ISIS has clearly emerged as one of the most serious geopolitical threats in the contemporary world. ISIS is also, however, clearly a serious threat against the modern, civilized world at the ideological level—and all the more so because few people have a clear grasp of what ISIS is really playing at. The purpose of the present sample essay provided by Ultius is to discuss the ideology of ISIS in greater depth.
- The essay will begin with the ideology itself, and then proceed to the specific issue of ISIS’s move to declare itself a caliphate.
- After this, the essay will move on to consider the extent to which the beliefs and practices of ISIS are grounded in the Koran, the Islamic holy book.
- Finally, the essay will engage in a critical reflection regarding the question of whether ISIS really is Islamic, or whether it would be appropriate to refer to them as Islamic.
By the end of this essay, the reader should have a somewhat clear sense of the ideology of ISIS and why it poses a threat to the free world.
The Ideology of ISIS
To start with, then, a simple point that must be made is that ISIS is an apocalyptic, millennarian cult. There have been several well-intentioned efforts to consider ISIS in purely secular terms, with its ideology then becoming a mere overlay on the organization’s essentially political nature. In a comprehensive article on the subject, though, Wood has strongly argued against this kind of position:
“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 bring about the apocalypse” (paragraph 6).
It would be difficult to find any more succinct or comprehensive a statement that captures the essential nature of ISIS and its objectives. The starting point for understanding ISIS is to grasp the fact that its ideology is not an epiphenomenon but rather the central engine of the group’s vitality as an organization.
The beginnings of ISIS
ISIS, of course, emerged from the organization al Qaeda, which came to the attention of the world after perpetrating the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City; and although the extremism of ISIS has by now made al Qaeda itself seem relatively moderate, a strong family resemblance is still very much perceptible. Both ISIS and al Qaeda are strongly influenced by a branch of Islam known as Jihadi-Salafism. As Bunzel has pointed out, the ideology of ISIS expresses many of the tenets of Jihadi-Salafism, including that
“all Muslims must associate exclusively with fellow ‘true’ Muslims and dissociate from anyone not fitting this narrow definition; failure to rule in accordance with God’s law constitutes unbelief; fighting the Islamic State is tantamount to apostasy;” and so on (10).
In principle, al Qaeda shares several of these beliefs with ISIS. What is exceptional about ISIS, however, is the rigor and literality with which the organization insists on actually applying these ideas at the level of everyday practice.
Likewise, there is every indication that ISIS is literally intent on provoking an apocalypse, and that this is not a matter of mere figure of speech or ideological metaphor. This has led those who are familiar with the ideology of ISIS to conclude that it would be not only unwise but also impossible to actually compromise or negotiate with ISIS. This is because compromise and negotiation are only possible when both parties in question have discrete political objectives they would like to see accomplished. Or, when there are pathways logically available to reach a mutually desirable outcome.
ISIS, however, is ideologically incapable of acknowledging the right of anyone but ISIS itself to even exist. The organization quite simply wants to either take over the world or bring about the end of the world—and all of this on the basis of solid ideological foundation.
Declaration of the Caliphate
On the basis of its ideology, ISIS has recently made the move of declaring itself to be a caliphate. In Islamic theology, the caliph is roughly the analogue of the Catholic pope; he is understood to be the spokesman of God upon the Earth. A caliphate would thus be definition be a theocratic society ruled according to strict sharia law. As Peled has pointed out, ISIS’s vision is quite “grandiose” in this regard:
“All Muslims must swear allegiance and fulfill their duty to build an Islamically pure world. According to maps shared by supporters on social media, the envisaged caliphate stretches across the Middle East and North Africa into parts of Europe and Asia” (paragraph 11).
One of the implications of ISIS declaring itself a caliphate is that according the organization’s ideology, all Muslims have a duty to support and even physically join the caliphate, and that the failure to do so can be read as evidence of apostasy (or leaving the faith), punishable by death.
Regarding the history of the concept of caliphate, Withnall has pointed out that
“the last widely-acknowledged caliphate was under the Ottoman Empire, which used the symbolic power of its caliph to rule across vast reaches of the Arabic world. The caliphate in this sense ended with the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923” (paragraph 3).
ISIS thus proposes to now pick up this mantle. If an organization is a caliphate, then this implies that its leader is the one true figurehead of all of Islam, and that all Muslims are obliged to swear loyalty to him and his cause. Of course, rival groups factions can contest whether any other group is really a caliphate, or whether its claim is illegitimate.
However, the fact that ISIS considers itself to be a caliphate in itself says very important things about the ideology of ISIS. In particular, ISIS considers itself to be devoutly Islamic, and more than that, the carrier of the only “real” Islam in the whole world.
Foundations from the Koran?
It is worth turning now to a consideration of the extent to which the beliefs and practices of ISIS are in fact grounded in the Koran itself. The answer to this is obviously a complex one, and diverges sharply depending on whether one asks an ISIS member or an outsider. for example, ISIS has justified several of its more barbaric practices, including beheadings and crucifixions, as having solid foundations within the Koran (Hassan).
Of course, one could easily suggest that ISIS has misunderstood the Koran, either by taking specific narrative scenarios as general political rules or by interpreting any given passage in a literal and/or twisted way that goes against the “real” meaning or intention of the passage. This would seem to be in the very nature of the interpretation of literature in general, and in particular holy books. Different Christians, for example, would seem to have such radically divergent interpretations of the Bible that it would almost seem that the only thing they all in common is the fact that they all happen to self-identify as Christians.
For example, the Koran does seem to give expression to the takfiri doctrine, according to which
“the Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people. . . . The Koranic authority for this practice is not in dispute” (paragraph 9).
Of course, literally insisting on this point would be as absurd as suggesting that because the God of the Old Testament once commanded genocide, all modern Jews have a positive obligation to likewise contribute to genocide. If one really wanted to interpret the old stories in this way, though, it is unclear whether one can fairly be accused of not being grounded in the stories.
Much the opposite from not being grounded in the Koran, ISIS would seem to be selectively grounded in the Koran in a horrifically literal way. When the text says kill, ISIS kills. It can of course be argued that this is an extremely perverse interpretation of holy scriptures; but it does at least have to be conceded that it is an interpretation of those scriptures.
So, Is ISIS Islamic?
This discussion opens onto an important ideological question: namely, is ISIS Islamic? President Obama has notably declined to identify ISIS as Islamic terrorists, instead referring to them as enemies of Islam; and the Republican Party has read this as a sign of weakness on the part of the president. In truth, this question is not something that can be decided on purely empirical grounds, due to the fact that it is fundamentally a problem of language.
The philosopher Wittgenstein suggested that people often think they disagree with each other on some point, when in fact they merely either misunderstand each other or else disagree on some other more conceptual point. This would be one of those times. The real underlying questions here are: who has the right the define what a religion is, and what is the definition of being a Muslim? Disagreements about whether ISIS is really Islamic emerge from divergent answers to these basic questions.
ISIS itself vehemently insists that it is not only Islamic but also the embodiment only true form of Islam; its beliefs and practices are firmly rooted within Islamic legal and scriptural tradition; and it speaks in a language with is recognizably Islamic to any competent listener. If these are the criteria to be applied, then the conclusion must be reached that ISIS is in fact one interpretation of Islam, no matter of distasteful outsiders may find that interpretation.
As Hamid has put it:
“For scholars of Islamist movements and Islam’s role in politics . . . there should be one overarching objective: to understand and to explain, rather than to make judgments about which interpretations of Islam are correct, or who is or isn’t a ‘true’ Muslim” (paragraph 8).
If a liberal Muslim in the United States calls an ISIS member un-Islamic, and an ISIS member returns a favor, then the argument merely culminates in circularity, and no real understanding is produced.
The question of whether ISIS is Islamic, though, clearly also has a strategic dimension. More specifically: when Obama refuses to identify ISIS as Islamic, he is clearly taking this stance because he understands that such recognition is exactly what ISIS itself wants, and that it would surely add legitimacy to the organization’s claim to be a caliphate.
In other words, it would be against American interests to acknowledge ISIS as Islamic, especially given that this would also offend a very strong majority of the domestic Muslim population. It can be suggested, then, that there is difference between the conceptual and strategic dimensions of the issue at hand. Conceptually, ISIS clearly is Islamic—or at any rate, it has just as much right to call itself Islamic as does any other Islamic group.
Strategically, though, Obama has decided in favor of one interpretation of Islam (the secular-liberal interpretation) and against another (the extremist-jihadist interpretation. Of course, he is justified in making this move; but the move is anything but impartial and has everything to do with his own convictions. Obama suggests ISIS is not Islamic in the same way that ISIS suggests that liberal Muslims are not Islamic. At the strictly logical level, the same move is being made in both statements.
In summary, the present essay has consisted of a discussion of the ideology of ISIS. A key conclusion that has been reached here is that ISIS is in fact a devoutly religious apocalyptic cult and must be understood as such. Another is that whether ISIS is Islamic really depends on whom one asks, although the basically Islamic inspiration of the group is undeniable fact.
Bunzel, Cole. “From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State.” The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, 19 Mar. 2015. Web. 21 Jan. 2016. .
Hamid, Shadi. “Does ISIS Really Have Nothing to Do with Islam?” Washington Post. Web. 18 Nov. 2015. Web. 21 Jan. 2016. .
Hassan, Hassan. “ISIS Has Reached New Depths of Depravity, but There Is a Brutal Logic Behind It.” Guardian. 7 Feb. 2015. Web. 21 Jan. 2016. .
Peled, Daniella. “What Is ISIS? The Rise of a Militant Islamic ‘Caliphate”. Haaretz. 23 Nov. 2015. Web. 21 Jan. 2016. .
Withnall, Adam. “Iraq Crisis: What Is a Caliphate?” Independent. 30 Jun. 2014. Web. 21 Jan. 2016. .
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell. Print.
Wood, Graeme. “What ISIS Really Wants.” The Atlantic. March 2015. Web. 21 Jan. 2016. .