In announcing a caliphate and claiming that Muslims around the world owe allegiance to its leader, ISIS has ushered in a new dimension to radical Salafism and Islamism. The organisation's slick propaganda operation, its projection of stern piety and its claim to represent a legitimate government for all believers has been demonstrably appealing to certain disenchanted Muslim activists across the world.
A succession of high profile scholars have been attempting to undermine ISIS by refuting the religious ground on which it claims to operate. In fatwas and statements they have drawn on the Qur'an, hadith and scholarly literature to attack ISIS. Many have attacked ISIS' actions; most have also emphasised the illegitimacy of its caliphate. But if they are to succeed where others have failed, they must reach the disenchanted strain within Salafism most likely to be swayed by ISIS.
These statements are intended as a firebreak, undermining ISIS' recruiting strength.”
A central tenet of Salafi belief is that the practice of Islam has been corrupted over the course of its history and so it must be brought back to the conduct of the salaf, or the first generations of Muslims – including the first four successors to Muhammad, the 'Rightly Guided' caliphs. The majority of Salafis are not jihadis and many oppose groups such as al-Qaeda or ISIS. However, such jihadi groups rely on Salafi modes of thought and their potential recruits will almost always be inclined towards Salafism themselves (though it is said not always with a great deal of understanding).
A recent statement on ISIS by Abdallah bin Bayyah, a scholar respected by Salafis and moderates alike, begins with four quotes warning against violence within the Islamic community and emphasising the principle of consultation in the community in choosing its leaders. These are drawn from the Qur'an, a hadith, a statement of Caliph Umar (the second 'Rightly Guided' caliph) and a saying of the founder of the 'Hanbali' school of Sunni jurisprudence. The religious authority of the first three sources is acknowledged across the Islamic spectrum, while the Hanbali school is notable for its influence among Salafis.
As the statement goes on, it emphasises the proper conditions for Islamic jurisprudence, which must be fulfilled for legal rulings to be valid and which ISIS, he argues, has not understood. Quotes from scholars widely respected by Salafis and jihadis such as ibn Taymiyyah, al-Qarafi and ibn Qayyim further reinforce the authority of bin Bayyah's statement to that audience.
Bin Bayyah also co-signed an open letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS' leader, with 125 other scholars ranging from Salafis to Sufis. Drawing heavily on quotes from the Qur'an and hadith literature, it gives a comprehensive condemnation of many of the atrocities committed by ISIS. Again, a significant emphasis is placed on the necessary qualifications for issuing fatwas and interpreting Sharia; the letter suggests that the ISIS leadership is lacking in this regard, despite ISIS' emphasis on Baghdadi's religious scholarship.
In a different mould is a fatwa published in the Sunday Times by five British scholars headed by Usama Hasan. This fatwa is short and simple, avoiding in-depth examinations of Islamic jurisprudence. It does not appear to have been written in response to a question on Islamic law, but rather as "clarifications" in response to the situation. Its language is emotive, referring to the "oppressive and tyrannical" group's "poisonous ideology". But while this piece will have been seen by its authors' followers and was certainly widely viewed by a non-Muslim UK audience, its tone and content make it unlikely to have done much to sow doubt among those inclined towards ISIS.
A shared theme among many of the responses has been to deny that ISIS' caliphate is legitimate. Bin Bayyah states that a caliphate is a political not a religious requirement and as such "could be replaced today" by an international order that defends freedom of religion, protects religious sites and brings peace. Arguing that substance is more important than form, he denies any duty to establish a caliphate by force, "even... if it is possible to do so". The open letter is as strongly worded: while acknowledging scholarly agreement that a caliphate to unite Muslims is necessary, it warns that "announcing a caliphate without consensus is sedition" and mocks the group's circular logic in regarding only those who accept their caliphate as Muslims.
Division in jihadi ranks will make many think twice about going to join them.”
But one, perhaps surprising opponent of the ISIS caliphate is Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a Jordanian jihadi thinker with significant influence. Without condemning the victories of ISIS or their desire for a caliphate ("all of us wish for the return of the caliphate, the breaking of the borders, the raising of banners of monotheism..."), he denounces them for causing division in jihadi ranks in their attacks on dissenters. Further, he accuses the group of having claimed a caliphate before the time was right. In keeping with a theme in bin Bayyah's statement and the open letter, he criticises the lack of consultation among other Muslims. However, he shares ISIS' restrictive definition of who is a Muslim: "there is no believer who does not rejoice for the victories of Muslims... over [Shia] and apostates".
A system of government that unifies global Islam under a single leadership holds a great deal of appeal for many Muslims, particularly Salafis and Islamists. The declaration of a 'caliphate', meant to be just such a system of government, by a group that appears to be holding and expanding its territory is therefore extremely dangerous; it is notable that these responses attack the claim itself, as well as ISIS' actions, on Islamic grounds. Some of these authors are well respected among Salafis. Their statements are intended as a firebreak, undermining the recruiting strength that ISIS gains by claiming a 'caliphate' and sowing doubt amongst waverers over the righteousness or Islamic legitimacy of its actions.
It is likely that of all these condemnations of ISIS, Maqdisi's is the only one that will hold much sway among jihadis or disrupt the certainty of ISIS' followers. In some respects this is dispiriting – those who abandon ISIS in response to his words will remain committed to violent jihad. But division in jihadi ranks will make many think twice about going to join them. Such doubt may be what is needed for the scholarly weight of bin Bayyah and his colleagues to make a crucial difference.