Is ISIS Islamic? Indeed, is it — as The Atlantic claims — very Islamic?
Strangely, these questions have been treated by many commentators in the West as questions about the nature of Islam rather than questions about the nature of ISIS.
Thus, multiple arguments have been presented to show why ISIS should not be regarded as an authentic expression of Islam — arguments which do a better job of educating non-Muslims about Islam than they do in providing much if any insight into ISIS.
Understandably, many Muslims, appalled by ISIS’s actions, naturally want to assert vigorously that ISIS does not represent Islam and in that sense should not be called Islamic. Fine.
But once one moves beyond the headlines about the atrocities committed by ISIS and beyond the intra-Islamic discourse on the religion’s true nature, it soon becomes clear why the group should indeed be described as being Islamic.
That observation need not be treated as a slur on Islam or a condemnation of Muslims, but seen simply for what it is: a characterization of the religious foundation upon which ISIS rests, in its conception, expression, and goals.
To claim that ISIS is Islamic, is not to claim that it is “an inevitable product of Islam,” or that it reveals the true nature of Islam.
To understand why in objective terms without making qualitative judgements, ISIS can very reasonably be described as Islamic, consider the following report by Ali Hashem. (Based in Beirut, he is a columnist for Al-Monitor who also reports for Al Mayadeen, and has previously reported for Al Jazeera, the BBC, and numerous Arab newspapers.)
When the average Islamic State (IS) member is asked why he is fighting, he typically responds, “So that Sharia prevails and Islam’s banner stays high.”
Marwan Shehade, an Islamic scholar and expert on jihadist groups, told Al-Monitor, “There’s no doubt the organization is built on three main elements: the Sharia, the military might and media. Their main slogan is derived from Ibn Taymiyyah’s famous saying, ‘The foundation of this religion is a book that guides and a sword that supports.’ By ‘a book’ they mean the Quran and religion.”
Despite the debate over whether IS represents Islam and what “true Islam” is, Islamic movements, sects and scholars perceive IS as truly believing it is enforcing the rule of Allah according to the Quran and the Hadith under the guidance of the organization’s Sharia Council, probably the group’s most vital body. The council’s responsibilities include overseeing the speeches of the self-declared Caliph Ibrahim (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) and those under him, dictating punishments, preaching, mediating, monitoring the group’s media, ideologically training new recruits and advising the caliph on how to deal with hostages when it is decided to execute them.
Underlining the central decision-making role of the Sharia Council, Hashem goes on to quote a former ISIS mufti he spoke to in Iraq in January, who told him: “There’s nothing that is decided without the Sharia Council’s approval.”
The average American may not know much about Islam, but by this point most have heard the term caliphate and know that it refers to a kind of Islamic state.
They also know the term Sharia but typically have a distorted understanding of what this means and easily succumb to irrational fears about its implementation.
The effect of hearing President Obama insist that ISIS is not Islamic is to make many Americans believe that the commander-in-chief is in a state of denial. They question whether he really understands who the U.S. is fighting against in its war on ISIS.
Worse, denying that ISIS is Islamic, has the perverse effect of empowering Islamophobes by making them sound like realists — the only people willing to speak the truth about ISIS.
If the only people in America willing to say that ISIS is Islamic are also people who make a radically different claim — that ISIS reveals the real nature of Islam — then Islamophobes will dominate popular discourse on ISIS.