What comes first: a caliph or the jihad?

In its statement, Al-Qaeda called the death of Bin Laden an historic event. The statement was full of praise for what they called his bravery, but also full of cheer, for Bin Laden’s “martyrdom in the cause of God”, a martyrdom he had been seeking for about 30 years. This comes as no surprise: for proponents of Jihadi-Salafism, being killed by “the enemies of God” is the greatest personal achievement.  They refer to the Quranic verse “Say: Can you expect for us (any fate) other than one of two glorious things (martyrdom or victory)?” (Q9.52)

Bin Laden’s demise will be, no doubt, demoralizing for some international Salafi-Jihadis. He is seen as a symbolic figure who sacrificed his wealthy life in the cause of God. His role in the Afghan war, founding al-Qaeda and uniting different Jihadi groups including North Africa, Arabian Peninsula, and Somalia under one banner have earned him this charismatic aura, resulting in numerous statements of praise.

However, the impact of his death should not be overstated. Al-Qaeda and other Salafi-Jihadi groups may share the similar goals and ideas, but they are far from being a single organization. Most operative Jihadis today have never even met Bin Laden.  At the core of Salafi teaching is an emphasis on absolute monotheism (tawhid) as the basis of salvation, and a rejection of saint worship. Constructing shrines and praying near tombs are strictly forbidden; thanks to Bin Laden’s sea burial, Al-Qaeda will not have to worry about his tomb becoming a shrine and the theological paradox it would entail.

Salafi-Jihadis, such as Abu Qatada, make much of being at-Ta’ifah al-Mansura (“the victorious group”), fighting in the path of God. According to a prophetic hadith, this group will always exist and will never be harmed by opponents or traitors. The Ta’ifa Mansura can exist in one place or in different places. In his Knights under the Banner of the Prophet, Ayman al-Zawahiri states that although many jihad leaders were killed or executed in Nasser’s Egypt, the “knights” were not thereby weakened: they were assured by God that new leaders would always be found to carry out the “duty”.

One expects Al-Qaeda to name a new amir to replace Bin Laden - in accordance with Salafi-Jihadi doctrine, there is no jihad without one. That raises the question: what is an amir according to the doctrine of the Salafis?

In mainstream Muslim jurisprudence, the community is obliged to give the oath of allegiance to the imam to strengthen the Muslim polity. The imam, the head of the Islamic state, is the one responsible for declaring both the jihad and the peace.  Individuals should not wage jihad, as they might contravene the rules of war. The imam can appoint an amir to lead the jihad on his behalf.  It is the post of amir that Bin Laden held, and which is now vacant.

Jihadis insist that since in our time there is no imam; and so it is the “people” who are obliged to appoint an amir to lead the jihad. The amir in this case is not the imam, and his responsibilities are restricted to the execution of the jihad. This is similar to the appointment of a leader for prayer or pilgrimage when there is no imam. So, the right to appoint an amir for the jihad devolves to the people: that is, the mujahidin. By doing this, the Salafi-Jihadi ideologues establish the necessity of an amir for the jihad, even without an imam; and this amir need not even be in operational control.  Even if he is imprisoned or killed, the jihad duty remains.  His existence as an amir alone makes the jihad possible, and his death or imprisonment require a replacement, but it does not cancel the obligation.

Of course, for some Salafis the whole notion of the mujahidin choosing the amir is flawed, The influential Salafi, Muhammad Nasir al-Din Al-Albani, for example, argued that jihad cannot be performed at all, as there is no imam to authorise it and no one to appoint an amir.  Whilst this reasoning is rejected by the Jihadi-salafis, they are nonetheless heavily influenced by mainstream jurisprudence.

The duties, responsibilities and character of the amir are not fully worked out in literature, but the Jihadi-Salafi writers, such as Dr. Fadhl in his Al-'Umda fi I'dad Al-'Udda (The Essentials of Preparing for Jihad), are generally bound to the conception found in mainstream Sunni jurisprudence (in which the amir is chosen by the imam).  There is little original consideration as to what the mujahidin should look for in an amir given the imams absence.  The Jihadi notion of the new “leader of war” (amir al-harb) is, in the end not so different from that described in mainstream Sunni law. They list the requirements of the leader:  he should be male (obviously); of sound body (and without any disability of the senses). Being a religious expert is not a necessity, but knowing the laws of warfare is.  The leader must also be sound, adult, free man, and just. A corrupt strong leader is always preferred to a pious but weak leader. The amir can only be disobeyed if his demands explicitly contravene the Shari’a (however that is conceived).  So, no military action, even a minor skirmish, can be carried out without his consent.  All of these elements are found in established tradition, in which the imam appoints the amir.

The decision within the Al-Qaeda leadership now turns not on the reiteration of this list, but on whether Bin Laden has designated a successor. There are two possibilities. He may have already appointed someone (or perhaps, more than one individual, in which case a council (shura), also appointed by him, will have to decide). Alternatively, he may not have appointed anyone; in which case the shura will have to decide without a shortlist. Unanimous consensus is not essential, but it is desired. It is unlikely we will know much of the shura’s existence, never mind its deliberations. But in all this, we should remember: the debate between Jihadis and their Salafi opponents (such the debate between Albani and a Jihadi) does not relate to the amir himself (be it Bin Laden or anyone else): rather it concerns what comes first: a Caliph or the Jihad?