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Published September 22nd, 2014

The question plaguing the minds of many people is why are the Muslims fighting themselves in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)? Al Jazeera, CNN, BBC and other news agencies daily inundate us with news of one atrocity or other perpetrated by Muslims and against Muslims. Everyone who cares will begin to wonder what has happened to the fabled unity and peace of Islam? To understand this and why, one will need to know that Islam has birthed many sects and that it is this sects that are fighting against and among each other. Traditionally and historically, the origins and beginnings of Islam (Submission to God’s will) have always been traced to central Arabia, the region of Mecca and Medina, which is also known as the Hijaz. Thus, although Islam traditionally traced its beginning to this area, scholars are agreed in actual fact, it underwent essential development and achieved distinct form outside of Arabia. Thus, contrary to popular belief, Islam is not a religion of the desert. It began in a commercial urban centre and first flourished in an agricultural oasis and small merchant towns of the Hijaz region of the western Arabian Peninsula. Historically and traditionally, it has been accepted that around 610, in the city of Mecca in what is now known as Saudi Arabia, a merchant called Muhammad began to have religious experiences which culminated in the Qur’an (Recitation of God’s Word) and hadith and by the time he died in 632, most of Arabia had accepted and converted to his teachings. A century later, his followers had spread to and controlled Syria, Palestine, Egypt and what are now Iraq, Persia (present day Iran), northern India, North Africa, Spain and part of France. Within another century, Islam has spread from across Central Asia to the borders of China. By the 9th, 10th and 11thcenturies, the Muslims have created a brilliant civilisation that had Baghdad as its centre in Iraq, a culture that profoundly influenced the development of both Eastern and Western civilisations.


The Arabian Peninsula is about a 1/3 of the size of Europe or the United States and was named Arabia after the Bedouin nomadic Arabs that grazed their livestock in the semiarid land. Thus, initially, the word ‘Arab’ meant a native of Arabia.’ Today, the term is used to refer generally to an ethnic identity and Arabic means a linguistic and cultural heritage. For the Arabs, the basic social unit was the tribe – a group of blood relations that was patriarchal. Arab tribes were not static entities and were joined by strong economic links. In the northern and central Arabia, tribal confederations dominated by warrior elite characterised the political system. In the southern parts, religious aristocracies held political power. The power of the northern warrior class rested on its prowess and fighting skills whereas the southern religious aristocracy depended on its cultic and economic power. Located within an agricultural that also functioned as the commercial nerve centre of the Peninsula, the southern religious aristocracy had a stronger economic base than the warrior-aristocracy.

The political genius of Muhammad was to bind together these different tribal groups and warlords into a strong unified state. Although the instrument used was religion; Islam, with which he was able to weld together all the Bedouin tribes, but in actual fact, Muhammad’s social and political views are inseparable from his religious ideas. By the time of his death, the symbol of Islam, the crescent and the star, controlled most of the entire Peninsula. After the Prophet’s death, Islam emerged not only as a religious faith but also as an expanding culture of worldwide political significance. Islamic scholars are quick to attribute the victories and spread of Islam to God’s support for the faith. The religious fervour which the adherents possessed was not matched by the cultic beliefs of their enemies. Muhammad has been able to convince his growing adherents of the need of a jihad or holy war. Although the actual meaning of the term has been debated over time by Islamicists, the general consensus among the adherents is that it signifies on one hand, an individual’s struggle against sin and toward perfection of Islam, others have argued that the term has both a social and communal implication; a militancy as part of a holy war against unbelievers – infidels – living in territories outside the control of the Muslim community.

To fully comprehend Islamic fundamental beliefs, it is necessary to review the essential tenets of Islam and understand how fundamentalism differs from other contemporary sects. Islam is the youngest of the world’s three major monotheistic religions. It is also one of the largest, with over one billion adherents and is the dominant religion in the developing nations of the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The fundamental belief of Islam is that there is only one God (Allah); He is the same God that is worshipped by Jews and Christians and He is the sole and sovereign ruler of the universe. Although Allah has made himself known to other prophets at other times, his most significant and final revelation was made in the seventh century to the Prophet Muhammad. Adherents to the religion are called Muslims, which means “those who submit to God” because believers must submit to the will of Allah. Islam teaches that believers only have one life to live and how they live it determines how they will spend their eternal existence. The sacred text of Islam is called the Qur’an, which literally means reading or recitation and indicates the basic beliefs that Muslims hold about the Qur’an, that it is a recitation of an eternal scripture written in heaven and revealed chapter by chapter to Muhammad. The Qur’an is believed to be God’s last word to humanity and it is eternal, absolute and irrevocable. Although Islam respects the scriptures of the Jews and Christians, the Qur’an is understood to be God’s complete message. It was literally revealed to Muhammad who acted as a speaker for Allah and it has been virtually unchanged since the days of the prophet. An important ritual act is the recitation of the Qur’an as it is a source of Allah’s blessing because it reproduces his divine speech.

The sources of legal authority are the Qur’an and the traditions known as the Hadith. There are thousands of Hadith, which expand on the basic teachings of the Qur’an. They have been used by Muslim scholars to answer legal questions as well as to clarify the ritual duties of Islam. The study of the Qur’an and Hadith form the basics of religious education in Muslim societies. Islam is essentially a religion that is based on surrender to God. In order for Muslims to submit themselves to Allah and to reassert their faith in Islam, there are various practices and beliefs that each Muslim should follow. Significantly, Islam is not only a belief; it is a way of life and what Muslims believe dictates how they should live for Allah. The five pillars of Islam are the ritual obligations required of every good Muslims. They include (1) shahadah or the declaration of the faith by repetition of the creed, “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah;” (2) Salaht is the name for obligatory prayers, Muslims are expected to pray five times daily; (3) Zakat represents an important principle of Islam — all things belong to God and Muslims are expected to share their possessions with the poor, widows or orphans — charity is obligatory according to Islamic law; (4) Sawm or fasting is required every year in the month of Ramadan. It is regarded as a principle of self-purification and is held in remembrance of the month when the prophet received his first revelation; and (5) Hajj is the pilgrimage to Mecca. Every Muslim who can afford the trip is ritually obligated to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime. There are also six pillars of faith consisting of (1) belief in Allah; (2) belief in His Angels, (3) belief in the divine revelations, (4) belief in His messengers (5) belief in the hereafter and (6) belief in the Divine will. The combination of the five pillars of Islam and the six pillars of faith outline the Islamic faith and the religious obligations for a practicing Muslim.

The Beginnings of the Islamic State

Although centred in towns and cities, Islam arose within warring tribal societies that lacked central, stable and coherent governing institutions. At the death of Muhammad in 632, he left a large Muslimumma (or community), but this community was in danger of disintegrating into separate tribal groups as before with some of the tribesmen electing for themselves new chiefs and leaders. The major accomplishment of Muhammad’s genius as a political strategist and religious teacher which was the establishment of a unique and unified umma or Muslim community made up of all those whose primary identity and bond was a common religious faith and commitment and not a tribal tie, stood in danger of disintegrating. As conceived by Muhammad, the umma was to be a religious and political community for the achievement of god’s will on earth. Hence, the Islamic notion of an absolute higher authority transcended the boundaries of individual tribal units and this fostered the political consolidation of the different tribal confederations. All authority came from God through Muhammad. Within the umma, the law of God predominate and is discerned and applied through Muhammad. Thus, Islam became centralising instrument that centralised both political and religious authority in the hands of Muhammad.

The Caliphate: Although Muhammad had fulfilled his prophetic mission, but his religious work not only remained but continued through the leadership and rule of the caliphs (or successors to Muhammad, representatives or deputies of God). Their rule formed what is today referred to as the Caliphate. The various caliphs were therefore saddled with the mission of carrying Islam to the rest of the world and to achieve this, political, religious and military powers have to be exercised by them. A crisis of succession followed the death of Muhammad. However, a group of Muhammad’s ablest followers elected Abu Bakr (573-634), a strong supported and father-in-law to Muhammad, as the first caliph or Khalifa. This election marked the beginning of the victory of the concept of a universal community of Muslims. The political and religious goals of the Muslim umma had been set out in both the Qur’an and the hadith and these were to make the faith as revealed to Muhammad the cornerstone of Muslim law, government and personal behaviour.

Although the principal role of the Qur’an and the hadith was to set out rules and regulations for the faithful and to guide the umma, there had to be an authority to enforce and ensure that the precepts, moral codes and teaching as contained in these two documents were adhered to, more so when Muslim teaching hold that the law was paramount. According to the belief system, God is the sole source of the law and therefore the ruler has a religious obligation to obey and enforce obedience to the law. Thus, within the Muslim belief system, government merely exists not to make laws but to enforce them. Of importance therefore, and this understanding is one of the major issues at the roots of the present modern day acts and justification for terrorism, is that deriving from the leadership style and examples of Muhammad and as justified by the Qur’an and the hadith, there is no distinction between the secular temporal and spiritual domains. Social laws are therefore an extension or a basic strand in the fabric of comprehensive religious laws. As it has been noted, religious belief and political power are inextricably intertwined; the first sanctifies the second, and the second sustains the first. The creation of Islamic law in an institutional sense took three or four centuries and is one of the great achievements and heritage bequeath to modern day Islamic states by medieval Islam.

The first caliph, Abu Bakr, ruled for only two years (632-634). His rule was based on his personal prestige as the father-in-law of the Prophet among the umma. He performed all functions tied to the normal functioning of a secular-cum-religious state; he sent out military expeditions in continuation of the jihad, collected taxes, dealt with tribal issues on behalf of the entire community and led the community in prayer. Gradually under him and his next first three successors, Umar (634-644), Uthman (644-656) and Ali (656-661), a caliphate emerged as an institution. The first four caliphs were all close to Muhammad and this closeness gave their reign legitimacy, a sense of nostalgic and an aura of pristine purity as the later caliphal institutions was based largely on sheer power legitimised by hereditary succession. The contestation for power led to the formation of two major dynastic systems or caliphates.

The Umayyad Dynasty/Caliphate: The nature of Islamic leadership became an issue with the first civil war (456-661) and the recognition of Mu’awiya, a kinsman of Uthman, as caliph. He founded the first dynastic caliphate, that of his Meccan clan of Umayya (661-750). His descendants held on to power until they were ousted by the Abbasid clan which based its legitimacy on direct descent from Abbas, an uncle of the Prophet. The Umayyads had all the prestige of office of the caliph, although many strongly opposed them as worldly when compared to the first four who were seen as true Muslim successors to Muhammad. Mu’awiya, the founder of the dynasty, shifted the capital of the Islamic state from Medina in Arabia to Damascus in Syria. The actual consolidation of the caliphal institution began with the victory of the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik in 692 in the second civil war.

However, when the Umayyad family assumed the leadership of Islam, there was no Muslim state in terms of a formal impersonal institution of government exercising jurisdiction over a wide geographical area (McKay et al, 2007:228). Rather what was in existence then was only a federation of regional armies, each one of which was recruited and employed within its own region, maintained from its own revenues and administered by such local bureaucrats as it contained. Thus, the Umayyad depended for governmental services on personal connections based on tribal relationships with people they knew. This type of relationship was further reinforced by marriage alliances with other tribal chiefs. This preference for personal networks over formal institutions was to become a standard feature of Muslim society.”

Mu’awiya sought to enhance and consolidated the power of the caliphate by making the tribal leaders dependent on him for certain concessions and special benefits. His reign was also ensured by his control of a well disciplined and loyal army which enabled him to develop the caliphate in an authoritarian direction. Through intimidation he forced the tribal leaders to accept his son, Yazid, as his successor thereby creating the dynastic principle of succession. By distancing himself from a simple life within the umma and withdrawing into the palace that he built at Damascus and by surrounding himself with symbols and ceremony, Mu’awiya laid the foundation for an elaborate caliphal court system. Beginning with Mu’awiya, the Umayyad caliphs developed a court ritual that emerged into a grand spectacle. However, in actual fact, many of his innovations were actually designed to protect him from assassination. Direct access to him was strictly controlled and restricted by an official, thehajib, or chamberlain and the caliph received visitors seated on a throne and surrounded by bodyguards.

The assassination of Ali and the assumption of the caliphate by Mu’awiya had another profound impact and consequence which is still felt today. It gave rise to a fundamental division in the umma and in Muslim theology.. Ali’s claim to legitimacy and acceptance by the umma as the authentic caliphate and successor to Muhammad had been based partly on the basis of family and blood ties – he was Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, and partly because Muhammad had designated him imam (or leader in community prayer). His assassination by the Umayyad clan led to the emergence of dissenters among the umma and his supporters were called Shi’ites (or Shi’at Ali, the Arabic word Shi’a meaning ‘supporters’ or ‘partisans’ of Ali). In succeeding generations, the Shi’ites constituted opponents of the Umayyad dynasty and all other Islamic sects that do not accept or pay allegiance to their blood descent from Ali and their opposition to all other sects is based on the acknowledgment of the divine knowledge that Muhammad had given them as his heirs. Thus, the Shi’ites emerged as a distinct group or sect from other Muslims who still adhere to the practice and beliefs of the umma based on the precedents of the Prophet. A major sect whose belief is in counterpoise with that of the Shi’ites is the Sunni (Sunna). The Umayyad caliphs were Sunnis and throughout the Umayyad period, the Shi’ites constituted a major source of discontent. The Shi’ite rebellions expressed religious opposition in political terms.

The Abbasid Dynasty/Caliphate: The Abbasids won the caliphate by openly rebelling against the Umayyad led dynasty in 750. Their rebellion capitalised on the general dissatisfaction with the Umayyad worldliness, non-Arab Muslim resentment of Arab preference (primarily in Iran) and dissension among Arab tribal factions in the garrison towns. For all their stress on Muslim piety, the Abbasids were no better than the Umayyads and continued the hereditary rule begun by the Umayyads. Nevertheless, they were able to retain their hegemony and monopoly of power until 1258. In reality, the caliphate was primarily a titular office representing an Islamic unity that only existed politically in name only. In terms of the religion, many sects laying claim to piety, originality, true teaching and fundamentalism emerged. Their claim to the caliphate can be traced back to their descent from Abu al-Abbas, the uncle of both Muhammad and Ali.    

The height or the golden age of the caliphal power and splendour came in the first century of Abbasid rule, particularly during the caliphal rule of Harun al-Rashid (786-809) and his son, al-Ma’mum (813-833). The Abbasids rebellion effectively ended Arab dominance as well as Umayyad dominance except in Spain. The Abbasid caliphal rule led to the shift of the Islamic imperial capital from Damascus to the new “city of peace” built in Baghdad on the Tigris (762-766) and this symbolised the West Asian shift in cultural and political orientation under the new regime. In line with this shift, more Persians became involved in the administration. The Abbasids disavowal of Shi’ites’ hope for a divinely inspired imamate was to gain the support of a broad spectrum of Muslims. Whereas the Umayyads had relied on Syrian Arab forces, the Abbasids used the Khorasanian Arabs and Iranians and regional mercenaries for their main troops. As the reach enlarged, they enlisted slave soldiers (mamluks) who were mostly Turks from the northern part of the empire. By sheer number and dexterity, these mamluks and their officers were able to seize and dominate positions of power in the central and provincial bureaucracies and the army. Eventually, the caliphs were dominated by their mamluk officers and this domination led to increasing alienation of the Muslim populace from their own rulers. This unrest especially in Iraq led to the removal of the seat of government from Baghdad to Samarra where it remained from 836 to 892.         

The first three Abbasid caliphs crushed their opponents, turned against and eliminated their former Shi’ites supporters and created new ruling elite drawn from the newly converted Persian families that had traditionally served the ruler. The Abbasid revolution established a basis for rule and citizenship more cosmopolitan and Islamic than the narrow, elitist and Arab dominance that had characterised the Umayyad dynastic rule. The Abbasid were particular in identifying their rule with Islam by building mosques, patronising ulama and supporting Islamic scholarship. Moreover, under the Abbasid, the Muslim state which had been a federation of regional and tribal armies became semi-independent powers with provincial governors over them. Although initially, the Muslims constituted a minority of the conquered people, the Abbasid rule provided a religious-political milieu in which, over time, Islam gained the allegiance of the vast majority of the population from Spain to Afghanistan.

At the height of their splendour, the Abbasid caliphs changed their title from “successor of the caliphate” to “deputy of God” with a magnificent palace, hundreds of attendants and elaborate court ceremonies which deliberately isolated the caliph from the people. Subjects had to bow before the caliph, kissing the ground, a symbol of his absolute power. Under the third caliph, Harun al-Rashid, Baghdad became a flourishing commercial, artistic and scientific centre; the greatest city in Islam and one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. The caliph established a library, the Bayt al-Hikma(House of Wisdom),       

The Breakup of the ‘Unity’ and the Beginning of Sectarian Differences and Dissent.

Although the caliph monopolised all authority and power in both political and religious matters, they were never emperor and pope combined. Religious leadership devolved on another group in the umma. These were the ulama (persons of right knowledge) that were the functional successors of the Prophet and recognised for piety and learning, are sought by the people as authorities and whose views and opinions were respected by the umma. Initially, these were the companions of the Prophet who at demise were replaced by younger followers who were most concerned with continuing the tradition of preserving, interpreting and applying the Qur’an and with maintaining the norms of the Prophet’s original umma. The ulama were seen as authority in all religious and legal matters such that their personal legal opinions and collective discussions of issues from ideological to criminal punishments established a basis for religious and social order. By the 19th century they had largely defined the understanding of the divine law or shari’a that Muslims have held on to for legal, social, commercial, political, ritual and moral standards.

The centres of ulama activities were initially restricted to Medina, Mecca and especially Iraq (primarily Basra and Kufa and later Baghdad), then Khorasan, Syria, North Africa, Spain, and Egypt. As far back as the Umayyad times, the ulama had already assumed the position of religious critics and the guardians of the Muslim conscience, often criticising caliphal rule when it strayed too far from the Muslim precepts and norms. With time, the ulama assumed the character of a new elite, an upper class one whose opinion and support the caliph and their governors regularly sought for on moral or legal (these two being the same in Muslim view) issues. Thus, without aiming to build a formal class of clergymen, Muslin society developed a workable moral-legal system based on formally trained, although informally organised, scholarly elite and a tradition of concern with religious ideals in matters of public affairs and social order. Thus, an enduring pattern emerged in which the ulama shared leadership in Muslim societies with the political rulers even if unequally. The unfortunate outcome of this system was the emergence of different ulama professing to know and follow the truth path and by so doing succeeded in causing a schism or break in the hitherto unified body of the umma by their teaching. These ulama were able to acquire followers who were later convinced that non-adherents and followers of their leader and his teachings were deviates and hence branded as infidels. Hence the emergence of sectarian differences that have polarise the Muslim faith, each claiming pious orthodoxy and fundamentalism while at the same time proclaiming that the others or non-adherents to their brand of Islam are infidels.


Islamic Fundamentalism

The breakup of the ‘unity’ of Islam and its precepts due to emergence of different ulamas, their teachings and interpretations has led to the emergence of two major Islamic fundamentalist groups; the Kharijites and Wahhabis, which have further confounded the belief system, with each claiming to be more authentic and pious than the other. However, it is from these two that other Islamic religious sects have emerged. Fundamentalism can be seen as a movement that is radical in terms of its goals, extremist in terms of its methods and literalist in terms of its adherence to scripture. Another scholar, Appleby has also defined fundamentalism as an identifiable pattern of religious militancy in which self-styled believers attempt to arrest the erosion of religious identity by outsiders, fortify the borders of the religious community, and create viable alternatives to secular structures and processes. However, it is opined fundamentalism is more of a political movement with a political agenda and organised religion has always been about power and thus has always been political. But whether political or religious, fundamentalists’ agenda are revealingly interchangeable.

Thus, in broad strokes, we can highlight the basic content of what constitutes fundamentalism as including; (1) a return to traditional values and an accompanying sense of restoration which may stimulate and contribute to the building of alternative structures; (2) the search for a new identity, often at the expense of minority groups; (3) a preoccupation with moral concerns that tends to have an adverse effect on the position of women; and (4) a spirit of militancy with which these objectives are pursued. In a sense therefore, fundamentalism represents a rebellion against the secularist ethos of modernity. Wherever a Western-style society has established itself, a fundamentalist movement has developed alongside it. Fundamentalism is, therefore, a part of the modern scene. Although fundamentalists often claim that they are returning to a golden age of the past, these movements could have taken root in no time other than our own. Fundamentalists believe that they are under threat. Every fundamentalist movement – in Judaism, Christianity and Islam – is convinced that modern, secular society is trying to wipe out the true faith and religious values. Fundamentalists  believe that they are fighting for survival and when people feel their backs are to the wall, they often lash out violently. 

Again to aid our understanding of this core issue, scholars are agreed that on certain broad and basic characteristics peculiar to groups and movements to which the term fundamentalism has been applied. (1) is that they are reactive in character, devising new methods, strategies and techniques to counteract the various inroads and development made by modernity and secularity which are perceived as eroding away tenets of religious teaching and observance. These methods, strategies and techniques may include violence if that is a feasible option. (2) is that they are highly selective and in this regard, fundamentalist groups cannot really be said to be practitioners of the religion they espoused to defend or uphold because in reality, they selectively adopt and adapt certain teachings, texts and practices of their religion that are deemed as useful and necessary in their fight against modernity and the modern state system. (3) fundamentalists defined the world in strict dichotomous and Manichaean terms that is, between good and evil, true and false, saved and dammed, the house of peace (dar al Islam) and the house of war (dar al Harb). Fundamentalists therefore considered themselves as engaging in an apocalypse war but on the side of the former against the latter. This explains the rhetoric common in the vocabulary of such demagogues denigrating and dehumanising their victims in terms such as ‘infidels,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘children of satan,’ and many others. The deliberate use of such terms not only justify the acts of violence since the victims are not seen or regarded as human beings, but also justifies and erodes away very form of constraints on violence and emboldens the perpetrators. (4) is that deriving from the above, all religious fundamentalists regard their holy texts as sacred, inerrant and irrefutably beyond questioning both by man and science because of their divine origins thereby leading to absolutism as one of the component of religious fundamentalism. Any attempt to subject the texts or parts of their teaching to scientific enquiry or any modern form of hermeneutical criticism always invoke in the adherents a kind of condemnation as blasphemous. (5) religious fundamentalist defines time and human history in strictly millennial and messianic terms, each using specific historical periods in the development of important landmarks in their religions as a basis and in direct counterpoint to popular secular dating system. Perhaps of more importance is the fact that virtually all of them believe that human history will come to a miraculous end with the ultimate triumph of the good over evil, usually in the not-too-distant future and that this end will be brought about by the intervention of a divine force, the Messiah, Saviour, Mahdi or Hidden Imam. (6) virtually all fundamentalists are isolationists, preferring to distance themselves from the corrupt secular world. This separation may be by physical exclusion, living in communes, caves, monasteries or other form of enclaves, or symbolic by the way they dress or wearing special clothing which denote them as belong to a particular sect distinct from others or by adopting peculiar behavioural pattern and religious practices that set them apart. In either way, fundamentalists separate themselves from the rest of the populace and even from others who may share similar beliefs like them but are seen as already tainted by secularity of the world. (7) concerns the outright rejection of democratic tenets and value systems as anti-religious purity leads fundamentalist organisation into adopting authoritarian value system base on charismatic rather than rational-legal sources of authority with the leadership considered as having some indisputable mystical or religious powers which are not easily attainable by the followers. Most holy texts are believed to have been acquired through such leaders having such unique experience. (8) in view of the above, fundamentalists can be called ‘monists’, that is, a belief system that accepts that there is only one correct answer to all questions. Like all extremists, fundamentalists are intolerant of ambiguity and those who hold differing views do so because they are evil, and because of their failure to recognise and uphold the truth. (9) fundamentalists are very vocal and rigid in their views about the sexuality, procreation and the status of women in the community. This is in addition to the formal limitation on the involvement of women in public life, freedom of movement and their legal rights. The (10) issue has to do with the word ‘simplicism’ which has been used in relation to another aspect of political extremism. This is based on the fact that political extremists and religious fundamentalists share the belief that not only is there a sharp distinction between truth and falsity, but that what is the truth itself is self apparent, accessible to all and hence not complicated. Therefore, the truth does not broach any discussion and hence extremists tend to shut down the marketplace of ideas a fundamental tenet usually associated with democracy.

We shall now turn to discuss the two fundamentalist groups in Islam.

The Kharijites: This group formed the most radical idealist whose origin can be traced to the first civil war (656-661). They were the Kharijites (or Seceders) from Ali’s camp because, in their view, he compromised with the enemy. The Kharijites’ position is that the Muslim polity must be strictly based on Qur’anic principles as Muhammad had received them from God and practiced them during his lifetime. They espoused total equality of the faithful and insisted that the head or leader of the umma should be the best and most pious among them. They were exclusionary and took a rigorous view of the membership of the umma, insisting that any who has been found guilty of committing a major sin should be expelled from the umma. Such a person can no longer be a Muslim. So extreme Kharijites called on all true Muslim to rebel against the morally compromised reigning caliph and the group therefore provided such dissenters a rallying point for opposition to the Umayyads and Abbasids. Although there are moderates within the ranks of the Kharijites which tolerated the less than ideal Muslims and caliphs but still retained a strong sense of the moral imperatives of the Muslim duty. Today, moderate Kharijites can be found in Oman and North Africa. Although it is reputed as the oldest religious sect of Islam, it comprised of less than 1% of all Muslims. Because of the extremist nature of their doctrines, they are extremely violent and were responsible for the assassination of the fourth caliph Ali. This sect is considered strictly fundamentalist and Qur’anic literalists. They strongly believe that the succession of the Prophet is open to anyone of true faith and not just the Sunni and Shiites.

The Wahhabis: This group influenced Al-Shabab (The Youth) which controls southern and central Somalia with incursions into neighbouring countries like Kenya. Main advocacy is for a strict Saudi-inspired Wahhabi version of Islam. The Wahhabi movement is considered the most reactionary of all Muslim sects. Wahhabis refuse to accept any revision of Qur’anic law. Their goal is to return to the ideal fundamental form of Islam as it was in the era of the first four caliphs following the Prophet. Many Islamic scholars and organizations through various publications have denounced Wahhabism as a particularly rigid minority Islamic sect that is intolerant of other forms of Islam. The Wahhabi view of Islam asserts that all who do not adhere to its beliefs are infidels, including Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. Wahhabis practice an extreme form of puritanism inclusive of simple short prayers, undecorated mosques, and they do not permit the name of the Prophet to be inscribed on mosques nor do they celebrate his birthday. In fact, any form of ostentatious spirituality is considered a form of idolatry. The Wahhabis’ strict interpretation of the Shar’ia sanctions extreme laws and corresponding forms of punishment.


There are thousands of current practitioners of Wahhabism. Most citizens of Saudi Arabia, including hundreds of members of the royal family, practice Wahhabism. According to Stephen Schwartz in an October 6, 2001 Spectator article, all recent acts of terrorism were enacted by Wahhabis: Bin Laden was a Wahhabi. So are the suicide bombers in Israel, [bin Laden’s] Egyptian allies, who exulted as they stabbed foreign tourists to death at Luxor not many years ago, bathing in blood up to their elbows and emitting blasphemous cries of ecstasy, the Algerian Islamist terrorists whose contribution to the purification of the world consisted of murdering people for such sins as running a movie projector or reading secular newspapers, and the Taliban-style guerrillas in Kashmir who murder Hindus. According to some sources, the Taliban do not practice Wahhabism, but belong to what is known as the Deobandi movement, named after a small town in the Indian Himalayas where it was founded in 1860 during British rule. Although similar to Wahhabism, it is an unusually strict form of Sunni Islam. The followers of both the Deobandi and Wahhabi movements make sharp distinctions between revealed sacred knowledge and human knowledge and thus exclude any learning that does not appear sacred. Deobandi philosophy helped spawn many other fundamentalist groups in the Muslim world including the Taliban in Afghanistan, although the Afghans have been part of the Deobandi movement since its beginning. Over time, Deobandi philosophy has changed toward more orthodoxy and militant fundamentalism.

The Wahhabi movement was founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahab in the 18th century. It is essentially a purification of the Sunni sect and regards the veneration of images, any ostentatious worship and luxurious living as evil. Basically, Wahhabism teaches that all additions to Islam after the third century of the Muslim era are false and should be removed. Members describe themselves as Muwahhidun (Unitarians) who firmly uphold the doctrine that God is one, the only one, Wahid. In 1744, the founder of the Wahhabi sect, Abd al-Wahhad, was exiled from his native city, Uyayna, because of his controversial preaching from his book, Kitab al-Tawid (Book of Unity). During his exile he travelled to the northeast Nejd and converted the Saudi tribe. Once the Saudi sheik was convinced that it was his religious mission to wage holy war, jihad, against all other forms of Islam, he began the conquest of his neighbors in 1763. By 1811, the Wahhabis ruled all of Arabia except Yemen from their capital at Riyadh. The Ottoman sultan attempted to crush them by sending out expeditions but to no avail. However, the Sultan met with success when he called on Muhammad Ali of Egypt and by 1818, the Wahhabis were driven into the desert. In the Nejd, they regained their power and from 1821 to 1833, gained control over the Persian Gulf coast of Arabia. Their subsequent domain steadily weakened; nonetheless a third triumph came for the Wahhabi movement when Ibn Saud advanced from his capture of Riyadh in 1902 to the reconstitution in 1932 of nearly all his ancestral domain as Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism remains dominant to this day. Members of the Wahab family continue to hold prominent positions in Saudi Arabia because their ancestors helped the Saudi ruling family unify its kingdom in 1932. Wahhabism also served as an inspiration to other Islamic reform movements from India and Sumatra to North Africa and the Sudan.

Wahhabi theology and jurisprudence are based, respectively, on the teachings of Ibn Taymiyah and on the legal school of Ahmad ibn Hanbal. They stress literal belief in the Qur’an and Hadith and the establishment of a Muslim state based only on Islamic law. The contemporary Wahhabi movement is flourishing in every Muslim country. In Lebanon alone, the movement is estimated by officials to have about 4000 members. The sect has far more members in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. It goes by many names including Ikhwan, Wahhabi, Salifiyya, Mowahabin and the well known Taliban. Anti-Wahhabi Muslims refer to Wahhabism as fitna an Najdiyyah or the trouble out of Nejd.  Wahhabis have in common a militant view of Sunni Islam and financial support at the highest levels of the Saudi Arabian government. Wahhabi religious schools, referred to as madrassas, belong to a worldwide network of Muslim extremist organizations. Beginning at the ages of 7 to 15, young men are indoctrinated into the fundamentals of strict Islam, religious obligations and radical militancy at Wahhabi schools. Between the ages of 15 and 25, the young men are prepared for jihad or holy war and are trained to fight for the conquest of Wahhabi Islam. Not all young men who attend Wahhabi schools turn to violence. Some become religious teachers and the vast majority of Wahhabi communities do not openly maintain armed militias although they engage in paramilitary training. The exception is the Taliban, whose followers do not conceal weapons or other arms.

Obviously, the term Wahhabi has pejorative connotations and Saudis do not use it, preferring to call themselves Unitarians — believers in one indivisible deity. The violence inflicted because of Deobandi and Wahhabi religious ideology is substantial, to say the least. Among the thousands of quotes given and articles written about Islamic fundamentalism after September 11th, one particular statement sums up the religious connection: Not all Muslims are suicide bombers, but all Muslim suicide bombers are Wahhabis. No one can dispute the violence that this belief system has inspired and continues to inspire. Unfortunately, we have all become familiar with the names of terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Armed Islamic Group, Harakat ul-Mujahidin (Pakistan) and Abu Sayyaf (Philippines), all of which were linked to bin Laden. The violence perpetrated by these groups includes many incidents of suicide bombings, kidnappings, hijackings and murders.

Religious Beliefs and Sects in Islam

Today, sectarian differences have led to the emergence of over 70 different Islamic religious sects and traditional schools of Islamic faith. These include such diverse and little known sects such as the Islamilis, Zaidis, Fatimids, Nizari, Deobandi, Alawis, Druze, Baha’i World Faith, Ahmadis, and Black Muslim Movement (Nation of Islam). However, the well known and major ones are the Sunnis, the Shi’as and Sufis. We shall look at these sects and their core teachings as this formed the root of not only sectarian differences but religious disagreement and terrorism. However, in spite of the sectarian differences and claims and counter-claims of apostasy, a unifying factor of all the Muslim faithful irrespective of doctrinaire teachings and dissent is the adherent to the Five Pillars of Islam which are (1)shahahda, (witnessing or testifying to the Muslim creed), (2) salat (formal prayer or worship, alone or communally), (3) sawm (fasting during the month of the Ramadan), (4) zakat (alms giving in proportion to one’s wealth) and (5) hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime). Muslims are not totally agreed although some emergent sects believed that the jihad which called on all Muslim faithful to struggle justly or strive justly for God, sometimes translated as holy war, constitutes the sixth pillar. While this is used to justify the prevailing terrorists’ acts and hatred for western civilisation, it must be noted that it is not generally accepted by all Muslims.

The Shi’as: The emergence of this group was defined largely in terms of the leadership of the umma. With Muhammad not having any surviving son, his son-in-law and cousin Ali laid claim to the caliphate in 656. His justification and acceptance hinged on his blood tie with the Prophet even at that, his claim was contested by Mu’awiya in the first Islamic war. When Mu’awiya took over after a Kharijite assassinated Ali in 661, many of Ali’s followers felt that the rulers and umma have gone astray. The roots of the “partisans of Ali” (Shi’at Ali, or simply Shi’a or Shi’ites) can be traced back to the murder of Ali and especially to that of his son, Husayn at Karbala in Iraq at the hands of Umayyad troops in 680. While all Muslim held Ali in great regard because of his closeness and blood tie to Muhammad, the Shi’ites believed him to be the Prophet’s appointed successor. Ali’s blood tie with Muhammad was to the Shi’ites a convincing proof as the Prophet’s designated successor. Numerous rebellions in the Umayyad times rallied around persons claiming to be such a true successor whether as an Alid or merely a member of Muhammad’s clan of Hashim. Even the Abbasids based their right to the caliphate on their Hashmite ancestry. The major Shi’ite contenders who emerged in the 9th and 10th centuries based their claims on both the Prophet’s designation and their descent from Ali and Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter. Thus, the Shi’ites saw the true Muslim as the faithful follower of the imams who carried Muhammad’s blood and spiritual authority.

For the Shi’ites, Ali’s assassination and the massacre of his son, Husayn and his family were sufficient proofs of the evil nature of this world’s rulers and as rallying point for true Muslims. The Shi’ites belief is that all true Muslims, like their imams, must suffer here on earth but they would be vindicated by a mahdi (or guided one) who would usher in a messianic age and a judgment day that would see the faithful rewarded. Today, the Shi’a Muslims prevail as the majority faith and have headed Muslim state in Iran since 1500. The Shi’as is in majority in Iraq and Iran. The sectarian war and differences in Iraq now shows a great possibility that Iraq may be partitioned among the three sects of Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish population. 

Shi’ite traditions crystallised between the 10th and 12th centuries. Many states came under Shi’a rule but only the Fatimids in Egypt were able to establish an important empire. The Shi’ite Fatimids were those who claim descent from Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima. Nevertheless, a substantial Shi’ite population arose in Iran, Iraq and the lower Indus (Sind). From this spread of the Shi’ite adherents, two dominant groups emerged as the most influential. The first were the “Seveners” or the “Isma’ilis” who recognised and accepted the first son of the sixth Alid imam as the seventh imam. The Isma’ili groups are perhaps the most revolutionary Muslim sect today. Their history dated back to when as a radical Muslim movement founded by a Fatimid defector in the Elburz Mountains of Iran around 1100, became notable assassins. The word ‘assassins’ was actually an Anglicised corruption of the Arab word Hashishiyyin (smokers or users of hashish) because it was believed that they were under the influence of drugs. The assassin sect was destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century.  However, by the 11th century, most Shi’ites began to accept a line of twelve imams, the last of whom is said to have disappeared in Samara (Iraq) in 873 into a cosmic concealment from which he will eventually emerge as the Mahdi or “Guided One” to usher in the messianic age and final judgment. This new group of “Twelvers” Shi’ites are in the majority and they flourished in Iran, the home of most Shi’ite thought. The Safavids of Iran were later to make the Twelver doctrine the state religion in Iran in the 16thcentury. In summary, the original conflict between the Sunnis and the Shiites was about who should succeed the Prophet. Shiites account for less than 15% of all Muslims. The fundamental belief of this sect is that the first successor to Muhammad should have been Ali, the husband of Muhammad’s only surviving daughter.

The Sunnis: Most Muslims accepted a compromise that less sharply defined position, membership and leadership of the umma. In some ways this compromise proved acceptable to lukewarm Muslims or pragmatists and also to those of intense piety. To emphasise their position on issues and their deviation from positions already assumed by the other sects, they adopted the name Sunnis, which means ‘followers of the tradition’ – sunna – as set down by the Prophet in the Qur’an. The basic guiding ideas of the Sunni sect are (1) the umma is a theocratic entity, a state under divine authority and law – the Shari’a. The sources of guidance are first, the Qur’an, second, Muhammad’s precedent; and third and fourth are the interpretive efforts and consensus of the Muslims. (2) the caliph is the absolute temporal ruler who is charged with administering and defending Islam, protecting the Muslim norms and practice but possesses no greater authority than other Muslims in matters of faith. (3) a person who professes to be Muslim and confesses that “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his Messenger” should be considered a Muslim and not even a mortal sin excludes such a person from the umma. 

The Islamic world was to be later shaped by the consolidation and institutionalisation of Sunni legal and religious norms. The Sunnis ulama gradually became popular and accepted and therefore it was easy for them to entrench their religious, social and political ideas among the elite class of merchant, landowning and bureaucracy. In contrast to Christianity, the tendency of Muslims to define Islam in terms of what Muslims do – by practice – rather than by beliefs made basic Sunni orthopraxy or “correctness of religious practice” discourages religious or social innovations. By the year 1000, Sunni orthopraxy has become the dominant tradition, even though Shi’ite aspirations often made themselves felt either politically or theologically. The emergence and general acceptance of a conservative theological orientation tied to one of the four main Sunni legal schools, the Hanbalites (after Hanbal the Ulama) further narrowed the scope for creative doctrine and tolerance of other teachings of other ulama. The Hanbalites relied on a literalist reading and interpretation of the Qur’an and the hadith made them more socially conservative even as they became integrated into the social aristocracies.

Today, Sunnis theology has influenced extremist militant group that seeks to create an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). They are joined in the offensives by Sunni militant groups including Saddam-era officers and soldiers. It grew out of Al-Qaeda linked organisations in Iraq. Led by Abu Bakr ai-Baghdadi, an obscure figure regarded as a battlefield commander and tactician. ISIS success in the Middle East can only make the turmoil there worse. It is an ultra-extremist Sunni group and its success will only deepen the sectarian war between Sunni and Shi’a that is already the most dangerous fault line in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Iran which is majority Shi’a Muslim country shares border with Iraq. The Sunni insurgents regard the Shi’a Muslims as infidels. ISIS is estimated as having between 3,000 to 5,000 fighters. Today, Sunnis are the most dominant sect of Islam comprising about 85% of Muslims worldwide. There are four different schools of Sunni faith varying in their strictness of interpreting how the Prophet lived. All Sunnis agree in their belief in the legitimacy of the first three successors to Muhammad. The four Sunni groups are the Hanabalites, Malikhites, Hanafites and Shafites.

The Sufis: The Sufi sect presents the modern world today with the spiritual and mystical dimensions of Islam. The term Sufi came from the Arab word suf (wool) based on the ascetic practice of wearing on a coarse woollen garment. Sufi simplicity and humility had roots with the Prophet and the Companions but developed into a distinctive tendency when after about 700 C.E., male and female pietists emphasised a godly life over and above mere observance of Muslim rituals and duties. Some Sufis laid stress on ascetic avoidance of worldliness and temptations while others emphasise a loving devotion to God. Sufi piety bridged the gap between the human and the Divine that the exalted Muslim concept of God of creation implies. Socially, Sufi piety took such dimension as the popular practices of veneration of saint, shrine pilgrimage, ecstatic worship often using music and bodily movement to induce the feeling of ecstasy which they believe bring them closer to God, and seasonal festivals. Sufi writers have collected stories of saints, wrote treatises on the Sufi path and composed some of the world’s finest mystical poetry.

Sufi ulama were revered as spiritual masters and saints and their disciples have formed brotherhoods with their own distinctive mystical teaching, Qur’anic interpretation and devotional practice. All though these fraternal orders differ from monasticism, they have nevertheless, became the chief instruments for the spread of the Muslim faith, as well as the locus of popular piety in almost modern Islamic state and societies today. Sufism has always attracted members from the populace at large as well as those dedicated to poverty or other radical disciplines. Indeed the widespread of Sufi ideological and religious leaning has made it in this age and time, one of the typical social institutions of everyday Muslim life such that whether a Sunni or Shi’ite, many Muslims identified in some degree with a Sufi order. Sufism is a mystical sect of Islam. Sufis are considered a heretical sect because of their mystical beliefs. Some argue that Sufis are actually the most orthodox believers of Islam.Where Sufis diverge from other sects is their belief in saints and martyrs, which mainstream Islam considers a form of idolatry.

To summarise, the Sunni and Shi’a share fundamental beliefs but differ in doctrine, ritual, law, theology and religious organisation. The origin of the split lies in a dispute over who should have succeeded the Prophet Muhammad as leader of the umma. While the Sunnis are the majority sect in the Muslim world, the Shi’a, most of them ethnic Arabs, form between 60% and 65% of Iraq’s population while the Sunnis make up 32-37% split between Arabs and Kurds. Sunni Arabs dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein and their persecution of the Shi’a stoked sectarian tensions. The US led invasion in 2003 gave the Shi’a an opportunity to seek redress and revenge. Iraq’s president, Nouri Maliki, has been accused of denying Sunni Arabs meaningful representation and pursuing security policies that target them. The situation has gone beyond reasoning and exclusivity of Iraq. Presently, news report has it that an estimated 400-500 British-born jihadists have been recruited by ISIS which now has a significant presence in Syria.

The Result of Sectarian Differences

Islam has always been a religion birthed in the crucible of violence either for its perpetuation, spread, evangelising and converting ‘infidels’. The violence of Islam has been of two types; internal and external. The internal dimension is when adherents of Islam turn against each other while the external dimension is when violence is turned against those perceived as enemies of Islam and infidels(unbelievers and apostates). Each of this type of violence has explicit justification in Qur’an and the hadith. According to Islamic law, it is lawful to wage war against four types of enemies; apostates, rebels, infidels and bandits. The first two qualify as internal wars while the last two are external. For instance, the rule of war against apostates is very strict than against unbelievers basically because they are seen as renegades, one who has known the true faith and abandoned it. For this offense there is no human forgiveness and so the renegade must be put to death. The confusion comes in defining who is a renegade/apostate. The assassination of many Muslim government and spiritual leaders have been justified by counter claims that they have turned apostate and rebelled against the true teaching of Muhammad. On the other hand, the somewhat special or peculiar ‘hatred’ that Muslim fundamentalists have for Jews and later Christians is based on the interpretation of the hadiths and Qur’an and perceived them as people who had gone astray and had followed false doctrines. The belief is that both the Jewish and Christian religions have been superseded and replaced by Islam, the final and perfect revelation of God. The failure of these two religious groups to accept Islam makes their adherents not only rebels and apostates, they are worse than infidels by their refusal to accept Islam as the only true religion.

Another major fall-out of these sectarian differences is the different interpretations and meanings given to injunctions in the Qur’an and the hadith. Perhaps more than any other, these differences in interpretation and meanings-given have polarised the umma (Muslim community), turning each sect against the other, with one labelling the other as apostates and infidels. Among many others are the interpretation and meaning given to basic Islamic concepts such as jihad, and the use of terrorism and suicide bombers as means of insurgency.   The significance of fundamental Islamic beliefs to justifying terrorism can be found in the basic tenets of Islam, although this by no means implies that all Muslims interpret their beliefs this way. One basic tenet of Islam is that an individual has one life to live and how he lives it determines how he spends his eternal existence. Other tenets include: Islam is a religious belief based on surrender to God; it is not just a religion but a way of life and interpretations of the Quran are the sources of laws. In effect, what Muslims believe determines how they live their lives. If this belief entails viewing other people and infidel nations as evil, then extremists can theologically justify their terrorist attacks against the Great Satan, who appears in the form of the United States. Terrorism becomes not only a political choice, but a religious imperative that is crucial in determining their eternal destiny. Fortunately, most Muslims do not view the U.S. as the personification of evil and abide by international law; however, Islamic fundamentalists do not distinguish between religious and civil law. This is vital to understanding the seriousness of the danger posed. Islamic extremists interpret the Quran in such a way as to designate anyone who is not a devout Muslim as an infidel who must be annihilated. Infidels include other Muslims who do not practice their extreme version of Islam.

Sectarian differences have also led to the emergence of many militant groups all purporting to represent the interest of Muslims in general but located within a certain geographical location and propel by certain belief system which they claimed is derived from the Prophet’s teaching, the Qur’an and hadith. Again within the doctrinaire beliefs on which these militant groups based their actions especially the justification for use of terrorism and suicide bombers are differences based on disparate understanding, interpretation and meanings given to the injunctions in the hadiths. Their interpretation of Islam is how they justify acts of terrorism. The most popular with a worldwide jihad mandate is Al Qaeda (the Base). In 1998, Osama bin Laden announced the formation of the International Front for Fighting Jews and Crusades, an alliance bent on killing Americans and destroying U.S. interests around the world. Member groups include Al Qaeda, Egyptian Jihad, Pakistani Society of Ulemas, Ansar Movement, Bangladesh Jihad and Islamic Army for the Liberation of the Holy Sites. At the zenith of its popularity, al Qaeda is reported to have operational bases in: Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, Jordan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Syria, Xinjiang in China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Mindanao in the Philippines, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Dagestan, Kashmir, Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Azerbaijan, Eritrea, Uganda, Ethiopia and the West Bank and Gaza in Palestinian areas of Israel.

Its goal includes establishing a worldwide Islamic regime by routing out non-Islamic governments and expelling Westerners and non-Muslims from Muslim countries. The membership strength of the group is put at hundreds of thousands of members; extremist groups such as Egyptian Islamic Jihad and parts of al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya, the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan and the Harakat ul-Mujahidin also fall under its umbrella. Its history is traceable to the 1980s when rebels in Afghanistan drew international support and funding from countries including the U.S. that did not support the USSR.’s occupation of Afghanistan. It draws its finances from donations and profitable front organizations, and by laundering money from legitimate Muslim organizations. Al Qaeda has organized thousands of Islamic fighters worldwide; is backed by Islamic leaders and groups in authoritarian states, particularly those in the Arabian Gulf region; has a humanitarian facet, drawing financial support from powerful Muslim groups and communities to aid needy Muslims; also uses contributions to fund its operations; uses terrorist acts such as bombing, assassination, kidnapping and extortion to advance its mission of a worldwide religious regime.

Closely following al Qaeda is the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas/Islamic Jihad Hezbollah). Its operational bases are located in Syria, Palestinian autonomous areas; Israel and Lebanon with a goal to create a Palestinian Islamic state and accept some kind of agreement with Israel. Another faction of Hamas has set itself the goal of creating a Palestinian Islamic state and the total destruction of Israel. The military goal of Hamas is to terrorize Israelis through the use of random violence. Its strength is reported as being in tens of thousands of supporters, although actual number of Hamas members remains unknown. It is reported to have developed in 1987 from the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood. The radical Sunni Muslim Hamas organization was formed to further the interests of the Palestinian people. Financially, the organization is funded mainly through wealthy supporters living in other countries including Iran and the Gulf States and donations through a web of non-profit organizations based in London. Hamas is credited with some humanitarian acts and provides food, education and social aid for Palestinians in autonomous areas and refugee camps. It is a large group that organizes its efforts for political, social, religious and rebellious ends.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad are thought of as sister groups, but some analysts believe Islamic Jihad is a part of Hamas, both have ties to Hezbollah through Syria and Iran; Hamas’ front organizations and main military operations are Izz el-Din al-Qassem and Disciples of Yehya Ayyash. Hamas operates small rebel cells that are anonymous to one another; suicide bombings are not always controlled by the top leadership of Hamas. Islamic Jihad has been involved in almost every suicide bombing in the Middle East. Hezbollah (Party of God) has operations in Middle East, Europe, Latin America and the U.S. Its primary goal is to create a revolutionary Shi’a Islamic state similar to Iran in Lebanon and eradicate non-Islamic influences and interests. Its strength is in the thousands with about 500 members active in Islamic Jihad. It was formed in 1983; it is a diverse organization organized into political, business, military and social welfare groups. The group is partly self-funded, receives financial support from Iran. Experience has shown that the group is capable of devastating acts of international terrorism; military faction is Islamic Resistance — a small, highly effective guerrilla organization trained and directed by Iranian revolutionary guards; attacks in small, highly mobile units and shrouds its operatives in secrecy, even from Hezbollah leaders; Islamic Resistance uses suicide bombers effectively; overseas cells remain mysterious; an international network of cells exists and Iranian embassies are often involved.

The third group is the Groupe Islamique Arme (GIA) (Armed Islamic Group). Reports have it that it has operations in Algeria and France. Its aim is to create a radical Islamic GIA-led government in Algeria. As of 1999, membership was believed to be slightly fewer than 2000 guerrillas. It is one of the most deadly organizations in the world. It is organized as a radical Sunni Muslim group in 1992 and later split into several rival factions. The primary faction retains the name and puts much effort into fighting the Army of Islamic Salvation (AIS), a relatively moderate group associated with the government. Its practice of attacking civilians caused GIA to part ways with other terrorist groups for ideological reasons and some members broke away in 1998 to form the Appeal and Struggle Group that opposes the civilian killings but continues attacks against military and law enforcement. Other breakaway groups include the Salafi Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), the Islamic League for Call and Djihad (LIDD) and the Islamic Front for Armed Djihad, referred to as the “Green Khmer,” a reference to Cambodia’s ruthless Khmer Rouge regime, due to use of similar terrorist methods. It is infamous for targeting politicians, military and police, journalists, feminists, scholars, French speakers and anyone who may remotely be considered un-Islamic; with intent to terrify rural communities, the eradicator faction has carried out massacres of entire villages since 1996.

Islamic fundamentalists justify sacred violence through various interpretations of the religious doctrine of jihad. The term jihad, which does not literally translate to holy war, is very controversial and Islamic scholars have continually been divided on how it should be interpreted. Similar to other concepts in the Quran, the interpretation of jihad is dependent upon the religious and political views of individual Islamic sects. Even contemporary definitions are contradictory. According to the Islamic Glossary of the Muslim Students Association at the University of Southern California, jihad, sometimes spelled jihaad, is an Arabic word the root of which is jahada, which means to strive for a better way of life. The nouns are juhdmujahid, jihad and ijtihad. Other meanings are endeavorstrainexertion,effortdiligence and fighting to defend one’s life, land and religion. Jihad should not be confused with holy war; Islam does not allow its followers to be involved in a holy war. References to holy war are to the holy war of the crusaders. The Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion states, that the Islamic idea of Jihad, which is derived from the Arabic root meaning to strive or to make an effort, connotes a wide range of meanings, from an inward spiritual struggle to attain perfect faith to an outward material struggle to promote justice and the Islamic social system. Hughes’ Dictionary of Islam presents a different definition; it affirms that jihad is an effort, or a striving, a religious war with those who are unbelievers in the mission of Muhammad. It is an incumbent religious duty, established in the Qur’an and in the traditions as a divine institution, and enjoined specially for the purpose of advancing Islam and of repelling evil from Muslims”

For some, jihad means to struggle to maintain one’s faith. For others, it represents the duty of Muslims to preserve Islam by ridding the world of Western influences. The concept of jihad for militant Islamic fundamentalists, including Osama bin Laden, is clearly holy war to rid the Muslim Holy Land of infidels. It is also a justification for waging war against all enemies in their struggle to achieve an Islamic state. In fact, some consider jihad the sixth pillar of Islam —the missing or forgotten obligation. The origin of bin Laden’s concept of jihad dates back to early 20th century Pakistan and Egypt. Two leading figures, Hassan al-Bann and Syed Abul Maududi, sought to restore the Islamic ideal of the unity of religion and state which they believed could only be achieved by restoring Islam to a traditional society governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Al-Bann and Maududi emphasized the concept of jihad as holy war in order to end foreign occupation of Muslim lands. Maududi viewed true Islam as a modern revolutionary party: Islam is a revolutionary ideology which seeks to alter the social order of the entire world and rebuild it in conformity with its own tenets and ideals…. Jihad refers to that revolutionary struggle and utmost exertion which the Islamic Nation/Party brings into play in order to achieve this objective.

In the 1950s, Sayed Qutb, a prominent member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, took the arguments of Al-Bann and Maududi much further and proclaimed that all non-Muslims, even the so-called people of the Book (Christians and Jews) were infidels. Qutb predicted a future conflict between Islam and the West: Islamists emphasize the battle against jahiliyya. Traditionally understood as the pagan state of ignorance in pre-Islamic Arabia, but reinterpreted by Qutb to mean any contemporary system not based on the original holy sources of Quran and Hadith and not operating under Shari’a. Qutb also reinterpreted jihad to mean permanent conflict between the Islamic system and all contemporary jahili paradigms. The concepts of the two systems are totally incompatible, so there is no possibility of compromise or coexistence between them (Zeidan, 2001). After Egyptian President Abdel Nasser executed Qutb, Qutb’s writings gained even wider acceptance in the Arab world, especially after the defeat of the Arabs in the 1967 war with Israel. Qutb’s writings shaped the militant view of Islam and contributed to the fundamentalist designation of the U.S. as the Great Satan. Qutb divides the world into two camps: God’s party versus Satan’s. Man faces a moral choice he cannot evade, and he must voluntarily submit to God’s moral laws in Shari’a. There is only one God and one truth. All else is error. There is only one law, Shari’a. All other law is mere human caprice. The writings of Qutb and Maududi influenced many younger Arabs including Palestine scholar Abdullah Azzam who fought with the PLO in the 1970s. While studying Islamic law in Cairo, Azzam met the family of Sayed Qutb and eventually taught at the university in Saudi Arabia where one of his students was Osama bin Laden. The battle to liberate Afghanistan from Soviet occupation in 1979 provided Azzam with an opportunity to put his revolutionary ideals into practice. He was dubbed the “Emir of Jihad” because he was one of the first Arabs to join the Afghan fight along with Osama bin Laden. They worked together to recruit Arabs to fight in the holy war and Azzam published books and magazines advocating the moral duty of every Muslim to undertake jihad.

Azzam’s assassination in a car bomb in 1989 contributed to a more radical fundamentalism led by Ayman al-Zawahri, an Egyptian, whose cause was again furthered by the 1991 Gulf War that brought U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden and his Muslim soldiers were extremely disturbed to see the land they regarded as sacred occupied by infidel soldiers. It was Zawahri’s influence over bin Laden and the al-Qaeda organization that paved the way for the famous February 23, 1998 Declaration of War against the United States and the beginning of the terrorist attacks on American targets. The declaration of war titled “Jihad against Jews and Crusaders” has now become evidence that links the bin Laden network to the September 11th attacks. Bin Laden justifies his declaration of war against the U.S. and his terrorist actions as a defensive struggle against enemies who attack and occupy Muslim lands.


The suicide attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon are a form of jihad as are all the other acts of terrorism attributed to Islamic fundamentalists. Since suicide is religiously prohibited by Islam, suicide attacks must be viewed as a form of sacred violence. Suicide in the cause of holy war is not only legitimate, but represents one of the highest forms of self-sacrifice. Killing oneself for the glory of Islam is considered by extremist fundamentalists to be a supreme form of jihad and a type of terrorism that is allowed by the Shari’a. It is not suicide (intihar), but martyrdom (istishhad), one that will procure a special place in Paradise. Active martyrdom is another area of reinterpretation and implementation. Martyrdom is being actively encouraged and glorified by fundamentalists, and its rewards in the afterlife stressed to induce many to court it. Extreme fundamentalists have revived the Khariji and assassin traditions of suicide-killings as a legitimate weapon in their contemporary jihad although most radicals agree that suicide is a major sin forbidden in Islam. However, they use Qura’nic verses, Hadith and cases from the early history of Islam to prove either that the voluntary sacrifice of oneself in the cause of Islam (including blowing oneself up as a living bomb) with the objective of defending Muslims and hurting their enemies, is not considered suicide but is a legitimate fight to the death. Modern terrorists fundamentally understand the nature of sacred violence and how to manipulate the political situation so that ordinarily peaceful people will engage in violence as a necessary religious obligation. Trapped in a cycle of righteous revenge, there is no remorse because religious terrorism is always justified by true believers.


We conclude by reiterating the fact that what basically distinguished Sunni from Shi’ite Muslims was the Shi’ite doctrine of the imamate. According to the Sunnis, the caliph, the elected successor of the Prophet, possessed political and military leadership but not Muhammad’s religious authority. In contrast, the Shi’ites claims that the imam (leader) is directly descended from the Prophet and is the sinless, divinely inspired political leader and religious guide of the umma. Put differently, both the Sunnis and the Shi’ites are in agreement that authority within Islam lies first in the Qur’an and then in the Sunna. The divergence comes when the question arises about who interprets these sources. Shi’ite Muslims claim that the imam does because he is invested with divine grace and insight. Sunnis, on the other hand, insists that interpretation comes from the consensus of the ulama.

The emergence of many ulama (or Ayatollahs and Sheikhs) over the centuries of Islamic religion, each with his claim to piety, teachings and illuminations have led to the emergence of many sects, with each sect claiming to be more pious than the others and adhering to the precepts, teachings and examples as laid down in the Qur’an and set by Muhammad. As a matter of fact of all the sects discussed, none claimed to deviate from the teaching and precepts as laid down by Muhammad in the Qur’an. Each sect claims to be more pious and religious than the others while calling the others infidels and apostasies who have deviated from the traditional teaching and have become corrupt. The schism in the umma has pit one sect against the other, each seeing the destruction of the other as its divine goal thereby making a compromise a non-issue or possibility. In an earlier paper we have alluded to why this is so by comparing politically motivated terrorism and insurgent with religious one.

The root of this schism or fault line in Islam is greatly due to the many interpretations which the Qur’an and the hadith have been subject to by different ulamas and imams. This paper has tried to show that this is not a recent incident; it predates even the coming of western civilisation. What we are experiencing now is the manifestation of these various teachings and interpretations which have led to even Muslims being pit against each other as a result of doctrinaire teachings. What was once a religious matter has now assumed political secular connotations. Most nations in MENA have experienced more religious motivated but with political connotations violence. Iraq has spiralled into violence and instability following ISIS (now Islamic State; IS) serious threat to the Iraqi nation since the US and coalition forces had removed Saddam Hussein in 2003. ISIS is made up of individuals who have successfully merged religion, politics and military expertise to form a potent force that has swept the country. ISIS has attracted and inspired extremists of all stripes to join its operations in Syria and Iraq through social media and mass propaganda campaign that hinges on its jihadist goals.

As in Syria, it is often the case that many individuals in extremist movements use them as a vehicle for their own interests, adopting the garb and mannerism of a committed Islamic radical as a pathway to greater political goals. Whilst the instability in Iraq has connections to the Syrian conflict next door to it, many individuals who fought for ISIS in Syria are now present in Iraq. The Iraqi insurgent is more acutely focused on solving the problems of Iraq’s fractured polity than it is the goals of more radical Islamic groups. To dismiss the violence in Iraq as the product of the maniacal whims of a few radical fanatics is to ignore the very real social inequality that exists in Iraq. The groupings of fighters that has swept through Iraq to within 60km. of the capital (as the time of writing) is not entirely a nihilistic jihadist group bent on establishing an Islamic caliphate but more of a general uprising by large groups of disaffected people. This is a product of years of social exclusion, poor government and corruption by Iraqi government. The ISIS army are well trained and organised with key former Baathist military officers coordinating the military activities and operations. This portends a strange alliance – the goals of secular pro-Saddam Baathist and radical Islamists would appear antithetical – and this may eventually be the movements undoing.



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