ISIL’s Theological Roots: Ten Men


For years while teaching at seminaries, I have been telling my students that Abu Mus'ab al-Suri, Abu Bakr Naji and Fouad Hussein were going to become so famous that they will overshadow Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Finally it happened – but not exactly how I thought it would. ISIL is the product of the writings and thinking of these three men and others, whom I will address very briefly in this blog and the next two. In this blog I will give you a bird’s eye view of the first five, and in the next two blogs I will address the next five. My hope is to whet your appetite and motivate you to go deeper and learn more about these men and their influence through your own research. 

As you saw in my previous blog, instead of ISIS, I prefer using the acronym ISIL, which stands for Islamic State in Iraq and Levant, as it is more accurate. Levant is the region in the Middle East that, in its historical Islamic context, included Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine.

1. Ibn Taymiya was born in Baghdad in 1263 and lived most of his life in Damascus, Syria, dying in 1328. He belonged to an ultra-conservative school of thought that sought a return to the fundamentals of the Islamic faith. During the Islamic Mongol invasion of the Middle East from 1299 to 1303, ibn Taymiya arrived at a conclusion that colored his thinking and the thinking of many Muslim fundamentalists who followed in his footsteps. The conclusion was the Takfeer principle. Mentally, ibn Taymiya excommunicated the Muslim Mongols from the body of the Muslim community (the Umma) because they were committing savage crimes against fellow Muslims. He basically came up with the “good guys” and “bad guys” categories which is the Takfeerprinciple. His theology impacted the thinking of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia. Sayid Qutb reached to the same conclusion with the Takfeer principle when he saw ugly torture of Muslims by fellow Muslims. The Takfeer principle is foundational in the ISIL’s worldview.

2. Hasan al-Banna was born in 1906 in Egypt, and by the age of 12 he had memorized the whole Qur'an. In 1928 he became a teacher in Isma'iliya by the Suez Canal in Egypt, and in the early 1930s he started the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood became the trunk of the tree out of which most of the branches of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East and other parts of the world came from. When al-Banna was assassinated in 1949, the government of Egypt thought that they had eradicated Islamic fundamentalism. For my doctorate dissertation, I studied the Islamic fundamentalist movement occurring in Egypt, and about 80 percent of the sources of my research were written in Arabic by Muslim fundamentalists. I came to the conclusion that nobody can eradicate Islamic fundamentalism. (Forgive me for using the following analogy for human beings created in the image of God.) We can eradicate a generation of mosquitoes, but unless we identify the swamps and address them, every few years we will have to wage a new war against a new generation of mosquitoes. What scares me is that every new generation will be tougher to deal with because violence escalates. The Muslim Brotherhood was the foundation on which al-Qaeda was built, and al-Qaeda is the foundation on which ISIL is built.

3. Sayid Qutb was born in Egypt in 1906, the same year as Banna, and he also memorized the whole Qur'an by age 12. Unlike Banna however, in his school and college years he was not a practicing Muslim. He also became a teacher, proving himself in Egyptian schools and later as an inspector of government schools. The Egyptian government sent him to the United States in 1948 as an international student with two objectives. First, they wanted him to learn about the educational system in America so that he could return to Egypt and reform its educational system. The second objective was to get him polished, or “Westernized.” (I thought that he was polished enough. For instance he loved classical music and the Hollywood movies of the 1940s). When he got on the ship for Alexandria to head to the United States, he was on two journeys: one was to the United States, and the other was an inward journey to find his true identity. Qutb left Egypt a secular Muslim, and while in America as an international student, he became a Muslim fundamentalist. He started out in New York city followed by a few months in Washington, D.C. Most of his time was spent at a university in Greeley, Colorado, and he spent his last short portion of his time in the U.S. in California. (When I teach at seminaries we go into his life in great detail and examine his huge impact on Islamic fundamentalism and movements such as al-Qaeda and ISIL. In my book, The Rumbling Volcano, I have a chapter on the Muslim Brotherhood and a another chapter on Sayid Qutb.  Learning why he became a Muslim fundamentalist while in America is extremely important). He eventually became a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, resulting in his arrest and imprisonment. During his time in prison he saw Muslims torturing fellow Muslims and came to the same conclusion of the Takfeer principle as Ibn Taymiya. He wrote a complete commentary on the Qur'an, and his most famous book is Milestones, which got banned shortly after its releaseBecause Qutb refused to recant regarding his views in Milestones, (see photo of Qutb in court) he was hanged in 1966 and the government at the time, led by President Nasser, once again thought that Islamic fundamentalism had been eradicated. I can’t overemphasize my belief that no military force can eradicate Islamic Fundamentalism. We can eradicate groups of fundamentalists, but unless we identify the swamps and address them, every few years we will have to wage a new war against a new group of fundamentalists. And what scares me is that every new generation will be tougher to deal with. What is the largest swamp? If you are interested, let me know by email and I will recommend a book or two for you after you start with my book, The Crescent Through The Eyes of The Cross.

4. Al-Qaeda: Osama bin Laden was born in 1957 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the son of the fourth wife of Muhammad bin Laden. Osama’s father, Muhammad bin Laden, started out in Saudi Arabia as an illiterate immigrant from Yemen and became the wealthiest man in the Middle East. Muhammad bin Laden had connections to the royal family in Saudi Arabia and worked on restoring the three holiest mosques in Islam, located in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. Learning about Osama’s family and his education in Jeddah University and the years that followed reveal windows of openness at crossroads and the choices that he made. His exposure to the writings of Sayid Qutb – indirectly through Muhammad Qutb (the brother of Sayid), who was a professor at Jeddah University – was critical in shaping Osama’s life. The eventful years of Osama in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Sudan and back in Afghanistan and his connections with the Egyptian Ayman Zawahiri and the Palestinian Sheikh Abdullah Azzam resulted in the birth of al-Qaeda. Osama was killed in Pakistan in 2011. After the Iraq war of 2003, al-Qaeda spread into Iraq and al-Zarqawi (we’ll cover him in the next blog) changed al-Qaeda into a more violent form. ISIL is even a far more violent organization as we shall see in the next two blogs. 

5. Al-Qaeda: Ayman Zawahiri and his twin sister, Umniya, were born in Cairo, Egypt in 1951, in a family that included, on his father's side alone, thirty-one doctors, chemists or pharmacists scattered throughout the Arab world and the United States. Others in the Zawahiri family include an ambassador, a judge and a member of the parliament. His uncle became the rector (papal status) at al-Azhar Seminary. The Azzam clan, his mother’s side, was wealthier and more political. Zawahirit's grandfather was the president of Cairo University and the founder of King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Zawahiri's grandfather also served as Egypt's ambassador in Pakistan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Zawahiri graduated from medical school and worked for a few years as a surgeon. Zawahiri's uncle was a student of Sayid Qutb, and in later years he became Qutb's lawyer. Zawahiri used the banned book of Sayid Qutb, Milestones, to disciple fellow students at the university. His association with the people who assassinated President Sadat and the court proceedings that followed brought Zawahiri international fame. His years in Egypt, Afghanistan, Sudan and back in Afghanistan and his impact on Osama bin Laden contributed to the birth of al-Qaeda. Ayman Zawahiri is currently the leader of al-Qaeda and he is living in the shadows of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIL. What al-Qaeda aspired to achieve, with limited success, ISIL has achieved in terms of territory, fame, funds and recruiting power. Time will tell whether Ayman Zawahiri one day will submit to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and recognize him as the Caliph of the Islamic State.

In this blog we looked very briefly at the lives of five men, and in the next two blogs we will look at the lives of five other men. 

6. Abu Mus'ab al-Suri.

7. Abu Bakr Naji.

8. Fouad Hussein.

9. Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi.

10. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

These men have been impacted by those who came before them and they made an impact on the next generations. We too are all impacted by people who lived in previous generations, as well as by people during our years of school and throughout our lives. By the grace of God, my grandfather who died before I was born, had a huge impact on my mother’s life, and as a result, mine as well. My parents impacted my life by putting the fear of God in me even though they did not know how to articulate the gospel. Then I was impacted by my older brotherwho, like Sayid Qutb, came as an international student to the U.S. to study for his master's in engineering. While in America he came to know Christ and subsequently returned to the Middle East. Along with an American missionary family in Lebanon,my brother was the primary influence in my coming to know Christ. I was also impacted by those who discipled me and mentored me over the years. I was also impacted by those who translated the Bible into Arabic. As I look at those who impacted my life, I am reminded so much of this text in 2 Samuel 7:18 “Who am I, O Sovereign LORD, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?”

Will you stop for a moment and think of God's grace on your life and how he used people to impact you. Thank God for them.

Dr. Nabeel Jabbour