What’s So Un-Islamic about ISIS?
In each horrifying operation executed by ISIS, the radical terrorist group uses every possible way to convey its Islamic identity. They make sure the world sees and hears what they believe and seek, emphasizing plainly their religious motivation.
However, in each of these instances, we immediately, and almost automatically, hear some Western “scholars” insist that everything about ISIS is un-Islamic: ISIS reflects “societal ills, not Islamic doctrine,” as it “hijacks religion in order to legitimate, mobilize and recruit.” We also hear that ISIS’s version of Islam “is not in accordance with the Quran, the traditions of the Prophet or even with Islamic Law,” and that “No religion, including Islam, preaches indiscriminate violence against innocents.”
This is puzzling. But, no, it should not be.
When some Western scholars deny that ISIS is “in any way” driven by rigorous Islamic ideology, this could hardly be attested, especially if you consider the insistence of prestigious Islamic institutes, like Egypt’s al-Azhar, on identifying the members of ISIS as true Muslims who are committing wrong deeds. For al-Azhar, ISIS’s members cannot be identified as unbelievers as long as they do not reject Allah’s strict monotheism and the apostleship of Muhammad.
Contrary to arguments set forth by these Western scholars, ISIS reflects a specific interpretation of Islam that is both legitimate and consistent with Muslim sacred texts and classical exegesis. Claiming that ISIS’s members are lunatics driven by lust or social evil is hardly plausible, and at best fanciful. Its members can establish rigorous convincing arguments based on the Quran and Islamic tradition to justify each action they take, as they affirm: “This is a fight against Muslims and Islam.” They rely on what Muslims consider divinely inspired and authoritative texts. Ideology establishes convictions and drives behavior.
While there are, of course, various political, sociological, and economic dimensions of the ISIS identity that make its radical image appealing, the religious appeal is exceptionally powerful and unmatched.
For ISIS, the centrality of the Quran and the veneration of the Prophet Muhammad are of utmost importance, and they believe they are destined by Allah to win because of their “noble” cause. This is clearly reflected in ISIS’s black flag that contains the presumed sign of Muhammad’s seal and the Islamic Shahada (“there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger”).
ISIS portrays itself as not only Islamic, but more precisely, Quranic. They perceive their actions as truly sanctioned and legitimately supported by Islam’s scripture.
A Canadian member of ISIS, Farah Mohamed Shirdon (aka Abu Usama), appeared on a VICE News interview. When asked who recruited him to ISIS, Shirdon stated: “no one recruited me, actually no one spoke or said a word to me, all I did I opened the newspaper, I read the Quran -- very easy.” Shirdon joined the “Islamic caliphate” over a year ago and in a different video, he ripped up his Canadian passport, throwing it into a burning fire as he shouted: “This is a message to Canada and all the American tyrants: We are coming and we will destroy you, with permission from Allah the almighty.”
To encourage Muslim enthusiasts to participate in militant operations and thus get admitted to paradise, ISIS recites Quran 47:15, according to their official electronic magazine, Dabiq. To justify beheading, mutilating, and crucifying their enemies, ISIS uses a literal reading of verses such as Quran 5:33, 8:12, and 47:3-6. They believe that, according to Quran 8:12, Allah himself “will cast terror” into the hearts of the unbelievers, so the believers would “strike their necks, and strike each of their fingertips.” In ISIS’s view, the Quran is what constitutes their actions and that makes their message successful in reaching the hearts of many.
Not only the Quran, but also Islamic history and its significant precedents back their supposed legitimate cause.
Muslims view the early years of Islam not only as history, but specifically as a sacred narrative of the greatest prophet and his pious companions. The “precedent” is very important in Islam, as the early figures are often viewed as role models to follow. ISIS knows Islamic history very well, believes it wholeheartedly, and precisely emphasizes specific historical incidents to justify their deeds and ideology.
To support their treatment of prisoners of war or expelling the non-Muslims from their lands, ISIS would quote well-known stories in the Biography of Muhammad of expelling the Jews from the land or beheading several hundred of them after they were accused of being traitors. To justify burning people alive, they refer to authenticated historical reports from his life and those Caliphs after him. While these stories could be interpreted in many different ways, ISIS follows and imitates what the prophet said and did by the letter. This is precisely the way the radical group wants to depict itself. In an interview with an ISIS recruit, Khadija, a female who changed her name for security reasons, was asked why she joined ISIS. “We are going to properly implement Islam,” she was promised by her recruiter.
So, what is really un-Islamic about ISIS?
It appears that one un-Islamic matter about ISIS is the fanciful Western discourse that represents the Islamic terrorist group as completely un-Islamic. With the increased public profile of Islam, some Western scholars simply avoid assessing precise elements of Islamic ideology that drive and support the deeds of religious enthusiasts. However, this is unneeded obfuscation, and it should end, so that we better explain to policy makers, diplomats, and the public the significance of ancient sacred texts and acclaimed precedents on contemporary actions.
As Muslims look back and yearn for the golden days of Islam, ISIS provides a dream fulfilment for some. For the first time in centuries, Muslims from many ethnicities and cultural backgrounds are called to be united, apply literally what the Quran teaches, and imitate the deeds reported in Muslim history about “pious” religious figures.
Ayman S. Ibrahim is Bill and Connie Jenkins Chair and Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies, Senior Fellow of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a post-doctoral candidate (2nd PhD) of Middle Eastern History, Haifa University. This essay was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.