The False Genealogy of Terrorism: How Islamic Extremists and Their Critics Misconstrue the Roots of Jihadist Ideology

Islamic State fighters march in the Syrian city of Raqqa in an image posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, 2014. Photo Credit: Associated Press


By: Krystel Von Kumberg 

Though Islamic terrorism is not a rootless phenomenon, it also should not be viewed as a legitimate enterprise based on a coherent doctrine. Extremist groups, and even some of their critics, have distorted the teachings of historical figures, blending together different thinkers such as ‘Abd al-Halim Ibn Taymiyya with Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Jihadists have a surprisingly weak knowledge of key Islamic texts. [i] It is therefore important to scrutinize Islamic ideology as part of a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy. Scholars can expose the dissonance and discrepancies that undermine the alleged ties between ancient Islamic theologians and modern terrorist groups. In doing so, the appeal of radical jihadist ideology could potentially be contained.

The 9/11 Commission Report, for instance, epitomizes the jihadist movement’s genealogical myth, as it aligns historical Islamic thinkers with modern terrorists. The report claims that Bin Laden and al-Qaeda “draw on a long tradition of extreme intolerance within one stream of Islam,” that of Ibn Taymiyya. [ii] “The stream is motivated by religion and does not distinguish politics from religion…distorting both.” [iii] The report concludes that because modern terrorists believe this interpretation of Islam, no constructive “dialogue” can take place between jihadists and the West. [iv] Bin Laden, whose 1996 fatwa called for all Muslims to “expel the infidels…from the Arab Peninsula,” would agree with this assertion. [v]

Islamic terrorists exploit warped extremist views, allegedly derived from past religious scholars, to justify their actions. For example, ISIS’s magazine Dabiq calls Ibn Taymiyya the “Sheikh of Islam.” [vi] Ibn Taymiyya is quoted as having stated, “Allah said, and fight them until there is no fitnah and until the religion, all of it, is for Allah.” [vii] According to ISIS’s interpretation, Ibn Taymiyya called for a continual jihad – thereby giving modern Muslim terrorist groups a powerful pretext for waging war with the West.

Ibn Taymiyya, a scholar of Islamic law, often portrayed by both extremists and their critics as the “spiritual father of (Sunni) revolutionary Islam,” has to be understood within his historical context. [viii] During his lifetime, the Islamic world was being torn apart. The Abbasid Caliphate collapsed; the Tartar’s took control of Iraq, Iran and Khurasaan; and the Mamluk Turks ruled in Egypt, Sudan, Syria and Hijaz. [ix] Forced to flee Damascus at the age of six, Ibn Taymiyya became a refugee living under Mongol rule [x] A parallel between the Mongols and Western civilization does exist. As John Esposito argues, “Muslim history provides the clearest antecedents and paradigms for what is going on today.” [xi] Western values are perceived as penetrating the Islamic faith, allowing terrorists to “exploit the authority of the past…to justify and inspire their call for a jihad against Muslim governments and the West.” [xii] Furthermore, Ibn Taymiyya’s Mardin fatwa arguably provides legitimacy for inter-Muslim conflict, and has thus become an inspirational model for Muslim terrorists to exploit. As Mary Habeck argues, Ibn Taymiyya stretched the meaning of jihad, concluding that “the Islamic nation [should] fight all heretics, apostates, hypocrites, sinners, and unbelievers…until ‘all religion was for God alone.’” [xiii]

Paul Heck, however, illustrates that the definition of jihad has not been fixed since the 13th century, but has evolved over time. Therefore, the notion of jihad as a political revolution cannot be attributed to Ibn Taymiyya. Rather, jihad, for Ibn Taymiyya, meant “a struggle for the social and moral formation of the public order by bringing advice or counsel…to those holding the trust of public office.” [xiv] Moreover, Abd Al-Hakeem Carney argues that Ibn Taymiyya’s “clear distinction between Siyasah (public law) and Shari’ah (divine law)” demonstrates his “acceptance of the separation between religious and political law” — a notion that is the very antithesis of how modern jihadist terrorist’s conceive of a “Shari’a state.” [xv] Moreover, modern jihadists do not discriminate between targeting members of the military and civilians. [xvi] Contrastingly, Ibn Taymiyya respected the sanctity of civilian lives, stating that “those who do not constitute a defensive or offensive power, like the women, the children, the monks, old people, the blind and the permanently disabled” should not be harmed. [xvii]

Both al-Qaeda and ISIS overlook Ibn Taymiyya’s vision for an Islamic identity and twist his principles of jihad. Unfortunately, too many Western critics fall into a similar trap, mistakenly associating the teachings of ancient Islamic scholars with modern jihadist groups. However, linking the teachings of historical figures with modern terrorists actually legitimizes and exacerbates the threat it aims to counter. [xviii] Islamic theologians, such as Ibn Taymiyya, certainly inspire modern extremists. But if the contradictions between these old texts and terrorists’ actions can be demonstrated and disseminated, it would provide a much firmer foundation for an effective counter-narrative that can effectively discredit jihadist ideology.










[i] Studies into violent radicalisation; Lot 2: The beliefs ideologies and narratives (London: The Change Institute, 2008), 76.

[ii] The 9/11 Commission Report (2004),, 362.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Michael G. Knapp, “The Concept and Practice of Jihad in Islam,” Parameters 33, no. 1 (2003): 90.

[vi] Anon, “The Laws of Allah or the Laws of Men,” Dabiq Magazine (2015): 63.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Michael Doran, “The Pragmatic Fanaticism of al Qaeda: An Anatomy of Extremism in Middle Eastern Politics,” Political Science Quarterly 117, no. 2 (2002): 179.

[ix] ‘Abd Al-Halim Ibn Taymiyya, Governance according to Allaah’s Law in Reforming the Ruler and his Flock, trans. Maktabah al-Ansaar (Birmingham: England, 2001), 3.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] John L. Esposito, Unholy War (Riyadh: International Islamic Publishing House, 2010), 28.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Mary Habeck, Knowing the Enemy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 21.

[xiv] Paul L. Heck, “Jihad Revisited,” Journal of Religious Ethics 32, no. 1 (2004): 95-128.

[xv] Abd Al-Hakeem Carney, “The Decentralization of Power in Islam,” Religion, State and Society 31, no. 2 (2003): 206.

[xvi] The 9/11 Commission Report, 47.

[xvii] Abd Al-Halim Ibn Taymiyya, Ibn Taymiyya on Public and Private Law in Islam, trans. Omar A. Farrukh (Beirut: Khayats, 1966), 140.

[xviii] Richard Jackson, “Constructing enemies: ‘Islamic terrorism’ In Political and Academic Discourse,” Government and Opposition 42, no. 3 (2007): 424.



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