In Other Words

Egypt’s Contrite Commander

Wathiqat Tarshid Al-‘Aml Al-Jihadi fi Misr w’Al-‘Alam (Document to Rationalizing Jihadi Action in Egypt and the World) By Sayyed Imam al-Sharif Kuwait City: Al-Jarida, Cairo: Al-Masri Al-Yawm, 2007 (in Arabic) In 1988, the war being waged by the mujahideen against invading Soviet forces in Afghanistan was at its peak. Looking for inspiration for their struggle, ...

Wathiqat Tarshid Al-‘Aml Al-Jihadi fi Misr w’Al-‘Alam
(Document to Rationalizing Jihadi Action in Egypt and the World)

By Sayyed Imam al-Sharif
Kuwait City: Al-Jarida, Cairo:
Al-Masri Al-Yawm, 2007 (in Arabic)

In 1988, the war being waged by the mujahideen against invading Soviet forces in Afghanistan was at its peak. Looking for inspiration for their struggle, the Muslim fighters needed an intellectual foundation and a practical guide for their endeavor. So 38-year-old Egyptian doctor Sayyed Imam al-Sharif filled the void, publishing his first book, The Faithful Guide for Preparation. As head of Egyptian Jihad, a group that had been distinguished by militant jihadi thought and tactical violence since its inception, al-Sharif was concerned with the proper philosophical and religious underpinnings for conducting holy war. And he was well placed to offer advice: Among the jihadists in Afghanistan and Pakistan at the time, he was the most deeply versed in Islamic law and theology. The book became the first of its kind to lay a systematic foundation, with roots in Islamic law, for the work in which the mujahideen were engaged. Its impact was huge: Even today, it remains a seminal text for new recruits to various jihadi groups around the world, including al Qaeda. The book cemented al-Sharif’s status as one of the most prominent ideologues of the global jihadi movement.

Five years later, al-Sharif followed it up with The Compendium in Pursuit of Noble Knowledge — a massive, 1,100-page work that reflected the author’s militancy and zealotry. It is no exaggeration to say that it established the theoretical, doctrinal, and legal foundation of the jihadi movement, not only in Egypt but everywhere. The book was a product of its time and the author’s own circumstances. The war in Afghanistan had ended with the defeat and withdrawal of the Soviets, and the time was ripe to develop a comprehensive theoretical basis for jihadi action in the future. By then, the author had left Egyptian Jihad as both commander and member, having accused his brethren of failures of leadership following the arrests of hundreds of members in Egypt. He was replaced by his comrade Ayman al-Zawahiri and became free to devote himself entirely to his scholarly theological work. He made his way to Yemen, where he lived freely until October 2001, when the Yemeni authorities arrested him following the September 11 attacks. Then — perhaps because of his arrest, perhaps because of the ferocity of the attacks themselves — al-Sharif apparently began to see things differently. In several statements following 9/11, he declared that the attacks were extremely damaging to Muslim interests, and he held Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri responsible. Already, the Egyptian authorities had tried al-Sharif in absentia in 1999 and sentenced him to life imprisonment. In 2004, the Yemeni authorities turned him over to Egypt to serve out his sentence.

But, rather than quietly fade away and allow his former followers to remember him as a captured martyr, al-Sharif (also known as Dr. Fadl) stunned the jihadi world in November with the publication of the slim Wathiqat Tarshid Al-‘Aml Al-Jihadi fi Misr w’Al-‘Alam (Document to Rationalizing Jihadi Action in Egypt and the World), in which he revises — indeed, reverses — many of the legal judgments he laid out in his two previous books. This book comes at a time when major jihadi religious groups are already engaging in a thorough reconsideration of their philosophy and violent pasts. Al-Sharif’s new work is forcing the overwhelming majority of Egyptian Jihad members to reckon with his new message. Given al-Sharif’s reputation and the influence Egyptian Jihad has exercised over the international jihadi movement, the work will likely resonate far beyond Egypt’s borders.

Like his previous two books, the Document to Rationalizing Jihadi Action is the product of both personal and public circumstances. Since Sept. 11, 2001, violent clashes between jihadi groups and the authorities have become a marked feature of our world. For al-Sharif, these clashes have been accompanied by violations of the legal Islamic concept of jihad that have harmed both Islam and its adherents — and about which he could not remain silent. With this text, al-Sharif draws on the experience and insight of a practiced sheikh to review his long history in the jihadi world. With the approval and support of his colleagues in Egyptian Jihad — the majority of whom support his new stance — he wrote the document to "rationalize" or "guide" the practice of jihad, whose correct meaning many of them have spent their lives searching for.

Published from jail and serialized as 15 parts in two major Arab newspapers, Al-Jarida and Al-Masri Al-Yawm, al-Sharif’s book repudiates what he calls "grave violations of Islamic law" that accompanied several Islamist movements’ forms of jihad. These acts include murder based on one’s nationality, the color of one’s skin, or one’s religious beliefs, and the wrongful destruction of property. The author explicitly states that such violations are "cause for disappointment in this world and shame and censure in the next," because "nothing incurs the wrath and rancor of the Lord like the unjust shedding of blood and destruction of wealth." Al-Sharif forbids attacks of any kind on tourists or foreign residents in Muslim countries, arguing that tourism is a legitimate act in Islam. In contrast to al Qaeda, al-Sharif forbids Muslims from engaging in any acts of violence in the foreign countries in which they live or visit, ruling that it would be a betrayal of the permission given to them by these governments in the form of a visa. Indeed, al-Sharif even forbids Muslims in foreign countries from breaking any national laws. Through such judgments, the author redefines the relationship between the West and resident Muslims in terms that differ radically from those of contemporary jihadists. In more than one section, he also stresses the absolute prohibition on the attack and murder of civilians, whether in Muslim or non-Muslim countries, and even in cases of war.

But particularly notable for a man whose thinking laid the groundwork for a radical Islamist uprising in Egypt, the author forbids taking up arms against Muslim rulers. He cites the heavy losses his own group inflicted on Egypt’s society, state, and jihadi groups themselves. The sheikh completes his rejection and his critique of the ideas and practices of al Qaeda and similar groups with the declaration of a general rule: "Those who identify themselves as Muslims cannot be harmed because of sectarian differences." Here he has in mind the murder of Shiites, which represents a fundamental break with the practices and thought of al Qaeda, especially in Iraq. In several sections, al-Sharif launches a stringent attack on groups in the orbit of al Qaeda for deviating from the correct rules for jihad, accusing them of exploiting the enthusiasm of Muslim youth and sending them to their graves or prisons by convincing them to engage in acts that fall beyond a reasonable interpretation of religion.

In the end, al-Sharif reveals his newly redefined conception of jihad, which he still believes is one of the most noble practices in Islam. Yet, he sees it as defensive rather than offensive; every community has a right "to defend itself against aggressors. If this is a natural right upon which everyone has agreed, for Muslims it is a religious duty."

Of course, it was to be expected that some jihadi circles would raise objections because the author and his supporters among Egyptian Jihad are in prison. Zawahiri himself accused al-Sharif of being coerced into changing his ideas. Al-Sharif, however, claims his new thinking is his own, and he issued a statement last year that cited important historical examples of prominent Muslim scholars and clerics who had written their major works while in prison. In December, Zawahiri again released a speech discussing al-Sharif’s new work, promising that al Qaeda would soon issue a "detailed response."

Internal squabbles aside, this book should matter to those who long to understand the roots and nuances of jihadi thought — and how to curb it. In all likelihood, it will prompt a state of unprecedented confusion within the ranks of the international jihadi movement, starting with al Qaeda. In fact, it is more likely that al-Sharif’s views will have a greater impact within al Qaeda than on the newer jihadi groups: Members of the former are more familiar with al-Sharif’s work and have already been influenced by him, whereas the newer groups follow the thought of other contemporary ideologues more closely. Whether such splintering ultimately makes the world more dangerous remains an open question. One thing is certain, though: Having such an important leader so publicly diverge from this violent movement and its vision can only be a victory for the civilized world.

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