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Radical ‘Salafi’ Ideology Of Zarqawi That Created ‘ISIS’: Muslims Must Reclaim Real, Spiritual Islam And Eliminate Radicalism



By Ghulam Ghaus Siddiqi, New Age Islam

7 December 2015

On 8th June 2006, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed by a joint U.S. allied force in a targeted killing in northern Iraq. But the distorted Salafist ideology of Islam that Zarqawi had left behind later created what is now known as ‘ISIS’.

It is Zarqawi to whom the militants of ‘ISIS’ gratefully credit all their milestones and bridges in the road to the establishment of the self-declared ‘caliphate’. Following in the footsteps of Zarqawi, they took pride in the establishment of the so-called ‘Khilafa’. In the first issue of their glossy propaganda magazine “Dabiq”, ‘ISIS’ even called Zarqawi their ‘Mujaddid’ (reviver). The article titled “From Hijrah to Khilafah” explains this fact, “One of these many important bridges was that of the mujaddid (renewer of Islam) Abu Mus’ab az-Zarqawi (rahimahullah). Learning from the lessons he gained from Afghanistan and elsewhere, he knew that Khilafah could not be established except through a jama’ah”. (Dabiq, 1st issue, page 18).

The self-proclaimed ‘Khilafa’ having been largely rejected by Muslims the world over, the militants of ‘ISIS’, in revenge, turned to greater violence. Like Zarqawi, they madly shouted out a warning that those Sunni Muslims who would support the crusaders and the democratic political process are all ‘apostates’ and will be thereby killed.

Dabiq narrates the story of Zarqawi as an inspiration for ‘ISIS’ militants, “He (Zarqawi) threatened war on any Sunni tribe, party, or assembly that would support the crusaders. Then when some so-called “Islamists” entered into the democratic political process – ignoring that it entails clear cut major shirk – he officially declared war on them in his speech titled “Wa li Tastabina Sabilul-Mujrimin” (And Thus the Way of the Criminals Becomes Evident). Thus, by using methods that led to maximum chaos and targeting apostates of all different backgrounds, the mujahidin were able to keep Iraq in constant instability and war, never allowing any apostate group to enjoy a moment of security.” (Dabiq, 1st issue, page 18)

In the article "The Fight against the PKK" published in the second issue of Dabiq, "ISIS" calls Erdogan apostate and discusses his "slaughter of Kurds." It says, “Thirty years ago, the PKK began an armed conflict against Turkey in an effort to advance their goals. The conflict continued on and off with occasional ceasefires until 2013, when the PKK announced the end of hostilities after lengthy negotiations between the apostates Erdogan and Ocalan. (Dabiq, 2nd issue, page 12)

Since the time of Ibn Abdul Wahhab, It has been now very common that according to ‘Salafism’/Wahabism, ‘Ahlehadeesim’ or “Ghair-Muqallidism”, all Muslims—who believe in the doctrines of Tawassul, shrine-visiting, fatiha-reciting, faith in unseen knowledge of the prophet, wahdatul-wujud, intercession and mysticism, Taqlid of four great imams of fiqah or Islamic laws such as Hanafi, Hanbli, Malakii and Shaafeyii, celebration of Milad al-Nabi and that the holy prophet Muhammad peace be upon him is Nur— are “bida’tis”, “Mushrikin”, “apostates” and “misguided”. With reference to Abdul Wahhab, the ‘ISIS’ describes Muqalledin aka Sufi-Muslims as “the deviant parties”, “corrupt scholars” and “followers of Kuffar” and writes:

“The modern claimants of Islam argue that it is better for the Ummah to have religious and political pluralism! They prefer that Ahlus-Sunnah tolerate the various sects of bid’ah and even apostasy who claim to belong to the Muslim Ummah. They also wish that Ahlus-Sunnah would permit the existence of deviant, warring, and selfish political parties and militant factions on the liberated Muslim lands! They made taqlīd (blind following) of their partisan, evil “scholars” an essential aspect of “religion.” And through this, they propagated the “virtue” of division and denounced the “evil” of jamā’ah in their campaign against the revived body of Islam, the Khilāfah. How wicked are the deviant parties and corrupt “scholars”! Therefore know – may Allah have mercy upon you – that the major basis for the religions of the Jāhiliyyah was taqlīd. After Imām Muhammad Ibn ‘Abdil-Wahhāb mentioned the first three aspects of their religion (shirk, religious division, and political disunity), he said, “The fourth matter is that their religion is based upon principles, the greatest of which is taqlīd. It is the major principle for all the kuffār, the first of them and last of them”. (Dabiq, 11th issue, page 11, “The Evil of Division and Taqlid”)

Based upon such ideology of Ibn Abdul Wahhab, it can be now understood that whenever and wherever the ‘ISIS’ mentions the word “apostates”, it means non-Salafi, non-Wahhabi Muslims including Sufi-Sunnis and Shias. Since the killing of “apostates” and infidels was the target of Zarqawi as quoted above, the “ISIS” militants are therefore killing Sufi-Sunnis and Shias, following in the footsteps of their “reviver” (Mujaddid). 

This is nothing but a criminal attack on our faith, the religion of Islam. The attack is on the dignity of Islam and the identity of our being a Muslim. The most effective weapon of ‘ISIS’ to attack our ‘Din’ is the strategy and ideology of Zarqawi. Who was this Zarqawi? What was it that inspired him to take this path? Did he create this theology of violence or was he simply a follower of Ibn Taimiyya and Muhammad bin Abul Wahhab and their likes revered by ‘Salafists’?

In order to save our faith as well as innocent lives from further attacks by ‘ISIS’, It is imperative we know as much as possible about Zarqawi and his ideology. It is essential to crush the basis of his ideology, for not letting anyone become another al-Baghdadi, another bin Laden and another Zarqawi. For not letting anyone get victimized or recruited by ‘ISIS’, we will have to stop the people from being associated with ‘Salafists’ also known as Wahhabis. Since the religion of Zarqawi was Wahhabism aka ‘Salafism’ that since its inception has destroyed more than millions of lives including Muslims and non-Muslims, we will need to stop this religion and restore Islam to its original place of dignity.

One major obstacle is that many Muslims deny terrorism's links with ‘Salafism.’ They claim all that is happening is a result of American or Western conspiracy. Such people are hell-bent on creating enmity between America or the West and Muslims. They state that the US launched Osama bin Laden and Zarqawi. True or untrue, this will not resolve the issue. Both bin Laden and Zarqawi are no longer alive, but their Salafist strategies are still alive and serving their purpose.

Most scholars around the world say the effective weapons through which ‘ISIS’ recruits naive Muslims are the violent Salafist narratives. They call all Muslims to unite and reclaim real Islam from ‘Salafism’.

However, some ‘Salafist’ Muslims, who might not orally support violence of ‘ISIS’, say ‘ISIS’ has no link with ‘Salafism’. It is, therefore, necessary for them to explore the life of Zarqawi who actually founded ‘ISIS’ and his theology inspired by ‘Salafism’. In order to help such Salafi-Wahhabis come out of their illusions, I am giving below a brief account of Zarqawi.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (Ahmad Fadhil Nazzal al-Khalaylah) is said to have been born in Zarqa – the third largest city of Jordan in October 1966 and died on 8th June 2006.  He grew up in poverty. After his father’s death (1984), he dropped out of school and became best known for taking to strong drinking, tattoos and fighting. Jailed allegedly for sexual assault and drug possession, he accepted the already distorted and militant Salafist version of Islam. The brutality and barbarity which was to be Zarqawi’s symbolism appeared within this period itself. Mrs. Mary Anne Weaver, having went to Jordan to find out as much as possible about al-Zarqawi, writes, “Everyone I spoke with (in Jordan) readily acknowledged that as a teenager al-Zarqawi had been a bully and a thug, a bootlegger and a heavy drinker, and even, allegedly, a pimp in Zarqa’s underworld. He was disruptive, constantly involved in brawls. When he was fifteen (according to his police record, about which I had been briefed in Amman), he participated in a robbery of a relative’s home, during which the relative was killed. Two years later, a year shy of graduation, he had dropped out of school. Then, in 1989, at the age of twenty-three, he travelled to Afghanistan.”  (“The Short, Violent Life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi” by Mary Anne Weaver, The Atlantic Magazine, the link of which given below)

Having interviewed Zarqawi’s brother-in-law Salah al-Hami in Zarqa, Mrs. Weaver writes: “At the beginning, al-Hami continued, al-Zarqawi had not been a fighter but had tried his hand at being a journalist. He had worked as a reporter for a small jihadist magazine, Al-Bonian al Marsous, while al-Hami was a correspondent for Al-Jihad magazine”.

In 1989, Zarqawi contributed to the Afghanistan war (1978-1992). According to a source, his involvement was more in journalism than in direct combat. He is reported to have fought the Russian troops at Khost under commander Abu al-Harith al-Salti aka Farouq.

Zarqawi is believed to have been mentored and taught by the Jordanian great radical ‘Salafi’ scholar, Isam al-Barqawi aka Abu Muhammad al-Maqdissy, whom he met in Peshawar, Pakistan. Among the most important radical ‘Salafi’ scholars of Jordan, Maqdisi was second only to Abdullah Azzam. In 1989, both Zarqawi and Maqdisi returned to Jordan and set up an outfit, Bayt al-Imam (House of the Leader) to help returnees from Afghanistan. Sources say Zarqawi’s outfit paralleled Makhtab al-Khidmat (Services Office) formed by bin Laden and his mentor Azzam in Afghanistan. It is likely that this was the start of their cooperation.

Publicly speaking against the Jordan regime, Zarqawi became increasingly radical ‘Salafi’. He and his mentor Maqdisi were jailed in March 1994 on charges of plotting to overthrow the Jordanian government.  Instead of defending themselves against the charges, they charged the presiding Judge and King Hussein of Jordan. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

In Suwaqa prison, Maqdisi, assisted by Zarqawi, presided over a group of Salafist prisoners. Being lieutenant of Maqdisi, Zarqawi had enough time to memorise the Qura’n and learn radical Salafist theory. Maqdisi taught the group his radical ideology and that the king and the Jordanian army and other security services were infidels and this was justification for them to use force against the regime. Maqdisi was perhaps the first who held the adoption of democracy as apostasy. At that time Zarqawi had no ideas of his own but acted according to what Maqdisi had taught him.  In 1999, the new king of Jordan Abdullah 2 granted a general amnesty whereby Zarqawi was released.

It was the radical Salafist and Wahhabist teaching he received from  Maqdisi that provoked Zarqawi for terror activities. Mrs Weaver writes: “Over the years, al-Maqdisi embraced the most extreme school of Salafism, closely akin to the puritanical Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia, and in the early 1980s he published The Creed of Abraham, the single most important source of teachings for Salafist movements around the world. Al-Maqdisi would become al-Zarqawi’s ideological mentor and most profound influence.”

She further writes: “It’s not surprising that Zarqawi embraced Salafism,” I was told by Jarret Brachman, the research director of the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point. “Jihadi Salafism is black and white—and so is everything that Zarqawi’s ever done. When he met al-Maqdisi, he was drifting, trying to find an outlet, and very impressionable. His religious grounding, until then, was largely dependent upon whose influence he was under at the time. And since his father had died when he was young, he’d been seeking a father figure. Al-Maqdisi served both needs.” And “Zarqawi was the muscle, and al-Maqdisi the thinker,” Abdullah Abu Rumman, a journalist and editor who had been in prison with al-Zarqawi, told me one morning over tea”.

Mrs Weaver writes: “If you want to understand who Zarqawi is,” a former Jordanian intelligence official had told me earlier, “you’ve got to understand the four major turning points in his life: his first trip to Afghanistan; then the prison years [from 1993 to 1999]; then his return to Afghanistan, when he really came into his own; and then Iraq.” He thought for a moment. “And, of course, the creativity of the Americans.”

According to some sources, Zarqawi is said to fled U.S. bombing in Afghanistan between 9/11 2001 and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and entered Iraq via Iran. He met Saif al-Adel Ibrahim Makawi, who asked Zarqawi to cooperate the entry of al-Qaeda militants into Iraq through Syria.

Evidence or probably a rumour of strong links of Zarqawi both ways – to the former Iraqi president Saddam Hussain on the one side and to bin Laden on the other- failed to substantiate the truth. Mrs Weaver writes, “We know Zarqawi better than he knows himself,” the high-level Jordanian intelligence official said. “And I can assure you that he never had any links to Saddam. Iran is quite a different matter. The Iranians have a policy: they want to control Iraq. And part of this policy has been to support Zarqawi, tactically but not strategically”.

After all, in other reports, though often described as “Osama bin laden’s associate”, Zarqawi had no official links to Al-Qaeda and worked quite independently. However, some sources say Bin Laden, in 2000 A.D., met Zarqawi, trying to persuade him to join Al-Qaeda but Zarqawi refused having even more radical views on waging the so-called global “Jihad”.

A 17-page letter purportedly from Zarqawi to Osama bin Laden in January 2004 (also published on the website of The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the link given below) describes ideological links of Salafism between both of them. In the letter, Zarqawi introduced himself and his so-called “Mujahedin” as “the Salafi Sunnis”. Apparently ensuring Osama bin Laden his having “Salafi” ideological ground, Zarqawi writes, “In general, they (Mujahedin) belong to the Sunni doctrine and naturally to the Salafi creed. The Salafis splintered only as the bend curved, and the people of the [distant] regions fell behind the caravan”. In the letter, Zarqawi pledged allegiance to bin Laden. It is reported that bin Laden, two months later, named Zarqawi “the prince of al-Qaeda in Iraq”.

In the letter, Zarqawi writes about Shias, “[They are] the insurmountable obstacle, the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy, and the penetrating venom. We here are entering a battle on two levels. One, evident and open, is with an attacking enemy and patent infidelity. [Another is] a difficult, fierce battle with a crafty enemy who wears the garb of a friend, manifests agreement, and calls for comradeship, but harbours ill will and twists up peaks and crests”.

Then Zarqawi gives justification of killing Shias, quoting Ibn Taymiyya, a greatly revered scholar among “Salafis”:

“Ibn Taymiyya said, "With this, it becomes clear that they are more evil than the sectarians and more deserving of being fought than the Kharijis. This is the reason for the general opinion that circulates that the Shi`a are people of heresy. The populace spreads around that Shi`i is the opposite of Sunni because they show resistance to the Sunna of the Prophet of God, may God bless him and grant him salvation, and to the Laws of Islam." - From Sa'ir Ahl al-Ahwa', part 28, page 482” (read the letter, the link given below)

This is why Zarqawi demanded civil war between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shias. Initially, Iraqis considered Zarqawi a foreign interloper and refused his demand. But later, he succeeded in recruiting Salafi-Sunnis, downhearted after the defeat of Saddam Hussain. Not did this obnoxious ideological base—propounded by Zarqawi—destruct the life of “Salafi-Sunnis” and Shias, but even the Sufi-Sunnis, who ideologically differ from both the groups, had to bear the brunt of deadly attacks.

In the same letter, Zarqawi writes about Sufi Ulema under the subtitle of “Shaykhs and `Ulama”,

“These are mostly Sufis doomed to perdition. Their part of religion is an anniversary in which they sing and dance to the chanting of a camel driver, with a fatty banquet at the end. In truth, these are narcotic opiate[s] and deceitful guides for an [Islamic] nation that is feeling its way on a pitch-black night. As for the spirit of jihad and the jurisprudence of martyrdom and disavowal of the infidel, they are innocent of all of that, just as the wolf was innocent of the blood of Joseph, may peace be upon him. With all the horrors and bad circumstances, not one of them ever speaks about jihad or calls for sacrifice or self-sacrifice. For these, three is too much, not to say four. They are not suited to this”. (The link of the letter given below)

The sources tell us that Zarqawi memorised the Qur’an, but he never learnt to write a fatwa. This was why he became even more violent than his ‘Salafist’ mentors. It is reported that his radical attitude surprised even his radical ‘Salafi’ mentor al-Maqdisi.

Over 2003-2006, Zarqawi and his militant groups perpetrated dozens of deadly attacks in and around Iraq, killing thousands of Muslims. The ‘Dabiq’ magazine of ‘ISIS’, as quoted above, itself confesses this criminal attitude of Zarqawi. He targeted Shia Islamic mosques, Sufi Sunni-shrines, as well as civilians, visitors, Iraqi government institutions, ambassadors, possibly also Christian-churches and embassies etc. He hated most of them as ‘apostates’ or ‘infidels’.

The series of attacks by Zarqawi comes to a halt when he was killed in a targeted killing by a joint U.S. force on June 7, 2006 in an isolated safe-house in Hibhib in northern Iraq.

Some Suggestions for Muslims To Defeat ‘ISIS’

Though Zarqawi died, his radical narratives remain alive. His goal of establishing a ‘Khilafa’ got fulfilled by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his allies. He died but his ‘Salafist’ teachings remained alive to attack us and our Islam. Turbulent as our global condition is, what are the ways to save us and the dignity of our Islam? How can we defeat ‘ISIS’? The only means through which we can defeat ‘ISIS’ is present in the teachings of Islam. First we need to be truly Islamic or practical Muslims. Our heart and mind should be filled with consciousness of Allah Almighty and his holy prophet Muhammad (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him). We need to be intoxicated by Love for Allah Almighty and his prophet (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him) to defeat radical ‘Salafism’ and violent narratives of ‘ISIS’.

To defeat ‘ISIS’, it is highly required for Muslims to act according to the Qur’an and Sunnah. Take, for example, according to Quran, “Allah is the most merciful and the most compassionate” and the holy prophet (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him) has been sent “as a mercy to the entire world”. According to a sacred Hadith, Allah Almighty says, “My Mercy Prevails over My Wrath” (narrated by Bukhari, Muslim, Nasa’i and Ibn Majah). The prophet Muhammad (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him) said, “Beware of extremism in your religion for it is that which destroyed the nations which came before you” (narrated by Sunan-e-Nasai and Sunan-e- Ibn Majah). The prophet (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him) also said, “The religious extremists are destroyed” (narrated by Muslim and Abu Dawud). Another Hadith containing a very important maxim of fiqh (a principle used to derive Islamic rulings) says, “There should be neither harming nor reciprocating harm in Islam”.

To ideologically defeat ‘ISIS’, we also need to be aware of the roots of ‘ISIS’. One of the reasons that the radical “Salafist” militants have gone astray is due to their ignorance about the Fiqhi maxims derived from the detailed reading of the rules of Fiqh on various themes and developed by great jurists. Fiqhi maxims primarily used by Sufi-Sunni Muftis while writing fatwas will help us defeat ‘ISIS’. Fatwas (religious decrees) against terrorism are but a handful. Therefore the Muftis should increase the number of fatwas supported by the Qur’an and Hadith. While facing any possible sort of difficulty like ‘contradiction’ in Islamic sources, they should base their fatwas preferably on fiqhi maxims such as “To remove harmful things is more important than gaining benefit”, “Necessities cause the prohibited things to be permissible”, “If one has to choose between two evils, one should choose the lesser one”, “Harm must be removed” and “Difficulties demand facilitation”. Therefore, it is highly required for Muslims and especially ulema and Muftis to preferably focus on such fiqhi maxims to refute and defeat every new fitna in forms of ‘ISIS’, al-Qaeda and Taliban.   

Besides, hundreds of peaceful teachings based upon the Quran and Sunnah educate Muslims to be peaceful, tolerant, moderate and benevolent. Muslims should, therefore, never let themselves be possessed by violent satanic thoughts. Pious ulema and Imams should go from door to door to preach peaceful narratives of Islam. They should openly refute the radical narratives of ‘ISIS’, especially those used for recruiting suicide bombers. All madrasas must prepare a particular syllabus for countering terrorism and radical ‘Salafism’. Muslims must be taught in mosques, madrasas, conferences, seminars and elsewhere that teachings of the pious Salaf have nothing to do with the modern ‘Salafism’ or Wahhabism that inspired the foundation of ‘ISIS’, al-Qaeda, Taliban and Boko Haram etc.


• Dabiq, ISIS official online Magazine, 1st issue, p. 18-21

• Letter from Zarqawi to Osama bin Laden

• The Short, Violent Life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi” by Mary Anne Weaver, The Atlantic Magazine

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A regular columnist and English-Arabic translator for New Age Islam, Ghulam Ghaus is an Alim and Fazil (Classical Islamic scholar) with a Sufi background. He completed the classical Islamic sciences from a Delhi-based Sufi Islamic seminary Jamia Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia Zakir Nagar, New Delhi with specialization in Tafseer, Hadith and Arabic. He completed his Alimiat and Fazilat respectively from Jamia Warsia Arabic College, Lucknow and Jamia Manzar- e- Islam, Bareilly, U.P. He did his graduation in Arabic (Hons) and post-graduation (Arabic) from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.


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