What ISIS really wants.

Last week The Atlantic published Graeme Wood’s (@gcaw) investigative piece on the ideology of IS. You can read it here: http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2015/02/what-isis-really-wants/384980/

This sparked a flurry of responses on Twitter and a slew of counter articles all focussed on the question of whether the ideology and actions of IS were well grounded in Islamic theology. Many expressed outrage at such a proposition going so far as to label it “Islamaphobic”.

For my part I posted two comments via the Justpaste.it website, the first of which has been incorporated in The Atlantic’s follow up piece this week: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/02/what-isis-really-wants-reader-response-atlantic/385710/

Finally Yasir Qadhi published a response to the original piece which can be read here: http://muslimmatters.org/2015/02/23/what-is-islamic-a-muslim-response-to-isis-and-the-atlantic/

Points 15 and 19 are of critical importance when assessing the actions and edicts of IS and their compatibility (or otherwise) with normative Islamic jurisprudence. I made point 19 twice over the course of my two comments and have italicised the relevant portions.

In order to preserve the comments I thought I’d post them on the blog for future reference.



Re. the vituperative criticisms of Graeme Wood’s Atlantic article.

I think many of them are unwarranted and unfair. This is far from your Robert Spence fare of “Islam = Terrorism” despite some of its failings. One must always bear in mind that it is immensely difficult for non-Muslims who are unfamiliar with topics such as ijtihad and usul ul-fiqh to grasp the subtelties and nuances that distinguish the numerous Islamist movements and factions. Furthermore it is no easy task to transpose yourself into the mindset of someone with a vastly divergent Weltanschauung. Anyway, some obvservations:

– Yes, one cannot critcise slavery per se as this was an act carried out by the Prophet (saw) and there is no textual evidence to forbid it. What one can say (as I do) is that such practises – being as they are not obligatory – should be made redundant as they cause more harm than benefit in the contemporary age. Regarding the hudood punishments then the evidential burden required for their imposition renders them all but defunct except in cases of open-court confession. Quite how IS seem to be eliciting such confessions I won’t comment on.

– As to the nub of the article i.e does Islam inspire IS/is IS “Islamic” then the simple answer is yes. For certain most Muslims do not support their policies but to deny that the movement has the Islamic texts and an interpretation thereof as it’s intellectual basis is quite simply erroneous. One might disagree with their interpretations but as it happens for each of their actions they can adduce evidences (no I am not a supporter btw). I gain the distinct impression that many of the “fatawa” that are published are hastily concoted after-the-fact so to speak in order to provide the requisite legitimacy. So far IS has not detailed the juristic school of thought it follows or catalogued the usuli principles its scholars follow (or who they are). Doing so would make scrutiny of its jurisprudence much more effective.

– Is it ALL about Islamic theology? No, I doubt it. Other factors undoubtedly play a role and it goes without saying not all of their 40,000+ contigent will be accomplished idealogues. The truth lies between the two extremes of “this has nothing to do with Islam” and “this is Islam in its purest manifestation”. Many Muslims might agree, in principle, with the primary objective of IS while disavowing many of its attitudes and policies.

– IS is a phenomenon unlike any other so far witnessed in the post-Caliphate period of Islam. Their fixation on eschatology is unparalleled and Muslims have never approached the subject in such a manner previously. The standard view of eschatological ahadith is that they are merely informative lacking any hortatory aspect. We affirm the events described therein will occur and then carry on with our daily lives.

– What is really needed is a delegation from an “Islamist” background to visit Islamic State territory and engage with their leadership and idealogues as well as their common fighters. With the greatest of respect, Anjem Chaudry in London and Musa Cerantonio in Australia are not the people to be talking to. Until that happens it is hard to truly fathom what this movement is about and what it truly wants.




Apologies for commenting again but felt I had to.

Reza Aslan stated: ‘Haykal clearly states that anyone who disagrees w ISIS interpretation is living a “interfaith Christian fantasy” etc’

What was stated in the article was [bold mine]:

‘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.”’

Clearly “are typically” and “anyone” are not equivalent. Nothwithstanding the unfortunate language (“cotton-candy”) Haykel makes a valid point in that many of the most vociferous detractors of Islamic State (again I reiterate I am NOT a supporter) do tend to be of the modernist/reformist camp for whom the explicit injunctions of the Qur’an as interpreted by centuries of classical scholarship are a blemish to be covered up and disavowed at every available opportunity. For such people notions such as Shariah law, hadd punishments, jiziya, jihad are anathemas to be unequivocally repudiated either through the employment of fanciful hermeneutics or by simply disowning the offending texts as “inauthentic”. For such Muslims Islam does tend to fit nicely within a cosy interfaith join-hands-round-the-campfire pluralistic paradigm.

The problem is that millions of Muslims adhere to interpretations of Islam which – as Shadi Hamid righfully points out – are part of a mainstream tradition comprising theological tenets and a legal corpus within which you do indeed find precepts pertaining to matters such as jiziya, jihad, hadd punishments. Even discussions on slavery and execution of enemy combatants are to be found within mainstream classical Islamic legal texts.  A popular, English speaking enlightened scholar resident in the UAE and who is no supporter of IS commented on jiziya saying that while he could understand people’s reservations about those currently exacting it (i.e. IS), they should be mindful not to disown the concept itself. Probably the most comprehensive book on the details of war according to classical Islamic jurisprudence “Jihad wal Qital fi as siyasa ash shariyya” was authored by a PhD student at Damascus Islamic University under the supervision of Shaykh Zuhayli – probably the leading scholar of Usul in the contemporary age. Within this compendium of Islamic law one can find detailed discussions on topics such as slavery in wartime and the permissibility of executing enemy combatants. Therefore disowning such practises outright and unequivocally represents a theological hurdle that many Muslims (rightfully) are unwilling to take. It is a case of not wanting to throw out the baby with the dirty bathwater.

The problem as ever is in the fine details. It is in the sort of subtelties and nuances that only those with a grounding in fiqh and usul ul-fiqh will apprehend which is something I wouldn’t expect of most Muslims let alone Graeme Wood. Again I reiterate that IS have yet to lay out the details of their juridical methodology (usul ul-fiqh) for other scholars to examine and critique and more importantly by which their judicial pronouncements can be evaluated and according to which they can be held to account. What seems apparent is that they are intent on acting in the most violent, sadistic way possible in every circumstance and then scouring Islamic texts and classical fatawa for justifications after-the-event. Such a methodology has already been condemned by classical scholarship and strangely enough is more akin to how many modernists perform their “ijtihad”. The end result of such an approach is either extremism or licentiousness.

As for the letter by the scholars to Baghdadi then while it has some merit (and many flaws) it is devoid of authority for large swathes of the Muslim community simply because of its provenance. Individuals who are tainted by association (even tenuously) with the US government – widely regarded as far more brutal and guilty of far greater bloodshed than IS – have little to no credibility amongst Muslims who have been on the receiving end of the jackhammer of their Middle East foreign policy.

Again I reiterate that the idea that “IS has nothing to do with Islam” is erroneous whilst simultaneously affirming that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are opposed to its practises and policies. To explain to a Western audience the true essence of IS and its ideology would require a delegation of English conversant Islamic scholars to visit IS territory and engage in extended discussions with their leadership and idealogues. I doubt the rank and file fighters have much conception of what the Caliphate enterprise is about other than an endless war on “the infidels and their hypocrite allies” – but I may be wrong. Far-fetched as it might sound such a mission is a distinct possibility and one I would like to see materialise.

Lastly I think Maz Hussain’s article was the best critique of Graeme’s piece. Please read it here: https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2015/02/20/atlantic-defines-real-islam-says-isis/


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