A master terrorist is debating with a subordinate over some point of strategy in their bunker. The sheikh narrows his eyes, and after careful consideration remarks: ‘I agree it works in practice. But does it work in theory?’

This retelling of an old joke about academia must bear some resemblance to the intellectual life of an al-Qaeda fanatic, given the insights offered by Shiraz Maher’s new book, Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea.

Whereas one might assume groups like Islamic State take a pragmatic approach to their wars and attacks, they in fact rely on decades – sometimes centuries – of jurisprudence and religious interpretation. As Maher writes:

‘The violence of groups like al-Qaeda and associated movements is neither irrational nor whimsical. For every act of violence they will offer some form of reference to scriptural sources – however tenuous, esoteric, or contested – to explain their actions.’

Maher is well-placed to guide us through this intricate theology, and its development on the battlefields of Afghanistan, Algeria and Iraq. The author is an expert on the ‘foreign fighters’ phenomenon, monitoring the flow of ISIS recruits to Syria for the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization, based at Kings College, London. His brief stint with the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (he left in 2005) means he is also well-versed in the Talmudic parsing of religious doctrine.

Maher’s focus is the militant wing of the Salafi movement, what he calls the ‘violent-rejectionists’, who not only seek to impose sharia (Islamic law) as a return to the time of the prophet Muhammad, but who also reject the modern nation state, and sometimes the international order itself. (See: Islamic State’s attempt to abolish the Sykes-Picot border between Iraq and Syria.)

He argues salafi-jihadism has five essential features based on Islamic concepts, and dedicates a chapter to each, providing the classical or traditional meaning, and looking at how it has been modified by groups like al-Qaeda. He does so using the esoteric writings of Salafi thinkers as primary sources, combining impeccable scholarship with a journalist’s knack for a fluid and gripping narrative.

Thus we learn how the murder of fellow Muslims can be justified in the name of self-defence, by virtue of their having tacitly supported an ‘oppressive’ or heretical form of government. In practice this means having used public transport, worked in the state-sector, voted in democratic elections – effectively for not having been jihadist themselves.

The overlapping circles of religious ideas drawn upon, (some of them almost comical in their hair-splitting), in the end allow Jihadists to kill whomever they like, based largely on convenience, and to claim divine sanction for their slaughter.

This relates to one of Maher’s key arguments; that ‘the exigencies of war have proved to be a driver and catalyst of theological change’. New readings of theology, in other words, have been developed to serve new fronts in their holy war.

So when we read Islamic State’s doctrinal reasons for the burning alive of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh, (controversial among Jihadists, as death by fire is thought to be the preserve of Allah), we might question whether they are carrying out what they consider religious teaching, or simply using Islam to justify their sadism.

With the paradox of Muslim literalists reverse-engineering a scriptural mandate, this excellent book allows the reader to dispense with the needless opposition of ‘ideological’ and ‘materialist’ analyses, and wonder if there is not a more dialectical relationship between theory and practice.

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Adam Barnett is staff writer at Left Foot Forward. He tweets @AdamBarnett13

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