Bismillahi ar-Rahman ar-Rahim

A Field Guide to Islamic Activists



Historical Background

Trends in Contemporary Islam

"Militant Islam"

Some Concluding Remarks




This article presents my analysis of different movements within Islam today. It looks at the historical development of some broad trends and at where the "militant Islam" we hear so much about today may come from. This is based on my own reading and observations; however, I do not claim to be an expert and any errors are purely my own. A list of resources is included at the end.


Historical Background

There are two textual sources for Islamic law (Shari'a), which are the Quran and the Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Yet these are not comprehensive. Some things they do not even deal with, while for others the evidence may be ambiguous. For this reason, legal scholars have always had plenty of work to do. An example of what I mean is the question "what is the status of cocaine?" Obviously, cocaine was not known to the Prophet (pbuh) and so is not mentioned in the Sunna. There are several ways to determine what its status is. One is to make an analogy that since intoxicating liquors are forbidden and cocaine intoxicates, it should be forbidden. Another way is to note that the Prophet (pbuh) said that everything that intoxicates is forbidden and to simply follow this rule. Both methods produce the same answer, and thus there is consensus among the scholars that cocaine is forbidden. The process of examining the sources of Shari'a is called fiqh (an Arabic word meaning "understanding the law") and the four roots of fiqh are the Quran, the Sunna, analogy (qiyas), and ijma.

In the early history of Islam, four trends in fiqh developed. One was located in Medina, one in Damascus, and two in Iraq. Medina was the original capital of the Islamic state during the time of the Prophet (pbuh) and of the first three caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman). The fourth caliph, Ali, moved his capital to Kufa, Iraq, and the Umayyad dynasty that succeeded him established its own capital at Damascus.

During this period, most of the Companions of the Prophet (pbuh) continued to live in Medina or perhaps Mecca. Small groups moved to various other cities in the caliphate, to serve as the upper echelons of the government. Thus in the territories outside Arabia there was usually a small number of Companions knowledgeable in Islam who provided the main resource that any new converts to Islam had for learning about the religion. The Companions established schools and other methods for teaching but it remained that they and their memories were the only resource on the Sunna and the established practice. If a new situation cropped up that they had not experienced or were not familiar with, they could write to somebody in Medina or perhaps a more experienced Companion elsewhere, or they could try to make an analogy based on the Quran and on what they knew of the Sunna. This latter was usually much more convenient. By contrast, in Medina, Islam was the way of life of all the people, handed down as such cultural patterns are. The Umayyad capital, Damascus, was somewhere between these two because it was important enough to have a large number of senior Companions, and to have easy communications with Medina, yet very often decisions had to be made immediately for the needs of the caliph. Besides this, there was the group of scholars concerned with checking and verifying the hadiths (reports about the Sunna.)

The first of the four trends, that of coming to rulings by way of analogy, was represented by a man named Abu Hanifa (d. 767 CE) in Iraq. Abu Hanifa was in fact the first to build a school of thought around his methodology, which was to look at the Quran and then at the Sunna, and then to make an analogy. The second trend, that of looking to the established practice of Medina, was represented by a man named Malik ibn Anas (d. 795 CE). Malik collected reports of what he called the living tradition or `amal of Medina, that is, the way that people always did things. Whenever a question arose, he would first look at the Quran, then at the `amal as the primary source of the Sunna and then at hadiths, which for him meant statements that were not accompanied by practice but which gave a ruling on the question at hand. The third trend, that of providing legal rulings for the caliph, was represented by a man named AbdurRahman al-Awza'i (d. 774 CE) in Damascus. He was strongly influenced by the traditions of Medina but in practice he had to do whatever he could to come up with an answer in a timely manner. The fourth trend, that of studying the hadiths, was represented by a man named Sufyan al-Thawri (d. 777 CE) of Iraq. He used the hadiths in a similar way to what Malik used the `amal, that is, to find out how the Quran was to be lived out. These four trends had begun to crystallize by the beginning of the second Islamic century (around 750 CE).

Then during the later part of that century, there was a man named Muhammad al-Shafi` (d. 819 CE). Shafi` was originally a student of Malik ibn Anas, then he went to Iraq and studied there with the students of Abu Hanifa. Finally he settled in Egypt. He was concerned. There was one Quran and one Sunna. Surely there should be one Shari'a, that is, one code of law for all Muslims. He also saw some flaws in the work of each of the people he had studied under. By this time, the Abbasid dynasty had taken over and moved its capital to Baghdad. This did away with the school of al-Awza'i. But Shafi` took something from each of the other schools. First of all, he set aside the `amal of Medina, because it had no chain of authorities (isnad). How could you tell if it was something the Prophet (pbuh) had commanded, or only something that he had allowed? The only way to tell this was with the hadiths. So Shafi` took al-Thawri's use of hadiths and put it in place of the `amal of Medina. He then took his new more extensive and critical understanding of the Sunna and put it in the structure that Abu Hanifa had developed of Quran, Sunna, and ijtihad. Finally, Shafi` thought that there was something to Malik's emphasis on following what a large number of people had agreed to, except that for Shafi` instead of following the consensus of the people of Medina it was following the consensus of the scholars after their ijtihad. Thus Shafi` established the four roots of fiqh that are followed today. They had all existed before, but it was Shafi` who brought them together in the form now accepted by all Muslims.

Shafi` hoped that there would now be a single school of law. However, the followers of Abu Hanifa and Malik ibn Anas preferred to keep their own identities. The Hanafis (followers of Abu Hanifa) went to Medina and learned everything they could, then modified the fiqh of their school to take into account the much greater awareness of the Sunna they now had. However, they preferred to give analogical reasoning more emphasis than Shafi` had. The Malikis (followers of Malik ibn Anas) dropped their emphasis on the `amal of Medina in that any of it that was not supported by hadiths was abandoned. However, they continued to make use of it in a limited fashion, if the hadiths were silent (this is a reverse of what Malik himself did.) So now there were three schools, those of Abu Hanifa, Malik ibn Anas, and Shafi`. The schools of al-Awza'i and al-Thawri died out.

In the next generation, two new schools of thought developed, under men named Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855 CE) and Dawud az-Zahiri (d. 882 CE). Az-Zahiri is actually a title, it means "the literalist", or one who goes for the outward meanings of things only. To give an example, if the Quran says, "Do not say a harsh word to your parents," the Zahiri school would say that it is permitted to hit one's parents, although most everybody else would argue by analogy and a fortiori logic that if it is forbidden to speak a harsh word, it is much more forbidden to be violent. The literalists would only follow what the text explicitly said. Literalism was the central idea around which the Zahiri school was built. The two original sources of Shari'a (the Quran and Sunna) were the same, but the method of ijtihad used in determining what they meant was different.

As for ibn Hanbal, he was a great scholar of hadiths, and made a collection of 40,000 hadiths called the Musnad. Ibn Hanbal thought that Shafi` had gone in the wrong direction in his adaptation of Malik's idea of the consensus. Ibn Hanbal believed that the consensus that was important was that of the earliest generations of Muslims (salaf), whose opinions have also been recorded in the hadiths. To ibn Hanbal, the consensus of the scholars meant nothing if it wasn't also the consensus of the early Muslims.

The Zahiri school waxed and waned in popularity and eventually died out because most people found it too limiting. However, the Hanbali school (that of ibn Hanbal) joined the Hanafi, Maliki, and Shafi`i schools, and together they are the four schools of thought that have existed up to the present day.

The Hanafi school is predominant in Turkey, Central Asia, and the Indian Subcontinent. The Maliki school is predominant in the Maghrib (Morocco and its neighbors.) The Shafi`i school is predominant in Egypt and the Indonesian archipelago. The Hanbali school is predominant in the Fertile Crescent (Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine) and in Saudi Arabia. Other regions of the Muslim world may support two or more of these schools.

The following is a massive over-simplification of the positions of the schools of thought, but I hope that it gives a general feeling for the differences among these groups as well as their similarities. We can summarize the four schools by saying that in their original form, each of them follows a different approach to fixing the Shari'a where the Quran and Sunna are not explicit (i.e., coming up with a binding ruling that Muslims should follow, on issues that aren't mentioned in the Quran and Sunna). The Hanafi school with its original emphasis on analogy and flexibility does not in fact have any mechanism for fixing the Shari'a beyond what the Prophet (pbuh) said. Thus each scholar is free to rule according to what is best for his given circumstances (this may not be true of the actual Hanafi school as it exists today). The Maliki school by contrast has used the `amal to fix the Shari'a. If it was not part of Medinan Islam, they said, it is not part of Islam. As for the Shafi`i school, it has used the consensus of the scholars to fix the Shari'a. The Hanbali school may fix the Shari'a if the early Muslims (salaf) came to a decision on a thing, but if they did not, then there is not actually any way to fix the Shari'a according to the Hanbali school. Thus both the Hanafi and Hanbali schools can be relatively flexible, while the Maliki and Shafi`i schools may be more rigid.


Trends in Contemporary Islam

The story of contemporary Islam is a story of reform and revival. Oddly enough, its roots go all the way back to the 1300s CE (thus predating by several decades the earliest stirrings of the Protestant Reformation in Europe.)

During the 1200s CE, the Mongols invaded both Russia and the Middle East, and generally wreaked havoc wherever they conquered. The consequences were catastrophic. For the first time in Islamic history, Muslims had to ask themselves, "How could we have been defeated? Why have we become so weak so that we're unable to unite and resist this threat?" For many people the answer was simply to cling all the more strongly to the traditional ways, hoping that what had made Islam great before would make it great again. However, a man named Abu'l-Abbas ibn Taimiya (d. 1328 CE) had a more radical idea. The reason Islam had been defeated, he said, was that it had gone wrong. Muslims had strayed from the pure Islam of the earliest generations and were now paying the price. The solution, he said, was to go back to the roots and to restore the pristine early Islam. This is actually a distinctively Hanbali idea, because the original Hanbali methodology (as explained above) is for each scholar to study the hadiths for himself to determine what the earliest (and best) generations, those closest to the Prophet (pbuh), had understood the Sunna to be.

However, the Muslim world seemed to be recovering fairly quickly and in the 1400s and 1500s three powerful new empires (the Ottomans in Turkey, the Mughals in India, and the Safavids in Persia) had come to power. Thus the conservative spirit prevailed, and ibn Taimiya's ideas languished.

The next development began in the 1700s CE in Arabia. At that time, the European colonial era in the Middle East had not really begun. Europe's focus was still on the New World, not on the (now) less-advanced parts of the Old World (i.e., Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.) The Ottoman Empire was still a strong power, but it was beginning to weaken and central Arabia, a region called Najd, was among the first to fall out of the Ottoman sphere of influence because it was too harsh a land to be populated by anyone but Bedouins. In this growing power vacuum there was room for new ideas, and the man with the ideas was Muhammad ibn AbdulWahhab (d. 1792 CE). In his studies, ibn AbdulWahhab discovered the writings of ibn Taimiya, and he thought that ibn Taimiya's ideas were finally starting to come of age. There wasn't any obvious problem yet, but there was a growing sense that the Muslim world was falling behind, that it was too busy maintaining the status quo to meet new developments as they arrived and to take advantage of them.

Moreover, ibn AbdulWahhab was very similar to the Protestant Reformers. Just as the Protestants believed that the Catholic Church had gone astray with saint cults and elaborate rituals that had been unknown to the early Christians, so ibn AbdulWahhab believed that popular Islam had gone the same way. And he believed, as had ibn Taimiya, that this decadence was in fact the cause of the increasing weakness of the Muslim world. Reform was necessary, and it was necessary now, before it was too late.

Ibn AbdulWahhab found a backer in a man named Muhammad ibn Sa'ud, a tribal chieftain in the Najd, and the two men made a deal to support each other. Ibn Sa'ud would provide a politcal forum to implement ibn AbdulWahhab's ideas, while ibn AbdulWahhab would give ibn Sa'ud's regime religious legitimacy. Thus were born the Wahhabi movement (named after ibn AbdulWahhab) and also what would later become Saudi Arabia (i.e., the Arabia of the Sa'ud family.) The English and Christian term that probably best describes Wahhabi Islam is "puritanical". They demolished elaborate shrines that had become pilgrimage centers and used a sort of religious police to enforce their interpretation of Islamic law. Scholarship wasn't as important for the Wahhabis as reformist zeal. The particular form of Wahhabi Islam did not take root at that time outside of what would become Saudi Arabia, but some of its ideas did spread, particularly the idea that Islam needed to be reformed and that the key was to go back to the origins. It still wasn't very influential, however, because for most people the traditional ways of life hadn't changed very much.

Our story now moves ahead to the late 1800s and early 1900s. By this time, European imperialism was at its height, and nearly all of the Muslim world was under the rule of one European power or another. The feelings that had first struck ibn Taimiya more than five centuries before were now increasingly common: "What's wrong with us that we let ourselves be overwhelmed like this? Why can't we unite and win our independence from this?"

A new element entered the Muslim world as many young, educated people (from the elite, wealthy families, for the most part) traveled to the West. While receiving modern educations there, they also tried to learn what the key to the West's success was. Was it technology? Secularism? Being in touch with all forms of modernism? New political ideas of all kinds were absorbed, not just democracy (as we assume today) but also socialism, communism and indeed any other ideology that promised to turn the world into a Utopia.

Some people believed that secularism or socialism or another ideology should be adopted wholesale. Others, however, believed that Islam should be adapted to take these new realities into account. This is where the inspiration of Wahhabi Islam comes in. First, and most obviously, the idea was already in the air that Islam needed to be reformed in some way. But the Wahhabis had also shown that the early Islam had been dynamic, flexible, and egalitarian. This was a great inspiration and encouragement to the modernist reformers. It turned out that they did not need to create a "new" Islam, but merely to return to the pristine early form of the religion. Soon modernist scholars found support in the Quran and hadiths for democracy, even women's rights (yes, in Islam!) It is very important to understand that modernist Muslims are seeking solutions within Islam. It seems to me to be similar to the egalitarian early Christianity rediscovered by the Protestant reformers.

It should be noted that the drive to adapt Islam to the modern world is in fact a Hanafi idea since (as explained above), the original Hanafi methodology was to allow each scholar to adapt his rulings to find the best for his particular circumstances. Thus while the Wahhabis are inspired by the Hanbali school, the modernists are inspired by the Hanafi school (however, they may not come from a Hanafi background at all, and most don't; it's just that their methodology and concerns are similar to those that originally inspired the Hanafis). These are new developments, yet they are part of 1,300-year old currents of Islamic thought. It should be noted that by the early twentieth century, there was no longer a sense among most Muslim activists that it would be enough just to reform the Hanafi or Hanbali school, or that either of these schools could be used for reform. These scholars felt that it was too late for that. It might have worked in ibn Taimiya's time, or even ibn AbdulWahhab's, but things had progressed too far, and Islam itself needed to be reformed. That is what really sets both movements apart from traditionalist Islam.

Unlike Wahhabi Islam, which was an organized movement supported by a government (that of what would become Saudi Arabia), there has been and is no organized "modernist" movement. Rather, it is a spirit that animates various people, who found schools or publish writings about their ideas. In any case, the modernist enterprise was well underway by 1900.

But the real changes for the Muslim world were yet to come. Even in the West, the world since WWII is a very different place. The changes in the developing world are far beyond that. A person born around 1900 or 1915 grew up in a society that was still the same as it had been for centuries. But the discovery of oil in many parts of the Muslim world, and also the advent of global communications technologies, mean that the developing world has been attempting to do in 50 years what the West did over several hundred. Ways of life and social trends that the West grew into, and that grew with the West, are thrust fully-developed on Third World countries, who are trying to play catch-up as fast as they can. This has all happened in a generation, during the course of a single person's lifetime.

As a result of this, the guardians of traditionalism today are mostly the classically-trained scholars, or perhaps some ancient mystical orders and brotherhoods. Very few people know it anymore as the way they grew up. Although the conservative scholars utter dire warnings against departing from the traditional ways that they say once made Islam great, their words fall on increasingly deaf ears. For the average Muslim there are only two options anymore for an Islamic faith that seems relevant to the modern world: modernism and Wahhabi Islam. Traditionalism still is a movement within Islam, and has certain very vocal spokesmen, but it is not gaining many new members.

A note
Earlier I used the word "puritanical" to describe Wahhabi Islam. Another word that could be applied to it is "fundamentalist". I chose not to use this word because the term "Islamic fundamentalism" carries with it such baggage that it would completely obscure whatever I was trying to say. Wahhabi Islam has to be understood within its own context.

In Christianity, the word "fundamentalism" has a very specific meaning. It is devotion to a set of fundamental Christian doctrines such as belief in the literal truth of the Bible, the Trinity, the Virgin Birth and so on. Other Protestant groups may not even agree on this same list of fundamentals, while traditionalist Christian denominations like Catholicism would produce yet another list. Indeed, there are very profound differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, differences in the way that the two groups see the very nature of Christianity and what beliefs or ways are central to it.

There is not such a difference of opinion in Islam. While Christianity has something like two hundred different denominations, Islam has only two, Sunni and Shi'a (I have not discussed Shi'a here.) Even Sunnis and Shi'ites are agreed on most "fundamental doctrines" or teachings, such as that the Quran is the literal word of God, that the Quran and Sunna are the sources of Islamic law, that Islam is a way of life with laws regulating everything from the family to the nation. If "fundamentalism" is taken to mean adherence to a set of fundamental doctrines, then nearly all Muslims would appear to be "fundamentalists".

The sense in which the term "fundamentalism" can be applied is when it refers to a radical reform movement, rejecting modernity in favor of the original ways of the religion. When "fundamentalism" is used in this sense, it can apply to Islam and specifically to Wahhabi Islam. But to assume that "fundamentalism" means the same thing in Islam that it does in Christianity is to make a big mistake. If you make that assumption then Muslims who are actually modernists would appear to be "fundamentalists".

To close out this section, I would like to survey some specific movements in the Muslim world today. Wahhabi Islam has been developing its own particular legal school, whose rallying cry is, "Islam on the way of the righteous predecessors," and, "Quran and Sunna as understood by the righteous predecessors." The Arabic word translated here as "predecessors" is salaf, so this movement is known as "salafi". This is what is taught at the religious colleges in Saudi Arabia and that are funded by Saudi Arabia. Many scholars from elsewhere take their inspiration from this methodology without being bound by the specific rulings of the Wahhabis.

There is also a diversity of religious reform in the Subcontinent. Here the Hanafi school is predominant so all of these movements are loosely Hanafi. One group go back to the original methodology of Abu Hanifa, in which the Sunna is represented more by the practice of all the Muslims than by the hadiths (for Abu Hanifa this was due to the paucity of hadiths in Iraq.) With the Sunna so limited in scope, there is a great deal of room for interpretation. Another group are the Tablighi Jamaat ("the congregation who preach to people.") Rather than being legal scholars they preach a "back-to-basics" lifestyle to the Muslim people, a return to simplicity. A third group grew out of the battle for independence from Britain, which are called the Deobandis (more on these later). They are more traditionalist than the other groups in that they adhere to the rulings of the Hanafi school in most areas, but they struggle against the secularization of their society. Their scholarship has also influenced the Indian diaspora communities in South Africa and the Caribbean.

In addition to the above there is another interesting reform movement, a group who call themselves the Murabitun (those who guard the borders). Their methodology goes back to the original Maliki methodology; they favor the `amal of Medina over the hadiths as the primary source of Sunna. Of course, they have to rely on ancient texts of what the `amal of Medina used to be, since that tradition is not continuous to today. In a sense they too are going back to the early Islam to find inspiration for today. The Murabitun are very small but are an intriguing variant. For more information see: The Murabitun, views of Shaykh Abdalqadir as-Sufi, founder of the Murabitun, and The `Amal of Medina.

All of these groups have in common that they want to go back to the religion practiced by the early Muslim community, which they believe will provide a solution to the problems faced by the Muslim world today. For some groups it is the flexibility and egalitarianism of early Islam that is the key, because it allows adaptation to the modern world. For other groups it is simply that adherence to the purest form of the religion, the religion as it was originally established by God, is the only way to cure any ill. For probably most Muslims today, it is actually a combination of these two impulses. It is just that the modernists believe that God has ordained a religion that is relevant to today's world, while the Wahhabis and similar so-called "fundamentalist" movements don't care whether it is or not.


"Militant Islam"

In addition to the movements in Islam discussed above (traditionalism, modernism, and "fundamentalism"), there is a fourth movement, which is generally referred to as "militant Islam". The most extreme form of this particular vision of Islam is the one preached by Osama Bin Laden. It is typically characterized by saying that the governments of most Muslim countries are illegitimate and by seeing political or military struggle to replace these governments as the essential nature of Islam. Where does such a fiercely reductive vision come from?

The first development of these ideas seems to have been by an Egyptian named Sayyid Qutb. Qutb was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, an organization devoted to Islamic revival. Qutb was jailed by the Nasser regime, where he suffered extensive torture and became radicalized. He began developing his own new vision of what Islam was about.

In Islamic history the pre-Islamic period is known as the Age of Ignorance (Arabic jahiliyyah). It was a time of paganism, superstition, and moral corruption. This was the culture that held sway in the city of Mecca when the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) began his mission. After some thirteen years of preaching, the Prophet (pbuh) and his followers emigrated to the city of Medina several hundred miles away to establish the first Islamic government. The Meccans considered the Prophet (pbuh) and his followers renegades who were attempting to overturn their social order and thus a fierce struggle ensued between Medina and Mecca that included armed conflict. Ultimately, the Meccans found themselves outnumbered and at such a disadvantage that they surrendered and the Prophet (pbuh) took over Mecca in a bloodless conquest.

This history formed a sort of primeval model for Sayyid Qutb. He came to feel that most Muslim societies including that of Egypt were lost in a new Age of Ignorance. The appropriate solution, he said, was for the Muslim faithful to emigrate away from this ignorance and form a new Islamic society. Because this was threatening to the existing social order, he said, a great battle would ensue but eventually the Muslim faithful would triumph and Islam would be established once again.

The next stage of development in the idea was by a Palestinian named Abdullah Azzam. Azzam had originally been a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, but became disillusioned with its secularism. He moved to Egypt to study Islamic law and there became acquainted with the ideas of Sayyid Qutb. Subsequently he moved to Saudi Arabia to teach. One of his students there was Osama Bin Laden. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Azzam and Bin Laden, along with others of like mind, moved to Pakistan's border with Afghanistan in order to organize a jihad (armed struggle) against the Soviets (incidentally, this jihad was funded by the CIA, as were many of the structures and institutions set up to support it. See also Inventing Political Violence.)

Azzam transformed Qutb's social ideas into a plan of action. For him, the emphasis was not on building the new Islamic society, but rather on immediately beginning to combat the "forces of ignorance". This narrowed the entire idea of the "Islamic struggle" (jihad) to a single aspect, that of armed conflict. The word jihad has always included in its meaning armed struggle, but it had other meanings too. Azzam ignored those meanings in favor of the one that supported his cause. For him, all jihad was military, and all Islam was jihad.

There is a third stage in the development of these ideas, which is associated with a man named Ayman az-Zawahiri and a movement called At-Takfir w'al-Hijra. At first, this was an independent movement and was not linked with Azzam and Bin Laden. Like them, Zawahiri takes his inspiration from Sayyid Qutb.

The name "At-Takfir w'al-Hijra" is an Arabic phrase. The word "takfir" means "to declare someone an apostate". "Hijra" has been discussed above, it is the emigration away from a society lost in ignorance to a new, Islamic society. Thus the name of the movement refers to declaring other Muslims as apostates and emigrating away from them. As noted above, Qutb believed that Muslim societies, like that of Egypt, were going away from Islam and becoming lost in ignorance. Qutb did not go so far as to declare his fellow Egyptians apostates; he merely thought they were sinners. The At-Takfir w'al-Hijra movement does declare most Muslims to be apostates because of their sins. The origins of this movement are rather mysterious and not easy to learn about. We do know that by the late 1970s Ayman Zawahiri had founded a group called Al-Jihad based on the At-Takfir w'al-Hijra ideology. Al-Jihad was implicated in the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981, and Zawahiri spent several years in jail. After his release in 1984, he made his way to Peshawar, Pakistan. This was where he joined forces with Azzam and Bin Laden.

Zawahiri is, by profession, a physician and this is how he began his work with Azzam and Bin Laden. It was only in 1989 when the Soviets were finally defeated and left Afghanistan that Zawahiri came into full prominence.

Although Azzam had developed a reductive vision of Islam in which the primary duty was jihad, his understanding of jihad was basically that of conventional war. And Afghanistan clearly did need to be liberated from the Soviets. Azzam had felt that after the jihad in Afghanistan was won, the fighters should put down their arms and go back home. However, Azzam was killed in that same year (1989). Zawahiri believed that the next step was for the jihad to be turned against corrupt Muslim governments and those who supported them. To him, they were no longer Muslims but apostates who should be put to death. Some time during the previous five years, Bin Laden had become convinced by the At-Takfir w'al-Hijra ideology.

For this reason, Bin Laden and Zawahiri launched a new phase of their movement. Their initial target was the Egyptian government, so they set up shop in Sudan. In 1996, they were expelled from Sudan and so took refuge in Afghanistan, which was now under the rule of the Taliban. That is how the current state of affairs came to be.

Bin Laden's movement has been able to draw on the anger and frustration of many young Arabs. In Egypt, a secular government believes that it can modernize the country by force. In Palestine, the people struggle against the often brutal Israeli occupation (note: see Western Journalists in Support of Palestine if you are confused about this statement.) In Saudi Arabia there is yet a third situation.

You may have noticed that I have not linked the Wahhabis with "militant Islam" although there are many, including certain Muslims, who do so. What you need to understand is that in Saudi Arabia the Wahhabi movement is closely allied with the government, as a result of the power-sharing deal worked out so long ago by ibn AbdulWahhab and ibn Sa'ud. As explained above, the Wahhabi movement is characterized by its puritanical zeal. The Saudi government by contrast is corrupt, despotic, and often decadent. It is this conflict of interest that inspires many outside the government to feel that the Wahhabi establishment has sold out. While the Wahhabi scholars are funded by the government and spread their teachings thanks to government money, there is another movement in opposition to them. These people come out of the cultural environment set by the Wahhabis, and often they are filled with the same zeal for reform as the Wahhabis. But they are not themselves part of the "official" Wahhabi movement. Instead, they are a reaction to it. Azzam, Zawahiri, and Bin Laden are able to tap into these feelings of resentment and to direct them towards their own ends. The Saudi government is not innocent in this matter. Unable or unwilling to make the reforms necessary to ease the resentment of the Saudi people, it has sought to direct the feelings against outside targets in the hopes that the militants will forget to look back at Saudi Arabia itself. But this is a very different thing from saying that "militant Islam" is part of Wahhabi Islam. "Militant Islam" is a reaction against Wahhabi Islam, or more precisely against the association of Wahhabi Islam with a corrupt government.

Note 1: In fact, the Wahhabi establishment are quite strongly opposed to the teachings of Qutb. See for example, The Qutubi, Sururi Manhaj in Causing Dissention and Separation Amongst the Senior Scholars, Examining Qutubiyyah, Concerning Sayyid Qutb, Saalih Al-Munajjid and Al-Maghraawee, Heresies of Syed Qutb, and The Difference Between Qutubiyyah and Salafiyyah (PDF).

Note 2: Further reading on these points includes Understanding Islamism, Saudi Arabia: Who are the Islamists?, and Islamism in North Africa. For a briefer overview, try Al-Qaeda: The Misunderstood Wahhabi Connection and the Ideology of Violence.

I have mentioned Egypt, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia because the leaders of "militant Islam" are from these countries (Qutb and Zawahiri from Egypt, Azzam from Palestine, and Bin Laden from Saudi Arabia.) In fact, one interesting thing about "militant Islam" is that most of its adherents are Arabs. What is it that is unique about the Arab world, that so many of its young people are so angry?

A commentator named Eric Margolis once described the Arab world as perhaps the most "politically retarded" region in the world (its only real rival is Africa.) Whether it is Egypt's ruthlessly secular government, the ongoing occupation of Palestine, or Saudi Arabia's corrupted "Islamic" government, the Arabs seem nowhere to know freedom. The United States, unfortunately, gives the appearance of endorsing the status quo in order to "keep the peace" and to be using Israel as its client state. This means that the United States is associated in the minds of Arabs with the regimes that are oppressing them so terribly, with keeping these regimes in power, and with ignoring the aspirations of the ordinary people. Whether it is a just assessment or not, increasing numbers of Arabs take this to mean that the United States is "the enemy" and that gaining freedom will involve fighting against America as well as against the Arab governments.

The United States does seem to be more deeply, or more obviously, involved in the Middle East than in any other region (if we chose, we could speculate about the oil produced in the Middle East and other factors), and it must be said that in the thirty or so years of American hegemony, the situation in the Arab world has only gotten worse and the frustrations of the Arab people have only grown.

Young Arabs are not usually versed in the details of Islamic history and law. Very often all they know is that they want freedom and to fight back against the forces oppressing them, and the militants' simplified black and white vision of Islam is appealing to them. And if they can't fight back within the Middle East itself, by learning about the brotherhood of all Muslims, they can be convinced to fight on behalf of the Afghans, the Chechens, or any other group that has advanced to armed struggle. That was how Azzam and Bin Laden ended up on the border of Afghanistan.

Having looked at Bin Laden and the evolution of his ideas to today, we can now examine how the Taliban fit in. Their links with the Arab world through Azzam, Bin Laden, and later Zawahiri are perhaps the obvious place to look, but the Taliban also need to be understood as a product of the situation in Pakistan. This is not the place to go into a detailed history of Pakistan. We can, however, look briefly at two factors in the creation of the Taliban. First, it helps to understand that the western parts of Pakistan (which were formerly called Baluchistan) are home to the same Pashtun ethnic group that forms the majority of the population of Afghanistan. This has a lot to do with why Pakistan is so involved in Afghanistan; they don't want trouble in Afghanistan to spill over into their own country. Second, we can look at recent developments in Islamic thought in Pakistan as a whole. Pakistan was created in 1948 as a state for the Muslims of India after India won its independence from Britain. The Muslims had been an active part of this struggle for independence; in fact, the roots of their struggle go back to the 1700s when Britain was first colonizing India. In concert with the political struggle for independence there was a renaissance in Islamic thought, which is popularly associated with the Dar al-Ulum (University of Islamic Sciences) of Deoband, India, and is thus called "Deobandi" (the Deobandis were mentioned briefly above.)

After Pakistan achieved independence, the Deobandi movement gave rise to a new offshoot. The founder of this was Abu'l-Aala Maududi. Like Qutb, Maududi had his own new vision of Islam. It also was centered around the struggle (jihad) against the oppressive forces. Maududi felt that Pakistan might have escaped the political domination of Britain, but it was still suffering under the cultural oppression of the West (i.e., secularism) and that the struggle must continue in order to establish a truly Islamic state as the Prophet (pbuh) had done. Maududi founded the Jamaat-i-Islami (Islamic Group), a political party dedicated to establishing Islamic law in Pakistan.

It is at this point that Azzam came into the story again. He came to Pakistan with a much more radical vision than Maududi had ever had, while being able to take advantage of the groundwork that Maududi had laid, just as he was able to take advantage of the Wahhabi groundwork. This is not to imply that Abdullah Azzam is some kind of "mastermind of evil" (Zawahiri seems to fit that desciption much better), merely that his teachings found fertile ground in Pakistan as well as in Saudi Arabia. Also, the Pakistani Pashtuns could be expected to be sympathetic to the plight of their Afghani cousins.

The word "taliban" is Arabic for "students" and the Taliban are so named because they were students at the religious colleges in western Pakistan. Maududi's Jamaat-i-Islami had begun establishing religious colleges as part of its own struggle against the secularism of Pakistani society, and Azzam had, independently of this, been teaching his militant version of Islam in Baluchistan since the crisis first erupted in Afghanistan, and working among the youth of Afghanistan. It would be a small thing to send them off to Peshawar or Quetta to learn the religious justifications before they came back to begin the actual armed struggle. This is what the Taliban have come out of.

The Pakistani government bears its own measure of responsibility. Its corruption and despotism, and its unwillingness or inability to bring reform to Pakistan and solve the many problems there breeds its own resentment. This is what the the militant groups are channeling towards their own ends. And Pakistan, like Saudi Arabia, hoped that by directing the attention of the militants elsewhere, it could avoid any attack on itself. Hence, the militant young students (i.e., taliban) were actively encouraged by Pakistan to enter Afghanistan and set up shop there. For more background information on the religious situation in Pakistan, see The State of Sectarianism in Pakistan (PDF, registration may be required).

In summary, both Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban come out of the same movement, which combines the rage of the oppressed with some of the puritanical zeal that marks the Wahhabi culture, and channels it all into an ideology of armed struggle. They find recruits in the Arab world and in Pakistan because of the political situations there. Their intellectual ancestors are Sayyid Qutb and Abu'l-Aala Maududi. Both Qutb and Maududi were primarily interested in political reform, but it was their reduction of all of Islam to a single creed of struggle that provided the intellectual basis for the still more reductive militant vision of Abdullah Azzam and the Taliban. This vision is now taken to its ultimate extreme by Zawahiri and Bin Laden.


Some Concluding Remarks

The aim of the first two parts of this essay (Historical Background and Trends in Contemporary Islam) was to discuss genuine movements of revival and reform in the Muslim world, and where they come from. I want to show that these movements are distinct from "militant Islam". "Militant Islam" is a response to the political situation in the Muslim world over the last thirty years or so. It is the selective use of certain elements of Islam to produce an ideology to support political or armed struggle. It is not a natural outgrowth of Islam, because the selection process leaves out much that is vital to Islamic civilization, but is rather a distorted vision of the religion produced to further certain very specific aims. If the Arabs and Pashtuns were not Muslims, they would have used a different religion to justify their actions. Fifty years ago, they might have used communism or another secular ideology instead. But as Muslims and in today's political climate, they choose to use Islam.

I have argued that "militant Islam" is not part of Wahhabi Islam, but rather comes out of a reaction against the Wahhabi movement. I also mean by this that "militant Islam" and "fundamentalism" are two different things. "Fundamentalism" in the Islamic context means a reform movement that seeks to go back to the pristine earliest form of the religion. It is a reaction against religious decadence rather than against any political situation. It is very similar to Protestantism in Christianity. Wahhabi Islam (the movement most closely resembling "fundamentalism") is concerned with purifying the entire way of life of the Muslims, their worship and their interactions with each other whether or a personal or a societal level. There is a richness and a complexity to it. And, as I argued above, it is not Wahhabi Islam itself that has given rise to "militant Islam", but rather, "militant Islam" is (among other things) a backlash against the failure of Wahhabi Islam to live up to its own ideals. This is an important distinction to make.

There is also modernist Islam. Modernist Islam is "fundamentalist" in the sense that it is a reform movement seeking to go back to the pristine earliest form of the religion. If early Islam did not have the dynamism, egalitarianism, and flexibility that modernists are looking for, they would look somewhere else. But they do find these qualities in Islam, which confirms and strengthens their commitment to their religion. Islam is an entire way of life, and it regulates both peoples' worship and their interactions with each other, from the personal level to the societal level. Those who are committed to improving the lives of Muslims through Islam will thus be involved in social activism and political reform. This too is similar to the Wahhabis. It comes out of the nature of Islam as a religion.

But modernists are specifically interested in bringing democracy and a concern for human rights, and women's rights, to the Muslim world. They look for the flexibility to adapt Islam to the changing needs of people rather than wanting as the Wahhabis do to follow a single vision of Islam (in this case the early Muslim community.)

I have said that it is a error to mistake Wahhabis for militants, and it is an even more serious error to mistake modernist Muslims for either fundamentalists or militants just because they are socially or politically active in their religion.

Now, as I said above, "militant Islam" is a distortion of Islam. It takes only selected elements of Islam and puts them together in a new form. For this reason, Islam itself is not responsible nor the cause of what militants do. What is the responsibility of Muslims everywhere is to speak up for the truth of Islam and to prove that Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban are not some sort of natural consequence of the existence of Islam. I hope that, God willing, this essay may be a small step towards making this distinction clear.

At the same time, I do think there is also a responsibility for non-Muslims to be willing to seek out the opinions and the voices of ordinary Muslims. People on both sides need to resist the temptation to see a "clash of civilizations" between "Islam" and "the West". Otherwise, we play right into the hands of Bin Laden and those like him and we end up furthering their goals.

And we also need to realize that seeking to address certain grievances of the Arab world, such as resolving the Palestinian situation, or being more active in encouraging democratic reform in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other countries is not "appeasing" Bin Laden. We should do these things in any case because it is the right thing to do. And by easing the oppression that many Arabs face, we can deny Bin Laden the pool that he draws his recruits from. It will not change him or make him stop, but it can marginalize him and isolate him until he finds that no one is listening to him anymore.



The section on the historical development of the major Islamic schools of thought is primarily based on The Sources of Islamic Law, by Yasin Dutton.

The section on trends in contemporary Islam is inspired by Traditional Islam in the Modern World by Seyyed Hossein Nasr (available from Barnes& and The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong (available from

The information about Sayyid Qutb, Abu'l-Aala Maududi, Abdullah Azzam, and Ayman Zawahiri is based on The Roots of Jihad: How the Militant Definition Took Hold and on The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong (available from Information on Zawahiri is also taken from "Public Enemy No. 2", an article that appeared in Time, November 12, 2001 issue, pages 77-81. Supplemental information on these topics was taken from Visions of Revolutionary Islam by Sanusi L. Sanusi.

The information about the political situation in the Arab world is primarily based on "The Politics of Rage", a multi-part article by Fareed Zakariya, which can be found at:

The information about Pakistan's role in the creation of the Taliban is based on "The Perpetual Vortex: Afghanistan and Its Neighbours", an article that appeared in The Economist, September 29th-October 5th, 2001 issue, pages 20-22.