by Aram Mirzaei
A plague upon the world, a terrorist group who hates humanity. Many are the words describing the Daesh phenomenon which has been unleashed upon humanity. The terrorist group who allegedly originated out of Iraq as a result of the US- led invasion in 2003 has now become a worldwide known phenomenon which few people have never heard of. Their atrocities are reported daily, and mainstream media have several times reported about this death cult’s genocidal campaigns in the Middle East, ranging from ethnic cleansing to attempts to wipe out the region’s culture and history. The highlighted targets have been Christians and the Yezidis of Iraq.
What the mainstream media however rarely mentions is their campaign against their true enemy, the Shia community of Iraq and Syria. This three-part article series will analyse and explain the motivational drive behind this terrorist group and its funders, and why they attack other Muslims who they deem to be “infidels”.
The practice of excommunication where one Muslim declares another one to be a “Kafir” or infidel, is called Takfir, a practice which is almost as old as Islam itself. One who practices this excommunication is called a Takfiri.
The first part of this article series will focus on the history of the concept and where it once originated from. The second part will focus on the imperial European powers and their relationship with Takfiris in the 18th century. The last part will focus on the modern Takfirism and its aims in the region amid the Syrian and Iraqi wars.
The historical background and the concept of Takfir
The Daesh terrorists are known by the Shia community mainly as Takfiris because they deem the entire Shia community and all other branches of Islam to be infidels who deserve death. There is a very wide range of ideas surrounding what could justify declaring someone to be an infidel (Kafir). Some Muslims consider this to be a prerogative of divine revelation, while others consider it to be the prerogative of the state (Caliphate) which represents the Muslim community as a whole. There is no consensus among the Muslim community as to what actually constitutes sufficient justification for declaring Takfir, as such, there are disputes among different scholars surrounding this topic.
In order to truly understand what the concept of Takfir means, and how it has formed the Islamic community, we need to go back in time to the early days of Islam, and study the predecessors of the Daesh terror group, a group known as the Khawarij.
The Khawarij (the outsiders) were notorious Takfiris who appeared in the first century of Islam during what is today known as the First Fitna, the first Islamic civil war caused by disunity regarding the leadership after the death of Prophet Muhammad. The First Fitna, 656–661, followed the assassination of Uthman (Osman), the third Caliph of Islam, continued during the caliphate of Ali, and was ended by Muawiyah’s assumption of the caliphate. This civil war is often referred to as the end of the Islamic unity, also known as the Ummah.
Divisions began to grow as disagreement began to rise considering the capital of the newly established Islamic Caliphate. This was a result of a deep rooted rivalry between Syria, formerly under the rule of the Byzantine Empire and Iraq, part of the Persian Sassanid Empire. Ali was convinced to move his capital to Kufa, in Iraq.
Later Muawiyah I, the governor of Levant and the cousin of Uthman, refused Ali’s demands for allegiance. Ali opened negotiations hoping to regain his allegiance, but Muawiyah insisted on
Levant autonomy under his rule. Muawiyah began mobilising his Levantine supporters and refusing to pay homage to Ali on the pretext that his contingent had not participated in Ali’s election.
Ali then moved his armies north and the two armies encamped themselves at Siffin for more than one hundred days, most of the time being spent in negotiations. Although Ali exchanged several letters with Muawiyah, he was unable to dismiss the latter, nor persuade him to pledge allegiance.
When Muawiyah’s forces met with Ali’s forces in the battle of Siffin in 657 A.D, Muawiyah’s forces were on the brink of defeat. Muawiyah wanted to put the dispute aside and called for the two sides to arbitration according to the Quran.
The two armies finally agreed to settle the matter of who should be Caliph by arbitration. The refusal of the largest bloc (the Kufans) in Ali’s army to fight anymore was the decisive factor in his acceptance of the arbitration. Ali’s army suffered from mutiny led by the Kufans. The question as to whether the arbiter would represent Ali or the Kufans (Qurra) caused a further split in Ali’s army. Ali presented his representative for arbitration, the mutineers on their part, presented Abu Musa Ashaari, against Ali’s wishes while Muawiyah presented his representative Amr ibn Al-As. Seven months later the two arbitrators met at Adhruh about 10 miles north west of Maan in Jordan in February 658. Amr ibn Al-As convinced Abu Musa Ashaari that both Ali and Muawiyah should step down and a new caliph be elected. Ali and his supporters were stunned by the decision which had lowered the caliph to the status of the rebellious Muawiyah. Ali had been betrayed. Rallying under the slogan “arbitration belongs to God alone”, the Qurra had turned on both Ali and Muawiyah.
Ali refused to accept the verdict of him stepping down and for an election to be held and found himself technically in breach of his pledge to abide by the arbitration. This put Ali in a weak position even amongst his own supporters. The most vociferous opponents of Ali in his camp were the very same people who had forced Ali to appoint their arbitrator. Feeling that Ali could no longer look after their interests. Also fearing that if there was peace, they could be arrested for the murder of Uthman they broke away from Ali’s force.
So the Qurra then became known as the Khawarij (the outsiders, referring to those who left Ali’s side). It is important to note that the Khawarij were not simply dissatisfied with a particular man or family or economics, rather their dissatisfaction was with the whole social structure which was represented by both Uthman and Ali. Before, they had freedom in the affairs of the tribe. Now they were in the “super-tribe” of Islam and could not behave as they had behaved previously. They wanted to go back to their old tribal structure where they could glory and boast about their tribe. Thus, it can be argued that the Khawarij were more motivated by their own selfish reasons to rebel, rather than of ideological reasons.
The fact that he was Muhammad’s nephew only confirmed them in their militancy of their perceived egalitarianism; that the true aristocracy was one of piety and not blood. This view fundamentally goes against the Shia view of the leadership being bound to the bloodline of the Prophet.
In time, the Khawarij began to develop twisted views. Early reports would speak of Khawarijs going out with their swords into markets and randomly stab people while shouting” no judgement except God’s”. In 659 Ali’s forces finally moved against the Khawarij and they finally met in the Battle of Nahrawan. Although Ali won the battle, the constant conflict had begun to affect his standing.
Ali won a pyrrhic victory but could not crush this group. Two years later, on the 19th of Ramadan 661 Ali was assassinated by the Khawarij while praying in the Great Mosque of Kufa. Legend has it that Khawarij Abd-Al-Rahmad ibn Muljam attacked him with a poison coated sword that struck Ali’s head. When Ali was killed, Muawiyah I was the one who had the largest army in the Muslim Empire, thus he could easily ascend to the throne and so began the rise of the Ummayad Caliphate.
The Ummayad caliphate, although strong, could never assume the same authority over its vast territory as the first Caliphate could. In Iran, the caliphate was several times challenged, which lead to forced mass-conversion of Zoroastrians in Iran. As the empire grew, the number of qualified Arab workers was too small to keep up with the rapid expansion of the empire. Therefore, Muawiya allowed many of the local government workers in conquered provinces to keep their jobs under the new Umayyad government. Thus, much of the local government’s work was recorded in Greek, Coptic and Persian. This rapid expansion has also been argued to be one of the main reason for the decline of the Ummayad Caliphate.
Plagued by continued Khawarij uprisings both in Iran and Iraq, the Khawarij outlived the declining Ummayad Caliphate as continued uprisings during the Abbasid Caliphate were still a problem.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to the authority of the caliphate occurred between 866 and 896 when the Khawarij rebelled in the districts of Mosul in the Al-Jazira province (Mesopotamia). This rebellion lasted for thirty years despite several attempts to quell it. It was not until the Caliph Al-Mutadid launched major campaigns to restore the Caliphate’s authority that the rebellion finally was defeated.
In the next part of this article series, we will examine the second wave of Takfirism, originating in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula during the 18th century.