Center for Strategic Communication

Two months ago, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the leading Jihadi-Salafi scholar known for his fierce opposition to the Islamic State and support for al-Qaida, released an essay that was widely interpreted as a softening of his position toward the Islamic State. As Hassan Hassan recently pointed out, al-Maqdisi has made other pronouncements of late that would seem to point in the same direction, including a December 2015 tweet in which he said: “There is nothing to stop me from reassessing my position towards the [Islamic] State and enraging the entire world by supporting it…”

But is al-Maqdisi really ready to reassess his position? The answer is no, though he has added a little nuance and hope to it over the past year. In the same tweet, al-Maqdisi conditioned his potential reassessment on “the Islamic State reassessing its position toward excommunicating, killing, and slandering those Muslims who oppose it.” He knows that this is not in the offing.

Al-Maqdisi has actually always been a bit softer on the Islamic State than some of his peers in the jihadi scholarly community. The differences between them and himself come out clearly in his most recent essay, but have actually been on display in his writings for almost a year now. The differences center on two key questions: Should the Islamic State be considered a group of Kharijites (in reference to the radical early Islamic sect by that name)? And should it be fought proactively or only in self-defense? Al-Maqdisi is against labeling them as Kharijites, and he is against fighting them proactively. It is a position with potential implications for the future unity of the Jihadi-Salafi movement—or so he would like to think.

Four scholars and a fatwa

In assessing al-Maqdisi’s position, it is helpful to view him in the company of three other jihadi scholars of like mind, age, and stature: Abu Qatada al-Filastini (b. 1960), Hani al-Siba‘i (b. 1961), and Tariq ‘Abd al-Halim (b. 1948). Like al-Maqdisi (b. 1959), Abu Qatada is of Palestinian origin and lives openly in Jordan; al-Siba‘i and ‘Abd al-Halim are Egyptians living openly in London and Canada, respectively. In September 2015, in the first installment of his (very boring) six-part audio series on “the Islamic Spring,” al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri singled out these four for praise, describing them as strong supporters of al-Qaida amid the controversy surrounding the Islamic State. Yet while Zawahiri lauded these “scholars of jihad” for remaining “steadfast upon the truth,” they were not all on the same message when it came to confronting the so-called caliphate.

The differences between them began to surface in the aftermath of a fatwa issued jointly by al-Maqdisi, Abu Qatada, and several others in early June 2015. Al-Maqdisi had already, a year earlier, denounced the Islamic State as a “deviant” group that should be abandoned in favor of al-Qaida. This fatwa was his first public statement on the permissibility of fighting the group. It was prompted by the Islamic State’s assault on certain Syrian Islamist groups in the Suran area of Hama, Syria. Describing the Islamic State as “the Baghdadi-ists” (al-Baghdadiyyin), it authorized repelling their assault on the grounds that doing so was legitimate “defense of the assault of those assailing Muslim lands.” Whether the assailants were Muslim or not was beside the point, the fatwa stated. The Islamic State was oppressive, aggressive, and flawed in methodology.

For al-Siba‘i and ‘Abd al-Halim, however, the fatwa did not go nearly far enough in condemning the Islamic State. Responding on social media, the two Egyptians decried the term “Baghdadi-ists”—a weak insult and an offense to Baghdad—and called for a more proactive approach. Al-Siba‘i wrote that fighting the Islamic State should not be limited by the principles of defensive warfare, as this would all but ensure further aggression by the group. Its fighters would retreat to safety only to return once again “to cut off heads and blow things up in homes, mosques, and markets.” ‘Abd al-Halim made the same argument, adding that the Islamic State should be fought so as “to root them out” and that its members ought to be described as Kharijites. The spat attracted some media attention, with one site making a collage of the four scholars.

Resisting the Kharijite label

The battle lines seemed clear enough. Al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada were on one side, al-Siba‘i and ‘Abd al-Halim on the other. But there was also a minor difference between al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada concerning the appropriateness of pronouncing the Islamic State Kharijites. Al-Maqdisi refrained from doing so, while Abu Qatada did so liberally. The difference, however, as both have admitted, was only surface deep.

In late June 2015, following the jointly issued fatwa, Abu Qatada issued another fatwa on the same subject, which al-Maqdisi endorsed. Titled “A Fatwa Concerning Defending Against the Assault of the Kharijites,” it came in response to some Libyan questioners facing a conundrum. Jihadis themselves who were fighting the Islamic State, they had qualms about wishing ill on the “the Kharijites” (i.e., the Islamic State) when they came under aerial attack by the forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar, leader of one side in Libya’s civil war. Abu Qatada assured his correspondents that their wishes were appropriate, but he reminded them that these “Kharijites” were still preferable to the “apostates” constituting Haftar’s forces. He clarified that by “Kharijites” he did not mean all those fighting on behalf of the Islamic State, but only “its leaders, commanders, and overseers.”

As his endorsement indicates, al-Maqdisi’s views were the same. But he resisted using the Kharijite label even with Abu Qatada’s qualification.

In a short essay written about the same time as Abu Qatada’s fatwa, titled “Why Have I Not Called Them Kharijites Even Till Now?” al-Maqdisi explains his reasoning. He begins by noting that many jihadis who oppose the Islamic State, which he describes as “the State Group” (Jama‘at al-Dawla), have lambasted him for refusing to use the Kharijite label. Some have even purportedly told him “that many men and scholars have temporized in fighting them, using the fact that I do not call them Kharijites as evidence.” But al-Maqdisi says it is wrong for anyone to see in his reluctance to use the term any indication of “praise or accommodation.” For, he affirms, some of the group’s members are “worse than Kharijites.” To illustrate the point, he relates part of the story of his attempted negotiation with the Islamic State for the life of the Jordanian pilot Mu‘adh al-Kasasiba, who was immolated in a well-known video released in February 2015. That the negotiation was a hoax dawned on al-Maqdisi when the group sent him a password-protected file containing the video, the password being “al-Maqdisi the cuckold…” (This confirms the Guardian report with similar details.) Al-Maqdisi holds Islamic State leaders Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani personally responsible for the slight. They are Kharijites through-and-through.

Yet for al-Maqdisi, the fact remains that not all of the Islamic State’s members are Kharijites. He does not fault Abu Qatada for using the label with qualification, but he will not use it himself since “most people do not know and do not understand this qualification.” The Kharijite label might lead people to fight the Islamic State “in order to root them out,” which would only serve “the interests of the idolatrous rulers,” the West, and the Shia. One must, he says, still hope that the Islamic State prevails against these enemies, notwithstanding its deviations. One cannot “support the apostates against them.” He also suggests that declining to call the group Kharijites could help in reaching out to certain of its fighters and in encouraging them to repent.

Not to be rooted out

In mid-March 2016, al-Maqdisi released the essay mentioned at the top of this post. It is mostly an extended justification of his position toward the Islamic State. He notes that “most of [the Islamic State’s] enemies” find his position “oppressive” but that he is going to stick to his guns, defending “the State Group” against the charge of Kharijism and criticizing those who fight it “in order to root it out.” According to his own account, al-Maqdisi delayed releasing the essay several times lest it appear at a “bad time” and be interpreted as justifying the Islamic State’s crimes. But with many in the Syrian opposition cooperating with the West and Turkey to fight the group, even accepting Western arms and directing the airstrikes of the U.S.-led coalition, he decided the time was finally right. The Islamic State, for all its faults, is still in al-Maqdisi’s opinion preferable to groups fighting on behalf of democracy—a form of polytheism in his opinion—and seeking the help of nonbelievers against Muslims—the Islamic State’s members still being Muslims in his view.

Al-Maqdisi reiterates his view that the Islamic State is not to a man a group of Kharijites, and argues that, even if it were, this is irrelevant. For even the Kharijites were still Muslims, he says, claiming the support of the majority view of Sunni Muslim scholars throughout history.

What has upset him in particular is the use—or misuse—by certain opposition groups in Syria of two Islamic texts concerning the Kharijites. The first is a statement attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, who says of the Kharijites that “if I could reach them, I would kill them as the the ‘Adites were killed.” The ‘Adites, as described in the Qur’an, were a recalcitrant Arabian tribe who rejected the preaching of the Prophet Hud, one of Muhammad’s prophetic predecessors. The importance of Muhammad’s statement lies in its suggestion that he would fight the Kharijites aggressively, not just in self-defense. The second text is a fatwa to the same effect by Ibn Taymiyya, the fourteenth-century Hanbali scholar from Syria whose writings form the theological backbone of Salafism. Ibn Taymiyya describes the Kharijites as worse than mere political “rebels,” ruling that they should be pursued until destroyed. Both texts thus suggest a “rooting out” approach to the Kharijites.

Al-Maqdisi argues that such texts are inapplicable to the case of the Islamic State. He rejects the comparison of the group with the early Kharijites for the reason that the Islamic State has good intentions—indeed better intentions than many of its opponents in the Syrian theater—while the early Kharijites did not. In his view the Islamic State is seeking, however misguidedly, to implement God’s law, and so possesses “an exculpatory interpretation” (ta’wil). This is in contrast with the early Kharijites, who rebelled against God’s law.

Al-Maqdisi also expresses hope that the Islamic State can reform itself, noting the potential for more moderate elements in the group to take over. “I know,” he says, “as the Shaykh [Abu Qatada al-Filastini] knows, that in the [Islamic] State are those who oppose al-‘Adnani and even hope that he and those extremists like him will fade.”

As was to be expected, the Islamic State’s opponents censured al-Maqdisi for allegedly softening his position toward it. In early April, he responded with a statement printed in the Jordanian press, avowing that he had not changed his mind at all: he still condemns the Islamic State’s actions in terms of spilling Muslim blood and believes that Muslims should fight it in self-defense.

An eternal olive branch

In considering al-Maqdisi’s hopeful outlook, one should recall just how wrong he has been about the Islamic State before. In early 2014, he thought he could bring about a reconciliation between the Islamic State and al-Qaida. He wrote to al-Baghdadi and one of his chief religious authorities, Turki al-Bin‘ali, only to be spurned. A year later, he was duped by the group for a whole month into thinking he was negotiating for the pilot al-Kasasiba, only to be spurned again. His read on the Islamic State does not appear to be very good. The optimist in him cannot help but ceaselessly extend the olive branch.

It is also important to note that al-Maqdisi has failed to set the tone of al-Qaida’s messaging vis-à-vis the Islamic State. Just this week, Ayman al-Zawahiri deployed the Kharijite label against the group for the first time, describing it as “neo-Kharijites.” Zawahiri still called for unity among jihadis in the face of the “crusader” aggression, but the hardening of his rhetoric seems at odds with al-Maqdisi’s more hopeful expressions. The Syrian al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, meanwhile, has long referred to the Islamic State as Kharijites, even using the Prophet’s statement about the ‘Adites. The jihadi civil war is nowhere near over.