Graeme Wood’s “What ISIS Really Wants,” published in The Atlantic in February 2015, sparked a massive debate. The controversy concerns whether the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is Islamic or not, and especially whether ISIS accurately understands Islam’s “medieval tradition”—whatever that may mean. Wood correctly argues that ISIS cannot be understood without reference to its understanding of Islam, but he also implies—disturbingly, to many—that ISIS’s understanding of Islam is just as representative of the religion as any other view would be.
Scholars and commentators contended that Wood and his interlocutors missed the dynamism of Islam’s intellectual traditions. Wood, the critics continued, overlooked ISIS’s own penchant to read Islam’s history and foundational texts selectively, and thereby suggested that the group’s particular brand of scriptural literalism was somehow more legitimate than other interpretations.
One problem with the debate, however, is that it has not detailed ISIS’s intellectual foundations in a way that is accessible to the broader public. Responding to Wood, scholars of Islam argued at a level of abstraction, leaving readers without a background in Islamic studies on their own as they decided whom to trust.
Wood writes, “We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.” One analyst, Cole Bunzel, recently shed significant light on ISIS’s worldview in his forty-page article “From Paper State to Caliphate.” But this is the point: academic experts know a considerable amount about ISIS and the thinkers that influenced it, but few commentators are using such in-depth studies to inform popular debates about where ISIS comes from.
Here, then, are ten thinkers that influenced ISIS—directly or indirectly—with links to one English-language source and one Arabic-language primary document for each. I group these thinkers into three strands: rejectionist Salafism, global jihadism, and the medieval tradition.
When tracing intellectual lineages, it is important to avoid teleology—the argument that past thinkers’ ideas inevitably led to ISIS. Taking a teleological view can lead to unfair accusations against these thinkers, some of whom have rejected ISIS and others of whom would almost certainly have done so were they still living. It is also important to use precise definitions, especially of “Salafism” and “jihadism,” which are often conflated.
For this post’s purposes, “jihadism” is an ideology that advocates armed struggle not just to defend Muslim lands under occupation but to overthrow allegedly apostate Muslim rulers and (in some versions) to fight the United States as a “far enemy” of Islam, the puppet master who pulls the strings of the “near enemy,” namely occupiers of Muslim lands or corrupt local regimes.
“Salafism,” meanwhile, is an ultra-Sunni identity that rejects allegorical readings of scripture, views scripture primarily as proof-texts that determine correct belief and action, rejects the four major Sunni legal schools, and describes today’s world in theological terms derived from the early centuries of Islam—for example, by calling the Shia rawafid, or rejecters of the first three Sunni Caliphs. To call ISIS “salafi-jihadi” is accurate, but some of its influences are only one or the other, not both.
Strand A: Global Jihadism
Even though ISIS has broken with al-Qaeda, it is a direct outgrowth of al-Qaeda in both ideological and organizational terms. More broadly, it originated in the global jihadist movement that emerged after the Cold War. ISIS shares in al-Qaeda’s complex genealogy, which includes not just Salafi influences but also contemporary ideologues. Here are a few key thinkers in ISIS’s global jihadist genealogy:
1. Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi (1966-2006): This Jordanian militant spent time in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, where he met al-Qaeda’s founder Osama bin Laden. Returning to Jordan, al-Zarqawi was imprisoned from 1992-1999 on charges of involvement in jihadist plots. Upon his release, he traveled back to Afghanistan for several years. His group of militants became active there during the U.S. invasion of Iraq; they became al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), ISIS’s predecessor organization, in 2004. AQI brutally targeted Shia Muslims, considering them infidels. ISIS continues to memorialize and invoke al-Zarqawi (who was killed in a U.S. air strike in 2006) in its messaging—ISIS’s magazine, Dabiq, is named for a town in Syria where they expect an apocalyptic battle to occur and the issues begin with a quotation in which al-Zarqawi referenced the battle.
2. Abu Bakr Naji (real identity unknown): This anonymous jihadist ideologue wrote an influential text called The Management of Savagery: The Most Dangerous Stage through which the Muslim Community Will Pass, in which he lays out a strategy for establishing an Islamic state. Naji’s book appears to have influenced ISIS, particularly regarding its insurgent and strategic ambitions.
3. Osama bin Laden (1957-2011): The son of a Yemeni-Saudi construction magnate, Bin Laden became involved in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s as a financier and fighter. He founded al-Qaeda in 1988 and declared war on the United States in 1996. Al-Qaeda absorbed not only “Arab Afghans”—Arabs who had fought in Afghanistan—but also Egyptian jihadists who opposed successive military heads of state in that country. Al-Qaeda was responsible for numerous attacks in the years after 1996, including 9/11.
Bin Laden supported Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi in the context of the Iraq War after 2003. Even at that time, though, differences in strategy appeared: al-Qaeda’s leaders were concerned about al-Zarqawi’s emphasis on sowing sectarian tension between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Although ISIS and al-Qaeda (now led by Bin Laden’s former deputy, Egyptian radical Ayman al-Zawahiri) have broken with each other, ISIS remains keen to claim Bin Laden’s legacy and invokes him positively in its magazine (see: Dabiq, issue 7, p. 25), even as it excoriates al-Zawahiri.
4. Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966): An autodidact and a literary critic, Qutb joined the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood late in life and became one of its most famous thinkers. During his imprisonment in the 1950s and 1960s, Qutb wrote Milestones, which influenced al-Qaeda’s founders and other jihadis around the world. Qutb argued for the absolute sovereignty of God on earth and pronounced all Arab rulers of his time apostates for having undermined God’s sovereignty.
Qutb is an indirect influence on ISIS. Part of the Salafi movement has been reluctant to embrace Qutb, given his deviations from the Salafi creed; some Salafi-jihadis are more eager to cite Qutb’s contemporary, the judge Ahmad Shakir, who also wrote against secularism but had much more formidable scholarly credentials. But leaders like al-Qaeda’s al-Zawahiri, have continued to praise Qutb, and Salafi-jihadi thinkers like Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (see below) have been able to restate Qutb’s core ideas in a Salafi idiom. It would be difficult to imagine ISIS’s religious and political rejection of contemporary Arab regimes without the indirect influence of Qutb.
Strand B: Salafi “Rejectionism”
ISIS’s intellectual influences also include a “rejectionist” Salafi strand—a line of thinkers who used Salafi language and theology to reject contemporary Arab regimes. Two important thinkers in this strain are Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Juhayman al-‘Utaybi, both of whom were influenced by a mainstream Salafi scholar, Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani. Both al-Maqdisi and al-‘Utaybi were also influenced by highly exclusivist nineteenth-century voices from the Wahhabi movement.
5. Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (b. 1959): Born in Palestine, and now living in Jordan, al-Maqdisi is the former teacher of al-Zarqawi and of Turki al-Bin‘ali (b. 1984), one of ISIS’s affiliated scholars. Two of al-Maqdisi’s contributions relevant to understanding ISIS are his efforts to promulgate a strict argument that Muslims should be loyal only to other Muslims and to provide a Salafi theological framework for ideas popularized by Qutb, especially the idea that contemporary Arab rulers are infidels.
Al-Maqdisi broke with al-Zarqawi over their disagreement about whether preaching or violence should take precedence. He has rejected ISIS, yet ISIS continues to use some of al-Maqdisi’s key metaphors, such as the idea of Millat Ibrahim (literally “the community of Abraham”), understood as an uncompromisingly monotheistic group centered on the Prophet Abraham and as a symbol of the Sunni Muslim exclusivism that ISIS champions (see: Dabiq, issue 3, p. 10).
English source: Joas Wagemakers, A Quietist Jihadi: The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. Arabic source: al-Maqdisi, Millat Ibrahim wa-Da‘wat al-Anbiya’ wa-al-Mursalin (The Community of Abraham and the Call of the Prophets and Messengers).
6. Juhayman al-‘Utaybi (ca. 1935-1980): Famous for leading the two-week siege of the Grand Mosque of Mecca in 1979, al-‘Utaybi was a leader of al-Jama‘a al-Salafiyya al-Muhtasiba (The Salafi Society for Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong), a Salafi group that began in Medina in the mid-1960s. Initially supported by senior Saudi scholars, the group’s increasingly uncompromising stances and iconoclastic worship practices eventually generated conflict with the scholarly establishment.
In the late 1970s, al-‘Utaybi’s faction of the Society rejected the Saudi state and came to believe that one of its own members was the Mahdi, an Islamic figure expected to appear for the Final Battle. This belief inspired its uprising in Mecca. Al-‘Utaybi’s ideas influenced al-Maqdisi, making al-‘Utaybi an indirect influence on ISIS.
7. Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani (1914-1999): This Albania-born Muslim scholar dedicated his career to re-evaluating the authenticity of hadith, or reports of things the Prophet Muhammad said and did. Al-Albani, one of the towering figures of the Salafi movement, felt that many commonly accepted hadith were “weak,” meaning they lacked credibility and should not be used for deciding what Sunni Muslims should believe and how they should worship. Although he was politically quietist, his teachings influenced figures like al-‘Utaybi, and even jihadi thinkers like al-Maqdisi continue to respect much of his scholarship. ISIS does not claim al-Albani’s mantle, and were he still living al-Albani would no doubt reject ISIS as he did jihadism in 1990s Algeria. Nevertheless, given al-Albani’s massive impact on the contemporary Salafi movement and its understanding of Islam’s foundational texts, he is an indirect influence on ISIS.
English Source: Stéphane Lacroix, “Between Revolution and Apoliticism: Nasir al-Din al-Albani and His Impact on the Shaping of Contemporary Salafism.” Arabic Source: Al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifa wa-al-Mawdu‘a wa-Atharuha al-Sayyi’ fi al-Umma (The Series of Weak and Forged Hadith Reports and Their Negative Effect on the Muslim Community).
8. Hamad ibn ‘Atiq (1812/3-1884): This scholar from present-day Saudi Arabia epitomized a school of thought within nineteenth-century Wahhabism that rejected any friendly interaction between those considered to be true Muslims and outsiders. This exclusive conception of Muslim identity informed the thought of al-‘Utaybi and al-Maqdisi and, through them, the thought and actions of ISIS.
English Source: David Commins, The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia (see also Wagemakers, A Quietist Jihadi). Arabic Source: Al-Durar al-Saniyya fi al-Ajwiba al-Najdiyya (The Glittering Pearls of the Najdi Responses).
Strand C: Medieval Thinkers
ISIS is keen to claim that it is following the footsteps of medieval authorities respected by Salafis of all political stripes around of the world. These authorities include Ibn Taymiyya and his student Ibn al-Qayyim. However—and it is important to bear this in mind when debating whether or not ISIS represents the “medieval tradition” of Islam—Ibn Taymiyya was in some ways a minority figure in his own lifetime and the centuries that followed, and his legacy had to be deliberately revived and defended in the nineteenth century. Moreover, Ibn Taymiyya’s body of writing is so vast, and his thought so complex, that ISIS cannot lay exclusive claim to understanding or applying the medieval theologian’s legacy.
9. Taqi al-Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328): The Damascene theologian was an extremely prolific and controversial scholar in his own time and after. He has influenced the Salafi movement through his writings on creed and politics, and through Salafis’ glorification of Ibn Taymiyya as a fierce opponent of any perceived heresy. Some Salafis read the present conflicts in the Muslim world as a re-instantiation of conflicts that occurred during Ibn Taymiyya’s era, when Mongol armies captured and threatened Muslim territory in the Middle East. ISIS invokes Ibn Taymiyya frequently to claim his scholarly authority for its highly exclusivist Sunni identity and its embrace of jihad (see: Dabiq, issue 3, p. 32).
10. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (1292-1350): A major student of Ibn Taymiyya and an accomplished scholar in his own right, Ibn Qayyim is one of the medieval authorities invoked most by ISIS. The jihadist group cites Ibn Qayyim when discussing diverse topics but especially in two areas, scriptural interpretation and legal rulings. For example, ISIS quotes at length from Ibn al-Qayyim in discussing the issue of mubahala—a session in which two sides invoke God’s curse upon whomever is in the wrong (see: Dabiq, issue , pp. 21-22).
Two final points should be made about ISIS’s intellectual genealogy. First, no senior scholars, even within jihadi circles, have associated themselves with ISIS. ISIS’s most prominent scholar (Turki al-Bin‘ali) is barely thirty years old, and even al-Maqdisi has rejected the movement, which should give outsiders great pause when asserting that ISIS has a sophisticated understanding of any tradition, even the contemporary Salafi tradition.
Second, and despite the rich potential for scholarship on and debate around ISIS’s religious roots, the movement’s political context should not be downplayed. ISIS’s causes are not reducible to the Iraq War or the Syrian revolution, but without the U.S. invasion of Iraq or the Syrian Civil War there would be no ISIS. The Iraq War made a decisive contribution to the political chaos, sectarian tensions, and widespread brutalization that have fueled ISIS’s rise, as did Syrian President Bashar al-Asad’s suppression of more moderate elements among the opposition to his regime. Whatever Islamic ideals exist within ISIS, they have found a mass Sunni constituency because of politics. Rather than arguing over whether ISIS represents some inherent pathology in Islam, analysts would do better to examine how ISIS’ peculiar religious genealogies have intersected with the tragic and complex politics of Iraq and Syria.