The Islamic State’s Supposed Theology


by Musa al-Gharbi

It is problematic to assert that the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) is not “Islamic” in large part because the assertion presupposes there is a “true” and a “false” Islam—one by which Barack Obama or liberal Muslim intellectuals can judge whether others are “authentic” believers or not. This is the same takfir (excommunication) doctrine that animates IS and its precursors, a dogma that most IS critics are eager to condemn when turned on religious minorities (especially Christians) in the Middle East.

Instead, one could argue that IS’s doctrines are far outside the mainstream beliefs and practices of contemporary and historical Muslim communities. By virtue of its fundamentalism, which relies heavily on fringe interpretations, cherry-picking Quranic verses, and revisionist history, IS rejects and does violence to the rich, diverse, and pluralistic Islamic legal tradition. IS tries to be as provocative as possible, especially in relation to other jihadist groups—often deliberately and cynically evoking Islamophobic and Orientalist tropes to goad its Western enemies. Many of its aspirations and tactics, moreover, have modern, secular roots. Alternatively, one could look at who tends to join the group:

Of their Western recruits, many are recent converts who adopted Islam as a sign of their pre-existing support for IS (rather than being driven to IS by their religious beliefs). Others have spent their lives as “cultural Muslims,” with more-or-less secular lifestyles, suddenly becoming “devout” after some kind of socio-legal tension that alienated them from their communities. Regardless of their religious or ethnic background, they are overwhelmingly young people. In short, IS tends to appeal to those who lack a strong theological foundation in Islam.

This is why “moderate” Muslim leaders cannot really do much to stem IS recruitment (sidestepping the grievous conceptual problems with the term “moderate” Islam): the potential recruits do not regularly attend mosques and don’t defer to mainstream religious authorities. So liberal or centrist Muslims can condemn IS ad infinitum (as they have, and do), but those at risk of radicalization will continue to see these critics as collaborators (if they listen to them at all). They have no legitimacy with the people they are “supposed” to be reaching.

However, “Western” IS recruits remain somewhat rare, despite the media fetish about these extraordinary cases. IS’s foreign fighters are overwhelmingly from the greater Middle East, generally hailing from countries under authoritarian rule. Often defecting from other jihadist groups, they view IS as the best means to resist or overthrow regional autocracies. That these same oppressive states have formed a coalition to fight IS—along with Britain and France (the region’s former colonial and imperial overlords), and America (the enforcer and sustainer of the prevailing world order)—this only enhances IS’s narrative and bolsters its recruitment. The deeper these powers are drawn into the theater, the more legitimacy IS will have.

But this legitimacy is more-or-less political in nature. Even many people in jihadist circles do not view Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his cohort as being on sound theological footing. But of course, none of this is to say that IS isn’t “Islamic.” It’s to suggest that the question is ill-formed.

Why Does It Matter If IS Is Religious?

In his recent Atlantic feature, Graeme Wood emphasizes that IS goes out of its way to justify its atrocities on religious grounds, and that most people who try to ignore or suppress the “Islamic” flavor of IS are motivated by a “weird” mélange of liberal and interfaith ideologies (along with a more-than-healthy dose of political correctness). He is correct to point out that these denials are often counterproductive, because they sound disingenuous to those who do not share these idiosyncratic convictions.

On the other hand, Wood neglects to note that the entire distinction has become more political than informative. Most who insist that we must recognize IS as “Islamic” are hardly experts on Quranic exegesis, Islamic theology, jurisprudence, or the historical and cultural dynamics of the Middle East. Instead, they are often transparently Islamophobic. Their reasoning is that if IS can be categorized as essentially “Islamic” then the quest to fight IS must be similarly defined in religious in terms. The policy suggestions that follow from such an acknowledgement typically include restrictions on Islam—with a particular focus on suppressing any political manifestations of the religion as well as greater state interference in, and surveillance of, the lives of Muslims.

Of course, this kind of socio-legal discrimination plays into the hands of IS: the persecution and marginalization of the Muslim diaspora is an explicit goal of the extremists because it renders people more, not less, prone to radicalization. Accordingly, it is no coincidence that right-wing ideologues, atheists, and IS sympathizers celebrate and distribute Wood’s piece: they all feed off of one another to spread, escalate, and indefinitely perpetuate the “War on Terror.”

Outsourcing Responsibility

Although it is improper to outright deny IS’s religious character, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to avoid framing the group in religious terms.

For instance, many non-Muslim groups are just as depraved and far more lethal than IS (for instance, Mexican drug cartels). And so, if we understand IS’ atrocities as a particular expression of their Islamic theology, we can fail to take note of these heinous acts being committed on an even larger scale outside the Middle East. But perhaps more importantly, we can fail to understand the strategic logic behind these tactics across contexts. As a result, we can play into the extremists’ hands.

Similarly, it is critical to talk about terrorism in secular terms because non-Muslim right-wing ideologues carry out more terrorist attacks and kill more people through terrorism in America and Europe than Muslims—and by leaps and bounds. In both America and Europe, the greatest danger is from White, native-born men. But Western countries can never meaningfully address the persistent and growing threat posed by these extremists so long as they continue to view terrorism as a predominantly (or even exclusively) “Islamic” phenomenon. And in fact, most victims of Islamic terrorism perish in the Middle East; the majority of these victims are, themselves, Muslims.

It is similarly important to focus on extremism beyond the context of religion or even beyond the framework of non-state/sub-state entities. Overtly irreligious states, including many European countries, have been among the worst actors in human history. Moreover, it is the actions of states which typically provide the raison d’être for their terrorist interlocutors (regardless of ideological affiliation).

Putting the Onus on Muslims

The connection between state violence and terrorism is critical—both to understanding how these groups gain recruits, and also, why Westerners are so eager to frame extremism in religious rather than political terms. Thinking of IS as an “Islamic” movement leads people to conveniently conclude that what is needed to defeat IS isn’t a rethink of Western policies and relationships in the Middle East or a restructuring of authoritarian (client) states in the region. Instead, “moderate Muslims” need to speak out. Put another way, this is a problem that “Islam” has to sort out within itself (perhaps through a “Reformation” or an “Enlightenment” through which they can eventually come to understand the universal truth of Western values).

As such, America continues to support autocrats and Israel (even more than before, because they are “stable” and hate “Islamism”). Western countries continue violating the sovereignty and integrity of the region as convenient for perceived security, geopolitical or economic interests, with little regard for the consequences of these interventions for those who actually have to live with and in the aftermath.

In Western countries, immigrants and Muslims continue to be marginalized and persecuted—under the imperative that they must change, they must bend to be integrated into “the West” (with no right to demand that Western societies and cultures also evolve as a result of this process). Americans and Europeans can remain secure in their conviction that the imposition of their own universalized values and systems on others is the cure for, rather than being a cause (or manifestation) of, extremism.

But above all, Muslims should never be radicalized by any of this. And if the aforementioned dynamics are inexplicably unsuitable for some, the problem is clearly and always with “them” and never with “us.” Because IS is “Islamic,” it is up to Muslims to “solve” it. America and its coalition partners will just provide the training, money, weapons, and bombs for the Middle East to work through these complex theological issues.

Photo: painted portrait of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by Thierry Ehrmann via flickr 

Musa al-Gharbi is a social epistemologist affiliated with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC). Readers can connect to his other work and social media via his website:

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  1. This is news! Or rather it is not factual news. Some examples please.. I am waiting…

    “Similarly, it is critical to talk about terrorism in secular terms because non-Muslim right-wing ideologues carry out more terrorist attacks and kill more people through terrorism in America and Europe than Muslims—and by leaps and bounds. “

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