ISIS’ Rejection of Religious Authority

Global Challenges Counter-extremism

ISIS’ Rejection of Religious Authority

Posted on: 21st October 2014
Adam Hoffman
Hebrew University of Jerusalem, PhD Candidate

On 29 June 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) announced the establishment of the caliphate, supposedly based on the Prophet Muhammad's example, ruled by the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and demanding the allegiance of all Muslims. The caliphate declaration, which was made on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, was presented as 'the promise of Allah' and as a gift from ISIS to Muslims worldwide in celebration of the start of Ramadan. However, far from welcoming this 'gift' with open arms, the statement was rejected by the vast majority of Muslim scholars and leaders, ranging from salafi-jihadi ideologues to Sufi clerics. But in its statement, ISIS didn't appear to desire the support of Muslim scholars (as might have been expected from an organisation claiming religious justification for its actions); instead, it appeared to present a radically different conception of the source of its religious authority.

The caliphate statement was ambitious in its scope. Claiming to overturn the geopolitical order of the Middle East, it declared the sweeping away of the borders between Syria and Iraq. Ultimately, according to ISIS' vision, these would be followed by the elimination of all other borders dividing its conception of the Muslim world (stretching from al-Andalus [Spain] to as-Seen[China]). Further, ISIS announced that "with this declaration of [a caliphate], it is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to the caliph Ibrahim [al-Baghdadi] and support him (may Allah preserve him). The legality of all [other] emirates, groups, states, and organisations, becomes null by the expansion of the [caliphate's] authority and arrival of its troops to their areas". Specifically addressing the members of other jihadi movements, the organisation declared that "as for you, O soldiers of the platoons and organisations, know that after this consolidation and the establishment of the [caliphate], the legality of your groups and organisations has become invalid". This bold move saw ISIS claiming for itself the only legitimate authority over Muslims worldwide and leadership of the global jihadi movement.

"ISIS claimed for itself authority over all Muslims and leadership of the global jihadi movement."

However, the 'caliphate' was rejected by many Muslims across the world. In direct opposition to ISIS' claim to authority was an open letter signed by more than 120 Islamic scholars, accusing ISIS of distorting 'Islam into a religion of harshness, brutality, torture and murder'. Furthermore, the signatories accused ISIS of insufficient knowledge of the Qur'an and the Hadith to issue religious rulings legitimately, and asked 'who gave you authority over the ummah[the global Muslim community]?' Instead of through the imposition of a single group, the letter argued, 'the caliphate must emerge from a consensus of Muslim countries, organisations of Islamic scholars and Muslims across the globe'. Other opponents came from the salafi-jihadi community: those most sympathetic to ISIS' goals and methods. Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a prominent Jordanian cleric who is widely regarded as one of the foremost salafi-jihadi ideologues, called ISIS 'a deviant organisation'. Other Islamist movements warned that ISIS' statement is 'mere rhetoric without any weight'.

The criticisms contained in the open letter - both in the form of argument and in the citation of classical Islamic sources - are rooted in the authority of the ulama (Islam's traditional religious experts) and the requirements of consensus in the Muslim community for the establishment of a caliphate. This classical view of Islamic authority depends on a well-known Hadith: "the ulamaare the heirs of the prophets" due to their advanced knowledge and higher learning of the Islamic faith. While the position of the ulama has increasingly been contested in modern times, religious knowledge is still considered a prerequisite for issuing religious rulings.

"ISIS sees the combat victories of its fighters as the basis of its authority."

But ISIS doesn't acknowledge this premise. Its critics declare that the group lacks the necessary religious knowledge and has an oversimplified understanding of Islam, but ISIS projects a different source of authority: one that does not rely on the scholarly authority of the ulama. In a documentary showing ISIS-controlled Raqqa, one of the group's fighters said that 'after the Prophets come the mujahedin [those fighting jihad]". This statement is likely bravado in front of a camera, but it shows how ISIS' understanding of their authority pervades the organisation. It was demonstrated again after the group's seizure of Mosul: when the Muslim religious leadership of the city refused to swear allegiance to Baghdadi, they were executed by ISIS. Indeed, the very timing of ISIS' declaration of a caliphate, following as it did a rapid expansion of the group's territory, indicates the group's conception of the source of its authority and claim to power.

ISIS' brutal actions, surprising territorial gains in Iraq and Syria and military victories against other forces in the region grant it, in its view, the legitimacy to establish a caliphate and demand the allegiance of Muslim believers and jihadists from all over the world. The traditional expertise and erudition of the ulama is replaced with a form of power grabbing familiar from modern-day realpolitik. In this new formula, the combat victories of the ISIS mujahedin are seen as the basis of legitimate Islamic authority and leadership.

In trying to advance its cause and bolster the legitimacy of its caliphate, ISIS has repeatedly stressed its strict adherence to Islamic tradition and reliance on the Qur'an and the Hadith to justify its actions. The organisation emphasises the enforcement of Sharia in territories under its control and declares that its caliphate is modeled on the government established by the Prophet Muhammad in Medina in the earliest days of Islam. In his first public appearance in a Mosul mosque, Baghdadi even consciously based his image on the conduct and rhetoric of the Prophet.

But despite its claim to continue in the path of the Prophet Muhammad and the rule of the first Rightly Guided Caliphs, ISIS' conduct and actions constitute a sharp deviation from Islamic history rather than a pure continuation of it. While in Islamic history the legitimacy of the ruler after the death of the Prophet Muhammad was based on the consensus of the ulama and the Muslim community, ISIS justifies its rule and its demand for all Muslims to swear allegiance to Baghdadi on the "right of conquest", regardless of the position of the Muslim scholars. In other words, ISIS sees itself as a legitimate Islamic rule, and demands that others acknowledge it as such, based on its conquest of territories and the ferocity and brutality of its actions.

For an analysis of the various responses to ISIS from prominent Muslim scholars, see Muslim Scholars Denounce ISIS 'Caliphate'.

For an analysis of Dabiq, ISIS' own propaganda magazine, seeBriefing Note: ISIS In Their Own Words.

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