Tawhid al-Hakimiyah – A Jihadi Achilles Heel?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 29

Salafism, the Islamic reformist current that first appeared in the Middle East in the 19th century, is a more diverse movement than many observers initially assume. Like other Islamic movements, it now encompasses a wide variety of distinct sub-sets, each with its own scholars and emphasis on the study and practice of particular concepts.

It will surprise few readers that doctrinal disagreements often occur between the various schools of Salafism. Of particular interest in counterterrorism terms, however, are the rifts between followers of the more apolitical, “establishment” schools and those of a violent offshoot of Salafism, Salafi-Jihadism. What is perhaps more surprising is that these disagreements persist over interpretations of some of Islam’s most fundamental concepts, on which, it might be assumed, virtually all Muslims agree. Such fissures may have wider counterterrorism implications.

One particular area of perpetual disagreement concerns the application of the concept of Tawhid, or the “oneness” of Allah. As a monotheistic religion, Tawhid is intrinsically accepted by virtually all Muslims. When a Muslim makes his or her shahadah, or declaration of faith, they state their belief in one God, who is without partner, and that there is nothing else which is to be worshipped, followed, or obeyed besides him. [1]. The Salafi-Jihadi interpretation of Tawhid’s practical obligations remains one of a number of potential doctrinal vulnerabilities in the ideology of the global Salafi-Jihadi movement, including its justification for declaring Muslim governments and individuals apostate (takfir). A deeper understanding of the intra-Salafi debates on the core issues underpinning the Islamic legitimacy of groups such as al-Qaeda and their choice of targets offers an opportunity for the counterterrorism community to increase the effectiveness of their response to Islamist radicalization.

Tawhid and its Categories

To assist in the clear and comprehensive instruction of Muslims in the various aspects and obligations of Tawhid and to bolster the religion against doctrinal innovation, classical Islamic scholars divided the concept into a number of categories. While there is much diversity of opinion on the validity of these classifications, three of the most widely-accepted are:

•    Tawhid al-Rububiyah: Oneness of Allah’s lordship, or the belief that there is only one God (Allah) and that nothing else is equal to him.
•    Tawhid al-Uluhiyah: Allah is the only One God who is worthy of worship, and that there is nothing to be worshipped, followed, or obeyed except Allah
•    Tawhid al-Asma wa’l-Sifaat: Oneness of Allah’s many names and attributes, without deviation, alteration, or similitude.

Salafists stress that these terms will not be found in either the Quran or Sunnah, but that they are merely tools to aid the most accurate and complete teaching of Tawhid possible.

Oneness of Legislation and Jihadi Ideology

A controversial issue relating to the study and application of Tawhid has re-surfaced with the growth of the Salafi-Jihadi movement, which emphasizes one aspect in particular: Tawhid al-Hakimiyah, or oneness of Allah’s judgement and legislation. The debate over the validity of this concept has typically taken the form of a fatwa (religious judgement) issued by leading scholars of the Saudi religious establishment, and opposing fatwas by the shaykhs of the Salafi-Jihad. More recently, the debate has turned to the internet.

The term Tawhid al-Hakimiyah is derived from the Arabic word “hukm” (legislation or law), and in this context refers to the obligation to rule only by what Allah has revealed, and associating no other forms of legislation with it. Some Salafi scholars sub-divide Tawhid al-Hakimiyah into four categories:

•    Al-Futiyah – the issuance of Fatwa
•    Al-Qa’dthaa’ – judicial rulings
•    Management of public affairs in accordance with Shari’a
•    Adoption of rulings, or the adoption of divine laws as dictated by the Quran and Sunnah

It should be stressed that the controversy is not over the basic principle of the oneness of Allah’s legislation, but rather its characterization as a separate category of Tawhid. For many Salafists, it is thought unnecessary to create a separate category of Tawhid to specifically educate Muslims in the importance of the oneness of Allah’s legislation. Most of the leading contemporary Salafi scholars of Saudi Arabia have refuted as an innovation (bida) any attempt to classify Tawhid al-Hakimiyah as a fourth category of Tawhid, with the largely agreed-upon three categories being judged sufficient to fully explain Tawhid’s many aspects and obligations. [2] Those scholars willing to acknowledge the classification typically claim that the concept is a sub-category of Tawhid al-Uluhiyah, though others argue it falls under Tawhid ar-Rububiyah. Still others believe it falls under both these definitions as well as under Tawhid al-Asma wa’l-Sifaat. A survey of fatwa, books, articles, and interviews with shaykhs on this issue suggests that the consensus is toward oneness of legislation falling under Tawhid al-Uluhiyah.

Political Agendas

Such introspective debates over classification are driven by a more serious fissure, however. Of greater concern to many Salafi scholars is that the prominence given by Salafi–Jihadists to Tawhid al-Hakimiyah belies political motives, not a commitment to the most complete practice of Tawhid possible. They argue that categorizing the oneness of Allah’s legislation is an attempt by Salafi-Jihadists to provide clearer theological justification for their belief that modern Muslim governments, such as that in Saudi Arabia, are un-Islamic. This provides the driver with a doctrinal narrative which de-facto ends in the declaration of these governments as apostate and their legitimization as targets in a violent Jihad. According to Shaykh Muhammad Salih al-Uthaimeen, one of the 20th century’s leading Saudi religious ideologues:

"Whoever claims that there is a fourth category of tawhid under the title ‘Tawhid al-Hakimiyah’ is to be counted as an innovator [mubtadi]. So this is an innovated categorization which emanates from an ignorant person who does not understand anything of the affairs of aqidah [creed] and the din [religion]." [3]

Another leading Saudi Salafi shaykh, Abdullah ibn Ghudayyan, warned of the true designs of those seeking to elevate the status of Tawhid al-Hakimiyah when he remarked:

"The follower of truth will reflect and see the harm caused by those who raised the banner of al-Hakimiyah, intending by it purely political agendas and what is attached to it of violent and bloody revolutions and a destructive jihad against the Muslims themselves, let alone the non-Muslims." [4]

The doctrinal narrative used by Salafi-Jihadists to underpin ‘Jihad against the rulers’ essentially runs as follows:

•    Tawhid mandates that there is nothing that should be worshipped, followed, or obeyed other than Allah
•    Tawhid al-Hakimiyah clarifies that legislation is only for Allah and that establishing a system of governance or legislation other than what Allah has revealed is a sin
•    Establishing such systems is in effect an attempt to associate partners with Allah. This is an act of shirk akhbar (major polytheism) which takes a Muslim outside the fold of Islam
•    The Quran and Sunnah mandate a Muslim to excommunicate such apostates and to fight them until Tawhid is established. Many of the rulers of Muslim countries and the governments they have established are based on man-made legislation and not Shari’a, which they refuse to fully implement. Their disobedience of Shari’a makes these governments apostate and it is obligatory (fard) for Muslims to overthrow them.

Jihadist Scholars Respond

The refutations of establishment scholars have been dismissed by Salafi-Jihadists, who typically argue that pro-state clerics have labelled them innovators as part of an agreement with their apostate paymasters to mask the full extent of a Muslim’s obligations to fully implement Shari’a. They list scores of verses from the Quran as proof of the prominence given by Allah to Muslims striving to implement his rule on earth. They also cite a range of classical and contemporary scholars who have stressed the importance of Tawhid al-Hakimiyah in making Muslims aware of the need to eliminate all forms of legislation in favor of Shari’a. [5] Even those who concede that it cannot officially be classified as a fourth pillar of Tawhid are suspicious of scholars who relegate it to a sub-category. This, they believe, is often an attempt by pro-establishment “palace scholars” to conceal Tawhid al-Hakimiyah’s importance from Muslims.

Abu Qatada al-Filistini, the Salafi-Jihadi ideologue once described as “al-Qaeda’s spiritual ambassador in Europe,” has written and spoken at length on the Salafi-Jihadi interpretation of Tawhid al-Hakimiyah. [6] Abu Qatada has argued that Tawhid al-Hakimiyah is a valid classification of Tawhid and rejected the claim that it is an innovation; all classifications of Tawhid, he argues, are matters of ijtihad (interpretation) and are not categorizations based on solid proof from the Quran and Sunnah. Therefore, he says, they cannot be innovations. Abu Qatada claims that, as with other classifications of Tawhid, Tawhid al-Hakimiyah is used in order to educate Muslims on the various aspects and obligations of Tawhid, and nothing more. However, he adds, given the current state of governance across the Muslim world, Tawhid al-Hakimiyah is a valuable and important tool to counter those Muslims who argue against full implementation of Allah’s laws.

Another leading Salafi-Jihadi ideologue, Shaykh Abu Basir al-Tartusi, describes Tawhid al-Hakimiyah as a sub-division of Tawhid al-Uluhiyah, but argues that it is an important and necessary classification. [7]

Significance and Implications

From a counterterrorism perspective, it may initially be difficult to appreciate how seemingly esoteric theological debates, refutations, and counter-refutations such as those discussed above could have even an indirect bearing on national security. However, the outcome of such debates between Salafi-Jihadists and their opponents within the Salafi community may have a longer-term strategic affect on the mobilizing potential of the jihadi message, and in turn the survival and growth of the movement as a whole. To be characterized by leading clerics as religious deviants in their interpretation of the most fundamental cornerstone of Islam challenges the Jihadists’ perceived legitimacy, which rests in large part on their claims to be the only contemporary sect practicing Islam in full accordance with the example of the Prophet Muhammad and the Companions. One of the harshest criticisms meted out by Salafi-Jihadists against adherents of other Islamic sects is that their belief and practice has become polluted by innovation and polytheism – to be accused of the same sin by rival Salafists (including many of Salafism’s most respected ideologues), therefore has the potential to severely damage the appeal of Salafi-Jihadism.

Such debates are firstly a reminder for counterterrorism analysts and policy-makers of the potential fragility of this movement’s ideological undercarriage. A recent brief survey of postings on Salafi-Jihadi internet forums suggests the movement is painfully conscious of such vulnerabilities, and is hence eager to refute its detractors whenever it is the target of doctrinal criticism. For example, many members of the more committed Salafi-Jihadi forums have cautioned forum participants to identify and shun anyone posting suspected “bait comments” designed to draw them into a potentially damaging doctrinal spat. Nevertheless, these same participants in many cases find it almost impossible not to refute at length those who start discussions on contentious issues such Tawhid al-Hakimiyah, not to mention other perceived doctrinal weaknesses. As academics such as Dr. Jarret Brachman have noted, the jihadists’ own discourse is often the counterterrorism community’s best guide on the areas of Salafi-Jihadi doctrine most open to attack. [8]

Remote observation of this important discourse, though its relevance in counterterrorism terms may at times appear tenuous, firstly equips analysts and strategic communications practitioners with deeper insight into their adversaries’ ideology and worldview. It may also help them identify contentious aspects of that ideology that might be vulnerable to targeted communications designed to expose weaknesses in the Salafi-Jihadi message.

1. A useful English-language reference work on Tawhid is the Dr. Salih al Fawzan’s Concise Collection Creed and Tawhid, Al Maiman Publishing House (2009). The Collection includes an abridged version of the classic Salafi study of Tawhid, Kitab al-Tawhid, by Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab.
2. Examples of such refutations include that of Saleh al-Fawzan, a leading Saudi Salafi Shaykh. See: https://www.salafipublications.com/sps/sp.cfm?subsecID=MNJ07&articleID=MNJ070005&articlePages=1 . Similar refutations were issued by Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani, a hugely influential Salafi ideologue from Albania who died in 1999. See: https://www.salafipublications.com/sps/sp.cfm?subsecID=MNJ07&articleID=MNJ070002&articlePages=1 . A further refutation of Tawhid al-Hakimiyah as a fourth category of Tawhid was written by Shaykh Muhammad Ibn Saleh al-Uthaimeen, one of the most prominent Salafi scholars of the last century (d. 2001). See: https://www.salafipublications.com/sps/sp.cfm?subsecID=MNJ07&articleID=MNJ070004&articlePages=1
3. “Shaykh Muhammad bin Saalih al-Uthaymeen: Tawhid al-Haakimiyyah As a Fourth Category Comes from an Ignorant Mubtadi,” https://www.themadkhalis.com/md/articles/prtli-shaykh-muhammad-bin-saalih-al-uthaymeen-on-tawhid-al-haakimiyyah-as-a-fourth-category.cfm
4. “Shaikh Salih al-Fawzaan on Tawheed ul-Haakimiyyah,” https://abdurrahman.org/tawheed/haakimiyyahFawzaan.html
5. Classical scholars often cited by jihadists who have written at length on this issue include Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn Qayyim, and Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the ideological founder of the Wahhabi movement. Contemporary Salafist ideologues that have written and spoken on this subject include Abu Qatada al-Filistini, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Abu Basir al-Tartusi, and Abdul Qadir Ibn Abdul-Aziz.
6. Abu Qatada al-Filistini (real name: Omar Mahmud Othman) is one of the most influential and widely respected living Salafi-Jihadi ideologues. He is currently in detention in the UK, where he is fighting extradition to his native Jordan on terrorism charges. For a summary of Abu Qatada’s position on Tawhid al-Hakimiyah, see the following interview at: https://salafiyyah jadeedah.tripod.com/Hakimiyah/Divisions_of_Tawheed.htm
7. Shaykh Abu Basir al-Tartusi (real name:  Abd-al Mun’em Mustafa Halima) is a Syrian Salafi-Jihadi ideologue residing in London. He is considered by many of his supporters to be one of the pre-eminent contemporary thought-leaders of the global Salafi-Jihad. A summary of Abu Basir al-Tartusi’s position on this issue can be found on the English language version of his web site: https://www.en.altartosi.com/haakimiyyah.htm  
8. See Jarret Brachman, Global Jihadism; Theory and Practice (London, 2009).