Theoretical Foundations of Terrorism

by Samir Yousif  (January 2011)


Due to the success of part one of this paper,* many recommended that I continue writing on similar lines.  Originally, my plan was not toward that end. But soon the theme of part 2 developed itself within my vision. The essence of this part relates to the fact that political Islam cannot but be reactionary and terrorist. Today’s facts, with no doubt, support such a conclusion. It is possible to site as many examples as necessary. A good example was the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, or today’s Saudi Arabia, The Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamic regime in Somalia (The Islamic Courts), or political Islamic movements like Taliban Pakistan, or Algeria’s Islamists, or the so-called “Islamic State in Iraq” which is the official cover for Al-Qaida's terrorist organisation there.  Actually Al-Qaida presents an excellent example of how political Islam is reactionary and terrorist by its very nature. All over the world Al-Qaida has shown the world what it is, and demonstrated its nature in areas that have been brought under its control, even for short periods of time, as happened in Al-Anbar province in Iraq. Al Qaida terrorised the areas under its control and imposed a very reactionary regime on society. This new Islamic reactionary regime was soon rejected even by its original supporters in Iraq. All these examples share one common and basic characteristic: all these regimes are reactionary, and they use terrorism as a legitimate means to cow society. In all the examples mentioned above we find that women were the first victims.

Due to the fact that the present cannot be anything more than a continuation of the past, especially in this case. I felt the need for a historic understanding of the very ideas of those who laid down today’s theoretical foundations for a conservative understanding of Islam and its call for terrorism. For precisely this reason, I will present a short history of the ideology that was used as a basis for the contemporary political movements of Sunni Muslims – the scope of this paper is confined only to the Sunni version of Islam.

One of the main features of political Islam is the use of compulsory means during both the process of introducing and implementing Islamic ideas. Of course this is a natural consequence of religious assumptions: that they have been given such a mandate from GOD himself. In order to make this theme clearer, I will go through the ideas of the main thinkers of Sunni political Islam starting with Ibn Hanbal, and through  Ibn Taymiyyah, Muhammed Ibn Abd Al-Wahab, Sayyid Qutb, and finally the well-known terror ideologist Al-Magdassi (Tawheed & Jihad). I believe that the afore-mentioned ideologists exert the most significant influence on today’s Sunni Islamism.

The four traditional sub-Sunni sects are Al-Hanafiya, Al-Shafia’a, Al-Hanbaliya and Al-Malikiya. These traditional Sunni sub-groups are basically reactionary in their nature, but did not call for terrorism, and they favoured men over women. Details of these traditional Sunni sub-groups are outside the scope of this paper, but what relates to our present discussion will be highlighted. For this reason, the basic ideas of Ibn Hanbal will be discussed in this paper.

Ibn Hanbal (780-857): reactionary thinking

During the Golden Days of Baghdad, 8th and 9th century, a real scientific development took place. It may be compared with the situation in England before the Industrial Revolution. What happened in Baghdad was that these inventors were called trick-people (??? ?????  ), and were cast out. It was the understanding of the Quran, at that time, that pushed Baghdad backwards. The prevailing religious school of thought (belonging to Ibn Hanbal) at the time of Abassid Caliph Al-Ma'mun (reigned 813-833) claimed that: everything new is innovation (Bid‘ah), and every innovation is haram, and every haram is destined to hell. This was a general rule that stopped life from moving forward. And I personally believe that this school of thought known as Hanbaliya ( ????????  ), was behind the decline of the Muslim Civilization. I regard Ibn Hanbal as one of the worst thinkers Islam has produced. A man that claimed to be what he is actually not. It was in the very interest of the ruling establishment to have an interpretation of religion that accepts the status quo, and rejects any change. It is here that I disagree with many interpretations of Islamic historians, especially those who claim that Ibn Hanbal was independent from the rule of the Caliph. The history of the Abassid Dynasty was very bloody, and all opposition groups were liquidated. Therefore, it would be illogical to assume that such an Islamic figure as Ibn Hanbal was not part of the ruling establishment. On the contrary, it was his ideas that legitimated the rule of the Abassid Family.

Although Ibn Hanbal had many works and followers, I believe that he reached such high status due to the prevailing political and religious circumstances. The reason basically relates to sectarian friction which was a significant factor in Islamic history especially at the time of Caliph Al-Ma’munun. The Caliph needed Ibn Hanbal to be nothing but another spokesman for the establishment. Ibn Hanbal successfully added to Islam what came to be called conservative Islam, and he became the originator of reactionary thinking.

The relevance of the doctrines of Hanbalia to our present work, relates to the simple fact that Wahabia, that rules Saudi Arabia today, is an extension of the same school of thought.

Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328): Call for Hatred

To further understand conservative Islam and fundamentalism, we need to have a look at the work of Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328), and later Muhammad Ibn Abd Al Wahab (1703-1792)

Although Ibn Taymiyyah was the representative of the Hanbal school of thought, and was not different from Ibn Hanbal in his general understanding of Islam, his understanding was linked to the concept of Jihad. For Ibn Taymiyyah, Jihad is superior to all forms of worship, and religious rituals. He also called for Jihad against Muslims who had a different set of laws other than Sharia. This fact makes the ideas of Ibn Taymiyyah very close to the ideology of modern terrorism. Actually his ideas are fully accepted by today’s extremists. Maybe circumstances prevailing during his days pushed him to such an understanding of Islam and Jihad. But his extreme views were never accepted at his time. Ibn Taymiyyah, like Ibn Hanbal, considered those Muslims who disagreed with his interpretation of religion to be non-Muslims, and that they should be liquidated. It is this fatwa, calling for the liquidation of the others, that makes the work of Ibn Taymiyyah nothing but a call for hatred and terrorism and legitimised the use of force and violence.

Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahab (1703-1792): Rejection of History

Centuries later, Mohammad Ibn Abd Al Wahab also accepted such radical views. Both Ibn Taymiyyah and Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahab thought that they could revive the Muslims once again through a return to Islam in its original form (Qur’anic Literalism) and by taking away all the artificial human additions. Both belonged to the Hanbaliya school of thought, and they understood Islam literally, not historically, therefore, they rejected history in the strict sense of the word. For the Quran, since its very birth, faced different interpretations (Tafseer). These interpretations developed and produced new explanations as time went by. Ibn Al Wahab rejected all these historical developments and all the Quranic Tafseer (explanations), and moved back to the point of origin. Not only that, for Ibn al Wahab assumed that his own interpretation of the Quran is the only correct interpretation. This can be compared with a man who rejects all that took place during the last 2000 years with Christianity, and accepts only what was happening during the lifetime of Jesus, and what happened afterwards is completely rejected. This is a total rejection of history, and a rejection of all the work done by the original followers of Jesus.

Although Ibn Abd Al-Wahab rejected history, he accepted the fundamentalist and conservative ideas of both Ibn Hanbal and Ibn Taymiyyah. By doing that he produced a new form of conservative Islamism that embraces the use of force against whoever disagrees with his ideas. He had rejected all previous Islamic schools of thought (Mad’hab ???????) and rejected “taqlid” (???????  ), but paradoxically, he established his own Mad’hab (school of thought). Therefore, it should be no surprise that Al-Qaida was established by a man who is a follower of Abd Al Wahab. This explains the central location of Saudi Arabia in today’s map of international terrorism. Wahabism, which is the ideology of today’s terrorists, is the official version of Saudi Islam. Those who believe in Wahabia, these days, believe that they have a religious duty to fight (Jihad) those who disagree with them. Add to that, they believe that a suicidal action that leads to the killings of non-believers is an act of martyrdom. The non-believers can be any innocent non-Wahabia Muslims, Christians, Hindu, Jews..etc.

Muhammad Ibn Abd Al Wahab allied himself with the Saud family. This alliance allowed the Saudi family to occupy all what is known today as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In return the Saudi family embraced the ideas of Ibn Abd Al-Wahab, and established a version of Wahabia Islam in the Kingdom. Due to this fact, it is very normal to witness conservative Islam in Saudi Arabia, and the application of Sharia. Stoning of women, beheading of people, cutting the hands of thieves …are all basic practices of Sharia in Saudi Arabia. It should be a surprise to no one that present-day terrorists receive all kinds of support from the Saudis.

Literalism and Fundamentalism

Having said that, I hope that the picture becomes clearer regarding the Quran (Literalism), and the explanation of the Quran. People like Ibn Taymiyyah and Abd Al Wahab rejects historical development of the understanding of the Quran, and accepts only the “text.” Other Muslims, faced with various new issues had to use the logic of religion to create new understandings that match the age they live in. As time goes by, new circumstances require different sets of understandings, and this cannot coincide with a religion that accepts no change, and considers any change to be a forbidden innovation (????).

Sayyid Qutb and the revival of Conservative Islam

Having presented through this short paper the ideas of those who lived in the past and yet influence today's extremists, it is now the time to consider the work of a man that linked the past with the present, and to him one can attribute the revival of conservative Islam in the middle of the twentieth century.

I believe that the most influential contemporary ideologist was the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb. He was well-known from his various writings and his execution by Jamal Abdul Nasser in August 1966. Sayyid Qutb was the spiritual leader of Egypt’s famous Muslim Brotherhood.  He was the author of 24 books, and he concentrated his writings on the social and political roles of Islam. The following two books: Fi Thilal Al-Qur'an (In the Shade of the Qur'an), and Ma’alim-Fi- Al-Tareek (Milestones on the Road) were pivotal in the formation of what we call today Sunni Political Islam ( ?? ???? ?????? ? ????? ?? ??????  ).

I would say that Ma’alim-Fi- Al-Tareek, was the first manifesto of Sunni political Islam in our contemporary times. Many considered the book to be the main factor in the revival of Islam and the author to be the first modern Islamic fundamentalist.

Actually, Milestones on the Road was the main book published in the twentieth century that led to the formation of Islamic political movements all over the Arab world. It was the first work that presented strong and convincing arguments to the younger generation since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. This is what makes Sayyid Qutb, in my view, the originator of modern political Islam. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire brought with it a general rejection of Islam and its teachings. This wave of rejection did not confine itself to Turkey, but generally to most of its Islamic colonies. Secularism quickly filled the void, and the ideas of Arab Nationalism and Marxism dominated the political arena. The work of Sayyid Qutb was used by the Islamists to counteract the work of Karl Marx, and the work of the Arab Nationalists.

By reviewing the idea of Sayyed Qutb as published in his various books one can notice that this Islamist writer believed in the application of Sharia as the ultimate solution for all society’s ills. He was the originator of today’s slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood: Islam is the Solution. Sayyid Qutb, like other Islamists, never looked beyond Sharia, and never questioned the consequences of applying it to present-day circumstances. 

Sharia and the Origin of Violence (munker???? )

I will present here the central weakness in Sharia. The “Prophet” Mohammed made a statement which later caused serious misunderstandings, and provided the theoretical cover for the use of violence and terror.

Mohammed said that “if you see munker [that which is unknown, strange, or contrary to Islam], you should change it by your hand, and if you can’t then change it by your tongue, and if you can’t then change it by your heart, and that is the weakest of faith.” As a consequence of the application of this basic Islamic rule (actually it became a law) people were attacked, killed, cast out..etc.  The definition of Munker is open for interpretation, and due to this, the use of violence was legitimised.

In modern times, and based upon this rule many innocent people are killed in various Muslim countries. This is not theory but reality. Let us take few examples. During the last two years more than 150 innocent girls were killed in Basra City in southern Iraq, and a similar number was reported officially in the North of Iraq. These young girls were killed because their outfits were considered to be munker, and consequently the girls were killed.  On the other hand, we find that the Saudi State in implementing the same rule established what is known in English as the Religious Police***. The duty of this special Police Force is to make sure that nobody makes munker. One might ask the Saudis: what is munker? The answer is simple. Munker is everything not accepted, or everything that is new, or different (an innovation – bid’a), but from whose point of view?…Nobody knows.

Now, you might ask: what are the consequences of all this? As mentioned above, “Prophet” Mohammed said that if you see munker then you must change it by your hand, and what is hand? It means force, or the use of force. At the times of the "Prophet” a sword is usually in the hand, which implies the use of force (the sword), and even actual killing until the munker is done with. So if a woman is driving a car in Saudi Arabia, which is munker in the opinion of many Wahabia, then everybody who meets her should kick her out of the car, or even kill her as has actually happened several times. If you go to the cinema, which is considered to be munker (this explains the absence of cinemas in Saudi Arabia) then you should expect to be killed as you leave the cinema. The cloth you wear, your hair style, shaving your beard, all this is considered to be munker. So “Prophet” Mohammed call for action by every Muslim when he encounters  a munker is actually an open call for violence. The Saudi Religious Police have on several occasions entered restaurants in Riyadh City and arrested women who were dining with their husbands because a little of their hair was seen. This is considered to be munker, and the wife was taken from her husband and away to the HQ of the Religious Police (just to cite one real example). This call for terrorism is very central to the Muslim religion in all its sects and factions, and there is a general agreement that the statement made by “Prophet” Mohammed is accepted by all (Igma’a ?????)**** .

Al-Qaida – Tawheed & Jihad ( ??????? ? ??????)

The school of thought that was presented above, in its historical sequence, presents the ideological framework for terrorism. This school of thought was further reinterpreted by an Islamist who became to be known as Al-Maqdassi. This Islamist became known as he shared the same prison with Al-Zarqawi in Amman. Al-Maqdassi played a central role in convincing other inmates to elect Al-Zarqawi to be the Amir of the Islamic Welaya (State) that they established inside the prison. All the terrorists were, later, released from prison by a Royal Jordanian Decree.

Al-Maqdassi believed in conservative Islam, and more specifically in the arguments of the Saudi Wahabism. He spent years studying the works of both Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn Abd Al-Wahab, and later became the modern representative of their school of thought. He travelled to Afghanistan and stayed in the camps of Al-Qaida, where he met Al Qaida second in command, Al-Zawahiri, and other high ranking leaders. All the works of Al-Maqdassi are devoted to conservative Islam (Tawheed) and to Jihad. This explains the widespread use of the political slogan, "Tawheed & Jihad" by al-Qaida in different countries.

Al-Maqdassi lives today in Amman, and continues to convince young men to believe in his conservative school of thought. He has numerous publications, and lectures. He also uses the internet, and calls young men to become suicidal fighters promising them eternal life in heaven.


Final word

The aim of the above was to present the ideological foundations for violence and terrorism from the work of those who had a significant influence on today’s Islamists. Although it was Sayyid Qutb who mainly contributed to the original revival of conservative Islam in the middle of the twentieth century. Yet it was Al-Maqdassi (and others), influenced by the works of Ibn Hanbal, Ibn Taymiyyah, and Ibn Abd Al-Wahab, who continue to provide both the ideology and inspiration to modern terrorism.

This paper indicates the urgent need for an ideological response to the works of people like Al-Maqdassi, and the theoretical justifications used by Al-Qaida in convincing the young to join them.


*See New English Review, "The Downfalll of Political Islam,"  December, 2010.

** WiKiLeaks recent documents revealed that Saudi Arabia (and other Gulf countries) finances terrorism, and they represent the main group.

***In Arabic:  ???? ????? ???????? ????????

****(what is known in Arabic language as: ????? ???????? ?????? ?? ??????).


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