Ibn Taymiyya: the father of modern Muslim terrorism?

A Mongol prince studying the Koran.

By Matteo Schleicher

In 1998, Osama Bin Ladin and several other Islamist leaders issued a fatwa declaring that “to kill the Americans and their allies, civilians and military, is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.” This is to respond to the crimes committed by the Americans, they argue, and because jihad – the Holy War – is an individual duty if the enemy destroys the Muslim countries. Preceding the fatwa, its authors reference a number of Islamic scholars among which figure the ‘Shaykh al-Islam’ – the 13th century Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328). Given Bin Ladin’s abundant citations to the work of Ibn Taymiyya, there debate as to whether the latter was one of the ideological forefathers of Al-Qaeda. Some suggest, along with the 9/11 Commission, that he was. Others claim that Al-Qaeda and modern Muslim terrorist groups have distorted the ideas of Ibn Taymiyya and quote him merely to legitimise their actions.

Ibn Taymiyya: the ideological precursor to modern Muslim terrorism

Those who follow the line of argument of the 9/11 Commission contend that Ibn Taymiyya’s writings have contributed to motivate modern violent political Islam. The foundation of this view lies in their interpretation of the early years of the life of Ibn Taymiyya. At the age of six, he was forced to flee with his family from Harran to Damascus in order to escape the Mongol invasions; later, he personally rallied resistance to a Mongol invasion of Syria (1300-1). Some advocate that these events led to a hatred for the Mongols and that Ibn Taymiyya forged his theory of jihad as a response to the invasion.

To support the above viewpoint, Ibn Taymiyya’s work is interpreted along the following lines: as of him assigning a central place to the Sharia in politics, so the only proper government was one ruled by the Sharia, and that individuals or rulers who did not respect the Sharia were infidels – kafir. The Mongols, however, along with their leader Ghazan, had converted to Islam, and the Sharia forbade to wage a jihad against Muslims. Therefore, the argument goes, Ibn Taymiyya introduced a new criteria by saying that the Mongols were not true Muslims since they continued to adhere to their own code of law – Yasa – and that rulers were illegitimate if they did not rule by the Sharia. This permitted him to issue a fatwa according to which, waging a jihad against Mongol apostates and infidels was an individual duty and one of the “five pillars” of Islam.

This interpretation allows the conclusion to be drawn that Ibn Taymiyya’s theory of jihad provided a useful ‘recruiting device’ and sound arguments to conduct jihad for many Islamic groups; and most importantly, it initiated revolutionary violence in the heart of Islamic thought.

Ibn Taymiyya: a pious realist interested in preserving the Islamic community’s identity

Those who dissent with the 9/11 Commission’s assertion contend that such a line of argument is a distortion and a misinterpretation of Ibn Taymiyya. Indeed, they explain the impact of the Mongol invasion very differently. They argue, for example, that Ibn Taymiyya’s main concern after the invasion was not to remove the Mongol presence, but to preserve the Muslim community and the Islamic identity. This subtlety is important: Ibn Taymiyya’s theory of jihad –was not directed against the Mongols simply because they were not ‘true’ Muslims. Instead, jihad was redefined so to safeguard the religious identity of the community that was previously guaranteed by the caliphate. In other words, jihad is understood here not as a violent response to the Mongol attack, but as a path to face the new challenges entailed by their rule.

The above reading of Ibn Taymiyya seems to be antithetic to the ideology and mission of Al-Qaeda – as highlighted by the fatwa in the introduction. Thus, according to the second interpretation one could conclude that Ibn Taymiyya’s discussion of jihad is being deformed and that the root of modern Muslim terrorism does not lie in his teachings.

A comparison between Ibn Taymiyya and modern Muslim terrorist groups

To see which interpretation is closer to the ‘truth’ a comparison of Ibn Taymiyya’s philosophy and Al-Qaeda’s and other similar groups’ goals and actions is necessary.

Against the second interpretation, a similarity between Ibn Taymiyya and Al-Qaeda can be found precisely in the desire to defend the unity and identity of the Islamic community. A parallel can be drawn between the Mongol invasions and the Western interventions in the Middle East. In fact, for contemporary revivalist movements, the role played by the Mongols as a threat to Islamic civilisation in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries is analogous to the role played nowadays by Western civilisation. Therefore, modern Muslim terrorist groups, who feel under attack not only from the outside but also from within – with the spread of Western values – are willing to get rid of this negative influence, portrayed as menacing the Islamic identity. For instance, in their magazine (Dabiq), the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) uses the arguments of Ibn Taymiyya to justify jihad as a defensive struggle to protect the purity of Islamic society: “Ibn Taymiyyah said […] it is obligatory to fight them until they comply with its laws even if they pronounce the shahadatayan.”

Most importantly, Bin Ladin quoted Ibn Taymiyya extensively in his 1996 and 1998 fatwas in order to justify jihad against the Americans and the Jews. What is interesting is that he did not quote random passages talking solely about killing apostates. Instead, he referenced a very specific sentence – reported in the introduction – urging for a jihad “aimed at defending the sanctity and religion.” This seems to both point out the importance Bin Ladin attaches to the unity of the umma and to disprove the postulate that Al-Qaeda’s actions are motivated by violence for the sake of violence.

Nevertheless, even if the goal of preserving the identity of the Muslim community appears to be the same, Ibn Taymiyya and modern Muslim terrorist groups diverge in practice. In fact, the original sources reveal that Ibn Taymiyya was opposed to all forms of violent rebellion. In the first place, his theory of jihad forbade the killing of innocents as the following passage relates: “those who do not constitute a defensive or offensive power, like women, the children […] should not be fought.” Juxtaposing this statement to the kidnapping of 276 girls in Nigeria in 2014 by Boko Haram or to the suicide bombings perpetrated by Al-Qaeda, ascertains a fundamental deviation between Ibn Taymiyya and the ideology of modern Muslim terrorist groups. What’s more, one could also argue that through their violent actions, these groups have damaged the Islamic identity that they claim to defend.

Secondly, it is worth noting that Ibn Taymiyya never established the connection between the sentences ‘leaders who do not apply the Sharia are apostates’ and ‘it is a duty to wage a jihad against apostates’. That is, he wrote those two sentences, but never said ‘it is a duty to wage a jihad against apostate rulers’. This refusal to overthrow the leader in place is also proven by the ensuing argument he draws: “If those in authority did not comply wholly with the orders of Allah, you should, anyway, obey them in what you deem in accordance with the injunctions of Allah.”

So, this stresses that Ibn Taymiyya’s ideas are not a direct precedent for the revolutionary violence of modern political Islam since he does not appeal to it in his theory of jihad – neither from a civic point of view, nor legally or politically. On top of that, the gap between his theories and how modern Muslim terrorist groups act, emphasises the misinterpretation of those groups regarding his work. This seems to suggest that such Muslim terrorist groups base their ideology on the one of Ibn Taymiyya, but manipulate it and distort it in the aftermath.

Only a nuanced answer can be offered: both lines of argument seem to have ignored portions of Ibn Taymiyya’s work to come to their conclusions so that similarities and dissimilarities between him and modern Muslim terrorist groups coexist. Nonetheless, due to the discrepancies between their ideologies, the misinterpretation of Ibn Taymiyya, and because his theory of jihad can only be properly understood in light of the unique socio-historical situation in which he constructed it; the line of argument which is perhaps more loyal to his teachings is the one suggesting that he did not inspire – on the substance – modern Muslim terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda.

By Matteo Schleicher