The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi

Guest Author: Joas Wagemakers

The subject of my dissertation, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, is hardly known among Muslims outside Salafi circles and almost a complete unknown among non-Muslims outside specialists of radical Islam. Still, within those two groups, everybody knows who he is, and rightly so: he is the owner of the biggest online library of radical Islamic literature (www.tawhed.ws), the author of dozens of books and scores of articles, fatwas and poems, has inspired militant Islamists around the world (including the former leader of Al-Qa‘ida in Iraq, Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi) and is even said to have influenced Mohammed B., the murderer of Theo van Gogh. Who is this man and what is so special about him?

Al-Maqdisi’s life

Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi was born in a village called Barqa in the West Bank in 1959, from which he moved to Kuwait when he was only a small child. In Kuwait, he grew up in a secular family and through some friends who took him to mosques controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, he became increasingly radical. He began to see the rulers of the Muslim world as apostates, “infidels” who should be fought in order to apply the shari‘a. He was never completely satisfied with the Muslim Brotherhood’s message, however, and wanted to combine the supposedly purist message of Salafism with the radical ideas he had learned from the Brotherhood. He eventually found those in certain 19th-century Saudi writings that he discovered when he studied in the kingdom for a year in the 1980s.

Armed with the Salafi tools to label Muslim rulers (including Saudi ones) “infidels”, he moved to Pakistan to teach in the camps of the various “Afghan Arabs”, Arab volunteers who had come from all over the Arab world to fight the Soviet Union, which had occupied Afghanistan in 1979. After leaving Pakistan/Afghanistan, he moved back to Kuwait and eventually to Jordan, where he still lives and is imprisoned now.

Ideology

Al-Maqdisi’s ideas are – at first sight – nothing new. Haven’t we heard all this criticism and excommunication (takfir) of the rulers of the Muslim world before from the likes of Sayyid Qutb and Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj? Partly, yes. What makes al-Maqdisi different, however, is that he makes extensive use of (often Saudi) Salafi concepts, arguments and scholars and was one of the first to do so extensively. In other words, whereas Salafism had mostly been a quietist version of Islam whose adherents were subservient to their rulers, al-Maqdisi used the tools that Salafism offered him against those very same rulers. This way, he turned the seemingly obedient Salafi ideology upside-down and revolutionised it. To be sure, al-Maqdisi was certainly not the only ideologue responsible for this process but there are certain areas where he was clearly ahead of his time.

Al-Wala’ wa-l-Bara’

One example of al-Maqdisi’s thinking that makes him somewhat special is his treatment of al-wala’ wa-l-bara’ (loyalty to God, Muslims and Islam and disavowal of everything else). While the overwhelming majority of scholars treated this concept (particularly but not exclusively in Saudi Arabia) as something pertaining only to interpersonal and religious affairs, al-Maqdisi changed this. Adopting the reasoning of the 19th-century Saudi scholars who had influenced him so much, he stated that al-wala’ wa-l-bara’ should also be used in the political, legislative sphere. Not applying Islamic law, he contended, was a violation of the loyalty (wala’) that every Muslim had to show to God. If any ruler of the Muslim world was guilty of such a sin, this should be countered by disavowal (bara’) of them. According to al-Maqdisi, the highest form of bara’ is to fight such rulers through jihad.

Although al-Maqdisi’s reasoning is far more complicated and elaborate than the above shows, his use of concepts such as al-wala’ wa-l-bara’ as well as other terms and arguments usually only employed by state-supported quietist Salafi scholars ensured that he came up with radical solutions akin to what Qutb and Faraj had said but argued for them in a very Salafi way. As such, al-Maqdisi can certainly be viewed as a Jihadi-Salafi (i.e. a Salafi who believes jihad may be used against the supposedly apostate rulers of the Muslim world) but one who has been strongly influenced by the quietist and subservient branch of Salafism as well when it comes to their use of terminology, arguments and sources.

Influence

It is clear that al-Maqdisi’s “quietist Jihadi-Salafi” ideological background reflects his search for Salafi but radical answers to the questions he had. Considering this, it is not surprising that his influence is strongest among those radicals who have roots in or great respect for the quietist Salafi background that al-Maqdisi values so much. This was the case, for example, in Saudi Arabia, where Al-Qa‘ida on the Arabian Peninsula (QAP) was greatly influenced by him. Many members of QAP had strong roots in the Saudi quietist Salafi tradition since they had grown up in a country that prides itself on being a truly Islamic state and uses large parts of the school curriculum to teach its subjects the details of religion. As al-Maqdisi offered Saudi militants Saudi Salafi (and not Egyptian, secular or Marxist) tools to fight the rulers of the kingdom, his message of a radical Islam rooted in a quietist tradition was quite popular among members of QAP.

A process similar to the one in Saudi Arabia took place among radical Salafis in Jordan. Unlike Saudi Arabia, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan does not claim to be an Islamic state but there are nevertheless many Salafis there who generally adhere to the same teachings as Saudi Salafis do. Among al-Maqdisi’s supporters, a rather clear distinction can be made between those radicals who had roots in quietist Salafism and those who previously led a life of crime or drug abuse. During my research, I found that the former group has been quite loyal to al-Maqdisi and his teachings, while the latter have often drifted away from his ideas or have even turned against him, considering him too focussed on doctrine or blaming him for allegedly revising his views.

Although al-Maqdisi is not a household name in any country of the world, it is clear that he is an important and influential radical ideologue among like-minded Muslims. His widespread influence, his many writings, his sometimes original thinking and his status as a credible scholar among his admirers ensure that he is going to remain just that for some time to come. Moreover, his current incarceration in Jordan, rather than stop him from being influential, is much more likely to increase his stature as an ideologue unwilling to bend to the will of the “apostate” rulers.

Joas Wagemakers MA is a researcher at the Clingendael Diplomatic Studies Programme and a lecturer and PhD student at Radboud University Nijmegen. Today, 16 November 2010 he defends his PhD thesis on the ideology and influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (b. 1959), a Jordanian Jihadi-Salafi ideologue who is widely considered one of the most important radical Islamic scholars alive. Joas Wagemakers has published widely on Islamism and Islamist ideology and co-edits ZemZem, a Dutch-language journal on the Middle East, North-Africa and Islam. Joas Wagemakers blogs at Jihadica.com, a weblog on developments in jihad. His research interests are Islamist movements and Islamist ideology in the context of the modern Middle East and in relation to early-Islamic history.

update: Joas Wagemakers defended his PhD cum laude on 16 November 2010