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Understanding ISIS

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OPINION by Shafiq Morton

WHO exactly is ISIS or Da’ish – or to give it its latest acronym – the IS? The Islamic State in Syria (or the Levant), which governs a self-proclaimed Caliphate in the conflict-torn zones of Syria and Iraq, lays claim to a holy war against imperialism.

Due to its distorted understanding of Shari’ah, over 100 of the world’s top Islamic scholars (including the Muslim Judicial Council) have roundly condemned ISIS. Even Al-Qaeda has disowned the organisation.

To say that ISIS is a disturbing development in a region already teetering on the brink of apocalyptic disaster is an understatement. ISIS’s chillingly staged YouTube clips have assaulted all standards of decency.

And whilst ISIS has elicited justifiable denunciation, this doesn’t really explain who it is. This is because reportage on ISIS is occurring without any contextual framework.

For this, we first go to the 7th century when a group in Iraq broke away from the Islamic mainstream. Known as the Khawarij – literally “those who go out” – this sect embraced a stark and simplistic theology in which a merciful deity became a vengeful one.

Interestingly, the Prophet Muhammad [pbuh] had predicted the rise of the Khawarij. He even said that its offspring would emerge in our times, and that their understanding of religion would not descend below their collar bones.

The Khawarij believed that anyone who did not subscribe to their worldview was an unbeliever, a sinful kafir who could be killed.The early Caliphs had to put down the Khawarij by force.

In the late 18th century, Muhammad’s [pbuh] prophecy would bear fruit when a central Arabian scholar, Ibn Abd ul-Wahhab, would claim to be a renewer of Islam. He would preach that his view was the only authentic one, and that anybody disagreeing with him was an unbeliever whose blood was halal.

Spurning over 1,000 years of classical knowledge, he was duly ignored as a crackpot until Ibn Sa’ud – a chieftain craving political power – realised he could harness ‘Abd ul-Wahhab’s rabid discourse to unite the disparate Bedouin tribes.

Ibn Sa’ud rallied the Bedoiun tribesmen, known as the “ikhwan”, under the banner of neo-Kharijism, or Wahhabism. It was tactically convenient, because anybody disagreeing with him could be put to the sword.

The Wahhabis over-ran the Middle East, smashing historical tombs, vandalising libraries and dismembering thousands of Shi’ah and Sunnis in Syria, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula.

The Ottomans, who then ruled the Levant from Istanbul, sent Egypt’s Ali Pasha to deal with the Wahhabis. When his forces razed the Sa’udi capital Da’riyyah (modern-day Riyadh) to the ground in the 1830’s, there were wild celebrations in Cairo.

It was only after the fall of the Caliphate in 1923 that the Wahhabis were able to regroup and conquer the Arabian Peninsula.The emergence of the Sa’udi monarchy in the 1930’s witnessed the conquest of the Sharifs, Prophet Muhammad’s descendants, who’d ruled western Arabia for centuries – and who, to this day, resent the Sa’udi dynasty.

The self-declared Sa’udi monarch, ‘Abd ul-‘Aziz, had to face a restive constituency as his ikhwan were suspicious of modernity. The Sa’udi saving grace was oil wealth; it allowed dissident energies to be diffused into the marketing of Wahhabi ideology worldwide. But not even this was enough. In 1979 there was a rebellion in Mecca.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Reagan administration’s harnessing of the mujahadin, saw Saudi Arabia co-operating with the Pakistani secret service and the CIA. Hundreds of militants, who would otherwise have filled the prisons, were conveniently dispatched to fight communists.

In Pakistan, the Saudis bankrolled thousands of Wahhabi religious schools, which would in turn spawn the Taliban. The US and Saudi-sponsored mujahidin, whom Reagan ironically compared to the country’s founding fathers, were destined to form the core of Al-Qaeda after the Afghan conflict.

This narrative is a missing link, for after the war Shaikh Abdullah ‘Azzam – the godfather of the Afghani jihad – was assassinated for refusing to issue a decree that the holy war be expanded beyond Afghanistan. Ideologically, it marked a critical turning point, for a suspect in ‘Azzam’s killing was Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, destined to be one of Usama bin Laden’s closest confidantes.

The internationalisation of the Wahhabi jihad is well known, but its underlying reason for focusing on the US is less acknowledged. This happened when Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait in 1990. Usama bin Laden offered to settle the matter with Al-Qaeda, but was spurned by the Royal family, who went with the American alliance.

The sight of US boots, on what Al-Qaeda regarded as holy soil, became a bridge too far. It marked a rift between Bin Laden and the Saudi state, and the extremist Wahhabi genie was effectively let out of the bottle.

Al-Qaeda (initially a database of foreign Afghan fighters) never went beyond being an ideological franchise played for its propaganda value. Few, if any, of the Wahhabi groups in Asia, Africa and the Levant ever had direct contact with Al-Qaeda central.

More significantly, these movements flowed into political vacuums caused by dictators and imperialist meddling. Iraq is a case in point where former US pro-consul, Paul Bremner, will go down in history as the primary purveyor of Iraq’s woes.

Bremner arrived after the invasion and fired some 250,000 Baathist forces, some of whom were competent bureaucrats. By obliterating the organs of state, and indiscriminately destroying its infrastructure without even a wink at transitional justice, Bremner summarily flushed Iraq down the toilet.

With Gulf States sponsoring jihadist groups due to fears of a “Shi’ah crescent” descending upon them from Syria and Iraq, the picture is almost complete. Disgruntled Baathist elements – some of them Saddam’s killers – have joined the jihadist groups, which have coalesced under ISIS.

Essentially a group of the disaffected led by the vengeful, ISIS is said to number no more than 100,000 men. But it does have money, arms, territory and media savvy. And that is what makes it a formidable foe right now. ISIS has thrown down the gauntlet, and from here on in, it’s a case of fasten the seatbelts.

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  1. and here in south africa and especially cape town our ulema were at first neutral regarding assad then because of foreign intervention quickly became “pro democracy” and anti assad and therefore pro the usa eu nato saudi gulf states backed fsa alnusra isis et al

    now that their heros have morphed further into IS and really putting them to shame the ostenible are “anti IS”

    anti IS my foot, you breed and train a bulldog to maul and when it does you “withdraw”? youre a part of the bulldog,

    1. The unfortunate case with a major proportion of us, is that we try to see everthing in black and white. Good and bad. Right and wrong. Good guys versus the bad guys. That is why we often lack a broad understanding of the currents that shape world events including this whole ISIL issue. We then lunge forward with this rudimentary understanding of the situation thinking that it is Gospel and with this uninformed, unverified and largely child-like understanding we choose sides on what we think are the underlying issues of the situation and even more damagingly we make statements of support for this and that group largely motivated by sectarian bias, then only to be embarrassed by the stances we took earlier on when the real truth emerges. This makes us susceptible to all forms of manipulation by any and every party including and especially other Muslims who have their own agendas.

  2. As salaam mu aleikum,

    Brother Kamaal (BK) of the Breakfast Beat mentioned the issue of Khawarij and its relation to what is currently transpiring in the Middle East. The brother mentioned that some Ulama have spoken on this issue and how they (the Ulama) are trying to make sense of what is happening.

    My question as a listener of the Voice of the Cape is:

    Can the radio arrange such a larger program for educational purposes (the radio will be best to decide how to do this);

    Whether BK maybe can get of those lectures and play it on the radio for the purpose of enlightenment kanallah.

    JazakAllah gheir,
    Naeem Sutria

  3. thanks ASHRAF, I agree largely with what you say, but in this world some things ARE black and white, conditions and circumstances may “greyify” matters yes and make it difficult to engage and act appropriately, and sometimes we even have to change our action depending on the results achieved etc,

    but truth and falsehood, peaceful co-existence and oppression, good and bad morality, etc stands out as opposites, so we CAN plan on principle, what strategy we use under different and changing conditions will for our best ulema and other wise folk, by ulema i dont necessarily mean someone who learnt arabic etc,

    but ashraf, we notice you caution without giving any even rudimentary plan on how to go forward, some folk are armchair critics but even worse are some who are armchair “do nothings”

    the latter were some like most of our ulema during apartheid who did nothing but told us not do oppose apartheid because they allowed us to practice our deen, some even told us if we didnt like it here we should make hijra, even worse were the ones who criticised us for opposing apartheid blaming us when some windows and carpets of the masjid were damaged by teargas cannisters etc, but immediately when others heaped praise on muslims’ stand even coming to the masjid to show their support, the crony ones were first in line to accept the credit

  4. Glossary:
    Wahhabī (Arabic; also Wahabi, Wahabī, Wahabite, Wahhabi, Wahhabī, Wahhabist, Wahhabite), the purist, inward-looking group within Sunni Islām. Named after its founder, Muḥammad ibn ’Abd Al-Wahhāb al-Tamīmī (1703-1792), Wahhabism is an extreme ideology that clings to joyless, rigid beliefs and intense literalism, and is at the opposite end of the spectrum of Islām to Ash’arī orthodoxy and Sūfīsm. This variance is thus also known as the Salafī-Ash’arī divide. Muḥammad ibn ’Abd Al-Wahhāb al-Tamīmī is widely considered the father of modern Islamist extremist ideologues. Most Wahhabīs consider Sūfīsm as a type of ‘folk Islām’ and believe, as an example, that aspects of Sūfī intercessory norms compromise monotheism. The medieval Islamic theologian Sheikh Taqī ad-Dīn Aḥmad bin ’Abd Al-Ḥalīm bin ’Abdus Salām ibn Taymīyyah al-Ḥarrānī (1263-1328) was a Wahhabī spearhead. Sheikh ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawzīyyah (d. 1350) served as a driving force in Wahhabism. Sheikh ’Abd Al-’Azīz bin ’Abdallāh bin Bāz al-Najdī (d. 1999), Sheikh Muḥammad bin Ṣāliḥ bin Muḥammad al-’Uthaymīn al-Tamīmī al-Najdī (1925-2001), Sheikh Abū Bakr bin Jābir al-Jazā’irī (d. 1999), Sheikh Muḥammad Nasīr al-Dīn al-Albanī (1914-1999) and Sheikh Muqbil bin Hadī al-Wādi’ī (d. 2001) were Salafī respondents. Their students further propagated their errant creed. A fervent protagonist of Salafī dogma, Sheikh Bakr ibn ’Abdallāh Abū Zayd ibn Muḥammad al-Najdī (1944-2008) was a student of Sheikh Muḥammad al-Amīn ibn Muḥammad al-Mukhtār ash-Shanqītī. Sheikh ’Abdallāh ibn ’Abd Al-Raḥmān al-Ghudayān (1924-2010) beat the drum for the Salafīs. He had learned from Sheikh ’Abd Al-’Azīz bin ’Abdallāh bin Bāz al-Najdī and Sheikh Muḥammad al-Amīn ibn Muḥammad al-Mukhtār ash-Shanqītī. A Salafī flag-waiver, Sheikh Rabī’ ibn Hādī ’Umayr al-Madkhalī (b. 1931) studied under Sheikh ’Abd Al-’Azīz bin ’Abdallāh bin Bāz al-Najdī and Sheikh Muḥammad al-Amīn ibn Muḥammad al-Mukhtār ash-Shanqītī. Sheikh ’Ubayd ibn ’Abdallāh ibn Sulaymān al-Hamdānī al-Jābirī (b. 1938) was taught by Sheikh Abū Bakr bin Jābir al-Jazā’irī and was a Salafī standard-bearer. Sheikh Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ al-Munajjid (b. 1960) took religion from Sheikh ’Abd Al-’Azīz bin ’Abdallāh bin Bāz al-Najdī, Sheikh Muḥammad bin Ṣāliḥ bin Muḥammad al-’Uthaymīn, Sheikh ’Abdallāh ibn ’Abd Al-Raḥmān ibn Jibrīn al-Najdī (1933-2009) and Sheikh Ṣāliḥ bin ’Abdallāh bin Fawzān al-Fawzān (b. 1933). Wahhabīs, of late, would rather be referred to as Salafīs. Present these days in Muslim communities in most parts of the world, Wahhabite Salafism has become more a dry, stripped-down, Saudi-supremacist state ideology than a set of religious beliefs. Wahhabite Salafism precludes inventiveness, as invention gives way to innovation and “every innovation”, they argue flatly, “is going astray, and every ‘going-astray’ is in the fire”. They seek to purify Islām from what they see as doctrinal and ritual corruptions. In Saudi Arabia, the king relies on the descendents of Muḥammad ibn ’Abd Al-Wahhāb al-Tamīmī for the country’s religious policies, they in turn acting as protectors of al-Sa’ūd’s political dominance. A pact in 1744 between Muḥammad ibn ’Abd Al-Wahhāb al-Tamīmī and Muḥammad bin Saūd (d. 1765) began an accord between their families that established the first Saudi state. This dynastic alliance was based on al-Sa’ūd lending its weight to the religious authority of Muḥammad ibn ’Abd Al-Wahhāb and his descendants, and al ash-Sheikh (ibn ’Abd Al-Wahhāb’s descendants) supporting the political control of al-Sa’ūd. This agreement of mutual support continues to direct Saudi clerical and political discourse.

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