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date: 28 March 2017

The Evolution of Modern Jihadism

Summary and Keywords

Political Islam has generated two ideological strands that use religious ideology to advance their goals, namely, Islamism and jihadism. On the one hand, Islamists have formulated a political paradigm premised on Islamic teachings that are adaptable to the secular framework of the modern state and have, therefore, endured both as domestic and global political actors. On the other hand, jihadis have rejected positive law outright and advanced a global revolutionary paradigm against today’s secular world order. Key to jihadism’s appropriation of Islamic teachings is a quest for a legal code that provides jihadis with both an anti-establishment justification for their violence and a claim to legitimacy in the minds of Muslims whom they wish to enlist as their followers.

Keywords: political Islam, Islamism, jihadism, positive law (al-qawanin al-wad‘iyya), defensive jihad (jihad al-daf‘), offensive jihad (jihad al-talab), extremism (ghuluw), takfir, al-Qa‘ida, the Islamic State.

In June 2014, and in a statement entitled “This is God’s Promise” (cf. Qur’an 24:55), Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, the spokesman of the jihadi Iraq-based group, proclaimed the establishment of the Islamic State (IS). He also announced that the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was elected by its Shura Council to the office of caliph. The new name, the “Islamic State,” saw the dropping of geographical references to Iraq and the Levant, projecting a universal vision in the form of a caliphate—the historical political institution uniting the global community of Muslims (umma) prior to the emergence of the modern nation-state.1 Al-Baghdadi’s lineage to the Quraysh tribe was established by al-‘Adnani,2 since a Qurashi descent is a necessary criterion to qualify for the office of caliph, according to most classical Sunni scholars.3 Thus, when in July 2014 al-Baghdadi accepted his election to “caliph,” he saw himself to be delivering on the promise toward which jihadis have been struggling for decades, namely, the establishment of a caliphate (Islamic state) that would unite Muslims worldwide. Yet not all jihadis welcomed the news, and some deemed the declaration to be preposterous. While some may consider the caliphate to be the culmination of jihadism and have pledged allegiance (baya) to al-Baghdadi, a significant number of jihadis are embarrassed by it and consider it to be unlawful, not least al-Qa‘ida, the group that once preoccupied the attention of the counter terrorism community.

If establishing an Islamic state where God’s Law reigns supreme is the goal of jihadism, why should the proclamation of a caliphate not win the approval of all jihadis? A key reason is related to the fact that the ideological universe of jihadism is premised on a paradigm that is not conducive to compromise. It is marred by different and differing opinions that have rent jihadis and prevented them from achieving a unified front. When jihadism is examined in the broader context of political Islam, the trend shows that religious ideologies that can adapt to secular (positive) law are likely to endure, whereas those that do not are vulnerable to internal fissures. For example, Islamists have formulated a political paradigm premised on Islamic teachings that are adaptable to the secular framework of the modern state and have, therefore, endured both as domestic and global political actors. Jihadis, however, have rejected positive law outright and advanced a global revolutionary paradigm against today’s secular world order. Key to jihadism’s appropriation of Islamic teachings is a quest for a legal code that provides jihadis with both an anti-establishment justification for their violence and a claim to legitimacy in the minds of Muslims whom they wish to enlist as their followers.

An examination of the evolution of jihadism in the context of the broader sphere of political Islam will highlight the jihadis’ ideological differences with Islamists, their rejection of positive law, and their appropriation of the classical doctrine of jihad. It will also show how the jihadis’ rigid religious ideology is prone to internal fissures and extremism (ghuluw), as illustrated by the split between IS and al-Qa‘ida.

Islam as a Global Political Force

In the modern period, the division of the world along distinct territorial lines brought with it promises of political independence, dignity, and equality under international law. But for many in Muslim-majority states, the autocratic systems that developed did not yield the same opportunities that their counterparts in the West generally enjoyed. Thus, the heirs to a global and rich civilization came to perceive themselves as disenfranchised by the modern world, first through colonialism and then through the world order of nation-states. A powerful and enduring response took the form of the deployment of Islam as a political force in order to bring about political change. This began as a reformist-oriented development championed by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1837–1897) in the 19th century; by the 20th century it had unfolded into a global political movement with the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna (1906–1949).4

The worldview that al-Banna promoted was based on Islamic teachings expressed in modernizing terms. As with modern thinkers elsewhere, he sought to reform the social and political spheres, but he argued that religion has to play a central role in that process. His modernizing orientation, influenced in part by modern European political thinkers, led him to interpret the Qur’an as a revelation that calls for, among other things, the “brotherhood of man,” the “advancement for men and women together,” and “stipulating the right to life, property, work, health, freedom, education, and security for every member.”5 Yet while Enlightenment thinkers sought to create a political sphere outside the dictates of religion, al-Banna sought the opposite. The political vocabulary he articulated merged the religious and political spheres into one. He argued that “Islam is worship and leadership, religion and state, spirituality and action, prayer and jihad, obedience and rule, Book and sword. The last two cannot be untied from each other.”6

Several political implications emerged as a result of the spread of what has been termed Islamist politics, or what Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori called “Muslim politics,” to describe the “forms of political contest and discourse” that invoke “ideas and symbols, which Muslims in different contexts identify as ‘Islamic.’”7 Two key implications are worth highlighting. The first concerns popularizing the interpretation of Islamic scriptures, for al-Banna’s teachings paved the way for his “brethren” to search for the meanings of religious texts on their own, without necessarily consulting “the clerical classes.”8 Traditional religious authorities were therefore sidelined.

The second implication concerns the emphasis on the importance of jihad, in its classical understanding,9 as a military institution necessary for political success in today’s world. Al-Banna argued that historically, the political dignity of Muslims was upheld only when they took the obligation of jihad seriously. This, he held, they managed to accomplish “throughout every period of their history before the present period of oppression in which their dignity has come to its end.”10 Thus, whereas the modern state sought to lay claim to the “monopoly of legitimate physical violence within a particular territory,”11as stated by Max Weber, al-Banna’s teachings did not limit the legitimacy of exercising violence to the modern state. Religion, and therefore the conscience of the believer, could render violence and jihad legitimate. Notwithstanding the radicalism that might be engendered by such teachings, they were not intended to remove the Muslim world from the community of nations. Rather, the spirit underlying these teachings is a product of al-Banna’s time, the decolonization era that saw the success of many colonies achieving independence through a variety of means, including political violence and terrorism.12

Thus, the global Islamist movement that came to embody the teachings of al-Banna (and other like-minded ideologues) proved to be capable of adapting to the political processes of the modern nation-state, including electoral processes. For example, although al-Banna aspired for “the Islamic fatherland [that it] be freed from all foreign domination” so that “a free Islamic state may arise in this free fatherland,”13 he did not consider modern nationhood and elections to be contrary to Islamic teachings. Indeed, in 1945, he himself contested elections in Egypt and was defeated in what is considered to be a “dishonest” election.14

Beyond Egypt, the teachings of the MB have served as the fountainhead of Islamist groups in Muslim-majority states. These groups adopted the banner of “Islam as the solution” to advance their political platforms, and they eventually formed political parties, contesting nationalist elections and therefore embracing the legitimacy of the modern nation-state. In essence, Islamism formulated a political paradigm premised on Islamic teachings that are adaptable to the secular framework of the modern state. The religious–secular combination is central to Islamism’s endurance both as a domestic and global political actor. As will become evident, this combination is absent in the paradigm put forward by jihadis.

Jihad as a Global Political Force

Some of those who believed that Islam should play a role in the political sphere became disillusioned when Islamists failed to bring about political change in their respective countries and autocracies continued to reign in many Muslim-majority states. They thus formulated a new vision of religious activism, a vision that rejects the legitimacy of the international modern order that divides the world into nation-states. At the heart of this new vision is an uncompromising commitment to jihad: the conviction that it is the only solution to bring about genuine political change that will rid Muslims of dictators. They declared themselves to be the “jihadi vanguards” (al-tali‘a al-mujahida) in order to denote their commitment to jihad as a form of religious struggle in the exclusive service of God.15 Further, they distinguished their jihad from that of Islamist groups (e.g., the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hizbullah) that invoke the term in a manner that is synonymous with “resistance” (muqawama) in the service of pursuing nationalist causes.16

The jihadis did not call for jihad in a Clausewitz sense as if it is “a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means,”17 because they reject the legitimacy of the political intercourse itself. They extend this illegitimacy to international organizations that are meant to promote neutrally the human rights of all, such as the United Nations. Such organizations, the jihadis believe, serve the interests of the West at the expense of Muslims’ basic rights. In the words of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor as the leader of al-Qa‘ida, the West “sings [the praises of] ʻhuman rightsʼ and ʻlibertiesʼ—as long as such singing serves its interests and benefits it.”18 He points out that the United States has no qualms sending “prisoners from Guantánamo and Baghram to Egypt and Jordan so that they are tortured by the same regimes that America supposedly calls on to respect human rights.”19 Jihadi literature that justifies jihadism as part of a grievance narrative is littered with similar factual examples.

The Rejection of Positive Law (al-qawanin al-wad‘iyya)

The genuine social, economic, and political grievances from which many Muslims suffer and to which the jihadis point furnish them with justifications to reject completely the positive, or secular, law (al-qawanin al-wad‘iyya), be it domestic or international. Accordingly, the religious paradigm within which jihadis frame their worldview is necessarily outside of positive law and cannot recognize the legitimacy of any of the political processes concomitant with it, such as the formation of political parties and the contesting of elections.

Those like the Islamists who want to combine Islamic teachings with positive law and embrace the democratic process are not simply dismissed by jihadis as those who pursue “half-solutions” (ansaf al-hulul), but they are accused of “diverting the youth’s Islamic fervor from the path of jihad against the idols into the [useless] path of conferences and elections.”20 For those who contemplate reform by running for office, Bin Laden warns that democracy is a “deceptive idea,”21 pointing to examples when Islamist parties won the elections but were prevented from ruling, such as when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) party of Algeria was prevented from governing when it won the election in 1991,22 and when the international community boycotted the Islamist Palestinian party Hamas after it won the elections in 2006 al-Jazeera.23 Al-Zawahiri, who had long criticized the Muslim Brotherhood for having forsaken jihad, had even harsher things to say when the MB was removed from office in July 2013 by the Egyptian military. The MB, he opined, lost both its religious principles and its right to govern.24 Other jihadis express their contempt for democracy in strictly religious terms, arguing that it is a form of religion, and therefore Muslims practicing democracy are in violation of their profession of tawhid (divine unity).25 Since the latter position allows no room for positive law, it has become the standard explanation that jihadis cite to denounce the democratic process in favor of jihad, even though this rigid religious position does not account for the range of motivations that underpin jihadism’s rejection of democracy.

What, then, is the jihadi alternative? The jihadis want to repeat Islam’s military successes through jihad in the premodern period. In their minds, if they commit to jihad as the early Muslims did, God would grant them the same success he granted their ancestors.26 Through jihad in His path, they hold, they would ultimately establish a global, invincible state (caliphate) whose legitimacy is premised on God’s Law (shar‘).Unlike the modern state, which the jihadis consider to be illegitimate and unjust because it is premised on positive law (al-qawanin wad‘iyya), the divine legitimacy of their state, they argue, would deliver what man-made law cannot, namely, true justice. Drawing on the parlance of an early Companion of the Prophet Muhammad (Rab‘i b. ‘Amir), the jihadis describe their objective as that intended to “deliver humankind from worshipping [the unjust laws enacted by] human beings to worshipping the Lord of humans [by obeying His Law].”27 However, the jihadis differ as to whether priority should be given to jihad against existing (unlawful) states or to establishing a state of their own.

The outright rejection of positive law has been both a source of strength and weakness for jihadism. On the one hand, this rejection asserts jihadism’s claim to a global project, thereby utilizing religion in the service of transcending the exclusive borders of the modern state in order to mobilize Muslims (and converts) to take up jihad against the world order. Under the universalism of the Islamic religion, belonging is not premised on acquiring citizenship in a state but, rather, on a brotherhood and sisterhood through loyalty to and love of God (cf. Q. 49:10). The jihadis draw on the religious concepts of wala’ and bara’ to define the parameters of loyalty.28 Wala’ refers to the loyalty that jihadis must have toward those who, like them, love God’s friends and hate His enemies; bara’ refers to those from whom jihadis must dissociate because they have compromised God’s Law. In principle, these parameters provide jihadis with a “global contract” inclusive of Muslims and converts from any state (East and West), and it also protects the jihadi project by excluding non-Muslims and Muslims who are not committed to the same principles. One al-Qa‘ida operative, native to the Comoros Islands, compares the inclusivity of the group’s ideology to that which Muslims experience during the Hajj. Describing his experience in al-Qa‘ida’s training camps, he relates:

Al-Qa‘ida is interested in [advancing] the interests of Muslims, such that those from the Gulf, Egyptians, Yemenis, Pakistanis, Libyans, Algerians, Palestinians, Somalis, Bengalis, Mauritanians, Moroccans, Lebanese [and others] all work under the same roof, follow the same path under a single direction . . . [W]e were all holding different nationalities, [yet united] in one groupFadil Harun.29

On the other hand, by asserting that jihadism is irreconcilable with positive law, religious legitimacy is bent in favor of those who are closest to the literal interpretation of Scriptures, putting literalism ahead of strategic considerations that may benefit the community.

This tension has been divisive within jihadism. Those who seek a religious solution for what they consider to be intractable political problems tend to be more pragmatic and want to avoid extremism (ghuluw) in interpreting religious texts. They thus emphasize the value of wala’ to expand the pool of jihadis. However, those for whom religious commitment is conditioned by a sectarian disposition stress the value of bara’ to purify the group from any perceived infidelity. For some, bara’ is not even sufficient, and they resort to takfir, declaring fellow Muslims to be unbelievers, a pronouncement that, according to some classical legal scholars, makes it lawful to shed the blood of the accused.30 In Islamic, including jihadi, parlance, takfir represents extremism that serves to divide rather than unite Muslims, and it is to be avoided. However, for the most part, those who make takfir pronouncements do not consider themselves extremists; rather, they consider it as the last but necessary resort. In other words, no jihadi group calls itself “takfiri”; instead, it is a label used against jihadis by some of their non-jihadi opponents, and it is also used in intra-jihadi disputes. These kinds of disputes have led to the split between IS and al-Qa‘ida. Al-Qa‘ida declared its dissociation from IS because of the infighting that it was causing among jihadis,31 while IS deemed al-Qa‘ida to have deviated from the true path of Islam for failing, among other things, to declare takfir against the Shi‘ites and to wage war against non-jihadi groups in Syria.32

The Jihadis’ Discourse on Jihad

To appreciate the jihadis’ framework and what sets it apart from other groups using Islam as part of their political platform, one needs to understand the logic of the jihadis’ political rationale to adopt jihad as part of a broader religious paradigm. Examining the jihadis’ worldview through a political lens, one finds that they would all agree on three points, namely: (1) that the Muslim world is run by dictators who usurp the rights of Muslims and “hide the truth and spread falsehood”;33 (2) that Western democracies support these dictators; therefore, engendering reform from within, including through democracy, is futile; and (3) that jihad is the only solution available to Muslims who seek true justice in this world.

The violent jihad advocated by jihadi ideologues and leaders should be understood not simply as a domestic challenge internal to some Muslim-majority states, as if it is an insurgency or guerilla warfare. Rather, while jihadism may draw on different forms of political violence, including terrorism, it should also be understood as a global revolutionary paradigm against today’s secular world order. This paradigm is premised on teachings from the classical Islamic corpus, predating the modern nation-state, and thereby granting jihadis a claim to legitimacy outside that which is promulgated by today’s international law. As such, jihadism draws on a vocabulary that once served as part of the Pax Islamica discourse, when Islamic law covered the individual realm as well as the collective political realm, including the law of war. In doing so, jihadis are not simply seeking to be faithful to classical Islamic law; they also want to appropriate some of its components in order to address modern political problems. At the heart of their appropriation is a quest for a legal code that would provide them with an anti-establishment justification for their violence and, at the same time, with a claim to legitimacy in the minds of the Muslims whom they wish to enlist as their followers.

As a prelude to the jihadis’ appropriation of the classical legal theory of jihad, one should appreciate the basic components of the theory itself in its premodern context. Like Christianity, Islam brought a universal message to humankind. Also, like Christianity, Islam initially envisaged a universal peace that could be achieved once the whole of humankind adhered to its faith. The classical Islamic legal discourse conceived of a bipolar division of the world; the first was the “territory of Islam” (dar al-Islam), consisting of Islamic and non-Islamic communities that accepted Islamic sovereignty, while the second was the “territory of war” (dar al-harb), consisting of the rest of the world.34 Majid Khadduri, the late, great scholar of comparative and international jurisprudence, observed that when jihad did not succeed in bringing world peace either by conquering the whole world or by converting all of humanity to Islam, Muslim jurists developed the concept of “siyar,” or the “law of nations.” It consisted of elaborate rules and legal norms governing the peaceful or hostile relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, reflecting the Muslims’ concern with maintaining political stability among nations.35

The classical legal theory of warfare envisaged two types of jihad, offensive (jihad al-talab) and defensive (jihad al-daf‘). The former was designed for expansionist purposes to spread the territory of Islam; as such, it necessitated the authority of a legitimate ruler who is meant to be waging war from the vantage point of military strength. Further, it was considered to be a “collective obligation” (fard kifaya) upon Muslims, meaning that if some qualified Muslims could carry out this obligation, it ceased to be incumbent upon all. Muslims volunteering for offensive jihad needed to meet specific criteria, in terms of their age, gender (male), sanity, finances, and family responsibilities.36 Unlike the elaborate stipulations governing offensive jihad, defensive jihad was defined as a “call to arms” (nafir ‘amm), thereby dropping all stipulations. It was designed to take effect under times of military weakness, when Islamic territory is invaded. Under those circumstances, jihad becomes an individual obligation (fard ‘ayn) incumbent upon every Muslim, regardless of age, gender, or financial circumstances.

With the emergence of the modern state system, the Muslim world “reconciled itself completely to the Western secular system,” in the words of Khadduri; even those who continued to insist on Islamic law governing domestic affairs “accepted marked departures from the law and traditional practices which governed external relations.”37 Thus, just as Pax Christiana gave way to the territorial modern state, so did Pax Islamica. In effect, while some Muslim-majority states continue to rely on certain aspects of Islamic law to govern the private sphere of their citizens, by becoming members of the UN these states surrendered their rights to invoke Islamic law, including jihad, in their external relations. Indeed, they have recognized that the UN Charter requires all of its member states to “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” (Article 2:4).

In modern legal parlance, the offensive feature of jihad and holy war as conceived by Muslims and Christian legal jurists in the premodern period is illegal; and the law of jihad as a military doctrine is no more part of a Muslim’s religion than holy war is part of a Christian’s articles of faith. Not all believers, however, agree with such distinctions or even understand their modern legal implications in the context of international law. In the case of most observing Muslims, including jihadis, Islamic law, with its law of jihad, is divine law, based in part on the Qur’an—God’s revelation to Muhammad, and on the Hadith—the corpus that comprises what is considered to be Muhammad’s perfect example (al-uswa al-hasana), both in words and in deeds. While most observing Muslims do not take it upon themselves to pursue the legal intricacies of Islamic law, the radically inclined tend to search for legal justifications for militancy. Jihadi ideologues take it upon themselves to do the research and to package it in abridged format for the jihadi masses to consume.

Defensive Jihad (jihad al-daf‘)

How, then, do jihadi ideologues appropriate the classical legal doctrine of jihad? Jihadi ideologues have developed elaborate reasoning to justify that their jihad is defensive, and for this reason, they hold, jihad is the obligation of every true Muslim.

The claim that jihadis are engaged in defensive jihad has served as the engine of global jihad. The Egyptian engineer Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj, who was executed in 1982 for his role in the assassination of the Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat, provided one of the earliest articulations of modern defensive jihad. In his treatise The Neglected Duty (al-farida al-gha’iba), he argued that the political landscape in which Muslims find themselves today is one of defensive warfare, thereby making jihad the individual obligation of every Muslim. Although the invasion of Islamic territory is what invokes defensive jihad according to the classical legal doctrine, Faraj contended that the Muslim world today cannot be considered an abode of Islam, for it is ruled by those who “are in apostasy from Islam”; they “were raised at the tables of imperialism” and serve as agents of imperialism.38 He declared them to be the “near enemy” (al-‘aduw al-qarib), and removing them through jihad, he held, ought to be the priority of Muslims. This, he explained, should take precedence over fighting against the far enemy (al-‘aduw al-ba‘id), by which he meant Israel and Western countries supporting Muslim dictators. In his words:

With regard to the lands of Islam, the enemy lives right in the middle of them. The enemy even has got hold of the reins of power, for this enemy is [none other than] these rulers who have [illegally] seized the leadership of the Muslims. Therefore, waging jihad against them is an individual duty, in addition to the fact that Islamic jihad today requires a drop of sweat from every Muslim . . . Know that when jihad is an individual duty, there is no [need to] ask permission of [your] parents to leave to wage jihad, as the jurists have said; it is thus similar to prayer and fasting.39

Faraj’s idea was given a transnational dimension when the Palestinian- born ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam developed it into a legal opinion (fatwa) and put it in the service of mobilizing Muslims, particularly Arabs, to join the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. ‘Azzam’s fatwa drew on the classical legal doctrine to justify that jihad today is defensive and is, therefore, the individual obligation of all Muslims. Echoing Faraj’s treatise, ‘Azzam asserted that “one of the most important duties to have been neglected and obligations to have been forgotten is the duty of jihad, which has been absent from the reality of Muslims, such that they have become a deluge of scums (ghutha’ al-sail).”40 Following the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan, he argued, jihad became the individual obligation of every Muslim. More so than Faraj, ‘Azzam used the classical legal theory to mobilize Muslim youth to take up jihad without their parents’ permission, a stipulation required under offensive jihad:

The permission of [one’s parents, spouse, and creditors] is to be sought if the enemy is not on Muslim soil. If, however, the enemy attacks a port or enters into a Muslim town, jihad . . . becomes an individual obligation [fard ‘ayn], incumbent upon the people of that town, and the people in the surrounding towns. In such a case, [the requirement] to seek permission becomes void and the traditional authority structures cease to apply [la idhna li-ahadin ‘ala ahad]. Accordingly, a boy is permitted to go out to fight without his father’s permission, a wife without the permission of her husband, and he who is in debt without the permission of his creditor. This situation [i.e., the suspension of traditional authority structures] continues until the removal of the enemy from Muslim land or until enough people are gathered to undertake this task, even if it requires that all Muslims from across the world need to gather and remove the enemy.41

During the 1980s and 1990s, the doctrine of defensive jihad served as the legal justification for foreign fighters, who saw themselves as émigrés (muhajirun), emulating the early Muslims who believed in the message that Muhammad brought forth and who abandoned their homes in Mecca and emigrated with him to Medina where he established the first Muslim community (jama‘a). Afghanistan and Pakistan served as an arena for training many Muslims who answered the call of jihad. Some believed that they had an obligation to train in preparation for jihad (i‘dad); others considered that they had an obligation to undertake emigration (hijra) and stay on to fight. Guesthouses were set up in Peshawar to process the émigrés,42 and to move them into the appropriate training camps before taking up jihad on the battlefield.

Groups like al-Qa‘ida, whose agenda was to expand jihad beyond Afghanistan, eagerly appropriated the legal doctrine of defensive jihad in order to mobilize Muslims to join the “caravan of jihadis,” as ‘Azzam put it.43 Following 9/11 and the loss of Afghanistan as a base where groups could operate in the open, jihadi ideologues became more creative with their appropriation of the doctrine of defensive jihad. They have further developed the theory in order to radicalize Muslims and give them the legal tools to engage in jihad on their own or as part of small cells when they are unaffiliated with a jihadi group. This simplified theory may be traced back to the jihadi strategist Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri,44 who argued that the jihadi vanguards should not preoccupy themselves with organizing a movement; instead, they should focus on organizing the “idea of jihad” (tanzim al-fikra) to be taken up by Muslims on their own, just as they would organize themselves to perform their “religious duties of prayer and almsgiving.”45

In 2011, a variation on the same theme was developed, this time called “individualized jihad” (al-jihad al-fardi). The new iteration brought together excerpts from public statements made by several jihadi leaders who sought additional legal justifications for diversifying militant activities and to “serve the greater jihadi project.”46 The leaders stressed that individualized jihad is not a substitute for the conventional individual obligation of defensive jihad; rather, it is lawful when the believer cannot get to an arena of jihad and resides in, or is able to reach, enemy countries where jihadi groups may not have a presence or cannot act in a coordinated fashion. The publication was entitled “La Tukallafu illa Nafsaka,” evoking a Qur’anic verse that calls on the believer to “oblige not any to what is difficult, except thyself” (Q. 4:84).47 This is meant to suggest that when the situation is difficult, the believer should fight for God’s religion, even if it means doing so on his own and without the assistance of others.

Jihadi Disunity

Jihad, be it defensive or individualized, has given an unpredictable edge to global jihadism. But just as “the winds do not always blow in the direction that the ship [captain] desires” (as one popular Arabic poem goes), jihad has not always served the objectives of all jihadi groups. Two key consequences have resulted; the first has to do with disunity among jihadis in relation to their activities, and the second concerns infighting among jihadis.

On the level of activities, the threat emanating from the unpredictable edge of jihad has not always been coordinated or authorized by the groups in whose name jihadi operations were mounted. Fadil Harun (d. 2011),48 the al-Qa‘ida operative cited previously, considers the generation of fanatical jihadis who act in the name of al-Qa‘ida but do not follow its ideology as the “”49 He holds that “the original al-Qa‘ida,” by which he means the organization that was under the leadership of Bin Laden, should be distinguished from regional jihadi groups acting in its name. He insists that most of the attacks mounted by jihadis following the 9/11 attacks “lack the authorization of Sheikh Osama or the central leadership of al-Qa`ida.”50

Harun’s public account is corroborated by declassified private communications between al-Qa‘ida leaders. One of the declassified letters authored by a certain “Sheikh Yunis” and addressed to Bin Laden and captured in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, warns of fanatical “brothers” who claim affiliation with al-Qa`ida but are a liability to its strategy. Yunis reminds Bin Laden that “you experienced this problem [firsthand] in Peshawar [in the 1980s] and you [also] saw its outcome in [Algeria].”51 Bin Laden himself was equally alarmed; some of his declassified letters reveal the concerns he had about “the mistakes of the jihadis” that “distorted the image of the jihadis in the eyes of the umma’s general public and separated them from their popular bases.”52 Private communiqués available in the open-source realm show that as jihadi groups got weaker or were prevented from mounting sophisticated operations, unaffiliated jihadis (e.g., Fort Hood, Texas, 2009; Boston Marathon, 2013; Charlie Hebdo bombings, Paris, 2015), inspired by jihadi groups and/or ideologues, have taken up the torch on an individual basis.

On the level of infighting among jihadis, since believers have an individual obligation to take up jihad and defend the faith, doctrinal disagreements have served as a recipe for bloody divisions or sedition (fitna). The public dispute between al-Qa‘ida and IS is not unique to jihadism. Harun describes Peshawar as the place that welcomed jihadis to fight against the Soviets and also as a place “lit with internal strife [fitna] and divisive and destructive ideas to Islam.” 53 Many zealots, he relates, did not hesitate to declare takfir against fellow Muslims, lamenting that the “takfiris” were obsessed with rejecting the religious credentials of jihadi leaders, including Bin Laden, who were not sufficiently religious in their eyes.54 He claims that in 1992, two takfiris attempted to assassinate two al-Qa‘ida leaders, Abu ‘Ubayda al-Banshiri and Abu Hafs al-Misri, in Miranshah, North Waziristan,55 and other takfiris even attempted to assassinate Bin Laden in Sudan in 1994.56 Other writings by jihadi ideologues suggest that some jihadis refused to fight alongside the Taliban, deeming some of their religious practices, such as performing prayer at a cemetery, a form of association with God’s divine unity (shirk), and therefore accusing them of kufr (unbelief).57

Given their geographical spread, combined with the expansion of media resources to which the jihadis have availed themselves, public disagreements between IS and al-Qa‘ida are highlighting disunity among jihadis more so than ever. There is a plethora of disagreements voiced on both sides, but the key one concerns whether the caliphate that was proclaimed in June 2014 is a legitimate political entity and, by consequence, whether its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is a lawful caliph. Since resorting to elections to determine IS’s legal standing is not a lawful option, according to jihadi ideology, the dispute can only be argued on the basis of Islamic law. When understood at face value and without due attention to context, religious law is bound to favor the zealots. Thus, since all jihadis believe themselves to be fighting to make God’s Law reign supreme, those favoring the establishment of an Islamic state are less likely to be accused of shirking their religious duties than those who wish to postpone it for pragmatic reasons.

The dispute over the caliphate has deeper historical roots and explains the split between al-Qa‘ida and IS. A text believed to have been one of al-Qa‘ida’s founding documents reveals the centrality of jihad to the group’s identity and its broader mission, but it also shows its pragmatic attitude toward other (non-militant) religious duties:

Al-Qa‘ida is an Islamic group and jihad is its path. Jihad is the principal reason that members have joined this group to carry it out, together with observing various other Islamic duties in so far as it is possible. When [jihad and other religious duties] are in conflict, [members of al-Qa‘ida are expected] to give priority to the duty of jihad ahead of other duties.58

The objective of establishing a state is assumed, but it is not one that al-Qa‘ida wanted to invest in. Most likely, its leaders feared that building a state could force them to imitate the injustices of the states they sought to destroy. When in 2010 the jihadi group in Yemen, AQAP (al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula), wanted to declare a state, an al-Qa‘ida leader firmly responded that “[of course] we want [an Islamic state] in which we would establish God’s Law,” but only if “we are capable of holding on to it.”59 It is not wise, he added, to burden the people with pressures that they cannot handle, for that would cause major consequences.60

By contrast, since at least 1999, Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi (d. 2006), the founder of the Iraq-based group that developed into IS, was intent on building a complete social structure (mujtama‘ mutakamil).61 He even contemplated launching his project from Mosul, hoping to replicate the campaign of the military commander Nur al-Din Zangi (d. 1174), who led the movement to liberate Jerusalem and that Saladin (d. 1193) completed.62 Al-Zarqawi’s immediate successor, Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi (d. 2010), declared the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006, and in 2014, his successor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivered Mosul and a larger contiguous territorial state governing in parts of Iraq and Syria; its reign extends globally through its “provinces” (e.g., Libya, Sinai, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Nigeria, etc.).

Soon after al-Qa‘ida admitted al-Zarqawi’s group into its fold (2004),63 al-Zarqawi and his successors’ sectarianism and enmity against the Shi‘ites earned them the critique and at times the wrath of al-Qa‘ida’s leaders in private. But whereas in 2006 the Islamic State of Iraq lacked sufficient strength to threaten the leadership of al-Qa‘ida and other regional jihadi groups, its military successes since 2014 have outshone all other jihadi groups. Should it be a legitimate caliphate in the eyes of the jihadis? According to al-Qa‘ida, as articulated by its leader al-Zawahiri, “we do not recognize this caliphate and we do not consider it to be established on the prophetic model; rather, we consider it to be an Emirate that came to be through usurpation [imarat istila’] and without consultation [bila shura]. [Therefore] it does not [meet the requirements] that would make it necessary for Muslims to pledge allegiance to it; and we do not consider Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi fit for the office of caliph.”64

Al-Zawahiri’s deeper resentment is more political than religious, and he is not mistaken in thinking that the proclamation of the caliphate was meant to usurp the leadership of the jihadis and concentrate it in the hands of al-Baghdadi. For the same statement that proclaimed the caliphate went on to annul the legitimacy of all jihadi groups that do not pledge allegiance to its leader.65 Al-Zawahiri believes that the end state of the jihadis’ sacrifices should not be usurped by one group that does not represent the broader direction of jihadism. A legitimate caliphate, in his mind, is one that allows “the umma [global community of Muslims] to choose its Imam.”66

According to those who support the caliphate, the unity of jihadis is tied to their support of the caliph. Thus, groups that have pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi have been embraced by IS; they have been declared to be its wilayat (provinces).67 Further, IS supporters argue that the caliphates in early Islam, that is, those that all Sunnis consider to have been based on the prophetic model, were not the outcome of consultation that involved the entire umma, let alone all those who were the Prophet’s Companions. Beyond that, they cite Qur’anic verses (e.g., Q. 2:30) and legal texts that argue that establishing a caliphate is a religious obligation Abu ‘Abdallah al-Libi.68 Their opponents contend that it is not an obligation unless it has adequate strength (tamkin) that would enable Muslims to hold onto it and administer the hudud (deterrent penalties for crimes). In response, IS supporters remind their opponents that al-Zawahiri himself had in 2008 supported the Islamic State of Iraq and acknowledged that it had the necessary strength to govern the territory it held at that time.69 Thus, IS supporters continue, when the opportunity presented itself to expand (imtidad) into the Levant, the group took it as their religious obligation to do so.

On Jihadism’s Endurance

For decades, jihadism has sought to undermine the world order of nation-states. Its call on every Muslim to take up jihad as an individual obligation brought into conflict two claims of legitimacy, namely, the modern state’s claim to the monopoly of legitimate violence within its borders and the premodern legal claim to defensive warfare on the basis of religion.

Notwithstanding the threat that jihadism poses to global security, its evolution has shown that its weakness lies within. It was not the United States and its allies that undermined the brand of al-Qa‘ida; it was another jihadi group that eclipsed it. Unless military conditions bring IS’s territorial governance to an end, the group is likely to argue that God is fighting on its side. But the future of jihadism, including that of IS, is destined to feature more extremism (ghuluw) and internal splits. Just as al-Qa‘ida’s rejection of positive law has allowed others to eclipse its claim to religious authenticity and has seen its influence gradually wane, a similar fate may await IS. For the rejection of positive law has limited the jihadis’ ability to reach compromises, leaving them with a religious paradigm that by itself necessarily favors literalism. Whereas the Islamists’ endurance is a result of their ability to bend their ideology when political challenges necessitate it, jihadis do not have that option. Either they will break away (e.g., IS) and pursue a path of more ghuluw to prove their religious credentials until another group in their midst decides that even more extremism is needed, or they will maintain religious pragmatism (e.g., al-Qa‘ida) and risk being marginalized and reduced to public statements.

Further Reading

Ahmed, Shahab. What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Ashour, Omar. The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements. London: Routledge, 2009.Find this resource:

Bonner, Michael. Jihad in Islamic History: Doctrines and Practice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Cockburn, Patrick. The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution. New York and London: Verso, 2015.Find this resource:

Eickelman, Dale F., and Piscatori, James P. Muslim Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Heck, Paul L. “Jihad Revisited.” Journal of Religious Ethics 32.1 (2004): 95–128.Find this resource:

Helmich, Christina. “Creating the Ideology of Al Qaeda: From Hypocrites to Salafi Jihadists.” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 31 (2008): 11–124.Find this resource:

Jansen, Johannes J. G. The Neglected Duty: The Creed of Sadat’s Assassins and Islamic Resurgence in the Middle East. New York: Macmillan, 1986.Find this resource:

Khadduri, Majid. War and Peace in the Law of Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1962.Find this resource:

Lahoud, Nelly. The Jihadis’ Path to Self-Destruction. London and New York: Hurst, 2010.Find this resource:

Lia, Brynjar. Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of al-Qaida Strategist Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Tawil, Camille. Brothers in Arms: The Story of al-Qa‘ida and the Arab Jihadists. London: Saqi, 2011.Find this resource:

Wagemakers, Joas. A Quietist Jihadi: The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Warrick, Joby. Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS. New York: Doubleday, 2015.Find this resource:

Zaman, Muhammad Q. Modern Islamic Thought in a Radical Age: Religious Authority and Internal Criticism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Al-Zayyat, Montasser. The Road to Al-Qaeda: The Story of Bin Laden’s Right-Hand Man. Translated by Ahmed Fekry. London: Pluto Press, 2004.Find this resource:


(1.) Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, “Hadha Wa‘du Allah,” Shabakat Shumukh al-Islam, June 29, 2014. Undoubtedly, the title is meant to echo Qur’an 24:55, hereafter abbreviated as Q. Unless otherwise stated, Arabic translations are by the author.

(2.) Ibid.

(3.) Al-Mawardi, The Ordinances of Government, trans. Wafaa H. Wahba (Reading, UK: Center for Muslim Contribution to Civilization, 1996), 4.

(4.) Hasan al-Banna, Five Tracts of Hasan Al-Banna’ (1906–1949): A Selection from the Majmu‘at Rasa’il al-Imam al-Shahid Hasan al-Banna’, trans. Charles Wendell (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975. See “Introduction” by Wendell, pp. 3–8.

(5.) Al-Banna, “Between Yesterday and Today,” in Five Tracts (as translated by Wendell).

(6.) Hasan al-Banna, Mudhakkarat al-Da‘wa wa-al-Da‘iya (Cairo: Dar al-Shahab, n.d.), 145.

(7.) Dale F. Eickelman and James P. Piscatori, Muslim Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 4.

(8.) Al-Banna, “Between Yesterday and Today,” p. 34 (as translated by Wendell).

(9.) Majid Khadduri, “Introduction,” The Islamic Law of Nations: Shaybani’s Siyar (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1966), 1–22.

(10.) Al-Banna, “On Jihad,” in Five Tracts, pp. 150–151 (as translated by Wendell).

(11.) Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” in The Vocation Lectures, ed. David Owen and Tracy B. Strong, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2004), 33.

(12.) On the success of terrorism during the decolonization “wave,” see David C. Rapoport, “The Four Waves of Modern Terrorism,” in Attacking Terrorism: Elements of a Grand Strategy, ed. Audrey Kurth Cronin and James M. Ludes (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2004), 46–73.

(13.) Al-Banna, “Between Yesterday and Today,” p. 31 (as translated by Wendell with minor amendment).

(14.) Richard Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 26–33.

(15.) Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Wala’ wa-al-Bara’: ‘Aqida Manqula wa-Waqi‘ Mafqud, in ed. ‘Abd al-Rahim ‘Ali, Hilf al-Irhab: Tanzim al-Qa‘ida (Cairo: Markaz al-Mahrusa, 2004), 77.

(16.) Abu Yahya al-Libi, “Jihad aw Muqawama,” Minbar al-Tawhid wa-al-Jihad. The reader should note that this website, which hosts many jihadi ideological treatises, some of which are referred to in this piece, does not function at all times.

(17.) Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981), 531. It should be noted that jihadis have drawn on the writings of military strategists such as Clausewitz, Mao Zedong, Che Guevara, and others. See, for example, Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri, “The Global Islamic Resistance Call,” in Architect of Global Jihad: the Life of al-Qaida Strategist Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri, ed. Brynjar Lia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 373. See also Michael W. S. Ryan, Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 9–14.

(18.) Ayman al-Zawahiri, interview with al-Sahab, conducted four years after the attacks of 9/11, Minbar al-Tawhid wa-al-Jihad.

(19.) Ibid.

(21.) Osama bin Laden, “Among a Band of Knights,” in Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, by Osama Bin Laden, ed. Bruce Lawrence, and trans. James Howarth (London and New York: Verso, 2005), 191.

(22.) Osama bin Laden, “To the Americans,” in Messages to the World, p. 169.

(23.) The Arabic audiotape was released on April 3, 2006, and may be accessed on al-Jazeera.

(24.) Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Sanam al-‘Ajwa al-Dimuqratiyya,” Shabakat al-Fida’, August 2013.

(25.) Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, “al-Dimuqratiyya Din,” Minbar al-Tawhid wa-al-Jihad.

(26.) For the military successes of the early Muslims, see Robert G. Hoyland, In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), in particular, pp. 8–65.

(27.) Sayf al-‘Adl, “Tajribati Ma‘ Abi Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi,” Minbar al-Tawhid wa-al-Jihad.

(28.) On the earliest meanings and usage of wala’ and bara’ in Islam, see Wilferd Madelung, Religious Trends in Early Islamic Iran (Albany: Persian Heritage Foundation, 1988), 55.

(29.) Fadil Harun, al-Harb ‘ala al-Islam: Qissat Fadil Harun, Vol. 1, p. 95.

(30.) Nelly Lahoud, The Jihadis’ Path to Self-Destruction (London and New York: Hurst, 2010), 20–26.

(31.) Tanzim Qa‘idat al-Jihad—al-Qiyada al-‘Amma, “Bayan bi-Sha’ni ‘Alaqat Jama‘at Qa‘idat al-Jihad bi-Jama‘at al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi al-‘Iraq wa-al-Sham,” Markaz al-Fajr li-al-I‘lam, Shabakat al-Fida’ al-Islamiyya, February 2, 2014.

(32.) Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, “‘Udhran Amiru al-Qa‘ida,” Shabakat Shumukh al-Islam, May 11, 2014, and “Ma kana Hadha Manhajuna,” Shabakat Shumukh al-Islam, April 17, 2014.

(33.) Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj, in The Neglected Duty: The Creed of Sadat’s Assassins and Islamic Resurgence in the Middle East, trans. Johannes J. G. Jansen (New York: Macmillan, 1986), 193. Jansen’s translation slightly modified.

(34.) Khadduri, Islamic Law of Nations, p. 11.

(35.) Ibid., pp. 10–12.

(36.) Majid Khadduri, War and Peace in the Law of Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1962), 61–62.

(37.) Majid Khadduri, Islamic Law of Nations, p. 67.

(38.) Faraj, The Neglected Duty, p. 169.

(39.) Ibid., p. 200 (as translated by Jansen).

(40.) ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam, “al-Difa‘u ‘an Aradi al-Muslimin Ahammu Furudi al-A‘yan,” ‘Abd al-Rahim ‘Ali (ed.), Hilf al-Irhab: Tanzim al-Qa‘ida (Cairo: Markaz al-Mahrusa, 2004), 110.

(41.) Ibid., pp. 116–117; emphasis added.

(42.) Harun, al-Harb ‘ala al-Islam, Vol. 1, p. 57.

(43.) ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam, “Ilhaq bi-al-Qafila,” Minbar al-Tawhid wa-al-Jihad; Osama bin Laden, “Declaration of Jihad” (1996), pp. 23–30; and Bin Laden et al., “The World Islamic Front” (1998), pp. 58–62, Messages to the World.

(44.) Brynjar Lia, “Introduction,” Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of al-Qaida Strategist Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

(45.) Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri, as translated in Lia, Architect of Global Jihad, p. 426.

(46.) In a video transcribed by al-Sahab, al-Qa ‘ida’s media arm, “La Tukallafu illa Nafsaka,” Shabakat Shumukh al-Islam, June 4, 2011.

(47.) George Sale, The Koran: Translated into English from the Original Arabic, with an Introduction by Sir Edward Denison Ross, London and New York: Frederick Warne, n.d.

(48.) For a study of his autobiography, see Nelly Lahoud, Beware of Imitators: al-Qa‘ida through the Lens of its Confidential Secretary, Combating Terrorism Centre (CTC), West Point, June 4, 2012.

(49.) Harun, al-Harb ‘ala al-Islam, Vol. 2, pp. 151, 315.

(50.) Ibid., Vol. 1, p. 523.

(51.) SOCOM-2012-0000019, p. 48. This and similar numbers cited refer to battlefield documents captured by U.S. forces and have been declassified. The reader could access the documents on the CTC’s website by typing the number in the search engine.

(52.) SOCOM-2012-0000019, p. 4.

(53.) Harun, al-Harb ‘ala al-Islam, Vol. 1, 87.

(54.) Ibid.

(55.) Ibid., p. 119.

(56.) Ibid., p. 178.

(57.) Abu Qatada al-Filastini, “Ju’nat al-Mutayyabin,” Minbar al-Tawhid wa-al-Jihad.

(58.) AFGP-2002-600045, 1; emphasis added. Translation is largely amended.

(59.) SOCOM-2012-0000016, p. 1. Further, when, in 2005 Ayman al-Zawahiri sent Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi a letter in which he discussed a path toward establishing a caliphate, his intent was to convince al-Zarqawi, gently, of the importance of popular support and why he ought to stop beheading people and tone down his sectarian discourse. In other words, al-Zawahiri used the objective of establishing a caliphate, which he knew to be al-Zarqawi’s goal, to provide guidance that would convince him to change the conduct of his group in Iraq. The letter was intercepted, and it can be accessed on

(60.) SOCOM-2012-0000019, pp. 23–24.

(61.) Sayf al-‘Adl, “Tajribati Ma‘ Abi Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi.”

(62.) Ibid. See also S. Heidemann, “Zangi,” Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2d ed.

(63.) Usama b. Ladin, “Risala ila al-Muslimin fi al-‘Iraq Khasatan wa-al-Umma al-Islamiyya ‘Ammatan,” Minbar al-Tawhid wa-al-Jihad, December 2004.

(64.) Ayman al-Zawahiri, “al-Rabi‘ al-Islami (1)”.

(65.) Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, “Hadha Wa‘du Allah.”

(66.) Al-Zawahiri, “al-Rabi‘ al-Islami (1).”

(67.) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “Walaw Kariha al-Kafirun,” Shabakat Shumukh al-Islam, November 13, 2014.

(68.) Abu ‘Abdallah al-Libi, “al-Mubarrirat al-Shar‘iyya wa-al-Waqi‘iyya li-Bay‘at al-Dawla al-Islamiyya,” Mudawwanat al-Sheikh, April 18, 2015.

(69.) Abu Mu‘adh al-Shar‘i, “Ithaf al-Barara bi-Hukmi Iqamat al-Hudud fi al-Manatiq al-Muharrara,” March 15, 2014.