Osama Bin Laden’s Salafi Arguments – Iraq Letter

In Osama Bin Laden’s (OBL) third letter to Iraq, he used a number of Salafi arguments to encourage “jihad.”

English translation

He begins by telling people to stop listening to and obeying scholars (even though the prophet Muhammad ﷺ described the scholars as being the “inheritors of the prophets”). He claims that all of the Muslims have to do this (على جميع المسلمين), which of course then implies that they should start listening to him instead, who is not a scholar. He then claims that the scholars are competing with the texts of the Book (Qur’an) and sunnah with their desires. Yet (as we’ll see next insha’Allah) he then uses out of context quotations from the Qur’an and hadith for his own personal gains. He also claims that they are “restricting” the Ummah from the benefits of these “great events” (the invasion of Iraq). Yet the War on Terror in no way made anything better for the Muslims. It killed over a hundred thousand Muslims and sparked wars, terrorism, and violence between Muslims. It triggered sectarianism that didn’t exist under Saddam. It put the Shias in power and the Sunnis lost out and are still getting shafted to this day. The results are a far cry from the supposed “استفادة” (benefits) that OBL claimed. I guess some folks are just excited by aimless violence with little regard to the consequences. Let’s not forget that it was Al-Qaeda (AQ) who bombed Iraqi Shias in 2004 on the holy day of Ashura, triggering reprisals and intensified sectarian divisions. True Orthodox Sunnis are well-aware of the innovations of the Shias in their holiday celebrations, but they also are well-aware that the blood of a Muslim, even that of a Shia, is inviolable and more sacred than the Ka’aba, per Ibn Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) cited in ibn Kathir. Mass murder like this is absolutely haram with no exceptions. Even if they were Christians celebrating Easter, it would still be haram to harm them or even threaten to do so. How selective these AQ innovators are with the Qur’an and hadith–they cherry-pick out of context to justify their own acts of murder, but ignore the mass body of nusus نصوص (texts) that condemns their own behavior. They then claim Orthodox Sunnis are “worshiping men” for following the ‘ulema, but then find their own uneducated selves to be befit to make ijtihad on a whim. May Allah ﷻ guide this ummah!

He cites Palestine as an example of their leaders’ supposed obstinacy. Exactly what kind of an argument he’s making here I have no idea, actually. He claims “those leaders didn’t do anything.” Yet the various Arab leaders attacked Israel on numerous occasions. The Arab states just lost the wars and Palestine’s situation got worse. There’s also the Intifadas and numerous other Palestinian wars with Israel, which also failed and made matters worse. There was a small victory in 1968, followed by a tragic war between Jordan and the PLO called Black September after elements in the PLO called for overthrowing the Jordanian government. Perhaps if the Arabs would seek knowledge, give up Salafism and modernism for traditional Islam, and stop killing each other, we would get somewhere. Instead, OBL, like Shaytan, calls for doubling down on obvious misguidance and error. Disaster, of course, is always the result. So his argument is literally backwards: he claims their leaders didn’t do anything, yet they did a lot of things, including starting many wars–they just failed and erred.

These out of context, ultra-literalistic readings of the Qur’an to promote his agenda are not representative of Sunni Islamic Orthodoxy. Of course, just like what Evangelicals do, the verses before and after these “sword verses” are not cited and wholly overlooked. This is an abuse of the Qur’an, not a proper citation of it. Yet he ironically claims these Muslims are “worshiping men” who properly understand Islam and thus claiming that he himself is not, yet he abuses the Qur’an and hadith for his own whims. OBL and AQ overtly disobey and twist the Shari’a by attacking and murdering both non-Muslims (like 9/11 and Christian Iraqis) and Muslims by the thousands. Of course he has no actual plan here other than aimlessly initiating war and violence. Apparently senseless violence is the actual aim itself, not building a proper Islamic society. If he actually cared about that he would’ve attended Al-Azhar or something instead of bombing Americans and Iraqi Shias.

OBL’s convenient cherry picking of the Qur’an and hadith in no way support his arguments and are taken totally of out context from the prophetic biography. A brief summary is quoted below with regards to chapter 9:

One must read the long opening passage (first fourteen verses) of this Surah in the thematic order as attempted below to comprehend its historical relevance and defensive character – none of which apply this day:

Whenever they (the hostile Arabs) came upon the Muslims, they defied the peace treaty (of Hudaibiyyah, 628 C.E.) and disregarded even blood ties [9:10]. They pleased the Muslims with their mouths, but there was hatred in their hearts [9:8]. The revelation authorizes the Muslims to kill such archetypes of defiance (kufr) who broke their oaths (treaty obligations) after pledging them, and defamed their religion [9:12] and who had done all they could to drive the Messenger away (from Mecca) and were the first to attack [9:13]. It assures them that God will help them against their enemies, bring disgrace upon them and soothe the bosoms of those who believe [9:14].

Finally, on the day of the great Hajj (631), the revelation gives an ultimatum of four months to the hostile pagans who were repeatedly breaking their treaty obligations (9:1-3). It commands the Muslims to kill them wherever they come upon them, capture them, besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every conceivable place (take all possible measures as advisable in warfare) after the expiry of the treaty period [9:5] unless they repented, kept up prayer and gave the Zakat [9:5, 9:11]. However, the pagans who were honoring their treaty of peace and not helping anyone against the Muslims were to be given time until the treaty term expired [9:4]. At the same time, those pagans who sought protection were to be given protection, until they heard the word of God and then to be delivered to a place of security (i.e. their tribal homelands) (so that they were not harmed by any other victimized Muslim) [9:6].

In no way does his quotation support his arguments. These verses were about certain, specific, particular pagans in the Arabian Peninsula who were breaking their treaties. AQ’s actions in Iraq and elsewhere, such as murdering their fellow Muslims, are in no way justified. Their methods in attacking the Americans in Iraq also frequently resulted in harm to the local Muslim population as well. Just like some of the Americans who fought without regard to civilian bystanders, AQ also attacked without regard for collateral damage and wounded many Iraqis, but then blamed it on the American occupation. This is not justified if you’re the one conducting the attack and choosing its location and whether or not to pull the trigger or detonate the IED. You are fully responsible for the results. The wanton disregard for collateral damage and the targeting of Shias for murderous attacks are light-years from any kind of “jihad.” OBL then cites a hadith:

The translation is horrible here. Basically it says “he who does not fight or stay behind to look after a fighter’s family, Allah will strike him with a calamity.” There are several transmissions of this narration with slightly different details. Exactly which one he was citing I am not sure. But we’ll look at two:

The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “He who neither takes part in fighting nor equips a warrior nor looks after his (the warrior’s) family, will be afflicted by severe calamities before the Day of Resurrection.”

من لم يغزُ أو يجهز غازيًا، أو يخلف غازيًا في أهله بخير أصابه الله بقارعة قبل يوم القيامة‏

[Abu Dawud].

Riyad as-Salihin 1348

Now anybody who knows basic concepts in hadith studies knows that hadith have sharh, commentaries attached to them, and often have other riwayat, transmissions, with similar wordings but add to our understanding. Let’s take a look at this one in Sahih Muslim below. Apparently he never read the added comment by Abdullah ibn Mubarak.

It has been narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: One who died but did not fight in the way of Allah nor did he express any desire (or determination) for Jihad died the death of a hypocrite. ‘Abdullah b. Mubarak said: We think the hadith pertained to the time of the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ).

مَنْ مَاتَ وَلَمْ يَغْزُ وَلَمْ يُحَدِّثْ بِهِ نَفْسَهُ مَاتَ عَلَى شُعْبَةٍ مِنْ نِفَاقٍ

قَالَ ابْنُ سَهْمٍ قَالَ عَبْدُ اللَّهِ بْنُ الْمُبَارَكِ فَنُرَى أَنَّ ذَلِكَ كَانَ عَلَى عَهْدِ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم

Sahih Muslim 1910

Even if we excluded Abdullah ibn Mubarak’s comment and took it into proper perspective, the hadith makes sense within the context of a proper Islamic state. The world before the The Kellogg-Briand Pact was basically open to war and conquest. You had to defend your borders on the regular to hold territory, be your empire in Europe, China, South Asia, Africa, or even the Native American empires. The Muslim world always held ribat, guarding the borders, as a sacred duty. Joining conquests were also a religious act with the right intention. So did many other empires, from Christendom to the Hindus. Nowadays we have nation states. If you want, go serve in the Jordanian or Malaysian or Moroccan military. Or you could’ve helped Bosnia fight off genocidal invaders back in the 1990s. Or help the Afghans oust the Russians in the 1980s, which OBL did. But acting like a bunch of mass-murdering vigilante criminals, bombing, murdering, and torturing our fellow Muslims, is not included here. If the result if your actions are destructive and counterproductive, something is obviously wrong.

This hadith also appears in Riyadh as-Saliheen, perhaps that is where he read it. There’s two hadith in Riyadh as-saliheen in the impermissibility of pointing a sword at your fellow Muslim, because it is prohibited to invoke fear in them and it may slip and cause accidental harm. Handing over an unsheathed sword is also forbidden, since it may slip and cause harm. How did we go from such caution and care on this level all the way over to bombing our fellow Muslims?

Of course the following hadith was not cited by him, if he even read it. There are a number of hadith which overtly refute him and his ideology.

It has been narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said:

One who defected from obedience (to the Amir) and separated from the main body of the Muslims – if he died in that state-would die the death of one belonging to the days of Jahiliyya (i.e. would not die as a Muslim). One who fights under the banner of a people who are blind (to the cause for which they are fighting, i.e. do not know whether their cause is just or otherwise), who gets flared up with family pride, calls (people) to fight for their family honour, and supports his kith and kin (i.e. fights not for the cause of Allah but for the sake of this family or tribe) – if he is killed (in this fight), he dies as one belonging to the days of Jahiliyya. Whoso attacks my Ummah killing the righteous and the wicked of them, sparing not (even) those staunch in faith and fulfilling not his promise made with those who have been given a pledge of security – he has nothing to do with me and I have nothing to do with him.

Sahih Muslim 1848 a

OBL cites Israeli colonialism and invasions of the “crusaders” as sources of anger, yet his only answer is more violence and provocation. Not studying and returning to the Islamic tradition to rebuild the Arabs’ fledgling faith, which should start with himself. Rather, remaining upon innovated, misguided ideologies like the Modernist movement and Wahhabist Salafism is his supposed answer to these challenges. Worse, he then mixes this ignorance with violence and provoking wars with world powers. The Muslim world, especially the Arab world, is still trying to heal from colonialism. Provoking more wars and conflict is clearly not the answer, it made everything worse. Given his billions of dollars worth of financial resources, he could’ve instead educated himself and spent the money building Islam in America and giving da’wa. Imagine the potential, all of it wasted on destruction. Imagine if he tapped into the Maliki Ash’ari tradition of Africa, along with its rich tasawwuf tradition, and brought that to the West. Or if he tapped into the Ottoman Hanafi Maturudi Naqshbandi tradition, home of the longest-running Islamic caliphate. Imagine the potential, all wasted on senseless violence and murder. The Arabs are still recovering from colonialism and grappling with modernism, random civil wars are not going to heal the wounds and bring clarity and stability.

We recite chapter 1 of the Qur’an multiple times a day which reminds us to look to the blessed generations of the past for emulation: “the path of those whom You have favored (1:7).” So why are we not looking to sheikh Ahmadu Bamba, sheikh Abdul Qadr al-Jazairi, and sheikh Omar al-Mukhtar for inspiration? Instead, these people reject the concept of wilaya (sainthood) as fairy tales and innovations, even though the existence of awliya’ (saints) are their karamaat (miracles) is agreed upon by ijma’ early on per Aqida Tahawiyah. Maybe they should’ve sat with proper ulema’ before taking up the gun and studied their din properly so these travails could’ve been avoided. Alas, the nafs and the ego prefers quick-fix solutions which only result in disaster. Why spend six years at madrasa disciplining the soul and learning sacred knowledge when you could just pick up a gun and take what you want of this dunya, vying with your fellow Muslims for power? Their true intentions are manifest in their actions. If it were actually about God they would’ve taken the time to properly learn and develop themselves. Arrogance can be crippling if not overcome. Salafism by itself prevents progress and revival, like chains upon the drowning ummah that must be released before we can swim to the surface.

وَلَا نُفَضِّلُ أَحَدًا مِنَ الْأَوْلِيَاءِ عَلَى أَحَدٍ مِنَ الْأَنْبِيَاءِ عَلَيْهِمُ السَّلَامُ وَنَقُولُ نَبِيٌّ وَاحِدٌ أَفْضَلُ مِنْ جَمِيعِ الْأَوْلِيَاءِ

We do not prefer any of the saints of this nation over any of the prophets, upon them be peace. We say that a single prophet is better than all the saints put together.

وَنُؤْمِنُ بِمَا جَاءَ مِنْ كَرَامَاتِهِمْ وَصَحَّ عَنِ الثِّقَاتِ مِنْ رِوَايَاتِهِمْ

We have faith in what has come of their miracles and what has been authenticated in their narrations from trustworthy narrators.

Aqida Tahawiya

These Salafis acted independent of traditional scholars and independent of Islamic states. They exercised their own independent juristic reasoning (ijtihad) without a shred of qualifications. The results are clear and the importance of properly following the Islamic tradition is obvious.

Something I find disturbing when I read through these terrorists’ arguments is how familiar they all sound. It’s all standard Salafi polemics. I’ve heard American Salafis say the same exact stuff, actually, and even defend the actions of these terrorist innovators with the same pseudo justifications. The results of their actions, finally culminating into ISIS, is what it took after so many years to finally realize that they were just plain wrong. They destroyed so much and killed so many thousands of people, mostly their fellow Muslims. They tarnished the reputation of Islam for the entire world–even random people in Guatemala and Vietnam have a sour taste in their mouth and think ISIS and AQ represent Islam. We have to overcome our arrogance, humble ourselves, and properly study this tradition if we are going to revive it.

Download the letter translated into English here: https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ubl2017/english/Third%20Letter%20to%20Iraq.pdf

Download Arabic here: https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ubl2017/arabic/Third%20Letter%20to%20Iraq%20(Arabic).pdf


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