Is Islamic State actually a state?


In the wake of Islamic State’s spectacular successes during the summer of 2014, many commentators were ready to confer statehood upon the polity formed from the lands they had seized in Syria and Iraq.

Equally many denied that such an entity could reasonably be described as a state. Personally I subscribed to the latter view although I conceded that the issue was not clear cut; there being arguments both for and against.

All of which raises the question, when can a polity be considered a state? Questions of social and political science are not of the same nature as mathematical equations, where the solutions are determined by the application of the rigid rules of logic. There is no definitively correct or incorrect answer. That having been said I would consider the following factors essential to determining whether a given entity can be considered a state in the modern day:

(i) Autarky. Of course no nation is completely independent. All nations rely on trade to some extent or other. But any polity that would aspire to statehood must be able to fulfill the basic needs of its citizens without reliance on any other. This includes power generation, telecommunications, civil engineering, water supplies. It must be able to bear the effects of sanctions for some considerable length of time (many years).

(ii) The appurtenances of statehood i.e. law courts, a police force, tax collection, schools, hospitals.

(iii) Professional armed forces capable of defending the state from external aggression and of handling all possible exigencies of war. So for example, if faced with air raids they must be able to scramble fighters (even if not of the same capability and technological advancement) and deploy surface to air missiles to counter them.

Points (i) and (iii) militate against the acceptance of  Islamic State as a genuine state. In many respects their proto polity resembles the FARC militia of Colombia in the early part of the last decade. It similarly controlled large swathes of territory, collected taxes (most notably on cocaine producers and traffickers) and had access to a plentiful supply of light arms. Yet not once was it considered a state by either the Colombian national government or any other regime in the world.

Clearly these determiners are not universably applicable. For example despite it’s lack of a standing army (disregarding the Swiss Guard) nobody would deny statehood to the Vatican. Similarly certain Pacific islands are universally regarded as states despite being wholly dependant on other nations for their subsistence and defence. The upshot of these exceptions is that the acceptance by other nations of a polity’s claim to statehood and their engagement with it as such must also be deemed a necessary factor. If we look back in history to the American Revolution of the 1770s though the patriots declared their independence and statehood in 1776 the situation was, however, one of unyielding war and uncertainty. In such circumstances their claim, although politically expedient, was of little practical substance. It was only subsequent to the cessation of fighting and by the recognition of Great Britain at the Treaty of Paris, 1783 that the American colonists’ pretensions to statehood became reified.

The situation currently remains fluid in Iraq and Syria yet if Islamic State did not warrant recognition of statehood in June 2014 it certainly cannot warrant it now. As I stated in a blog post almost two years back they will only make the transformation to statehood by the capture of a capital city (i.e. either Damascus or Baghdad) and by gaining the recognition (de facto or de jure) of one of the major states in the region viz. Turkey, Iran or Saudi Arabia. Neither of these two eventualities seems even remotely likely in the foreseeable future.

May the peace and blessings of Allah (swt) be upon sayyidina Muhammad. Ameen.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. ryan says:

    Question not related to post (didn’t want to make acct):
    What do you have against Salafi’s? From my limited readings, they seem to be the most attached to proper Tawheed, and try to force other groups to bring up evidences for their belief’s and practices

    I have many role models among them as well, though I have little love for the Madkhalis

    1. Salaam. I have a huge amount of respect for most Salafis even if I disagree with their aqeedah (I am Ash’ari) and their usul ul-fiqh. I respect their devotion to Tawheed and desire to root out corruptions and innovations in Islam. Sometimes I find their approach to the texts superficial and some exhibit a distinct lack of respect for the classical ulema of Islam (nobody regards them as infallible) and the concept of legitimate jurisitic disagreement. I agree that their insistence on daleel is a positive contribution to Islamic discourse.

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