Jihadism and the ‘Ulama

Two days ago, J.M. Berger of IntelWire wrote an article describing a recent trend in the statements and video releases published by Adam Gadahn and Anwar al ‘Awlaki that have tried to discredit the ‘ulama (religious scholars). These ideas, though, are not new, but provide further example of a trend, which has pervaded some of the key Jihadist intellectual thinkers in the post-Caliphate era (the Caliphate was abolished in 1924).

Today, Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brothers in 1928, would not be considered a global jihadist, but his ideas became a foundation for later thinkers to build off of and further radicalize his thought. al-Banna did not understand how the ‘ulama could do nothing in the face of what he percieved was happening to the Muslim world. He viewed the Muslim Brothers’ values as a refutation of the values of al-Azhar University (the most respected Sunni place of high education) and how the university dealt with contemporary issues. The late Richard P. Mitchell, a scholar at the University of Michigan and author of The Society of the Muslim Brothers, summed up al-Banna’s thought on the ‘ulama, stating:

Azhar had persisted in a time-worn, anachronistic approach to Islam and its teachings—dry, dead, ritualistic, and irrelevant to the needs of living Muslims.[1]

Sayyid Qutb, who is viewed as the godfather of the modern jihadist movement, was critical of the ‘ulama as well. He believed they were opportunists that were using religious texts to their own advantage, which is pretty rich coming from Qutb, a man that has a degree in literature and created his own innovative way of understanding Islam.[2] Even more zealous over the problems with the ‘ulama was Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Farrag, who coined the term the near enemy as well as led the group Tanzim al-Jihad (later Egyptian Islamic Jihad) in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat. These are his thoughts from his book Jihad: The Neglected Duty:

There are some who say that what we should do now is busy ourselves with seeking knowledge, for how can we struggle in the cause of Allah while we are lacking the knowledge, which is fard (obligatory) to seek? But we have not heard anyone who says that it is permitted to abandon an Islamic order or an obligation of the obligations of Islam because of knowledge, especially if this obligation is Jihad. So how can we abandon a fard ‘ayn (individual obligation) because of fard kifayah (collective obligation)? … So he who says that knowledge is Jihad must realize that what is fard is fighting … If a person wants to increase his knowledge … he could do so, because there are no restrictions on knowledge, which is available for everybody. But to delay Jihad because of seeking knowledge is an evidence of the one who has no evidence … However, we do not underestimate knowledge and scholars, rather we call for that. But we do not use it as evidence to abandon the obligations that Allah ordained.[3]

More recently, Osama bin Laden argued:

Despite of this hard siege imposed on you O my Islamic Ummah, you still have a great opportunity to regain your freedom to go out of the submission to and the dependence of this Crusader/Zionist alliance. To reach that, you should free yourself from the fetters of humiliation and subservience shackling us by the agents of this alliance who are our countries’ governors and their helpers especially the fetters of the Ulamaa of the Sultan, as well the fetters of the Islamic groups which transform their method to recognize the governor who betrayed the religion and the Ummah, and they join the political process of the state of this governor, and no difference for them if they are in the rule or opposition.[4]

Further, last month, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri stated:

This orientation has the purer methodology and the more correct doctrine, because it relies on the explicit and definite proofs of the Qur’an and Sunnah [Prophetic Way], and cites the historical and political reality of the Muslim Ummah, and believes neither in the fatwas of the “Fuqahaa” of the Marines nor in the hired ‘Ulama in Riyadh, Cairo and Qatar.[5]

Finally, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the Jordanian cleric who mentored Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and is considered the most influential living global jihadist theorist, has written about what he describes as the murji’ah (non-righteous scholars) on several occasions. Here are a couple examples:

I advise them not be deceived by the ambiguities of the phony scholars, who confuse the truth with falsehood and confuse the path to Paradise with the path to Hellfire.[6]

The Mujahideen do not need you, half men and with no resolve. They do not need any advice on Jihad from scholars who are paid for and defeated. They do not need to ask you if it is okay with you or if their Jihad is compatible with you thinking. No, they do not need that. They have all the wisdom and the vision that they need. Die in your anger, and continue your criticism of the Mujahideen. You cannot destroy their resolve; your poisoned pins would not affect their Jihad. Nothing will affect them.[7]

Added up, one can see that individuals involved with the jihadist movement have tried to discredit the ‘ulama for quite some time now. One of the goals is to weaken state institutions linked to corrupt governments, as well as weakening potential enemies. Another is due to the lack of true religious legitimacy by many in the movement. As such, they are compensating and trying to discredit individuals who are trained in the religion and understand that their understanding of Islam is not based on the classical tradition.

[1] Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1993), 212-213.

[2] Roxanne Leslie Euben and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 133.

[3] Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Farrag, Jihad: The Neglected Duty (Birmingham, UK: Maktabah Al Ansaar Publications, 2000), 46-48.

[4] Osama bin Laden, The Way To Rescue Palestine (As-Sahab Media Productions, 2008).

[5] Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, A Victorious Ummah, A Broken Crusade: Nine Years After the Start of the Crusader Campaign (As-Sahab Media Productions, 2010).

[6] Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, A message in support of the Mujahideen in Somalia and exposing the doubts created the Ullamah of Dajjaal (Minbar Tawhid W’al Jihad, 2009).

[7] Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, The Caravan is Moving and the Dogs are Barking (Minbar Tawhid W’al Jihad).

6 Responses to Jihadism and the ‘Ulama

  1. hipbone says:

    Thanks for this, Aaron, it’s a rich contribution.

    I’ve taken a somewhat different but hopefully complementary tack, treating al-Awlaki’s recent piece not as a general-purpose attack on “bought” ulama, but focusing in on his quote “Do not consult anyone in killing Americans” as an example of a religiously imnformed “permission not to ask permission”. I’ve laid out the details at http://zenpundit.com/?p=3598 in a post titled “Al-Awlaki has a Phineas moment” – Phineas is the name under which Pinchas is known in extremist Christian Identity circles, and the story of his zealous killing of Zimri and Cozbi was apparently used as a biblical sanction both by Byron De La Beckwith, the killer of Medgar Evers, and by Yigal Amir, the killer of Yitzhak Rabin.

    It’s an interesting issue from a comparative-religious standpoint: when can acts of violence be viewed as divinely sanctioned in the absence of a competent ruling from a religious authority? Another possible point d’appui for those who seek to confront religious terror on religious grounds.

  2. alle says:

    I don’t really think this amounts to a general attack on Ulema. Jihadi ideologues tend to be against Ulema who don’t agree with them, and glorify those who support them, it’s as simple as that. OBL seems to have had a minor crush on the early 90s Sahwa in Saudi Arabia, for example, but takes no advice from Salman el-Awda today.

    On the other hand, contemporary Islamism has always been skeptical of establishment Ulema and traditional Islamic authorities, seeing them as responsible for the stagnation of Islam, insufficiently activist and subservient to deviant rulers. That’s what I think Banna’s position was, since he came out of early Salafi reformism and the post-Caliphate upheaval. Maybe that’s the tradition Zawahiri draws on here, too, but his and OBL’s messages above are essentially political, and intended to hurt pro-regime Ulema, quietist Salafis and the Ikhwan, i.e. the most powerful ideological rivals of the salafia jihadia.

    For example, when Z mentions hired Ulema in Qatar, that can only be a swipe at Youssef el-Qaradawi, who is of course very actively reformist, anti-status quo, and sprung from Banna’s very tradition — but who also happens to be an enemy of AQ, and so gets lumped in with the government employees at Azhar to discredit him. If for Q had a sudden change of heart and bolted from Qatar to endorse AQ I think Zawahiri’s tone would be quite another, despite their remaining ideological differences.

    So, three things at play here: 1. the contemporary Islamist movement’s historical and ideological skepticism of established Ulema, and 2. the Salafi tendency’s hatred of the MB, and 3. political smears and “takhwin” couched in religious terms. They may go together, but not necessarily.

    • azelin says:

      Alle, thanks for expounding on other potential reasons why jihadist thinkers have questioned the credibility of the ‘ulama. You make some excellent points that compliment the ones I made above.

  3. J.M. Berger says:

    Thanks for the cross-links and discussion.

    I just came across this 1999 Awlaki video which is kind of interesting in this context. Some of the precursor thought from Awlaki on this topic. He’s democratizing scholarship here, which is a pretty common sentiment among jihadis, but it’s not as extreme as his newest sentiment. He allows for the important of scholars and scholarship but urges contemplation of the primary sources — as opposed to his new video, where he tells listeners not to even stop for a prayer.

    “Do Not Blindly Follow The Scholars Of Today”

    Better check it quick, because I am sure YouTube will be deleting it any second. HAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAH…. I crack myself up.

  4. Pingback: Jihadism and the ‘Ulamā’ | JIHADOLOGY

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