August 4, 2017 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1324

Dispute Over Takfir Rocks Islamic State

August 4, 2017 | By R. Green*
Iraq, Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1324

The following report is now a complimentary offering from MEMRI's Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM). For JTTM subscription information, click here.



Even as the Islamic State (ISIS) is involved in fierce battles in Iraq and Syria, its official organs, clerics and supporters are engaged in an intense internal dispute over issues of theology. There are indications that the top ISIS leadership has adopted a new and even stricter view on the issue of takfir – accusing fellow Muslims of heresy or unbelief – and that senior ISIS clerics, as well as many ISIS supporters, disapprove of this change. Takfir is a key issue, since, in Islam, heresy is punishable by death. Hence takfir constitutes religious license to target and kill an individual.

The shift was apparent in a memo published on May 17, 2017 by the organization's top executive council, the Delegated Committee, which redoubled ISIS's commitment to takfir. The memo asserted that takfir is a fundamental tenet of Islam, as important, or even more important than basic obligations such as prayer, and  adopted a radical position regarding the collective status of citizens of Muslim countries, casting doubt on whether they should be considered true Muslims.

The Delegated Committee also pulled textbooks on theology from training camps and religious institutes, apparently in order to correct them and tailor them to the new theological line. Furthermore, ISIS's official newspaper attacked a late Al-Qaeda leader who in the past was effusively praised by none other than ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi himself, which was seen by ISIS supporters as another example of the organization's new, tougher line.

The apparent change in the official ISIS position on takfir drew criticism from ISIS clerics, including from its top mufti. They slammed the Delegated Committee's memo, noting that the ISIS leadership was pandering to extremist elements within the organization and contradicting its previous views. ISIS's online supporters also joined the fray. Some echoed the clerics' criticism of the Delegated Committee's memo and its new stance on takfir, even suggesting that the committee, or the ISIS official media organs, have been infiltrated by extremists. Others vehemently rejected the criticism, noting that ISIS members and supporters were duty-bound to submit to the Delegated Committee and accept its views. They denied the claims of infiltration and suggested that the critics were traitors and infiltrators themselves. 

ISIS fighters attending a lesson on religion

One likely catalyst for this shift is the constant challenge posed to ISIS by a small but strident camp of hardliners who consider its official ideology insufficiently radical. Some of these hardliners who left ISIS due to these disagreements have gone so far as to accuse its leadership, including even Al-Baghdadi, of heresy. ISIS purged itself of many members of this camp in the past, and recently there have been reports of a new wave of executions of extremists.[1] However, elements of the camp still exist within ISIS or in its orbit, and their views seem to have a degree of influence on the organization's leadership.  

This report reviews the current controversy within the movement on the issue of takfir.

Background: ISIS And Takfir

The questions as to who is considered a Muslim and who ought to be excluded from the Islamic fold,  and under which conditions and circumstances, are critical questions for Salafi-jihadis in general and for ISIS in particular, and are dealt with extensively. They are fundamental questions for jihadis, since takfir is pivotal to identifying the enemies who must be fought and killed, and to justifying the aggression against them. 

The issue of takfir was one of the major points of contention in the conflict between Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Al-Qaeda holds the more moderate position, according to which takfir should be reserved for selected individuals, whereas ISIS leaders and ideologues apply it more freely, and do not hesitate to brand as heretical entire movements, communities or sects, such as the Shi'ites. That said, even ISIS has thus far eschewed the most extreme positions, such as making a blanket accusation of heresy against the citizens of Islamic countries. In its publications that outline the conditions for accusing others of heresy and unbelief, ISIS consistently insists that it takes the middle road between the position of the "extremists," who apply takfir excessively, and that of the "postponers" who fail to apply it straight away when it is justified.[2]

However, some jihadis and ISIS supporters consider this position too lax. A crucial point of controversy is the status of Muslims who are not themselves guilty of heresy but who refrain from denouncing others who are, on the grounds that their apparent heresy may stem from ignorance of Islam and may therefore be excusable. The mainstream ISIS position has been that such "refrainers" should not be targets of takfir, but the radicals within the movement contest this view. The ongoing friction created by these theological disputes turned them into a political problem that the leadership felt it had to address.

One Year Ago: ISIS Religious Oversight Organ Issues Statement In Attempt To End The Disputes Over Takfir

One attempt to quell the controversy was made more than a year ago, when the Central Office for Monitoring the Shari'a Bureaus issued a statement – Statement No. 155 from May 29, 2016 – by the director of ISIS's media wing Abu Muhammad Al-Furqan. The statement reaffirmed ISIS's commitment to the takfir of "polytheists" (i.e., to accusing them of heresy). However, it rejected the application of takfir to Muslims who are not themselves guilty of heresy but who refrain from making this accusation against people who are, since this would lead to an endless chain of takfir. The statement forbade ISIS members to engage in theological disputes that can lead to accusations of heresy against fellow members of the organization.

Ideological Dispute Reignited

However, the Central Office's statement was not sufficient to end the ideological dispute within the organization. Therefore, the Delegated Committee – a higher authority, second only to the "Caliph" himself – stepped into the fray, apparently with Al-Baghdadi's blessing, and issued the memo that sparked the latest round of controversy.[3]

Al-Baghdadi's Letter To The Delegated Committee

In late April, 2017, shortly before the issuing of the memo, Al-Baghdadi addressed a letter to the Delegated Committee in which he provided general guidance and exhorted the committee members to carry out their duties in good faith (for a full translation of the letter, see Appendix III). In the letter, which was distributed to all the ISIS provinces, Al-Baghdadi wrote to the Delegated Committee: "We have entrusted you with the great task and responsibility of establishing the religion and of protecting the Muslims and caring for them. In this you are deputies of the Caliph, each of you according to the position he was appointed to and entrusted with." [4]

ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi

Some ISIS supporters see this letter as proof that Al-Baghdadi gave the Delegated Committee a carte blanche to revise ISIS's ideological positions. Clearly, whoever leaked it to the online forums of ISIS supporters did so with the intention of proving that any step by the Delegated Committee had been taken with Al-Baghdadi's approval and blessing.[5]

Delegated Committee Releases Memo Reflecting New Stance

On May 17, 2017, ISIS's Delegated Committee published the aforementioned memo setting out its new stance on takfir, titled "That Those Who Perish Would Perish upon Proof and Those Who Live Would Live upon Proof"[6] (for excerpts from the memo, see Appendix II). A condensed version of the memo was published in Arabic in ISIS's weekly Al-Naba and translations of this condensed version appeared in its Rumiyah magazine. The version in Al-Naba stressed that the document reflected the views of the ISIS leadership, calling it "an important memo from the Delegated Committee on behalf of the Commander of the Faithful [Al-Baghdadi]."[7]

The memo was meant to clarify once and for all ISIS's official stance on takfir. As Al-Naba put it, "The memo completes a series of memos and statements by the Delegated Committee and its Central Office for Monitoring the Shari'a Bureaus aimed at settling controversies over the Islamic State's creed and methodology."

As usual in ISIS statements, the document stressed that ISIS takes the middle road between leniency and extremism in the application of takfir. Nevertheless, certain parts of it appear to reflect a tightening of the position on takfir by making it a central pillar of ISIS's creed.

The Delegated Committee's memo on takfir

The seven-page memo, addressed to "All provinces, departments and authorities," outlines two camps that differ from ISIS in their view on takfir:

  1. The camp of "irja (postponement)" or "murjia" (those who postpone), whose members refrain from directing accusations of heresy at those whom ISIS deems guilty of it.

  2. The camp of "ghuluw" (extremism), whose members falsely accuse ISIS of laxity in the application of the shari'a, of espousing an unsound religious creed and of diffidence in pronouncing takfir.

The memo then denounces the "camp of postponement" in very explicit terms, stating: "Everyone knows that the Islamic State has not hesitated for a single day to acknowledge the heresy of polytheists, and that it regards this issue to be one of the clear principles of the religion, which must be known [to a Muslim even] before he knows [the rules of] prayer and other religious obligations that are necessarily known..."

Even more noteworthy is a passage in which ISIS clarifies its opinion on the citizens of Islamic countries, countering the charge made by the extremist stream that it views them as Muslims. The memo states this is a "lie" and "slander" against ISIS, implying that it views the Sunni citizens of Islamic countries as apostates or infidels, a very extreme position.

At the same time, a considerable part of the memo is dedicated to denouncing the extremist camp, especially ISIS members who left the organization because it did not live up to their religious standards, castigating them as deserters and as insubordinate.

Further Indications Of ISIS Leadership's Increasing Extremism

Another indication of the shift in ISIS's official stance on takfir was a directive issued by the Delegated Committee instructing religious officials to remove several textbooks that were used to teach basic theology to new ISIS recruits in the organization's training camps. The move is especially noteworthy as the books, published by ISIS's Department of Da'wa and Mosques or by its Office of Studies and Research, were used to teach thousands of fighters in the past years, and at least one of them is said to be by Abu 'Ali Al-Anbari, a former deputy of Al-Baghdadi and a fire-breathing ideologue himself, who was killed in 2016.[8]

Two of the books removed under the Delegated Committee's directive

Extremists burned copies of the banned books in celebration of the Delegated Committee's directive to remove them

A further indication appeared in an article in the organization's official weekly Al-Naba, the sixth installment in a series titled "Symbols or Idols?", dedicated to a polemic with ISIS's ideological rivals such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The article, which caused a stir among ISIS supporters, slammed the slain senior Al-Qaeda leader Atiyyatallah Al-Libi, calling him one of the "imams of misguidance and heads of fitna."[9] This, despite the fact that Al-Baghdadi previously praised him as "the scholar who practiced his knowledge, the jihad warrior... the man of knowledge and dignity."[10] This verbal attack on an Al-Qaeda leader in ISIS's official mouthpiece indicates that the organization is trying to distance itself from Al-Qaeda and highlight the ideological differences between the two organizations. Furthermore, it was meant to show that ISIS has no qualms about denouncing Al-Qaeda leaders as unbelievers, in accordance with the principle of takfir against the polytheists.

Atiyyatallah Al-Libi (left) alongside Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Bana, on the cover of the ISIS weekly Al-Naba

Top ISIS Clerics Denounce The Delegated Committee's Memo

The Delegated Committee's memo sparked controversy among ISIS followers and scholars. The most important criticism came from senior ISIS cleric Turki Al-Bin'ali, who was killed shortly after the publication of the memo[11] but not before he penned a letter to the Delegated Committee expressing his strong objection to it (for excerpts from the letter, see Appendix II). According to some, his letter reflected the opinion of ISIS's Fatwa Department. It should be mentioned that Al-Bin'ali provided the religious sanction for the purge of extremist ISIS members in the summer of 2014.

Turki Al-Bin'ali delivering a sermon in Raqqa, July 2015

The letter was apparently meant for the eyes of the Delegated Committee only, not for the general public. Since it is unsigned and bears no official logo, many ISIS supporters have questioned its authorship, but there are indications that it was indeed written by Al-Bin'ali. In the letter Al-Bin'ali complained that neither he nor other senior religious officials had been consulted about the new positions or shown a draft of the memo. He also expressed dismay over the fact that "extremists" were touting the memo as a victory and as vindication of their views.

However, his main reservation was that the memo espoused the radical view that takfir is "one of the clear principles of the religion." This phrase, he explained, contradicts the text of the Central Office's May 29, 2016  statement, which said that the takfir of some of the polytheists who regard themselves as Muslims is an issue that has "fallen into obscurity" (i.e., was clearly understood by Muslims in the past, but today is unclear to some of them). The latter language provides some leeway regarding Muslims who are not themselves guilty of heresy but who fail to brand others as such, implying that their reluctance may stem from an incomplete understanding of the laws of takfir and may thus be excusable. The position in the memo, on the other hand, obligates ISIS to apply takfir against all these Muslims, thus precipitating an endless chain of takfir, argues Al-Bin'ali.[12]

Another prominent ISIS scholar, Abu 'Abd Al-Barr Al-Salehi, did not mince words in criticizing the Delegated Committee's memo. In a letter he penned, [13] he called it a "disgrace" that a memo was published so full of "fallacies," "mistakes," and claims unsubstantiated by Sunni books of scholarship. He added that the memo contradicts itself, as well as previous statements of the Central Office with which the memo purports to concur. Furthermore, "this memo turns some leaders of jihad into unbelievers, and others into proponents of [forbidden] innovation, even some [prominent ISIS leaders] mentioned in the memo itself, such as Abu Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi, Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi and Abu Muhammad Al-'Adnani. The memo contradicts what was stipulated in the [Central Office's] statement that preceded it regarding takfir of the polytheists... The issuing of such a shallow and poorly-phrased memo, citing weak hadiths while disregarding reliable ones, bearing the seal of the committee delegated by the Imam [Al-Baghdadi] brings disgrace upon our State... in front of the [entire] Muslim nation..."

Al-Salehi paid a heavy price for his criticism: he was jailed by ISIS' internal security apparatus in Raqqa and was killed when an international coalition airstrike destroyed the building where he was held.

Abu 'Abd Al-Barr Al-Salehi in a 2015 ISIS video

Appendix I – Excerpts from Al-Baghdadi's Letter To The Delegated Committee

Al-Baghdadi's letter to the Delegated Committee, dated April 22, 2017, was published along with an introductory letter by the committee itself, reading:

"To: all provinces, bureaus and departments.

"Re: a letter from the Commander of the Faithful, may Allah protect him...

"May Allah the Blessed and the Exalted protect you... Attached is a letter by the Commander of the Faithful, may Allah support him with His victory... "

Al-Baghdadi's letter reads:

"To the honorable brothers in the Delegated Committee and to those they are charged with supervising – the emirs of the departments and the regional governors, may Allah help them and direct their steps to the path of truth:

"May Allah have mercy upon you. Know that we have entrusted you with the great responsibility of establishing the religion and protecting and caring for the Muslims. In this you are deputies of the Caliph, each of you according to the position he was appointed to and entrusted with. Each of you is a guardian responsible for his subjects, and will stand in front of his Lord [on the Day of Resurrection] and will be asked what he sent forward, and what he left behind [i.e., he will be accountable for his conduct in this world].[14]

The Delegated Committee's letter introducing Al-Baghdadi’s letter (left) and Al-Baghdadi's letter to the Delegated Committee (right)

"Beware of oppression, for it [yields] a bad outcome. Establish justice and equity among people, let me not find one of you harming his subjects or governing them with violence, for [as is said in a hadith] 'the worst of shepherds [leaders] are the harsh ones.' The [Prophet Muhammad] warned and cautioned, saying 'Oh Allah, whoever leads my nation and treats them harshly – treat him harshly, and whoever leads my nation and treats them gently – be gentle with him.' It is appropriate for one who leads the Muslim [nation?] to comport himself with kindness, tenderness, clemency and moderation. Our Lord said [in Quran 3:159]: 'So by mercy from Allah, [O Muhammad], you were lenient with them. And if you had been rude [in speech] and harsh in heart, they would have disbanded from about you.' And Allah's Messenger told Al-Ashaj bin 'Abd Al-Qais: 'You have two qualities that Allah loves: forbearance and patience.'

So guide, bring together, bring good tidings and do not put people off. We renounce before Allah any act of injustice which is covered up and not brought to us, and whose victims are not given [justice].

"[As is said in a hadith]: 'Beware the prayer of the oppressed, for there is no barrier between it and Allah. Forgive righteous people their transgressions.' Your brother Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi."

Appendix II – Excerpts From The Delegated Committee's Memo On Takfir

The Delegated Committee's memo begins by stressing the centrality of the concept of monotheism (tawhid) in the Islamic faith: "Allah the Blessed and Exalted sent the Prophets and Messengers to call their peoples to [embrace] monotheism, reject the false gods of the earth, leave jahiliyya, and fight the leaders of unbelief until there is no more strife and religion is Allah's alone." It mentions the Prophet Muhammad and the first caliphs as ideal champions of monotheism, but says that after them, "monotheism declined, and its traces were nearly wiped out and its lights were almost extinguished... Despite this, the Prophet's promise that a fighting Sunni group would remain [loyal to] the truth was realized, as he said: 'This religion shall continue to exist. A group of Muslims will keep fighting for it until the Day of Resurrection.' This came [to be] when Allah permitted the emergence of the state founded by the scholars and leaders of the Najdi da'wa [the Wahhabi scholars of the first Saudi state], who fulfilled their obligation to Allah by fighting the idolatrous worship of graves.[15] They called people to Allah with insight, with their tongues and their spears. They published and compiled books, traveled through the land, and called for monotheism and jihad. Their state maintained this character for nearly 70 years...

"The Islamic State, may Allah glorify it with monotheism, was established along the same lines, having put forward tens of thousands of its sons to fight the idolatry of the constitution[16] embodied by the global order which converged upon it from the east to the west to fight it. Everyone knows that this State fights in order to apply shari'a law and uproot the inferior man-made law... Everyone knows that we acknowledge the heresy of the tawaghit [false gods, tyrants] who legislate and those who elect them... [17] 

"This is what the Islamic State has called for since its initial establishment by the sheikh Abu Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi. It rejected the tawaghit of the land, their laws, their borders, their norms and their rituals. It waged war on polytheists of every kind: the rafidha [Shi'ites], secularists and democrats, after pronouncing them to be unbelievers and showing hostility to them. It also proclaimed to be infidels all those who defend them, and today it continues to fight for this cause, and is fought because of it..."

ISIS founder Abu Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi

The document then presents statements by Al-Zarqawi, Al-Baghdadi and ISIS's former spokesman Abu Muhammad Al-'Adnani in which they set out their views on takfir, and declares: "This is the Islamic State's methodology, may Allah glorify it with monotheism. As for statements that dilute the faith of al-wala' wal-bara' [loyalty to Muslims and renouncement of non-Muslims] and bury [the ideal of] millat Ibrahim[18] with the doubts of the people of irja and tajahum[19], or [alternatively] the claims of the extremists who have strayed from the religion as an arrow veers away from the bow – the [Islamic] State renounces these [statements and claims]. No one is authorized to speak in its name or attribute to it statements that it did not make. Its stance is what was said by its leader [Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi], may Allah glorify him with monotheism, and his delegates [the Delegated Committee] or its official spokesman. As for fabricating lies and making capricious statements, this is speaking without knowledge, which Allah forbade us to do..."

Elaborating on the two groups that ISIS denounces, the memo first addresses "the people of irja", i.e., the group which espouses over-lenient positions and which attributes these positions to ISIS: "The first type [of people we denounce] are those who attribute to the Islamic State stances of irja which contradict its [actual] methodology, or who claim that their own [lax] positions are the positions of the Islamic State... Among them are those who accept as Muslims [i.e., refrain from excommunicating] those people who refrain from proclaiming the taghout [false gods, tyrants] of their country to be infidels, and those who treat the takfir of [certain] polytheists as an obscure or controversial matter [rather than a clear-cut issue]. Even worse, these people claim this to be the Islamic State's [official] stance. This is a pure fabrication. Everyone knows that the Islamic State has not hesitated for a single day to acknowledge the heresy of polytheists, and that it regards this issue to be one of the clear principles of the religion, which must be known [to a Muslim even] before he knows [the rules of] prayer and other religious obligations that are necessarily known... [emphasis added]"

Moving on to the second group – the extremists – the memo says: "The second type [of people we denounce] are those who defame [ISIS] and even accuse it of heresy because they are influenced by the deviant innovations of the Khawarij [20] or the Mu'tazila.[21] Some of them, ignorant of the beliefs of the people of Sunna, condemn [ISIS simply] for espousing stances which are pure stances of the people of Sunna. Others attribute to ISIS stances it never adopted...  

"Among them are those who accuse [ISIS] of heresy because they claim it allows committing explicit [acts of] unbelief if this benefits the war [effort]. This is a lie. The explicit belief of the Islamic State on this matter is that it is forbidden to commit explicit [acts of] idolatry and unbelief, unless this is done under duress...;

"[Also among these people are] those who return to where they came from [i.e. leave ISIS territory] and renege on their oath of allegiance [bay'a]. They return to the lands of unbelief, citing the mistakes, shortcomings, negligence or oppression of [ISIS] commanders as an excuse. This is the very essence of [Khawarij-like] behavior... Did these deserters consider what they had come to when they sought a land ruled by the laws of unbelief instead of a land ruled by the laws of Islam and [chose to] live among the people of unbelief and immorality rather than among the people of religion and righteousness?...

"As for those who claim to be providing 'sincere advice' to the commanders in the form of slander, denunciation, lies and desertion, which please no one but the enemies – namely the infidels, the apostates and the hypocrites – the best that can be said of them is that they are acting in contradiction to the Quran, violating the Sunna, and shunning the path of the Salaf [the predecessors] with regard to providing sincere advice to the commanders...

"Do these agitators who purport to be reformers not know that obedience to the [rightful] authority in obeying Allah is one of the foundations of the Sunni community?... The boundaries of obedience are laid down by the shari'a, namely the obligation to obey and submit to the leader in [all] matters that are permitted,[22] whether one is strong or weary, in times of ease and in times of hardship... As long as the leader's commands are compatible with [Islam] he must be obeyed. [Even] if he commands something deplorable, he must be obeyed. [Even] if he commands something that people abhor – he must still be obeyed, since obedience applies whether people like [the command] or hate it...

"The people of Sunna are patient with their leaders, they provide them with sincere counsel and admonish them discreetly. They do not seek to incite the general public and the subjects against the leaders. They do not help the infidels against their state and leaders. It is a well-known [fact] that mentioning the shortcomings of the commanders and their mistakes in private or public meetings leads to nothing but bad outcomes..."

Appendix III – Excerpts From Turki Al-Bin'ali's Response To The Delegated Committee's Memo

ISIS mufti Turki Al-Bin'ali's letter to the Delegated Committee consisted of an introduction followed by 20 objections to the positions expressed in the memo. While it did not bear an official logo, the letter is said to reflect the opinion of ISIS's Center for Research and Studies, responsible for issuing papers on religious matters.[23]

In the introduction Al-Bin'ali presents his reasons for writing the letter, most of them pertaining to the religious duty of advising and counseling and fulfilling one's duty toward the martyrs. The fifth reason cites the need to refrain from playing into the hands of the extremists who criticize ISIS:

"[The Delegated Committee's memo on takfir] exacerbated matters. The extremists on the Internet celebrated it. Some of them delivered sermons from mosque pulpits, saying, 'Allah akbar! Truth has appeared and falsehood has departed. Today the Islamic State has repented and returned to the truth by saying that takfir is among the clear principles of religion.' Some extremists on the Internet said that 'this memo is a step forward. It compels Al-Baghdadi to renew his Islam and repent his heresy,' Allah forbid [such talk]. Those who follow the media of friends and foes alike will find that this memo gave a green light to defame the Islamic State, may Allah glorify it with monotheism. Dozens of brothers have informed us of this..."

Al-Bin'ali's letter to the Delegated Committee

The following are excerpts from some of Al-Bin'ali's 20 objections:

  • "Why was a memo of this kind issued in such haste?...

  • "Why wasn't the memo shown to scholars fully versed [in Islam] – which, praise Allah, are numerous? [For the sake of comparison,] Sheikh Abu Muhammad Al-Furqan, may Allah have mercy on him, issued his statement [the May 29, 2016 statement by the Central Office] only after conducting 19 meetings with dozens of scholars, and even this statement evokes criticism to this day... Moreover, we have been informed that the author of the memo did not even consult the members of the Doctrinal Committee – which was established to discuss such matters – such as Sheikh Abu Muhammad Al-Masri, may Allah grant him success.

  • "Is it conceivable that the Caliphate State's memos and statements should be reactions to pamphlets and audio messages circulated by the extremists? The basic principle is that such matters should be published in well-founded books, not in hasty memos that may contain mistakes and errors, especially if they are meant for distribution among all the soldiers...

  • "All the brothers I met recently noticed that the memo was [apparently] published out of fear of the extremists' recklessness... As evidence they pointed to the fact that this memo contradicted the statement of Sheikh Abu Muhammad Al-Furqan, may Allah accept him... This... is unlike what we have come to expect of our sheikhs and leaders since the establishment of the Islamic State, may Allah glorify it, [namely a stance that] does not fear the reproach of critics...

  • "Why [was a memo addressing] such sensitive matters published with the second most important seal in the Islamic State, inferior only to that of the Imam [Al-Baghdadi], may Allah glorify him?..." Al-Bin'ali goes on to explain that, if the memo had been issued by a lesser authority, such as the Doctrinal Committee, for example, correcting its errors would have been less problematic. He adds that the style of the memo, the legal argumentation and the way it proceeds from one thought to the next [all] indicate that it was prepared by Abu Zaid Al-Iraqi (this is apparently the kunya of a senior member of ISIS's leadership, whom Al-Bin'ali does not hold in high regard as a scholar).  

  • "How can a weak, inadequate, hadith be used to prove such grave matters, without [presenting] any correct hadiths? [This is] especially [puzzling] given that this memo was issued by the [body directly] subordinate to the Imam [Al-Baghdadi, i.e. the Delegated Committee]." Al-Bin'ali goes on to discredit several hadiths mentioned in the Delegated Committee's memo.

  • "In memos and statements of this sort that address the most profound religious matters, it would have been possible to avoid many grammatical mistakes by showing them to competent scholars who would edit them, and [such scholars] are numerous, praise Allah...

  • "The following is the most important remark: How could the memo be issued with such an obvious contradiction? The memo contradicts what was firmly established in sheikh Abu Muhammad Al-Furqan's statement [i.e., the Central Office's Statement No. 155, from May 29, 2016], in which he said that 'the claim that declaring the heresy [of those who refrain from excommunicating others] is a principle of religion involves an invalid interpretation [of the shari'a]...' Then along comes this memo and says explicitly that 'the Islamic State... regards the issue of proclaiming the heresy of polytheists to be one of the clear principles of the religion...' One can either speak of 'principles of religion' or of 'clear issues.' But [the memo] combined the two, producing a new position that contradicts the previous statement [by Al-Furqan] and goes farther than the position of the extremists themselves."

    Explaining the basic problem he identifies in the Delegated Committee's memo, Al-Bin'ali argues that regarding takfir as a clear principle of the religion leads to an endless chain of takfir: "A clear principle of religion is something that is known prior to the Prophetic proof [i.e., an elementary theological concept known to mankind even before and regardless of the revelation of holy scripture]. This means that [two sinners] – one who says that another god exists besides Allah and one who refrains [from takfir, i.e., from proclaiming the heresy of one who is guilty of it] – are on the same level. The implication of this is that a person who refrains [from takfir] has violated one of 'the clear principles of the religion,' and therefore he [himself] is a polytheist who cannot be excused on [the grounds of] ignorance or according to any interpretation. The same goes for a second person who refrains [from proclaiming takfir against the first person], since he too has violated one of the clear principles of religion, and the same goes for the third, fourth, and one-hundredth, until one is forced to proclaim takfir against oneself..."

To underscore his point, Al-Bin'ali says that the Delegated Committee's position would force ISIS members to proclaim even ISIS founder Abu Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi and his successors to be unbelievers, since they accepted as Muslims certain scholars who ISIS now regards as heretics. He adds: "We have not seen a single scholar of the Islamic State, may Allah glorify it with monotheism, either among those who died or among those who are still alive, who says that takfir is one of the clear principles of religion"...

  • "The author of the memo asserted that the Islamic State, may Allah glorify it with monotheism, does not believe that 'as a rule, people in a [country] that has recently become part of the Abode of Unbelief[24] [dar al-kur al-tari'] are considered Muslims,' and that attributing this position to ISIS is a lie and slander. This is a rash assertion, because whoever is familiar with the Islamic State's actions since its establishment knows that it targets only those whose heresy and unbelief have been proven." Al-Bin'ali quotes statements by Abu Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi and Abu Muhammad Al-'Adnani which clearly indicate that they regarded the Sunnis of Syria and Iraq as Muslims.

  •  "The author of the memo... did not denounce the [above] assertion – that 'as a rule, people in a [country] that has recently become part of the Abode of Unbelief are considered unbelievers' – although [denouncing it] is necessary as a part of refuting the extremists' [claims]. One of the extremists' basic tenets is that [these people] are considered unbelievers. This is an invalid principle, as the mujahid sheikh Abu Muhammad Al-'Adnani pointed out..."

Al-Bin'ali concluded his remarks:

"In sum, we have written these lines containing the most important remarks and comments, and we place them before the sheikhs of the Delegated Committee, may Allah grant them success, in hope that they consider them carefully and correct what they must correct... especially since the correctness and clarity of creed are among the most important prerequisites for victory...

"It is imperative to fix this great error, which we believe is a [mere] slip of the pen, Allah willing... especially considering that this error was published in the name of the Delegated Committee, and therefore thousands of Muslims worldwide might adopt it. The mistake of the scholar is the mistake of the whole world, as the saying goes. Remember that you will stand before Allah on the Day of Resurrection, when neither titles nor positions of power [have any meaning]."


[1], June 4, 2017.

[2] For a detailed discussion of ISIS's official position on takfir as it was spelled out in a 2015 pamphlet titled "These Are Our Creeds and Ways," see Ella Landau-Tasseron, "A Self-Profile Of The Islamic State: The Creedal Document," MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1253, June 2, 2016.

[3] The Delegated Committee is ISIS's top executive body, which assists the organization's leader in supervising its regional branches (or "provinces") as well as the departments (dawawin) and committees in charge of finances, recruitment, military procurement, etc. See: ISIS Video Sets Out Structure Of Caliphate State, July 5, 2017.

[4] It should be mentioned that two versions of the letter have been circulated by ISIS supporters online. One bears no legible date but is accompanied by a letter from the Delegated Committee dated April 22, 2017. The second bears Al-Baghdadi's seal and is dated May 1, 2017. In any case, the letter was circulated by the Delegated Committee several weeks before it issued its memo., May 6, 2017;, May 15, 2017;, May 16, 2017.

[5] Some ISIS supporters on Facebook claimed that Al-Baghdadi had been actively involved in drafting the memo and had personally approved it. 

[6] Quran 8:42.

[7] Al-Islamiyyah, May 19, 2017; Al-Naba  82, May 25, 2017, p. 15; Rumiyah 10, June 8, 2017, pp. 12-14.

[8] See MEMRI JTTM report, ISIS Recalls Own Textbooks On Religion From Training Camps, July 6, 2017. 

[9] Al-Naba' 85, June 15, 2017, p. 12.

[10] See JTTM report In First Audio Message, Released Day Prior To Widespread Attacks Throughout Iraq, ISI Leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi Says ISI Is Alive And Well, Threatens U.S. And Shi'ites, July 24, 2012. It should be noted that, regardless of Al-Baghdadi's public statements, there was no love lost between ISIS and Al-Libi, who was a fierce critic of Al-Baghdadi's organization, as evident from internal Al-Qaeda correspondence uncovered by the US military. By denouncing him in Al-Naba, ISIS was not only signaling a certain shift in its ideology but also settling an old score.

[11] Al-Bin'ali was killed in an airstrike in Syria, near Al-Mayadeen, on May 31. See,, June 20, 2017.

[12] Al-Bin'ali's letter was circulated via Telegram channels and Twitter. See e.g.,, June 29, 2017.

[13] The letter is unsigned, but Abu 'Abd Al-Barr Al-Salehi's students have attributed it to him and to his teacher Abu Al-Nassar, both of them ISIS clerics of Kuwaiti origin. Ahbab, July 14, 2017.

[14] Based on Quran 75:13.

[15] Referring to the first Saudi state and the early Wahhabis' campaign against Sufism and the veneration of saints' tombs.

[16] Referring to modern regimes, which the jihadis consider antithetical to the Islamic faith. In Arabic the phrases "idolatry of graves" and "idolatry of the constitution" rhyme:  shirk al-qubour and shirk al-dustour.

[17] Taghout, pl. tawaghit: lit. false god, idol. In jihadi parlance this usually refers to rulers and administrations that do not apply shari'a law but rather "man-made" laws, which the jihadis consider an act of heresy.

[18] Millat Ibrahim – the religion of Abraham – in Salafi-jihadi discourse this refers to the obligation to renounce polytheism and disassociate from polytheists.

[19] Tajahum or jahmiyya – a pejorative applied by radical Salafis to the more moderate ones. The term refers to an early Islamic theologian, Jahm Ibn Safwan, who argued that no Muslim has the ability to judge the quality of another's faith, for only Allah can see what is in people's hearts.

[20] Khawarij/Kharijites – an early Islamic sect that advocated excommunicating Muslims even for minor sins and was proclaimed heretical by the mainstream Sunna. Today the term is used to brand Muslims groups as extremist, and is often applied to ISIS itself and to other Salafi-jihadi groups by their critics in the Muslim world.

[21] Mu'tazila – a school of Islamic philosophy and theology which was prominent during the 8th century. Following Hanbali scholars and Ibn Taymiyya, Salafis consider the Mu'tazila to be heretical, inter alia due to their belief that Muslims who are guilty of major sin are sentenced to hell for eternity, a position which Ibn Taymiyya considered to be very similar to that of the Kharijites.

[22] This refers to the Islamic principle that the rightful leader of the Muslims must be obeyed under all circumstances, unless obeying him involves committing clear acts of heresy.  

[23] For a discussion of Al-Bin'ali's letter, see:

[24] There is a debate among Salafi theologians as to whether residents of dar al-kufr al-tari' – i.e. countries that were originally subject to shari'a law (and were therefore considered part of the Abode of Islam) but are no longer subject to this law (and are therefore considered to be part of the Abode of Unbelief) – should be considered Muslims by default, or not.

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