The Violent Islamic Groups in Iraq: History and Ideology

Alexander R. Dawoody, Ph.D.

<>Post-Saddam Iraq has witnessed a flux in the numbers of Islamic organizations in Iraq. A few of these, mostly Shiites, are supportive of the war and play a role in forming the political structure under occupation. Others, mostly Sunnis, oppose the occupation and are engaged in acts of violence against US troops and their Iraqi collaborators.

Historically, Sunni Islamic political organizations did not emerge in Iraq until 1952. They began with an organization known as the al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun (the Muslim Brotherhood).  <>The Ikhwan ideology was formed in Egypt in 1928 by a Sufi activist known as Hasan al-Banna.  This ideology was influenced by the teachings of 11th Century Muslim Philosopher al-Ghazali. It condemned innovation, opposed the secularization and the corruption of the state and society, and called for the implementation of the Shari’a (Islamic Law).   

An influential thinker in the Egyptian Ikhwan movement during the 1950s was  Sayyid Qutb.  It is based on Qutb’s idea that most violent Sunni Islamic groups base their ideology today, including al-Qaeda and many Sunni Islamic organizations that are leading the insurgency in Iraq.  These ideas, however, are not new.  They have their origin in Khawarijism, meaning insurrection.   <>

This group came into existence in the 7th Century because they believed Muslim leaders at the time were corrupt and they seceded under the banner of “bidding to good and forbidding evil.”  They differed from other groups in that they were rebellious and resorted to the intentional use of violence to achieve their ends.

While Khawarijism as a movement did not last long, their ideology provided the basis for many Sunni Islamic groups who sought violence to achieve their ends.  Khawarijism believes that anyone (Muslim and non-Muslim alike) who accepts arbitration or commits sin without repentance are considered infidels and thus subject to violence.  If such individuals repented, they are forgiven and thus not subject to violence. 

<>There is a difference, however, between Khawarijism and a notion known as Salafiyyah, an Islamic reform tradition that emerged first in Saudi Arabia in the early 18th Century and later in Iraq in 1960.  Western media often labels Salafism as “Wahhabism.” This is incorrect, as there is no such thing as “Wahhabism.”  <> 

The Salafiyyah tradition in Saudi Arabia was revived by Muhammad bin ’Abd al-Wahhab, whose followers are commonly referred to as “Wahhabis.”  This tradition is based on the notion of returning to the original understanding of Islam in an attempt to purify it from relativism.  <> 

A Salafi is someone who follows al-Salaf al-Salih, the followers of the Prophet Mohammad and those who continued his tradition. Salafis reject Shiism, Sufi mysticism, and the lack of consistent adherence to the schools of Islamic jurisprudence.  <>           

The methodology of violent Sunni Islamic groups in Iraq and elsewhere around the world, however, is not that of Salafism but of Khwarijism.  The main difference between the two is based on the notion of designating someone as Kafir, or “unbeliever,” and condemning them to Hell.  According to Salafis, whoever has true faith will not be condemned to Hell and an individual cannot be labeled as a disbeliever until he/she is compelled to make an utterance which can be construed as sin. The Khawarijis, on the other hand, designate anyone as unbeliever if he/she commits a sin, regardless of intent. The use of violence by the Khawarijis against such disbelievers is justified by their misuse of the concept of jihad. <> 

Jihad in Islam is defined as exertion of an individual’s power to spread belief in God and in making His word. There are two methods by which jihad can be performed.  The first is through non-violence, through the heart and the tongue. The other is through warfare and the use of violence. <> 

Violent jihad is regarded as a collective obligation if the Muslim community is under attack.  Then, all able persons capable of conducting warfare should engage in jihad.  <> 

Jihad, however, refers to a religious war, which is different from a secular war that lacks religious purpose.  This distinction is important because today’s violent Sunni Islamic groups justify their use of violence according to their misuse of the Islamic Doctrine of Jihad.  <> 

Sunni Islamic groups who advocate the use of violence and adhere to the methodology of violence emerged in Iraq in the late 1970s, triggered by the occupation of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union. The first armed Islamic group was called the Islamic Kurdistan Army.  Members of this group were former Ikhwan members who participated in jihad against the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan. <> 
The Shiites Islamic groups in Iraq were also created during the 1970s and 1980s based on the methodology of violence. However, the Shiite groups rejected Khawarijism and used violence only against the former Baath regime as retaliation for Saddam’s persecution of the Shiites in Iraq.   <> 

After the 2003 War, and the consequent US occupation of Iraq, many clandestine armed Sunni Islamic organizations were formed. These groups share certain commonalities.  They advocate for the implementation of the Shari’a, the establishment of an Islamic administration, and the unification of all Islamic groups (Sunni and Shiite alike) under one umbrella against the occupation and its Iraqi collaborators.    <> 

With the exception of the requirement of jihad, these Sunni Islamic groups do not differ from the non-violent Sunni and Shiite Islamic groups in Iraq, as the latter too want the establishment of an Islamic regime in Iraq.  It is in the method by which the violent Sunni Islamic groups choose to pursue their objectives which sets them apart from one another.  The violent Sunni Islamic groups are demarcated from the non-violent Sunni and Shiite Islamic groups by their Khawariji methodology. <> 

The violent Sunni Islamic groups in Iraq and elsewhere in the world are not threatening merely because they are religious organizations. They are threatening because of their Khawarijism-based methodology.  It is these groups’ willingness to use violence as a means to achieve their ends that poses a threat to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.