Sunni Jihadism and religious authority: Its transformative character and effects

Tore Hamming, European University Institute and Sciences Po

This introduction is part of POMEPS Studies 32, The Politics of Islam in Europe and North America. Download the full PDF here.

kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State.[1]

When Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the late spokesperson and a senior leader of the Islamic State, uttered this call to action in September 2014, it had an impact. In the following months, and escalating throughout 2015-16, multiple terrorist attacks on Western soil were executed and claimed by the Islamic State as a response to the launch of the military coalition against the group and arguably as a reaction to an intra-Jihadi power game.[2] Why would anyone listen to the words of al-Adnani and act on his words?

The influence of the Islamic State and its most prominent leaders such as al-Adnani has been dependent on a continuously transforming nature of religious authority within Islam.[3] Unlike in Christianity or Shiism, Sunni Islam has never benefited from or been limited by a central religious authority like that of the Pope or the imam (or more precisely the marja e-taqlid). Since the early days of Islam, after the Prophet passed away, religious authority has been decentralized.  But this does not imply that no traditional sources of religious authority existed. In her paper in this volume Nancy Khalil demonstrates how scholars have disagreed on the sources of Islamic authority, whether it is derived from the Islamic textual corpus or reserved for the ulama or the elite that implements Islamic law. Political authority most often remained in the hands of the ­Caliph, but religious authority was delegated to the ulama, people specialized in the religion as narrated by the Prophet and his actions.[4] Ever since, the ulama’s authority and level of institutionalization has fluctuated. This has allowed certain groups to challenge mainstream Islamic interpretations and, more recently, the sources that qualify religious authority. Religious authority has traditionally been closely associated with the discipline of ijtihad (the effort of interpreting), concretely through so-called commentaries on the Qur’an and hadith.[5] As several scholars have noted,[6] traditional sources of Islamic authority have changed dramatically over time with Zaman, arguing this is partly due to changed conditions of ijtihad (where there is no longer scope for ‘absolute ijtihad’, but only ‘limited ijtihad’ meaning expanding the boundaries of a school of law in accordance with the principles of that school), modern means of communication, mass higher education, and the spread of liberal thought.[7] These factors, he argues, have facilitated a challenge to the ulama’s privileged access to authoritative religious knowledge,[8] making religious authority less dependent on knowledge and more related to practice and piety.[9] This change, however, should not be considered a structural break with previous practices, but rather an “intensification of a tendency towards decentralised authority”[10] that has fostered the emergence of a new group of ‘Islamist intellectuals’ in the words of Olivier Roy.[11]

The Salafi and Jihadist claim to authority

Salafists and Jihadists have been at the forefront among those taking advantage of changing structures of religious authority. But while Salafists in the 1980s emphasized the importance of education, Jihadists such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi did not just claim that education was unnecessary but even discouraged it. This disconnect between Jihadism and Salafism is further elaborated in Mohamed Ali Adraoui’s contribution to this issue in which he discusses three dynamics dividing quietist Salafism from the more militant expression of Jihadism. Focusing exclusively on Jihadism in her brilliant book The Jihadis’ Path to Self-Destruction, Nelly Lahoud, however, explains how Jihadi ideologues have from the outset worked to undermine any established authority or hierarchy through promoting an individualization of ijtihad.[12] In fact “jihadist leaders have downplayed the status of religious and political leadership, including their own, and empowered jihadists to assume ownership over the interpretation of Islamic teachings of social justice and to take up jihad on their own initiative.”[13] Religious loyalty, they argued, should not be to a certain sheikh or institution, but only to God. Telling of this attitude, Uthman bin Abd al-Rahman al-Tamimi, a former official of the Shariah Committee in the Islamic State of Iraq, quoted a hadith by al-Bukhari in which the Prophet said, “Listen and obey, even if the Abyssinian slave whose hair is as kinky as a raisin is appointed to rule you, as long as he is governing you according to the book of God.”[14]

Modern Jihadists have thus sought to capitalise on the waning influence of traditional religious authorities. While not the first to succeed in obtaining a platform partly founded on religious authority, al-Qaida under the leadership of Usama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri nonetheless took this endeavour to an unprecedented level within the Jihadi movement. What remains certain is that none of the two al-Qaida leaders had the religious credentials to speak authoritatively in religious matters (even their senior shari’ figures such as Abu Hafs al-Mauritani and Abu Yahya al-Libi would be regarded novices by most traditional ‘ulama). They, nonetheless, still managed not only to challenge established Sunni authorities in the form of prominent Saudi and Egyptians ‘ulama but also to redefine what was considered legitimate Jihad. While Bin Laden came to personify the fighter-scholar persona despite being neither, it was the broader message al-Qaida espoused that was key to its authoritative standing in the eyes of potential supporters.[15] Abu Musab al-Suri theorized this in his famous statement ‘a system of operations and not an organization for operations’ (nizam al-amal wa laysa tanzim lil-amal). Al-Qaida’s status was not to be dependent on its leaders or the organisation itself, but on the ideas and ideals it represented.

Although this individualisation has been an integral part of Jihadists’ – and particularly al-Qaida’s – success, it has also been a constant source of internal contestation and volatility.[16] Late Jihadi ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki said, “It is important that we encourage Muslims to respect their scholars. It is to no one’s benefit to put down the men of knowledge who represent the religion of Allah. But when some of our scholars – no matter how knowledgeable they are – divert from the straight path, we the Muslims, need to advise them”.[17] The challenge from an internal Jihadi perspective is that different Jihadi groups lay claim to be representatives of this correct methodology (manhaj), or straight path, thus instigating intra-Jihadi contestation and competition. Trotsky once said that Every group representing a new trend excommunicates its predecessors. To those who come with new ideas the previous period seems to have been but a crude deviation from the correct road, an historical misunderstanding….”[18] This seems to apply to the Jihadi movement as well. The Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) in Algeria opposed the presence of other Jihadi (or Islamist) groups, and on one occasion it even threatened Bin Laden, claiming other groups were inferior.

A similar argument has been promoted by the Islamic State after its rise from the ashes and its organizational break with al-Qaida in early 2014. As al-Adnani announced the caliphate on 29 June 2014, he simultaneously decreed that all other groups were null.[19] In the group’s Dabiq magazine from February 2015 it was explained how the grayzone between good and bad had ceased to exist with the caliphate’s establishment,[20] the argument being that if other Jihadi groups do not join the Islamic State then they deviate from the correct path. In their claim to authority the Islamic State embarked on a mission to appropriate the legacy of Bin Laden while vilifying living senior al-Qaida figures like al-Zawahiri. Besides al-Adnani and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the main proponent of such fierce attacks against former superiors and brothers-in-arms were the 30 years-old Turki al-Binali while other senior shar’i (legal) figures for the Islamic State included Abu Bakr al-Qahtani, Abu Malik al-Tamimi, and, most, prominently Abu Ali al-Anbari. While they did have training in theology, these figures were young and inexperienced (except al-Anbari) compared to senior al-Qaida figures and ideologues sympathetic to al-Qaida. In the case of al-Binali, it was even an example of a student going against his most prominent teacher (the teacher being the influential Jihadi ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi who remains supportive of al-Qaida).

The Islamic State in its propaganda and shar’i arguments stressed that loyalty was not to a group (e.g. al-Qaida) but to God alone, and since the Islamic State, rather than al-Qaida or any other Jihadi group, followed the true prophetic methodology (manhaj al-nubuwwa), allegiance should be exclusively to the caliphate.[21] Just like al-Qaida 20 years earlier, the Islamic State was successful in its challenge for authority, but this time the victim was al-Qaida itself. Al-Zawahiri’s group found its position within the Jihadi movement severely challenged between 2014-16 as most Jihadi newcomers in addition to some veterans joined the ranks of the Islamic State and in some instances actively fought al-Qaida groups. What the Islamic State did was to take advantage of the authority structures within Sunni Islam, the opportunity structures offered by the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, and the leadership vacuum after the death of Bin Laden, thus further illustrating how detached religious authority has become from traditional sources.

Al-Adnani and other challengers for authority

This process of individualization and detachment is what enabled al-Adnani in September 2014 not just to call for attacks in the West but also for his message to actually resonate among Islamic State soldiers and sympathizers.

According to his biographer, Turki al-Binali, al-Adnani was in fact well-read in several Islamic disciplines including tafsir (interpretation), hadith (prophetic tradition) and fiqh (jurisprudence).[22] He allegedly also authored several written works, among those one dealing with fiqh al-Jihad (jurisprudence of Jihad), and he taught fellow Jihadists in Islamic sciences. But at the time of his call to action against the West, al-Adnani was just 36 or 37 years-old. He had no formal education of note and his experience included little more than Jihad. But these seeming deficiencies according to classical sources of authority within Islam were in fact his foremost advantages. Al-Adnani was an early joiner of the Jihadi project in Iraq when he in 2002 left his native Syria to join ranks with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. His image was that of a fighter and a religiously savvy leader,[23] which – together – combines to be a powerful resource within Jihadi circles.

Al-Adnani and the Islamic State more generally were, in the eyes of the constantly expanding pool of Jihadi sympathisers, considered authoritative to interpret Islam and what methodology should be followed. The examples of al-Qaida and later the Islamic State illustrate how decentralized authority has both benefitted the Jihadi movement and evolved into a source of internal conflict. But an equally important point is what it implies for the expression of Sunni Jihad and, related, how it is connected to the western world.

An interesting case example is that of Thomas Barnouin (Abu Umar al-Madani), a French Jihadi ideologue who rose to the top of the Islamic State after he migrated to Syria in 2014. Barnouin grew up outside of Toulouse in southern France and converted to Islam in either 1999 or 2000. He was a serious student of Islam and this eventually took him to Medina in Saudi Arabia to enhance his Arabic and study Islamic sciences. Despite his enthusiasm for learning, he never finished his studies as he became attracted to the Jihadi cause and finally left for Iraq in 2006. Barnouin did not get further than Syria, however, where he was arrested and later sent back to France where he served a three-year sentence from 2008 to 2011. When he was released, the convinced Jihadi started to hold lectures on issues central to the Jihadi ideology, but in early 2014 after the Islamic State expanded to Syria – even before declaring the caliphate – he migrated to join the group. As a member of IS he was a well-respected figure, especially among his countrymen, and he appears to be one of the only foreigners to obtain a senior ideological position within the group. Another example is the Americans Yahya Abu Hassan (real name John Georgelas)[24] and Abu Sulayman al-Shami (Ahmad Abousamra).[25] Although Barnouin was eventually arrested by the Islamic State due to internal theological disagreements, he is nonetheless reported to have been a central figure in the group’s terrorist campaign in the West. Of note, he allegedly took part in organizing the November 2015 attack in Paris, thus showing the potential security ramifications of people like Barnouin obtaining positions of authority despite not living up to the classical sources of religious authority. Barnouin, Georgelas and Abousamra have all been dedicated to Jihad and the specific politico-religious project of the Islamic State, and while they all appear to have engaged in learning several Islamic disciplines, none of them are to be considered scholars and certainly not graduates of respectable learning institutions.

In fact, time and again the Jihadi movement has witnessed a younger generation emerge ever more ‘pious’ and radical in their expression, always pushing the boundaries of takfir (excommunication) and whom it should be considered legitimate to kill. This happened in Afghanistan, Algeria, and Iraq. The Islamic State-executed attacks in the West differ qualitatively from al-Qaida’s early attitude to legitimate terrorist attacks in that the Islamic State promote a much more indiscriminate and liberal attitude to such attacks. Unlike al-Qaida, the Islamic State deem no targets in the West illegitimate, and the group has shown an immense propensity to claim responsibility for any attack carried out in its name. Perhaps these experiences will provide indications for what to expect in the future in terms of new Jihadi actors emerging with ever more radical ideas. At least the field of religious authority, a resource of essential importance to Jihadists, is now wide open if only one knows how to exploit it.

[1] Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, ‘Indeed, Your Lord is Ever Watchful’, Al Hayat Media, 22 September 2014: https://archive.org/details/IndeedYourLordIsEverWatchful [accessed 5 June 2018]

[2] Tore Hamming, ‘Jihadi Competition and Political Preferences’, Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol 11, No 6 (2017): 63-88

[3] For a thorough examination of Islamic authority, see Wael E. Hallaq, Authority, Continuity and Change in Islamic Law (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

[4] Patricia Crone and Martin Hinds, God’s Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

[5] Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Modern Islamic Thought in a Radical Age: Religious Authority and Internal Criticism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Muhammad Qasim Zaman, The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[6] Faisal Devji, Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity (London: Hurst & Company, 2005); Dale F. Eickelman and James Piscatori, Muslim Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); Olivier Roy, The Failure of Political Islam (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994).

[7] Zaman, Modern Islamic Thought in a Radical Age: Religious Authority and Internal Criticism, 181–82.

[8] Ibid., 1.

[9] Eli Alshech, ‘The Doctrinal Crisis within the Salafi-Jihadi Ranks and the Emergence of Neo-Takfirism: A Historical and Doctrinal Analysis’, Islamic Law and Society, Vol 21, Issue 4 (2014): 419-452

[10] Peter Mandaville, ‘Globalization and the Politics of Religious Knowledge: Pluralizing Authority in the Muslim World‘, Theory, Culture & Society 24, no. 2 (2007): 2.

[11] Roy, The Failure of Political Islam.

[12] Nelly Lahoud, The Jihadis’ Path to Self-Destruction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010)

[13] Nelly Lahoud, ’Beware of Imitators: al-Qaida through the lens of its Confidential Secretary’, CTC Harmony Program, 4 June 2012 https://ctc.usma.edu/app/uploads/2012/06/CTC-Beware-of-Imitators-June2012.pdf

[14] Uthman Bin Abd al-Rahman al-Tamimi, ”Informing the People about the Birth of the Islamic State of Iraq”, Al Furqan media, 6. Traditional versions of the narrative differs slightly from that used by al-Tamimi, e.g. see http://www.sacred-texts.com/isl/bukhari/bh1/bh1_664.htm

[15] Nelly Lahoud, ’Beware of Imitators: al-Qaida through the lens of its Confidential Secretary’.

[16] Nelly Lahoud, The Jihadis’ Path to Self-Destruction, 245.

[17] Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, ‘Inspire magazine Vol 2’, Al Malahem Media, 11 October (2010): 33.

[18] Quote is from Leon Trotsky, Nashi Politicheskiya Zadachi [Our Political Task], 1904: 4, but cited in Isaac Deutscher’s ‘The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, 1879-1921’, (London: Verso, 2003) : 74.

[19] Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, ’ This Is the Promise of Allah’, Al Furqan Media, 29 June 2014: https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/shaykh-abc5ab-mue1b8a5ammad-al-e28098adnc481nc4ab-al-shc481mc4ab-22this-is-the-promise-of-god22-en.pdf [accessed 7 June 2018]

[20] The Islamic State, ’Dabiq magazine Vol 7’, Al Hayat Media, February 2015: https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/the-islamic-state-e2809cdc481biq-magazine-722.pdf [accessed 7 June 2018]

[21] Interestingly, when the Islamic State’s fortune was turning and the group experienced setbacks, it began to emphasise the necessity (and religious obligation) to obey its leaders no matter what. Furthermore, one was not simply allowed to leave the group, even if one found it to be diverting the correct methodology.

[22] Turki al-Binali, “A Biography of IS Spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani” 1 November 2014: https://medium.com/@muftimilk/biography-of-sheikh-abu-muhammed-al-adnani-al-shami-4bdb6ac35653 [accessed 28 November 2018]

[23] In 2011 al-Adnani was appointed spokesperson of the Islamic State of Iraq and at some point he became a member of its shura (consultative) council.

[24] Graeme Wood, ‘The American Climbing the Ranks of ISIS’, the Atlantic, March 2017: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/03/the-american-leader-in-the-islamic-state/510872/

[25] Thomas Joscelyn, ’How a US citizen became a key player in the Islamic State’s rivalry with al Qaeda’, the Long War Journal, 7 April 2017: https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/04/how-a-us-citizen-became-a-key-player-in-the-islamic-states-rivalry-with-al-qaeda.php