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Who does (not) belong to the jihadis’ umma? A comparison of IS’s and al Qaida’s use of takfīr to exclude people from the Muslim community


Author: Christina Hartmann

Date of Publication: 29/12/2017

Journal / Publisher: Journal for Deradicalization

Purpose of the study

Key Questions

The article looks in depth at the mind-set and ideology of the two largest Salafi Jihadi organisations. 

Design of the study


Case study – looks at the ideologies of Al Qaeda




The author suggests that there is a common misconception that Al Qaeda has been superseded by ISIS as the most important and most dangerous Salafi Jihadi Group. By explaining the differences between the two groups, the author seeks to show that IS does not succeed AQ, but does have an even more extremist orientation with different interpretations of elements of Salafi Jihadi core doctrine.  

IS uses the concept of takfir to legitimise violence against 4 categories of Sunni Muslims:

  1. Muslim Rulers who do not rule according to Sharia Law.
  2. Islamist parties that take part in democratic elections
  3. Muslim rebels questioning the authority of a ruler 
  4. Other Jihadis who come to the defence of Sunnis who are declared apostates by IS.     

AQ do not agree with categories 3 and 4 and consider them to be ‘too extreme’ which led to them cutting ties with IS in February 2014. 

The author used critical discourse analysis of 120 speeches and statements of AQ and IS Leaders in relation to ideology (akida) and practice (manhadj).

The founder of IS, Abu Musab al Zarqawi originally defined 3 enemies; 

  • Jordanian and other nominal Muslim regimes that were considered unIslamic.
  • the international community dominated by the West 
  • Shi’a Muslims (considered polytheists – i.e. they elevate Imams above Prophets). 

Bin Laden criticised Muslim Rulers and Shiites, but wanted AQ to focus on the ‘Far Enemy,’ most notably the US. Despite this Zarqawi pledged allegiance (bay’a) to Bin Laden in September 2004 becoming al Qaida in Iraq (AQI) and gained access to AQ’s recruiting and training capability.   

In order to declare modern Muslim Rulers as unbelievers, IS refers to the medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyyah who stated that rebellion or jihad against an Islamic Ruler can only take place if they violate the fundamental obligations of a Muslim i.e. only a state governed completely by Sharia is an Islamic one. 

AQ consider Shi’tes and those who vote in elections to be ignorant and excuses them their ignorance to some extent. There is no such undertaking from IS. 

IS sees any rebellion against or confrontation of their organisation or ideology as an act of unbelief. This is used as justification to use violence against people who oppose its organisation or its caliphate and regards itself as the unquestionable imamah (the rightful successors to the Prophet and purveyors of ‘absolute truth’). IS expected AQ to submit to them. Technically AQ are Jihadis who may be legitimately attacked by IS.

AQ have accused IS of having the wrong interpretation of Islam, particularly their use of Takfir. 

AQ use the term ‘Khawarij’ when referring to IS, but emphasises they are even more severe than the original Khawarij in that they used Takfir against those who committed even minor sins, but IS make sins up when they want to legitimise the killing of someone.    

Key findings 

There is a difference in how AQ and IS interpret Islamic concepts (particularly Takfir) and how they prioritise fighting their enemies (AQ target the ‘far enemy first’ i.e. the US/West, and IS target the ‘near enemy’ first, i.e. Shia Muslims). The two organisations have different definitions of the umma and thus also different populations that they claim to represent.  

IS have attacked other Jihadist Groups (e.g. Al Nusra Front). 

Some Jihadists do not support either AQ or IS. The fight for supremacy of the jihadi landscape not only takes place between the two organisations, but also in the wider Jihadi scene.

Key Recommendations 

The study warns against the tendency to lump AQ and IS together as extremist salafi groups. An understanding of the differing ideologies of the organisations is a prerequisite for any deradicalisation program. 

The study states that additional research is needed on which individuals are attracted to which organisation to tailor deradicalisation programs to the needs of the target group.

Reviewer's Notes

The meaning of ‘Takfir’ is manipulated by Salafi Jihadis and forms part of their core doctrine. Essentially, anyone who doesn’t agree with their core doctrine is not a Muslim. Anyone who is not a Muslim can be legitimately killed. It is applied in different ways by AQ and ISIS.  

It is crucial that practitioners and researchers understand the mind set of Salafi Jihadis, their ideology, mind-set, customs and objective. This will facilitate understanding of the threat and how to counter it.

With AQ and ISIS having slightly different ideologies and approaches to achieving their shared goal, these are not simply variations on a theme, but represent different threat landscapes.

Tyrannical Rulers are known as ‘Taghout’ or ‘Taghut.’

 Both ISIS and AQ display the characteristics of Outlaws of Islam known as Kharwarij (A derogatory term used by Political and Apolitical Salafis to describe Salafi Jihadis which originates from the group who switched allegiances after the ‘First Fitnah’ or first split in the Muslim Umma.

 Characteristics of the Kharwarij:

  • Mostly young
  • Do not have a deep understanding of Islam
  • Show unnecessary excessiveness in their acts of worship
  • They are bloodthirsty – they will kill believers i.e. other Muslims
  • They defame Muslim Leaders 
  • They appear in times of strife and disunity (Fitnah)
  • They do not hold scholars in high esteem
  • They accuse Muslims who oppose their views of apostasy (takfir) and consider it legal to kill them
  • They disagree with each other and form separate sects
  • Salafi Jihadis do not like the term Kharwarij. 

Ibn Taymiyyah was a controversial 13th Century Scholar who was imprisoned by the authorities many times. He is perhaps the most important ideologue in Salafi Jihadism and they know him as “The Sheikh.” 

This denouncing of IS by AQ and other Jihadists could be used in the Counter Narrative as it shows division and therefore doubt in regard to their respective narratives.  

It is also worth noting that AQ are highly selective when it comes to recruitment, and it often takes years for recruits to prove themselves and they are often from very specific backgrounds. IS will literally take anyone, quite possibly because they wanted to populate the Caliphate as quickly as possible. This lead to a high proportion of recruits not being suitable for combat duty and IS responded by using campaigns to recruit violent criminals.     

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