Though we may wish it were otherwise, Islamist extremism is today the world’s most potent revolutionary political force. It has transmuted in recent decades, but is a tenacious ideology and shows no sign of going away. As this week’s attacks in Brussels show, Islamism is a constant presence inside and outside our societies. What do its practitioners and ideologues believe? Usually, the first step to finding out what people think is to ask them, but it is almost impossible to interview members of Islamic State, Boko Haram or al-Qaida. An alternative is to speculate about what Islamists believe based on their terrifying actions and propaganda. For many western leaders, taking a theological position on a religion they do not practise, jihadists are not true Muslims since Islam is a religion of peace. The alternative is to view them as Islamic, but in a medieval way, pursuing an apocalyptic seventh century version of the faith. For Donald Trump, everything is simple: Islam generically hates America. Another tack is to assert that regions such as west Asia and north Africa are consumed by a new nihilism and ancient hatreds: Sunni versus Shia, Jew versus Christian versus Muslim.
The last of these explanations feels less plausible after reading Crusade and Jihad, a narrative account of Islam’s rise and the Christian response by the medieval historian Malcolm Lambert. Certainly there are examples of ferocious battles to secure control of the holy places, and of one religion denigrating another, like the 12th century troubadours who “transfixed their hearers with searing images of Christ being hit in the face by an Arab and a mounted Saracen above the Holy Sepulchre, his horse urinating on the sacred site”. But the difficulty with the idea of irreducible conflict is that for the past 1,400 years Muslim lands have been inhabited by communities of Zoroastrians, Hindus, Jews, Druze, Yazidis and Christians, as well as by possibly heretical offshoots of Islam. During the rapid Muslim conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries, the Arab armies did not generally demand submission or conversion, but an acceptance of the sovereignty of new rulers and the payment of taxes.
The churning and displacement in the wake of recent wars are not a return to an authentic earlier version of Islam or of Muslim power. It is a period of radical change in which sectarian and religious minorities are cleansed from their ancestral lands: Muslims today make up a larger proportion of the population of the Middle East than ever before. The brief optimism and eclecticism of the postcolonial era, where cultural identity could be vague and political energy was directed to ideas like pan-Arabism, socialism and secularism, are disappearing. Shiraz Maher makes it clear in his fascinating new book Salafi-Jihadism that we are witnessing a very recent phenomenon: “the greatest period of anti-western intellectual development in Salafi-jihadi thought took place in the years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks”. In 2005, the group al-Qaida in Iraq challenged everyone of Muslim heritage to reconsider the basic principles of political coexistence when it declared, “all tenets of secularism – including nationalism, communism, and Baathism – are a blatant violation of Islam”.
Maher, a former member of Hizb ut‑Tahrir, is a specialist in radicalisation at King’s College London who has researched the motivation of foreigners who have gone to war in Syria and Iraq. Here he looks at the intellectual development of Islamism, and what it seeks to achieve. His subtitle is “The History of an Idea”, but he is more concerned with the contemporary evolution of the ideology than with the history. Salafism is a “philosophical outlook which seeks to revive the practices of the first three generations of Islam, who are collectively known as the as‑salaf as-saliheen, or ‘pious predecessors’”. The violent rejectionists he calls Salafi-jihadists hope to regain antique perfection by military means: “This millenarian project believes in progress through regression.” Although in statistical terms such a way of thinking represents a fraction of the world’s Muslims, it has a disproportionately huge impact.
During the 1990s, fighters and revolutionaries from diverse theatres – the Algerian civil war, Bosnia, Chechnya, Tunisia, the Afghan victory over the Soviets, the crushed Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – were looking for a new ideological direction. “The violence of groups like al-Qaida and associated movements is neither irrational nor whimsical,” Maher states. “For every act of violence they will offer some form of reference to scriptural sources.” In Islamic jurisprudence, a decision requires a justification from within the corpus of traditions of the prophet Muhammad. Theorists could turn for example to the 14th century theologian Ibn Taymiyyah, who thought the threat posed by the invading Mongols was so great that warlike jihad had become a duty and the enemy could reasonably be anathematised as apostates. In the aftermath of the 9/11 wars, a sanction that historically had been used in extreme circumstances became an everyday tool, and the principle of takfir or excommunication was extended within Islam to a previously unimaginable degree. After 2003, “al‑Qaida in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al‑Zarqawi, employed it liberally to license a fratricidal civil war against the Iraqi Shia community”. For good measure, Zarqawi drew on an ancient conspiracy and said the Shia tradition was founded by a Jew.
In every sphere of life, the Islamist worldview was transmuting and the quietists were eclipsed. As the French academic Olivier Roy has written, this was as much about the Islamisation of radicalism as it was about the radicalisation of Islam. Militant Sunni groups reinterpreted rules on warfare to develop what Maher calls a “novel doctrine of vicarious liability,” enabling them to target individual citizens of democracies, since these citizens had chosen their governments and were therefore responsible for their decisions. Muslims were told they must, in an existentialist way, take action if they were not to break their covenant with God. Democracy was presented not as a system to safeguard the rights of individuals, but as a damaging creed that separated religion from public life: divine sovereignty must be secured within an earthly political system. The idea of Muslim exclusivity expanded in new ways, and militants were instructed not to accept the support of unbelievers. Since the US was “the central base of corruption and moral decay”, those who excused its actions were apostates.
No Salafi-jihadist group has been more successful than Isis in asserting political and territorial power, yet Maher points out that “its jurisprudential opinions are regarded as esoteric and eccentric” by most ideologues. Even the much publicised London “hate preacher” Abu Qatada has said they are renegades because of their indiscriminate use of intra-Muslim slaughter and slavery. When Isis militants burned the Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh to death in a cage, for instance, they knew that mainstream scholarly opinion within Islam prohibited the use of fire as a punishment, but produced an abstruse doctrinal rationale along with a typically graphic video. In Maher’s words, this was “one way in which the group is trying to bring more obscure and nihilistic theology into the foreground of Salafi thinking”. Rather than being medieval, this behaviour is historically tenuous. Maher details the 20th century development of Islamism by the theorists Abul A’la Maududi and Sayyid Qutb, but does not fully explain whether Salafi thinking as we now understand it would have made sense, say, 100 or 300 years ago, or how far its theological lineage is a modern construction. To put it another way: would the 18th century revivalist of Muslim purity, Muhammad Ibn Abd al‑Wahhab, have shared the logic of those who today claim to act under his influence?
Islamism is evolving. We do not yet know whether its latest face, the caliphate of Isis, represents a limit or is another step on a road to a new theocratic extremism. One vital message of Salafi-Jihadism is that the fragmentation of war drives change and makes people behave differently. Maher quotes the military historian Michael Howard saying the origins of Europe were hammered out on the anvil of war, and adds: “Salafi-jihadism is even more sensitive to this stimulus given that it is principally a militaristic ideology.” Since it is an idea rather than an organisation, and one that puts a stress upon martyrdom and millenarian dreaming, it is unlikely to be defeated by the decapitation of its leadership. After Osama bin Laden was killed by US special forces, al-Qaida put out a statement: “Are the Americans able to kill what Sheikh Osama lived and fought for, even with all their soldiers, intelligence, and agencies? Never! Never!” Although Islamist organisations contain their share of thrill seekers and psychopaths, it is apparent that most fighters believe in an absolute idea.
After the epic shock of 9/11, much effort was put into trying to discover why “they” hate us. A reluctance to enter the mindset of people who viewed the world in an utterly different way meant this often involved projection, as explanations were offered on their behalf. Simplistic explanatory terms like “Islamofascism” became popular, and the Egyptian activists Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb were commonly credited as the creative ideologues of Islamism. Jan-Peter Hartung’s A System of Life: Mawdudi and the Ideologisation of Islam (2013) draws on a deep knowledge of Islamic thought to revise the intellectual history of the movement. Maududi (a Pakistani born in central India in 1903 who died in Buffalo, New York in 1979) emerges as an original thinker with universal ambitions. His contemporaries were mostly nationalists reacting to colonial rule, but he was as concerned by the decline of Muslim prestige in the subcontinent and the rise of Hindu assertiveness as he was by western dominance. As an alternative, he devised what the author calls “an all-encompassing and self-sufficient system of life,” drawn from the Qur’an.
Hartung is more questioning of Maududi’s version of events than previous writers like Vali Nasr. He depicts him as an autodidact with a limited religious education who wrote in Urdu, and describes his proficiency in Arabic as “at the most mediocre”. Maududi’s understanding of the Qur’an and associated literature would therefore have come from a cosmopolitan Indian knowledge, rather than from the original sources (though this did not prevent him from writing six volumes of Qur’anic commentary). Hartung argues convincingly that his ideas have now become “common knowledge” and are “deeply ingrained into the mindset of radical Islamists beyond the Indian subcontinent”. Maududi’s writings, translated into Arabic after the second world war, directly influenced Qutb and other thinkers. Living in a more oppressive political system, Qutb radicalised and popularised the ideology – the start of a process that has been through many iterations. A System of Life shows more powerfully than any previous book that Islamist thought emerged from south Asia, and was formed in the crucible of identity politics and jockeying for position in the years leading to the end of colonial rule. In understanding what is happening in the world today, it may be profitable to look again at this earlier time of global transformation.
From the late 1920s, Maududi had been developing and redefining terms that would become part of everyday Islamist exchange. He wrote of the danger of kufr or unbelief, of the idea that jihad meant offensive warfare, of the threat posed by the new age of jahiliyya or ignorance, which he linked to the idea of tajdid or renewal. He reinterpreted concepts to fit his notion of Islam as a total, revolutionary ideology that could give birth to a new polity. He reacted to western thinkers ranging from Karl Marx to Adam Smith, and in devising his strictures against immorality was guided by high Victorian tomes and even the Guide to Modern Wickedness by the celebrity broadcaster Cyril Joad. Although he was more tolerant of Sufis and Shias than his intellectual successors, Maududi associated Indian customs like visiting the graves of eminent Muslims with shirk or polytheism. Crucially, he proposed the astonishing conception that nearly everything that had happened since the collapse of Uthman’s caliphate, 25 years after the death of the prophet, was a disaster. Hartung observes that such pessimism about Islam was not unusual at this time, but that until Maududi “no one had painted such a radically black picture of almost the entire Islamic history”.
Maududi was reacting to the world around him at a time of great political change, in advance of India’s independence and possible partition. He disliked the Indian National Congress’s version of nationalism, and the Muslim League’s proposal for a homeland for Muslims. He rejected national borders since he thought his community was universal. In a speech in 1939, he said Islam was nothing less than an “ideology which seeks to change and revolutionise the world social order and reshape it according to its own concept and ideals”. He believed it was necessary to rediscover piety and past glories, and hoped optimistically to incorporate the best of modern scientific progress too: he wanted a system from the seventh century with the tools of now, and in this he was no different from the revolutionaries who continue to act on his ideas.
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