Regional Rivalries and the Rise of Salafism: the case of the Mamluks and the Ikhanid Mongols
It has been noted that the ideology of the jihadist groups is driven by the Salafi interpretation of Islam or, as some prefer to put it, ‘Jihadi-Salafis’.[i] The Salafi interpretation of Islam emerged in the 14th century with a jurist known as Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328).[ii] However, five centuries later in Arabia in the mid-18th century what is today known as Salafism emerged as the Wahhabi movement. Some scholars believe that the ultra-conservative Wahhabi movement would have had little chance of survival without the support that it received in the context of regional and global rivalries. However, the British became interested in arming and financing the Wahhabis in the mid-19th century against the Ottomans with whom Britain was competing for control of the Middle East.[iii]  Regional and global rivalries also played a key role in the emergence of Salafism/jihadism in Afghanistan in the 1980s as the US, with the assistance of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, financed and armed the Mujahedin against their Soviet rivals in the context of the Cold War.[iv] 
My contention in this paper is that the correlation between regional or global rivalry and the deployment of Salafist ideology, can in fact be tested by examining Mamluk backing for Salafism during their struggle with the Ilkhanid Mongols.  This is not to suggest that there is some unbroken line which allows us to explain present-day jihadism in terms of Mamluk-Ilkhanid rivalry; rather it is to provide further evidence that jihadism is not a completely independent variable but is made strong at different points in history due to regional and global rivalries in which one side finds it a useful political/strategic tool. These regional and global rivalries provide an impetus for jihadism to reappear at various points of history and which shape its existence as a movement at these points in time.

Ibn Taymiyyah in the context of Mamluk-Ilkhanid conflict
As yesterday’s warrior slaves, who were brought in their early childhood to be trained as solders in the Ayyubid court, and subsequently took power as sultans of Egypt and Syria, the first Mamluks (1250-1382) were vitally concerned with the question of legitimacy. The two elements of deterring the Mongols and ‘protecting Islam’ both played substantial roles in shaping the Mamluks’ political identity and their legitimacy as rulers of an Islamic realm. The Mamluks engaged in six battles with the Mongols, winning five - the exception being Wadi al-Khaznadar in 1299.[v]  In their role of championing Islam, the Mamluks encouraged and increased the role of the ulama in both society and administration, not only in jurisprudential and judicial issues but also as mobilisers and justifiers, including in accompanying the army to the battlefields.[vi] Ibn Taymiyyah even participated directly, playing a crucial role in the last four battles against the Mongols.[vii]
The Mongols, on the other hand, had been able to brutally conquer the eastern part of the Islamic realm. Headed by Hulegu, they ended the Abbasid Caliphate in 1258, conquering and destroying Baghdad.  In the next battle, at Ayn Jalut in 1260 in Palestine, the Mamluks put an end to the Mongol advance in the Islamic world.[viii]  Up to this point the Mongols relied on their own imperial ideology as ‘rulers of the earth’.  However, the conversion of the Ilkhanid Mongol ruler Ghazan in 1295 to the Shi’a branch of Islam challenged Mamluk legitimacy and thereby intensified Mongol-Mamluk rivalry.[ix]  Now the deployment of Ibn Taymiyyah’s Salafi approach made sense to the Mamluks, particularly the elements designed to undermine the Shi’a version of Islam.

Ibn Taymiyyah’s approach suggested that the best way to understand Islam was to follow the path of the early Muslim generation of the seventh century, known as salaf, in particular the way they understood Quran and the teaching of the Prophet. The sources available to us in terms of understanding the way of life of that early generation are highly controversial among Islamic scholars and subject to debate.  Nevertheless, Ibn Taymiyyah believed in a ‘literalist’ interpretation of the sacred texts. That is, what is written in the Quran, is literally true; the use of rationality (known as tawil, qias and baten) - the approach of the traditional Islamic schools which changes the meaning of the actual texts through the process of understanding - can play no part.[x] However, this approach was not a mere suggestion as its ‘iconoclastic’ nature was to undermine the hitherto developed jurisprudential, philosophical and scholastic approaches to understanding Islam by the traditional Islamic schools.[xi] These approaches and practices were viewed by Ibn Taymiyyah as ‘innovations’, beda, that emerged to corrupt the purity of Islam. This puritanism was peculiarly designed and directed against the Shi’a.

Ghazan was not simply a Shi’a convert, he was also the only Mongol who defeated the Mamluks and occupied Damascus, albeit for less than a year in 1299. This confrontation was important for the Mamluks as Ibn Taymiyyah played multiple roles in it. He appeared as a negotiator for the Mamluks in gaining the release of prisoners and numerous primary sources mention his role in encouraging the Mamluks to lead their armies against the Mongols. He also declared a fatwa that forbade the Mamluk soldiers from fasting during Ramadan and focusing instead on their jihad against the Mongols.[xii]  One of the most important legacies that Ibn Taymiyyah left in this period, one which has an important effect on the current jihadist movement, was his declaration of jihad against a Muslim ruler. It is unprecedented in the mainstream Islamic jurisprudence to use the concept of ‘jihad’ to justify a war against Muslims. Unlike other jurists of the Mamluks, Ibn Taymiyyah showed no hesitation in declaring jihad against the Shi’a Mongols as ‘unbelievers’.[xiii] Indeed, Ibn Taymiyyah wrote much on the ‘infidelity’ of Shi’a in general. Chief among such works is his masterpiece against this fraction of Islam entitled Menhaj al-Sunna (the Approach of Sunnism).[xiv] He also issued fatwas and participated in two wars against the Shi’a of the Kasrawan Mountain in what is today Lebanon in the years 1300 and 1305. [xv]  

Unsurprisingly, the restrictive approach of Ibn Taymiyyah would appear problematic even for the Mamluks who wanted to use it for political reasons as, at the same time, they had to deal with the pluralism of the population under their control. Accordingly, the Mamluks adopted a sophisticated toleration in dealing with Ibn Taymiyyah. For instance, he wrote a very controversial work entitled al-aqidah al-hamawia in 1299; this was directed against the Ash’aris - non-literalists in terms of interpreting the Qu’ran - but, since this was a popular approach among the overwhelming majority of the Sunnis, it attracted considerable opposition.[xvi] However, the authorities did not take any action against him, probably because 1299 was the apex of the Mamluk confrontation with the Mongols, scarcely the right time to punish a useful ideologist. Similarly, Ibn Taymiyyah was left free to prevent some poor Sufis from exercising their practices in 1305. He also reportedly broke a sacred stone that people respected as being a foot print of the Prophet.[xvii] However, when the Mamluks witnessed a relaxation from their wars with the Mongols and Ibn Taymiyyah wrote another controversial piece directed against the Sufis, the dissatisfaction of powerful Sufis of Cairo led to his imprisonment by the Mamluks for a one and half year for both that work and the one that he wrote in 1299.[xviii]

After his release, Ibn Taymiyyah was put in prison again less than a year later for his teaching against another fraction of the Sufis.  In 1309 he was released again, this time by personal order of Sultan al-Malik al-Nasir.[xix]  He accompanied the Sultan in the last battle of the Mamluks against the Mongols in 1312. Yet, he was imprisoned again in 1318, for a period of six months and a period of five months in 1320-21 for controversial fatwas. In 1323, the Mamluks reached a peace agreement with the Mongols. No longer needed by the Mamluks, Ibn Taymiyyah spent most of the time between 1326 and 1328 in prison in Damascus Castle where he died. This imprisonment was mainly due to his teaching forbidding the visiting of tombs; this upset the Shafeis, one of the largest fractions among the four Sunni schools.[xx] By an order from Sultan al-Nasir he was not even allowed to use his pen and papers in prison in 1328 when he died.

Similar to other religions, puritanism and ultra-conservatism is not generally welcome in Islam. However, the story is completely different when such trends find state-level sponsorship. The evidence shows a strong correlation between state sponsorship and the rise of ultra-conservative movements in mid-18th century Arabia and into the early 20th century. Then there is the relationship between state sponsorship of ultra-conservative Islam as a way of combating the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980. What I tried to demonstrate in this article is that this correlation is not restricted to the modern era. The emergence of Salafism, which is the bedrock for the later developments in jihadist thinking, can also be understood as closely related to regional and global rivalry also in medieval times.

[i] Wagemakers, J. (2012). A Quietist Jihadi. Cambridge University Press. New York, p 9.
[ii] Meijer, R. (2014). Global Salafism: Islam's New Religious Movement. Oxford Scholarship Online, p 39.
[iii] Algar, H. (2002). Wahhabism: A Critical Essay. Oneonta. New York, pp 37-42.
[iv] Atwan, A. B. (2015). Islamic State. Saqi. London, pp 194-197.
[v] Amitai-Preiss, R. (1995). Mongols and Mamluks. Cambridge University Press. New York, p 1.
[vi] See Al-Maqrizi, T. (1997). Al Sulouk le-Ma’refat al-Muluk (the Approaches to Understand the Kings). (ed). The Centre for Scholastic Books. Beirut. (Arabic).
[vii] Little, P. D. (1973). The Historical and Histographical Significance of the Detention of Ibn Taymiyyah. Middle Eastern Studies. Vol. 4, pp 311-327.
[viii] Mongols and Mamluks, pp 39-45.
[ix] Amitai-Preiss, R. (1996). Ghazan, Islam and Mongol Tradition. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. Vol. 59. No. 1, pp 1-10.
[x] Zaryab Khuee, A. (1988). Ibn Taymiyyah. The Islamic Encyclopaedia Centre. Vol. 3, pp 171-193. (Farsi).
[xi] Rapoport, Y & Ahmed, S. (2010). Ibn Taymiyya and his Times. (ed). Oxford University Press. Karachi, p 11.
[xii] Ibn Taymiyyah.
[xiii] Mohammad, N. (1985). The Doctrine of Jihad. Journal of Law and Religion. Vol. 3. No. 2, pp 381-397.
[xiv] Ibn Taymiyyah, T. (1986). Menhaj al-Sunna. Salem, M. R. (ed). The Islamic University of Imam Muhammed bin Saud. Riyadh.
[xv]Although he alienated the population of the Kasrawan Mountain by generalising them as Shi’a and therefore legitimised a war against them, they were actually a coalition of minorities such as Christian Maronite, Druze and Alawite who resisted the Mamluk domination; see Ibn Taymiyya and his Times: p, 234.
[xvi] Ibn Taymiyyah.
[xvii] Ibid.
[xviii] The Historical and Histographical Significance of the Detention of Ibn Taymiyyah.
[xix] Ibid.
[xx] Ibn Taymiyyah.

About the Author:
Karim Pourhamzavi is a PhD candidate in the department of politics at the University of Otago, having previously graduated from the University of Canterbury in political science.  The main focus of his current research is Middle Eastern socio-political affairs, with a particular emphasis on the origin and rise of jihadism.  He is the author of a coming book in Farsi, entitled ISIS: The Middle East in the Jihadists’ Fire. Karim has also written on the subject of Al-Jazeera Arabic and its relationship with Qatari foreign policy and has had articles on Middle East politics published in the Otago Daily Times.