Do Excellent Surgeons Make Miserable Exegetes?

Negotiating the Sunni Tradition in the ǧihādī Camps

In: Die Welt des Islams

This article is an attempt to explore how ǧihādī authors make use of the Sunni tradition to bolster their case. Islamicists have rarely embarked on such a discussion, given the tendency to a priori chastise extremist authors for their untenable misrepresentation of Islam. Similarly, ǧihādī arguments are frequently tossed aside as an already familiar rehashing of an insignificant, isolated stream of thought that stretches directly from Ibn Taimīya via Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb to Saiyid Quṭb. In revisiting this claim, I employ a close reading of the crucial ǧihādī manual al-ʿUmda fī iʿdād al-ʿudda li-l-ǧihād fī sabīl Allāh (The Essential Guide of Preparation for ǧihād on the Path of God), written in the mid-1980s in the context of Afghanistan by an influential ideologue who is widely known as Dr. Faḍl. After presenting and evaluating a selection of the religious sources and authorities on which the author draws, the article enters into a discussion of his political thought. I argue that Dr. Faḍl makes a convincing case for a political project in the camps that is deeply embedded within the Sunni tradition. Reading Ibn Taimīya faithfully, Dr. Fadl does not turn him in into a proponent of violence against the ruler. Rather, the author sticks to the profound quietism the Damascene scholar is known for, thereby questioning supposedly established, clear-cut paths of reception.


  • 2

    Khaled Abou El Fadl, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), 33-44.

  • 3

    Hamadi Redissi and Jan-Erik Lane, “Does Islam Provide a Theory of Violence?”, in The Enigma of Islamist Violence, eds. Amélie Blom et al. (London: Hurst, 2007), 45.

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  • 4

    See Alexander Knysh, “Orthodoxy and Heresy in Medieval Islam: An Essay in Reassessment”, MW 83 (1993): 49. Compare for such a view also Mohammed Arkoun, “Present-Day Islam between its Tradition and Globalization”, in Intellectual Traditions in Islam, ed. Farhad Daftary (London: I.B. Tauris, 2000), 196.

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  • 5

    Yahya Michot, Muslims under non-Muslim Rule: Ibn Taymiyya on Fleeing from Sin, Kinds of Emigration, the Status of Mardin, the Conditions for Challenging Power (Oxford: Interface, 2006).

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  • 6

    Hamid Dabashi, Islamic Liberation Theology: Resisting the Empire (London: Routledge, 2008), 44-47.

  • 7

    John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think (New York: Gallup, 2007), 55.

  • 8

    Norman Calder, “The Limits of Islamic Orthodoxy”, in Intellectual Traditions in Islam, ed. Daftary, 87f. See also Dale F. Eickelman, “Compromised Contexts: Changing Ideas of Texts in the Islamic Tradition”, in Text and Context in Islamic Societies, ed. Irene A. Bierman (Reading: Ithaca, 2004), 157.

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  • 10

    Josef van Ess, “The Logical Structure of Islamic Theology”, in Logic in Classical Islamic Culture, ed. Gustave E. von Grunebaum (Wiesbaden: O. Harrassowitz, 1970), 23. See also Knysh, “Orthodoxy and Heresy”, 52 and Tilman Nagel, Geschichte der islamischen Theologie: Von Mohammed bis zur Gegenwart (München: Beck, 1994), 246f.

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  • 11

    Louis Gardet, Les hommes de l’Islam. Approche des mentalités (Paris: Hachette, 1982), 206.

  • 12

    Nimrod Hurvitz, Competing Texts: The Relationship between al-Mawardi’s and Abu Yaʿla’s al-Ahkam al-sultaniyya (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Law School, 2007), 43.

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  • 14

    See Tilman Nagel, Die Festung des Glaubens: Triumph und Scheitern des islamischen Rationalismus im 11. Jahrhundert (München: Beck, 1988), 179-192.

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  • 15

    See Richard Bulliet, The Patricians of Nishapur: A Study in Medieval Islamic Social History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), 28-46.

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  • 17

    Jonathan Berkey, Popular Preaching and Religious Authority in the Medieval Islamic Near East (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001), 94.

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  • 18

    Khaled Abou El Fadl, Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 151f.

  • 19

    Khaled Abou El Fadl, Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 331ff.

  • 20

    Khaled Abou El Fadl, Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 18.

  • 21

    Werner Schwartz, Gˇihād unter Muslimen (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1980), 78.

  • 27

    Henri Laoust, “L’influence d’Ibn-Taimiyya”, in Islam, Past Influences and Present Challenges, eds. Alford T. Welch and Pierre Cachia (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1979), 29.

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  • 31

    Rudolph Peters, Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam (Princeton: Wiener, 2005), 44.

  • 33

    See, for example, Stefan Wild, Mensch, Prophet und Gott im Koran: Muslimische Exegeten des 20. Jahrhunderts und das Menschenbild der Moderne (Münster: Rhema, 2001), 38-47. Compare also Rudolph Peters, Islam and Colonialism: The Doctrine of Jihad in Modern History (Hague: Mouton, 1979). It is certainly true, as Ibrahim Abu Rabiʿ points out, that one can describe “Islamic resurgence as a neo-traditional Islamism, which, in many ways, has felt the impact of the West and has been compelled to forge a kind of intellectual and political synthesis in order to respond to the formidable challenge of the West” (Ibrahim Abu Rabiʿ, Intellectual Origins of Islamic Resurgence in the Modern Arab World (Albany: State Universtiy of New York Press, 1996), 44).

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  • 38

    Diaa Rashwan (ed.), The Spectrum of Islamist Movements (Berlin: Schiler, 2007), 404.

  • 39

    Lohlker, Dschihadismus, 61.

  • 40

    Lawrence Wright, “The Rebellion Within: An Al Qaeda Mastermind Questions Terrorism”, New Yorker, 2 June 2008.

  • 46

    Camille Tawil, Brothers in Arms: The Story of Al-Qa’ida and the Arab Jihadists (London: Saqi, 2010), 38.

  • 47

    Lohlker, Dschihadismus, 61.

  • 48

    Rashwan, Islamist Movements, 429.

  • 49

    William McCants (ed.), Militant Ideology Atlas (West Point: Combating Terrorism Center, 2006), available at http://www.ctc.usma.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Atlas-­ResearchCompendium1.pdfp (accessed 14 February 2012), 10. The figure “15805” should be treated with caution, though. The atlas neither makes clear to what period of time the “downloaded” and “read” listings belong nor what kind of criteria was applied for labeling texts as primarily dealing with ǧihād.

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  • 50

    Gilles Kepel, The Roots of Radical Islam (London: Saqi, 2005), 80f., 206 and 235f.; Krämer, Gottes Staat als Republik, 35.

  • 52

    Compare for this point also Little, “Historiographical Significance”: 324 or Hassan, “Modern Interpretations”, 350.

  • 56

    See Baber Johansen, “Staat, Recht und Religion im sunnitischen Islam: Können Muslime einen religionsneutralen Staat akzeptieren?”, in Der Islam in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, ed. Heiner Marré (Münster: Aschendorff, 1986), 28f.

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  • 57

    See Thomas Schmidt, “Postsäkulare Theologie des Rechts: Eine Kritik der ‘radikalen Orthodoxie’”, in Biblische Aufklärung: Die Entdeckung einer Tradition, eds. Martin Frühauf and Werner Löse (Frankfurt am Main: Knecht, 2005), 103.

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  • 68

    Emile Tyan, Histoire de l’organisation judiciaire en pays d’Islam (Leiden: Brill, 1960), 229.

  • 72

    Compare Josef van Ess, “Disputationspraxis in der islamischen Theologie: Eine vorläufige Skizze”, Revue des Études Islamiques,44 (1976): 25. Dr. Faḍl’s main (contemporary) opponents in al-ʿUmda are the Salafī and ḥadīṯ-specialist Nāṣir ad-Dīn Muḥammad al-Albānī (d. 1999), the Jordanian Salafī ʿAlī b. Ḥasan al-Ḥalabī al-Aṯarī, the Yemeni Salafī Muqbil b. Hādī al-Wādiʿī (d. 2001) and the Syrian scholar Muḥammad b. Mahmūd al-Ḥamīd (d. 1969). See for a more detailed discussion Fuchs, Proper Signposts,104ff. and 109-113. See for other ǧihādī authors attacking al-Albānī and al-Ḥalabī also Lav, Radical Islam, 107-119 and 140-166.

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  • 97

    Badry, Die zeitgenössische Diskussion, 149. See for the circumstances of revelation (asbāban-nuzūl)commonly discussed regarding this verse, al-ʿUmda, 150-155. Stefan Wild points out that the believers are only on two occasions in the Qurʾān commanded to obey someone other than the Prophet (Wild, Mensch, Prophet und Gott, 38).

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  • 107

    See, for example, Wagemakers, A Quietist Jihadi, 71.

  • 121

    Ignaz Goldziher, Vorlesungen über den Islam (Heidelberg: Winter, 1963), vol. 2, 59.

  • 146

    For such a view see Joseph Norment Bell, Love Theory in Later Hanbalite Islam (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1979), 92. See also Laoust, L’Influence d’Ibn Taimiyya, 25. The evaluation of Ibn al-Qaiyim as an unoriginal thinker, which goes back at least to Ibn Ḥaǧar al-ʿAsqalānī (see al-Matroudi, The Ḥanbalī School, 135), has been challenged by Baber Johansen in his discussion on proofs for criminal investigations. See Baber Johansen, “Signs as Evidence: The Doctrine of Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328) and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1351) on Proof”, ILS 9, 2 (2002): 168-193. Additionally, Livnat Holtzman has recently found Ibn al-Qaiyim to creatively expand on Ibn Taimīya’s concept of free will (Livnat Holtzman, “Human Choice, Divine Guidance and the Fiṭra Tradition: The Use of Hadith in Theological Treatises by Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya”, in Ibn Taymiyya and his Times, ed. Rapoport, 163-188).

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  • 147

    Birgit Krawietz, “Ibn Qaiyim al-Jawzīyah: His Life and Works”, Mamlūk Studies Review 10, 2 (2006): 41. Krawietz does not make it clear, however, whether this constitutes her personal evaluation only or if she intends to summarize the perception of the Iʿlām. The latter possibility strikes the reader as unlikely since she herself points out that Ibn al-Qaiyim’s works soon fell into oblivion and “were largely forgotten” during Ibn Raǧab’s (d. 795/1392) times (ibid., 27). Already Goldziher noticed that the Iʿlām played an important role for reformist Islam since the magazine al-Manār (Goldziher, Vorlesungen über den Islam, 339). See also Krämer, Gottes Staat als Republik, 54-61.

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  • 149

    Krawietz, “Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya”, 50.

  • 159

    Hanna Mikhail, Politics and Revelation: Māwardī and After (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995), 70, fn. 81. Mikhail holds that Abū Yaʿlā’s work is principally a reproduction of Māwardī’s book with the addition of Ḥanbalī references. Similiarly, ­Nimrod Hurvitz concludes that Abū Yaʿlā “does not treat the Ahkam as a collective project made up of the collected opinions of major jurists but rather as a limited Hanbali project” (Hurvitz, Competing Texts, 32).

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  • 168

    See Fuchs, Proper Signposts, 89.

  • 180

    See Werner Ende, Arabische Nation und islamische Geschichte: Die Umayyaden im Urteil arabischer Autoren des 20. Jahrhunderts (Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1977), 91-101.

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  • 184

    Patricia Crone, God’s Rule: Government and Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 231.

  • 185

    See Hamilton A. R. Gibb, “Al-Māwardī’s Theory of the Khilāfāh”, Islamic Culture 11, 3 (1937): 291-302. This view has been challenged by Abou El Fadl who empasizes that resolving conflict and maintaining order are simply priorities of the jurists’ legal culture (Abou El Fadl, Rebellion and Violence, 9).

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  • 186

    Hamilton A. R. Gibb, “Al-Māwardī’s Theory of the Khilāfāh”, Islamic Culture 11, 3 (1937): 139. See also ʿAlī b. Muḥammad b. Ḥabīb al-Baṣrī al-Māwardī, al-Aḥkām as-sulṭānīya wa-l-wilāyāt ad-dīnīya, ed. Muḥammad Fahmī as-Sarǧānī(Cairo: al-Maktaba al-Taufiqīya, 1978), 7.

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  • 192

    Ibid., 72, 90ff. For a discussion of the extent to which al-Gˇuwaīnī’s remarks were “ein rein hypothetischer Fall”, see Nagel, Festung des Glaubens, 307.

  • 196

    Abou El Fadl, Rebellion and Violence, 211.

  • 198

    Wael B. Hallaq, A History of Islamic Legal Theories: An Introduction to Sunnī uṣūl al-fiqh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 137 and 217.

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  • 199

    Cook, Commanding Right, 390.

  • 200

    See, for example, al-ʿUmda, 168.

  • 201

    Patricia Crone, God’s Caliph, 230. For a similar view, see Gibb, Al-Māwardī’s Theory, 299f. Even though Khaled Abou El-Fadl takes issues with labeling the jurists primarily as pragmatists, he, too, notes the evasive character of al-Māwardī and others. See Abou El Fadl, Rebellion and Violence, 174.

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  • 214

    Compare Badry, Die zeitgenössische Diskussion, 265-281. Specifically, the model bears striking similarities with suggestions by ʿAbd al-Wahhāb b. Ḫallāf who envisioned a legislative assembly consisting solely of muǧtahids. See Felicitas Opwis, “Maṣlaḥa in Contemporary Islamic Legal Theory”, ILS 12, 2 (2005): 212f.

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  • 217

    Malcolm H. Kerr, Islamic Reform: The Political and Legal Theories of Muḥammad ʿAbduh and Rashīd Riḍā (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), 163ff. Roswitha Badry holds that Ibn Taimīya, when pushed, would probably come down with the obligation of the imām to consult and maybe even to apply the advice of scholars if a) he himself is not a muǧtahid and b) the topic falls within the aḥkām aš-šarīʿa. See Badry, Die zeitgenösssische Diskussion,100.

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  • 219

    Crone, God’s Caliph, 277. Even though one can of course still accuse Dr. Faḍl of remaining vague with his project of an Islamic state, I would argue that his discussion goes beyond Joas Wagemakers' finding of him remaining “silent” on the issue of how to turn the gains of ǧihād into a political project. See Wagemakers, A Quietist Jihadi, 82.

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  • 220

    Hurvitz, Competing Texts, 46.

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