The current conflict in Iraq is not a battle between Sunnis and Shi‘as as most news agencies and analysts are claiming. The Islamic State for Iraq and Shaam or ISIS as they are popularly referred to are not representative of Sunnis and indeed their ideological position is closer to that of the 7th century Kharijite faction. In 657 AD, in the battle of Siffin between Ali ibnAbiTalib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, and Mu’awiya ibn Abi Sufyan, a faction of people broke off from Ali’s camp after declaring that he should not have entered into arbitration with Mu‘awiya. They deemed both Ali and Mu‘awiya’s sides to be kuffar (pl. of kafir) and it is perhaps to this act that we can trace the intellectual origins of takfeer or the act of declaring someone a disbeliever. Prior to this, as Maulana Mohsin Najafi of the Jaamiatul Kausar in Islamabad, recently pointed out, the act of takfeer was not even utilised for political opponents with the assassins of the third Caliph Usman not being the victim of takfeer. Speaking at the 10th annual Rabeeush-Shahada festival held under the aegis of the holy shrines of Karbala, Najafi tackled this sensitive question, which is not only religiously important but is now also increasingly politically relevant.
One of the most important fatwa concerning takfeer was that of ibn Taimiyyah in the 13th century in which he labelled the Mongol invaders as kuffar for ostensibly converting to Islam yet continuing to practice the Yasa Code. Notably he also did takfeer of various Sunni Sufi orders reserving particular venom for those who were affiliated to ibn al-Arabi’s school of philosophy. These fatwas proved to the ideological inspiration for Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab who also used takfeer in order to consolidate his political and theological position. In the 20th century the Egyptian Mustafa Shukri drew ideological inspiration from the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood Hassan al-Banna and intellectual Sayed Qutb but later due to his increasing disenchantment founded the Jama’at al-Muslimoon. Founded in the 1970s, this group was later dubbed Takfeerwa’l Hijrah—excommunciation and exile— encapsulating his philosophy of deeming Muslims to be apostates and the need of ‘true Muslims’ to migrate in order to re-group and consolidate power. Another Egyptian Muhammad Abdus Salaam Faraj also founded a radical group at the end of the 1970s, which was eventually called al-Jihadbut disagreed with some of Shukri’s views. This group was behind Anwar Sadat’s assassination. In particular Faraj advocated an infiltration of the near enemy (Muslims) in order to fight them from within. Interestingly both groups also deemed it permissible for activists to breach the rules of the Sharia, such as drinking alcohol, in order to avoid detection. Faraj was a close friend and had a profound ideological influence on Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of the ideologues of al-Qaeda. Today al-Qaeda in some part finds its roots in the mujahideen of the 19 70s and 80s who were given training and funding by various Western countries as well as Pakistan in order to counter the looming spectre of Russian communism.
Recently Zawahiri in an open letter to the leaders of ISIS denounced the latter’s conduct and advised them to desist from their brutal and violent methods as well as reminding Jabhat al-Nusra that their sphere of operations was Syria and ISIS, that theirs was Iraq. Terrorists too extreme even for other terrorists! Previously the leadership of Al-Qaeda had sent a similar open letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian, reprimanding him for his brutal violence. Today ISIS has conveniently found resonance with disaffected Baathists and groups such as the Naqhbandi Army, headed by ‘Izzat Ibrahim ad-Duri a general under Saddam’s regimes as well as other Sunnis who have unfortunately been disenfranchised by the Shia dominated government in Baghdad. However, it is imperative to remember that the ideological core of ISIS and other splinter groups of Al-Qaeda are by their very nature not only against the Shi’a but also anti those Sunnis who disagree with them. The recent statement of Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the ISIS spokesperson, is notable not only for the venomous language with which it refers to the Shia but also his request to ISIS followers to forgive those Sunnis whose ideology does not align with ISIS’. When 12 Sunni imams from Mosul refused to pledge allegiance they were executed.
The only people that have arguably benefited from the current situation are the Kurds but the rise of ISIS will be a constant threat to them as well in the future. With what is almost a non-existent border between Iraq and Syria, captured military hardware, control of oil fields, the looting of banks in Mosul and other towns as well as international funding, ISIS are a danger not only to Iraq but also to the region and beyond. The lines between the Syrian civil war and the Iraqi insurgence are becoming increasingly blurred and it is important for the international community to realize that parts of the opposition they have been funding in Syria has the ability to completely change the socio-political demography of the region and beyond. They already have a name for it: the Shaam Caliphate. However, what is most important to realise is that like their ideological ancestors these neo-Khaarijite militants are not representative of mainstream Sunnism and therefore the current conflict should not be portrayed as a Sunni insurgency or a Sunni-Shia conflict. Groups like ISIS already have counterparts in Pakistan and therefore the Indian government should take a lead, along with its partners, in helping to contain and eliminate the current insurgency in Iraq as this can have direct ramifications for the region in general and India in particular.
Ali Khan Mahmudabad is a PhD student in History at the University of Cambridge who writes a fortnightly column for the Urdu Daily Inqilab