Taleban leader Hebatullah Akhundzada has published a book which provides fresh clues about his current concerns and interests. The treatise is largely a collection of quotes from Islamic literature, mostly prophetic sayings, on various aspects of jihad. It contains little of the author’s personal opinions and interpretations. Yet, the choice of themes and sources, the limited personal comments, final conclusions and the obvious decision to avoid certain subjects offer telling hints into the Taleban leader’s mind. Borhan Osman has read the book and shares his impressions about it in five questions and answers.Taleban leader Hebatullah Akhundzada.
1 – What are the general contents of the book?
The Taleban published in May 2017 new guidance on how to conduct jihad. The book titled Mujahedino ta de Amir ul-Mumenin Larshowene (Instructions to the Mujahedin from the Commander of the Faithful) already bears a reference to the movement’s new leader, Hebatullah Akhundzada. The flyleaf describes him as “dictating” the book. Taleban sources aware of the production process told AAN it originated as a combination of lectures Hebatullah delivered in recent years on the “etiquette of jihad” and fresh writing on that topic. The apparent aim, as understood from the book, is to instil an ethos of obedience and discipline into the Taleban fighters by invoking the moral authority of religion of their leader.
The cover of Taleban leader Hebatullah Akhundzada’s “instructions to the mujahedin”
The preface (apparently written and published by the Taleban’s Cultural Commission) is more specific about the book’s intended goal. It says the book was designed to remind the movement’s members that “jihad is not an undefined practice or a freewheeling fight”, but is regulated by clear rules of behaviour based on religious law. It adds that the amir wanted to instruct his subordinates about how to make their jihad Sharia-compliant and to protect it from deviances as well as from “extremism and negligence [of doctrine]” (ifrat and tafrit).
The 122-page booklet includes ten major topics. They are not organised in a neat chapter-based style, but topics overlap between the headings and subheadings, resulting in a somewhat incoherent structure. Stylistically, it is more a collection of speeches and sayings. It resembles a treatise by medieval Muslim authors who recorded the utterances or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and of prominent religious scholars who debate doctrine and orthodoxy, without adding their personal own interpretation.
The majority of the book consists of Arabic texts and their translations, from the Quran, Sunnah, quotes from prominent clerics, the Prophet Muhammad’s biography and some works of poetry. The author himself makes few personal comments. He even often shies away from rephrasing the religious texts he cites to justify his own instructions on their basis. Where he puts any personal touch to the cited material, he does it briefly, usually limiting himself to a few sentences, normally at the end of a chapter. The scarcity of the author’s own comments leaves the reader with little room to identify his personal ideas.
In contrast, it leaves room for a lot of ambiguity, particularly when sensitive political matters are discussed. For example, the author refers to the concepts of emirate and caliphate a few times in the text, but he never spells out how he defines or distinguishes one from the other. They are sometimes mentioned interchangeably as if they meant the same thing to him. The parts referring to the caliphate alongside and, without distinguishing, the emirate are possibly pointed at those sympathisers who feel attracted to the ideology of the Islamic State (whose followers accuse the Taleban of abandoning the greater ideal of establishing a caliphate).
2 – How did the book come to light?
Taleban sources told AAN before the book was formally released that Hebatullah was working on a manual for Taleban fighters. They said it was meant to complement the layha, a guidebook that codifies the Taleban’s conduct on the battlefield, last updated and published in 2010 (AAN analysis here).
According to these sources, the Rahbari Shura, the Leadership Council, (or some members of it) discussed the topic of fighter conduct during jihad in March 2017. Hebatullah took it upon himself to prepare the text, which then underwent a three-stage review. The draft was first reviewed by several members of the Rahbari Shura for its ‘editorial’ compatibility with the movement’s overall policies and approaches. After endorsement from the key shura members, it was reviewed again by the movement’s highest jurisprudent authority, Sheikh Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai, who is head of the Taleban courts and a member of the shura. He read it for the sake of its religious validity of the narrations and arguments. Then, the cultural commission edited it for language and fluency.
The first publishing run carried 5,000 copies. It is meant for free distribution among the Taleban and its sympathisers. AAN has seen copies that have reached Taleban-controlled areas in parts of southern Afghanistan by mid-June. The Taleban’s Cultural Commission members told AAN they would print more copies soon since the first edition was on verge of running out. They said their aim is for the book to reach all Taleban and that one copy is retained by each delgey, the basic fighting unit consisting of approximately 25 fighters). The book’s digital version has also been posted online on official Taleban websites and distributed on instant messaging services and social media channels
3 – What is the book about?
Hebatullah’s treatise is not an update to the lahya, but can be seen as a complement to the rulebook, serving as a broader theoretical and theological framework for it. Considerable time has passed since the lahya was issued, so it can also be seen as an attempt to refresh and reinforce the battle code. The difference with the layha, according to Taleban sources, is that it is considered legally binding and breaching it results in disciplinary action, whereas the book as a moral instruction is non-binding and therefore does not prescribe disciplinary actions for noncompliance.
Below are some of the key recurrent themes in the book:
Call for piety: This appears frequently in the book, in different chapters. Piety (taqwa) and purity of intention (ikhlas) are emphasised upon as being keys to the success of armed jihad and instrumental in making one’s struggle lead to eternal salvation. Such calls specifically highlight the importance of freeing one’s mind from any kind of worldly rewards and temptations. “The only jihad acceptable to God is one which is undertaken solely for the sake of pleasing Him …and is fully based on purity of intention” the book asserts. It further says that having anything other than God’s pleasing in mind “invalidates a man’s jihad”.
Obedience and internal discipline: Topics around this subject revolve around keeping the organisation cohesive so it runs smoothly. This constitutes a substantial part of the book. Specific topics include prohibition of mishandling and abusing taxes collected from people in the form of zakat or ushr (types of religiously obligatory alms) and ghanimah (property seized from the enemy as war bounty). It warns that misusing these resources “amounts to treason of the cause of jihad and can bring torment (azab) on the culprits”.
Another point emphatically deplored is personal ambition and the desire to raise one’s earthly or material status. The book says any expectation and feeling of entitlement for a position (danda or wazifa) in the Taleban is a sin (gunah). It further adds that the pursuit of authority by someone shows such a person is overwhelmed by egoistic temptations: “That someone asks openly for a job, it shows that is his egoistic desire [stemming from] his love of wealth, authority and status or that he would want to avenge on his opponents by exploiting his authority.” It is particularly problematic if fighters condition their obedience to their seniors in return for status, the book adds.
Obedience to the amirs, the commanders and those higher in hierarchy is also repeatedly emphasised throughout the book. It warns that there is no jihad without obedience to the amir and the rules he has set: “[From the Quranic verses and prophetic sayings], it became clear that it is obligatory on Muslims to respect their supreme amir or caliph. Besides this, it is also obligatory to respect and obey commanders of lower ranks.” The author asserts that not only obedience is required in action, but that the Taleban also need to keep their hearts clean of any misgiving about their seniors, which it says is a sin: “The common people, particularly mujahidin, need to have good faith in their amir and other responsible leaders and not to interpret their actions wrongfully, but instead interpret them in good faith as far as possible, as Allah says in this verse…”
External discipline: This includes instructions on behaving well with ‘others’ and making the movement look attractive to the public. Specific messages in this category include instructions to treat prisoners well as well as common people. It asks the Taleban fighters not to rush in punishing prisoners: “Judges are agents of the imam (amir). Whenever mujahidin detain prisoners from the ranks of the enemy, they should not punish them as they wish without a verdict of the judge. In sum, the mujahidin have to treat prisoners in a better manner. They should not be tortured, nor beaten, nor agonised by hunger or thirst and nor tormented by putting them to sun or cold weather.” Similarly, the book demands the Taleban to treat the general population kindly and to be gentle to them: to win their minds by delivering and spreading justice. It specifically asks Taleban judges to prioritise forgiveness over punishment.
Tactical savviness: A small part of the book is dedicated to instructions on creativity in military and strategic affairs. It asks the Taleban to adopt wiser tactics while in the battlefield: “keep your strategies and tactics secret… keep the whereabouts of your leaders secret …and build proper coordination among yourselves.” It also asks the fighters to infiltrate ranks of their enemy.
4 – What does it say about Hebatullah and his concerns, the Taleban and their evolution?
From the gist of the volume, Hebatullah is trying hard to persuade his fighters to listen to him (and to gain the ears of those who do not), trust the new leadership, follow the chain of command and take the layha’s stipulations about avoiding harm to the civilian population seriously. Such instructions are not surprising to come from Hebatullah; he has been known as a strict disciplinarian throughout his career in the Taleban, as explained in an earlier AAN dispatch. Heavily loaded with texts from Islamic scriptures and tradition, the book is also an attempt at injecting spirituality into a Taleban which are increasingly attracted to mundane temptations, such as wealth and power. As the Taleban movement grows, the main concern of its leaders, as observed by AAN, is lack of obedience and extreme behaviour. Worldly pursuits such as fame and power threaten the cohesion of the Taleban movement and therefore its effectiveness. To reverse, or even just decelerate the movement’s descent into worldliness, the Taleban leader has come up with strong words from the Islamic tradition on the value of piety and the rules for the validity of armed jihad.
Although Hebatullah withholds his personal opinions and comments in the text, there are still a number of obvious conclusions about his main concerns as leader of the Taleban. Some topics are presented in more expansive and emphatic ways than others, indicating his priorities at the time of publication. Almost half the book is dedicated to purifying one’s intentions, reflecting his concern about many Taleban members deviating from the long-upheld principles of selflessness and absolute obedience to the amir (The concept of amir primarily applies to the overall leader, Hebatullah in this case, but it is also used and refers more broadly to any more senior figure).
The Taleban have historically presented themselves as ascetics, who were not particularly interested in political or military positions; the leader (and the commanders) were obeyed unquestionably. This is no longer the case. Members compete for fame and power, sometimes violently. The past three years following the revelation of the death of Mullah Omar have seen open rifts within the movement (earlier AAN analysis here). Some of the disgruntled leaders were brought back into fold only through promises of elevated ranks, and not all such promises were kept.
The same is true for concerns about the wider misuse of funds raised by local commanders as well as bounty seized during operations that is not sent in its entirety to the relevant authorities, the provincial heads of the financial commission. This has become a widespread phenomenon in the ranks of the Taleban. A portion of it regularly ends up in the pockets of fighters and commanders of the units at the ground level. The amir has to preach against it: “the wealth you get from people or the enemy is a piece of hellfire if not handed over to the higher authority.”
Although it is not explicitly spelled out in the book, it is obvious that Hebatullah sees such deviation as an existential threat to the cohesiveness of the movement. The two subjects – mistrust and a weakening of command and control – remain a recurrent theme throughout the book. The Taleban leader’s solution for this internal feuding is to appeal to the power of religion: he writes that it is “a sin” (gunah) not to trust the amir; it is “unlawful” (na-rawa) to expect certain positions in return for allegiance; and noncompliance with amir’s instructions is tantamount to the disobedience (na-faramani) of the Prophet and God. The book cites traditional ‘ulama regarding the importance of obedience saying: “One cannot stop obeying his amir …even if he does not observe justice in distribution of benefits and privileges to his subordinates.” It goes on to state: “[As derived from the hadith,] it is compulsory upon mujahidin to obey their amir even if he comes from inferior descent (dani yu-nasab).”
In the chapter on the value and objectives of jihad, one comment is particularly noteworthy for its far-reaching political consequences. It is the closing note of one chapter and serves as a conclusion to it; it also makes the longest comment by Hebatullah in the entire treatise. It is about the continuity of jihad. It states:
[I]t is wrong if the ongoing jihad launched in the country against the infidels and their puppets is made dependent only on the departure of the infidels; and [it is wrong] if someone says that jihad should stop immediately after the departure of the infidels as the corruption that originated from and is spread by them would continue. [It is wrong because] jihad will thus become aimless. [By using this argument,] the invaders want exactly to render Afghans’ efforts in the way of jihad fruitless. It is taken for granted that unless all the [manifestations of] their fasad (corruption) are eliminated, they will certainly come back to our land whenever they find the circumstances suitable. The mujahedin should not be fooled by such words and should continue their holy jihad as long as it takes to eradicate fasad (corruption) and until only Allah’s religion rules the land and thus the mujahedin’s countless sacrifices do not go in vain.
This reads like a response to frequently raised opinions by Afghans, including among those who have traditionally been supportive of the Taleban, and in the media questioning the legitimacy of any ‘jihad’ after a withdrawal of all foreign troops, with the result that Afghan Muslims were the only remaining victims of the war. It also has been the main argument used by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to justify his Hezb-e islami’s ceasefire and the subsequent peace deal with the Afghan government (AAN analysis here) which, in turn, has been offered to (and rejected by) the Taleban as a blueprint for them joining the system.
However, given the context of the comment (which discusses the importance of jihad to incite his men continue fighting and not think of the mere absence of foreign troops from the battlefield as the ultimate outcome of jihad), it cannot be interpreted to mean Hebatullah is rejecting any idea of a political settlement. He seems to be mainly responding to the doubts in minds of common Afghans about why the Taleban did not stop fighting even after the withdrawal of most foreign troops. His argument is telling: the fasad (corruption) – which in the context apparently means the perceived un-Islamic nature of the polity – that was imposed by the foreign troops is still there; unless an Islamic system is restored the Taleban’s jihad will not cease. Can that be restored through a military conquest or negotiations is not given. The audience for this note are therefore apparently common Afghans.
Also Hebatullah’s choice of literature for citation can offer hints about the sources of his inspirational reading, and possibly about the scope of his access to the Islamic literature. Sunnah is the most widely used source suggesting his mastery of hadith, reflecting his scholarly title of sheikh ul-hadith (the master of hadith). The book is also dotted with verses from the Qurān followed by commentary by known traditional exegetes, narrations by the prophet’s companions, interpretations of Hanafi ulama and comments by known Sufi authors.
Apart from the most respected, classical Sunni exegetes, such as Tabari and Ibn Abbas, he frequently uses two contemporary sources: exegesis by a modern Syrian scholar, Wahba az-Zuhayli, who is possibly the most prolific and best known living jurist with Hanafi inclinations (the Hanafi school being the prevalent one among Afghans, including the Taleban), and a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Libyan author, Ali as-Salabi, who is cited as the main source for explaining historical events, for example political events during the early Islamic periods following the death of Prophet Muhammad. This possibly shows the limited scope of his access to modern Islamic literature. In some contrast, frequent citations from known Sufi masters and authors of the early generations such as Al-Fuḍayl ibn ‘Iyāḍ, Dhul-Nun al-Misri, Hasan al-Basri, Sahl at-Tustari and Abu Hamid al-Ghazali that constitute a significant part of the discussions on purity of intention and piety make parts of the text look like a Sufi manual for the training of ego.
The Sufi-oriented nature of parts of the text is not surprising given the Taleban’s background in the religious heritage of southern Afghanistan combined with the Deobandi tradition, both of which have a strong element of Sufism. (See earlier AAN analysis pointing this out, here, here and this recent AAN paper.) Hebatullah’s extensive usage of the Sufi references reinforces the notion that the Taleban, particularly its leadership, preserve deep Sufi links ingrained in the culture of the original taleban, the pupils of madrasas and mosques. Indeed, all the highest ranking ulama in the current Taleban structure hold a visible affinity with Sufi rites and beliefs. All this contradicts many uninformed comments describing the Taleban as ‘Wahhabi’ or ‘Salafi’, who puts Sufis on the list of their primary enemies.
5 – Why has the new Taleban leader resorted to theological instructions?
Islamic scholarship is possibly Hebatullah’s most valuable asset. What makes him distinct from previous Taleban leaders is his grounding in the knowledge of Islamic tradition, mainly Ahadith (plural of Hadith), or prophetic sayings. He is widely referred to, before his leadership and after, as sheikh al-hadith, a title which is bestowed upon Islamic scholars who have established a proven mastery in Hadithic sciences.
With this treatise, Hebatullah is invoking his religious credentials as a widely respected religious scholar among the Taleban. He was a primary religious advisor to Mullah Omar, which both bolsters his own authority and the respect for the new leadership and helps his drive to reinforce discipline (“obedience”). The layha issued by Taleban under Mullah Omar was mostly a list of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’, a straightforward call for discipline. It did not need many theoretical elaborations; the mere fact that it was endorsed by Mullah Omar was enough to ensure compliance. The Quranic verses, Prophetic sayings and classical sources invoked in this treatise are meant to serve as stark reminders of the lahya’s religious underpinnings in an increasingly disorganized and uncertain context since Mullah Omar’s death that could not be hidden any longer. The emergence of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), too, as a potential catch basin for malcontents was undoubtedly another threat to the future and cohesion of the Taleban movement.
Using those religious resource so abundantly is not only a comfortable task for Hebatullah given his grounding in Islamic tradition, but his religious scholarship is also his most effective tool for persuading his men to follow orders. While he lacks the charisma of Mullah Omar and the decisiveness and savvy leadership qualities of Akhtar Mansur, this is the area where he stands out. His religious rank is higher than that of his two predecessors, including Mullah Omar. The scholarly Hebatullah might be humble in comparison with Omar and Mansur, but he tries to establish himself as possibly the toughest leader on matters of internal discipline. It remains to be seen, however, how deeply his moralistic treatise will influence the behaviour of his men in reality. The result will provide valuable insight into how much he has consolidated his lead over the movement and its most ambitious commanders.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020