Since the Islamic State rescinded one of its most problematic religious rulings on Sept. 15, the group’s radio arm has released more than two hours of lectures addressing an ongoing controversy. The lecture series has been cross-promoted by Al Naba, the Islamic State’s weekly newsletter. Al Naba’s authors explained earlier this week that the broadcasts are necessary because of the “strife, disagreement and conflict” caused by a May 17 circular, which was repealed.
The debate centers on takfir, the extremist practice of declaring other Muslims to be nonbelievers due to their supposed apostasy or heresy. The Islamic State has always operated under a broad definition of takfir, labeling many Muslims as infidels in the process. But the group’s delegated committee produced a memo on May 17 that widened the so-called caliphate’s ring of the damned even further.
The circular was so problematic that some of the organization’s top ideologues objected to it, arguing that the delegated committee, one of the most powerful bodies within the Islamic State, had eliminated the little leeway Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s men had previously afforded Muslims. Some of the Islamic State’s own leaders and members could be excommunicated under the terms set forth in the ruling and this likely exacerbated an internal power struggle, as some used it as a tool for marginalizing their rivals. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Islamic State rescinds one of its most problematic religious rulings.]
The Islamic State was eventually forced to repeal the circular earlier this month, praying that the controversy would die down once it was revoked. But the repeal obviously wasn’t sufficient to settle matters, as the organization’s media team has disseminated several lectures on the issue since it was issued.
Thus far, the Islamic State’s Al Bayan radio has released six lectures under the title, “Religious Series To Clarify Methodological Issues.”
The first two episodes were posted on YouTube on Sept. 17. The third (Sept. 18), fourth (Sept. 20), and fifth (Sept. 23) episodes soon followed. The sixth was released online yesterday (Sept. 25). FDD’s Long War Journal has reviewed the lectures, totaling more than 130 minutes, and obtained partial translations of them.
The first episode makes it clear that the delegated committee’s May 17 memo caused significant problems within Baghdadi’s caliphate. An unnamed speaker explains it was necessary to withdraw the document because it had caused “conflict” and divisions. It is especially important to “unite” the mujahideen’s ranks against the “nations of disbelief” at this time, he claims. And the memo obviously stood in the way. The speaker concedes that the ruling was “ambiguous,” containing both “religious” and “methodological” errors.
The speaker tells the mujahideen that they cannot ignore the opinions of the “scholars” serving in the fields of jihad while accepting the rulings of sheikhs controlled by the “tyrants,” meaning those scholars living in countries such as Saudi Arabia. But he draws a line at branding all other scholars as infidels, which the delegated committee’s expansive definition of takfir may have justified.
In its May 17 circular, the delegated committee argued that takfir is “one of the utmost principles of the religion.” This proved to be especially controversial. By elevating takfir to a “principle,” the Islamic State had effectively declared that there was no latitude on the issue. Either the group’s members adopted the delegated committee’s approach to excommunicating the vast majority of Muslims, or they risked being excommunicated themselves. Some of the self-declared caliphate’s most senior religious officials objected to this enlarged definition of takfir. It meant that those who refrain from excommunicating supposed apostates and heretics could find themselves among the Islamic State’s damned, even though they were not accused of committing any sins of their own.
The second and third episodes of Al Bayan’s religious series contradict the May 17 memo on this point.
An Islamic State official explains in Al Bayan’s recording that takfir is not a “principle” of the group’s faith at all. Instead, it is an “obligation.” This distinction is crucial for the extremists. If takfir is a “principle,” then ignorance cannot be used as excuse by those Muslims who refrain from excommunicating others because it would be a fundamental part of their belief system. But as an “obligation,” the speaker explains in Al Bayan’s production, “ignorance” is a sufficient “excuse” for failing to excommunicate other Muslims in some cases. Still, the Islamic State’s representative emphasizes that al-wala’ wa-l-bara’ (loyalty to Muslims and disavowal of non-Muslims) is a fundamental part of the religion. Therefore, he argues, animosity for the polytheists (mushrikin) is necessary, even if Muslims don’t always show it.
Takfir is an essential aspect of the Islamic State’s extremism, so it will not relinquish the practice. But the imbroglio over the May 17 memo has forced Baghdadi’s extremists to explain, once again, what they mean by this term.
In the fourth episode of Al Bayan’s broadcast, an unnamed lecturer claims that there are different levels of takfir with respect to the mushrikin (polytheists) and, by extension, varying classes of people who refrain from declaring others to be disbelievers. He cites the teachings of Ibn Taymiyyah (a medieval Islamic theologian who is popular among jihadists) and Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd-al-Wahhab (the founder of the movement known as Wahhabism) to argue that not all disbelief and polytheism are in the same “category,” as “some” practices are “more extreme than others.”
The speaker claims that the severity of one’s polytheism varies depending on the clarity and strength of the evidence offered against the accused. This requires an adjudication based on sharia (Islamic law). There are also different classes of people who “refrain from the takfir of the polytheists,” with the most severe including those who refuse to excommunicate Satan, or anyone who claims to be a deity, as well as the people who worship them. The next category includes those who refrain from the takfir of pagans, Christians, Jews, and anyone who has “deviated” from Islam. There are other categories as well. The least severe consists of people who refrain from takfir of people who have fallen into a form of disbelief that is not considered grave, such as men and women who are “immoral” or do not pray. In some of these cases, the Islamic State’s representative says, refraining from takfir is “permissible.”
The controversy within the Islamic State over the May 17 memo demonstrates the group’s ideological vulnerabilities. At this late date, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s men should have little difficulty explaining their hate. And yet, they couldn’t agree how to best implement their takfiri practices, which are a fundamental part of their ideology. In Al Bayan’s lectures, the jihadists have to split hairs to justify their already wide-ranging concept of takfir without going as far as the delegated committee.
By withdrawing the delegated committee’s May 17 memo, the Islamic State’s senior leaders were likely trying to marginalize the ultra-extremists within their ranks. But the group’s ideology puts its members on a slippery slope, as the its takfiri practices are already extreme. It is likely that an internal power struggle is playing a significant role in the ongoing ideological dispute as well, with some trying to claim leadership of the caliphate as its territory shrinks.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.