Jihadi-Salafi views of the Islamic State

By Joas Wagemakers, Radboud University Nijmegen

* This memo was prepared for “Islamist Politics in the Shadow of the Islamic State” workshop, January 23, 2015. 

In 2014 the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria set itself apart from most other radical Islamist groups by actually settling in a certain territory and establishing a state there. The group even declared a caliphate on June 29 and changed its name simply to the Islamic State (IS). Even al-Qaeda, which has long had similar ambitions to establish a caliphate encompassing all Muslims, has never achieved this. In its justification for the announcement of its caliphate, IS has made use of classical Islamic concepts: its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been vetted by a group of scholars described as “the people who loosen and bind” (ahl al-hall wa-l-aqd), was found by them to be a pious Muslim ruler who fit all the criteria for a caliph and was therefore worthy of believers’ oath of allegiance (baya).

Apart from the genuine belief among supporters of IS that this is the way to found an Islamic state or caliphate, one could argue that such concepts provide a certain amount of legitimacy for a project that is widely doubted (and even ridiculed) in the Muslim world. Interestingly, however, Salafi opponents of IS – while highly critical of the group’s violent policies – do not fundamentally argue about these concepts as such. Quietist Salafis dismiss IS altogether as a modern-day form of the early-Islamic “extremists” called the Khawarij, whereas Jihadi-Salafis opposed to IS readily engage in debates about baya and the ahl al-hall wa-l-aqd. In these debates, they do not contest the use of these concepts or their legitimacy, but only their application. IS’s ahl al-hall wa-l-aqd, for example, are described by some Jihadi-Salafis as consisting of only a small group of minor scholars unrepresentative of the people they are supposed to serve. Similarly, Baghdadi is seen as not ruling over a sufficient amount of territory and not widely known enough to justify giving him one’s baya. Since such a pledge of fealty is a contract between two parties – the ruler and the people – one cannot simply take shortcuts to a caliphate by dismissing the latter if they are not ready for it yet, critical Jihadi-Salafis argue. Continue reading on The Monkey Cage.

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