– Understanding Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb.

(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

The Islamophobe, Patrick Sookhdeo, says,

“A basic precept of classical Islamic teaching divides the world into two kinds of territory, Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb. Dar al-Islam or “the house of Islam” consists of those areas under Muslim control. The rest of the world, which is under infidel (non-Muslim) control, is significantly known as Dar al-Harb, “the house of war.” This name is given to infidel-controlled areas because Muslims are obliged to subdue Dar al-Harb and turn it into Dar al-Islam.”[[i]]

Did classical Sunni Muslims understand the division of the world in this simplistic manner? The matter is more complex. It is therefore important to steer away from a bipolar, Muslim-versus-non-Muslim understanding of Islam.

Contemporary Sunni scholar, Zaid Shakir, explains this simplistic understanding.

“[T]he often-cited division of the world into Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb fits well with attempts to explain the inevitability of a clash between Islam and the West.”

“However,” he says,

“it does not really give us an idea of the nuances and complexities of those terms, nor the diverse ways in which Muslim thinkers, over an extended period of time, defined and actually applied them.”

Shakir then provides examples of the various views of classical Sunni scholars. For example, Abu Yusuf and Muhammad b. al-Hasan ash-Shaybani, the two companions of Imam Abu Hanifah,

“viewed a land governed by the laws of the nonbelievers as constituting a land of disbelief, even if populated by Muslims.”


“Imam ash-Shafi’i viewed a land populated by nonbelievers who are not at war with the Muslims as not constituting Dar al-Harb.”

Shakir then says,

“Therefore, according to these definitions, most of today’s Muslim countries, which are governed by secular law codes, are not Dar al-Islam.”

Regarding most non-Muslim countries today that have peaceful relations with the Muslim world, they are not considered Dar al-Harb. Sookhdeo omits this from his understanding. Shakir says,

“To reinforce this point, let us ask…‘[w]ould Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, two conservative nations that waged war against the Muslim nation of Iraq be considered Dar al-Islam or Dar al-Harb?’ Such questions reveal nuances that clearly weigh against the simplistic arguments being advanced by a growing wave of anti-Islamic polemicists and pundits and their Muslim ideological equivalents.”[[ii]]

Moreover, Imam Shawkani believed that land not ruled by Muslims can still be called Dar al-Islam provided that Muslims can practice their faith safely.[[iii]] Author Al-Dawoody also says,

“Present-day non-Muslim countries would…be classified as dar al-Islam according to Abu Hanifah’s definition […].”[[iv]]

Abu Hanifah’s ijtihad, or understanding of the Islamic sources, is followed by most Muslims today.

There are also many other divisions that the authors neglect to mention. For example, Dar al-Sulh, Dar al-`Ahd, Dar al-Muwada’ah (house of peace, house of covenant, house of reconciliation)[[v]] Of `Abd al-Rahman al-Haj, Al-Dawoody explains his view that

“classical jurists coined thirty-four conceptual divisions related the word dar, including dar al-muhajirin, dar al-hijrah, dar al-baghy, dar al-da’wah, dar al-dhimmah, dar al-riddah, dar al-shirk, and dar al-`Arab.”[[vi]]

He then concludes,

“It is…unfortunate that all these juridical political concepts are ignored, so that the Islamic worldview is oversimplified as one of perpetual war between Muslims and so-called infidels.”[[vii]]

Sookhdeo and others who hold this simplistic understanding are guilty of omitting the details of Sunni jurisprudence and misleading readers.

In addition, most Muslims today do not divide the world into two polar opposites. Scholar and author, Khaled Abou El Fadl, says,

“Many…books written by non-Muslim scholars in the West perpetuate the myth that Islamic law invariably dictates that the world should be divided into two abodes forever locked into conflict. Often the same books falsely assume that most Muslims today adhere to the same bipolar view of the world. This, of course, is not an accurate description of Islamic legal doctrine; moreover, it does not accurately describe the beliefs of the overwhelming majority of Muslims today.”[[viii]]

Islamophobes and “Islamic” militants would like to simplify a more complex matter.  Sunni Islam, however, has already discussed the complexities in its 1,000+ years long tradition.

[[i]] “Islam and Christianity: Why Muslims Dominate and Christians Suffer,” Patrick Sookhdeo, October 3, 2012, accessed June 2, 2013,

[[ii]] Zaid Shakir, “Jihad is not Perpetual Warfare,” New Islamic Directions, 2008, accessed May 27, 2013, http://www.newislamicdirections.com/nid/notes/jihad_is_not_perpetual_warfare.

The original article can be read in  Shakir, Zaid. Scattered Pictures: Reflections of an American Muslim: An Anthology of Essays. Hayward, Calif.: Zaytuna Institute, 2005. pp.121-141.

[[iii]]Ahmed Al-Dawoody. The Islamic Law of War: Justifications and Regulations. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. p.93.

[[iv]] Ibid., p.95.

[[v]] Ibid., p.93.

[[vi]] Ibid., p.96.

[[vii]] Ibid., p.96.

[[viii]] Khaled Abou El Fadl. The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2005. pp. 230-231.

– Islam as a “Vehicle”: Islam Beyond Religion and Ideology.


(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

Islam was and is being used as a vehicle – or means – by Arabs in an attempt to achieve their long-awaited rights and other aspirations. The classical Sunni makeup of Shari’ah was not a priority to Islamists. They did not want classical Sunni Shari’ah to return, but claimed to want Shari’a under a modern arrangement.

But how serious were Islamists about wanting Shari’ah? It is difficult for the author to believe they are serious because they have continued to marginalize the religious scholars whose job it is and always was to guide Muslims.

When Islamist demands for justice, freedom, and human rights are examined, their use of religion as a vehicle seems to be a sensible alternative to Arab nationalism, which they earlier lost hope in.

This is not an unrealistic assessment and is not the first time religion or ideology have been used as “vehicles” to express other frustrations, or serve as a rallying cry to unite the masses towards specific goals.

The history of the United States is filled with examples. “Closer to home in the West,” says author and scholar Graham Fuller,

“the entire Black Muslim movement in the US, beginning in the 1930s, reveals the deliberate use of religion to intensify existing social distinctions against the white oppressor.”[[i]]

In the United States,

“in times of war, most mainstream churches and clergy – Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish – are impressed into service to lend religious legitimacy to the national struggle.”[[ii]]

James Byrd, author of Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution, says,

“…the most productive year for preaching in colonial America was 1776. Sermons led the way in applying the Bible to the American Revolution.”[[iii]]

Even “martyrdom,” often attributed literally as part of “Islamic” ideology by militants and their detractors, was celebrated.

“During the American Revolution, references to martyrdom were everywhere.”[[iv]]

This, however, does not mean that the American Revolution was a “religious” or “Christian ideological” effort. Religion was a vehicle for American patriotism and independence from British colonialism and domination.

Likewise, the Arabs used and are using religion as a vehicle to protest subjugation in their countries. And the vehicle is usually not as important as the goal the vehicle is intended to reach.

Indeed, the Palestinians used several vehicles, including religion, to express resistance:

“[A]n Arab nationalist phase, a Marxist-Leninist phase, and, finally, an Islamist phase.”[[v]]

The vehicle of Islam was also used by Saddam Hussein when he modified the Iraqi flag to include, apparently in his own writing, the Islamic “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is Great) in 1991 in an attempt to garner support by religious clerics and Muslims against the US and its allies. His “Islamic” rhetoric and symbols did not make him more of a Muslim, or any less of a secular, socialist Baathist.

Islamists likewise use Islam for modern, political aims, and, in the words of Mohamed Bechri, former President of the Tunisian Section of Amnesty International,

“Islamism is nothing but politics draped in religious garb.”[[vi]]

Yet, Islamophobes appear to blame religion directly without a more sophisticated understanding of the role of religion as a vehicle in the socio-political landscape of the Arab region.

[[i]] Graham E. Fuller. A World Without Islam. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2010.  pp. 256-257.

[[ii]] Ibid., p.269.

[[iii]] James P. Byrd. Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. p.4.

[[iv]] Ibid., p.12.

[[v]] Ibid., p.266.

[[vi]] Mohammed Bechri, “Islamism Without Sharia: The Tunisian Example,” Fikra Forum, May 21, 2012, accessed May 26, 2013, http://fikraforum.org/?p=2260

– Islamism and Classical Sunni Islam: Are They the Same?


(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

This section explains how specific aspects of classical Islam have been altered by Islamist movements. Islamism is primarily a product of modernity, and not of classical Islam, which partially explains the similarities between Islamist movements and twentieth century European ideologies. While authors are quick to point to similarities between them, they seem less convinced of the modernity-Islamism connection. They somehow lend more credibility to the classical Sunni Islam-and-Islamism connection, which is incorrect.

Without modernity there would be no Islamism. Author and scholar, Bruce Lawrence, says,

“Without modernity there are no fundamentalists, just as there are no modernists. The identity of fundamentalism, both as a psychological mindset and a as a historical movement, is shaped by the modern world.”[[i]]

Ghazi ibn Muhammad says,

“The rise of secularism has paradoxically contributed, by way of militant and ignorant reaction, to the rise of fundamentalism.”[[ii]]

How did modern Islamists arise? Key factors led to the rise of Islamists include the altering of the religious scholar-and-caliph arrangement that had existed for over 1,000 years in classical Sunni tradition; the weakening of the Ottoman Empire and desires for independence and autonomy by the Arabs; European colonial and imperial subjugation of the masses and its associated effects; imposition of rulers on the ‘independent’ Arab peoples by colonialists; domestic factors (tyrants, corruption, etc.); and US foreign policy.

Sovereign states originated in early modern Europe and were later adopted by Muslim countries following decolonization. Like other postcolonial societies, “Muslim” state elites also attempted to instill nationalism among their populations, which was often a mix of ethnic and religious identities.[[iii]]

In the modern milieu, Islamists opposed colonial subjugation while imitating their methods. While demonstrating their opposition, Islamists accepted the new political unit of the nation-state. They did not denounce democracy but eventually advocated it. They participated in elections, while certain Islamist groups were forbidden to participate until recently.

In spite of their seeming rigidity, Islamists’ statements resemble the words of liberation and human rights groups, including inter alia their claimed support for women rights. Moreover, their attire is usually Western and they are willing to cooperate and collaborate with non-Muslim governments to promote themselves. Aid from the US and other countries, for example, supports this view, as well as their position on maintaining peace agreements with Israel.

Islamists do not adhere to Islamic tradition, but rather reformulate their understanding of the Qur’an and Sunnah to justify their current efforts and forms of government rooted in modernity. Islamists, unlike the Muslim majority in the age of classical and contemporary Islam, have not propagated any of the four Sunni schools of law (Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanbali).

Rather, Islamists have prioritized politics over religion. Making religion subservient to politics is a priority that contradicts the views of the Muslim majority, and contradicts classical Sunni tradition. The sections below explain the matter in more detail.

For more than 1,000 years, classical Sunni Islam demonstrated a general separation of religion and state. Religious scholars guided the masses and served to keep the caliph in check, while the caliph was responsible for political and administrative functions, and ensuring the security of the territory. In other words, religion took precedence over politics. Islamists reversed classical Sunni priorities. To them, politics takes precedence over religion.

The upsetting of the religious scholar-and-ruler arrangement due to various internal and external factors occurred in the second half of the 1800s, which had profound and unprecedented effects on the political and religious landscapes. In particular, the Ottoman reform to codify the Shari’ah

“sought to transform Shariah from a body of doctrines and principles to be discovered by the human efforts of the scholars into a set of rules that could be looked up in a book.”[[iv]]

The codified law replaced the religious scholars and, according to Harvard scholar, Noah Feldman,

“took from the scholars their all-important claim to have the final say over the content of the law” and “transferred that power to the state.”[[v]]

While in the classical arrangement religious scholars generally had full religious authority, codification of the law took their long-held authority away, and restricted them to “family-law matters.”

The creation of a legislature in 1876 by the Ottoman Constitution – the “first democratic institution in the Muslim world” – that could have replaced the scholars as the “institutional balance to the executive,” was soon suspended (as was the Constitution later) by Sultan Abdulhamid II. With no scholars or legislature to keep the executive in check, “the sultan found himself in the position of near-absolute ruler,” which “set the pattern for government in the Muslim world after the Ottoman empire fell.” This paved the way for “dictatorship and other forms of executive dominance – the state of affairs confronted by the Islamists who seek to restore Shariah”[[vi]] (italics added).

However, seeking to restore the Shari’ah did not mean bringing the religious scholars back. Had Islamists wished to restore the classical Sunni arrangement, they would have done so, but did not. Religious scholars were marginalized or became coopted by governments, thus becoming “government scholars,” and, to a high degree, mouthpieces of the governments they worked in.

The long-held role of religious scholars throughout classical Sunni tradition changed profoundly. They were no longer as powerful as they had been, and no longer in charge of Shari’ah. The call for Shari’ah without religious scholars by Islamists took effect – an arrangement completely alien to classical Sunni tradition. The classical Sunni fabric of Shari’ah was altered.

The geo-political situation of the time brought major changes to traditional Sunni society. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed and World War-I ended, the Muslim world was under European imperial control, which brought further changes to the traditional makeup of Arab-Islamic society. In the words of Graham Fuller,

“Imperial rule quickly distorted the natural development of the Muslim world, dismantling traditional structures of leadership and governance, destroying traditional institutions, and upsetting cultural patterns, while failing to encourage organic development of native alternatives. Imperialism represented the wholesale export of foreign cultural instruments and structures to be imposed upon the East.”[[vii]]

Under the yoke of European colonialism and their puppet regimes, Arab populations continued to be controlled. Ethnic nationalism was at its peak in the Arab world under Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s as a reaction and resistance to European neo-imperialism.

When Arab nationalism was seen as a failing effort, especially after the Arab defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, “Islamic identity” replaced Arab nationalism from the 1970s onward. Ethnicity and religion, the two most common characteristics of the Arabs, were therefore used by Arabs as means to attain freedom and human rights.

In the view of the author, the shift from nationalistic to “Islamic” slogans did not represent a shift to a more religious, ideological society. Rather, religion was used as a means to achieve the same aims. That is why Islamist movements are better described as political rather than religious. Had religion been the primary interest of Islamists, as stated, they would have prioritized and re-established the power of the religious jurists. This did not happen. No Ayatollahs or Azharites are being called to run a government, and any role they may have is limited. Rather, independent theologians have continued to be marginalized, which is a trajectory away from Sunni Islam’s classical tradition, not towards it.

[[i]] Bruce B. Lawrence. Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989. p.6.

[[ii]] Ghazi bin Muhammad. The Sacred Origin and Nature of Sports and Culture. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1998. p.36

[[iii]] M. Ayoob, op. cit.,pg. 15.

[[iv]] Noah Feldman, “Why Shariah?,” The New York Times, March 16, 2008, accessed May 22, 2013,


[[v]] Ibid.

[[vi]] Ibid.

[[vii]] Graham E. Fuller. A World Without Islam. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2010. p. 249.

– Osama bin Laden: Not an Islamic Role Model.

(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

Osama bin Laden (OBL) is now dead. But his image as a warrior of Islam held by an extremist minority needs to be examined more closely. Contrary to claims of his admirers, OBL did not display proper Islamic behavior in his daily personal life. Because OBL was seen as an icon by extremists, many did not delve deeply into the details of OBL’s life to verify whether the icon status they embraced truly illustrated Islamic behavior or not.

After a detailed reading of the book, “Growing Up bin Laden: Osama’s Wife and Son Take Us Inside Their Secret World,” by Omar bin Laden, Najwa bin Laden, and Jean Sasson, one has a chance to learn how exactly Bin Laden was. Two of the authors — Omar and Najwa — are close relatives: Omar is OBL’s son while Najwa is one of OBL’s wives. It is important to read what they wrote to grasp the reality of the man admired by so many terrorists, before his death and after.

Below are examples of OBL’s behavior that contradict the Qur’an, Sunnah, and sayings of Prophet Muhammad. This is the ultimate irony and contradiction as OBL, in his own words, said he did not like it when people disrespected Islam. Najwa said that OBL “…would occasionally comment on his disappointment in the politics of the world, and in particular on the fact that Islam was not held in greater respect” (p.25). The examples below illustrate that OBL did not respect Islam himself while he expected others to respect Islam. This should make those on the sidelines aware that OBL was never a proper Islamic role model.

OBL against females’ opinions

Najwa bin Laden said that her

“…husband was not one to welcome a female with opposing opinions” (p.20).

When Najwa was concerned about the possible physical danger OBL was in when she found out he went to Afghanistan, she said,

“Yet I did not dare complain, for my husband had made it abundantly clear that it was not my place to comment on anything outside our home” (p.32).

Omar did not agree with OBL’s actions

Omar said,

“Although I cannot simply order my heart to stop loving my father, I do not agree with his behavior. There are times that I feel my heart swell with anger at his actions, which have harmed many people, people he did not known, as well as members of his own family. As the son of Osamam bin Laden, I am truly sorry for all the terrible things that have happened, the innocent lives that have been destroyed, the grief that still lingers in many hearts” (p.41).

At least Omar apologized. Why was OBL not so apologetic about his actions?

OBL didn’t allow his children to go out much

Because of the dangerous situation OBL got them into,

“…he had been told that political opponents might kidnap one of his children or even murder members of his family.”

OBL’s solution to this was to keep his children like prisoners in the house. Omar said,

“We were not to be allowed to play outside, even in our own garden. After a few hours of halfhearted play in the hallways, my brothers and I would spend many long hours staring out the apartment windows, longing to join the many children we saw playing on the sidewalks, riding their bikes or skipping rope” (p.43).

OBL did not allow his family to use the air-conditioner or refrigerator 

Omar said,

“Although we lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which is one of the hottest and most humid cities in a country that is known for its hot climate, my father would not allow my mother to turn on the air-conditioning that the contractor had built into the apartment building.”

He continues,

“Neither would he allow her to use the refrigerator that was standing in the kitchen. My father announced, ‘Islamic beliefs are corrupted by modernization.’ Therefore, our food spoiled if we did not eat it on the day it was purchased. If my mother requested milk for her toddlers, my father had it delivered straight from cows kept on his family farm for just such a purpose” (p.43).

This is similar to a “self-proclaimed Saudi cleric,” states an article, who said that “women turn on air-conditioners at home in their husband’s absence could lead to moral depravities.”

But this is hypocritical of OBL because it was okay for him to own and enjoy the “latest Mercedes.” Omar said,

“Luckily he had purchased a new automobile, the latest Mercedes, because on that day he tested all its working parts. I’ve been told it was golden in color, something so beautiful that I imagine the vehicle as a golden carriage tearing through the wide palm-tree-lined boulevards of Jeddah” (pg.38).

Najwa said the same:

“In the beginning of our married life Osama was quite generous, but as time went on, he grew austere, believing that to be a good Muslim one must embrace simplicity. With this new way of thinking firmly in place, Osama decreed that our home furnishings should be plain, our clothing modest in number, and our food simple. The only area where Osama splurged was on his automobiles, which were always the latest models. Therefore, Osama’s wives and children never acquired the masses of household goods or personal items loved by many people of the modern world” (italics mine, pg.54).

OBL did not allow his family to use electrical stoves or heating systems

Omar said,

“Although we were allowed to use the electric lights in our villa, all were forbidden to use the refrigerators, electrical stoves, or the cooling or heating systems. Once again, our mother and aunties were forced to cook meals for their large families on portable gas burners. And, with Sudan’s hot climate, all suffered without air-conditioning” (p.115).

This extremist argument against “modernization” is rooted in Wahhabism, and is why early Wahhabis considered the use of watches and other technology forbidden.

This, however, irked some of his so-called Salafi mujahideen. Omar said,

“I overheard some of his faithful Mujahideen quietly complaining because they were not allowed to use the modern conveniences either. Those men had lived a harsh warrior’s life for too many years, and saw no reason for needless suffering when surrounded by modern conveniences” (p.115).

OBL did not give his children money for food at school

Osama did not even allow his children to have money, even for snacks at school! Omar said,

“Our father was of the opinion that his children should never be given money, not even for school snacks. We needed pocket money for basics, but he said, ‘No. You need to suffer. Hunger pangs will not hurt you.’

Omar then reflected on how different his father was from other fathers:

“Improbably, our father was different from so many fathers who wanted nothing but the best for their children. Our father appeared to relish seeing us suffer, reminding us that it was good for us to know what it felt like to be hungry or thirsty, to do without while others had plenty. Why?” (p.116).

Of course Osama’s children could not protest. Omar said,

“His was an opinion that found no agreement with his sons, but of course, we were not allowed to oppose our father. If we protested, there was no possibility for a calm discussion between a father and son; instead, he would quietly order us to stand to be beaten” (p.116).

Osama finally succumbed after the many complaints. Well, succumbed in a certain way. Omar said,

“After hearing numerous complaints, my father finally purchased a supply of small hand fans made from woven grass, which the Sudanese sold in the open market. I had to stifle my laughter watching those high-ranking visitors frantically fanning the warm air around their heads and bodies” (p.g115).

But I am curious about one thing: Is not the “latest Mercedes” that Osama thought was okay for himself a product of “modernization”? OBL considered himself immune to “corruption” from modernity. If it is okay for him to use modern and technological products, why is it not okay for his wives and children to use them? This is genuine hypocrisy.

OBL had forbidden his children from playing with toys

Omar said,

“…toys were forbidden, no matter how much we might beg” (43).

Even when Omar’s Uncle bought many toys for them on the Happy day of Eid, OBL showed no understanding. Omar said,

“Then one day one of my father’s half-brothers arrived unexpedtedly at our farm, his vehicle stuffed with toys! Never had we been so excited. For us, it was Eid (a Muslim holiday similar to Christian Christmas celebrations) a hundred times over! My father hid his anger from his brother, but not from us, remaining annoyed until all those toys were destroyed” (p.44).

Children liked it when OBL was not around

When OBL was injured in a game he was playing with his children, he was unable to return to Pakistan at that time. Omar said,

“My brothers were annoyed with me, for they had grown to dislike my father’s presence in Jeddah. They wanted him to return to Pakistan, for they said he was too strict when he was around us” (pg.45).

Omar also said,

“When I was a child, I wanted nothing more than my father’s companionship and approval. But those years had long passed. Although I still revered my father and desired his approval, I was no longer in need of his companionship. After giving the matter much thought, a sad reality struck me. My older brothers had spoken a truth I could not deny: Life was more agreeable when my father was far, far away” (p.73).

OBL showed little to no affection towards his children

Omar said,

“You might have guessed by now that my father was not an affectionate man. He never cuddled with me or my brothers. I tried to force him to show affection, and was told that I made a pest of myself. Whne he was home, I remained near, pulling attention-gaining pranks as frequently as I dared” (p.45).

OBL used to cane his children

Omar said,

“Nothing sparked his fatherly warmth. In fact, my annoying behavior encouraged him to start carrying his signature cane. As time passed, he began caning me and my brothers for the slightest infraction” (p.45).

Omar later said,

“He reserved all the harsh treatment for his sons” (pg.46).

One time when Omar tried to get OBL’s attention, OBL commanded all of his sons to gather together and to see him. Instead of playing a game with them or making them happy, Omar said,

“Shame, anguish, and terror surged throughout my body as he raised his cane and began to walk the human line, beating each of his sons in turn. A small lump ballooned in my throat” (p.46).

Omar then said,

“My father never raised his soft voice as he reprimanded my brothers, striking them with the cane as his words kept cadence[…].”  When it was Omar’s turn to be beaten, Omar said, “I was in the greatest anguish when he paused before me. I was very small at the time and to my childish eyes, he appeared taller than the trees. Despite the fact I had witnessed him beating my brothers, I could not believe that my father was going to strike me with that heavy cane….But he did” (p.47).

At another time, Omar said,

“His wooden can was his favorite weapon, but there were times he became so excited when hitting his sons that his heavy can broke into two pieces. When the can snapped, he rushed to grab one of our sandals by the door, using that to bash us” (p.116).

He continues,

“It was not unusual for the sons of Osama bin Laden to be covered with raised welts on our backs and legs” (p.116).

OBL should have known that Prophet Muhammad said,

“He is not of us (the one) who does not have mercy on our young children, nor honor our elderly.” (Narrated by Tirmidhi)

It is well-known that Prophet Muhammad never beat his children, spouses, or animals. OBL did not emulate Islam’s Prophet but was loyal to his Wahhabism-Salafism instead.

hadith, or saying of Prophet Muhammad, reported by Bukhari and Muslim describes a bedouin who saw the Prophet kiss his (the Prophet’s) grandson. This surprised the bedouin who responded,

“I have ten children, and I have never kissed any of them.”

Prophet Muhammad responded,

“He who does not spread mercy will not find mercy.”

OBL could have learned a lesson from the example of the Prophet had he cared about the Prophet’s example.

OBL’s children felt unimportant by their father 

Omar said,

“Now that I am an adult, I believe that perhaps my father had too many children at too young an age. Or perhaps he was so entangled with his war work that our importance failed to register against such a massive cause as fighting the Russians” (p.47).

OBL had forbidden his children from taking medicine, including asthma medication

Omar said,

“As we all discovered, my father had a lot of unusual ideas about what he called the ‘evils of modern life.’

He then said,

“For example, my brothers and I all suffered from asthma and had endured many serious bouts during our youth, particularly while playing sports in the hot desert climate. On a number of occasions, I had been rushed to the hospital and connected to oxygen. Concerned that my brothers and I were repeat asthma patients, the doctors advised our father to keep a supply of Ventolin on hand and to have his children use an inhaler, but my father was adamant that we not take modern prescription drugs, no matter how serious our affliction” (pg.60).

Omar continued,

“Regarding all things except modern transportation, our father decreed that we must live just as the Prophet had lived whenever possible. Since modern medicines were unknown in those ancient days, my father refused all modern medical treatment” (p.60).

Omar then explained what OBL thought was the best treatment for asthma:

“His recommended treatment for asthma was for us to break off a piece of honeycomb and breathe through the comb. This did little good, but still our father would not relent, first making his claim about the life of the Prophet, then warning us that Ventolin would destroy our lungs” (p.60).

Omar described the extreme discomfort he went through as a result of OBL’s extreme and exaggerated perspective against things modern – except his valuable car collection, of course. Omar said,

“Often I felt as though I was struggling to breathe through a straw, but unless death came knocking, my suffering was ignored. When Abdullah grew older, he heard about Ventolin and sneaked and purchased a supply. He gave me permission to use his inhaler” (p.60).

Abdullah was one of Omar’s brothers who pitied him. Omar continued,

“I did so at the onset of the next attack. After two puffs, my life was transformed. Mother eventually discovered that we were disobeying our father’s orders by using inhalers, but thankfully she never reported our defiance to our father. Mother only cared that we were no longer suffering” (p.60).

OBL gave very little water to his children 

Omar said,

“From the time we were toddlers, he demanded that we be given very little water. As we grew older, he reinforced the importance of drinking water only when absolutely necessary” (p.61).

Omar also said,

“His harshest ruling was that we could not drink any water until we returned from our hike. We were told that we should not even ‘think’ about water. Of course, anyone knows that walking in the desert dangerously depletes the body of liquids. In fact, the government tells visitors to the deserts of Saudi Arabia to consume as much water as they can” (p.61).

OBL didn’t allow his kids to tell jokes or laugh 

Omar said,

“We were not allowed to tell jokes. We were ordered not to express joy over anything. He did say that he would allow us to smile so long as we did not laught. If were to lose control of our emotions and bark a laugh, we must be careful not to expose our eyeteeth. I have been in situations where my father actually counted the exposed teeth, reprimanding his sons on the number their merriment had reveled” (p.62).

Negative effects of OBL’s fanaticism on children 

Omar said,

“The older sons of Osamam bin Laden were all adversely affected by our father’s fanaticism. As a child, Abdullah, the firstborn son, never sought friendships with other boys, preferring a solitary life” (pp.62-63).

Omar then talks about another brother:

“My next brother, Abdul Rahman, born in 1978, was  a solitary personality, often sitting on his own and staring without purpose. I remember when he was a young boy, he would go on a wild frenzy of activity, destroying household items or perhaps seeking tamer pursuits, such as playing with pieces of paper for hours on end” (p.63).

OBL exposed his children to danger 

Jean Sasson, in “A Note Regarding Osama bin Laden’s Political Activities”, said,

“Osama introduced his firstborn son, Abdullah, to the conflict in Afghanistan, bringing him to the fighting camp in Jaji, where the young boy was exposed to great danger. Osama received unexpected criticism from his family and other Jihadi leaders, including Abdullah Azzam, for doing so, yet it was only the first of many instances Osama would push his unenthusiastic sons to the forefront of his personal passion for Jihad” (p.77).

OBL’s unreasonable behavior against Saudi Government when OBL’s offer to defend the kingdom against a possible Iraqi invasion was rejected 

Omar said,

“Of course, I know now that my father initiated a quarrel with the royal family. Although they calmly and wisely attempted to defuse the squabble, my stubborn father rebuffed their appeals for rational dialogue, magnifying his complaints until a small sore finally festered into an ulcerated boil. His attacks became so unreasonable that the royal family finally threw up their hands in exasperation. Prince Naif, the minister of the interior, informed my father that he was forbidden to leave the kingdom. In Saudi Arabia, such a government action is generally the first step to losing one’s freedom. Was prison in my father’s future” (p.85).

OBL’s stubbornness to react strongly against the Saudi Government due to their refusal of his offer to defend the Kingdom with ex-mujahideen and instead opting for the Americans to offer this defense led to difficulties and endangerment to his own family. OBL’s impatience and stubbornness, permeated with anger – all counter to Islam — and his resulting opposition to the Saudi royal family put his entire future at peril. Omar said,

“My father’s elder brothers struggled to bring him to a place of peace, reminding him of the loyalty our family owed the royal family, but my father was immovable, refusing to modify his activities” (p.85).

Osama negatively affected his family, and

“[w]hen he became disgruntled, his displeasure trickled down through the family circle to every wife and every child” (p.85).

Leaving no stone unturned, with his mind far from rational thinking, Osama told Omar’s mother, her two daughters, and Abdul Rehman for a

“…long holiday with her parents and siblings in Syria” (p.85).

In other words, Osama broke up his family. To make matters worse, Omar said,

“Then one day my father simply disappeared without telling us anything” (p.85).

Omar later says,

“We waited for my father’s return, but we waited in vain. When my mother returned from Syria, the family was further informed that our father was never coming back and we were leaving as well” (p.85).

Osama made a mountain out of a molehill, left without saying anything to anyone, and then surprised the family with the news that they were moving too. Osama’s opposition to Saudi royalty had no bounds. He exaggerated, left the country, and dragged his family wherever his rash behavior took him. Didn’t Osama know he would be accountable for his exaggerated actions? Osama didn’t even think about the hurt feelings his children would have from leaving Saudi. It was basically an overnight order to get out with little preparation to move to Sudan.

The Saudi Government still tried to calm the situation even after Osama and his family had moved to Sudan. Omar said the Saudi Government

“…continued to make attempts to convince him to return to the kingdom” (p.126).

The Saudi Government went as far as offering Osama government jobs. Clearly the Saudis had a willingness to make peace and return matters to normal. Omer said,

“My father even confided that the royal family had offered him several high government positions. The only requirements were for him to cease his criticisms of the royal family, give up his militant activities, and return to live peacefully in the country of his birth.”

Omar then said,

“My father was an uncommonly stubborn man, scorning the generous offer” (p.126).

Just when Osama had a chance to bring things back to normal, if not for his own sake, then for the sake of his family, Osama ego refused. And still… the Saudi Government tried to persuade him even after that. Omar said,

“Later, various high-ranking princes had visited, urging him to return to the peace he could find in Saudi Arabia. Even bin Laden family members were sent to persuade my father that he was on a dangerous path. My father loved his family and did not become angry with them, saying that they had no choice but to along with the royal family, but his answer was a disappointing and unfailing no” (p.126-127).

One can see that the Saudis were really keen on mending ties, surely for mainly political reasons, though Osama and his family could have benefited immensely from it. They could have lived a life of peace and security – a life of devotion and worship to Allah Almighty without fear of someone assassinating them. It was a losing effort. The Saudis tried one last ditch effort to get Osama to forgive and forget. Omar said,

“As a last resort, King Fahd sent word for my father to expect a personal telephone call from the king himself. My father refused to take his call, which is a great insult in our part of the world. No one refuses an order from the king!” (p.127).

And that was it. Omar said,

“After that, the former friendly relationship between my father and the Saudi royal family was completely destroyed” (p.127).

What Omar said after that clearly explains the conundrum Osama’s children and his wives were in:

“I thought to myself that my father was busily covering himself in thorns so thick that no one would be able to cut through to help him, or to help his innocent family, who had no voice in any of his decisions” (p.127).

OBL’s bizarre ways of attempting to have his family have strong and resilient characters 

The family is now in Sudan and Osama’s strange behavior doesn’t cease. He somehow thinks making his family go through hell will strengthen their characters. Najwa said,

“One day Osama informed us that the state of the world had brought him to the conclusion that his wives and daughters must also be trained to become patient and courageous” (p.99).

It’s a pity Osama had such a low perspective of his own family and such a high opinion of himself – someone capable of giving them what he supposedly had. But his lack of character was what led him, and his family, to Sudan. So what “character” lessons was he teaching the family anyway? But the strangeness of his lessons is explained well by Najwa who had to endure his troublesome lessons. Najwa said,

“He came up with plans to help all the members of his family achieve strong, resilient characters. How he thought of those unique ideas remains a mystery to me.”

The idea?

“While the wives and daughters watched,”

Najwa said,

“Osama directed the biggest and strongest boys to use the digging tools to excavate hollows large enough for a human to stretch out lengthwise when sleeping.”

Osama later said,

“Each one of you will sleep alone in a dirt hole.”

This is insanity and ignoring the dangers involved as well as Najwa’s fear of snakes. How about foxes? And the possibly harmful insects? How about the cold night temperature? And everyone obeyed Osama’s ridiculous idea obediently? Not all. Najwa said,

“I heard a soft voice complain about the night chill.”

Then she said,

“Osama advised the complainer to ‘cover yourself with dirt or grass.’ He paused, then called out from his hole, ‘You will become warm under what nature provides.’”

But that was it. The alternative, especially for the wives to question him, would have been a bad idea. Unquestioning obedience was in order, no matter how outlandish the orders from Osama were.

OBL had many wives and big family but didn’t prioritize them

OBL had many wives and children and didn’t uphold his attention and responsibilities towards them. He let his anger and impractical lifestyle victimize his wives and children. Their general obedience to Osama’s orders made them bear the pain and suffering throughout, exposing them to high risk of injury or death, and led them in a direction that opposes the Qur’an and Sunnah. Osama stole the joy of his children, at the end separating himself completely from almost the entire family, and, while being killed, had his son killed in the process. He left his wives widowed, left his living sons without a father, and made his family and bigger bin Laden family name scorned by the world. Even when he was alive for almost a decade after he escaped Tora Bora in Afghanistan, he left most of his family stranded to fend for themselves while he upheld the priority of hiding. In other words, he had a big family that he eventually abandoned or influenced them with his twisted understanding of Islam.

– Exaggerating “Ideology” in Islamist Movements.

(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

Exaggerating “Ideology”

The “ideological” dimension has been exaggerated by many so-called counter-terrorism experts. For example, Patrick Sookhdeo in Fighting the Ideological War says,

“Western discourse must discredit arguments that Islam is under attack from the West while delegitimizing Islamism by presenting it as a totalitarian political ideology detrimental to Muslims” (p.41).

Sookhdeo also says,

“As Arab countries throw off the yoke of authoritarian and dictatorial governments, so political Islam has begun to shape their societies with a new totalitarianism” (p.43).

Indeed, “experts” like Sookhdeo exaggerate the role of ideology in Islamist movements, just as a group of scholars exaggerate the role of ideology in the Cold War.

While ideology is undoubtedly important in the battle against Islamism, classifying the enemy as loyally and inflexibly ideological is not always realistic.

Stefan Durand says,

“Islamist movements make an instrument of religion and try to use it as an ideology, but they do not intend to create ‘a new man,’ as was the case in fascist Europe.”

He further says,

“They propound archaic religious and social precepts rather than an overall coherent ideology. The popular success of these movements is often due to factors unconnected with ideology”.[[1]]

Recent events have shown that the majority of Islamists today – those who wish to attain power through peaceful elections – are more flexible and pragmatic than Islamists of only a few decades ago. Time has demonstrated that inflexible adherence to ideology may be in retreat.

Olivier Roy, commenting on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood when it came to power before being toppled, says,

“While the Muslim Brotherhood may finally have come to power, it is at the expense of its own ideology,”

and says,

“The ‘failure of political Islam’ is not the political failure of the Islamists; it is the collapse of Islamism as a political ideology.” [[2]]

Being overly focused on ideology may lead to neglecting other important characteristics of Islamist movements.

Of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Brynjar Lia says,

“While not denying the importance of ideology, it seems appropriate to look for characteristics and qualities other than just ideological particularities when searching for…reasons behind the Society’s remarkable expansion in the 1930s” (p.14)[[3]]

Furthermore, Mark Fallon, head of the International Association of Police Chiefs, and former counterintelligence official, who “oversaw the prosecution of dozens of high-level terror suspects” and conducted a study of “hundreds of ex-terrorists,” says the most common matter in the study’s findings

“is that the trigger that turns someone to violence is a very personal one and is usually based on local conditions. The global environment is used to recruit these people, but it’s generally some local condition or individual event in that person’s life that turns them.”

He then says,

It wasn’t about ideology; it wasn’t about theology; it was about identity” (italics added).[[4]]

Post-Islamism Dilutes Ideology

Some scholars describe Islamists today, especially after the Arab Spring, as going through a post-Islamist phase. Post-Islamism,[[5]] originally coined and described by Asef Bayat in reference to reforms in Iran, and later applied to Islamists by European and other scholars,

“…represents an endeavour to fuse religiosity and rights, faith and freedom, Islam and liberty. It is an attempt to turn the underlying principles of Islamism on its head by emphasizing rights instead of duties, plurality in place of a singular authoritative voice, historicity rather than fixed scriptures, and the future instead of the past. It wants to marry Islam with individual choice and freedom, with democracy and modernity (something post-Islamists stress), to achieve what some have termed an ‘alternative modernity.’”

Bayat further says,

“Post-Islamism is expressed in terms of secular exigencies, in freedom from rigidity,”


“in breaking down the monopoly of religious truth.”

If Islamists are going through a post-Islamist transformation, then Islamists are being influenced and molded by exigencies of the secular world, and not vice-versa, as the authors seem to suggest. This ‘softens’ the “totalitarian” element in their character as they tailor their views to the wants of a rights-demanding society.

Ghaffar Hussain says,

“Post-Islamists are Islamists mugged by reality”

and the

“emergence of post-Islamism should be welcomed because it signals the failure of classical Islamism and teaches us that most people in the region are not motivated by ideology, instead preferring practical politics.”

He continues,

“In the long-term post-Islamism will also weaken the more extreme elements who are still dreaming of creating a totalitarian theocracy.”[[6]]

Responding to the Arab Spring, author Arshin Adib-Moghaddam says,

“What is slowly being engineered is an Islam that is geared to cultural emancipation, rather than ideological indoctrination.”[[7]]

Commenting on the lack of progress of the Islamist regimes since the Arab Spring began, former visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institute, Khalil al-Anani, says,

“…the most visible result of Islamists’ failure is the “desacralization” of their ideology,”

which means

“Islamism, as a religious and political ideology, is increasingly losing its credibility and symbolic power.”

Commenting on the Islamist experiment of governance, he says,

“After two years in power, such a state has proven to be nothing but a mere “mirage”


“…while Islamist parties are ascending, their ideology, ‘Islamism,’ is surprisingly descending.”

He concludes by saying,

“If the Arab Spring would tell us something after two years of torturous transition, it is that Islamism is yet another ‘illusive’ ideology that can’t preserve its credibility and salvation power without fulfilling peoples’ aspirations which may put Islamists’ future at stake.”[[8]]

Of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions of the Arab Spring, Islam scholar Olivier Roy says the demonstrators,

“…are operating in a secular political space, and they do not see in Islam an ideology capable of creating a better world.”[[9]]

Marc Sageman, former CIA psychologist and terrorism scholar who conducted studies on terrorists, concluded,

“[T]errorists in Western Europe and North America were not intellectuals or ideologues, much less religious scholars. It is not about how they think, but how they feel.”[[10]]

As stated, the protestors are largely non-ideological as well. Author and expert Fawaz Gerges says,

“On the whole, the revolts are peaceful, non-ideological, post-Islamist, and led by the embattled middle class, including a coalition of men and women of all ages and political colors: liberal-leaning centrists, democrats, leftists, nationalists, and Islamists.”

In addition,

“Clerics and mullahs are not key drivers; there is no Ayatollah Khomeini waiting in the wings to hijack the revolution and to seize power.”[[11]]

He also says that

“the revolutions have reinforced what many of us have already known: al-Qaeda’s core ideology is incompatible with the universal aspirations of the Arabs.”[[12]]

Recently in May 2013, Emad Abdel Ghafour, a Salafi adviser to former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, said he “had no problem” with Egypt’s peace with Israel.[[13]]

Even Salafis are being molded by the new social-political realities of the day.

Al-Qa’eda Beyond Ideology

Author and former FBI agent, Ali Soufan, who investigated the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in East Africa and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, said,

“…al-Qaeda’s rhetoric is not an ideology; it’s anti-American narrative” (italics added).[[14]]

In other examples, ideology does not always appear to be the motivator of actions of certain well-known militants.

Fawaz Gerges who had interviewed some of Zawahiri’s former cohorts in Egypt, Yemen, and other places in the late 1990s, says,

“The consensus was that pressing financial and operational circumstances forced his” – Zawahiri’s – “hand and caused him to join bin Laden’s front, a tactical move to rescue his sinking ship.”[[15]]

Some cohorts said,

“Zawahiri had no genuine interest in transnational jihad” and used the World Islamic Front to fight the “near enemy.’”[[16]]


“at the end of the Afghan war in 1989, none of the leading figures – neither Azzam, Fadl, Zawahiri, nor bin Laden – called for targeting the United States,”


“at this stage, none of the important voices advocated an armed confrontation with the West.”[[17]]

Gerges further notes,

“Although there is no single explanation for bin Laden’s antipathy to America, the Gulf War and its aftermath, particularly the stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia, were primary.”[[18]]

Had ideology been the primary cause of their animosity towards the United States and its allies, why did they not express their ideological opposition towards the “infidels” earlier?

Terrorism expert, Jessica Stern, says,

“Terrorist movements often arise in reaction to a perceived injustice, as a means to right some terrible wrong, real or imagined. Yet ideology is not the only, or even the most important, factor in an individual’s decision to join a terrorist group.”

Stern continues,

“In interviewing terrorists, I have found that operatives are often more interested in the expression of a collective identity than they are in the group’s stated goals.”

She concludes,

This understanding – that ideology is not the only, or even the principal, reason that individuals are drawn to terrorist groups – needs to be incorporated into our counter-terrorism efforts, especially when we consider counter-radicalization” (italics added). [[19]]

The exaggeration of the role of ideology in Islamist movements has resulted in a myopic view of the terrorist threat by Islamophobes who appear to see most issues through a religion-ideology lens. This distorted view has caused them to create an unrealistic narrative that amalgamates everything “Islamic,” historically and contemporarily, as a single, fixed, and unchanging entity.

It is time to focus on other factors of extremist movements other than ideology to truly understand and win the war against extremists of all stripes.

[[1]] Stefan Durand, “The lie that is ‘islamofascism,’” Le Monde Diplomatique, November 2006, accessed May 20, 2013, http://mondediplo.com/2006/11/05islamofascism

[[2]] Olivier Roy, “Debate: There Will Be No Islamist Revolution,” Journal of Democracy 24:1 (Jan.2013): 14-19, accessed May 23, 2013, http://www.journalofdemocracy.org/sites/default/files/Roy-24-1.pdf

[[3]] Brynjar Lia. The Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt: The Rise of an Islamic Mass Movement, 1928-1942. Reading, England: Ithaca Press, 1998. p.2.

[[4]] Doug Saunders. The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West?. New York: Vintage Books, 2012. p.104. Saunders cited from Interview from Council on Foreign Relations: Masters, Jonathan. Interview with Mark Fallon. Radicalization and U.S. Muslims, March 11, 2011, accessed June 2, 2013, http://www.cfr.org/counterradicalization/radicalization-us-muslims/p24354

[[5]] Asef Bayat says, “The categories “Islamism” and “post-Islamism” serve primarily as theoretical constructs to signify change, difference, and the root of change. In practice, however, Muslims may adhere simultaneously to aspects of both discourses. The advent of post-Islamism does not necessarily mean the historical end of Islamism. What it means is the birth, out of the Islamist experience, of a qualitatively different discourse and politics. In reality we may witness for some time the simultaneous processes of both Islamization and post-Islamization.” (Asef Bayat, “What is Post-Islamism?” ISIM Review 16 (Autumn 2005): 518–542, accessed May 22, 2013, doi: 10.1080/09546550802257226, https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/bitstream/handle/1887/17030/ISIM_16_What_is_Post-Islamism.pdf?sequence=1)

[[6]] Ghaffar, Hussain, “Post-Islamists in the Arab World (or, Islamists Mugged by Reality),” The Guardian, November 12, 2011, accessed May 24, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/nov/12/post-islamism-middle-east-democracy

[[7]] Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, “Do Tunisian Elections Mark Shift to ‘Post-Modernised Islam?’” CNN Opinion, October 28, 2011, accessed May 25, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2011/10/28/opinion/adib-moghaddam-tunisia-islam-shift

[[8]] Khalil, al-Anani, “Desacrilization of Islamism,” Foreign Policy, February 11, 2013, accessed May 23, 2013,http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/02/11/desacralization_of_islamism

[[9]] Olivier, Roy, “This is Not an Islamic Revolution,” New Statesman, February 15, 2011, accessed May 26, 2013, http://www.newstatesman.com/religion/2011/02/egypt-arab-tunisia-islamic

[[10]] Marc Sageman. Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-first Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. pp. 156-57

[[11]] Fawaz A. Gerges. The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. pp.17-18.

[[12]] Ibid., p.5.

[[13]] Elhanan, Miller, “Morsi’s Salafist Adviser: ‘We Have No Problem With the Peace with Israel,’” The Times of Israel, May 26, 2013, accessed June 5, 2013, http://www.timesofisrael.com/morsis-salafist-adviser-we-have-no-problem-with-the-peace-with-israel/

[[14]] Interview from Council on Foreign Relations: Masters, Jonathan. Interview with Ali Soufan. Islamist Extremism After the Arab Spring, September 14, 2012, accessed June 1, 2013, http://www.cfr.org/middle-east/islamist-extremism-after-arab-spring/p29053

[[15]] F. Gerges, op. cit.,p.36.

[[16]] Ibid., p.37.

[[17]] Ibid., p.46.

[[18]] Ibid., p.49.

[[19]] Jessica, Stern, “What Motivates Terrorists?” January 21, 2011, accessed May 21, 2013,

– The Myth of a “Global Caliphate”.

(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

A July 2012 study that examined the most frequently cited or quoted verses in the Qur’an from over 2,000 extremist texts from 1998 to 2011 in the Center for Strategic Communication’s database concluded that

“…verses extremists cite from the Qur’an do not suggest an aggressive offensive foe seeking domination and conquest of unbelievers, as is commonly assumed. Instead they deal with themes of victimization, dishonor, and retribution. This shows close integration with the rhetorical vision of Islamist extremists.”[[1]]

The study further says,

“Based on this analysis we recommend that the West abandon claims that Islamist extremists seek world domination, focus on counteracting or addressing claims of victimage, emphasize alternative means of deliverance, and work to undermine the “champion” image sought by extremists”[[2]] (italics added by reviewer).

While a 2007 poll in four countries (Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia) showed majority support “to unify all Islamic countries into a single Islamic state or caliphate,” this does not mean a Taliban-like state. The same poll showed that the majority favored “a democratic political system” to govern their country, as well as “freedom to practice any religion.”[[3]]

Another poll of Arab countries from 2004 to 2010 by Telhami, an Israeli-Arab scholar, concluded that only 7 percent of Arabs polled in both years “embraced Al Qaeda because of its aims to establish a Taliban-like Islamic state.”[[4]]

Another poll – the world’s biggest Gallup Poll of Muslims worldwide – concluded that Muslims

“wanting Sharia involved in politics does not translate into Muslims wanting theocracy. Majorities in many countries remarked that they do not want religious leaders to hold direct legislative or political power.”


“[M]any Muslims desire neither a democracy or theocracy, but instead a unique model incorporating both democratic and religious principles.”[[5]]

The type of “caliphate,” therefore, would be a moderate one that does not represent the kind of caliphate a minority of extremists would like, nor what classical Sunni Islam represents, but more similar to what the United States is like. Mohammed Habib, a former deputy general guide of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood,

“underscores that the real goal of the Muslim Brotherhood is to bring about either a structure that resembles that of the US government or one that is looser but nevertheless a confederation, with a constitution and a leader.”[[6]]

Islamophobes’ warnings of a threat of an extremist global caliphate that reigns supreme and subjugates non-Muslims are therefore more imaginary and doom-laden than realistic. Kamal El Helbawy, a former steering committee member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood who left the Brotherhood in 2012,

“insists that it is wrong to say that the absolute goal of the Muslim Brotherhood is to bring about any sort of caliphate.”[[7]]

Even if they did establish a caliphate, contrary to extremists, it would not be one that unites the Muslims, because the Muslim Brotherhood is not united at the regional or global levels, and most Muslims do not subscribe to the Salafi understanding of Islam. Juan Cole says,

“The Brotherhood is a decentralized organization even in Egypt. It is not organized internationally. The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan…is essentially a different organization from its Egyptian counterpart. Hamas has its distant origins in Brotherhood proselytizing in the 1930s, but it takes no orders from Cairo. Other political groups with a Muslim Brotherhood genealogy include the Iraqi Islamic Party, which cooperated with George W. Bush’s invasion of and administration of Iraq.”[[8]]

Where is the “Totalitarian” Program? Matching Rhetoric with Action

In spite of their rhetoric, Islamists have generally been oblivious to how society ought to be governed according to Islamic Law. While a range of Islamists are now experimenting with governance after the Arab Spring, no planned program of governance has materialized that incorporates the full spectrum of Islamic Law, including its controversial aspects. Rather, Islamists are learning that Islamic Law can only expand within the confines of the current social-political milieu. Ideology in this sense, as scholar Olivier Roy describes, is

“more an emotional and vague narrative than a blueprint for ruling.”

To Roy, it is yet another reason why the continued “failure of political Islam” persists.

Likewise, Asef Bayat, author of Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, says,

“Al-Qa’eda intrinsically lacks any sort of social and political program and thus is unlikely to succeed in mobilizing a concerted national dissent against a concrete national state” (p.238).

The seriousness with which Islamists claim to want an “Islamic State” seems to be lacking, in spite their rhetoric, slogans, and symbols.

When author and scholar, Fawaz Gerges, asked Kamal al-Said Habib, a top former leader of the al-Jihad terrorist organization in Egypt, if al-Jihad was “truly prepared to establish a viable Islamic government,” Habib replied,

“Thank God, we did not win, because we would have constructed a state along the same authoritarian lines as the ones existing in the Muslim world. We had no vision or an intellectual framework of what a state is or how it functions and how it should be administered, except that it should express and approximate the Islamic ideal. While I cannot predict that our state would have been totalitarian, we had little awareness of the challenges that needed to be overcome.”

Indeed the Islamists’ rhetoric of creating an “Islamic state” has always been louder than action. They would need to adapt to the needs of society in a more sophisticated and informed manner for any possibility of surviving.

Harvard scholar, Noah Feldman, attributes the ignorance of a blueprint for society by Islamists partly because Islamists are usually not religious scholars:

“The Islamists would…like to acknowledge what they refer to as God’s ‘sovereignty.’ But without the scholars to fulfill the role of authorized interpreters of God’s law, the Islamists find themselves in difficulties when they try to explain how and why Islamic law should govern.”

Feldman continues,

“For most of the last century, Islamist literature has basically avoided dealing with the issue. It presents Islamic law as a promising source for social salvation, with no serious attempt made to explain, constitutionally or theologically, what would justify its adoption and implementation.”

Had setting up an Islamic State been so important to most Islamist groups, why did they not give religious scholars the highest priority to advise the government on how its set-up should be? Rather, the religious scholars have been marginalized by Islamist governments, which illustrates that Islamists are not concerned about creating an Islamic State, in spite of their rhetoric.

If Islamists in general are unsure, unclear, and seemingly unserious about establishing an Islamic State, much less a  global caliphate, their claims should be interpreted as mere saber-rattling rhetoric without genuine substance.  

[[1]] Jeffry R. Halverson et al., “How Extremists Quote the Quran.” Center for Strategic Communication, Arizona State University. http://csc.asu.edu/wp-content/uploads/pdf/csc1202-quran-verses.pdf

[[2]] Ibid.

[[3]] Steven Kull et al., “Muslim Public Opinion on US Policy, Attacks on Civilians and al Qaeda.” International Policy Attitudes Program, University of Maryland. April 24, 2007. http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/pdf/apr07/START_Apr07_rpt.pdf

[[4]] S. Telhami, op. cit.,p.117.

[[5]] J. Esposito and D. Mogahed, op. cit., pg.5.

[[6]] C. Onal, op. cit.

[[7]] Cumali, Onal, “Goal of Muslim Brotherhood Not to Bring Back Caliphate,” Today’s Zaman, September 16, 2012, accessed May 25 2013,http://www.todayszaman.com/news-292466-goal-of-muslim-brotherhood-not-to-bring-back-caliphate.html

[[8]] Juan, Cole, May 15, 2013 (6:25 p.m.), “Fear Not the Muslim Brotherhood Boogeyman,” Juan Cole’s Columns –Truthdig, February 15, 2011, http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/fear_not_the_muslim_brotherhood_boogeyman_20110215/

– Is Classical Sunni Islam a “Political Ideology”?

(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

Sebastian Gorka of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies says,

“One of the greatest — self-induced — obstacles we have to understanding our enemy is mirror imaging, seeing Islam as just one more religion like the religions we are most familiar with — Christianity and Judaism. However, if one understands that Islam, not just in its extreme forms, but in its mainstream version, sees politics, economics, law and faith as integral to each other and as part of “shari’a” — the way of life, then one understands that even the phrase ‘political Islam’ is a case of the West using its terminology for something that does not reflect Western concepts and categories. It is pointless therefore to use the phrase ‘political Islam’; Islam is political” (p.188 – Fighting the Ideological War).

Gorka oddly describes mainstream Islam as political Islam and understands Islam as a political ideology. Gorka’s lack of understanding of the history of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism will be discussed in a separate post.

However, while Gorka sees mainstream Sunni Islam as a political ideology, his view is more similar to the minority of Islamists than to the majority of Muslims who do not share this view.

Religion and terrorism expert, Mark Juergensmyer, says,

“The assumption of those who hold this ‘Islam is the problem’ position is that the Muslim relationship to politics is peculiar. But this is not true. Most traditional societies have had a close tie between political leadership and religious authority, and religion often plays a role in undergirding the moral authority of public life.”[[1]]

Furthermore, there is no equivalent word for “ideology” in classical Arabic, Persian, or other languages, which proves that classical Muslims never saw their religion as an ideology. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, scholar and professor at George Washington University, says,

“The case of ‘ideology’ is very telling as far as the adaptation of modern notions in the name of religion is concerned. Nearly every Muslim language now uses this term, and many Muslims in fact insist that Islam is an ideology. If this is so, then why was there no word to express it in classical Arabic, Persian, and other languages of the Islamic peoples?”[[2]]

“Traditional Islam,”Nasr says, “refuses ever to accept Islam as an ideology, and it is only when the traditional order succumbs to the modern world that the understanding of religion as ideology comes to the fore […].”[[3]]

Describing Islam as an ideology, whether by Gorka or by Islamists, is a modern notion – not a classical one. While Islam has a political dimension, Hamza Yusuf, author and Sunni scholar at Zaytuna College, says,

“…the focus of Islam has never been on rectifying the state, but rather on rectifying the state of the souls that make up the state.”

Yusuf then says,

“We need an Islamic state of mind more than an Islamic state.”[[4]]

Another author and Sunni scholar, Zaid Shakir, says, that

“…doctrine issuing from a particular ideology is marshaled based on its efficacy in advancing the cause, not on the basis of any preexisting moral or ethical standard. Such a formulation is at complete odds with Islam and, thus, largely alien to its classical tradition.”[[5]]

Islamic knowledge of creed and jurisprudence in almost all of Islamic history had not been the prerogative of politicians, but of religious scholars who taught the masses, and distanced themselves from rulers while largely retaining their independent roles as spiritual guides. When examining the Islamic sources, reference to political authority is scarce, while references to spirituality and belief are abundant. That is why Prophet Muhammad is known as a religious prophet, and not a politician, and Islam is understood to be a religion, and not a political movement by most people.

Moreover, political ideology is not one of the five pillars of Islam or the six Sunni articles of faith. The uncertainty of Muslims on the issue of leadership following Prophet Muhammad’s death illustrates that political leadership was not a high priority to Islam’s Prophet. Otherwise, Muhammad  would have made matters of political leadership clear to his followers as he did many matters before his demise.

While political leadership took on an important role in classical Sunni Islam, it was subservient to and confined within the limits of spirituality. Today, Islamist groups prioritize politics and make spirituality subservient to it.  People who conflate the two misrepresent both and confuse more than clarify.

It is for this reason why many caliphs throughout Islam’s history were not necessarily supported by the masses, but tolerated, even when certain caliphs displayed unIslamic qualities and used religion for political expediency and domination. But anarchy was believed to be worse than poor leadership as it brought more harm than good to society. Therefore, all actions of caliphs over 1,000-plus years should not be seen as representative of Islam’s teachings, and Muslims who lived under their rule should not be described as their wholesale supporters. To do so is to misunderstand and mischaracterize social-power dynamics in those times and to misrepresent Muslims and Islam today.

It is recommended that Gorka and others who hold similar views describe mainstream Islam as most Muslims describe Islam — as a religion and not a political movement or ideology.

[[1]] Mark, Juergensmeyer, “Does Religion Cause Terrorism?” National Policy Forum on Terrorism Security and America’s Purpose, September 6-7, 2005, accessed May 25, 2013, http://demcoalition.org/pdf/Does_Relig_Cause_Terr.pdf

[[2]] Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Islam in the Modern world: Challenged by the West, Threatened by Fundamentalism, Keeping Faith with Tradition. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010. p.12.

[[3]] S. Hussein Nasr, op. cit.,p.12.

[[4]] Hamza Yusuf, March 26, 2010, “The Importance of Being Ambiguous Or the Sin Tax of Ignoring Syntax,” Sandala Blog, May 24, 2013, http://sandala.org/blog/2011/03/26/the-importance-of-being-ambiguous-or-the-sin-tax-of-ignoring-syntax/

[[5]] Zaid Shakir, “Islam: Religion or Ideology?” New Islamic Directions, accessed May 27, 2013,http://www.newislamicdirections.com/articles/islam_religion_or_ideology/

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