Khawarij Ideology, ISIS Savagery: Caliphate & Jihad
The first instalment of this blog (here) charted the rise of Islam’s first heterodox sect, the Khawarij, who were described by the Prophet ﷺ as being: ‘the worst of mankind and beasts’1 and ‘dogs of Hellfire.’2 We saw how their defining traits were: (i) rebellion (khuruj) against legitimate state rule; (ii) declaring Muslims to be apostates (takfir) for sins or opinions that do not warrant apostasy and; (iii) shedding peoples’ blood and causing chaos and terror throughout the land (fasad fi’l-ard). Such have tended to be this heinous group’s timeless traits.
Whatever other motives or pathology are at work in the Khariji mind, the underlying cause of their deviation was clearly stated by Ibn ‘Abbas when he said to them, in his encounter with them: ‘I come to you from the Emigrants (muhajirun) and the Helpers (ansar) and the son-in-law of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ. To them the Qur’an was revealed. They are more learned about its meanings than you are; and there is not a single one of them among you.’3 In other words, Ibn ‘Abbas is insisting that he has come from a people educated and nurtured by the Prophet ﷺ himself; a people whose knowledge of the meanings, context and intent of the Quranic teachings is second to none. It’s as if he was saying: ‘Pray tell, with what authority do you presume to know better than the sahabah – the actual people of knowledge, understanding and excellence?’
With that short recap, let’s now turn our focus to ISIS. At the outset, it is important to note that no single writing of this size can hit every relevant nail on the head in this affair. There are far too many questions and concerns to tackle for that to realistically happen. Nor is this piece meant to be academically exhaustive or politically thorough. Instead, the purpose is to compare the claims and modus operandi of ISIS with that of Islam’s well-established juristic norms, and to show how they are the most recent face of Kharijite misguidance, barbarity, indiscriminate killings and takfirism.
I’d also like to stress here that not all those waging jihad in Syria are the ISIS/al-Qaeda types. Many groups and individuals are; but not all. Likewise, not all who are fighting under, or migrating to, the ISIS banner deserve the same ruling or description. While it is true that many (or even most) ISIS-affiliates are no more than thugs, deviants and followers of false desires; others are sincere, but betaken with idealism and naivety; or are ensnared by claims of an alleged caliphate (khilafah) and misled into believing the grass is greener on the other side.
Yet since ISIS has a clear-cut command structure, and its ideology and decrees come from top down, there is sufficient enough shari‘ah justification to be able to describe the group in collective, generic terms – even if not every individual affiliated with the group fits the description. This shall be the stance I take when writing this blog. So to continue on from Section III of the first part of the blog, let’s start with a declaration from the leader of ISIS:
On May 14th, 2015 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the alleged khalifah of all Muslims, said in a 34 minute audio address: ‘O Muslims, Islam was never for a day the religion of peace. Islam is the religion of war. Your Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) was dispatched with the sword as a mercy to the creation.’4 The issue of jihad and Islam’s attitude to war is as good a place as any to start our examination of ISIS.
Without a doubt, jihad in the sense of qital (“fighting”, “military war”) is enjoined on the faithful at numerous places in the Qur’an and is seen as a highly meritorious form of duty and sacrifice in Islam. Al-Raghib wrote about the schematics of jihad in these terms: ‘Jihad is of three types: jihad against the apparent enemy; against the devil; and against the ego (nafs). All three types are included in Allah’s words, exalted is He: And wage jihad in Allah’s path with all the striving that is due to Him. [22:78] And wage jihad with your wealth and your lives in the way of Allah. [9:41] … Jihad is to be waged with the hand and the tongue, as he [the Prophet] ﷺ said: “Wage jihad against the unbelievers with your hands and your tongues.”5’6
Undeniably, then, military or armed jihad is well-attested to in the revealed texts.7 Yet to equate this one virtuous act of the faith with the totality of Islam is nothing short of being perverse or pathological.
The self-proclaimed Caliph and so-called caretaker of the ummah has nothing to say about prayer, fasting or pilgrimage. No significant exhortation to piety or to purifying the heart. No word about cultivating good morals and ethics, or kindness to parents, fulfilling contracts or guarding the tongue. There’s just a call to fighting, violence and shedding blood. The slick ISIS media output is filled with images of blood and gore; of victims in the process of being executed, burnt or beheaded; and children playing amidst decapitated heads. ISIS wants us to believe this is the real Islam; that this is the spirit of a true Muslim: and that anyone who recoils from such imagery is but a pale reflection of the real deal. In the ISIS reading of Islam, this is how the Prophet ﷺ was. This is what al-Baghdadi is hell bent on making us believe. In fact, this is what so many in the world have come to believe; and it utterly repulses them.
So what was the Prophet’s attitude ﷺ to war? And how does the shari‘ah, the Sacred Law of Islam, countenance war?
In classical Islam, warfare is regulated by an all-important shari‘ah dictum that states about jihad: wujubuhu wujubu’l-wasa’il la al-maqasid – ‘Its necessity is the necessity of means, not of ends.’8 Indeed, Islam’s overall take on war is best seen in the following declaration of our Prophet Muhammad ﷺ: ‘Do not wish to meet your enemy, but ask Allah for safety. If you do meet them, be firm and know that Paradise lies beneath the shades of swords.’9 That is to say, pursue the path of peace and reconciliation; if such a path be denied by belligerence or hostile intent, then be prepared to act differently. The following hadith might also be used as a support: ‘After me there will be conflicts and affairs. If you are able, resolve them peacefully.’10 Also revealing are these words of the Prophet ﷺ: ‘The most detested of names to Allah are War (harb) and Bitterness (murrah).’11
All this is a far cry from the ISIS reinvention of the Muslim personality and from their irreverent portrayal of the Prophet ﷺ. If anything, their portrayal is more a betrayal. Jihad of the military kind, as we have seen, is not a goal in itself; it’s a means to a goal: the free and unhindered invitation to Islam and the summons to worship Allah alone. Let’s not forget this martial jihad has rules and codes of conduct too. Among them is that the leader carefully evaluate the potential benefits and harms of armed struggle; ensure civilians and non-combatants are not killed or wilfully attacked; abide by the other sanctities upheld in Islam; and keep in mind receptivity to the call (da‘wah) to Islam.
ISIS, however, seems not to give much thought about receptivity to Islam, nor about sanctity of life – including Muslim life. Despite their claims to uphold the shari‘ah, the list of their atrocities and violations reads like an Argos catalogue. These involve: the indiscriminate killing of Muslims; kidnapping and killing of non-Muslims who have entered Muslims countries as aid workers, journalists or under a covenant of security; torturing and killing prisoners as well as mutilating their bodies; exacting revenge and retribution upon the public if they disagrees with ISIS; illegally seizing the wealth and property of Muslims; and, of course, their rampant takfir of a large numbers of Muslims – scholars and mujahids included. It seems the only difference between ISIS and the Khawarij of earlier times is in the sheer scale of ISIS’s takfir, bloodshed and savagery. In this sense, ISIS are not Khawarij, they are ubër-Khawarij! And nor should one be taken in by their apparent Islamic rhetoric. For the Prophet ﷺ warned about the Khawarij thugs that: ‘There shall appear in my ummah schisms and divisions, and a people who will beautify their speech, but their actions will be evil. They shall recite the Qur’an, but it will not pass beyond their throats …’12 Also: ‘They shall recite the Qur’an thinking it is for them, but it is against them.’13 And that: ‘They would call to the Book of Allah, but would not be from it at all.’14
In the same audio speech, al-Baghdadi goes to great lengths to rally every able-bodied believer to his cause: ‘Muslims! Do not think the war that we are waging is the Islamic State’s war alone. Rather it’s the Muslims’ war altogether. It’s the war of every Muslim in every place, and the Islamic State is merely the spearhead in this war. It is but the war of the people of faith against the people of disbelief, so march forth to your war O Muslims.’15
This brings us to another crucial aspect about jihad in Islam: who may be fought? Are Muslims required to wage jihad against disbelievers due to their disbelief (kufr)? Imam Ibn Taymiyyah takes up the issue, stating: ‘The disbelievers, they are only to be fought on condition of them waging war first – as is the view of the majority of scholars; and as is proven by the Book and the Sunnah.‘16 Which is to say, Islam permits fighting disbelievers, not because of their disbelief, but only if they initiate war against Muslim societies, or manifest belligerence towards them. The Qur’an says: Fight for the sake of Allah those that fight against you, but do not transgress the limits. [2:190]
Ibn al-Qayyim, another medieval maestro of Islamic jurisprudence, wrote: ‘Fighting is only a duty in response to being fought against, not in response to disbelief. Which is why women, children, the elderly and infirm, the blind, or monks who stay out of the fighting are not fought. Instead, we only fight those who wage war against us.’17
Ibn al-Qayyim also stated about the Prophet ﷺ: ‘Never did he force the religion upon anyone, and he only fought those who waged war against him and fought him. As for those who entered into a peace treaty with him, or concluded a truce, he never fought them, nor ever coerced them to enter his religion, abiding by his Lord’s order: There is no compulsion in religion. True guidance has become distinct from error. [2:256] … It will be clear to whoever ponders the life of the Prophet ﷺ, that he never coerced anyone to enter his religion and that he only fought those who fought against him first. As for those who ratified a peace treaty with him, he never fought them, provided they kept to their covenant and did not violate its terms.’18
Again, the issue of jihad isn’t quite as ISIS makes it out to be: ‘It is but the war of the people of faith against the people of disbelief.’ Rather, as per the above, and as most of the qualified jurists and recognised fatwa bodies of our time hold – and their word in shari‘ah affairs is authoritative and represents orthodoxy – that a state of war shall not exist between Muslims and others except if hostility against a Muslim land is initiated or barriers to da‘wah erected.19
As for when the Muslim army is in the thick of a religiously-sanctioned war, then this is where the following verses of the Qur’an (and their like) come into play: Slay them wherever you find them; drive them out of the places from which they drove you. [2:190-91] Also: Slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them [captive] and besiege them, and lie in ambush for them everywhere. [9:5] And then, of course, there is this: But if they incline towards peace, incline to it too. [8:61]
Lastly, let’s touch upon the following: the believer’s love of martyrdom. In one hadith, we see the Prophet ﷺ relish the following: ‘By Him in whose hand is my life. I would love to be killed in Allah’s way and then be brought back to life; then be killed and be brought back to life; then be killed and be brought back to life; then be killed.’20 The Prophet ﷺ cherished martyrdom, not because of the love of blood and gore; nor for the glory of war itself; nor for the clanging of steel or the thrill of the fight. He loved it because of what it manifested of the highest service and the ultimate sacrifice for God. To surrender to Allah one’s actual life, for a cause Allah loves and honours, is the greatest possible expression of loving Allah. It’s no wonder, then, that the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Whosoever dies without partaking in a military expedition, or even desiring to do so, dies upon a branch of hypocrisy.’21 Believers, though, whilst they long to meet a martyr’s death, strive to live a saintly life. For how can one truly desire to die for God, if one doesn’t sincerely try to live for God?
ISIS has no qualms in shamelessly flaunting its cruelty and deviancy. Although the so-called khalifah hides away from the public’s gaze, the khariji ideology and attitudes he propagates and presides over are on display for all to see. But ideology isn’t always the core appeal. Some are drawn to ISIS, not because of its ruthless ideology, but because for them it represents a rallying force against taghut rulers, establishments that have failed them, and western foreign policies. The claim to have reestablished the khilafah is the ultimate rallying force to galvanise the disaffected and disempowered. But has ISIS really reestablished the Caliphate? Is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi truly the khalifah, the amir al-mu’minin, of all Muslims? Is there an Islamic duty upon each of us to give him the oath of allegiance, or bay‘ah? The short answer to all these questions is: Of course not! And here are a few reasons why:
1. The khalifah must be appointed by consultation (shura) of the ummah’s movers and shakers: its senior scholars, political leaders, wealthy ones, and any others who exert influence on large factions of the ummah and whose agreement is vital to bring about a unified stance. Without their approval, any claims of a khilafah is both unachievable and illegitimate. If anything, it will have the exact opposite effect. It will be the cause for schisms, divisions and civil unrest to erupt. ‘Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, said: ‘Whoever gives the oath of allegiance to a man, without consulting the Muslims, is not to be sworn allegiance to, nor is the one whom he swore allegiance to, for fear they both may be killed.’22 From this angle alone, there simply is no shari‘ah legality to al-Baghdadi’s claim to be khalifah. For consultation with a few unknowns and misfits doesn’t count as shura in such a key public affair.
2. Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ‘The Prophet ﷺ ordered us to obey leaders who were both present and well-known (al-a’immah al-mawjudin al-ma‘lumin); those who wield executive political authority and have the capability to address the political needs of the people. He did not [order us with] obedience to leaders who are absent or unknown; or to those who lack executive authority and have no real governing power over anything.’23 So these are a few more reasons which make al-Baghdadi’s claim of being caliph bogus. He’s an unknown (as are the many former high-ranking Ba’athists he’s chosen to fill top organisational positions in ISIS). Moreover, his political clout is confined; it doesn’t extend globally, nor reach into Muslim majority countries.
3. Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani wrote of one of the pragmatic rulings that have shaped Sunni political theory and its rules of governance (ahkam al-sultaniyyah): ‘The scholars have united upon the obligation to obey the ruler who gains ascendency by force … For in it lies preservation of blood and public order.’24 The rationale here is quite simple: al-bay’ah khayrun min al-furqah – ‘Oath of allegiance is better than dissension.’25 Now it has been argued that since al-Baghdadi and ISIS have conquered territory and gained sovereignty by force, this somehow makes him khalifah. This is nonsense; as shown by the previous point. At best, ISIS is an emirate and al-Baghdadi is its amir, or leader. At worst, it temporarily controls conquered territories in an ongoing war zone, and al-Baghdadi a calculated fitnah-maker falsely claiming the title of Caliph; splitting the ranks of those who are fighting Syria’s tyrant; and turning his guns on mujahidun and anyone else who disagrees with his caliphal claim. Either way, ISIS most certainly isn’t a khilafah by any stretch of the imagination. Those that aid and abet ISIS, only aid and abet murder, mayhem and misguidance.
Then there’s the matter of whether multiple rulers (ta‘addud al-a’immah) are lawful or not in Islam, or are Muslims always required to be politically unified under one single ruler or caliph? Here’s an outline of the issue:
4. After citing the hadith, ‘Whoever comes to you whilst your affairs are unified under a single person, seeking to undermine your unity or divide your ranks, execute him,’26 al-Qurtubi remarked: ‘This is the strongest evidence prohibiting the establishment of two leaders [simaltaneously]. For this will lead to hypocrisy, dissension, schisms, civil strife and the removal of blessings. But if the lands are far apart and independent, like Anadulsia and Khurasan, it becomes permissible.’27
5. First stating the ideal, then supplying this dispensation on the topic, Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ‘The Sunnah is for the Muslims to have a single ruler (imam), with others being his deputies. But if it happened that the ummah left this, due to sin from some and inability from others, so that it had multiple rulers, it would them be incumbent upon each ruler to establish the prescribed punishments and preserve peoples’ rights.’28
6. Adapting to the changing realities and seismic political shifts of the eighteenth and nineteenth century Muslim world, the jurist and murajjih, Imam al-Shawkani, stated: ‘However, as for after Islam became widespread and had reached many far away lands, then as is known, there arose in each province or territory a state with its own leader or ruler. This happened in all regions. The authority of each of them does not extend to the area of others, hence there is no harm in there being a number of leaders and rulers. Obedience to each of them, after the oath of allegiance, is obligatory upon the people of that area where his orders and prohibitions are operative. The same goes for the ruler of each area … So realise this. For it is in full accord with the principles of the shari‘ah and agrees with what the texts indicate. Ignore what is said contrary to this, since the difference in the condition of the rule of Islam in the beginning and the condition today is clearer than the daytime sun.’29
7. Although Muslims being split into countries, states and kingdoms is nowhere near ideal – given that sectarian strife and political discord exists in and among them; and many of their rulers are shabby tyrants, unfit for purpose, or have betrayed their trust as political caretakers – there is no shari‘ah duty to establish the khilalfah via terror or savagery or the destruction of peoples’ lives, property and honour. As the saying goes: al-‘aqil la yubni qasr wa yuhaddimu misr – ‘The intelligent one doesn’t build a palace by laying waste to the city.’ Rather, each subject or citizen lends their hand to obedience and law-abidingness, in that which does not entail disobedience. Shaykh Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab said: ‘For a very long time, since before the time of Imam Ahmad, till nowadays, the people have not united under one single ruler. Nor is it known that any of the scholars have said that there is any ruling which is not correct except with the greater imam (al-imam al-a‘zam).’30
In Part 2, we’ve seen reasons why ISIS’s claim of a caliphate is fraudulent and invalid, and how some of its key views on warfare and jihad do not reflect normative readings or attitudes at all. ISIS, rather than being a true defender and carer of Muslim sanctity and lives, has gone out of its way to murder Muslims and perpetrate violence against them on a horrific scale. That their glossy media machine is now pushing the-idyllic-life-in-the-Islamic-State image, more than their usual blood and gore one, should not hoodwink anyone. If ISIS had done what they’ve done, under the name of politics and power grabbing, that would have been one thing. But it has done so under the name of Islam; using Islamic rhetoric; trying to justify its deeds with gross misreadings and misapplications of shari‘ah texts. This is what makes ISIS so utterly shameless. This is what makes ISIS so Khawarij-like in its self-righteous obstinacy. We ask Allah that He guide us and them and forgive us our sins. We also ask Him that He steer them aright or break their backs.
As for my brothers and sisters whose hearts have not been dulled by the dunya; whose souls yearn to strive in Allah’s cause; whose blood flows with the love of tawhid, piety and justice; but who may have become persuaded by the ISIS narrative or feel inclined to its call – please think! Think about the proofs and arguments laid out here, as well as the words of the people of knowledge cited here. Do not dismiss them out of hand merely because the heart of the one writing this has long ago been numbed by dunya and courage no longer courses through his veins. Instead, think about what is written here on its own merits. Consider it carefully. Consider also the many hadiths which warn against the Khawarij, and how they shall appear throughout time – even until close to the End of Days. Then ask yourselves: Who do these numerous hadiths refer to in our present day and age? Who best fits their description in these recent times? And then, with anger and emotion aside, be led by knowledge, piety and the courage of your conviction; and see ISIS for what it truly is. As for those preparing to secretly sneak away from home and join the so-called caliphal caravan, let me leave you with the following:
Describing how the Khawarij sent a call out to recruit people, urging them to secretly leave their homes and join their ranks, al-hafiz Ibn Kathir wrote: ‘How superb is what one of the salaf said about the Khawarij, in that they are the ones mentioned in Allah’s words, exalted is He: Say: ‘Shall We tell you those whose works will bring the greatest loss.’ Those whose efforts have been wasted in the life of this world while they thought they were doing good. Those are they who disbelieve in the signs of their Lord and the encounter with Him. Therefore their works are in vain, and on the Day of Resurrection We give no wait to them. [18:103-5] The point is that such ignorant and misguided ones, wretched in both words and deeds, agreed upon rebelling against the Muslims …’31
After stressing how their self-righteousness is so entrenched, that they go through life working mischief and misguidance, thinking that they are acquiring virtue, Ibn Kathir then said:
‘They then wrote an open letter to whoever was upon their way and path in Basra and elsewhere, sending word to tell them to meet them by the river so they could form a single hand against the people. They then began to leave, sneaking out one by one, lest it was realised and they were then prevented. They left from amidst their fathers and mothers, and uncles and aunts; leaving all their near ones. They did this thinking, in their ignorance and in their lack of knowledge and understanding, that this matter would please the Lord of the heavens and the earth. What they didn’t realise was that this was one of the worst of the major sins and destructive deeds, and one of the most contemptible of wrongdoings; and that it was made to look appealing to them by Iblis and by their egos which constantly incited towards evil. A group realized what some of their children, cousins and brothers were up to, so they stopped them, restrained them and censured them. Thereafter, some turned back and continued to be upright, while others fled and joined the Khawarij and thus were made wretched until the Day of Resurrection.’32
1. Muslim, no.750.
2. Ibn Majah, no.176. Al-Albani graded it as sahih in Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1987), no.3347.
3. Cited in Ibn al-Jawzi, Talbis Iblis (Beirut: Dar al-Qalam, 1982), 89-90.
4. Dabiq (issue #9: Sha’ban, 1436), 52; the official online magazine of ISIS. The quote starts 13 minutes, 12 seconds into the audio.
5. Abu Dawud, no.2504. Its chain is sahih, as per al-Nawawi, Riyadh al-Salihin (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2000), no.1357, but with the wording: ‘ … with your wealth, lives and tongues.’
6. Al-Raghib al-Asbahani, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 208; under the entry, j-h-d.
7. For the merits and shari‘ah status of the inner jihad against the unruly ego, refer to my article: The Greater Jihad.
8. Ibn Hajr al-Haytami citing al-Zarkashi, Tuhfat al-Muhtaj bi Sharh al-Minhaj (Beirut: Dar Sadir, 1972), 9:211.
9. Al-Bukhari, no.3024; Muslim, no.172..
10. Ahmad, Musnad, no.695. Its chain was graded sahih by Ahmad Shakir, al-Musnad al-Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (Egypt: Dar al-Ma‘arif, 1954), 2:84-5, despite the presence of two questionable narrators in the chain: Faysal b. Sulayman and Iyas b. ‘Amr.
11. Abu Dawud, no.4950. The hadith, with its various chains, strengthen each other to yield a final grading of sahih. Consult: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1987), no.1040.
12. Abu Dawud, no.4765. The hadith was graded sahih in al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.3668.
13. Muslim, no.1066.
14. Ahmad, no.1338, and it is sahih. Consult: al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.3668.
15. Dabiq (issue #9: Sha’ban, 1436), 54.
16. Kitab al-Nubawwat (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1985), 140.
17. Ahkam Ahl al-Dhimmah (Dammam: Ramadi li’l-Nashr, 1997), 1:110.
18. Hidayat al-Hiyara (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2008), 29-30.
19. Consult: al-Khallaf, al-Siyasat al-Shar‘iyyah (Cairo: Matba‘ah al-Salafiyyah, 1931), 75. In an age of the Internet and social media, it’s almost nigh on impossible for countries to erect barriers to prevent the da‘wah to Islam.
20. Al-Bukhari, no.2797; Muslim, no.1497.
21. Muslim, no.1910.
22. Al-Bukhari, no.6830.
23. Minhaj al-Sunnah (Riyadh: Jami‘ah al-Imam Muhammad ibn Sa‘ud, 1986), 1:115.
24. Fath al-Bari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: al-Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 15:593.
25. See: al-Shatibi, al-I‘tisam (Amman: al-Dar al-Athariyyah, 2007), 3:46.
26. Muslim, no.1852.
27. Al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 2:30.
28. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 35:175-76.
29. Al-Sayl al-Jarrar (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1985), 4:512.
30. Al-Durar al-Saniyyah fi’l-Ajwibat al-Najdiyyah (n.p., 1995), 9:5.
31. Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa’l-Nihayah (Dar al-Hijr, 1998), 10:580.
32. ibid., 10:581.