By: Qays Arthur
O Allah show us truth as truth and grant us the ability to pursue it. And show us falsehood as falsehood and grant us the ability to avert it.
In the west the militant group ISIS (now calling themselves IS) is constantly described as a Sunni group and they obviously deem themselves to be such. Indeed their claim of being a legitimate political entity rests, to a great degree, on that assertion. But how true is it? I ask that question not merely out of curiosity, but rather to make a broader point which is forthcoming with Allah’s permission.
After taking in some of the declarations of the Sunni ‘Ulama in the Levant on this matter, I took it upon myself to look at the sources that ISIS supporters on the Internet refer people to for guidance and made some other inquiries in order to get an idea of what their orientation is. Since this was done to address an English speaking audience and since time is not unlimited for such pursuits, I confined myself to English-speakers who publicly support ISIS and engage in apologetics for them and have come to a conclusion based on that inquiry. But before commenting further, this discussion would not be complete without first mentioning something about what is meant, in terms of scholarship, by the term Sunni.
Just for clarity, even though it is well known, Sunnis are those Muslims who, in the main, adhere to the four well-known schools or Jurisprudence (Hanafi, Maliki, etc.) and the two well-known schools of Creed (Ash’ari and Maturidi). I will now briefly mention what some recognized authorities have said just to reinforce that understanding. This is not a matter that is open for dispute, as with all definitions it is not universally accurate and does not address exceptions yet it is an accurate and useful definition. Those who disagree with this understanding of what Sunni scholarship is disagree, not with me, but with the following authorities.
Imam al-Khayali (15th century): “The Ash’aris they are Ahlus Sunna wal Jama’a in the lands of Khurusan, Iraq, and Sham as well as in most places, and in the lands ‘beyond the river’ it refers to the Maturidis…” (Hashiya ‘ala Sharh al-’Aqa’id)
Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Hajar al-Haythami (16th century) mentioned leaving the Sunna as a major sin saying: “what is meant by ‘the Sunna’ is that which the two imams of Ahlus Sunna wal Jama’a, Shaykh Abul Hasan al-Ash’ari and Abu Mansur al-Maturidi were upon, while bid’a is that which groups of bid’a, that oppose the creed of those two imams, are upon…” (Al-Zawajir ‘an Iqtiraf al-Kabair).
Allama Ibn ‘Abidin (19th century): “Ahlus Sunna wal Jama’a, they are the Ash’aris and Maturidis…” (Rad al-Muhtar)
Allama al-Qarafi (13th century): “I have seen from Ibn Salah words to the effect that: taqlid is restricted to these, the four imams and none beside…” (Al-Hitab’s Mawahib al-Jalil)
Hafidh Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali (13th century): “We have already pointed out the reason that it is prohibited i.e.: following other than the four imams and it is due to other schools not having become pervasive and systematized…” (Al-Rad ‘ala Man Itabi’a ghair al-Madhhib al-’Arba’a)
Allama ‘Abdul Ghani al-Nabulsi (18th century): “As regards following any of their schools, other than the four, it is not permitted…” (Khulasa al-Tahqiq fi Masail al-Taqlid wa al-Talfiq)
The Claim Regarding ISIS
Now having said that, and having looked at the sources that ISIS’s public supporters point people to, I must conclude and indeed confirm that ISIS, far from being Sunni, is in reality a deviant fringe offshoot of already deviant groups that has its own distinct understanding of Islamic Law and creed based on aberrant and contrary opinions from within the general corpus of Sunni scholarship.
The following facts attest to my claim above:
- ISIS was publicly part of Al-Qaeda which is a Jihadi group.
- I have been able to verify that since overrunning Raqqa in Syria they began teaching from the books: Kitab al-Tawhid and Kashf al-Shubuhat both of Muhammad ibn ‘Abdul Wahab, and Nawaqidh al-Islam of Bin Baz.
- Their followers on social media identify personalities like Sulayman al-’Alwan, Abu Ali al-Anbari, and in Jordan, dispute and confirm matters with such figures as Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Sayyaf Mohammad al-Shalabi. Those individuals are taken as authorities.
- Online supporters refer people to websites like ghuraba.info which is essentially a shrine to Ibn Hazm, a sharp-tongued, literalist whose absurd and irrational arguments make him the perfect authority for those who want to attack Islam, like Pope Benedict II, and those who want to follow their desires, like those on ghuraba.info. On that website readers can find a host of aberrations and absurdities including that a man may look at any part of a woman he intends to marry*, that committing a sin actually invalidates a fast*, that qiyas is not part of Islamic Law*, and that Muslim rulers today are not Muslim*. Imam al-Juwaini and Imam al-Nawawi are also referred to as “bigoted partisans”*.
Thus it may be said that ISIS depends on figures like Muhammad ibn ‘Abdul Wahab and Ibn Hazm for guidance in creed and jurisprudence. Indeed while in their writings, when it suits them, they quote authorities like Imam Ibn ‘Abidin, and Imam al-Qurtubi, when they need to decide on a matter they invariably return to a contemporary acting outside any school of thought or Ibn Hazm. That approach should not be mistaken for true Sunni scholarship.
Muhammad ibn ‘Abdul Wahab and Ibn Hazm were criticized and warned against by Sunni authorities of the past. Imam Ibn Hajr al-’Asqalani, Imam Ibn Hajr al-Haythami, Imam ibn ‘Abd al-Bar, and Imam Ibn Kathir, to name but a few, pointed out the aberrations of Ibn Hazm, and Al-Hafidh Ahmad bin Sadiq al-Ghumari, Shaykh ‘Abdullah bin ‘Abdul Latif (a teacher of Ibn ‘Abdul Wahab), Shaykh Muhammad al-Nafilati (Mufti of Quds), and Imam Muhammad Zahid al-Kawthari (deputy Shaykh al-Islam of the Ottoman Empire), and Shaykh al Islam Ahmad Zayni Dahlan (Shafi’i Mufti of Makkah) again to name a few, pointed out that Ibn ‘Abdul Wahab was astray. As regards contemporaries like al-’Alwan, Abu Sayyaf and others, they are clearly Wahabi in Aqida and do not adhere to any school of Jurisprudence and thus are not regarded as authorities by mainstream contemporary Sunni authorities such as Shaykh Abdul Malik al-Sa’adi, Shaykh Karim Rajih and others who are acquainted with the current politics and armed resistance in Syria and Iraq.
That being the case it would seem that ISIS is deviant in terms of both Aqida and Fiqh and that means that they are fasiqun (corrupt) and people of bid’a (blameworthy innovation in religion) and can therefore never be regarded as any more legitimate in their claims to political leadership than other fasiqun – whether it be the kings of Banu Ummaya or the rulers of Iran who implemented the hudud (Shari’ah capitol and corporal punishments) or any of the many Muslim states that don’t implement them.
The substance of this conclusion, it must be said, is not merely my opinion but rather it is my independent, albeit novice attempt to reinforce what groups of Sunni ‘Ulama like Al-Majlis al-Islami al-Suri, and Rabita ‘Ulama al-Sham and other groups of mainstream Sunni ‘Ulama in the afflicted areas have declared.
Now what is significant about the error of ISIS’s scholastic methodology, apart from its implication regarding their claims of political legitimacy, is that it makes them unaccountable to any sound system of law thereby allowing them to do just whatever they like. And when you combine that with lawlessness, and guns they are no longer simply non-Sunni or fasiq but they are dangerous and are, as rulers, capable of a staggering degree of tyranny – which the world may already be witnessing (I say may because there are so many lies about the group, it gives one pause).
Finally, in all this there is a lesson about knowledge. ISIS is a fitna that is a consequence of a neglect of knowledge and training in the Prophetic way. For many of us, to say nothing of our children, know very little of what it means to be Sunni in terms of knowledge. Now 100 or 200 years ago, when many of our fathers may have been illiterate and disadvantaged, such a state of affairs may have been normal and acceptable, such people only needed to know how to pray, fast, and who to go to for their questions according to their local status quo.
But today many of us live in metropolitan and post-colonial settings and we are educated, and/or have our children educated, in a manner that estranges us from our histories and identities. And thus educated, we travel, can articulate and even arm ourselves, and use technology and skills to support all sorts of things including violent movements that have a real impact on real conflicts. In such an age, the kind of ignorance that makes us and our children vulnerable to the facade of authenticity that groups like ISIS present is not only inexcusable, but it is potentially lethal to life, honor, and our very faith in our Lord, Most High.
We simply cannot afford to continue to treat knowledge of Deen as secondary matter.
May Allah grant the Umma guidance and well-being.
* All of these claims were made on the website “ghuraba.info” which was active at the time this article was first written but is no longer online.