The Ideological Lineage of Radical Islam


To better understand the tactical and strategic goals, of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/Deash) and beyond (i.e. al-Qaedaism), we need to understand its ideological lineage. Accordingly, what we know as al-Qaedaism has not been immaculately conceived, it has a history shaped by various historical conditions.

It can be said that al-Qaedaism draws on three sources, for its base:

  • A particular interpretation of the Koran and Sunna;
  • An incorporation of certain aspects of intervention, bequeathed by key figures in Islam’s history of struggle; and
  • Innovation, interpreted as appropriate for this incarnation of struggle.

Concerning al-Qaeda’s interpretation of Islam, al-Qaeda is a “part of a broader community of [Sunni] Islamists known as the ‘Salafi’ (commonly called the “Wahhabis’).” Defined, “The term ‘salafi’ is used to denote those who follow the example of the companions (salaf) of the Prophet Mohammed.” They reason that “because the companions learned about Islam directly from the Prophet, they commanded a pure understanding of the faith,” where subsequent practices in the Muslim community were believed to have been “sullied by religious innovations.” To resolve this matter, believed to be the primary reason why the Muslim world has lost power and has been humiliated, “Muslims must purify the religion by strictly following the Qur’an, the Sunna (path or traditions of the Prophet Mohammed), and the consensus [shura] of the companions.”

Inspired by the Salifi interpretation of the traditions of the Muslim Prophet and his Companions, al-Qaedaism has also been informed by specific interventions of key figures in Islam’s history of struggle, especially:

  • Salah al-Din ibn Ayyub ​(c. 1138 – 1193): legendary Muslim commander; defeated the Crusaders and captured Jerusalem; reestablished Sunni primacy;
  • Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyya​ (1263-1328): tawhid, the Unity of God; the sovereignty of God and his law, over man-made laws and rule; defensive jihad, against oppressors and apostates;
  • Ibn Nuhaas al-Demyat​ (d. 1412): jihad and the primacy of the hereafter over this life;
  • Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab​ (1703 – 1792): creating the ten voiders, defining apostasy, ultimately constituting what can expel one from dominion and the faith;
  • Mawlana Abuk A’la Mawdudi​ (1903 – 1979): modern jahiliyya, an ignorance/paganism informed by modernity;
  • Sayyid Qutub​ (1906 – 1966): jihad, for the establishment of an Islamic state, both defensive and offensive; jihad as an eternal/perpetual struggle; Western society as the embodiment of modern jahiliyya;
  • Abdul Azzam​ (1941 – 1989): jihad as an individual obligation (fard ‘ayn) of all Muslims, if the faithful are having trouble expelling the infidel in a defensive War; and
  • Omar Abdul Rahman​ (1938 - 2017): Reasoned for attacks against the near (Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel) and the far enemy, principally the United States

Informed by the Salafi understanding of “true” Islam and the contributions of various key historical and contemporary figures, al-Qaedaism has been reflective, “asking themselves what the Prophet would do if he were alive today,” since the Koran does not “respond to many questions relevant to the modern period.” Here, al-Qaeda and other Muslims call on “a process of extrapolation based on independent judgment (ijitihad) and reasoning by analogy (qiyas).”

From this, al-Qaedaism has been innovative, themselves, insofar as they have reasoned that (1) killing civilians and (2) suicide bombings (“Martyrdom Operations”) are just in war, beyond theory:

  • Killing Civilians​: Apparently informed by the Algerian coup of 1992 and the civilian attacks instigated by the Armed Islamic Group, al-Qaedaism takes two positions, reasoning that (a) if Muslims civilians are killed they can strike back “proportionately” (by their calculations, four million plus Americans can be “proportionately” killed, and no more) and (b) citizens of democracies must take responsibility, and are culpable, for the actions of their governments, insofar as aggressive wars are waged against Muslims, whether directly (in war) or indirectly (via diplomatic support, through taxes, military-aid and the vote).
  • Suicide Bombings, or “Martyrdom Operations”​: Initially deployed by Iran and Hezbollah, al-Qaedaism has extolled and learned from their 2 operations, insofar as it (a) rewards the Martyr in the hereafter (b) reasons that it is a weapon of the “weak,” in the service of God against his enemies, and (c) it can compel the United States and allies to withdraw from territory they have reason to value.

In light of the above, al-Qaedaism’s terrorist threat continues to grow, self-innovating/generating, as many “empathetic, conscientious, and altruistic” young Muslims around the globe are using the tools of the West against the West for global jihad, as al-Qaedaism, the Movement, with ISIS dominating the headlines since 2014, and OBL’s son Hamza bin laden poised to take on a global leadership role in light of the immanent collapse of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

1 All quotes, unless expressed otherwise, are derived from the text “A Genealogy of Radical Islam” written by Quintan Wiktorowicz,

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