How to Identify Jihadi-Salafists Through Their Ideology, Practices, and Methodology

How to Identify Jihadi-Salafists Through Their Ideology, Practices, and Methodology
(Mary Habeck, March 6, 2019)

Transcript available below

Watch her speaker playlist here

About the speaker

Dr. Mary Habeck lectures on al-Qaeda and ISIS, as well as on military strategy and history, at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Georgetown University, and American University.

Her recent monograph for the Heritage Foundation is titled, “The U.S. Must Identify Jihadi-Salafists through Their Ideology, Practices, and Methodology-and Isolate Them.”

She is the author of Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror (Yale, 2005) and three forthcoming sequels, Attacking America: Al-Qa’ida’s Grand Strategy; Managing Savagery: Al-Qa’ida’s Military and Political Strategies; and Fighting the Enemy: The U.S. and its War against al-Qa’ida.

She is also a Senior Fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute. From 2005-2013 she was an Associate Professor in Strategic Studies at SAIS, teaching courses on extremism, military history, and strategic thought.

Before moving to SAIS, Dr. Habeck taught American and European military history in Yale’s history department, 1994-2005. She received her PhD in history from Yale in 1996, an MA in international relations from Yale in 1989, and a BA in international studies, Russian, and Spanish from Ohio State in 1987.

Dr. Habeck was appointed by President Bush to the Council on the Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities (2006-2013), and in 2008-2009 she was the Special Advisor for Strategic Planning on the National Security Council staff.

Her other books include Storm of Steel: The Development of Armor Doctrine in Germany and the Soviet Union, 1919-1939 (2003), Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, co-editor (2001) and The Great War and the Twentieth Century, co-editor (2000).

For more on the nature of jihad, see Robert Spencer’s Westminster talk, The History of Jihad.


Robert R. Reilly:

Well, our speaker tonight is Dr. Mary Habeck who lectures on Al Qaeda and ISIS as well as military strategy and history [at] Johns Hopkins, SAIS, George Washington University, American University.

Her recent monograph for the Heritage Foundation has the title of the subject of which she will be speaking tonight: The U.S. Must Identify Jihadi-Salafists through their Ideology, Practices, Methodology and Isolate Them. I encourage you, you can go to the Heritage Foundation website and get Mary’s excellent monograph.

Now, I first encountered her renowned name when she was not quite as famous as she is now, when she first published her book, Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology in the War on Terror, and you are [writing] sequels to those?

Mary Habeck:

Yeah, I actually have one of them.

Robert R. Reilly:

One of them is finished, great. Would that be Attacking America: Al Qaeda’s Grand Strategy?

Mary Habeck:

It is.

Robert R. Reilly:


Dr. Habeck has taught American and European Military History in Yale’s History Department. I mentioned that she has taught at SAIS here in Washington. Her PhD in history is from Yale as is her Master’s in international relations.

Between 2008 and 2009, Dr. Habeck was the special advisor for strategic planning in the National Security Council staff. As a former armor officer I was particularly attracted by the title of one of your books, Storm of Steel: The Development of Armor Doctrine in Germany and the Soviet Union.

Please join me in welcoming Dr. Habeck.

Mary Habeck:

Tonight, what I am hoping to do is to give you an additional way for understanding the problems that we are confronting in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, a huge problem that did not start with 9/11 but that was pretty sharply brought to our attention by the events of 9/11.

I was a professor at Yale University at that point, teaching military history, military and strategic history, and I had however, spent the two years before 9/11, learning about Islam, ordinary Islam, not the extremists at all.

And when the attack occurred, I immediately started reading everything I could get my hands on about the extremists in order to understand the people who had carried out that horrific attack.

And what I learned was that for many of my colleagues the problem was not one out there. The problem was in fact one in America. Immediately after 9/11, there was a teach-in held at Yale University in which the brightest minds in the history and political science departments and the law department concluded that the problem we were having and the horrific events of 9/11 were caused by America’s foreign policy and that what had to change was our relationship with the world, that we in some ways deserved what happened.

I had however been reading about ordinary Islam as I mentioned in the 1990s and I recognized the language that was being used by the attackers and I understood the sorts of tropes, the appeals that they were making with this language.

So I started to read very closely the sources for ideology and what I discovered was that we were dealing with a death cult, a cult that has somewhere around .0167% of the Muslim world behind them, but one that is convinced that they can take over the entire religion and convince other Muslims to follow them and if they will not follow them willingly, they will be forced to do it through violence.

So we have seen some of that in the Middle East. Every once in a while, we hear stories about ISIS, carrying out horrific attacks or massacres. Most of what we focus on is attacks against Americans or our allies. We focus on attacks against Christians or the persecuted, the Yazidis or others.

But in fact, the vast majority of the people being killed by the extremists are other Muslims, the vast majority. In terrorist attacks its nine times as many Muslims are killed in terrorist attack as non-Muslims and when it comes to irregular warfare or insurgency in places like Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, it is almost entirely Muslims that are in fact being killed in pursuit of their goals.

So I, right from the start, understood the language being used and the religious fervor that underlay a lot of the actions that were being carried out and when I had conversations with my colleagues however, religion was dismissed as an explanatory principle for what was going on. People preferred to talk about politics, about social issues, about a lot of other things rather than talk about the religious language or even the religious belief that might be behind some of these actions.

At the same time I found that there was another developing opinion in America that what we were confronting was, in fact, all of Islam. That the problem was not some small group but that Islam itself had a serious problem, one that went back thousands of years and one that had been animating the religion from the very start. I looked into it. I spent a lot of time studying that and what I found is Islam itself went through a tremendous transformation, a real reformation, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, a reformation from which it emerged a very different religion than what it had gone into, what had begun in the mid-19th century and previously. But this is not the first time this has occurred. In fact, Islam has gone through multiple reformations. About every five hundred years it goes through a tremendous transformation. And I became convinced that we were dealing with something other than just Islam with these extremists.

So, I felt as if I were caught between two sort of arguing groups, one of which was convinced it had nothing to do with religion and one of which was convinced it had to do with all of the religion, and I disagreed with both of them profoundly.

So tonight, I am going to offer you the evidence to help you make up your own mind and perhaps, you will find yourself like me, somewhere in the middle. And, by the way, having things thrown at you from both sides.

I am a fairly conservative person. I have spent eighteen years at Yale and did not lose my conservative principles. I blame it on my mother’s Scotch-Irish stubbornness. This is where you get that from. But at the same time, writing my book was the first time I have ever been called a liberal, a progressive, by some people from the conservative side. On the other hand, I have had a lot of people on the progressive or liberal side who have spent a lot of time throwing things, sticks and stones at me, for even daring to raise the fact that something about religion might be involved with the groups that we are talking about.

So let me start and what I am going to do I hope for you is provide you with some evidence, some facts, and some interpretive frameworks for looking at these facts and making up your own mind about what is going on in the Muslim world.

The first thing that strikes me is that knowing the enemy is still something we are all struggling with. Understanding what motivates these guys, why they are carrying out these attacks and by the way, what kind of group rationale or what are their actual aims, what are their ultimate goals? How are they going about doing it?

I had conversations with people from the very start and they would say things like, ‘Well, they do not really have a plan. They just… They have an objective. They want to, you know, create the perfect Islamic State, a state they call the Caliphate, but they do not really have a strategy for doing it. They are just kind of carrying out random attacks and killing people and hoping somehow a state will develop out of this.’

And I also realized that we are having trouble defining what this enemy has to do with Islam. Some people are convinced it is all of Islam that is the problem we are dealing with. Some people are convinced it has nothing to do with Islam.

By the way, you have got a lot of groups out there that call themselves Al Qaeda and a lot of groups that say they are associated with ISIS, that say that they are somehow linked together. Are all these groups the same thing? Are all jihadist groups exactly the same? Do we have to take them all equally seriously? Are Islamist groups a problem as well? Should we take them just as seriously as we do the jihadist groups, the guys who are carrying out violence to achieve an end? Well, these other guys, some of these Islamist groups, have the same objective. They are just using different means. Shouldn’t we take them just as seriously?

And, by the way, if I asked you guys to describe the extremists, wouldn’t the first word you would use to describe them be terrorists, right? I think a lot of us have grown accustomed to calling them terrorists. I am going to make an argument that they are not terrorists at all, that they are in fact insurgents, which is a far bigger problem than simple terrorism.

So all these questions that I raise here in these three separate parts have really important policy implications. If we decide that it is all of Islam that is the problem, you have got 1.8 billion people that might be the enemy, right? On the other hand, if it has nothing to do with Islam, then we might completely misread who the enemy is likely to be recruiting and how they are likely to go about doing it, right?

If we decide really, all those fighting groups out there that call themselves Al Qaeda, the only thing that is really important is keeping ourselves safe. There are a lot of people who think that today. They think, ‘Oh, let the Middle East burn. They are just killing each other.’ I hear people say these things, right? ‘We do not need to be concerned about it except if they decide to attack us, but we might keep ourselves safe and lose the entire rest of the world.’

And by the way, if we misread what kind of enemy we are dealing with, we might suppress the enemy in one place, the instant we walk away, they come back. And we have seen it happen, I do not know, a dozen times in a dozen different countries. How many times have people gone into Somalia, trying to help fix Somalia? I mean besides the Kenyans, the Ethiopians, and AMASOM, right? The United States has been there as well. We walked in and out of Iraq and the problems simply come back. We have walked in and out of a lot of countries and the problems seem to come back every time you just walk away, it is not just us as I am going to point out in just a bit here.

So there are all sorts of things that we need to understand when we are talking about knowing the enemy. We have to understand them ideologically/religiously, we have to understand them organizationally, what they really are, what actually constitutes these groups. Is everything equally a problem? And we have to understand them as fighting groups. What are we really dealing with when we talk about these groups and their desire for violence, what kind of violence and what is their strategies? What are they hoping to really achieve?

So I am not going to probably be able to talk in-depth about all of these during the 45 minutes or hour that I have to talk but what I am hoping to do as I said is provide you with some frameworks, some evidence and some frameworks for you to be able to look at these problems and make up your own mind about them.

So first of all is ideologies. Islam as I said is 1.8 billion people. In the 1990s, that was my original interest, was just ordinary Islam not the extremists, not Islamism, not jihadism, just Islam. I felt that it was something that was going to be important in the future, so in the 1990s I spent two years doing basically master’s and PhD reading and research in order to get smart on an issue I knew nothing about. And what I discovered was a world, it is so big, it is so diverse, and the Sunni-Shia split that everybody knows about is just one piece of how big a world we are discussing. There are all sorts of different groups that we are talking about. You have got modernists, you have got traditionalists, people who are very pious and serious about the religion, and people for whom it is really a cultural thing and they, you know, sort of take it as a kind of label that you use or something that defines the holidays you decide to celebrate and not much else, right?

But there are these groups that call themselves Islamism and Salafism. Those are two separate things. They are sometimes conflated. People sometimes talk about them as if they are really the same thing, but they are really not. Islamism is actually a response to European colonialism, and it started in the 19th century. It was about ‘we have to fix our religion because we have been conquered by Europeans and they might have some ideas we can borrow or maybe we should reject them’ and there was this huge argument within the groups that later became the Islamists about whether you could actually learn from the infidels or whether you had to reject it completely and go back to the pure religion of Muhammad.

On the other hand, the Salafis – that is what used to be called Wahhabism – that was not the result of European interactions at all. It had everything to do with Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s conviction that the religion itself had been corrupted internally by the actions of other Muslims. So both of them came to the same conclusion though, that you have to purify the religion and you have to return to the way things were done at a specific period, but they chose actually very different periods to focus on. The Islamists talk about going back to the time of Muhammad and the first four followers of Muhammad, his successors or caliphs – that is what caliphs means, successor – and the Rashidun, the righteous ones who followed him. And that is what they really prioritized.

On the other hand, the Salafis wanted to go back to the twelfth century. They actually do not like the period before that. The tenth century and before? They criticize it all the time. They do not like it. So the Salafis are actually the ones that we are going to be interested in because they are the ones who gave rise eventually to the jihadi-Salafists, which is the form of the religion that is practiced by Al Qaeda, ISIS, and a lot of other extremists.

But what is jihadism? Well, this is a modern thing. Jihadiyya, -iyya at the end, is sort of used during the twentieth century and afterward to talk about turning something into a political belief or ideology of some sort, so jihadiyya, jihadism, you know was really about making jihad the center of the religion, making it all about fighting and about the struggle with the infidels. They are a tiny percentage of the Islamists, and, of course, the Salafis, I am going to talk about them in a bit, but even amongst the Islamists they were less than one percent.

So if you take a look at the Muslim Brotherhood in some countries, they believed in some countries in using violence. In other countries, they did not, so in Egypt after 1966, they stopped using violence. Before 1966, they did believe in violence and they did have a jihadist section, but it was a small section. The vast majority of Muslim Brotherhood [members] were not involved in violence. After that you had these small splinter groups. The Muslim Brotherhood was hugely cut down to size by the Egyptian government in 1966, killed off the vast majority of their leadership, and the guys who were left said, ‘we give up, we are not going to use violence anymore’.

But of course, you always have splinter groups who say, ‘We are the real IRA’, right, ‘We are the real Muslim Brotherhood.’ And they called themselves the jihad-group, the Islamic group, all sorts of names for themselves, and they engaged in violence, but they were a tiny percentage compared to the really big Islamist group, so this is about one percent [who] decided ‘we have to use violence to achieve our aims. We cannot do it through some kind of social pressure or through voting, or democracy, or anything else. You have to use violence in order to achieve your aims’.

On the other hand, the jihadi-Salafists are those few Salafists who went through about three transformations – I am going to talk about in a bit here – in order to become something quite different from the Salafism that is practiced in Saudi Arabia today. And everybody calls them jihadi-Salafists or Salafi-jihadis. It depends on who you are talking to. I call them jihadi-Salafists. The difference with them is they are convinced that only their version of Islam is the true and correct one.

Nobody has ever practiced that version of Islam ever in the entire history of Islam. I can say that with one-hundred percent certainty. They have made it up, made it up beginning in the 1960s and 70s, and it took its final form in 1988. And they have been practicing a form of religion nobody else in the entire world in the history of Islam has ever practiced, and they are imposing it first and foremost on other Muslims, usually forcibly. And if you will not do it, they will kill you, so there are a lot of Muslims being forced to practice a form of religion that they really would prefer not to, but they do not have much of a choice.

That is the jihadi-Salafists, and by the way, they have a global concept for their vision as well. The Islamists by and large are about nations. They are about Egypt, they are about Turkey, they are about Tunisia. They understand their country is one that needs Salafism, not other countries, whereas the jihadi-Salafists have a global vision. They want the whole world.

Jihadi-Salafism: Origins

So where did it come from? How can we say that this is a death cult? How can we say that it is .0167%? That is pretty specific there. Well, you have to go looking for it and you have to do a lot of work with reported numbers of people who belong to violent groups and then you have to add in for their support base behind them, but those are the numbers you come up with if you just look around the world and just add up the numbers.

So where did it come from? Well, it comes from Salafism, which as I mentioned is what everybody today calls ‘Wahhabism‘. It is the same thing, okay, and that comes from a specific place, a guy named Ibn Hanbal who founded one of the four schools of Islamic law within Sunni Islam, and a specific interpretation by a guy named Ibn Taymiyyah in the 13th and 14th centuries, and then the guy who revived him 400 years later – you notice there is a teeny-tiny bit of a gap there – named Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab.

He basically just revived Ibn Taymiyyah’s ideas and then he decided that he was going to implement these on his neighbors and friends in what later became Saudi Arabia, the Arabian Peninsula, and they took to it very kindly. They tossed him out. He was forced into exile into the center of the peninsula where he was given refuge by a guy named Ibn Saud. He married his daughter. The two formed a sort of cohesive bond that has endured to this day, and he convinced Ibn Saud to use violence to impose his vision on people not in the West but on other Muslims in Saudi Arabia. In fact, this was the difference between the Islamists and the Salafis from the beginning. The Islamists believed we have to use violence, but it is going to be used against the West, you know jihad against the infidels, whereas the Salafists believed in using violence against other Muslims first and foremost.

And he managed to seize a big chunk of the peninsula and set up the Saudi state eventually and then you have an intermixture with something rather unexpected, a guy named Sayyid Qutb, who is a Muslim Brother who believed in violence. He was a jihadist. He had a specific methodology that he believed was necessary in order to carry out this violence. He also agreed with the Wahhabis or the Salafis. He said other Muslims are to blame for our problems. They have all left real Islam and if they will not agree to go back to real Islam, we have the right to use violence against them to force them to do what we want, so kind of a meeting of minds when it came to that issue.

He also thought by the way that those people he called the ‘Jewish Crusaders’ – that is not a mistranslation, it is not the Jews and the Crusaders, it is the Jewish Crusaders – were the real enemy behind all the evils in the world. Someone who had sort of destroyed true Islam, not led astray but had convinced other Muslims to follow them, and behind them all of course was the Jews. He wrote an entire tract in which he explained how all the ills in the entire world were caused by the Jews, and he made them the main enemy. Jewish Crusaders then are those crusaders that are being manipulated, used, puppeteered by the Jews in order to achieve their ends.

But this is a guy in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. How in the world did he have any influence on anybody? Well, basically through his brother because in 1966, you notice that date, he was one of the people rounded up by the Egyptian government and executed, but his brother escaped and he went off to Saudi Arabia where he was given a professorship in Ibn Abdel Aziz University, which was attended by Osama bin Laden, who went to his lectures.

And he passed on these ideas, and he absorbed and took in also Salafism and agreed with their concepts, some of their most extreme concepts and came up with something new, a new form of Salafism called Sahwa Salafism. A Sahwa Salafism argued that you have to obey every single one of the Sunnah, or the ways of life of Muhammad, or you are going to go to hell, so it is not enough just to do those Five Pillars, not enough just to do the best that you can. If you do not do everything that Muhammad did, if you do not imitate him precisely in a very specific way, you are going to go to hell, so the Sahwa Salafis took Salafism and transformed it. And a lot of this has to do with the influence of Muhammad Qutb, and the result was a new movement within Salafism kind of split between Saudi Salafism and the Sahwa Salafism.

A lot of people think the Saudi government is the problem, they are the ones supporting [terrorism]. Actually, mostly it has to do with Sahwa Salafis who they have had an on-again, off-again relationship with, and a lot of the time those people end up in jail, in Saudi jails, as often as they do in the West because they are very critical of everybody who did not follow their version of Islam, including the Saudi government, and the Saudi government did not take kindly to that and put them in jail.

So these Sahwa Salafis though – by and large – believed that they could do things by social pressure, by education, things like that. They did not talk about violence, right? Muhammad Qutb did sometimes, but he learned to shut up about it. You know it gets you in jail if you say things like that to the Saudi government. And it might have gone nowhere, right? This might have been it.

You might have had this movement in Saudi Arabia that still exists today, by the way, and one of the problems we have in the United States and elsewhere is that Saudi mosques that they have set up. Often, they did not pay attention to the preachers that were being sent over. Some of them were Sahwa Salafis rather than Saudi Salafis. Recently, they have been cleaning them up, but back in the ’90s, plenty of places around the world had Sahwa Salafis that took them over and used them to spread their ideas about Islam, a very specific version of Islam that, by the way, nobody ever had practiced up to that point, nobody. Take my word for it. I can talk about some of the differences in just a bit here between their version of Islam and others.

Oh, by the way, you have probably had others explain this to you, but I just need to say this for an audience that I assume is mostly Christian: what generally matters for Christians is Orthodoxy, right, correct belief, right? What matters for Muslims is ortho-praxy, correct practice. The practice of the religion is the religion, so how you wear your beard tells everybody who is Muslim what version of the religion you are practicing.

How you choose to dress, whether you dress like a Westerner or you dress traditionally, tells people your practice of religion. It is as if, you know, Episcopalians all had to dress and act a specific way, all the different parts of Catholicism had to look and dress in different ways. You could look at them and say ah, that person belongs to the [unintelligible]. I can tell by the way they dress today, you know? That is basically what you get with Islam, and these guys dress like nobody since the beginning of time. Take my word for it. I am going to show you pictures

So Muhammad Qutb is off there in Saudi Arabia radicalizing people toward his version of Islam and he is not alone. There are others who are doing it. He is the important one because he came up with some ideas that are going to feed directly into the jihadi-Salafist vision for Islam. And then along came this guy ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam, a Palestinian who was also in exile in Saudi Arabia and he was hugely influenced by the Afghan jihad. He said that this invasion was not about Afghanistan. It was about the entire Muslim community, and he is the guy who invented the concept of foreign fighters, that is of other Muslims having to go to other countries to protect the inhabitants of [a] foreign country because we are all Muslim brothers together. He basically invented that concept.

Up to this point, jihads have been declared by governments, they have been declared by caliphates, and so on and so forth, but they had all been about our country or our area or our caliphate. It had not been about the Muslim world as a whole. He on the other hand said no, you have to think of the borders and boundaries put up by the infidels as being meaningless. All of us are Muslims together. We all have to protect. And he convinced thousands of Muslims, especially in Saudi Arabia, to go off and fight in the Afghan jihad based on that argument.

You can tell we are getting very close jihadi Salafism, can’t you? You got the very fringe-y Salafi version of Islam and you have got global jihad going on here. So you have to put those together and they all come together in bin Laden because Osama bin Laden was inducted into Muhammad Qutb’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood when he was in school. And he also brought to it Salafism of a very specific sort, Sahwa Salafism. And the day he graduated from college, he went off to Afghanistan to fight in the jihad. And while he was there, he met ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam, became his deputy in his organization, and basically just took it over after ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam’s death, and that became the base of jihad. That is what Al Qaeda means, the base of jihad, and that’s what carried out 9/11, those guys, that group, a few thousand people. That is the only people in the world who believed in their version of Islam at that point.

Basic vision of al Qaeda and ISIS

And here is their version of Islam. So here is their basic vision: following the Shari’a as we define it is essential for human existence and their version of Shari’a is like nobody else’s. I am going to talk about Shari’a in a bit, so you get a feel for just how fringe their ideas are. And by the way, the entire world is going to follow our version of this. We are going to start with other Muslims. Eventually, we are going to force everybody to follow our version and if you will not do it willingly, we will force you to do it through violence. But this is only possible with a state they call the caliphate. That is right. This is going to be the only state that can actually do this, force everybody to do what we want, so we have got to recreate the caliphate to make everybody follow our version of Islam.

And by the way – they literally believe this – we are the only true Muslims. Everybody out there, they have Muslim names, but they have all been either led astray or gone stray themselves. They are not really Muslim. The entire world, in fact, has gone back to paganism, including other Muslims, and we have to enlighten them, we have to wake them up, we have to basically convert them to our version of Islam. Okay? So it is not mostly about us. That was the big thing I discovered when I started looking at what they say. Almost everything they are doing is about other Muslims. It is really not about us.

So we are going to carry out a war, but the war is going to be not just about these unbelievers, it is going to be about all these other Muslims and how we are going to force them to follow our version of Islam, first and foremost. And so ‘we are committed’ to waging what they believe is an eternal war against all these different groups. At one point, you know, 1.8 billion Muslims foremost, and the other seven billion people in the world secondarily. They had a problem because they had declared war on the entire world. I have actually seen the strategic documents in which they argue about how do we prioritize our enemies. So we, you know, so we do not end up having to fight everybody simultaneously. They came to some interesting conclusions about it. I am going to talk about it in a bit here.

Distinguishing Ideological Principles: jihadi-salafism vs ordinary Islam

So how do we tell this religion is different from ordinary Islam? Well, there is, first of all, what they call Aqidah, which means ideology, creed, our belief system, and these about fifteen points are the things that are the most significant in distinguishing them. I am not going to go through every single one of them, but there is about fifteen of them that absolutely distinguish them from every other version of Islam in the world.

But this Minhaj is also important. It is how you practice. It is your methodology for practicing religion. As I mentioned, belief is one thing, but that is not the important thing. The really important thing is how you practice the religion, and they believe in all of these things that make them very, very different from ordinary Muslims. So there are about thirty different points that distinguish them absolutely from every other version of Islam in the world.

Primary ideological principles of the extremists

But here are their primary ideological principles, the ones that really set them apart: something called – their version of Tawhid and their vision of what jihad is all about, their version of the Shari’a, something called Wala’ wa’l-bara’a, which leads to Takfir, which you may have heard about, something you have also probably heard about, Da’wa, their version of Da’wa. So I am going to do this really quickly here, so that you get a feel for how different they are.


So within Islam itself, this is what Tawhid means. This is basically Islam 101, right? There is only one God. You should only worship one God, the end. That is basically it. The entire creed or statement of faith that you have to say in order to become a Muslim is I believe there is one God, and Muhammad is his Prophet. There you go, so that is it, that is Tawhid, alright?

This is what Al Qaeda, ISIS, the extremists in general believe. Okay, there is only one God, He has no partners, but that means only He has the right to be worshipped and obeyed. He is the only one who has something called hakimiyyah, sovereignty. He is the only one who is allowed to make laws, laws that everybody has to follow. So, if you do not follow his laws, you are not really following Tawheed.

So, the vast majority of the Muslim world believes that God is merciful and compassionate, I am doing the best I can here, He will take care of everything after I die, I am hoping for the best, I am doing everything I can, I hope I will make up for it by doing this. But, you know, you are like ‘I am hoping. I have got my hopes after I die.’ That is how most Muslims think.

These guys are like, no, if you are not actually doing the thousands of things [that] we say you should do, you are going to Hell. That is the difference between them and ordinary Muslims when it comes to [Tawheed], and I will talk about that more in a bit. But beyond that if you belong to a state that tries to make your own laws, that is you believe in democracy or you believe the people have sovereignty or like the President or somebody else has sovereignty other than God alone, then you are not really a Muslim. This is how they get to the point where the Jihadi-Salafists literally say democracy is a foreign religion because it violates Tawheed or this vision of Tawheed.

Alright, now you are probably thinking, I get this, I can see this. It makes logical sense, right? So, what do other Muslims think about this argument? They go, what? Can you go over this one more time for me? You are saying there is one God. I believe that, too, okay. There is one God, and now you are saying democracy is a foreign religion. I do not get the connection between [these two claims], can you go over that one more time? Every single [statement] these guys put out, they have to go over Tawheed in this version again and again and again because ordinary Muslims – and I have asked them – do not understand the connection between these two things.

It sounds like you can go down a logical train of thought. Do A, B, C, D. It all makes perfect sense, right? But to ordinary Muslims – I will give you the equivalent. If we had a strange sect in America that said in order to be a real Christian, you have to believe in three branches of government because of the Trinity. You see you have God the Father, that is the President, you have got God the Son, that is the legislature, and you have God the Holy Spirit, that is like the judicial system. You guys would all be like, what? Could you show me that in the Bible or in any traditional writings that I accept? You cannot find this anywhere. It is not in any piece of the Quran, the Hadith, in any traditional writing since the beginning of time, the only guy who believed this was Ibn Taymiyyah, and he got thrown in jail for it back in the 13th century. And, of course, it was revived by Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, not quite in this format but very close to this. And then given this current sort of way of thinking about democracy and all of that by a guy named [Abu Muhammad] al-Maqdisi, who literally wrote the book, Democracy is a Foreign Religion.

Alright, so not accepted by most Muslims. In fact, if you talk about this with them, they are like this makes no sense at all to me. Alright, but you can see how this makes you reject democracy. It makes you reject any sort of peaceful solutions to your problems, right, because no, you have to have something more forceful, not this democratic solution.

What about jihad?

Well, how many of you have heard two completely contradictory definitions for jihad at some point in the last fifteen, twenty years? Yeah, okay, either it is a completely peaceful internal struggle, right, or all the infidels have to die. And you are probably thinking it has got to be one or the other, it cannot be both simultaneously. But in fact, it is like a Facebook relationship, it is complicated. The reason it is complicated is because Islam is whatever Muslims say it is.

Let us see how to put this. If you come from an Evangelical background, you look towards the Bible as your main source for the way your religion should be defined. If on the other hand you are a Catholic, there is something else called tradition and the Collegium – or I am probably saying it all wrong – thank you, magisterium that you can also look to, and there is flexibility and there is change. It has got these deep connections, it is not like it has become something completely different, but it has got flexibility to it.

This is kind of what is going on with Islam. The religion is what your current consensus of the smartest people in your religion say it is. It could also be what the guy running your country says it is or what your particular ethnic group traditionally says it is or your clan or your tribe. That is what it is. That is what Islam is. In fact, Muhammad himself says, my community will never agree on an error, so what the community says Islam is – that is what it is. And for about seventy years from the late nineteenth century right up until some time in the 1970s, there was an agreement that the modernist interpretations of Islam were the right ones. The vast majority of Muslims agreed, either the traditional way I practice it in my village or this modernist interpretation that is practiced in the big cities and the universities and so on, that is what Islam is. What is happening is these guys are attempting to force a new consensus, their consensus, their vision of what the religion [is], and to coopt the entire religion and force everybody into this box. That is what they are attempting to do.

But when it comes to jihad, you can see the evolution over time [and] during the life of Muhammad himself. Jihad means struggle, as I am sure you guys all know, there are perfectly good words for fighting, for killing, for war that could have been used, but they are not used. And [for] the first thirteen years of his life, he consistently used jihad to talk about struggling to understand God, struggling to follow God, to do God’s will, those sorts of things. That is how he used it for thirteen years.

Then he was persecuted, went on his hijra or migration to a neighboring city, and he began to get revelations, that the jihad, the struggle, now was to defend [him]self. You have been persecuted, [so] you are allowed to defend yourself, that sounds like defensive war to us. And then there were revelations that you are allowed to take that struggle, that fighting in God’s path to take the religion back to your hometown, and that sounds like offensive war to us, right? And at the very end of his life, he said to his followers, we are returning, he said after his last battle, from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad. And his followers said what do you mean by the greater jihad? He was obviously referring to fighting with the lesser jihad stuff, and he said the greater jihad is the struggle to control your own desires, to follow God, and to create a just society. [It] depends on which version of the hadith you read, which one of those is given emphasis.

Alright, so for most Muslims there is something like a circle going on. It started off as something peaceful, became about defensive fighting, then became about offensive fighting, and at the end of his life it went back to some kind of internal struggle. But during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries you had a codification of jihad as fighting, and hardly any of this internal struggle remained except amongst the Sufis, and the Sufis maintained this right up through the nineteenth century when the vast majority of the Muslim world decided to agree to change the definition again, and jihad became about an internal struggle.

That is really what it became, but it was also defensive war. If you are attacked, God has said you can defend yourself, so if you ask any of your Muslim friends, they are going to give you that consensus that developed in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. Jihad is about an internal struggle or if we are attacked, we are allowed to defend ourselves. It was really only the Islamists who said no, we have to go back to the Rashidun. Well, here is the funny thing about the Rashidun.

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