On March 12, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi—born Isam Muhammad Tahir al-Barqawi in 1959—was released from a Jordanian prison after almost three years imprisonment without trial (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 13). Maqdisi has long played a pivotal role in defining jihadist ideology. After taking part in the Afghan jihad of the 1980s, he refined the ideology of declaring takfir against other Muslims—i.e. defining them as apostates and thus deserving of death—leading to the creation of jihadist groups in Jordan and 1995 attacks in Saudi Arabia—whose government he had denounced as un-Islamic as early as 1989. Between 1995 and 1999, Maqdisi was imprisoned in Jordan, during which time he expanded his ideas and built new radical networks with the help of his right-hand man, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. From 1999, Maqdisi has spent most of his time in Jordanian prisons, reemerging briefly in 2005 before being re-imprisoned for giving an interview to al-Jazeera television in which he criticized Zarqawi’s attacks on civilians while reiterating his support for a broader jihad against the West and “un-Islamic” governments. Despite his long prison terms, however, Maqdisi has written and distributed several accessible books addressing key issues such as democracy, takfir and jihadist tactics, giving him an almost unmatched influence over the evolution of jihadist theory.
Maqdisi’s latest release from prison—apparently on grounds of ill-health—was reported extensively on radical Islamic websites. Significantly, even Islamic extremists outside the Arab world reacted euphorically to the news of his release. For example, a senior member of the islamicawakening.com forum, a prominent English-language Salafi website, responded to news of his release by writing: “AllahuAkbar! AllahuAkbar! Nothing describes the happiness of the mu’mineen [faithful] all around the world this day. AllahuAkbar! Our beloved Shaykh is released!” Similarly, on islambase.co.uk, the online home of many British extremists, one member described his release as “the best news in ages.” Their attitude suggests that despite the death of Zarqawi and his own long imprisonment, Maqdisi’s teachings—a mixture of bigotry and pragmatism—are still seen as relevant. Indeed, Maqdisi’s correct predictions in 2004 and 2005 that Zarqawi’s attacks on Muslim civilians would undermine support for al-Qaeda both in Iraq and abroad may have further boosted his standing among Islamic extremists worldwide. In light of Maqdisi’s influence and popularity it is worth examining his key ideas in detail.
Maqdisi on Takfir
Like many jihadis, Maqdisi’s ideology depends on declaring takfir against his Muslim rivals in order to permit violence against them. However, he repeatedly says that declaring takfir should not be undertaken lightly; in his 1997 book This Is Our Aqeedah (creed), he frequently quotes Qadi Iyad, a 12th century judge from Grenada, as saying: “Declaring the blood of those who pray, who are upon tawhid [belief in the unity of God], to be permissible is a serious danger” . Maqdisi adds that takfir should only be pronounced against those who have abandoned tawhid. He says a Muslim abandons tawhid, and hence Islam, if their actions show allegiance to un-Islamic entities by aiding them or participating in their legislation. In other words, he says only those who actively support non-Islamic governments or oppose jihadis should be targeted. Unlike many al-Qaeda members, Maqdisi repeatedly warns on both moral and strategic grounds against pronouncing takfir—and hence carrying out attacks—against ordinary Muslims, saying that in the absence of an Islamic state, it is understandable that many Muslims are unable to perfectly practice Islam. In his July 2004 book, An Appraisal of the Fruits of Jihad (Waqafat me’a themerat al-jihad), he writes contemptuously of jihadis who “start bombing cinemas or make plans to blow up recreation grounds, sports clubs and other such places frequented by sinful Muslims.” Similarly, in This is Our Aqeedah, he criticizes extremists who kill for small infractions of Islamic principles: “The shaving of the beard and imitation of the kuffar (infidel) and other forms of disobedience like it is a general affliction that is spread far and wide. It is not suitable by itself for evidence of takfir.”
A large proportion of Maqdisi’s writings are devoted to the discussion of democracy, which he regards as one of the main threats to Islam. Maqdisi does not object to democracy as a form of representative government, however, but because legislators deliberately create man-made laws to replace or supplement the sharia (Islamic law). Maqdisi’s arguments stem from his belief that a Muslim’s faith is not complete unless he lives under sharia law. As he wrote in his early 1990s book, Democracy is a Religion (Al-Deemoqratiyya Deen): “Obedience in legislation is also an act of worship” . Maqdisi consequently argued that anyone seeking to create legislation to replace the sharia is effectively seeking to take the place of God. From this, he concludes that “anyone who seeks to implement legislation created by someone other than Allah, is in fact a polytheist.” Yet his dislike for democracy is not absolute; he accepts that consultation (shura) between a Muslim ruler and his subjects is a valid Islamic principle—but says that this principle has been hijacked by secularists to legitimize the legislative aspect of democracies. Unlike many al-Qaeda fighters, however, Maqdisi says that the illegitimacy of legislative elections does not necessarily permit attacks against anyone who votes, since some people vote only “to choose representatives for worldly living” rather than to subvert the sharia .
On Jihadi Tactics
Maqdisi believes that violent jihad against non-Muslims is a core part of Islam which can be carried out by individuals at any time or place. In an interview with al-Nida magazine in 1999, he described jihad as an “act of worship that is permissible any time” . He also says that jihad is not dependent on living in an Islamist state or having a Caliph, nor is it restricted to battlefields or places of open conflict. Despite this, however, Maqdisi criticizes would-be jihadis whose enthusiasm for glory blinds them to political and religious realities. In An Appraisal of the Fruits of Jihad, he mocks the “youths moved by their zeal.” He continues:
“[They] have studied neither the sharia nor reality. They have newly begun practicing the religion and have not yet rid themselves of the arrogance, pride, and tribalism of their pre-Islamic days, such that some of them even consider it shameful, cowardly, and disgraceful to be secret and discrete. Others proclaim that they are carrying automatic weapons or bombs that they roam about with in their cars here and there, showing them to this person and that person; they think it is a trivial matter to blab to everyone about how they dream and hope to kill Americans and destroy the American military bases in their lands. They then become astonished at how the enemies of Allah ask him about these things when they interrogate him, and he wonders how they knew about it?!” 
Maqdisi also complains that many jihadist attacks are not carried out for strategic benefit but because such attacks are easy:
“There are other young enthusiasts who oppose us by attacking churches or killing elderly tourists, or relief agency delegates—and other such trivial targets—whereby they do not consider what will benefit the da’wah [call to religion], jihad or Islam, nor do they give preference to what will cause most injury to the enemies of Allah. Rather, their choice is only based on the easiest target.” Maqdisi describes the best mujahideen as those who are “looking for targets that will bring down the enemy combatants and defy them—such as nuclear weapons, or intelligence centers and political posts, or centers of legislation and economy in the land of the polytheists” .
Maqdisi also criticizes those who attack Shiite Muslims, objecting to the attacks on both theological and practical grounds. In a 2005 interview with al-Jazeera, he said that ordinary Shiites could not be held responsible for their beliefs: “The laypeople of the Shiite are like the laypeople of the Sunna, I don’t say 100 percent, but some of these laypeople only know how to pray and fast and do not know the details of the [Shiite] sect” . This pragmatism does not contradict his intellectual hatred for Shiite teachings, saying in This Is Our Aqeedah: “We declare our hostility toward the path of the Rawafid [the Shiites] who hate the companions of the prophet and curse them.”
On the West
Maqdisi frequently writes that hating non-Muslims is an Islamic duty. In his 1984 book, The Religion of Abraham (Millat Ibrahim), he says that this hatred “should be shown openly and declared from the outset.” In An Appraisal of the Fruits of Jihad, he writes that any attacks on non-Muslims are theologically justified regardless of whether they result in any progress toward creating, or “consolidating,” an Islamic state and regardless of changing political circumstances: “Any fighting done for the sake of inflicting injury upon the enemies of Allah is a righteous, legislated act, even if it brings about nothing more than inflicting this injury, angering the enemy [and] causing them harm.” Simultaneously, however, he argues that for strategic reasons the mujahideen should at present concentrate their efforts on trying to establish a pure Islamic state in the Muslim world, saying that “one of the greatest tragedies of the Muslims today is that they do not have an Islamic state that establishes their religion on the earth.” He also says that “the mammoth, accurately planned operations that were carried out in Washington and New York, despite their size, they do not amount to more than fighting for injury”—i.e. that they were justified only because they killed non-Muslims but had no strategic benefit. Importantly, however, he also says that if such attacks make it harder for the mujahideen to consolidate and build a true Islamic state, they should be avoided.
Through his writings which simultaneously justify both extreme violence and tactical pragmatism, Maqdisi has gained an iconic status in radical circles at a time when many jihadis—perhaps including even Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri—are becoming increasingly discredited. As a result, a public retraction of his more extreme views would send shockwaves through the jihadist community; on the other hand, a systematic recalibration of jihadist theory focusing attacks on Western military installations and secularists in the Arab world could reinvigorate the jihadi movement and perhaps win it new followers. Given that Jordan has reportedly forbidden Maqdisi from speaking publicly as part of the conditions of his release, it seems unlikely that his views have changed while in prison (Dar al-Hayat, March 13). A poem allegedly written by Maqdisi in May 2007 tellingly describes a conversation between himself and the prison authorities in which they tell him: “Renounce [your views]; many shaykhs have… Renounce and you will be generously rewarded with material [benefits]. In return, you shall [have freedom to] speak” . Maqdisi records his response as “Prison is sweeter to me … My suffering for the sake of religion is sweet.” If Maqdisi has indeed remained loyal to his ideals, much will depend on how much freedom Jordan’s government gives him to propagate his ideas; Maqdisi has consistently shown himself willing to continue promoting jihadist ideology regardless of the personal consequences.
1. See the English translation of This Is Our Aqeedah (Al-Tibyan Publications) at
2. Taken from Abu Muhammad al-Maleki’s English translation of Democracy is a Religion which is available on the islambase.co.uk website.
3. This Is Our Aqeedah.
4. An edited transcript of the interview is included in the introduction to This Is Our Aqeedah.
5. From An Appraisal of the Fruits of Jihad. An English translation of the book is serialized on the pro-jihadi website tibyan.wordpress.com.
6. An Appraisal of the Fruits of Jihad. From the chapter “Let the expert sharpen the bow.”
7. Cited in Nibras Kazimi, “A Virulent Ideology In Mutation: Zarqawi Upstages Maqdisi” in Current Trends in Islamist Ideology Vol. 2 (Hudson Institute, 2005) p. 67.
8. Middle East Media Research Institute, Islamist Websites Monitor No. 105, “A Poem by Al-Maqdisi on the Occasion of His Father’s Death,” May 31, 2007.