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Is ISIS Islamic? How Would We Know?

Why we almost certainly have no idea what we're dealing with

A reader writes:

Do we call the Lord’s Resistance Army “Christian”? They say they’re Christian. They say their motivation is the creation of a biblical state in Uganda and Sudan. Their tactics are not unlike those of ISIS.

For some reason, we don’t regard their claims as sincere. We call them terrorists and criminals. How and why is ISIS any different?

I leave it to Muslims or non-Muslim readers who understand Islamic theology and jurisprudence to explain. I have read in the past, can’t remember where, that the reason radical Islam is so hard to defeat, even within Islam, is because there is so much scriptural and jurisprudential justification for their views. That is, even if an individual Muslim, or school of Islamic jurisprudence, finds them to be theologically wrong, their beliefs are still close enough to a strand of Islamic orthodoxy to be plausible.

Does the theology of the Lord’s Resistance Army sound remotely Christian? Seriously, does it? Graeme Wood, in his great Atlantic piece, writes:

There is a temptation to rehearse this observation—that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise—and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.

The most-articulate spokesmen for that position are the Islamic State’s officials and supporters themselves. They refer derisively to “moderns.” In conversation, they insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.

To take one example: In September, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s chief spokesman, called on Muslims in Western countries such as France and Canada to find an infidel and “smash his head with a rock,” poison him, run him over with a car, or “destroy his crops.” To Western ears, the biblical-sounding punishments—the stoning and crop destruction—juxtaposed strangely with his more modern-sounding call to vehicular homicide. (As if to show that he could terrorize by imagery alone, Adnani also referred to Secretary of State John Kerry as an “uncircumcised geezer.”)

But Adnani was not merely talking trash. His speech was laced with theological and legal discussion, and his exhortation to attack crops directly echoed orders from Muhammad to leave well water and crops alone—unless the armies of Islam were in a defensive position, in which case Muslims in the lands of kuffar, or infidels, should be unmerciful, and poison away.

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.


Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”

Every academic I asked about the Islamic State’s ideology sent me to Haykel. Of partial Lebanese descent, Haykel grew up in Lebanon and the United States, and when he talks through his Mephistophelian goatee, there is a hint of an unplaceable foreign accent.

According to Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.” He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”

All Muslims acknowledge that Muhammad’s earliest conquests were not tidy affairs, and that the laws of war passed down in the Koran and in the narrations of the Prophet’s rule were calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time. In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”

Haykel’s words call to mind the observation that I read years ago, can’t remember where, that said what we call “Islamic fundamentalism” or “Islamic extremism” is so hard to defeat because it is so clearly rooted in Islamic history and Scripture. To tell the followers of ISIS that they are “un-Islamic” in their practices when they are doing, or trying to do, exactly as the Prophet and his early followers did, is a hard sell.

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig points out that we in the West are profoundly unqualified to decide if ISIS is authentically Muslim or not. Excerpt:

Our public deliberation relies on the idea that ‘religion’ is a constant, stable category that can be established empirically, but is not sensitive to the internal logics of individual religions. In September 2014, more than 120 scholars of Islam from around the world directed a letter to ISIS, in which they carefully detailed the multifarious ways the militant group defies the laws and obligations of Islam. “The letter is written in Arabic. It is using heavy classical religious texts and classical religious scholars that ISIS has used to mobilize young people to join its forces,” Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations said at the time.“This letter is not meant for a liberal audience.”

Awad wasn’t using ‘liberal’ in the way it is pejoratively deployed on Fox talk shows, but in its purest sense, the sense that refers to the intellectual attitude arising from the Enlightenment, the one that still colors much of our political discourse. These Enlightenment ideas include the notion of a religious tolerance that confines certain beliefs and practices to a specifically religious sphere, and the idea that reason provides a stable, universally accessible guide to investigating all manner of problems. In the liberal mindset that gives us individual rights, freedom of belief among them, religion is a broad category into which almost any belief or practice can be promised an equal guarantee of protection in the eyes of the law. In the liberal formation, a lapsed Catholic who rarely makes it to Mass is as authentically ‘religious’ as the deeply observant Jew who never works on Shabbat. Which, for the purposes of our government, is a good thing.

But since most of our public discussions of religion take place within this liberal framework, we lack a grammar and vocabulary for arguing about the content of religions in the public sphere. Because our presumptions about how to source religious authority are largely private and rarely interrogated in public (especially in interfaith contexts) we presume those assumptions are either broadly shared or simply correct, and base our public statements about the authenticity of religious belief and practice on them.

Here is a link to the long letter to Baghdadi written by the Sunni Islamic scholars. If ISIS is going to be defeated ideologically, then they are the ones to do it. But how do we know that ISIS will listen to them? Perhaps the leaders of ISIS consider them to be heretics or apostates, and therefore their opinions are meaningless. Do you know?

Yesterday I had a post up about how a fringe group of radical Protestants had decided that the only true Christians in the world are those who hold to their narrow fundamentalist views. They are Southern Baptist, and blast leaders of their own church for being sellouts. How much good would it do to convene a group of Evangelical leaders to issue a long letter telling those hotheads that they don’t represent true Christianity? They don’t care, any more than the rest of us Christians care that they have anathematized us. At least in Catholicism there is a settled framework for deciding which beliefs are authentically Catholic and which are not. But nowadays, quite a few American Catholics don’t respect the Church’s magisterium (teaching authority). You can quote the Catechism at them all day long, and they’ll just blink, and go on their way.

Is this dynamic playing out among Muslims regarding ISIS? I don’t know. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it were. After all, as far as I know, ISIS are reformers in the Wahhabist mode: trying to strip away all the historical accretions that Islam has acquired over the centuries, to get back the the “pure” Islam of the Prophet. Could it be that learned Sunni Islamic jurists are in a similar position here as the divinity school faculty writing to a band of hellfire-and-brimstone Christian fundamentalist backwood preachers — the kind of crusaders who understand themselves as standing against the corrupt establishment preachers who have gone soft and let the enemies of the faith triumph?

This reminds me of something I read the other day in Ralph Wood’s great book about Flannery O’Connor and the South. Wood talks about slavery, and how the Southern preachers who defended that evil had — alas — a more Scripturally sound argument than Northern Christians. Wood draws on the scholarship of the historian Eugene Genovese, whose Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made is considered one of the best books on the American South. Wood writes:

[Genovese] maintains that these Southern vindicators of slavery were more biblically astute than their Yankee counterparts. Most of the abolitionist divines made easy targets: they argued on broadly humanist — rather than strictly theological — grounds that injustice should not be tolerated, that personal aspiration should not be thwarted, that legitimate government should not be overthrown, that freedom of conscience should not be violated. While contradicting nothing Christian, such claims required no distinctively Christian warrants. Southern ministers answered these sub-biblical arguments by supplying a theology that justified slaveholding on abundant biblical grounds: that the Old Testament patriarchs owned slaves, that Jesus nowhere condemns slavery, that Paul and other New Testament writers quite clearly sanction it. Paul even urged the runaway slave Onesimus to return to his master, Philemon.

Continues Wood, “Repeatedly, Genovese commends the Southern theologians for besting their Northern abolitionist opponents in biblical argument.” And the argument had to be on biblical grounds, given the Evangelical nature of Southern religion.

So they went to war (mostly) over slavery, and the South, thank God, lost that war. The war settled the matter, though it certainly didn’t convert white Southerners to the Northern view of race and theology. But what if the South had won? What would Americans consider to be authentically Christian thought today on slavery and race? It’s impossible to say, but we may expect that soldiers of the pro-slavery Christianity having prevailed on the battlefield would have put pro-slavery theology in a stronger position in society. Similarly, ISIS has done something al-Qaeda never has: it has its own territory, and its fighters have humiliated far stronger forces in the field. We must hope that Islamic religious authorities can delegitimate ISIS in the eyes of Sunni Muslim publics, especially young men. But it can be difficult to argue with success.

Finally, there is the apocalyptic aspect of ISIS. Charles Cameron read ISIS’s magazine, Dabiq, and says it reveals a core aspect of the group that few in the West understand. “Dabiq” is the name of a town in Syria that Islamic End Times prophecy says will be the battleground for the Final Confrontation between good and evil. Jesus will return, along with an Islamic Christ figure called the Mahdi, to deliver a crushing defeat to Islam’s enemies. It’s as if they had named their magazine Armageddon. ISIS openly talks about how its aim is to prepare the way for the Islamic Apocalypse. Excerpts:

Read by western secular eyes, all this talk of the end times can easily be glossed over in favor of the photos of Toyotas filled with gun-toting, flag-waving jihadists, the descriptions of battles won and jurisdictions established – the military and to some extent political side of things. But that would be a mistake.

Seen through the eyes of a prospective recruit, perhaps disenchanted with the wars the west has been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, troubled by western support of dictators like the Shiite Assad overlording the Sunnis in Syria, egged on by friends and eager for a life of adventure and significance in a world which seems to offer little of either one, the picture looks quite different.

The images of battle victories, the killing of enemies and the distribution of food and essential services in conquered territories suggest that God may be blessing the newly proclaimed caliph’s efforts – but the greatest thrill comes from the promise of the end times.

Here the wannabe jihadist is offered the opportunity of a lifetime: to fight, not in just any old war, not even in a war to protect his religion, but in the greatest and most glorious of wars — the final war between good and evil which ends with the inevitable triumph of good. To die in that war is to be a martyr and hero at the epic, culminating moment of history, and rewarded as such in paradise. And to fight and live and see the end is to be among the companions of both the returning Christ and the Mahdi: there could be no greater honour.

I get that. Boy, do I get that. If you’ve never given your mind over to the thrill of apocalypse, you can’t imagine how electrifying it can be. When I was 12 and 13, the US had just gone through the horrible decade of the 1970s, with all its economic turmoil. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan. The Iranians overthrew the Shah and took US hostages. Talk of the Cold War and a nuclear holocaust was everywhere. It was a scary time, especially for an impressionable teenager like me.

I was raised with a very mild form of Christianity, one that taught nothing about the Apocalypse. When I stumbled into the bestselling End Times book The Late Great Planet Earth, suddenly I understood what was happening in the world. Clearly we were close to the Second Coming of Christ, and everything that was happening in the world right now had been prophesied in the Bible, just like author Hal Lindsey said. I may have been a fat teenage nerd living in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to do, but I knew something the rest of the people in my family and in my school did not: that the world was in the middle of an unprecedented historical drama — one that would culminate in fire, blood, and the triumphant return of Jesus.

What young man wants to sit around listening to theologians talk when the world is on fire?

Mind you, there is no Christian scenario in which Christians are obliged to fight in this battle. In fact, Hal Lindsey’s belief is that all the faithful will be taken off the earth in the Rapture, before things get really bad. So we got to savor the fact that we were witnessing the final act of human history, while having the assurance that we were not going to be around for the worst of it. Nice.

What the Hal Lindsey vision gave to me was a sense of purpose and meaning that I did not get anywhere else. Specifically, it charged daily life with intensity. I would read the newspaper in the morning over breakfast, and find my newfound apocalyptic beliefs confirmed in the headlines. Any time the Soviet Union would make a move, I would think, “Ha! Gog and Magog! We know where this is headed.” It is a crazy way to live, but I’m telling you, if you are inside that mindset, it is a kind of spiritual methamphetamine. You want to believe it, because it delivers you from boredom, insecurity, and the difficult business of getting through the day.

I remember sitting at a table in the school library in 7th grade, reading a newspaper and looking up and thinking, “If the Rapture happened five minutes from now, what would they all think of me? I would be gone, and most of them would be left behind. That would show them!” You see the power of this kind of thinking on the mind of a 13 year old kid who feels lost, scared, and overlooked. That’ll show them. They thought I was a social reject, but in the end, I will have been one of God’s favorites, and these of little faith will be left behind to suffer.

It’s childish and simplistic and every bad thing … but if you are overcome with anxiety, shame, and a lack of meaning in your life, the Apocalypse is a kind of deliverance. And I had disdain bordering on contempt for all these lukewarm pastors who wouldn’t preach the book of Revelation, who wouldn’t preach the book of Daniel, and who were leaving all their flocks unprepared for the End of the World, which was about to overtake us. I remember reading anti-Apocalyptic literature back then, things showing that the Rapture and all of it was a 19th century invention, and thinking, “Wow, these lukewarm Christians will say anything to discredit the plain truth.” There was no religious authority on earth that would have been able to convince me otherwise. The very fact that they didn’t believe in the Rapture, or that we were in the Last Days, was to me a sign of their apostasy.

Of course I burned out after a couple of years of that, thank God. It was nonsense. But the apocalyptic vision of Islam, especially as interpreted by ISIS, is a much different thing, and I can easily see its appeal to young, bored Muslim men who feel humiliated by the impotence of themselves and their societies. The Middle East has undergone traumas unimaginable to us in the United States. If the late Seventies and the humiliations of America at the hands of the Vietnamese, the Soviets, and the Iranians were a shock to our sense of order and justice, I cannot imagine what it is like to be an Arab Muslim living in the Middle East. The dream of apocalypse is a fantasy of utopia, and that has always held a powerful grip on the human mind, especially the minds of the young. In his memoir Witness, Whitaker Chambers, the former Soviet spy and defector from communism, wrote that we in the West underestimated communism (which he expected to triumph) because we underestimated communists themselves. He pointed out that the true believers among the communists weren’t kidding. They were willing to sacrifice themselves for the dream of the Revolution, which they believed was at hand. They may have believed in a crazy, destructive, sinister lie, but that was beside the point. They had vision, and they had commitment, and they believed that History — which, for a Marxist, is God — was on their side.

All of which is to say that we almost certainly have no idea what we’re dealing with in ISIS. In particular, it seems to me that we in the West, certainly at the level of elite leadership in our institutions, lack an experience of the intensity with which religion is felt in most of the world. And this is a problem.