Takfir as Anti-Hegemonic Practice: Al-Shabab, Daesh and the Creation of New Political Communities

December 1, 2020

by Abdulla Moaswes, Amity University, Dubai

At the start of 2017, Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri released an audiotape in which he denounced the group known as Daesh1, stating that they have, “exceeded the limits of extremism,” because Daesh has become, “struck with madness in takfir.” (in Dearden 2017) This is significant because the practice of takfir has become an obstacle challenging contemporary interpretations of Islam that have taken inspiration from the writings of Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab (Alhussein 2012). To build upon Eman Alhussein’s observation, about the role of takfir in reinforcing religious authority and political hegemonies within the context of the Saudi nation-state, this article seeks to explore how the practice of takfir can also further the objective of groups seeking to create entirely new political communities by countering extant hegemonic ideas of a political and religious community. Instead of addressing takfir from a religious perspective, as much of the literature does, this article will focus on the practice of takfir as a modern political tactic, as expressed by Sulayman Ibn Abdul Wahhab, who reproached his brother Mohammed for using takfir as a means of delegitimising those who disagreed with him (Dahlan in Firro 2013, 772). This article argues that the practice of takfir by groups seeking to create new political communities most notably and significantly counters existing hegemonies at two primary levels:  the local level, which comprises of traditional, social, and political structures of hegemony, as well as the regional and global levels, which are comprised of state-centric notions of political hegemony.

The reason for the selection of Al Shabaab as the first case study is due to Afyare Abdi Elmi’s observation that Islamists largely attempt to override clan identities in politics, which, alongside Islamic identities, are the two main forms of political identification in Somalia (2010, 4). With regards to Daesh as the essay’s choice for the second case study, this is due to Alireza Doostdar’s observation that its uniqueness is derived from “its aspiration to form immediately a caliphate or pan-Islamic state” (2014), thus necessitating the formation of new political communities and hegemonies at both regional and global levels.

Theoretical Framework

Antonio Gramsci, despite not directly defining hegemony in translations of the Prison Notebooks (1971), identifies two functions of what he refers to as “social hegemony”. The first of these is, the spontaneous consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group.” Gramsci adds that “this consent is historically caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production.” (1971, 145) The second of the two functions is the apparatus of state coercive power which legally enforces discipline on those groups who do not consent either actively or passively. He goes on to explain that, “this apparatus is, however, constituted for the whole of society in anticipation of moments of crisis of command and direction when spontaneous consent has failed” (1971, 145). Through its examples, this article will demonstrate that Takfir most predominantly relates to the foremost function, attacking the prestige enjoyed by dominant groups in a particular context by transferring the legitimacy that they enjoy onto the agent that invokes the takfir.

T.J. Jackson Lears makes the argument for the significance of understanding counter-hegemonies by pointing out that, “most people find it difficult, if not impossible, to translate the outlook implicit in their experience into a conception of the world that will directly challenge the hegemonic culture” (1985, 569). William Carroll and Robert Ratner further argue that the rise of new social movements today, “expresses a wide array of antagonisms that go far beyond the familiar strife between capital and labor, and poses a new and critical problem of rediscovering the basis for an oppositional perspective capable of linking diverse interests and multiple identities” (1994, 4). Takfir operates within this space when creating new political communities, thus casting itself as an ultra-aggressive practice of counter-hegemony. Carroll and Ratner further corroborate this view by pointing out that, “such challenges, such transgressions, necessarily entail a disorganization of consent, a disruption of hegemonic discourses and practices,” and that, “in this sense, movements may be viewed prima facie as agencies of counter-hegemony.” (1994, 6) They continue to explain that, “by mobilizing resources and acting outside established political structures of the state, parties, and interest groups, movements create independent organizational bases for advancing alternatives” (1994, 4), which is exactly the purpose of takfir in the context of this article.

From the perspective of religion, Mohammed Hafiz approximates the practice of takfir to, “ex-communication.” (2010, 147) He elaborates by defining takfir as, “the act of passing the verdict of kufr on anyone who utterances or deeds openly manifest disbelief.” (2010, 149) The most significant component to contemporary takfir is the concept of al wala’ wal bara’ (WB) since its political dimension is what much Salafi-takfirism is based on today (Bin Ali 2012, 17). Mohamed Bin Ali describes WB, “in its most fundamental [sense as the prescribed] relationship Muslims are enjoined to have with God and their fellow human beings”, where, “the term wala’ refers to the undivided loyalty Muslims should portray to God, Islam and their Muslim co-religionists over all other things, while bara’ refers to the disavowal of anything deemed un-Islamic by these modern Salafis.” (2012, 10) This definition is of the utmost significance because it relates directly to the interplay between consent, identity, and legitimacy upon which hegemony is built.

Applying this to modern social and political hegemonies, Nelly Lahoud asserts the importance of WB as signifiers of “who is in and out”, thus presenting, “an alternative paradigm of group membership to that offered by the nation state” (2010, 198-199). Further to this, invoking takfir not only marks who is “out”, but also marks those who are “out”, including actors who uphold extant political and social hegemonies, as legitimate targets of violence–thus making takfir an attractive tool to groups that carry out religiously-inspired political violence. Considering this logic of inclusivity and constructed hierarchy, Lahoud explains that, “every person, irrespective of status, color, gender or origin could potentially be accepted into the jihadi community on the basis of embracing the common creed” (2010, 199). This view constitutes WB as a force that opposes more established socio-political hegemonic structures such as the state, tribe, or clan by rejecting those who uphold them while accepting those aggrieved by them. For example, one of the most ubiquitous justifications for the use of takfir is for the shaming and delegitimising of Muslims who, “believe in democracy and […] vote and […] don’t mind being elected or to make laws when they have the chance” (Al-Masri in Aslan 2009, 104). By clearly defining the communities and individuals entitled to each of wala’ and bara’, the actors invoking takfir are able to attack both the legitimacy of the state in addition to that of Muslims who have the power within it while claiming that legitimacy for themselves.

This notion of building legitimacy facilitates the process of alternative collective identification necessary for the formation of new political communities. Cristina Flesher Fominaya provides a succinct summation of collective identity as a process by stating that it, “involves cognitive definitions about ends, means and the field of action; this process is given voice through a common language, and enacted through a set of rituals, practices, and cultural artifacts” (2010, 395). Here one can place Islamically-inspired rhetoric as the voice of takfiri identity, with the political doctrines and practices involved as the mode of action. This shows that, “the rise of Takfiri groups is not actually caused by the fact that a specific historical text that promotes such tendencies exists but is rather caused by political and economic conditions that render possible the utilization of the existing text, to rally and mobilize” (Al-Ibrahim 2005, 409), as is the case with the rise of identities in the ways described by Fominaya. It is useful to also add that David Snow posits that the emergence of new collective identities, “means that other social identities have subsided in relevance and salience for the time being” (2001, 4), —a particularly relevant point when thinking about takfir’s value in playing on grievances or emotive discourse to attack extant, established sources of collective identification. The duality of the use of takfir, as both an offensive tactic as well as one that asserts the legitimacy of the actor enacting it, positions it firmly within the realm of counter-hegemonic identarian practices.

Al Shabaab and Anti-Local Hegemonies

Al Shabaab’s practice of takfir demonstrates its use at the level of countering traditional local and domestic socio-cultural hegemonic structures – in this case the institution of wadaad and clan – as well as political hegemonic structures such as warlords and other Islamist groups. Mohamed Diriye Abdullahi defines the wadaad as, “certain people [who] are more knowledgeable in religious matters and rituals than the rest of the population,” but is careful to explain that a wadaad is an “expert, not clergy, as it is understood in Western church organisations” (2001, 59). Marleen Renders adds that the “new” wadaad-like figures that emerged in the late 1990s enjoyed a new role based on newfound economic independence, which, in theory, should strengthen the institution’s position as a hegemonic power (2007, 24–25). At the time of Renders’ writing, however, Al Shabaab was not yet as powerful a force as they have come to be known. Roland Marchal, when speaking about the wadaad during Al Shabaab’s continued rise to prominence in the later part of the 2000s, asserted that the “religious ideology [of Al Shabaab] edges out historical debates about fiqh and shari’a, allowing youth to believe that their interpretation of Islam is correct and they can therefore confront whoever is not behaving ‘properly’ in the public sphere – including elder wadaad.” (2011, 268) This interplay between takfir and a “lack of knowledge of the core ideology” of Islam among local youths, when contrasted with the traditional knowledge of the wadaad, side-lines the wadaad’s institution at the local community level (Hansen 2013, 32). This facilitates Al Shabaab taking up a primary position of political and religious authority in said communities with a new constellation of both religious and political power.

More important than the institution of the wadaad is how Al Shabaab’s takfir has attempted to undermine the primacy of the clan in the Somali socio-political arena. While there are disagreements between scholars of Somali studies, regarding whether this has been successfully achieved or not, the position of a clan among the targets of Al Shabaab’s takfir remains significant. Al Shabaab has been able to take advantage of the perception that, “clan identity and clanism were responsible for Somalia’s ills” (Elmi 2010, 28). By attacking the domination of clan belonging and clan politics, Al Shabaab has, for a generation, provided, “an alternative sense of belonging and a possible ‘global model’ that promises access to a wider world than the parochial universe of daily experience” (Marchal 2011, 268). This has largely been done by aggressively declaring the clan system to be un-Islamic, a position that even less hard-line Islamists agree with (Elmi 2010, 46).  This exclusion of clans from the boundaries of Islam in favor of a wider sense of belonging marks clan elites and elders who attempt to uphold its hegemonic position as legitimate targets of takfir. This reiterates the position of takfir as both a counter-hegemonic practice as well as a form of identarian hegemony in itself.

With regards to political hegemonic structures, the most significant to consider, in the context of Al Shabaab, are those of the warlords, who dominated politics at the turn of the century, and other Islamist groups. Contrary to the “romanticism of the AK-47”, which inspired the youth of the 1960s, Marchal explains that in the case of Al Shabaab it was faith that was used to, “transform an initial sense of humiliation [at the perceived ineptitude of the warlords] into a military ability to react and the reassertion of the individual subject.” (2011, 273) Additionally, Al Shabaab have been able to use the perception that the government are, “beholden to Somalia’s enemies, Ethiopia and the United States of America,” in order to exclude them from the fold of their ummah as well (Marchal 2012, 263). When it came to Islamist groups that may have been seen to be of closer ideological proximity to Al Shabaab, such as Al Ittehad Al Islami (AIAI), Al Shabaab were forced to adopt takfir as a means of justifying their position vis-à-vis other members who refused to enact violence on other Somali Muslims, since the majority of AIAI members saw this as condemnable (Elmi 2010, 60-61). Although, “Al-Shabaab leaders are not thoroughgoing Takfiris” (Marchal 2011, 267), takfir was adopted as a means of counter-hegemony and creating the type of political community necessary for the group to operate through.

Daesh and Anti-Regional and Anti-Global Hegemonies

The most striking hegemonic structure that Daesh has managed to counter through its practice of takfir is the nation-state. As Yosef Jabareen states, Daesh, “rejects the modern nation state and the states created during the colonial period and instead calls for a return of the Caliphate of the Islamic ummah, which transcends nationalism and race,” and that, “thousands of Muslim Jihadists from around the world have joined together to take part in establishing a new Islamic State with a social, territorial, and political agenda.” (2015, 52) Richard Falk (2015) delineates three key claims of non-state control that Daesh makes, which differentiates it from other nation-states. The first is that, “ISIS seems to have no interest in being accepted as a state or to be treated as a vehicle of self-determination for Syrians and Iraqis living under its authority,” but rather, “ISIS rests its authority to govern exclusively on a sectarian claim to be applying Islam.” The second, which is that, “by discrediting those states that were imposed on the region after World War I, ISIS is claiming a superior political legitimacy to that conferred by international diplomatic procedures or through admission to the United Nations,” shows that Daesh seeks alternative forms of political legitimacy from those which are considered conventional or legal. Takfir allows them to do this due to the ability it gives them to define what is and is not legitimate, in addition to creating a sense of identity for those within their borders. The third claim that Falk specifies is that, “significant portions of the Sunni population […] in the caliphate welcomed ISIS, at least at first, as a liberating force freeing the population from Shia oppression and discrimination and more effectively offering social services at a grassroots level,” thus playing on existing prejudices that can strengthen the impact of takfir in this environment (2015). Furthermore, Abdulbari Atwan points out that with the aid of the Internet, Daesh, “have been able to attract frustrated, marginalised, and vulnerable young people to its ranks and to convince them of its world vision, predicated on reviving the golden age of Islamic conquest, resisting American hegemony and pitting the believers against the infidels and crusaders” (2015, 218). This widened the reach of disillusionment with the nation-state to areas outside of the Middle East, and its immediate neighbours, and is indicative of attempts to counter the hegemonic system of nation-states globally through rigid classifications of “Muslims” and “infidels.”

The most significant regional hegemonic structures that Daesh attempts to counter through takfir are the religious institutions that hold the most legitimacy among the wider Ummah. This includes, for example, Sunni institutions, such as Al-Azhar University and the Saudi Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Ifta, and Shia institutions such as the Marja’ia of the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The existence and popularity of such institutions are problematic to Daesh due to their near-unanimous public opposition to the group. The most significant among these is the religious institution that is seen as the “heirs of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia.” According to Bader Al-Ibrahim, Daesh is seen “as having deviated from the pure Wahhabi approach.” (2015, 410) This is due to the separation between the political and religious centres of power; a consistent feature of the Saudi state seen as problematic by the Daesh leadership, who believe that a supreme political leader, “would be not only emir but also caliph.” (Al-Ibrahim 2015, 411) Daesh’s magazine Dabiq, in its thirteenth issue, articulated the group’s takfir of both Abdulaziz Al Shaykh, the Grand Mufti of Mecca (2015a, 7), and the entirety of the Iranian regime (2015b, 12). This grants Daesh a degree of religious independence alongside the political independence that it enjoys and passes onto its conscripts.


As demonstrated through local, regional, and global hegemonic structures are affected, the use of takfir by Daesh and Al-Shabaab has a clear invocation of takfir as a means of creating new political communities in a potent form of counter-hegemonic discourse. The diversity of targets that Daesh and Al-Shabaab allow is wider than simply individual Muslims who may be perceived as political opponents, as was the case with Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahab’s use of takfir. This diversity includes tactical targets, such as the wadaad in Somalia, as well as entire institutions of religious and political authority, such as the Saudi and Iranian states. The targets even extend to the very notion of a nation-state, as the example of Daesh’s takfir shows. Such a usage of takfir in the political and social arenas blurs the lines between old exclusivities and new inclusivity, as is the case with all forms of hegemony. In line with Carroll and Ratner’s suggestion that counter-hegemonies create new forms of hegemony, the emergence of takfir as a counter-hegemonic force may simply be the precursor to its further ubiquity, both within discrete societies as well as at higher levels of political and social organising. This means that although the operational capabilities of groups invoking and practicing takfir may currently be compromised, their creation of alternative political communities—whether territorial or not–may continue to entrench groups, such as Al Shabaab and Daesh, as actors within future domestic or global constellations of social and political power, authority and violence.


[1] Throughout this essay, this term will be used interchangeably with other names that the group is known by, including the Islamic State (IS) and ISIS.


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