the earlier ones. Demonstrating the illegitimacy of the ideology of ISIS and other terrorist groups cannot be done without deference and referral to these sources. Fervent adolescents who are the most likely to fall prey to terrorist propaganda yearn for a feeling of meaning and authenticity for their lives. While the ideology of these groups is not authentic to the teachings of Islam, they are tactful in their attempts to make it appear so to the naive youth who may desire a stronger attachment to their religious identity. The fallacy of these groups in this regard needs to be exposed, and exposed in a way that is authentic and refers to the sources of Islam so its authenticity is made apparent and felt. So we will be going back to these sources throughout the series and relying on scholars and students of today who undertake erudite study of Islam according to its traditional sciences and methods of exegesis. Along the way, we will examine western scholarships analysis of this ideology and its development and demonstrate some of its strengths and weaknesses in regards to establishing the second point above.
The edicts in Islam to obey the ruler are made plain in these sources. The Qur'an tells the Muslims:
O you who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in result." (4:59)
The following hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad make the commandments upon Muslims to obey rulers and authority clear:
No one exhorts the people except the ruler, one appointed by the ruler, unless he is a show off.” (1)
Whoever obeys me, obeys Allah, And whoever disobeys me, disobeys Allah. Whoever obeys the ruler, obeys me, and whoever disobeys the ruler, disobeys me.” (2)
"Whoever disapproves of something done by his ruler then he should be patient, for whoever disobeys the ruler even a little will [be treated on the Day of Judgement] as a transgressor.” (3)
Part of respect for Allah is to respect authority.” (4)
He who rebels against obedience to the ruler, abandons the general community and then dies, his death will be as a rebellious sinner” (5)
It is obligatory for you to listen to the ruler and obey him in adversity and prosperity, in pleasure and displeasure, and even when another person is given undue preference over you.” (6)
It is obligatory upon a Muslim that he should listen (to the ruler appointed over him) and obey him whether he likes it or not” (7)
The companion of the Prophet Auf bin Malik reported the following interaction with the Prophet that begin with the Prophet saying:
The best of your rulers are those whom you love and who love you, who invoke God's blessings upon you and you invoke His blessings upon them. And the worst of your rulers are those whom you hate and who hate you and whom you curse and who curse you. It was asked (by those present): Shouldn't we overthrow them with the help of the sword? He said: No, as long as they establish prayer among you. If you then find anything detestable in them you should dislike their administration, but do not withdraw yourselves from their obedience.” (8)
In the hadith collection of Sahih Muslim, whose authoritative weight in Islamic tradition is without dispute, there is a chapter entitled “The prohibition of seeking or desiring a position of authority” - in this chapter we read:
It has been narrated by Abu Musa (a companion of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ) who said:
Two of my cousins and I entered the apartment of the Prophet (ﷺ). One of them said: “Messenger of Allah, appoint us rulers of some lands that the Almighty and Glorious God has entrusted to thy care.” The other also said something similar. The Prophet replied: “We do not appoint to this position one who asks for it nor anyone who is covetous for the same.” (9)
It was also reported by the companion Hudhayfah that the Prophet (ﷺ) said to him,
There will be after me rulers who do not guide themselves by my guidance nor follow my Sunnah and their will appear amongst you men whose hearts are the hearts of devils in the bodies of men.” Hudhayfah said, “What shall I do if I reach that (time)?” He (ﷺ) said, “Hear and obey the ruler, even if your back is beaten and your wealth is confiscated." (10)
This last hadith is important. Typically when a young Muslim is entertained by the ideology of ISIS and their ilk and one were to tell them the numerous injunctions from the Prophet to obey the rulers (the type of which could be duplicated several times over beyond just the 10 that I have cited here) due to their lack of knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence overall and the well established edicts of the major Islamic scholars throughout history, they might respond with something along the lines of saying that the Prophet must have only meant that about rulers who follow Islam, or rulers who are just and non-oppressive. But this is not the case. The only time disobedience to the ruler could come into consideration is if the ruler is mandating that people worship idols or has prevented the people from establishing prayer; and even here we are only talking about disobedience to the extent that it means prioritizing the worship of One God and the establishment of the prayer, not rebellion. The modern rebellions that have taken place in the Muslim world have not been against governments that were preventing people from praying or ordering them to worship idols, nor even preventing them from fasting during Ramadan, giving charity, or performing Hajj and as such not preventing them from following Islam at all. Have they ruled by every aspect of Islamic law? No. But as is established by the Prophet himself here such cases are not justification for rebellion and indeed to rebel is a grievous sin for the chaos and calamity it inevitably brings about and causes to others.
In Islamic jurisprudence special consideration is given to the practice and counsel of the first three generations of Muslims; meaning the first generation that encompassed Muhammad (ﷺ) and his companions, the generation that followed them, and the generation that followed them. This special reverence is given because the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) instructed the Muslims to do exactly that when he said, “ The best people are those of my generation, then those who come after them, then those who come after them. Then, there will come people whose witness will precede their oaths and whose oaths will precede their witness.” (11) - These three generations are collectively referred to in Islamic jurisprudence as the Salaf - a term we will be elaborating on some.
If we look at the practice and tradition of the Salaf we see that the tradition of obeying the rulers is only further established. The salaf of course spread out well beyond the Arabian peninsula during their time as they were the erectors of the earliest Muslim empire and its expansion. During this time they themselves lived under a variety of rulers and acted as rulers in varying capacities. The life of one of the major scholars of Islamic jurisprudence, Ahmed ibn Hanbal (after whom a major school of Islamic jurisprudence is named), provides one of the important illustrations of this.
Ibn Hanbal was detained and tortured by successive rulers in Baghdad over a dispute of the divine nature of the Qur’an. Belief in the Qur’an’s divine origins is central to Islamic belief and ibn Hanbal was not willing to say otherwise; being an influential jurist that he was, the rulers hoped that forcing him to compromise on this would influence the rest of the society; so he was imprisoned and tortured in an attempt to coerce him into saying the Qur’an was something man-made. Still, with his knowledge of hadith and the life and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ), he viewed revolt and rebellion against the rulers (even if they tortured the innocent and denied Islamic belief) to be unlawful in Islam. When jurists of lesser esteem came to him and told him they wanted him to join them in saying they were not pleased with the rulership he told them “‘Keep opposing [the false belief itself] with your statements but do not remove your hands from obedience and do not encourage the Muslims to rebel and do not spill your blood and the blood of the Muslims along with you. Look to the results of your actions. And remain patient until you are content with a righteous or sinful rule.” (12) - he continued to debate with them for an hour on this point.
The tradition of obedience to the rulers continued and has been established and articulated by major scholars of Islam throughout the centuries as well as in the modern day. For more elaboration on the long standing prohibition in Islam of rebelling against rulers (be they just or unjust rulers) these links (Link 1 - Link 2 - Link 3) can be referenced for just a small sampling of the elaborate information that exists establishing this (note: these links are written for a Muslim audience and the articles within them may assume certain background knowledge that non-Muslims may lack - later we hope to have a post about effective websites to which young Muslims can be referred to to combat that propaganda of ISIS and the dynamics surrounding the issue of religious education of young Muslims in the West).
It can often be the view of Muslims, with much justification, that the view and characterizations of western academics of phenomena that takes place in the Muslim world and of the scholarly tradition of Islam can be wrongful, off-base, or of insufficient periphery. There is nevertheless readily available acknowledgement of Islam’s well established stance of obedience to rulers and authority within Western academia also.
John Esposito, professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, author of several books on Islam and perhaps the most well respected modern-day scholar on Islam in the American academic tradition wrote in an article for the Boston Review, shortly after September 11th, 2001:
“Terrorists like bin Laden and others go beyond classical Islam's criteria for a just jihad and recognize no limits but their own, employing any weapons or means. They reject Islamic law's regulations regarding the goals and means of a valid jihad—that violence must be proportional and that only the necessary amount of force should be used to repel the enemy; that innocent civilians should not be targeted; and that jihad must be declared by the ruler or head of state. Today, individuals and groups, religious and lay, seize the right to declare and legitimate unholy wars in the name of Islam.” (Bold mine)
The late 20th century tradition in western academia was to refer to what is established by “Sunni” or “orthodox” Islam and its scholarly tradition as “classical” Islam. But Esposito is precisely on point here when he speaks of “criteria” for jihad to make it “valid.” ALL acts that are prescribed or exhorted in Islam have criteria and conditions to meet for performing them in order for them to be “valid” or accepted (by God on the Day of Judgment this would mean) as righteous acts. This is well known and obvious with the washing rituals and exactitude that is necessary for performing the prayer. Jihad is certainly no exception in having a criteria. You see Esposito list some criteria here where I have emboldened that one of the longstanding conditions of jihad in Islam is that it must be ordered by a ruler. To read a Muslim expound on the matter of the criteria and conditions for jihad with reference to the scholars of Islam see this article (again, an article written for a Muslim audience).
That this is a matter of a certain type; i.e. one that is well established in Islamic authority, but tends to get muddled in the codes of characterization put on by western academic and journalistic writing, is well illustrated in this article from October 13th, 2001 by Robert Worth entitled The Deep Intellectual Roots of Islamic Terror where Worth attempts to provide something of a timeline of ideological and political history that led the world to 9/11, but in doing so he draws on generalizations of history in Islamic tradition that amount to a contradictory nebulas that he is most likely not fully aware he is even making. He states:
“The Muslim extremists, members of Islamic Jihad, who assassinated the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981, for instance, left behind a 54-page document titled ''The Neglected Duty'' that provided an elaborate theological justification for what they had done. Addressed to other Muslims rather than to the West, the document drew on earlier thinkers in arguing that rebelling against one's rulers -- which is forbidden by most Islamic authorities -- is in fact a duty if those rulers have abandoned true Islam. Mr. bin Laden, whose Al Qaeda movement merged with Islamic Jihad several years ago, has taken the same tack, drawing on medieval authorities to argue that killing innocents or even Muslims is permitted if it serves the cause of jihad against the West.” (bold mine)
Worth makes three references here to “thinkers” or “authorities” within Islam. In his succeeding elaboration on these “thinkers” and authorities he makes a casual linkage to the term “Salafiyya” - and cites New York University professor Bernard Haykel as his source in defining this term. Worth states that “the roots of Mr. Bin Laden’s worldview” date back to this “school” of salafiyya and that the term salafiyya “comes from the Arabic words al-salaf al-salih…which refers to the generation of the Prophet Muhamma and his companions.” The latter part here, that al-salaf al-salih refers to the generation of the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) and his companions is correct (though incomplete because the term also refers to the two generations that followed that first generation, as discussed above). The former part of Worth’s statement here, that Osama Bin Laden’s worldview is rooted in salafiyya is erroneous in fact; and it is the type of statement that is made without in depth analysis to the issue at hand, and is made in a pseudo-expert style that inadvertently serves the cause of propping up terrorist groups and yielding supporters for them (especially amongst young Muslims who are religious novices at best and tend to follow media and politics rather than engage in in depth study of the religion). This is something done regularly, not just by Worth, but in many areas of Western academic and journalistic analysis of issues taking place in the Muslim world.
In making these statements Worth has casually linked Osama Bin Laden’s "worldview" to the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) and his companions, and then goes on to casually link that with 20th century “reformers” - in particular Rashid Rida, Mauluna Maudoodi, and Sayyid Qutb - by Worth’s asserting that these men and Osama Bin Laden are all linked together in their “worldview” by what can be summarized into the term salafiyya - and since that term ultimately refers to orthodox Islam itself - the inference that Osama Bin Laden has taken on an accurate interpretation of Islam is left wide open and ready for the New York Times reader to make (and after all, the article’s title prompts the reader to consider the ‘Deep Roots’ of ‘Islamic Terror’ does it not?) despite the factual errancy of such an assertion.This is not to say that it was the deliberate intent of Worth to prod readers into making inferences that the ideology of Bin Laden must be directly linked to the teachings of Islam, but we do have an illustration her of how cursory characterizations of Islamic history via Western outlets can cause issues to get muddled and make further issues arise (and even unwittingly aid the propaganda of terrorists themselves). .
What Worth also fails to parse out is that the “medieval authorities” which he states that Mr. Bin Laden “draws on” are also amongst the foremost Islamic authorities who consider rebelling against the ruler to be forbidden. The attributions of Bin Laden and other terrorist groups to such medieval authorities are false and mischaracterized, in particular we are talking about the scholars Ibn Taymiyah (who Worth referred to) and Ibn Al-Qayyim. We will write more on this point of terrorist groups misusing, abusing, and mischaracterizing the words of revered Islamic scholars later, but you can see this article which nicely articulates the position of those scholars on rebelling against the ruler (again written for a Muslim audience).
Secondly, Worth fails to parse out the fact that the “reforms” of these “earlier thinkers” (i.e. Ridda, Maudidi, and Qutb) basically do not draw on Islamic authorities at all as the source of their “reforms” in ideology. As we will show in this article series, these "thinkers" drew on the tactics of Communism/Marxism/Lennism, Social Darwinism, and anti-colonial ideology and put it into Islamic clothing in direct contradiction and ignorance of the Islamic edicts of obedience to authority and rulership (among others) that have been well established since the time of Islam’s inception by the very words of Islam’s Prophet and reiterated by his companions and later scholars of the Islamic tradition.
Worth correctly states that “if one man deserves the title of intellectual grandfather to Osama bin Laden and his fellow terrorists, it is probably the Egyptian writer and activist Sayyid Qutb” - this is well known and much more will be written on this man in the succeeding articles. Interestingly, Worth then quotes one of Qutb’s disciples, and calls him as such, in saying:
“As Fathi Yakan, one of Qutb's disciples, wrote in the 1960's: ''The groundwork for the French Revolution was laid by Rousseau, Voltaire and Montesquieu; the Communist Revolution realized plans set by Marx, Engels and Lenin. . . . The same holds true for us as well.''
That Qutb’s disciple and contemporary directly compares him to these communist figureheads illustrates how deliberate and foremost in the the thinking of Qutb and his followers was their borrowing and idealization of the accomplishments and tactics of communist revolutionaries. Nothing about this is a coincidence since Qutb's ideology was directly innovating into Islam with ideas borrowed from Communist/Marxist ideology, which in actuality contradicted the injunctions of Islam itself - and elaborating on this point will be the focus of our next articles as well as emphasizing the cruciality of this connection in disassociating the actions of ISIS and other terrorist groups from the religion of Islam; a disassociation that, when made effectively, ought to lessen this ideology’s appeal to the Muslim adolescents.
(1) - Sunan Ibn Majah 3753 - In-book reference: Book 33, Hadith 98 - English translation: Vol. 5, Book 33, Hadith 3753
(2) - Sunan Ibn Majah 2969 - English reference: Vol. 4, Book 24, Hadith 2859 - Arabic reference: Book 24, Hadith 2969
(3) - Sahih al-Bukhari 7053 - In-book reference: Book 92, Hadith 6 - USC-MSA web English reference: Vol. 9, Book 88, Hadith 176
(4) - Al-Adab Al-Mufrad 353 - In-book reference: Book 18, Hadith 1 - English translation: Book 18, Hadith 353
(5) - Bulugh al-Maram 1169 - English reference : Book 9, Hadith 1199 Arabic reference: Book 9, Hadith 1169
(6) - Riyad as-Salihin 667 - Arabic/English book reference : Book 1, Hadith 667
- Sahih Muslim 1836 In-book reference : Book 33, Hadith 52 - USC-MSA web English reference: Book 20, Hadith 4524
(7) - Sahih Muslim 1836 - In-book reference : Book 33, Hadith 52 - USC-MSA web (English) reference: Book 20, Hadith 4524
(8) - Sahih Muslim 1855 a - In-book reference : Book 33, Hadith 101 - USC-MSA web (English) reference : Book 20, Hadith 4573
(9) - Sahih Muslim 1733 c - In-book reference : Book 33, Hadith 17 - USC-MSA web (English) reference : Book 20, Hadith 4489
(10) - Muslim, Al-Sahih, Kitab al-Amarah, Bab al-Amr bi-Luzum al-Jama‘ah, section [bab] 13, hadith 52.
(11) - Jami` at-Tirmidhi - English reference: Vol. 4, Book 9, Hadith 2303 - Arabic reference: Book 35, Hadith 2472
(12) - Mihnatul-Imām Ahmad (p. 70-72); al-Khallāl in as-Sunnah (no. 90)