From Waco to Isis: The Theology Behind Jihad

As noted in the previous blog, islamic theology is quite fragmented due to 1) the lack of a central theological authority and 2) the inherent ambiguity of the Qur’an itself. I have noted several islamic streams of thought arising out of that ambiguity. But in the previous blog I left out one of them, the stream of islamic thought out of which the jihadist theology has arisen. Jihadist theology is rooted in the work of the 18th Century scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. He himself was not a “jihadist” in the contemporary sense of the term. But he advocated a strict, austere, “fundamentalist” view of Sunni Islam. This theology is sometimes called Wahhabism by its opponents and its followers today are called Wahhabis. They themselves prefer the term Salafists to describe themselves (following the salafi, those ancestors who best understood the practice and teaching of Muhammad).

Wahhab thought of himself as promoting a reform movement within Islam, going back to the original, desert religion, getting rid of “idolatrous practices” like visiting the shrines of saints, and instead restoring pure, monotheistic worship, free of human innovations. Salafists emphasize the life of Muhammad as seen through lives and thoughts of the earliest generations of Islam. Opponents, on the other hand, call the movement extreme and “pseudo-Sunni.” Through an alliance with the House of Saud, salafism plays a dominant role in Saudi Arabia and it is highly influential also in Egypt. But although salafism is an important part of the background for ISIS and other jihadists, it is not inherently violent. The jihad it pursues seeks to purify Islam through personal commitment and yields to God the timing of any spiritual or political revolution within Islam. Its adherents tend to withdrawal from modern society more than engagement with it.

In the 20th Century, the Egyptian branch of salafism produced a movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, that was more aggressive in engaging western thought than the original salafists had been. While they too appealed to the salafist understanding of Muhammad’s practice and teaching, they used Western language and spoke directly to modern-day concerns. The leading light of this emerging “Muslim Brotherhood” was a scholar named Sayyid Qutb (died 1966– emphasis on the first syllable and pronounce as if there is an extremely short “u” between the “t” and the “b”). While generally pacifist in the current situation, the Muslim Brotherhood, unlike the salafists, believes that at some point in the future, military jihad will be necessary and appropriate. The timing of that jihad is where the Muslim Brotherhood and the jihadists themselves differ. For the Muslim Brotherhood, military jihad is a future possibility, subject to God’s timing. For the jihadists, it is a present mandate. Since Sayyid Qutb’s brother, Mohammad Qutb, was Osama bin Laden’s mentor in Saudi Arabia, the theology of Sayyid Qutb is very important for understanding the jihadist mentality. Sayyid Qutb’s views can be found in his eighteen-volume commentary on the Qur’an entitled In the Shade of the Qur’an (available online at

What all Muslims rooted in Wahhabism agree on is the need for massive reform within Islam itself. The hyper-religious minority seeks “revival and reformation” in the more secular majority. So ultimately the actions of the terrorists are less concerned with the United States than they are with an in-house battle for the soul of Islam. When then attack the United States if terrorism is all about an in-house fight? Because the jihadists felt that the major barrier to Islam’s revival and reform was the corrupt “Muslim” governments that arose after the fall of colonialism in the Middle East (largely after World War II). These leaders arose from the “elites” that had aided the colonial powers originally and now controlled these “nations” after independence. And the nation that was keeping these powers in place with money and military aid (especially after the Suez war of 1956) was the United States.

The attacks on September 11 were designed to draw the United States more obviously into the Middle East to demonstrate its ultimate weakness to repeat what the colonial powers had achieved. If it could be proven to the islamic world that the United States is unable to dominate the islamic landscape, then the secular and corrupt leaders of the islamic world could be overthrown and a more religious system installed in its place. Westerners, including presidential candidates, need to understand how their words and actions may actually strengthen the hand of the terrorists within Islam itself. The very prejudices aroused by terrorism push moderate Muslims into the fundmentalist camp of the salafists, Muslim Brotherhood and radical jihadists. This is what the terrorists intended for September 11, Paris and San Bernardino. And to a large degree, they seem to be succeeding. To be continued. . .

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