The Religious Beliefs of Al Qaeda

by Michael Brenner

Al Qaeda, which is Arabic for "foundation" or "base," believes in its own version of Sunni Islam that emphasizes militant jihad, rigid and literalist Sharia Law and Islamic hegemony. Al Qaeda embodies the extremism and rigidity of an ancient sect called the Kharijites, and much of its philosophy comes from 20th-century author Sayyid Qutb and his views on Islamic resistance to colonialism.

Emphasis on Military Jihad

Surah 22, verse 78 commands Muslims to "strive for Allah." The Arabic word for strive or struggle is jihad, and this sacred concept takes many forms: the struggle within oneself to do what is right, the struggle for a just society and armed struggle. Al Qaeda prefers armed struggle, and its armed struggle is against the West, secularism, Shiism, moderate Muslims and anything that threatens their vision of a worldwide Islamic state.

Belief in Sharia Law

Al Qaeda is not interested in any laws made by human beings. The perfect law, God's law, is present in the Quran and the hadith — the sayings and deeds of Muhammad — and should be applied to all things. Al Qaeda not only desires the Sharia to be applied everywhere, but it also seeks to free it of non-Islamic influences. Political documents such as the United Nations' "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights," for example, are considered worthless because they are not divine in origin.

Salafist Jihadism

French political scientist Gilles Kepel coined the phrase "Salafist Jihadism" to describe Al Qaeda and similar militants. According to the Frontline website, Salafism is defined as "an ideology that posits that Islam has strayed from its origins." Al Qaeda adds militant jihad to the belief of Salafism, creating an armed struggle to regain the pure roots of Islam. Salafism is closely tied to, and sometimes interchangeable with, Wahabbism, the puritanical Islamic movement that is dominant in Saudi Arabia.

Spiritual Fathers: The Kharijites

The greatest ancient influence on Al Qaeda is the Kharijites, an extremist group that arose in the late seventh century. The Kharijites rejected the authority of Uthman, the third caliph, and decreed it was moral to kill him because he was an illegitimate ruler. The Kharijites also declared that anyone who sinned — a sin meant disagreeing with the Kharijites' interpretation of Islam — was a "kufr," or non-believer, and could legally be killed.

Spiritual Father: Sayyib Qutb

Sayyid Qutb was an Islamic scholar and philosopher in the 20th century, and he is known for his fierce opposition to colonialism and his desire to restore Islam in its pure form. As Al Qaeda expert Lawrence Wright told the New Yorker, Qutb divided the world into Islam and Jahaliyya, the Muslim term for the time of ignorance before Muhammad. In Qutb's view, the West was restoring Jahaliyya to the Muslim world. Al Qaeda shares this belief, and wants to remove the West from the Islamic world and, preferably, from the Earth.

About the Author

Michael Brenner has been a writer for almost 10 years for various outlets including the "Chicago Tribune," "St. Louis Post-Dispatch," other newspapers and various business websites. He holds two master's degrees from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in the areas of interfaith relations and world religions.

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