While intellectuals are debating on the jihadist wave that has also destabilized the Land of Cedars, the Lebanese Islamic institutions seem to be resisting this threat.

This article was published in Oasis 27. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:56:48

The jihadist wave that has broken over the Middle East has also destabilized the Land of the Cedars and risks compromising the fragile interreligious and interconfessional balance on which the country relies. Whilst some intellectuals are debating from different vantage points on the causes and nature of this threat, the little Levantine state’s Islamic institutions seem to have the antibodies required to resist this phase and continue promoting an open and tolerant religiosity.



One of the destabilizing effects of the Syrian crisis has been the re-awakening of Sunni jihadist Salafism in Lebanon, with the expansion of movements such as al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State. In this context, Salafism has moved from a certain, preaching-centred quietism to a radicalization that extols violence and terrorism, playing on takfīr (the declaration of unbelief) in order to arrive at jihadism. Particularly from early 2013 onwards, hundreds, if not thousands, of Lebanese and Palestinian jihadists have joined the ranks of the Syrian Salafi movements and have played an important part in them. Situated on the slopes of the Eastern chain of the Anti-Lebanon mountains, the Sunni town of Arsal was, for more than four years, the main theatre of the clash between jihadists of all bents and the Lebanese security forces. In the summer of 2017, the decisive battle to regain the town and its mountainous surrounding area ended with the jihadists being pushed back towards the Syrian interior and the Lebanese security forces were able to consolidate their control over the armed groups in Lebanon. The jihadists have nevertheless maintained their hold over large swathes of the Sunni population. In order to understand how the current situation has come about, it is necessary to look at the developments of the last few decades.



Tripoli, Hub of Jihadist Salafism

Salafism is the current that promotes an “authentic” form of Islam founded on strict adherence to the founding texts and emulation of the pious ancestors’ (salaf) practices. One of its first exponents in Lebanon was sheikh Sālim al-Shahhāl (1922-2008) who came from Tripoli and had embraced Wahhabism in Medina at the end of the Second World War. After returning to his city of origin, he founded the Shabāb Muhammad group, which was the first Salafi faction in Lebanon. He was subsequently to go around all the three hundred villages in the Akkar district and the streets of Tripoli, preaching the new ideology. The latter was to find many followers amongst the imams of the local mosques. Salafism’s success during this period can partly be explained by Israel’s defeat of the Arab armies in 1948 and 1967 and the decline of Arab nationalism following the Six-Day War. Various personalities in Tripoli joined this organization (including sheikh Sa‘īd Sha‘bān, 1930-1998) and it subsequently went on to take the name Jamā‘at al-muslimīn (“Community of Muslims”) and then Harakat al-tawhīd (“Islamic Unification Movement”). It never succeeded in becoming a real popular movement, however.


If we look further back in time, the decisive part played by Muhammad Rashīd Ridā (1865-1935), another native of Tripoli, stands out. His journal al-Manār was published in Cairo and influenced sheikh Muhammad Nāsir al-Dīn al-Albānī (1914-1999) who, nicknamed “the Lion of the Sunna” (Asad al-sunna), was one of contemporary Salafism’s founding fathers and lived in Lebanon for a long period. The appellation “Salafi” spread precisely thanks to al-Albānī, who described himself as such in his effort to distinguish himself from the other Sunni currents, whether they were Muslim Brothers or Sufi brotherhoods deemed to be deviant.


A decisive factor in the development of Lebanese Salafism, however, was the fact that after the beginning of the civil war in 1975, the imams of the Lebanese Sunni mosques went to Medina and Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, for their training. There they received an education that was more rigorist than the one that had been imparted to them for over a century at the al-Azhar University in Egypt. The Egyptian withdrawal from the Lebanese political scene during the mandates of Presidents Sadat and Mubarak was compensated for by Saudi Arabia’s support: confident in its influence over the Sunni community (economic influence included), it steered candidates for the imamate towards its religious training schools. Going by the words of an ex-secretary of Dār al-Iftā’ (the main Lebanese Sunni institution), it was this phenomenon, first and foremost, that from the beginning of the 1980s produced a new generation of imams marked by a more radical discourse that was aligned with Wahhabi doctrine.



The Salafi Groups in Lebanon

Nowadays, there are various groups in Lebanon that draw on Salafism. Fath al-Islām, the Free Resistance Brigades, ‘Usbat al-Ansār, Jund al-Shām and the ‘Abdullah ‘Azzām Brigades are some of the most important. Fath al-Islām is a jihadist group led by the Palestinian militant sheikh Shākir al-‘Absī. It came into existence in 2007 and established its base in Nahr al-Bared, the Palestinian refugee camp. Its history is linked to the fatal attack launched on 20 May that year against some of the Lebanese army’s positions and certain Sunni elements, in particular. The incident marked a turning point in the Lebanese perception of Salafism, which had already distinguished itself a few years earlier for its violence in the mountains of Sir el-Diniye, to the east of Tripoli.


Sheikh Ahmad al-Assīr is another conspicuous Lebanese Salafi. He has been known since 1989 for his Salafi sermons in the Bilāl Ibn Rabāh mosque in Abra, a place near Sidon. His preaching remained fairly quietist until 2012. It then underwent an aggressive radicalization, characterized by its invitations to support the Syrian insurrection and its demonization of the Shi‘ite movement Hezbollah. The sheikh has also facilitated the founding of the Free Resistance Brigades. The movement was bloodily suppressed in 2015 and al-Assīr was subsequently arrested and sentenced to death.


‘Usbat al-Ansār, on the other hand, is a Palestinian, Wahhabi, jihadist armed group that probably has ties with al-Qaeda. Its roots lie in the Palestinian camp of Ain al-Hilweh, near Sidon. Comprising both Lebanese and Palestinian members, its aim is to found an Islamic state in Lebanon. ‘Usbat al-Ansār has been officially listed as a terrorist organization by Canada, the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and Russia. Jund al-Shām is a Palestinian jihadist movement that also has its base in the Ain al-Hilweh camp. Some of its members have allegedly joined Fath al-Islām. Its aim is to found an Islamic state covering the whole of the Syrian territory. It has been listed as a terrorist organization by Russia and other countries since 2006. Its members have participated in operations against Bashar al-Assad’s state during the Syrian civil war. This organization has, moreover, been accused of massacring dozens of Syrian Christians in the Homs governorate’s Valley of the Christians (Wādī al-Nasārā in Arabic), near the Lebanese border, in August 2013.


Lastly, the ‘Abdullāh ‘Azzām Brigades are a Sunni terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaeda and founded in 2009 by the Saudi Sālih al-Qar‘āwī. They have local networks in various countries including, principally, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, the Gaza Strip and Lebanon.


There is one last point to consider: despite the perceivable differences between these groups, they are all part of one single Islamist international that promotes violence and terror as the means of achieving its goals. Some are tied to al-Qaeda, others to the Islamic State. To the extent that its members are Lebanese, it is possible to talk of a strictly Lebanese jihadism, but the latter’s vitality lies in its capacity to network with the rest of the jihadist constellation’s network. On the other hand – and events in the region have demonstrated this – these movements are strong when Syrian, Iraqi or Saudi jihadism is strong, whereas they grow weaker when the jihadist movement grows weaker as a whole. At the moment, the visible action of these groups is confined to certain Palestinian camps and their weapons are turned against other Palestinian groups.



The Nature of the Islamist Movements and their Actions

The jihadist movements’ violent ideology and actions have been a subject for debate amongst various Lebanese intellectuals both before and after this phenomenon became a threat to Lebanon. In an article appearing in the Lebanese daily, al-Safīr, in 2016, sheikh Muhammad Shuqayr (a professor at the Lebanese University) concentrated on the takfirist nature of the Salafi movements that, in the name of Islam (or a distorted interpretation of Islam), hurl an anathema at anyone who professes a doctrine other than their own.[1]


According to Shuqayr, these movements feed on the traditional Islamic heritage, which is the result of Muslim scholars’ efforts in the service of power and its cognitive apparatus. The jihadist movements appeal exclusively to the past: they are detached from reality and draw on a tradition that has been incapable of self-reform. Furthermore, in the sheikh’s opinion, the methodological tools used by the takfirists are very limited. Indeed, they have eliminated from their epistemological framework both the premise of history as experience and the experimental method, whereas these allow one to expand not only a given field of analysis but also the definition of the goals to be reached and the process of working out the political actions directed at achieving them.


These movements reduce reason to a simple device for projecting lessons from the past onto the present and a tool for calculating how to pursue their own goals. With their violence, they are simply exhuming an obsolete language and an outmoded terminology, elevating them to the level of tools for reading reality. Thus they reproduce past hatreds, dominated as they are by fanaticism and sectarianism.


Sheikh Shuqayr observes, finally, that these movements debase any and every value system founded on an open, humanistic and religious culture. Their ideology is dominated by an exacerbation of both the legal aspect and tradition, being built on exclusive reference to these at the expense of every other form of authority, particularly that of critical reason. Instead of purifying tradition, the religious text itself becomes a pretext for legitimating it. The takfirist jihadist movements, sheikh Shuqayr concludes, are being manipulated by the Arab nation’s enemies who, in order to survive and prosper, rely on anyone who can be useful to their project, knowing full well that the only success they can aspire to is the destruction of what society has built.



The Relationship Between Wahhabism and the New Salafism

If sheikh Shuqayr does not pay much attention to the Salafi character of the jihadist groups, the scholar of Islamic sciences Ridwān al-Sayyid (he, too, a professor at the Lebanese University) does indeed dwell on the relationship between Salafism and the takfirist and jihadist nature of the Islamist movements.[2] From the epistemological point of view, the transformation undergone by Salafi Sunnism in Lebanon and elsewhere needs to be understood in the light of the Wahhabi doctrine’s evolution, according to al-Sayyid.


Indeed, in his opinion, a neo-Salafism has gradually developed over the last few decades. It is not that different from traditional Wahhabi Salafism as far as doctrines are concerned but it does differ at the level of behaviour and goals. If Wahhabism has chosen to proclaim Islam as a global alternative by force of persuasion, the jihadist Islamist movements have opted for recourse to violence and nothing but violence. The name given to this violence is jihad in the name of Islam. Some will call it defensive jihad, whereas al-Qaeda and the Islamic State will call it offensive jihad.


According to the jurists from the classical era (al-Shāfi‘ī and Ibn Hanbal[3] included), jihad must be motivated by an act of aggression on the part of infidels and is, therefore, a defensive jihad. The original Wahhabi vision was of an offensive jihad: an excluding jihad generated by the fact that unbelief (kufr) and idolatry (shirk) are considered a threat to the true faith. Such vision is the practical translation of the doctrine of loyalty towards co-religionists and disavowal of those who are different (al-walā’ wa-l-barā’). Within the Muslim world, this jihad is a war against those who repudiate their own religion. However, observes al-Sayyid, from the founder of the current Saudi kingdom, King ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Ibn Sa‘ūd (d. 1953) onwards, both aspects have been modified by the jurists. As a result of these changes, peace has been made between Wahhabism and other doctrines within Sunnism, the diversity principle has been accepted and rulers have been accorded the right to sign peace treaties and treaties of good neighbourliness with states of other religions.


This reformed vision of Wahhabism, adds al-Sayyid, is radically different from that of al-Qaeda, Islamic State or the Islamist movements. Indeed, Islamic State’s objective is to re-establish the Caliphate along the lines of the first Caliphs. Such project, according to al-Sayyid, has been rejected by Saudi Arabia, which fought the Ottoman Caliphate and founded the state of the Qur’an and the Sunna.


From the 1930s to the 1970s, Saudi Salafism seemed to be under control and satisfied with the regime that it obeyed. However, the quietist period was shaken by two events: the rebellion led by Juhaymān al-‘Utaybī in 1979 (which led to the seizure of the Great Mosque in Mecca) and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. These events revealed a radical mutation within Salafism and a break with Wahhabi Salafism to the world. On the one hand, an intransigent interpretation of sharia and Muslim customs developed at the level of society and the individual; on the other, sharia’s application was extended to all areas of political and economic life and social relations. Obviously, sharia had already been influencing the political system and its legitimacy, but the new Salafism considered that the imamate or political legitimacy coincides with sharia itself, which, interpreted radically, becomes one and the same as legality. That has meant, for example, that the Wahhabi jurists’ texts on the conditions governing war outside Saudi Arabia and the Muslim countries have been eliminated from the jihadists’ religious reference. Al-Sayyid ends by arguing that this new Salafism is unrealistic, despite its abuses and all the violence it can perpetrate. It is being exploited by superior forces and will die out at a certain point, because the regimes in power will not allow it to consolidate beyond a certain point or take power.



‘Alī Harb: Philosophy as an Alternative

An exponent of the generation of intellectuals who have been engaged in criticism of religious discourse since the 1970s, the philosopher ‘Alī Harb offers a third viewpoint. Adopting a perspective inspired by Derrida’s deconstructionism, he particularly contests the interpretative method that makes religion’s essence coincide with a return to its founding texts and all the more so given that these texts contain elements of contradiction, as the Qur’an would demonstrate. He further argues that insofar as Islam is a doctrine of salvation (i.e. a system of religious thought similar to Christianity and Judaism, but also to the twentieth-century “religions” such as Communism and Fascism), it declares that it possesses the absolute truth. This would reveal Islam’s intrinsic terroristic potential: an idea that Harb develops in his latest book Terrorism and its Producers: The Preacher, the Tyrant and the Intellectual.[4]


Harb maintains that terrorism is based on the intellectual attitude of the person who believes that s/he possesses the absolute truth and is the only one authorized to speak in its name. Such truth can concern the religious, political, social or moral field. Terrorism as a mode of action would derive from this: those who believe they possess the truth follow a logic of exclusion in their dealings with the other, the different or an adversary. At the symbolic level, this attitude translates into takfīr, excommunication and accusations of betrayal. At the physical level, it results in elimination or murder. Thus terrorism can be caused by the preacher who is running a religious project, by the tyrant through his political project or by the intellectual who tries to transform reality with his revolutionary project. For Harb, it is the fate of every fanatical thought and every sacred doctrine to turn into a totalitarian regime or a terrorist organization. Thus he places secular regimes such as Stalinism or Nazism on the same level as theocratic regimes such as Khomeini’s or the Muslim Brothers’ movement.


In the specific case of Islam, Harb argues that reform is not possible. According to him, the attempts at reform undertaken for over a century in Pakistan, Egypt and elsewhere have all failed and have produced nothing but models of terrorism. This is the reason why the Lebanese philosopher is not relying in the slightest on the renewal in Islamic religious discourse hoped for by some Muslims and even some secularists. He has no hesitation in saying that there are not many solutions available: the only way out is defeat of the religious project embodied by the Islamic institutions and powers, what with their mummified ideas and sterile methods.


Furthermore, he criticizes the concept of “tolerance”, calling it one of the scandals of religious thought in general insofar as it implies a sort of indulgence, on the part of the believer, towards whoever is different and, as such, considered a sinner, heretical, a rebel or even a downright disgrace for humankind. In this sense, tolerance would destroy any and every possibility of dialogue: only full recognition of the other makes it possible to overcome one’s own narcissism, leading one to listen in order to create spaces for co-existence.



What Prospects for the Future?

Looking beyond the various interpretations of Salafism, the crisis Sunni Islam is experiencing at the Muslim Arab-world level is having repercussions on Sunnism in Lebanon. Nevertheless, for all that Lebanese Sunnism remains torn between the growing fidelity to the country’s largest official institution, Dār al-Iftā’, and loyalty to the Salafi groups and other groups such as al-Ahbāsh,[5] it is preserving one of its specific characteristics: overall, it is an open and tolerant form of Sunnism that does not hesitate to condemn terrorism and the takfirist groups or to proclaim its preference for co-existence, amongst the other Lebanese communities. Perhaps it will have to salvage its old mission of promoting and speaking on behalf of Arabness and contributing to helping people think of Islam as a path to salvation and liberation. In the current context, the situation in the Syrian and Palestinian refugee camps scattered over Lebanese territory is certainly difficult: these continue to constitute hotbeds for jihadism and radicalism against Israel but also against the Arab regimes accused of collaborationism and inertia.


[1] Muhammad Shuqayr Shuqayr, “Al-Harakāt al-takfīriyya wa qābiliyyat al-tawzīf: azamāt dhātiyya wa turāth mushawwah,” Al-Safīr, 2 June 2016, p. 13, https://assafir.com/Article/217/497114/AuthorArticle

[2] See his report “Al-Salafiyya al-wahhābiyya wa-da‘wā al-irhāb”, presented at the Asbār Centre for Studies, Research and Communications in Riyadh on 26 March 2016. The text of the report is available via the following link: https://bit.ly/2G3A6Ff

[3] These are the founders of two of the four legal schools recognized by Sunni Islam [Ed.].

[4] ‘Alī Harb, Al-Irhāb wa sunnā‘uh. Al-Murshid, al-tāghiya, al-muthaqqaf (Dār al-‘arabiyya li-l-‘ulūm nāshirūn, Bayrūt, 2015).

[5] This is a Sufi movement founded by the Ethiopian sheikh ‘Abd Allāh al-Hararī, in Beirut in 1983 [Ed.].