– Why ISIS is not “Sunni”: The Failure to Understand Sunni Islam is a Victory for ISIS.


( © Zubair Qamar, November 2014 )

The Failure to Understand Sunni Islam is a Victory for ISIS. ISIS has made quite a dramatic ascension in ranks and power over the months. Some see ISIS’s success as a triumph of “Sunni” Islam.

Such messengers of “truth” who furnish instant corrections and harangues at those who distance a minority of criminal zealots from the peaceful majority of Muslims, are, ironically the first to collude with ISIS.

While not understanding what Sunni Islam is – what ISIS purports to follow and uphold – the drivers of “truth” rush in defense of exactly what ISIS claims to be. Becoming unknowingly hand-in-glove with ISIS, and their loyal propagandists, they describe ISIS as “Islamic” and “Sunni,” and a group that wages a proper combative “jihad.”

This empowerment of ISIS by its supposed detractors is the result of the colossal failure of many to fully understand the identity of Sunni Islam as understood by the Sunni majority. Until this Sunni identity is well defined and understood, it is impossible to know which group represents Sunni Islam, and just as impossible to use Sunni Islam to effectively counter pseudo-Sunni groups like ISIS that deceptively claim the Sunni mantle.

This is not just a failure of many non-Muslims. Many – perhaps most – Muslims who follow Sunni Islam do so by tradition, and are unable to explain how Sunni identity differs from pseudo-Sunni identity when asked.

Militants like ISIS thrive on this ignorance and confusion. An absence of proper knowledge of Sunni Islam hinders one’s ability to use it as a weapon against militants, and emboldens them. What has Sunni identity meant to the world’s Sunni Muslims, now and in the past?

What is Orthodox Sunni Islam/Tradition?

In general, the unique characteristic that distinguishes Sunni identity from other groups is that it is represented by the religious understandings of the majority of Muslim scholars.

The majority of Muslim scholars represent Sunni tradition through the generations from the time of Prophet Muhammad to contemporary times.

Tradition is important to a Sunni because, says Sunni author Aftab Ahmad Malik,

“[T]radition is invoked in the context of an inherited scholastic methodology and set of paradigms.”

Included in them, he explains, are:

“debates, the dissenting opinions, the scholarly exegesis, interpretation and understanding of the ethical, moral legal, spiritual and philosophical traditions of Islam.”

Most importantly, says Malik,

“This scholarship is bound together by a tapestry of interconnecting chains of transmissions of other scholars, mystics, philosophers, jurists, theologians and sages that reach back generations, leading ultimately to the Prophet Muhammad himself, God bless him and grant him peace, wherein its authority is confirmed.”

Therefore, the understanding of the majority of classical Sunni scholars who together possess the most knowledge of the Islamic sources is the “backbone” of orthodox Sunni Islam and is what forms Sunni identity. Whatever they understood to be true is what Sunni Islam represents. These scholars and the Muslim masses who followed them are collectively described as the ‘People of the Sunnah and Community,’ or Ahl as-Sunnah wa’al Jama’ah.

Using this understanding, one can identify the positions the scholarly collective took on the three main foundations of Islam. Once these positions are understood, they can be used as a barometer to judge whether a group like ISIS (or any other group) is following orthodox Sunni tradition or not.


The Identity of Orthodox Sunni Islam: The Three Foundations

The majority of Sunni scholars use the “Hadith of Gabriel” to explain the three central foundations of Sunni Islam. Imam Zaid Shakir, a popular contemporary American Sunni scholar at Zaytuna University, says,

“The Hadith of Gabriel (Jibril) is considered by most Muslim scholars to be one of the fundamental texts of our religion. It presents, in a comprehensive way, the foundations of Islam.”

The three foundations of Sunni Islam, as derived from the Hadith of Gabriel, are:


(1) Islamic belief/creed/theology (Iman)

(2) Islamic practice or jurisprudence (Islam)

(3) Achievement of states of inner purity, or spiritual excellence (Ihsan)


Explaining the three foundations of Islam, author Joseph Lumbard says they are seen as “three partially overlapping circles,” and “the place where all three circles overlap is the ideal that all Muslims strive to attain.”


“One who embodies all three in their fullest depth and breadth is closer to living as a true human being in what the Qur’an refers to as the true nature (fitrah).”

Knowing from earlier discussion that the majority of religious scholars represent the genuine Sunni position, it is imperative to know what they understood and taught about the three foundations of the religion.


The First Foundation: Iman (Belief/Creed/Theology)

The first test of any true Sunni Muslim is correct creed, or belief in God, which is a prerequisite to having all jurisprudential practices, like prayer and jihad, accepted. Sunni creed is synonymous with Sunni tenets of faith, belief, doctrine, and theology. Indeed, the first of five pillars in Islam is Testification of Faith: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is the Messenger of Allah.”

The Ash’ari and Maturidi Schools of Sunni Creed. Most Muslims today and in Islam’s history follow/followed the Ash’ari and Maturidi explanation of creed. Orthodox Sunni creed which is represented by the Ash’ari, Maturidi, and Athari schools of creed is rejected by ISIS and other Wahhabi-Salafi groups.

“Ash’ari” refers to an early Muslim theologian born in Basra named Abul Hassan al-Ash’ari (874-936), while “Maturidi” refers to another early Muslim theologian born in present-day Uzbekistan named Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (853-944). They were contemporary Muslim scholars who taught Sunni creed, and whose explanations of creed have been embraced by most of the world’s Sunnis. Even Ayman al-Zawahiri was aware of this when he said:

“[M]ost of the Umma’s ulema are Ashari or Matridi[sic.].”

The Ash’ari and Maturidi schools of creed became standards for Sunnis and used to judge other beliefs. Contemporary Sunni scholar, Shaykh Faraz Rabbani, says,

“[religious] scholars considered the prevalent way of the Ash’aris and Maturidids to be the ‘standard’ by which anyone’s beliefs would be judged.”

Unlike the Ash’ari and Maturidi schools of creed, the Athari school – the third school of Sunni creed followed mainly by Hanbalis – did not delve into extensive doctrinal dialectics.

The disagreements notwithstanding among scholars of all three schools of creed, the Athari school should be differentiated from the neo-Athari school that demonstrated and still demonstrates, the “tendency…towards excessive literalism in beliefs and even towards anthropomorphism (affirmation of human attributes to Allah).”

ISIS and al-Qa’eda, as well as non-violent Wahhabis and other Salafis, oppose Ash’aris and Maturidis and their understandings of God, and, instead follow a manifestation of the neo-Athari (anthropomorphic) creed which contradicts the three schools of Sunni creed as understood by classical Sunni scholars.

In opposition to Sunni creed, the Salafi understanding of creed was invented by Ibn Taymiyah, supported later by Muhammad ibn Abdal-Wahhab (founder of the Wahhabi movement), and propagated by Salafis of all colors. When Wahhabis-Salafis accuse the Ash’ari and Maturidi explanations of creed of being out of the bounds of Islam, they essentially excommunicate almost all Muslims who have ever existed since the time of Prophet Muhammad.


The Second Foundation: Islam (Muslim Practice)

The foundation of Muslim practice refers to Islamic jurisprudence, which describes how to perform acts of worship, or external compliance with what God asks Muslims to do. For example, how a Muslim prays, purifies him- or herself, gives alms, goes for the Hajj pilgrimage, and all other acts of worship.

The Four Schools of Sunni Jurisprudence. From the early days of Islam to contemporary times, Sunni jurisprudence has been taught by Sunni scholars in the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence: the Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, and Hanbali schools (madhahib). Most Muslims today and in Islam’s history follow and have followed one or more of these Sunni schools of jurisprudence.

While many schools existed earlier in Islam, Sunni orthodoxy over time came to be represented by these four schools through most of Islam’s history. To a Sunni Muslim layperson, all four of these schools are correct. Any of them can be followed.

This diversity is a result of the Islamic sources’ Arabic, which allows differing interpretations by those qualified to make them. Islam’s inherent nature, then, encourages followers to discuss, debate, and exert effort (ijtihad) to understand God’s Word. Sunnis believe that these differences are a mercy from God that testify to Sunni Islam’s spirit of diversity, collaboration, and brotherhood.

Wahhabis and Salafis, violent and non-violent, reject the following of Sunni schools of jurisprudence in the name of following the “Qur’an and Sunnah,” even while they cherry pick from them, to create a pseudo-Sunni Wahhabi-Salafist jurisprudence alien to the majority of Sunni scholars and laypeople.

Instead of promoting jurisprudential diversity based on sound scholarship, ISIS and other such groups attempt to promote only one interpretation of Islam – and that which is neither Sunni nor representative of its tradition. As in creed and belief, Wahhabis and Salafis also fail the test of Sunni jurisprudence.

In the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence, “most of the followers of the Sunni Hanafi school of jurisprudence have historically been followers of the Maturidi school of theology. However, one third of them, along with three-quarters of the Shafi’is, all of the Malikis, and some Hanbalis, adhere to the Ash’ari school.”

Why Wahhabis-Salafis Destroy Graves and Tombs. Because jurisprudence is the domain of Muslim action, it is important to examine one of the anti-Sunni destructive practices of ISIS and other extremists. The destruction of tombs and graves by ISIS and other such groups is an attack on both Sunni and Shi’ah traditions because extremist groups believe that venerating the pious after their death is synonymous with worshipping them and committing the unforgivable sin of polytheism (shirk).

However, what Wahhabis-Salafis view as polytheism is the valid and encouraged orthodox Sunni (and Shi’ah) practice of tawassul. Contemporary Sunni scholar, Nuh Ha Mim Keller, defines tawassul as:

“supplicating Allah by means of an intermediary, whether it be a living person, dead person, a good deed, or a name or attribute of Allah Most High.”

This is critical to know because this is the primary reason why ISIS is destroying tombs in Iraq and Syria. Salafis of all stripes worldwide have destroyed graves and tombs of saints and prophets for the same reasons, including in Pakistan, Syria, and Afghanistan.

The destruction of tombs and graves by Wahhabi armies in the 1800s and 1900s is due to the same erroneous, non-Sunni understanding of the genuine Sunni practice of tawassul.

Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged accomplice of the 9/11 hijackers, declared his brother and sister heathens for doing the orthodox Sunni practice of tawassul. Abd Samad, brother of Zacarias, was told a secret by Jamila, his sister:

“The previous year Zacarias had been to see her and had said, ‘Abd Samad and Fouzia [Abd Samad’s wife] are doing tawassul, they’re heathens. Be on your guard with them, but whatever happens, don’t say anything to them.”


The Third Foundation: Ihsan (Spiritual Excellence)

This fundamental, Ihsan, means “making beautiful,” “doing beautifully,” or spiritual excellence, and refers to inner-purification to ensure that Muslims are able to attain certain noble states of being to ensure purity of intention in every act of worship. The Prophet Muhammad said,

“It is to worship Allah as if you see Him, and if you see Him not, He nevertheless sees you.”

While the fundamental of Muslim practice addresses what to “do” and “not do” (actions of worship), or external actions, this fundamental addresses how to “be” and “not be” (states of being), or internal actions.

Some examples of legal obligations of Sacred Law that pertain to the heart that every Muslim should follow are “sincerity, pleasure (with Allah), truthfulness, humility, and reliance.”

The prohibitions of the heart include “disbelief, conceitedness, ostentation, delusion, blind hatred, envy, etc.”

The Islamic science of Sufism (`ilm ul-tasawwuf) specializes in ihsan and is represented by the various paths (turooq) of Sufism. Examples of Sufi paths are the Naqshbandi, Qadiri, Shadhili, Chisti, and Suhrawardi paths.

The views of Wahhabis and other Salafis in this matter are not Sunni. Including ISIS, they reject Sufis and the traditional science of Sufism, and destroy the noble tombs of Sufi saints venerated by Muslims for centuries.


Now that the definition of Sunni Islam/tradition is clear, journalists, authors, analysts, and others should not describe any Muslim who claims to follow the Sunni tradition as a Sunni unless they fulfill the criteria of following the understanding of the majority of Muslim scholars, as explained above.

This understanding of Sunni Islam is manifested through the majority scholarly positions on the Three Foundations of the Religion based on the Hadith of Gabriel:

(1) Iman (Sunni creed – Ash’ari, Matrudi, Athari);

(2) Islam (Islamic jurisprudence – Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, and Hanbali schools of Sunni jurisprudence); 

(3) Ihsan (Spiritual Excellence – represented by the many paths of Sufism, including the Qadiri and Shadhili paths)

One thought on “– Why ISIS is not “Sunni”: The Failure to Understand Sunni Islam is a Victory for ISIS.”

  1. Assalaam alaykum wa Rahmatullah,

    Ma sha Allah, well done. I found this article via Deenport and I’m sorry that you’re not getting the support that you deserve. You are getting to the core of the problem, which is something that most Muslims in the Anglosphere do not want to acknowledge or discuss for the sake of “unity”.

    I just wrote a post on this here:


    Tawassul, as you’ve mentioned, is also a major dividing line between Orthodox Islam and Salafiyyah, but the true shirk is actually in their understanding:


    May Allah grant you success in your efforts.


    Mahdi Lock

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