Let me commence with the following: The sixteenth century French essayist and moralist, Michel de Montaigne, wrote in his famous Essays: ‘It could be said of me that in this book I have only made up a bunch of other men’s flowers, providing of my own only the string to tie them together.’ This, I should confess, is what I’ve mainly done here in the following article.
As we Muslims endeavour to navigate the conflicting and faith corroding epistemologies of the secular monoculture, there are a host of micro and macro challenges that confront the religious mind. Some of these contemporary concerns, often the micro masa’il, need fast thinking and rapid responses. Other issues, the macro ones, require macro thinking. Such thinking needs time, reflection, the piecing together of many parts, and setting them in a wider context of meaning. In other words, they demand slow thinking.
While, on the whole, Muslim scholarship must be thanked for its handling of short term, micro issues (the many fatwas, responses and guidance to the Coronavirus pandemic is a good example of this), it has yet to find its stride when it comes to macro issues and long term visions. The current strategy thus far of Western born diaspora Muslims has usually been knee-jerk responses, or simply to fire fight. This must change if we are to thrive, and not just survive a historically unprecedented homogenising of human values by a godless monoculture.
Of course, this does not require that every Muslim scholar must train their academic skill sets towards macro thinking. But it’s probably the case that the more who can do so, the merrier. Nor is it likely to be the case that the majority of scholarly intellects will be suited to macro thinking. For slow, thoughtful, contemplative macro thinking, as with fast, time-constrained micro thinking, is something of an art. Divine providence makes some minds more suited to it than others.
So what are these macro concerns that confront modern Muslimness? Well, they pertain to the bigger questions about God’s agency in the cosmos and the world of matter, and our relationship to Him. They refer to the place or priority of tawhid, Abrahamic monotheism, in a modern world in the grip of angst, ennui and alienation, and of how monotheism can work as humanity’s healing balm. They are about interrogating the deeper intellectual or philosophical forces that have shaped and [de]formed our present. They’re concerned less with the fire fighting issues that come and go as part and parcel of life’s vicissitudes, and more with long term healing and nurturing of the God-given human potential that resides in each one of us. All this is to say, we need less of an atomised, issue-by-issue approach to our modern theological, ethical or fiqhi conundrums, and much more focus on the need to precisely, thoroughly and holistically understand modernity’s meta premises, and how best to redress them; to restore some balance. For if Muslims are to act effectively, and to discern the times they are in clearly and objectively, they must understand what it is that confronts them. In so doing, the following insights and first principles should be kept in the forefront of the engagement:
1 – That no universal statements about the world or the human condition can be known by purely rational, inductive or secular methods, for these cannot transcend the material context of the world in which they are framed. Only the guidance in God’s final Revelation can offer an intellectually rigorous exit from modernity’s many contradictions, tyrannies and traumas. And when, as it is wont to do, the monoculture comes around brandishing its sword so as to get us to assent to, say, the universal nature of the Declaration of Human Rights (most of which is relatively unremarkable as ethical declarations go), we could well have little choice but to say – in the interest of fostering peaceful coexistence rather than coercion or conflict: To you, your religion; and to me, mine. [Q.109:6]
2 – While the monoculture still argues about whether it is modern or postmodern, there is no denying that it is a world utterly strange and alien to anything and everything that has come before. It may once have prided itself on being the fruits of a revered Enlightenment rationality. But it now widely holds that we’re guided more by selfish genes, manipulative corporations, and unconscious psychological biases than we ever were, and could be, by reason. And although Man, not God, is still believed to be the measure of all things, it has more and more allowed irrational impulses, not rational thought, to be sovereign over the soul. While it still upholds the Enlightenment’s ideology of human progress, replacing the monotheistic idea of human salvation, whatever good such a progress did birth continues to be devoured by a hedonistic consumerism gnawing away at the core of its civilisational values like cancer. The monoculture’s chief value is the inviolable liberty of personal ‘will’ (read: ‘desire’): the right to decide for ourselves what we will/desire to believe, want, own or serve. The will is king, and is constrained by nothing greater than itself. And while in Islam, desires and rights do have their open spaces and green pastures, the Qur’an speaks more so in terms of constraints and duties. Likewise in Islam, though humans are seen as servants or slaves of God, their existence and life is not meant to be slavish. Instead, they are seen as self-determining free agents, endowed with reason and gifted with Revelation, enabling them to pursue ends that are good or beneficial for themselves and for their self-fulfillment. For the monoculture, however, it is choice itself, and not what is chosen, that is the first and greatest good. It believes in the nonexistence of any transcendent standard of the good that has the power, let alone the right, to order our desires towards any higher end. If this is understood, and its consequences even half-perceived, it should come as no surprise that society as a whole is in a tragic grip of ontological loneliness; a descent into nihilism and existential despair.1 For what other than angst, despair and a descent into the worst excesses of unredeemed hedonism could come from falsely believing that life is devoid of meaning; everything is here by some cosmic fluke; and that despite our freedom to choose, death is our ultimate end: therefore life is pointless? Such, then, is modernity’s context: it must never become our excuse – as Dr Sherman Jackson insists.
3 – We, as believers, cannot merely be armchair critics. True prophetic concern for human welfare means we cannot simply criticise, or curse, or be angry; forever raging against the monoculture. True religion is about being healers. It’s about seeing the best in all things, and the Adamic potential in all people; while seeking to heal the world a day at a time, an act at a time. If we’re constantly agitated, instead of in a state of tumaninah; inner calm, then in all likelihood this Agitated Islam is animated by the ego (nafs), not the Spirit (ruh). True religious observance must beget tranquility, even in the midst of turbulence: Indeed, in the remembrance of God do hearts find tranquility. [Q.13:28] And: He it is who sent down tranquility into the hearts of the believers, so that they would have more faith added to their [present] faith. [Q.48:4] So if not revenge-filled, rage-driven reactions, then what? Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad says: ‘The challenge of modern Muslimness is to combine a confident dissent from the global culture with a sense of service and humility. … Where loyalty is for God, and love is for what humanity has been called to become, the believer can combine pity for the monoculture’s shrunken victims with gratitude for God’s guidance.’2 That is to say, we are to be healers with humbleness. Murad again: ‘The monoculture multiplies matter, and cannot discern spirit; and Islam, the great global dissident, is called upon to heal the consequence.’3 Islam’s monotheism exhorts that we be part of society, yet apart from society; that we heal and we dissent. An apparent paradox? Abrahamic monotheism has always been very much about how to square such paradoxical circles.
4 – The Holy Qur’an frequently speaks about the virtue of service to others. In one place, it extols the believers as those who lived their lives in the service of others: unassumingly, without fanfare, or desire for reward or recognition; rather out of their hearts overflowing with sincere compassion and concern for human welfare: And they fed, for the love of God, the needy, the orphan, and the captive; saying: ‘We feed you for the sake of God. No reward do we desire from you, nor thanks.’ [Q.76:8-9] The Qur’an also says: We have honoured the children of Adam. [Q.17:70]. That being so, Islam reckons it as an affront to this God-given dignity of the human person if they are denied life’s basics. Like Islam, secular humanism valorises the human creature too. Unlike Islam, such humanism has done away with God and the sacred and has put the human subject on a deified pedestal. Humanism has done away with service for the love of God, and replaced it with service for the love of man. And concern for human welfare for God’s sake (lit. yearning ‘for the face of God’) has now been secularised and decoupled from as much connection to any divine purpose or traditional morality as possible. For most secular humanists, whatever little Religion does have going for it, ultimately, and on the whole, it is an obstacle to true human self-fulfillment. What now counts for most people, including an increasing number of religious followers, isn’t God or holiness. It’s that we simply be ‘good’ people, and agree to the secular decencies of our age.4 The further people have drifted away from God’s revealed truths, the greater the temptation becomes to water down the truth, glossing over its more rigorous aspects that modern secular sensitivities find unpalatable. So divine Judgement becomes a myth, hell a wicked superstition, prayer less important than decent behaviour, and sins and their upshot less relevant than social activism or caring for others. We Muslims, then, ought to beware of not going down the road that others have unconsciously and unguardedly gone down; mixing sacred values with secular humanistic faith. The prophets of God, peace be upon them, weren’t mere ethicists. Once the prophetic concern is represented as primarily being about welfare, or social justice; rather than with sin, salvation and preparation for eternity, then aren’t feet already on a slippery slope?
5 – Turning to the question of religion and science, what are the bigger, underlying meta precepts that modern science raises against Muslim theology and practice? Well first, let’s recall that science entails the rational examination of evidences: observing and collecting data; forming a hypothesis from the data; doing experiments to test the ideas; working out a theory to account for the results; then making predictions based on that theory. Two attitudes taint modern science, making it appear science points to atheism rather than to theism: naturalism and scientism. Naturalism – the claim that nature is all that there is, and that there is no supernatural or divine realm – is a philosophy brought to science. It is not the outcome of science, nor something science necessarily entails. Given that science proceeds by inference from observed data, how can one be so adamant that the natural order is all there is? As for the belief that science is the only path to know objective truth and that it can, in theory, deal with every aspect of existence, this is known (pejoratively) as Scientism. In many ways, the evidence for it is even more pitifull than for naturalism. And as has been pointed out often enough, scientism is actually a self-refuting belief. The assertion that only science can deliver true knowledge hasn’t been arrived at by scientific methods. Instead, it is a personal conviction-cum-dogma. Hence, if the assertion is true, then it is false; if false, then true! Dawkins has a maxim he is fond of using in this regard (and one he usually aims squarely at theists). He says: ‘Next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “what kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think carefully before you believe a word they say.’5 Yet this maxim is more applicable to him, and to the naturalism and scientism he so aggressively upholds, than it does to the theology of Islam (or Jewish or Christian theology, for that matter).
6 – To be perfectly clear, it’s not a case of micro thinking versus macro thinking. We need both. Just as fiqh issues need detailed fatwas and responses, something similar holds for science-religion concerns too. It is important to have intelligent, scripture-based answers to claims like: ‘natural selection is the ultimate explanation for our existence’ (Dawkins); or that: the universe came from a quantum vacuum, which is nothing, hence the universe came from nothing (Krauss); and: ‘because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing’ (Hawking). But the meta question of existence is not about how it is that the universe (or human life) came about from causes already internal to it – the fact of the matter is is that a quantum vacuum isn’t nothing, it is something; and laws of physics themselves do not create things, any more than Newton’s laws of motion move snooker balls: it is not laws that create or move things; it is an agent or person that does that; and natural selection only occurs with stuff that is already present: for even the simplest of life forms must first of all be – but how it is that anything (including a cause) exists at all. For nothing contingent within the universe (nor even the universe itself) can be rationally conceived as the explanation or source of its own being. A contingent thing’s essence (what it is), fails to account for its existence (that it is). Islamic theology, though, has a rich, coherent intellectual tradition to account for the existence of contingent things (things that, prior to their existence, didn’t exist). Muslim theologians hold that since the universe is contingent, and contingent things aren’t able to generate themselves, that they are dependant upon an agent who belongs to another order of being (min ghayri jinsiha); namely, a deity [God] who is eternal, and whose existence is inseparable from his essence. That is, God has no cause, He necessarily exists (wajib al-wujud); and although God is the author of time and space, He is distinct and beyond both. The meta question, then, is this: Which assumption does science support: atheism or theism? That is, does science – with its question of why there is something instead of nothing, or why the universe is so finely-tuned for the emergence of sentient life – best square with the belief that consciousness and rationality arose via unguided, totally random natural processes working upon the basic materials of the universe? Or does the theistic belief best fit the evidence – that we were put here by an intelligent Creator-God, who created an intelligible universe, finely-tuned, that we might know Him, discover His laws, marvel at His handiwork, and realise His purpose for us? That’s the real meta question.
7 – My last issue in the religion-science arena concerns God’s agency in the universe, and the issue of cause and effect. Some mistakenly believe that God created the cosmos ‘in the beginning’ and it has existed on its own ever since. Merely because there is a universe, or a world full of creatures, there is no rational or scientific guarantee that it will persist for another instance. Rather, God alone directly creates and sustains the universe at each and every instant; it exists and endures only by God’s will and creative act. God, the Creator, is continuously creating. The idea that the universe isn’t a sufficient cause to explain its own presence, and that it must be made present, ab extra, at every point in its duration, leads to the doctrine of Occasionalism. This is the view which states that created things cannot be the cause of events. Instead, all events are taken to be caused directly by God. In other words, nothing that occurs is due to natural causes or the operation of scientific laws, and that apparent causal relations between events simply prompt God with the occasion to see to it that certain acts will usually be followed by others. For no contingent thing has the intrinsic ability to benefit, harm or cause an effect. Only God has such power and ability. This is what is meant by: la hawla wa la quwwata illa bi’Llah – ‘There is no might, nor power, except with God. Hence, according to this mainstream Muslim theological stance, fire doesn’t have any intrinsic property to burn. Rather, when a flammable object is placed near fire, at that very instant God causes the object to combust and burn. Likewise, it isn’t water that quenches, or food that satiates, or a knife that cuts. Rather it is God who causes the effect at the precise moment that the water, food, or knife is used. That there appears to be uniformity in the laws of science, and causal relationships between certain things and others, is just that: appearances. It is a necessary illusion; a veil, behind which lies the Source of all being, namely God. At the deeper level, it is God creating and recreating at every instance.6 A core part of Islamic spirituality is to see the af‘al al-rabb, the divine acts, behind such veils. As counterintuitive as this can all sound, quantum physics seems to support the idea that causality isn’t rigidly fixed into the nature of things. Over the past decade, experiments in quantum causality have been carried out which seem to confirm that the quantum realm allows events to occur with no definite causal order. While this is all very exciting for technologies such as quantum computers and communications, what it means for the materialist creed will have to wait. It is still early days. Islamic theology will hopefully, though, have significant things to say on the matter.
8 – Language is a uniquely human gift, and is central to our experience of being human. Language doesn’t just help express our thoughts and ideas, it profoundly effects the way we think and see the world too. It can also be used to manipulate the way we think, as it did with ‘Newspeak’ in the grim, dystopia of Nineteen Eighty Four. So if for no other reason than this, we stand in dire need of subjecting the conceptual paradigms, taxonomies and vocabulary of the humanities and the social sciences to a detailed and thorough Islamic theological and spiritual scrutiny before affirming or denying their claims, or co-opting them into our own Islamic vocabulary. Without doing so, we’re in danger of turning these taxonomies and concepts into overarching sources of guidance, to which even Revelation is expected to bow or pay homage. Currently, Western Muslim narratives are awash with such terms, accepting them without critical assessment. So we now speak of “leadership” skills and programs; or of “critical race theory”; “social constructionism”; “feminist” and “gender” theories – all with their highly rarefied, secular jargon, but without the rigorous critical discrimination to Islamically sort out the wheat from the chaff; powerless to break free of the intellectual confines such concepts can keep us caged in.7
9 – What holds for the social sciences should be more so the case for political science and securitisation studies. Here, we should jettison vague and imprecise terms like Islamism,jihadi/jihadist or takfiri/takfirism where possible. Such unhelpful taxonomies aren’t really the fruits of any lexical, academic rigour. Instead, such semantics seem to be pejoratively used to denote the activities or policies of some Muslims that are held as an anathema to Western sensitivities. Takfir, for instance, is a normative theological act in Islam, accepted by every Muslim sect, designating the act of stepping beyond the pale of the religion and thus being expelled from the fold of Islam. The jihadi, a term now deployed for a terrorist claiming Muslim motivation, is another example of obfuscation. To use this, and the term jihad, as synonyms for Muslim acts of terror is to completely ignore Muslim juristic norms which classically employs the label irhabah for such atrocities; reserving jihad for a very different military activity, strictly guided by jus in bello rules that forbids the targeting of civilians. As for Islamism, used to mean the ideology which commends implementation of Islamic legal norms by the state, this would be laughable, if it wasn’t so serious in its geo-political consequences. As Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad has pointed out, Morrocco, whose monarch bears the caliphal title of “Commander of the Faithful,” and which declares that it applies a variant of the shari‘ah, is not described as Islamist by most Western politicos, academics, or journalists. Nor, even more strikingly, is Saudi Arabia described as such by those who currently infest the security industry. And yet Turkey, we are assured, is meant to be in the soft grip of Islamism; despite the fact that its President hasn’t enacted a single shari‘ah law!8 All this is to emphasise that we must interrogate language, labels, terms and taxonomies, if we are to remain faithful to revealed truths and authentically live out God’s intent behind them; and if we wish not to be played by Muslim/non-Muslim states and their security apparatus, using terrorism as an excuse for all sorts of irreligious and authoritarian measures.
10 – This brings me to my last quibble, as it were. If Muslim students or scholars of Islam’s sacred sciences are to become macro thinkers for the love of God; if we are to produce men or women able to effectively articulate and engage their learning in today’s complex age, we need to place far more importance on creating institutes of higher learning fit for such a lofty, lordly, rabbani purpose. ‘Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man,’ wrote Francis Bacon. Islamic pedagogy must be rooted in reading widely, exploring different territories in literature; conferring and questioning, especially with those more grounded; and quality writing, which compels the writer to search their mind, dictionary or thesaurus for the best words to express one’s ideas or deliberations, allowing them to be refined and re-refined – academically, semantically and aesthetically. Currently our madrasahs or institutions of higher learning are either too narrow in their adherence to traditional Islam, or else overly secular. For what are we to make of a dars-e-nizami type curriculum which instils in the student the core ‘ulum, in line with a well-bred medieval madrasah canon, but continues to fail to equip the talib with the necessary tools to apprehend, engage or address the intellectual challenges modernity poses? Thankfully, though, there are a few institutions beginning to bridge this pedagogical chasm. Of these few, Britain’s Cambridge Muslim College, under the esteemed leadership of Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, is potentially the best of them. In all likelihood, it is the world’s premiere Muslim institution in this regard. Not to reinvent the wheel, the College takes graduates from the recognised, traditional ‘alimiyyah courses, and puts them through its “finishing school,” so to speak. One of the stated aims of CMC is to ‘enable students to understand and engage with contemporary debates about the role of religion in general, and Islam in particular, in modern society.’ As with other unique enterprises that are a class unto their own, wider awareness of CMC and its potential is an issue, as is the age-old concern for support and funding. To not support such an institution in whatever way possible would surely count as a dereliction of Western Muslim duty, as well as an indictment of sorts on the current state of modern Muslimness. While academia is not every Muslim’s cup of tea, the concern for Islam to meaningfully flourish in modernity surely must be!
Human fulfilment is unlikely to come from predatory capitalism; while Britain’s Christian heritage has seemed long incapable of supplying the nourishment needed for the age. The Christian Church, it has been argued failed, less because a fashionable secularism was set against it, but because the Church itself gradually imbued the errors of the age. Had it, as Gai Eaton once so poetically put it, not swapped a policy of ease or facilitation for one of compromise; had it not reduced the price of its goods in the forlorn hope that people with more pressing concerns might show even a slight interest; had it offered a real alternative, a rock firmly planted from the very start, the public might even have been prepared to pay a high price. ‘It is even possible, had the priest turned his back upon them, attending to only the divine sun which seizes and holds his gaze, they might have come up quietly behind him, knelt down – looking where he looks – and forgotten all their cares and their troubles. It might be said that the basic command of religion is not “Do this!” or “Do not do that!”, but simply “Look!” The rest follows.’9
Surely, then, in where others have gone, and in how good intentions went steadily astray, there is something for us Muslims to learn.
Thus it is that Islam, more than ever, seems to be called upon to be the West’s intellectual and spiritual deliverance. But its message of hope and healing will only illuminate these bewildering times if its theological concerns are firmly-grounded, yet are in tune with the needs of the time; and if it can offer a worldview that helps make sense of the time; and if it can practically deliver liveable guidance to navigate the stormy seas of the time. This all needs slow, cool headed, measured macro thinking; and macro thinking, in turn, requires that we not get caught up in the moment, but rather take a step back to get a clearer view of the trends and trajectory that are unfolding.
Whilst we try to heal this scarred world an act at a time, I believe that we must, however, be realists. In realistic terms, and to a certain degree, we have to live in the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be. Moreover, we participate in the healing not to court secular humanism, but for the love of God and for the love of what people have the potential to be. It has to always be about God, and healing for the sake of God. For whatever else we may do with the time we’ve each been given by Heaven, yearning for the Face of God must take over our life.
We ask Allah for taysir and tawfiq; for ease and for grace.
1. See: D.B. Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2009), 21-22.
2. Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (Cambridge: The Quillium Press, 2012), 68.
3. ibid., 172.
4. The point is taken up in context of humanism, Christianity, and the Church of England, in E. Norman, Secularisation (London & New York: Continuum, 2002), 1-9.
5. Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain (London: Phoenix, 2004), 291.
6. This Ash‘ari view on occasionalism and the nature of causes and effects (al-asbab wa’l-musabbabat) is teased out in: Winter (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 273-74; A. Hussain, The Muslim Creed (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2016), 260-67. A highly useful and colourful explanation of it is given in Eaton, Islam and the Destiny of Man (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1994), 242-43. Ibn Taymiyyah held that effects occur via secondary causes created by God. So, for instance, cotton burns by (bi) a potency God creates in fire; not by God directly at the moment (‘inda) the two are conjoined. Secondary causes, he clarifies, have no causal autonomy from God. They have no efficacy in themselves to cause effects. God is the causer of all effects. See: Majmu‘ al-Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 8:520; 534. Ibn Taymiyya’s view seems to shy away from explaining why such secondary causes are required in the first place, and how they function or differ from God’s direct intervention. The Taymiyyan view is fleshed out in J. Hoover, Ibn Taymiyya’s Theodicy of Perpetual Optimism (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2007), 156-65.
7. On the relationship between language, power and epistemic sovereignty, cf. W. Hallaq, Restating Orientalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 12-13; 61-63.
It has now been four years since I started this three part instalment. It’s been over three years since I wrote the rough outlines for this third and final part. One thing or another, however, stopped me from completing it. But given Saudi Arabia’s current socio-religious changes or transition under the Crown Prince Muhammad b. Salman; given how so many western ‘ISIS-brides’ wish to return home; given that the ISIS ‘caliph’ was recently killed, and given that even if ISIS as an entity has all but been vanquished, its kharijite ideology lives on, this seems as good a time as any to post the third and final part.
The first instalment of the blog (here) traced the ruthless and murderous pedigree of ISIS back to the first heterodox Muslim sect, the Khawarij. Anyone wishing to get to the nub of today’s Muslim political violence needs to first understand who or what the Khawarij are. Without understanding the religious component of this extremism and misuse of religion, any political analysis of the phenomenon is likely to be significantly flawed.
The second part (which can be read here) tackled ISIS’s claim of being a true caliphate, by addressing the question of what makes a caliphate legitimate in Islam? It also tackles the sensitive topic of jihad, beyond the usual cliches, and addresses whether a Muslim state wages jihad against a non-Muslim one because of their disbelief, or because it has shown hostile intent or aggression against a Muslim state?
This final part discusses the violent political programme which ISIS and al-Qaeda model themselves on: The Management of Savagery. It explains the rationale for the jihadi-takfiri worldview and violence. As for just how instrumental Saudi ‘Wahabbism’ has been to the mass takfir narrative, and to the ideology underpinning ISIS and al-Qaeda, that sits at the centre of our discussion. So with six fairly in-depth sections covered in the first two parts, here are the last five:
In 2004, a treatise was posted on the internet which, as it turns out, was nothing less than a manifesto for global murder and mayhem. It was aptly and unblushingly entitled, idarat al-tawahhush – ‘The Management of Savagery.’ Published online, possibly by an al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Bakr Naji, its aim was to offer a definitive strategy for al-Qaeda and other such groups to establish an Islamic Caliphate.1 It laid out the various stages of the jihadi-takfiri violence in the following terms:
First comes the ‘stage of disruption and exhaustion’ wherein the enemy is politically worn down, economically drained and socially demoralised, by constant campaigns of violence and terror. ‘Diversify and widen the vexation strikes against the Crusader-Zionist enemy in every place in the Islamic world, and even outside of it if possible,’ Naji writes, ‘so as to disperse the efforts of the alliance of the enemy and thus drain it to the greatest extent possible.’
Hand in hand with the above stage comes ‘the management of savagery’. This is a phase of violent resistance and assault, with an emphasis of carrying out shockingly visible acts of terror. This serves as a glaring message to all its enemies, allies and sympathisers alike. Here the objective is to get the enemy, mainly the United States and its allies, to ‘abandon its war against Islam by proxy … and to force it to fight directly.’ Such media managed savagery is intended to recruit new youths into the takfiri fold and program and help push weaker regions of the Muslim world towards breakdown and savagery. Nothing can ever be achieved without the singular method of total warfare: ‘We must drag everyone into the battle in order to give life to those who deserve to live and destroy those who deserve to be destroyed,’ proclaimed the manifesto.
The final stage is to be the empowerment of ‘the regions of savagery’. Here, the sequence of events runs something like this: During “the management of savagery” steps, the first priority is to bring these regions under their administrative control. For such mayhem will spontaneously polarize those who live in these lawless regions of savagery and will drive these people, in their desperate desire to seek stability and security, into the arms of the jihadi-takfiris. ‘We will find,’ explained Naji, ‘that along with this first step there will be a continuous emigration of the youth of other regions to our regions’ in order to flee the anarchy and mayhem so as to live under some political stability. He also noted, of course: ‘There is a difference between the people accepting administration so that security may be provided for them and so forth, and between joining the ranks and working towards set goals and joining in the battle.’ Once under their control, the takfiri indoctrination and extremism can truly begin, and new soldiers and die-hard leaders can arise. About this, Naji wrote that, ‘speaking on the pulpit is easy, and in the newspaper even easier; and in books even easier than that. As for having [one’s] home destroyed and one’s family made homeless, or one’s mother and sister torn to pieces, only the most extraordinary men are capable of [bearing] that. Great leaders and hardened troops will not come forth save in an atmosphere like this.’
As for the relevance of Naji’s treatise, we need only look at how closely al-Qaeda sought to contour this manifesto in its strategies and actions, and how many of the plans laid out in the manifesto have already been carried out by ISIS!
Despite the plethora of fatwas (commencing two decades before, and right after, 9-11) by senior Salafi/Wahhabi scholars against unbridled takfir, suicide bombings, acts of terror and targeting civilians in war, as well as against political agitation and rebellion against Muslim state authority, a forceful argument has been made that the al-Qaeda/ISIS modus operandi is inspired, in significant part, by Wahhabism. So let’s look into the claim:
Now the idea that al-Qaeda and ISIS are inspired by Wahhabism is not anything strange; especially given how the works of Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab (d.1206H/1792CE), and books from other scholars from the same Wahhabi stream of thought, were a staple diet of both al-Qaeda and ISIS, and were/are core components of their educational curricula. But whilst that is very telling, the real issue is: did ISIS and al-Qaeda pick up their mass takfiri habbits from Wahhabi shaykhs, or is it something that the Saudi Wahhabi/Salafi scholars are free of? (I’m employing the terms Wahhabi and Salafi descriptively, not pejoratively; as well as using them interchangeably.) As for when a charge of takfir may or may not be made against an individual, and the conditions required to be actualised in doing so, I’ve explained the matter here.
It has long been alleged by the Muslim world, and most of its scholars, that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab didn’t just make takfir of certain specific individuals (which he certainly did), but more than that, he made mass takfir of whole Muslim societies and states; and that this mentality of mass takfir was carried on by his descendants and by other leading Wahhabi scholars and ideologues till our present time.
The more informed supporters of Shaykh Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and his da‘wah will, at this point, demand that it is upon the accusers to bring a clear, unambiguous statement from him to support the allegation of mass takfir; and they’re quite right on insisting so. They may even point to specific statements from Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab refuting those who made such allegations against him during in his own lifetime – of which there are quite a few. From them are: ‘As for what has been mentioned to you that I make generalised takfir [of the masses] (takfir bi’l-‘umum), then this is from the lies of the enemies.’2 There’s also the following:
‘As for the lie and slander, its like is their saying that we make generalized takfir … And when it is the case that we do not make takfir of those who worship the idol which is on the grave of ‘Abd al-Qadir [al-Jilani], or the idol upon the grave of Ahmad al-Badawi; and their likes – due to their ignorance and an absence of one to caution them – how could we then make takfir of those who does not commit shirk, when they do not migrate to us, nor make takfir of us, nor fight us?’3
His holding a certain act to be disbelief (kufr), but not accusing one who commits the act to be an unbeliever (kafir), is in keeping with a well known scholarly rule: laysa kullu man waqa‘a fi’l-kufr sara kafir – ‘Not everyone who falls into disbelief becomes a disbeliever.’ And: laysa kullu man waqa‘a fi’l-shirk sara mushrik – ‘Not everyone who commits idolatry becomes an idolater.’ That is, scholars might judge a statement or act to be shirk or kufr, but refrain from declaring the one who utters such a statement or does such an act to be a mushrik or a kafir – either because of not being informed (or sufficiently informed) about the falseness of the act, or due to a mistaken interpretation that warrants giving them an excuse or amnesty.
There are these words too: ‘As for takfir, I only make takfir of whoever knows the religion of the Messenger ﷺ and thereafter insults it, forbids people from it, and manifests enmity towards whoever practices it. This is who I make takfir of. And most of the ummah, and all praise is for God, is not like this.’4
Of course, his detractors will take issue with some of the things he actually considers to be shirk or kufr, or what he included under the category of insulting the religion. Many will also point out that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, once he made an alliance with Ibn Sa‘ud, in 1744, inaugurating what is now called the first Saudi state, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab gave his loyalty and unyielding support to Ibn Sa‘ud, the amir of the new state. Ibn Sa‘ud, in turn, spread the doctrines of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab as a core part of his campaigns, killings and crusade, to bring the whole Najd province under his control. Opponents of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab will point out that he endorsed Ibn Sa‘ud’s “jihad” against the people in various regions of the Najd, and took booty from them, and that this is proof writ large that he made large scale takfir upon Muslims – as jihad is only waged against a disbelieving enemy! Eye witness Wahhabi chronicles of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and his followers confirm that Ibn Sa‘ud did wage jihad against various peoples and provinces in the Najd: something these chronicles talk about with much pride and a great deal of satisfaction.5 So is this not a proof of mass takfir? It might well be!
What strengthens these allegations is that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, in the year 1165H/1752CE, declared that the town of Huraymila had apostatised from Islam; including his very own brother Sulayman, their judge (qadi). That is, he made takfir of the whole town. Jihad was duly waged against them, and the booty was distributed among the Wahhabi warriors.6 If we add to this fatwa of town takfir, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s claim that in the Najd, only he alone knew the true meaning of la ilaha illa’Llah; not even the other scholars did, then it’s not surprising that mass takfir and the shedding of Muslim blood is seen to be his legacy. Here are his words:
‘And I inform you of myself – by God, whom there is none deserving of worship save Him: I sought knowledge, and those who knew me believed I had knowledge whilst I did not know the meaning of la ilaha illa’Llah at that time, nor know the religion of Islam, before this goodness that God graced me with. Such was also the case with my teachers; there was no man among them who knew [any of] this. And if someone from the scholars of this and the surrounding areas claims he knew the meaning of la ilaha illa’Llah, or knew the meaning of Islam before this time, or claims about his teachers that someone from them knew that, then he has lied, uttered falsehood, hoodwinked the people, and praised him with something he doesn’t possess.’7
Remember, we are not discussing whether such statements constitute sheer arrogance or some devilish narcissism. Rather, we are looking at the question: Did Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab make mass takfir upon Muslims, from which outfits and misfits like ISIS have taken their cue? Although takfir of even one individual, without the conditions or impediments being taken into consideration, or without the pious caution which is a hallmark of mainstream Islamic orthodoxy, is abhorrent and misguidance. That said:
An argument is made that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s policy was one of noninterference in the military activities of Ibn Sa‘ud, not active support or religious legitimation for them. That is to say, the shaykh’s attempts at religious reform were being eclipsed by the amir’s quest for state consolidation and material prosperity. By the time Ibn Sa‘ud had died, in 1767, and was succeeded by his son ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, the Wahhabi capital of Dir‘iyyah, rather than being famous as a centre of learning, became known instead for its opulence, wealth and strength. According to Ibn Bishr, people had grown weary of holding back their desires.8 The sources will have to be scrutinised to see just how well the argument holds up, and to evaluate if Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s takfir of the whole town of Huraymila was an exception to the rule. What is beyond a shadow of a doubt is that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s da‘wah was used as justification – first by Ibn Sa‘ud, then his son – to kill, slaughter and assassinate multitudes of Muslims during Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s own lifetime; there being no public word of condemnation or unambiguous dissent recorded from him.
Again, it’s been suggested that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab had a tendency to withdraw from Ibn Sa‘ud’s company during jihad operations. Be that as it may, what we do know is that the shaykh withdrew from his public position, in the year 1773, six years into the rule of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. Sa‘ud; and focused on teaching and authoring. He died nineteen years later, at the age of ninety-two, in 1792.
So did Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab make takfir? Yes he did; of, it appears, many individuals and at least one entire town. The contention was usually the issue of istighathah – calling on righteous, deceased persons for the fulfilment of a need. Unlike al-Razi or Ibn ‘Aqil before him who described the act as being shirk or kufr,9 Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab went steps further and made takfir of actual individuals who engaged in the act – after what he considered to be iqamat al-hujjah or “establishment of the proof” against them. As for mass takfir, the pro-Wahhabi sources do not mention it, except for Huraymila; and anti-Wahhabi sources, which I’ve chosen to avoid for this discussion, are adamant that he did! And Allah knows best.
After his demise, the first Saudi state expanded rapidly, growing even richer. It conquered Karbala, in 1802; and captured Makkah, in 1803. It reached its zenith in 1818, when it was vanquished by the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha. It is during the years of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s sons and grandsons, however, that we see categorical mass takfir being made. And that’s what we’ll address next:
The Ottoman-Egyptian armies of Muhammad ‘Ali landed in Arabia, in 1811, reestablishing their control over the Hijaz, and also sacking the capital of the first Saudi state, Dir‘iyyah, in 1818. What helped this all out victory is that large pockets of Arabs, either unconvinced with Wahhabism; disaffected with it; or unhappy with the Sa‘ud (Saudi) state moving into their provinces and wresting control from them, welcomed Muhammad ‘Ali’s armies and lent support to them. In fact, even during a truce between Muhammad ‘Ali and the Saudi state, in 1815, many of these dissatisfied people called for the resumption of attacks upon Saudi-Wahhabi forces. Unsurprisingly, the Wahhabi scholars considered such support to a foreign invasion as a serious act of treachery and disloyalty.
During this political upheaval, Sulayman b. ‘Abd Allah (d.1818), a grandson of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and one of the leading Wahhabi scholars of the time, wrote a tract on the highly sensitive topic of al-wala’ wa’l-bara’a – “Loyalty and Disavowal” – placing it in the context of the Saudi-Ottoman war.10 In it he asserts that any Muslim showing loyalty (muwalat, wala’) to the idolators – of whom he includes the Ottomans – is an idolator like them. The treaties opens with this passage: ‘Realise, may God have mercy upon you, that if a person manifests conformity (muwafaqah) to the religion of the idolators (mushrikin), from fear of them; or flattering them; or compromising so as to ward off harm from them, then he is a disbeliever like them – even if he detests their religion, loathes them, and loves Islam and the Muslims.’11 He continues by saying that those Arabs who assisted the Ottomans with loyalty, support or wealth, allied with them, conformed to their religion, and severed their connection to the [Wahhabi-Saudi] Muslims, ‘become from the soldiers of [worshipping] domes [over graves] (al-qubbab), and idolatry and its people.’12
Another core dimension of wala’ and bara’ah addressed in the tract, and another cause to excommunicate other Muslims, is the issue of al-isti‘anah bi’l-kuffar – “seeking help from the unbelievers” against other Muslims. Citing the verse: O you who believe! Take not the Jews or Christians as friends and allies, they are friends and allies one to another. Whoever amongst you takes them for friends and allies is of them. Indeed, God guides not an unjust people, [Q.5:51] the tract declares: ‘Such is the ruling upon one who allies themselves with the unbelievers from the Magians or the worshippers of idols: then he is of them.’13 By the latter depiction, he means the Ottomans. And once the idea of wala’ and bara’ah had been weaponised in this way, it would have serious repercussions for our contemporary times; as we shall see in sections ten and eleven.
Other statements of mass Ottoman takfir include: Sa‘ud b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, the third ruler of the first Saudi state (r. 1803-1814). In one of his letters to an Ottoman governor, he writes: ‘But if you continue upon this condition of yours, and do not repent from the shirk you are upon; nor adhere to the religion of God with which He sent his Messenger; nor abandon idolatry and innovations, we will never cease fighting you until you return to the upright religion of God, and traverse its Straight Path.’14
And if anyone was having doubts about the legitimacy of this mass takfir of the Ottomans, ‘Abd Allah, son of ‘Abd al-Latif – the latter being the most learned Wahhabi scholar of his time – wrote: ‘Whoever does not acknowledge the disbelief (kufr) of the [Ottoman] State, nor differentiate between them and Muslim rebels (bughat), does not know the meaning of la ilaha illa’Llah! If, along with that, he believes the State is Muslim, then this is worse and is graver. This is what is [considered] doubting the disbelief of one who disbelieves in God, or commits shirk with Him. So whosoever aids and abets them against the Muslims, with any type of help, then this is clear-cut apostasy.’15
In fact, the fatwas, tracts and writings of the Wahhabi ‘ulema are replete with the verdict, and unanimous in their conviction, that the Ottoman empire was a disbelieving state; that it was dar al-harb – a “land or war” – exempting those towns, villages or settlements that accepted the Wahhabi da‘wah; and that the Al al-Sa‘ud, the Saudi ruling dynasty, was the true caliphate (khilafah).
Thus, Ibn Sa‘ud’s biography in al-Durar al-Saniyyah describes him as the ‘khalifah in Najd from the [Islamic] year 1157-1179; and the khilafah has continued through his descendants till now.’16 ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Hasan, a prominent Wahhabi scholars of his age during the second Saudi state, described the reign of ‘Abd Allah b. Faysal (r. 1865-1871) as khilafah nubuwwah – ‘caliphate [upon the pattern of] prophethood.’17 And to a previous ruler, he addresses him as: imam al-muslimin wa khalifah sayyid al-mursalin – ‘leader of Muslims, and caliph of the master of the messengers.’18 So the vexing question about whether the Wahhabi-Saudi alliance rebelled against the Ottoman caliphate need not be asked. For in the Wahhabi worldview, the Ottomans were mushriks, and hence had no Islamic rule, let alone being caliphs. In fact, in this worldview, it was the mushrik Ottomans who rebelled against the [Wahhabi-Saudi] caliphate!
For our purpose, the Saudi story doesn’t quite end here. Although the victory over the first Saudi state was thorough and complete, by 1824, Turki b. ‘Abd Allah had retaken Riyadh. This marked the beginning of the second Saudi state. Things were going along pretty well, particularly during the reign of Turki’s son, Faysal. But when Faysal died in 1865, and his son, ‘Abd Allah, became the new ruler, this is where the story takes on a greater relevance for our times.
‘Abd Allah’s legitimacy was militarily challenged by his brother Sa‘ud. And although he managed to keep the reigns of leadership for several years, Sa‘ud took power in 1871. For the next decade or so, the second Saudi state was enmeshed in a civil war which erupted between the two brothers. In the same year, in 1871, ‘Abd Allah wrested back control; two years later, in 1873, Sa‘ud seized control for a second time. His reign lasted two years, but in 1875 he was replaced by ‘Abd al-Rahman. A year later, ‘Abd Allah regained power and reigned until his death in 1889. The above ‘Abd al-Rahman succeeded him and reigned for two more years by which time, weakened by all the political infighting, the second Saudi state (with very little territorial expansion during its time, and with diminished religious zeal) was led to its demise in 1891. Ibn Sa‘ud – having regained control of Riyadh in 1902, and most of the Arabian cities and regions by 1926 – established the third, modern Saudi state in 1932; formally calling it the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The point of this history is that they way ‘Abd Allah regained leadership (for a third time) from ‘Abd al-Rahman, was by calling upon the Ottomans for help and support. Although most Wahhabi scholars of the time viewed soliciting the Ottoman “mushriks” for political support to be a necessity, a small, yet powerful clique of leading Wahhabi scholars were incensed by this. Harkening back to the treatise of Sulayman, the grandson of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab in his treatment of wala’ and bara’ah, and of al-isti‘anah bi’l-kuffar, as well as add their own take on the matter, they declared that this amounted to an act of disbelief and duly made takfir upon Ibn ‘Ajlan, the Wahhabi judge who backed ‘Abd Allah’s decision. At the forefront of the charge was the preeminent Wahhabi scholar of the time, ‘Abd al-Latif b. ‘Abd al-Rahman Al al-Shaykh (d.1876) and Ibn ‘Atiq (d.1883). The latter wrote a tract on the issue, entitled: Sabil al-Najat wa’l-Fikak min Muwalat al-Murtaddin wa’l-Atrak – “Path of Salvation and of Separation from Loyalty to the Apostates and the Turks.”19
The tract commences with a few hadith citations, one of which states that the ummah will fight the unbelieving Turks (al-turk al-kuffar) described as having small eyes, ruddy faces, flat noses and faces like leather shields.20 He laments how so many Muslims have fallen into love, loyalty and imitation of non-Muslim ways and lifestyles.21 But the most novel and significant thing to come out of the treatise is that Ibn ‘Atiq didn’t just emphasise not having wala’ for non-Muslims as a foundational part of faith, but that Muslims must also show bara’ah towards non-Muslims by actively disavowing them and showing contempt for them. So whilst Sulayman’s Dala’il spoke about the unlawful, inadmissible wala’, Ibn ‘Atiq’s Sabil shifted the emphasis to compulsory bara’ah.22
Fast-forward a century or so, and the fatwas of Shaykh Sulayman and Ibn ‘Atiq were given a new lease of life in the writings of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (b.1959).23 Inspired by the proof-texts and textual arguments in the Dala’il and Sabil, al-Maqdisi penned (1984) his Millat Ibrahim – “The Religious Way of Life of Abraham” – where he restated the duty to show enmity towards shirk and the mushriks, as part of having true faith, preferably by waging jihad against them. In it, he also re-weaponised wala’ and bara’ah by calling for jihad against what he deemed as nominal or token Muslim states and rulers.24 Ironically, whilst the establishment Saudi scholars had all but disregarded these 19th century tracts on wala’ and bara’ah, and had for varying rationales sanitised and depoliticised them, al-Maqdisi quoted freely and extensively from them, demonstrating their political relevance for today’s Muslim world. Summarising the radical jihadi-takfiri imperative, al-Maqdisi, wrote: ‘Know that from the most particular traits of the Abrahamic way of life, and most important of its essentials, which we see most of the callers in our age falling extremely short in – in fact, most have forsaken them and have let them die out – are: [i] Manifesting bara’ah against the idolators and their false objects of worship; [ii] Proclaiming disbelief in them, their deities, and their methods, legislations and idolatrous laws; [iii] Initiating enmity and hatred of them and their statutes and conditions of disbelief until they return to God; abandoning all of this, disavowing it all and disbelieving in it. God, exalted is He, stated: There is an excellent example for you in Abraham and those who followed him, when they said to their people: ‘We are free of you and that which you worship besides God. We disavow you; and enmity and hatred has arisen between us, until you believe in God alone.’ [Q.60:4]’25
It is his al-Kawashif al-Jaliyyah fi Kufr al-Dawlah al-Sa‘udiyyah – “The Evident Unveilings Concerning the Disbelief of the Saudi State” (1989) which took the Wahhabi weaponised understanding of wala’ and bara’ah to what appears to be its logical conclusion: accusing Saudi Arabia of being a kafir, infidel state. Again, drawing upon Wahhabi scholarship of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and the twentieth century former Senior Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad b. Ibrahim Al al-Shaykh (d.1969), al Maqdisi insists that Saudi Arabia is a kafir state from three principle angles:
Firstly, that the kingdom, although it legislates with certain shari‘ah laws, also legislates with man-made laws in place of, as well as along with, many shari‘ah prescriptions. Al-Maqdisi calls the kingdom’s attempts at making people believe that it only legislates with shari‘ah laws as ‘an obvious lie!’26 He then goes on to devote the next ten pages or more documenting law after law after law that Saudi Arabia has legislated with respect to home affairs and foreign policy, and which violate shari‘ah teachings.27 To add insult to injury, he also records a volley of fatwas and letters by the former mufti, Muhammad b. Ibrahim wherein he rejects a whole raft of laws the kingdom introduces and which he believed was in opposition to the shari‘ah: these letters also advise the kingdom’s movers and shakers to keep to the straight and narrow, but to little or no avail.28 During this meticulous, yet scathing censure of how the kingdom has adopted man-made laws contrary to the norms of Islamic legislation, al-Maqdisi also marshals certain Quranic verses to nail the point; verses such as: Do they have partners [with God] who have made lawful for them in religion that for which God has not authorised? [Q.42:21] Also: Have you not seen those who pretend that they believe in what is sent down to you and what was sent down before you? They seek the judgement of false gods, although they are ordered to reject them. [Q.4:60] And: Is it a judgement of ignorance that they seek? Who is better in judgement than God for people who have sure faith? [Q.5:50] It should be noted, that despite Muhammad b. Ibrahim’s rejection of certain laws the kingdom introduced, he never once made takfir of the government, or deemed Saudi to be an unIslamic country (even if it did have some unIslamic laws).
Secondly, the kingdom has accepted membership of certain foreign organisations, such as the International Court of Justice and the United Nations, with its Charter, that govern on the basis of man-made laws. Such membership is an endorsement of man-made laws, and man-made laws are tawaghit (sing. taghut) – “false objects of worship” besides Allah.29
Thirdly, al-Maqdisi tries to demonstrate that Saudi Arabia’s ties with, and dependency on, the United States is a reason for it being a kafir state. This he does by giving a detailed, pedantic account of Saudi defense expenditure, showing that although the kingdom has spent billions of dollars on weaponry, Saudi still has a weak and incompetent army. This, he asserts, is because most of this military budget is spent on American advisors, soldiers, trainers and planners who are employed by the kingdom, not for Saudi interests, but for America’s (and for its main ally in the region, Israel).30
Al-Maqdisi’s radical solution to this Saudi ‘fitnah’, as he put it, is simply migration (hijrah) and jihad.31 Migration away from the kingdom (to where, he doesn’t really say), and then jihad against it (as well as against all other Muslim majority states and their leaders who have also substituted (tabdil) divine legislation with man-made laws). Writing about the Kuwaiti constitution, by then a typical example of legislators in Muslim lands replacing shari‘ah rulings with man made laws in their bid to modernise, al-Maqdisi wrote: ‘Before all else, you must disbelieve in this idol – the [Kuwaiti] constitution and its laws – hate it, show enmity to it, disavow it, and not be pleased or submit except to the rule of God alone. This is so that one actualises the meaning of la illaha illa’Llah … And just as it is obligatory upon you to disavow this idol – i.e. the constitution and its laws – it is likewise obligatory on you to disavow everyone who defends it, protects its laws, and persists in legislating it and enslaving people to it.’32 In other words, enmity is not just to the laws themselves, but also to those who uphold them and defend them: be it rulers, legislators, bureaucrats, army, police, or the secret services. Such an outlook, slow to take off at first, would soon become the pivotal rationale for the jihadi-takfiri program – particularly after the First Gulf war of 1990.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Ottoman tanzimat reforms, which started in 1836, saw many shari‘ah laws being replaced with man-made laws; largely based on the Napoleonic Code and French law. It is this tabdil or “substitution” of shari‘ah laws, alongside Ottoman ideas of istighathah and their contravention of wala’ and bara’ah, that were the principle factors animating Wahhabi takfir of the Ottoman empire.
What is important to note in all of this is that al-Maqdisi draws heavily on the fatwas and works of preeminent eighteenth and nineteenth century Wahhabi scholars like Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, Sulayman, ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Hasan and Ibn ‘Atiq. In his view, and the jihadi-takfiri cohort which was beginning to grow and mature around him and transnationally, Wahhabism was the doctrine giving legitimacy to the Saudi state; but the Saudi dynasty has for a long time now been biting the hand that feeds it, so to speak, thereby losing the right to govern. Wahhabi theology, once used to confer validity on the Saudi dynasty, had come full circle and was now being used to pull down the House of Sa‘ud! And as black and white, hostile, extreme, and devoid of compassionate concern for human welfare the traditional, non-Wahhabi ‘ulema find the Wahhabi worldview to be, there’s no mistaking al-Maqdisi’s pedigree: it is thoroughly Wahhabi, through and through.
Al-Maqdisi’s voice was not a native Saudi one, being born in the West Bank. It would be a whole ten years after publishing his Kashf al-Niqab (1988) and his Kawashif, and almost fifteen years after his Millat Ibrahim, that the isti‘anah bi’l-kuffar theme would be raised by a native Saudi scholarly voice; putting it into, as al-Maqdisi did, a contemporary context. The first of these voices was that of Humud b. ‘Uqala (1927-2002), who penned al-Qawl al-Mukhtar fi Hukm al-Isti‘anah bi’l-Kuffar (1999). A few other voices followed, like al-‘Uyayri (d.2003), who was the first leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Nasr b. Hamd al-Fahd. After 9/11, it wasn’t just a case of the jihadi-takfiris accusing the Saudis of seeking help from the [American] disbelievers. But due to their participation in the U.S.-led ‘war on terror’, they could be accused of another act of kufr: of helping the disbelievers against other Muslims.
It must, of course, be said that other Salafi scholars have written rebuttals of al-Maqdisi’s views, attempting to offer alternative interpretations whilst trying to remain faithful to the classical Salafi-Wahhabi worldview. Muhammad b. ‘Umar Bazmul’s Mudhakkirah al-Radd ‘ala Kutub Mashbuhah, and Tabdid Kawashif al-‘Anid of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. Ra’is, are two such rebuttals. Both tracts attempt to defend Saudi against the takfir charges, and demonstrate how al-Maqdisi’s lack of scholarly credentials and nuance in such delicate issues, and his hastiness and generalisations, are his downfall. Bazmul noted that in his introduction, al-Maqdisi says: ‘I composed these pages out of an urgency of the matter and restricted time. I haven’t spent much time [doing so], nor a lot of effort.’33 To this, Bazmul retorts: ‘This, may God guide him, is what he says about giving such a critical matter its due.’34
Al-Ra’is, while clarifying the issue of al-wala wa’l-bara’ah, writes that some have gone to extremes in understanding the Quranic verses on the topic, while others have fallen short of what is required. He then said: ‘Of those who have gone into extremes in the matter; in fact, the utmost extreme, is this obstinate al-Maqdisi.’35 He then runs through the types of relationships with non-Muslims in respect to wala and bara’ah, seeking to put verses like: You will not find a people who believe in God and the Last Day loving those who oppose God and His Messenger … [Q.58:22] in their proper context. He explains, in fairly typical Salafi fashion, that wala (love, loyalty) for the non-Muslims is of three categories: Firstly, loving a non-Muslim due to their religion or beliefs: this itself is clear-cut disbelief. The Quranic verse applies in this case: Whoever turns to them is of them. [Q.5:51] Secondly, loving a non-Muslim for a worldly motive or reason. This is forbidden and sinful, but not disbelief. You will not find a people who believe in God and the Last Day loving those who oppose God and His Messenger … [Q.58:22] speaks to this. Thirdly, natural love, affection or affinity (wala’ tab‘i, hubb tab‘i) for a non-Muslim due to them being one’s parents, siblings, wife (in the case of a Muslim man being married to a Jewish or Christian lady); or a kind and loveable relative or close friend. The Qur’an says to the Prophet ﷺ about the guidance of his dear uncle, Abu Talib, who was a non-Muslim: You cannot guide whom you love, but God guides whomsoever He wills. [Q.28:56]36 So this is the more nuanced Salafi-Wahhabi take on wala and bara’ah, contrasted with al-Maqdisi’s jihadi-takfir notions, and seemingly even those of nineteenth century Wahhabi thought.
It would be useful to research (if it hasn’t already been done so) just how well highlighted the idea of a natural wala has been in the writings of Salafi shaykhs before 9-11, and how much has come as an afterthought. For it is seldom enough just to have the correct stance. Often, it’s also a case of how one emphasises an issue or downplays it that has a crucial bearing on sound Islamic education and nurturing.
Ruling by other than the judgement of God (hukm bi ghayri ma anzala’Llah) likewise has its nuances, as well as a difference of opinion between Wahhabi-Salafi scholars. Shaykh Muhammad b. Ibrahim elucidated what looks to be the dominant stance of senior Salafi-Wahhabi jurist-theologians on the matter. He explains that the disbelief (kufr) of ruling by other than God’s judgement is of two types: the greater form of kufr, which takes a person out of the fold of Islam, and a lesser kufr, which makes a person a sinful Muslim; but not an apostate. He says that the greater kufr involves:
[i] To totally reject judging by God’s judgments, believing it is not required at all. [ii] The belief that some other judgement or system of legislation is better than God’s law. [iii] The belief that another judgement is equal to, but not better than, God’s judgement. [iv] The belief that it is permissible to give a judgment that opposes the judgement of God – even if one believes nothing is equal to, or better than, God’s laws. [v] To judge by one’s tribal or cultural norms and conventions, in complete disregard for God’s laws. [vi] To substitute the shari‘ah and shari‘ah courts with man-made systems of legislation, root and branch. As for the lesser kufr, which Ibn ‘Abbas explained was: ‘Disbelief lesser than [the greater] disbelief (kufr duna kufr)’, it is when someone judges in opposition to God’s judgement, whist believing it is forbidden and that one is sinful for doing so.37Is not God the best of Judges? [Q.95:8] speaks to all the above, as does: Whoever judges not by what God has sent down, such are the disbelievers. [Q.5:44]
About the last category of tabdil – “substituting”, “replacing” the shari‘ah with man-made laws from top to bottom; completely or predominantly, Muhammad b. Ibrahim said: ‘This is the greater, most extensive, clearest obstinacy against the shari‘ah; haughtiest rejection of its laws; and worst defiance of its law-courts [in terms of] organisation, maintenance, provisions, foundations, branches, forms, types, rulings, diktats, or sources of reference. For just as the shari‘ah courts have their reference points they refer to – each relying on the Book of God and the Sunnah of His Messenger ﷺ – then these courts that judge with a patchwork of disparate man-made laws also have their reference points; be it the French, American, British, or other legal systems … So what disbelief is more audacious than this? Or what greater opposition is there to the testimony that Muhammad ﷺ is the Messenger of God?’38
Other Salafi scholars, in concert with most other non-Wahhabi ones, hold the view that the act of tabdil alone isn’t sufficient to prove disbelief or apostasy in one’s heart, unless accompanied by istihlal – a verbal affirmation that one “believes it to be lawful” to do so. This was the view held by Bin Baz (d.1999), al-Albani (d.1999) and a few other prominent Salafi scholars.39 What that means is that one cannot declare a ruler or a government to be apostates, unless and until they verbally declare their belief that the man-made rules they have substituted, instituted, or inherited are permissible to judge by in opposition to the shari‘ah. Therefore, such governments or leaders are, at best, sinners; not apostates.
So where are we in all this politics and theology? Well the fact remains, whilst the views of the Saudi establishment scholars concerning the Islamic forbiddance of suicide bombings or targeting civilians can and has made significant inroads in the deradicalising process, they appear to be struggling to win the argument against the jihadi-takfiris in other areas such as hukm bi ghayr ma anzala’Llah and isti‘anah. For here, the latter have the firm and decisive support of early Wahhabi fatwas and theology. Not only that, but the way Middle-Eastern politics has and is unfolding, and the current liberalesque reforms in Saudi, only serve to exacerbate the situation. There is, of course, a flip side to all this extremism and radicalism. The voices of our ‘ulema have, since 9-11, been key in combating jihadi-takfiri extremism head on; with the Salafi ‘ulema addressing these concerns earlier still – since possibly the 1980s. Another factor in deradicalisation is simply age: young people who may hold radical views about politics, or about the world and their place in it, will often grow out of their black and white take on things when they grow into the responsibilities of life, marriage, job and family. There’s also the growing mistrust with the promises of Islamism (although the term is semantically problematic, I use it for lack of a better one), particularly after the Arab Spring. And while the Muslim world reconsiders the pros and cons of anti-government protests and uprisings, the ummah is in dire need of a prophetic uprising; that’s for sure. Religious burn outs and religious apathy may, in part, be behind this mistrust: but they are two more reasons for a reduction in extremism. Another is that a large and growing part of the ummah, especially its younger elements, just wish to live a worldly life; have fun; and catch up (or keep up, as the case may be) with the rest of the “progressive” world! Lastly, there are government-orchestrated deradicalisation programs for which, I suppose, we ought to be guardedly thankful.
But seeds had been sown. In the 1980s, al-Maqdisi revived the writings of eighteenth and nineteenth century Wahhabi ‘ulema on the incendiary socio-political topics of wala and bara’ah, and al-isti‘anah bi’l-kuffar. In the 1990s, a group of diehards centred on Humud b. ‘Uqala propagated al-Maqdisi’s books and ideas, and soon added their own works to his. ‘Uqala et al. were pivotal in convincing a generation of how they should hold firmly to the pure Wahhabi ideals, unsullied by the state’s more palatable version of Wahhabism; and how they should stand against Western intrusion and hate both it and the West. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, after 9-11, provided just the right pretext to demonstrate that contempt and bara’ah. We must add to the mix certain jihadi-takfiri foot soldiers, like al-Maqdisi’s one time prodigy, al-Zarqawi (d.2006). Al-Zarqawi, ideologically forged by al-Maqdisi; but his time as actual practitioner of war, terror and mass murder in Afghanistan and Iraq, in the early 2000s, in contrast to a jihadi-takfiri academic like al-Maqdisi, earned this jihadi thug a sizeable following. This self-proclaimed leader of ‘Al-Qaeda in the land of the two rivers’ took his ideas of takfiri terror to new heights, disturbing people like his former mentor and even Bin Laden! And so it is that a mixture of Wahhabi ideology, their application to the contemporary Muslim world by al-Maqdisi, al-‘Uqala, and co., al-Naji’s Management of Savagery, and the grassroots strategies of terror devised by the likes of al-Zarqawi, became the potent mixture that would form the operational basis for the jihadi-takfiri outlook of ISIS and their like. That this well-defined program and outlook is wholly khariji; of Kharijite nature and nurturing, should be of little doubt.
Today’s jihadi-takfiris extend their jihad to all rulers over Muslims states, along with their armies, police force and government administrators. The political logic behind the enmity and violence is simply that: [i] Hakimiyyah, (“sovereignty”, “judgement”) belongs solely to God. [ii] Today’s rulers do not judge by God’s laws, hence they are disbelievers (kuffar). [iii] It is obligatory to fight against them, remove them and replace them with true Muslim leaders. [iv] Those who side with such rulers (be they scholars, bureaucrats, or citizens) are also disbelievers. [v] Since the rulers are disbelievers, all their covenants of security, and domestic or international treatises, are null and void. Only the jihadi-takfiris are true Muslims; hence political violence must fill our cities! For them, fighting and acts of terror are ideally for tamkin – “consolidating” or “establishing” authority over a particular piece of land or region; and if not, then for nikayah – inflicting as much harm, damage, murder and mayhem as possible. Even if one takes out the first two pillar about hakimiyyah, and convince the jihadi-takfiris about the correctness of the second view on tabdil, it only gets replaced with: [i] Wala’ should only be for God and Islam. [ii] Today’s rulers do not have wala for God, Islam or its laws, hence they are disbelievers!
This, then, is the jihadi-takfiri agenda; inspired – in great part – by original, authoritative Wahhabi teachings. And while groups like al-Qaeda or ISIS emotionally employ atrocities of Western foreign policy in Muslim countries, Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, or the murder and tyranny of brutal dictators against their Muslim citizens, as a recruitment tool and motivator; and while many who join their terrorist bandwagons may not be clued up about the details of the core jihadi-takfiri philosophy, the real driver for their raison d’être and savage activism are the above five pillars of their religious-political logic. It is not only Western foreign policies and interventions in the Middle-East and Palestinian grievances that need to be redressed. But to truly take the sting out of these terrorist outfits and their ideologues, we ask that our ‘ulema continue to deconstruct their falsehood, twisted logic and extremism – especially as it concerns the Quranic understanding of wala’ and bara’ah and al-hukm bi ghayri ma anzala’Llah – “ruling by other than the judgement of God”. But merely contenting ourselves with labelling them Kharijites and terrorists, and not tackling their warped understanding of these delicate religious texts and concepts head-on, we do our religion; ourselves; and the wider world a possible disservice.
Conclusion: Whether blaming Wahhabism (and indirectly, Saudi Arabia) for acts of terror carried out in Islam’s name is a red herring or not has been fiercely debated for over two decades. Yet while it is true that there is no single-cause explanation behind why people join terrorist groups, Wahhabi ideas are certainly the main driver behind the jihadi-takfiri worldview – as evinced by the fact that all its main ideologues subscribe to the Wahhabi-Salafi form of religion. We have further seen that even if the charge of mass takfir against Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab seems to be inconclusive; or at best, untrue, mass takfir is undoubtedly found from his descendants and other leading Wahhabi scholars in the end part of the first Saudi state, and throughout the era of the second Saudi state. Given how the earliest Wahhabi historians, Ibn Ghannam and Ibn Bishr, weren’t shy of recording the takfir verdicts (large scale or otherwise) of Wahhabi ‘ulema – in fact, it often seems like a badge of honour – one would expect them to have chronicled any mass takfir of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab himself, if he had done so. And God knows best.
Again, while there are complex political, economical or psychological reason people join terrorist outfits like ISIS; and while other conservative, apolitical forms of Salafism (even if there is religious intolerance), do not necessarily lead to becoming terrorists, we noted how al-Maqdisi infused a new lease of life into the takfir fatwas of the 18th & 19th century leading Wahhabi ‘ulema, which would soon become the very backbone of the jihadi-takfiri worldview and activism.
Likewise, it is absurd to suggest that would-be terrorists, especially in Britain and Europe, end up joining or supporting ISIS by wandering from mosque to mosque or trawling the internet, and stumbling upon the book Kitab al-Tawhid by Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, then a few weeks later the book incites them to make their way to Syria, or to plot terrorist attacks in their native countries. The reality is far more involved than that. Yet that mustn’t obscure the fact that core Wahhabi tenets are the linchpin for today’s jihadi-takfiri ideas. Certainly, Sayyid Qutb (d.1966) may have partly inspired some core al-Qaeda members, though less so core ISIS ones. And yes, he may have supplied some of the jihadi-takfiri vocabulary and context. But there is no doubt that the bulk of the jihadi-takfiri theological scaffolding and inspiration is decidedly Wahhabi. Starting with early Wahhabi takfir writings, through to al-Maqdisi, then ‘Uqala and others, the pillars of the jihadi-takfiri method were forged:  Hakimiyyah.  Apostasy of all the rulers.  Jihad against the apostate rulers and regimes to establish an Islamic State.  The only viable means to change secular Muslim states is the bullet, not the ballot box.  The inevitable conflict between faith (iman) and disbelief (kufr); between the jihadi–takfiris and the rest.
As for the non-Wahhabi, classically-trained ‘ulema: In general, for much of the twentieth century these ‘ulema scrutinised the contents of the shari‘ah, in order to accord Muslims some principled accommodation with the emerging global reality. As it happens, Islam’s legal tools were well-disposed to the task. The juristic tool of tahqiq al-manat – identifying the context for laws so as to ascertain their current form and application, and maslahah mursalah – taking account of public interest and utility, moved the legalists of the major centres of Muslim scholarship in the direction of acclimatisation and adaption. Yet while it’s not Islam’s calling to conform to the age – it is, after all, the great global dissent – it can and must furnish Muslims with the spiritual and social technologies required to live in the age and navigate its eclectic mix of challenges. More than that, true religion must offer people insights into how best to heal modernity’s discontents and despair too.
Those doctors of Islam’s legal tools, who are also blessed with being spiritually rooted in the realities of ihsan, teach us that God’s law exists to instantiate mercy not severity; ease not hardship; good news (tabshir) not alienation (tanfir). They insist that today’s times call for tashil; facilitation, but not tasahul; slackness or over-leniency. And that far from caving-in to secular modernity, as the short-sighted or fiqh-less zealots believe, this path maintained a wise, far-sighted openness to gentleness, which long predated the advent of the modern world. Sufyan al-Thawri stated: ‘In our view, knowledge entails granting legal concessions (rukhsah). As for being strict, anyone can do that.’40Sayyiduna ‘Ali, may God be pleased with him, once said: ‘The scholar is not the one to cause people to despair of God’s mercy, nor to give them licence to sin.’41
Such scholars were also concerned about pseudo-scholars and charlatans, and the weak-spirited, not turning Islam into as many things as modernity wants Religion to be; in that Islam’s texts are twisted and tortured so as to make them compliant with whatever “ism” that happens to be modernity’s prevailing mood or zeitgeist: be it humanism, secularism, materialism, or nationalism; or in more recent times, liberalism, individualism, feminism, etc. Such concerns were not unjustified!
Some of the ‘ulema were also quick to realise that whatever political or religious spectrum Muslims advocate, most Muslim activism and movements that sought change, throughout the twentieth century till today, are locked in the logic of modernity, and can only operate within its hegemonic parameters. Islam, however, premised on the Adamic fitrah and the prophetic Sunnah, lies outside the monoculture’s plethora of philosophies, and so cannot be made subordinate to it. And this is why Islam is, and continues to be, the great global dissent from the totalising ideology of liberal modernity.
Another insight of the ‘ulema was that one cannot simply go crashing into the juggernaut of modernity, as it has a tendency to flatten anything that comes charging at it. Therefore, instead of the Wahhabi obsession of defining what we are against, these ‘ulema privileged the notion of what we are for. Of course, shirk is shirk and tawhid is tawhid, and never the twain shall meet. Thus, for example, a Muslim’s relationship with non-Muslims would be guided by privileging this Quranic passage over others: God does not forbid you in terms of those who neither wage war against you on account of your religion, and nor drive you from your homes, from being kind to them and treating them justly. God loves the just. God only forbids you from befriending those who wage war against you on account of your religion, or drive you from your homes, or aid others in your expulsion. Whoever befriends them, those are the unjust. [Q.60:8-9] The Wahhabi insistence on enmity and hate would be privileged by the prophetic virtue of loving guidance and goodness for the non-Muslims wandering in the darkness and distractions of disbelief.
Of course, such privileging, or giving emphasis to one thing over another, isn’t without its dangers and difficulties. For those unschooled in ihsan – in the beauty of shari‘ah-rooted suluk or spirituality – will only bring ugliness into the world. If we are to be constructive healers, healing the world a day at a time or an act at a time, we must ensure that our fiqh deliberations are infused with the profound wisdoms and insights of our suluk tradition.
Let me wrap-up the post (and, indeed, this series) with these reflections – which speak of where we Muslims need to be heading. Explaining his own contention: ‘Being heretics to the Monoculture requires both courage and style,’ Abdal Hakim Murad writes:
‘The challenge of modern Muslimness is to combine a confident dissent from the global culture with a sense of service and humility. Triumphalism is no less damaging to the soul than an inferiority complex. Where loyalty is for God, and love is for what humanity is called to become, the believer can combine pity for the monoculture’s shrunken victims with gratitude for God’s guidance.’42
Part of that gratitude and humility, he says, involves an awareness that not everyone can muster up the strength to be different: ‘Human nature is conformist and the monoculture increasingly demonises Muslim distinctiveness. Browbeaten Muslims, anxious to please, are everywhere; they are no use to their communities, or, ultimately, to their hosts, since they cannot function as healers, only as a chorus of frightened eulogists. Allah is testing us through them; and the only successful response to this test is to be forgiving, and try and find an ointment for the scars inflicted by the melting-pot, as it grows ever hotter, year after year.’43
We ask Allah for guidance, courage, humility and safety.
Allahumma ‘rzuqna’l-iman wa’l-aman fi kulli bilad wa’ruqna’l-fahm wa tasihhu’l-jihad anta rabb wa nahnu al-‘ibad. wa’rzuqna khayr al-zad.
1. First posted on the now defunct al Ekhlas website, it was translated into English in 2006 by William McCants and released by the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point. See: Stern & Berger, ISIS: the State of Terror (London: William Collins, 2015), 23. A translation is downloadable here.
2. Al-Durar al-Saniyyah fi’l-Ajwabat al-Najdiyyah (n.p, 2004), 10:131, a collection of essays, tracts and fatwas by Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and early Wahhabi scholars,
3. Mu’allafat al-Shaykh al-Imam Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab (Riyadh: Jami‘ah al-Imam Muhammad b. Su‘ud, 1398H), 4:11.
4. Al-Durar al-Saniyyah, 1:82-3.
5. Cf. Ibn Ghannam, Tarikh Najd (Riyadh: Dar al-Thuluthiyyah, 2010), volume two devoted to the jihad campaigns, ending in 1206H with the death of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab; Ibn Bishr, Unwan al-Majd fi Tarikh Najd (Riyadh: Matbu‘at Darat al-Malik ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, 1982), 1:46, which speaks about the first of many jihad campaigns.
6. Consult: Unwan al-Majd, 1:65, 69-72.
7. Al-Durar al-Saniyyah, 10:51.
8. Cf. Unwan al-Majd, 1:44.
9. See: al-Razi, Tafsir al-Kabir (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1981), 17:63; Ibn ‘Aqil, approvingly cited in Ibn al-Jawzi, Talbis Iblis (Cairo: Dar Ibn al-Haytham, 2004), 388-89; also al-Alusi, Ruh al-Ma‘ani (Beirut: Dar al-Ihya al-Turath al-‘Arabi, n.d.), 6:128. As for Ibn Taymiyyah, then he has a separate treatise on the issue, entitled: al-Istighathah fi Radd ‘ala’l-Bakri (Riyadh: Maktabah Dar al-Minhaj, 1426H).
10. The tract is called, al-Dala’il fi Hukm Muwalat Ahl al-Ishraq (The Proofs Against Loyalty to the Idolators), and can be found in al-Durar al-Saniyyah, 8:121-43.
11. Al-Durar al-Saniyyah, 8:121.
12. ibid., 8:121. Al-‘Anqari writes in the next volume, 9:157: ‘The reason for composing the Dala’il is that Shaykh Sulayman authored it when the Turkish armies invaded Najd in his time, intending to eradicate the religion from its foundations.’
13. ibid., 8:127-28.
14. ibid., 1:312. Towards the end of a letter to the Ottoman governor of Baghdad, Ibrahim Pasha, written at the close of the year 1810CE.
20. ibid., 25. The hadith about fighting the Turks is given in al-Bukhari, no.2928; Muslim, no.2912.
21. ibid., 62-3.
22. ibid., 23 onwards.
23. For a comprehensive review of al-Maqdisi’s life, ideology and influence as one of the most important radical jihadi thinkers of our age, see: Wagemakers, A Quietist Jihadi: The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
35. Tabdid Kawashif al-‘Anid (Cairo: Dar al-Imam Ahmad, 2007), 86-7.
36. ibid., 91-8. Also consult: al-Fawzan, I‘anat al-Mustafid bi Sharh Kitab al-Tawhid (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 2002), 356, on natural wala’ towards non-Muslims.
37. See: Fatawa wa Rasa’il Samahat al-Shaykh Muhammad b. Ibrahim b. ‘Abd al-Latif Al al-Shaykh (Makkah: al-Hukumah al-Makkah al-Mukarramah, 1399H), 12:284-91. This letter is published as a separate epistle, under the title of Tahkim al-Qawanin.
38. ibid., 12:289-90.
39. Cf. al-Halabi (ed.), al-Tahdhir min Fitnah al-Takfir (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn Khuzaymah, 1997), 13-44, for al-Albani’s fatwa; and pp.45-9 for Ibn Baz’s approval of al-Albani’s fatwa and that istihlal is a condition for judging by other than God’s laws to be kufr akbar. Also cf. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. Baz, Majmu‘ Fatawa wa Maqalat Mutanawwi‘ah (Riyadh: Dar al-Qasim, 1420H), 5:355.
40. Quoted in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.1467.
41. Cited in al-Qurtubi, Kitab al-Tadhkirah (Riyadh: Maktabah Dar al-Minhaj, 1425H), 800.
42. Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contention (Cambridge: The Quilliam Press, 2012), 68; no.39.
Are the various conspiracy theories that have etched their way into popular culture true?
Have the powerful elites of every age sought to band together to control, manipulate and exploit the masses?
Can any of these conspiracies be conclusively proven?
Is God in full control of history and human destiny?
Yet many people forget this last fact and instead are obsessed with chasing shadows! Not only can conspiracy theories become an addiction, they can rapidly become a source of intellectual arrogance too. For once someone has plunged deeply into this toxic mindset, and filled their head and heart with such paranoia, balanced thinking becomes almost impossible. The theorist now thinks himself to be one of the enlightened elite who know what’s really going on, while the rest of us are seen as naive or dumb sheep that can’t see beyond the tiny patch of grass under our noses. Seeing the world through the conspiracy lens can foster a sense of empowerment, which can be hugely intoxicating.
But worse than the vanity or self-conceit is the untold amount of hours and energy that is squandered – time which might otherwise have been spent growing in knowledge of God, knowledge of Self, and knowledge of Sin. For how many Muslims do we find who know the intricacies of certain wild conspiracies, yet their knowledge of Islam is embarrassingly infantile.
Perhaps the biggest conspiracy at work here isn’t 9/11, the assassination of JFK, the death of Princess Diana, the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion; nor the re-engineering of global systems by the Illuminati or Bilderberg Group; and nor the various plots to control the population and its behaviour, like the spread of HIV, the fluoridation of our drinking water, or jet engine chemtrails. The biggest conspiracy may simply be how Satan, the arch conspirator, has employed this mixed bag of facts and fiction to distract us from growing in God’s obedience and remembrance.
Are conspiracy theorists all irrational or pathological? No, not really. The millions of them that there are around the world are too diverse to be put into one box. Some, for sure, are hooked on conspiracies because of a pathology. Some are obsessed with blaming others for the world’s woes. Some just enjoy the thrill and empowerment of ‘knowing the truth.’ For others, it can be more negative. Some can become so anxious about the supposed fact that certain powerful, elite puppet-masters in the shadows are pulling everyone’s strings that they are paralysed by fear; and feel that they can do nothing to change the world, or even their own life.
The Qur’an praises the believers, when it says: Those to whom men said: ‘The enemy has gathered against you, so fear them!’ But this only increased their faith, and they said: ‘Allah is sufficient for us! He is the best Guardian.’ So they returned with bounties and grace from Allah, and no harm touched them. They followed the good pleasure of Allah, and Allah is of abounding bounty. It is only Satan who would make [people] fear his followers. Fear them not; but fear Me, if you are indeed believers. [Q.3:174-6] To fear Allah is not a suggestion; it’s a command. It is also a reminder that Allah is in full control of His creation: no-one has rested control from Him; not even for a nanosecond. And knowing for certain destiny is unfolding according to His plan assures the believer’s heart and allays his fears.
THIS IS AN OBSERVATION that may be limited to my tiny window of experience; and it is something I’ve been aware of since the early 1990s. Which is that we Muslims are ready and eager to read stuff about the nitty gritty points of fiqh and shari’ah law, yet as soon as discussing the actual Lawgiver is involved, we tend not to be so keen or interested. Some choose to get so caught up in organising Islamic events, or engaging in activism, or doing da‘wah for God, that they simply don’t make any time to be alone with God.
This isn’t just an issue with the generality of Muslims; scholars can be just as guilty of it too. There are some who are so keen to prove the existence of God, yet care little for God Himself. Others will speak endlessly about divine governance, but care little for getting to know the “Governor” in any real or meaningful sense. Could it be that we’re turning those aspects of Islam into mini objects of devotion, instead of devotion to God Himself; exalted and majestic is He?
There’s another reason why we could be disinterested in God, even if we are still actively doing religious stuff: Boredom! As odd as it may seem to some, becoming bored with God can and does happen. Apart from having defective intentions to begin with, in that Allah was never truly our sought-after goal (thus it’s possible to be committed to certain aspects of Islam, yet not actually be committed to God), there is boredom in our religious lives to contend with too. Boredom with God could manifest itself in a diminishing of one’s faith and religious practice. Or it could come in the guise of religious practice; but a practice where one is just going through the motions without any life, love or joy. Boredom could even show itself in an apathy to actually worship or obey God, even when there’s a keen interest – a passion, even – to endlessly talk about religious matters. Al-Hasan al-Basri, a formidable sage of early Islam, once remarked; when he chanced upon a group of people who were arguing about religious matters: مَا هَؤُلاءِ إِلَّا قَوْمٌ مَلُّوا الْعِبَادَةَ ، وَوَجَدُوا الْكَلامَ أَهْوَنَ عَلَيْهِمْ ، وَقَلَّ وَرَعُهُمْ ، فَتَكَلَّمُوا– ‘Such are ones who’ve grown bored of worship; speaking has become easy for them, their piety has diminished, hence they talk.’1
So how do we stop the rot from setting in or, if it’s already done so, how do we reverse the rot? How can we cure spiritual boredom? The answer, as uninspiring as it may first seem, is to deepen our knowledge of God.
But how can knowledge be the healer of spiritual boredom when so many of us afflicted with this malady have attended plenty of Islamic courses, classes, seminars or talks over the years, or have watched enough clickbait Islamic videos on YouTube to last a lifetime? Well a lot depends on what one means by “knowledge.” Allow me to explain:
Sufyan b. ‘Uyaynah, one of early Islam’s great scholars and saints, said: ‘The learned are of three types: One who knows God and knows His commands; one who knows God, but not His commands; and one who knows God’s commands, but not God. The most perfect of them is the first, and that is the one who fears God and knows His rulings.’2
In this sense, every one of the Prophet’s sahabah or “companions”, may God be pleased with them all, were ‘alim bi’Llah wa bi ahkamihi – “knowers of God and His commands”. Whether it was the likes of the senior companions who had been nurtured and tutored by the Prophet ﷺ for years or decades; or those lesser in rank who only spent a short time in the prophetic presence, each was a knower of God and knew the rulings God had obliged them to know for their daily lives – commensurate with their varying levels of faith, piety, ability and responsibility.
By knowledge of God, I don’t mean some dry, formulaic learning about God. But learning which inspires the soul to be suffused with God’s majesty, awe, reverence, love, hope and fear. Knowledge which inspires hearts to yearn for God, know Him intimately, trust in Him wholeheartedly, remember and invoke Him abundantly, and seek the means of approach to Him sincerely.3
As for knowing God’s commands, it is to know what He has made lawful and unlawful in our daily lives, to know what deeds He loves and what ones He loathes, and the correct demeanour and comportment with which to worship Him.
To this end, sitting in the gatherings of those shaykhs or shaykhas who can nurture such knowledge and yearning of God in us is a tried and tested method. Reading books which depict the lives of God’s prophets, saints and sages is another potent way of stiring divine love in the heart. And contemplating the Qur’an with an eye to instil an abiding reverence and heartfelt acquaintance of God and His commands in us is yet another. Al-Hasan al-Basri again: ‘Knowledge is of two types: Knowledge which settles in the heart; and this is beneficial knowledge, and knowledge just upon the tongue; which is God’s proof against the Sons of Adam.’4
Islam teaches us that life does not run properly without joy. But true joy derives not from God and job, family, friends, Netflix, gaming, or the drug-like addiction of social media. True joy is only from, and ultimately in, God. Only when we can see God in everything, and the divine compassion, kindness and concern behind all things, are hearts gladdened and made joyful. And as hearts perceive God’s beauty in everyday life, and are thus made joyful, the world is gladdened and made joyful through them.
The world tells us that selfish indulgence in lusts or one’s desires is where the fun’s at. But our lives as Muslims should primarily be about quietly enjoying the beauty of God, and communing with him through prayer; gratitude; remembrance; and charity, in its widest sense, to His creation. The key to all this is ma‘rifah: knowledge of God, internalised and experienced.
As one deepens their knowledge of God, and seeks to internalise it, the soul is illumined; character is given to reflect prophetic beauty; and the heart is brought to bear upon life’s Ultimate End and love’s Ultimate Encounter.
Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.
1. Cited in Abu Nu’aym, Hilyat al-Awliya (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1996), 2:156-57.
2. ibid., 7:280.
3. See: Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, Bayan Fadl ‘Ilm al-Salaf (Kuwait: Dar al-Arqam, 1983), 46.
4. Ibn Abi Shaybah, Musannaf, no.34361; al-Darimi, Sunan, no.394.
THE LATE GAI EATON PUT his finger on the crux of the matter (as it seems to me), when he wrote three or four decades ago:
‘I think it must have been easy enough in earlier ages in the Christian world, and is still easy in those parts of the Muslim world which remain traditional, to hold to a simple faith without much intellectual content. I do not believe this is any longer possible in the modern world, for the spirit of our times asks questions – questions for the most part hostile to faith – which demands answers, and those answers can only come from informed and thoughtful faith, from study and meditation.’1
He then went on to note: ‘Whatever our religion, we can no longer be sure of holding onto it out of habit or by an act of will. We have to be, if not theologians, then at the very least people who study their religion and who think about it.’2
For quite some time now, the monoculture’s levelling reverberations – with its underlying orthodoxies, assumptions, assault on Religion, uprooting of traditional patterns of living, and its insistence on redefining the normative human persona – have radiated outward across the globe, much like how rings spread out from a pebble tossed into a pond. For much of that time, Muslims (particularly those parts of the globe still referred to as “the Muslim world”), even if they did put up resistance to the political ideologies which swept over them, have tended to be far less critical of the philosophical propositions modernity insists on.
These assumptions – that Man has now come of age and is the measure of all things; that happiness is bound with the merciless wheel of material and consumer progress; and that life and the cosmos are bereft of meaning, beyond what some may fictitiously confer upon them – have severed us from the great transcendental and social continuities of religion, family, craft and earth that has been the setting for normative human life throughout the millennia. Simple believers of earlier times, who knew relatively little yet possessed depth of faith, could scarcely survive in today’s world where both the senses and the intellect are relentlessly bombarded by imagery and arguments of doubts and disbelief.
If commitment to religious faith and practice is to survive such a deluge, firm knowledge of the core doctrines and cosmology of Islam, and the monotheistic assumptions they are grounded in, is crucial. This is not to say that a Muslim cannot love Allah unless he or she becomes some sort of philosopher-theologian. Not at all! However, while less than half a century earlier one could be a decent Muslim and remain so without having ever heard of al-Ghazali, al-Razi or Ibn Taymiyyah, today a Muslim who does not possess at least some grounding in the doctrines and assumptions upon which the faith of Islam is grounded, stands in immense danger, unless cocooned in some impenetrable bubble of naivety or simplicity.
Of course, many Muslim saints and pietists of the past did end up turning their backs on a heedless or hell-bent society. If it were possible for those who see the monoculture for what it truly is to withdraw from society and to go their own way in peace, this would probably be a decent course of action (not forgetting that the core of Islam’s call is very much urban and city-centred). But there is no where one could ‘opt-out’. For day by day, liberal modernity grows ever more invasive and totalising, suffocating any meaningful dissent; assimilating any significant diversity; and erasing any significant divergence. So driven into a tight corner, religion has little option but to turn and fight. Hence an urgent need to raise the dust of polemics against the ensnaring assumptions of modernity.