The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jihadi-Salafi views of the Islamic State

A man walks past a damaged mosque in Raqqah, eastern Syria, which is controlled by the Islamic State, Nov. 25, 2014. (Nour Fourat/Reuters)

 This post is part of the “Islamist Politics in the Shadow of the Islamic State” symposium.

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

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

The alternative to IS that Jihadi-Salafis come up with in their debates about founding an Islamic state is therefore not principally different, but only procedurally. Salafi ideas on state building in general only diverge from those espoused by the supporters of IS in the details. Despite the fierce criticism that Salafis of various types level against IS, they actually resemble one another quite a lot with regard to state building. Still, the rise of IS has made clear to Jihadi-Salafis that for an Islamic state to work, it needs the support of the people, who must be ready and willing to tolerate such a project. This makes the propagation of Islam (dawa) as a means of preparing people for the ultimate goal of Islamic statehood all the more necessary. Although some Jihadi-Salafis have recognised this for some time, quietist Salafis have taken this long-term approach for decades. As such, the rise of IS may have contributed to a greater realization among Jihadi-Salafis that founding an Islamic state requires sustained efforts and is no sinecure.

Salafis, defined as the Sunni Muslims who claim to emulate the first three generations of Muslims as closely and in as many spheres of life as possible, do not have very detailed views on how to build a state. This is partly because of the position they have in society: if one limits oneself to quietist Salafis and Jihadi-Salafis, it becomes clear that the former stay away from direct political involvement (e.g., parliamentary participation, demonstrations or other contentious political action) altogether and, instead, simply want to focus on studying and teaching the message of Islam. Their apolitical focus on dawa, which is the feature that causes me to call them “quietists,” makes Islamic state building irrelevant to them for the moment and postpones taking action in this regard to an indefinite point in the future.

For Jihadi-Salafis, however, the idea of an Islamic state is quite important and directly applicable as their efforts are geared toward this in the short term. Jihadi-Salafis’ excommunication (takfir) of the rulers of the Muslim world as apostates (murtaddun) and unbelievers (kuffar) and their contention that jihad may thus be waged against them, which I see as Jihadi-Salafis’ defining feature, makes Islamic state building a real and relevant issue to them. Yet Jihadi-Salafis also lack detailed views on how to set up an Islamic state, precisely because they believe they first need to get rid of all the “apostate” regimes ruling the Muslim world. Their alternatives to the Muslim world’s current rulers therefore mostly go no further than “Islam” or “the application of the sharia,” as if such solutions are self-evident and will simply work themselves out.

Despite the diversity among quietist Salafis, they share a refusal to become involved in contentious politics: whatever their activities, they are never subversive or working actively in opposition to the ruler. Either through their implicit approval of the regime by shunning political activism or their explicit agreement with the ruler by rubber stamping decisions, quietists support their rulers. The only active political involvement one could ascribe to them is their willingness to counsel the ruler through discrete and private advice (nasiha). This does not mean that quietists believe politics to be alien to Islam. On the contrary, quietist Salafis see politics as an integral part of their religion. However, they view today’s societies as not yet ready for a truly Islamic state, which is one reason they stress the need for dawa. Society needs to be prepared and educated for the Islamic state that will eventually come.

The quietist attitude toward politics, regimes and an Islamic state seems far removed from that of Jihadi-Salafis and, in a sense, it is. The latter strive for setting up an Islamic state from the top down by declaring the rulers of Muslim countries to be kuffar for their alleged unwillingness to apply Islamic law in full and their often friendly military, political and economic ties with non-Muslim countries, which Jihadi-Salafis describe as an illegitimate form of loyalty (wala) to unbelief (kufr). The opposite of this loyalty – disavowal (bara) – cannot be expressed in a more explicit way than through jihad. The “man-made laws” (qawanin wadiyya) and the illegitimate loyalty of “apostate” Muslim rulers must therefore be countered by jihad to topple these regimes and set up Islamic ones in their stead. Although Jihadi-Salafi scholars often do not actively call upon their followers to wage jihad against regimes in the Muslim world everywhere and all the time, they do believe that such a revolutionary strategy – though perhaps not always wise – is legitimate in principle. As such, the way to achieve an Islamic state as espoused by Jihadi-Salafis – the violent overthrow of existing regimes – could not be further removed from the obedience and advice to rulers promoted by quietist Salafis.

Although the way to get to an Islamic state may be quite different in quietist and Jihadi-Salafi circles, the end result is not. Both believe in an Islamic state about which little more is known than that it should be led by a pious Muslim leader who, as a shepherd (rai), will guide his flock (raiyya) by means of his just rule, through which everything will then presumably fall into place. Such ideas have long been part of Islam and have been expressed by prominent medieval scholars such as al-Mawardi, Ibn Jama‘a and Ibn Taymiyya, for whom subservience to the pious ruler was of paramount importance. Both quietist and Jihadi-Salafis agree that such a situation has not been reached yet, but that it should be attainable in the future. The concrete idea of an ideal Islamic state – a state with a pious Muslim ruler guiding the Muslim community (umma) by means of the just application of the sharia – is thus no different for quietist and Jihadi-Salafis. The fact that the latter believe this can only be achieved through Islamically inspired revolution and quietists contend that rulers can be advised and nudged into the direction of this ideal does not fundamentally alter their shared view of what an Islamic state should look like.

Similarly, Salafi views on state building among both quietists and Jihadi-Salafis rely on concepts that date back to the time of the different Islamic caliphates and pivot around the position of the leader. Although the history of Islam shows that the caliph was not always the ultimate leader over Muslims because, in practice, local rulers or sultans often usurped his power, in theory the caliph did enjoy his subjects’ loyalty, which was expressed through baya. Ideally, the caliph was appointed on the basis of consultation (shura) by the ahl al-hall wa-l-aqd, a vaguely defined group of notable scholars. Although these terms are hundreds of years old, are derived from a system of governance that no longer exists and all revolve around the person of the caliph, they are nevertheless the definite means of achieving an Islamic state in the eyes of Salafis. For quietists, such concepts may not be directly relevant right now for reasons explained above, but they nevertheless accept these notions as deciding factors in appointing a caliph just as much as Jihadi-Salafis do. This not only shows that quietists and Jihadi-Salafis are quite alike in terms of their views on state building, but also that their criticism of IS regarding this subject uses the very same concepts and has not produced a theory on how to set up an Islamic state that is fundamentally different from that of their nemesis.

Joas Wagemakers is an assistant professor and a post-doctoral research fellow of Islamic Studies at Radboud University Nijmegen. He is the author of “A Quietist Jihadi: The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi” (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and co-editor of “The Transmission and Dynamics of the Textual Sources of Islam: Essays in Honour of Harald Motzki” (Brill, 2011). He is a regular contributor to