Who Holds the Real Power in ISIS?

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may be caliph of the Islamic State, but he does not rule alone.

US News & World Report/February 23, 2015

By Ali Hashem

When the average Islamic State (ISIS) member is asked why he is fighting, he typically responds, “So that Sharia prevails and Islam’s banner stays high.”

Marwan Shehade, an Islamic scholar and expert on jihadist groups, told Al-Monitor, “There’s no doubt the organization is built on three main elements: the Sharia, the military might and media. Their main slogan is derived from Ibn Taymiyyah’s famous saying, ‘The foundation of this religion is a book that guides and a sword that supports.’ By ‘a book’ they mean the Quran and religion.”

Despite the debate over whether ISIS represents Islam and what “true Islam” is, Islamic movements, sects and scholars perceive IS as truly believing it is enforcing the rule of Allah according to the Quran and the Hadith under the guidance of the organization’s Sharia Council, probably the group’s most vital body. The council’s responsibilities include overseeing the speeches of the self-declared Caliph Ibrahim (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) and those under him, dictating punishments, preaching, mediating, monitoring the group’s media, ideologically training new recruits and advising the caliph on how to deal with hostages when it is decided to execute them.

It was the Sharia Council that advised on the burning death of Muath al-Kasasbeh and the slaughter and shooting of dozens of Syrian and Iraqi soldiers as well as James Foley and other hostages. A former ISIS mufti who spoke to Al-Monitor in Iraq in January said, “Such decisions are made after thorough readings into the practices of the prophet and the first generation of Muslims.” At the time, IS had not yet burned a person alive. Muftis across the Middle East denounced the burning death of Kasasbeh on the ground that such a form of killing is an abomination under Islam, no matter the alleged justification.

“There’s nothing that is decided without the Sharia Council’s approval,” he explained. “There is the main Sharia Council for the Islamic State, and in each district there’s a smaller council that makes decisions about issues related to the area. There are two main muftis under the head of the council — the mufti of Iraq and the mufti al-Sham [Syria]. While I was there, Sheikh Abu Abdullah al-Kurdi was the mufti of Iraq. He used to contact the muftis of the districts, who are, in other words, the heads of the local Sharia councils, to coordinate on new rulings and give them advice or seek advice from them.”

The former ISIS cleric, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said of Baghdadi’s decision-making, “Despite him being the head of the Sharia Council, he asks for the muftis’ point of view. All the muftis are high-level clerics with deep understanding of the religion. All are ‘hafiz’ [have memorized the Quran]. The same goes for the major Hadiths — Sahih al-Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Musnad Ibn Hanbal, al-Tarmathi, etc. It is only the elite who can make it on to this council. In fact, they are the ones who rule.”

Consisting of elite clerics perhaps makes the council strong, but it also makes it vulnerable to an extent, as such men would not readily accept deeds they considered unjustified. Maybe that is why it has experienced a high number of defections.

According to Hisham al-Hashemi, an Iraqi expert on IS and author of the book “World of Daesh [ISIS],” several well-known IS sheikhs defected in 2014, including Saad Honeiti, Abu Shoiab al-Masry, Abu Soleiman al-Oteibi, the late Sultan al-Harby, Ahmad al-Mutairi, Manea al-Manea and Abu Hamam al-Shamy. They reportedly could not tolerate decisions that contradicted their advice or rulings. In addition, said Hashemi, many apparently rejected the declaration of the caliphate, a controversial issue among Salafists today.

It is interesting to learn that there were dissenting voices inside ISIS opposed to declaring the caliphate. What was their reasoning?

According to the former ISIS cleric, “Abu Bakr announced the caliphate without consulting the Sharia Council. This was a disaster that many muftis did not accept. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was appointed caliph by [traditionally influential people and decision-makers in an Islamic state]. There was a problem with declaring the caliphate, a religious one. If this group and state are to fall one day, it is because of the violations of Sharia under the name of Islam.” The cleric left ISIS because he believes there was no religious justification for proclaiming the caliphate.

Shehade said the ISIS Sharia Council consists of several committees, including on research and fatwas, religious schools, promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, mosques and judiciary. The committee for religious schools has courses for new recruits. It is also responsible for training judges and mosque imams, while the committee for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, of course, makes sure people are behaving in accordance with ISIS’ version of Islam. He also noted, “They have several well-known clerics on the Sharia Council. They are from different nationalities, but Iraqis have the upper hand. I recall among them Abu Ayoub al-Bregi, Abu Monzer al-Ordoni and Turki Benali.”

Shehade explained that most of the organization's fatwas are based on specific books of Hadith, in particular “The Jurisprudence of Jihad” by Abu Abdallah al-Mohajer. For strategic issues, including the use of violence to terrorize, they depend on “Management of Savagery,” a volume on jihad written by Abu Bakr Naji.

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