Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority declares ISIS ‘enemies of Islam’

Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Sheik Abdulaziz Al al-Sheik, the highest religious authority in that country, said on Tuesday that the militant groups Islamic State and al-Qaeda were “enemy number one of Islam” and not in any way a part of the faith.

Although the mufti and other Saudi clerics have condemned the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and other groups before, the timing of the statement is significant given the gains by militants in recent months.

“Extremist and militant ideas and terrorism which spread decay on Earth, destroying human civilisation, are not in any way part of Islam, but are enemy number one of Islam, and Muslims are their first victims,” he said in a statement according to the official Saudi Press Agency.

He later compared them to the earlier Kharijite movement, which assassinated the Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law for making compromises to a rival faction, and has been seen as heretical by most Muslim sects.

Saudi Arabia follows the conservative Wahhabi school branch of Sunni Islam, but sees militants, who staged attacks in Saudi Arabia over last decade, as posing a threat to the stability of the country.

Although clerics in the country endorse execution by beheading for offenses like apostasy, adultery and sorcery, oppose women driving and working, and describe Shi’ites as heretics, they differ from militants in that they oppose violent revolt.

Riyadh has been a supporter of rebels battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but has funneled arms and money away from Islamic State and al Qaeda towards other opposition groups after their rise to take over parts of other countries. Wahhabi clerics oversee a massive religious infrastructure paid for by the state and are sometimes dismissed by militants as being in the pocket of the government, although they hold a high position of respect among the Islamic world.

Thousands of young Saudis are believed to have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join rebel groups, spurring concern within that they may eventually launch attacks against the government of Saudi Arabia, which is a large target. Saudi Arabian authorities labeled the Islamic State, al Qaeda, Nusra Front, and other groups as “terrorists” in March and imposed long prison terms for offering them public support or giving them aid.