How can we understand the origins of Islamic State?


Reema Rattan, The Conversation

Since announcing its arrival as a global force in June 2014 with the declaration of a caliphate on territory captured in Iraq and Syria, the jihadist group Islamic State has shocked the world with its brutality.

Its seemingly sudden prominence has led to much speculation about the group’s origins. How do we account for forces and events that paved the way for Islamic State’s emergence?

Do the answers lie in the 20th century, which saw the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the creation of new nations in its wake and their struggle for independence as well as articulation of national identities? Is it hidden in the debris of the Gulf and the Iraq Wars? Or do we have to look deeper in history – to the fundamental tenets of Islam, the Crusades, or the so-called Assassins of the 11th to 13th centuries?

Which of these – if any – can be said to have created the conditions necessary for the rise of Islamic State? In the article kicking off our series on the genesis of the group, professor of modern Middle Eastern history James Gelvin cautions against easy answers. Just because one event followed another, he says, doesn’t mean it was also caused by it.

It is far better to look at the interplay of historical and social forces, as well as recognising that outfits such as Islamic State often cherry-pick ideas to justify their beliefs and behaviours.

Heeding his advice, our series on understanding Islamic State attempts, in a dispassionate way, to catalogue many of the forces and events that can arguably have played a part in creating the conditions necessary for these jihadists to emerge. We have tried to spread the net wide, but make no claim to being comprehensive or having the final word on Islamic State’s origins.

After Gelvin’s broad introduction to the group and warnings about the misuse of history, we turn to Islam and its theology.

Historian of Islamic thought Harith Bin Ramli explains how Islamic State fits – or doesn’t – in Muslim theological tradition, before religious studies scholar Aaron Hughes asks why, given the jihadist group is based on religion, is it so violent?

In a further contribution, Hughes discusses the plurality at the core of Islam, accounting for why the religion is so different in different countries.

Next, we turn to medieval history, as both the Crusades and the so-called cult of Assassins have been linked to Islamic State.

Farhad Daftary discusses the Nizari Ismailis – romanticised as Assassins by the Crusaders and in The Travels of Marco Polo – who killed, among others, two early caliphs. Could they really be thought of as an earlier incarnation of the most vicious terrorists in recent history?

Professor of religious studies Carole Cusack considers the Crusades themselves, and what contribution they could have had in Islamic State’s origins.

Leaping to the 20th century, we start looking at the more proximate causes of the group’s rise.

First, a look at the fateful Sykes-Picot agreement, which craved up the Middle East into English and French spheres of influence, and was denounced by Islamic State in the first video it released. James Renton argues the group’s self-declared political aim in establishing its caliphate speaks directly to the deal, and is an attempt at post-colonial emancipation.

Addressing an issue raised in the comments to the articles in the series, Harith Bin Ramli considers the long 20th century endured by the Middle East. He explains how the crisis of political authority in the Muslim world between the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the 1991 Gulf War contributed to Islamic State’s rise.

The series concludes with a look at more proximate events – the role of the recent wars in the region and their aftermath. Greg Barton points out that to understand Islamic State, we need to look not just at the Middle East itself but also at the complicated role the West has historically played in it.

Download our special report: Understanding Islamic State

The Conversation

Reema Rattan, Series + Specials Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Out of the ashes of Afghanistan and Iraq: the rise and rise of Islamic State


Greg Barton, Deakin University

Since announcing its arrival as a global force in June 2014 with the declaration of a caliphate on territory captured in Iraq and Syria, the jihadist group Islamic State has shocked the world with its brutality.

Its seemingly sudden prominence has led to much speculation about the group’s origins: how do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of Islamic State? In the final article of our series examining this question, Greg Barton shows the role recent Western intervention in the Middle East played in the group’s inexorable rise.


Despite precious little certainty in the “what ifs” of history, it’s clear the rise of Islamic State (IS) wouldn’t have been possible without the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. Without these Western interventions, al-Qaeda would never have gained the foothold it did, and IS would not have emerged to take charge of northern Iraq.

Whether or not the Arab Spring, and the consequent civil war in Syria, would still have occurred is much less clear.

But even if war hadn’t broken out in Syria, it’s unlikely an al-Qaeda spin-off such as IS would have become such a decisive actor without launching an insurgency in Iraq. For an opportunistic infection to take hold so comprehensively, as IS clearly has, requires a severely weakened body politic and a profoundly compromised immune system.

Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.
AAP

Such were the conditions in Goodluck Jonathan’s Nigeria from 2010 to 2015 and in conflict-riven Somalia after the fall of the Barre regime in 1991. And it was so in Afghanistan for the four decades after conflict broke out in 1978 and in Pakistan after General Zia-ul-Haq declared martial law in 1977.

Sadly, but even more clearly, such are the circumstances in Iraq and Syria today. And that’s the reason around 80% of all deaths due to terrorist attacks in recent years have occurred in five of the six countries discussed here, where such conditions still prevail.

An unique opportunity

The myth of modern international terrorist movements, and particularly of al-Qaeda and its outgrowths such as IS (which really is a third-generation al-Qaeda movement), is that they’re inherently potent and have a natural power of attraction.

The reality is that while modern terrorist groups can and do operate all around the globe to the point where no country can consider itself completely safe, they can only build a base when local issues attract on-the-ground support.

Consider al-Qaeda, which is in the business of global struggle. It wants to unite a transnational ummah to take on far-off enemies. But it has only ever really enjoyed substantial success when it has happened across conducive local circumstances.

The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s provided an opportunity uniquely suited to the rise of al-Qaeda and associated movements. It provided plausible justification for a defensive jihad – a just war – that garnered broad international support and allowed the group to coalesce in 1989 out of the Arab fighters who had rallied to support the Afghans in their fight against the Soviets.

The declaration of independence by Chechnya in 1991 led to all-out war with the Soviet military between 1994 and 1996.
EPA

Further opportunities emerged in the Northern Caucasus, where local ethno-national grievances were eventually transformed into the basis for a more global struggle.

The declaration of independence by Chechnya in 1991 led to all-out war with the Soviet military between 1994 and 1996, when tens of thousands were killed. After a short, uneasy peace, a decade-long second civil war started in 1999 following the invasion of neighbouring Dagestan by the International Islamic Brigade.

The second civil war began with an intense campaign to seize control of the Chechen capital, Grozny. But it became dominated by years of fighting jihadi and other insurgents in the Caucus mountains and dealing with related terrorist attacks in Russia.

In Nigeria and Somalia, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab now share many of the key attributes of al-Qaeda, with whom they have forged nascent links. But they too emerged primarily because of the failure of governance and the persistence of deep-seated local grievances.

Musab al-Zarqawi positioned himself in Iraq ahead of the invasion by Western powers.
Petra/EPA

Even in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda struggled to transform itself into a convincing champion of local interests in the 1990s. After becoming increasingly isolated following the September 11 attacks on the US, it failed to gain support from the Afghan Taliban for its global struggle.

But something new happened in Iraq beginning in 2003. The Jordanian street thug Musab al-Zarqawi correctly intuited that the impending Western invasion and occupation of Iraq would provide the perfect conditions for the emergence of insurgencies.

Al-Zarqawi positioned himself in Iraq ahead of the invasion and deftly rode a wave of anger and despair to initiate and grow an insurgency that in time came to dominate the broken nation.

Initially, al-Zarqawi was only one of many insurgent leaders intent on destabilising Iraq. But, in October 2004, after years of uneasy relations with the al-Qaeda leader during two tours in Afghanistan, he finally yielded to Osama bin Laden’s request that he swear on oath of loyalty (bayat) to him. And so al-Zarqawi’s notorious network of insurgents became known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

From the ashes

Iraq’s de-Ba’athification process of May 2003 to June 2004, during which senior technocrats and military officers linked to the Ba’ath party (the vehicle of the Saddam Hussein regime) were removed from office, set the stage for many to join counter-occupation insurgent groups – including AQI.

Without the sacking of a large portion of Iraq’s military and security leaders, its technocrats and productive middle-class professionals, it’s not clear whether this group would have come to dominate so comprehensively. These alienated Sunni professionals gave AQI, as well as IS, much of its core military and strategic competency.

Like this view of Aleppo in Syria from September 2015, many other cities in Syria and parts of Iraq have been destroyed by violence and war.
AAP/Alaa Abdulrahman

But even with the windfall opportunity presented to al-Zarqawi by the wilful frustration of Sunni interests by Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated government from 2006 to 2014, which deprived them of any immediate hope for the future and confidence in protecting their families and communities, AQI was almost totally destroyed after the Sunni awakening began in 2006.

The Sunni awakening forces, or “Sons of Iraq”, began with tribal leaders in Anbar province forming an alliance with the US military. For almost three years, tens of thousands of Sunni tribesmen were paid directly to fight AQI, but the Maliki government refused to incorporate them into the regular Iraqi Security Force. And, after October 2008 – when management of these forces was handed over by the US military – he refused to support them.

The death of al-Zarqawi in June 2006 contributed to the profound weakening of the strongest of all post-invasion insurgent groups. AQI’s force strength was reduced to several hundred fighters and it lost the capacity to dominate the insurgency.

Then, in 2010 and 2011, circumstances combined to blow oxygen onto the smouldering coals.

Former prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s government deprived Iraqi Sunnis of immediate hope for the future and confidence in protecting their families and communities.
Aude Guerrucci/EPA

In 2010, the greatly underestimated Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a local Iraqi cleric with serious religious scholarly credentials, took charge of AQI and began working to a sophisticated long-term plan.

Elements of the strategy went by the name “breaking the walls”. In the 12 months to July 2013, this entailed the movement literally breaking down the prison walls in compounds around Baghdad that held hundreds of hardcore al-Qaeda fighters.

Islamic State, as the group now called itself, also benefited from the inflow of former Iraqi intelligence officers and senior military leaders. This had begun with de-Ba’athification in 2003 and continued after the collapse of the Sunni awakening and the increasingly overt sectarianism of the Maliki government.

Together, they developed tactics based on vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and the strategic use of suicide bombers. These were deployed not in the passionate but often undirected fashion of al-Qaeda but much more like smart bombs in the hands of a modern army.

And the US military withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011, well telegraphed ahead of time, provided an excellent opportunity for the struggling insurgency to rebuild. As did the outbreak of civil war in Syria.

A helping hand

Al-Baghdadi initially dispatched his trusted Syrian lieutenant, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, to form a separate organisation in Syria: the al-Nusra front.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s trusted Syrian lieutenant, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, quickly established Jabhat al-Nusra in northern Syria.
Hamid Khatib/Reuters

Jabhat al-Nusra quickly established itself in northern Syria. But when al-Julani refused to fold his organisation in under his command, al-Baghdadi rebranded AQI (or Islamic State in Iraq) Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham/the Levant (ISIS/ISIL).

Then, a series of events turned IS from an insurgency employing terrorist methods to becoming a nascent rogue state. These included the occupation of Raqqa on the Syrian Euphrates in December 2013; the taking of Ramadi a month later; consolidation of IS control throughout Iraq’s western Anbar province; and, finally, a sudden surge down the river Tigris in June 2014 that took Mosul and most of the towns and cities along the river north of Baghdad within less than a week.

IS’s declaration of the caliphate on June 29, 2014, was a watershed moment that is only now being properly understood.

In its ground operations, including the governing of aggrieved Sunni communities, IS moved well beyond being simply a terrorist movement. It came to function as a nascent rogue state ruling over around 5 million people in the northern cities of the Euphrates and the Tigris, and defending its territory through conventional military means.

In 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took charge of AQI and began working to a sophisticated long-term plan.
EPA/Furqan Media

At the same time, it skilfully exploited the internet and social media in ways the old al-Qaeda could not do – and that its second-generation offshoot, al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), had only partially achieved.

This allowed IS to draw in tens of thousands of foreign fighters. Most came from the Middle East and Northern Africa, but as many as 5000 came from Europe, with thousands more from the Caucusus and from Asia.

Unlike the case in Afghanistan in the 1980s, these foreign fighters have played a key role in providing sufficient strength to take and hold territory while also building a global network of support.

But without the perfect-storm conditions of post-invasion insurgency, this most potent expression of al-Qaedaism yet would never have risen to dominate both the region and the world in the way that it does.

Even in its wildest dreams, al-Qaeda could never have imagined that Western miscalculations post-9/11 could have led to such foolhardy engagements – not just in Afghanistan but also in Iraq.

Were it not for these miscalculations, 9/11 might well have precipitated the decline of al-Qaeda. Instead, with our help, it spawned a global jihadi movement with a territorial base far more powerful than al-Qaeda ever had.


This is the final article in our series on the historical roots of Islamic State. Catch up on the rest of the series, if you haven’t already.

The Conversation

Greg Barton, Chair in Global Islamic Politics, Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation; Co-Director, Australian Intervention Support Hub, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How the political crises of the modern Muslim world created the climate for Islamic State


Harith Bin Ramli, SOAS, University of London

How do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of Islamic State? Our series on the jihadist group’s origins tries to address this question by looking at the interplay of historical and social forces that led to its advent.

In the penultimate article of the series, Harith Bin Ramli traces the Muslim world’s growing disaffection with its rulers through the 20th century and how it created the climate for both the genesis of Islamic State and its continuing success in recruiting followers.


Islamic State (IS) declared its re-establishment of the caliphate on June 29, 2014, almost exactly 100 years after the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated. Ferdinand’s death set off a series of events that would lead to the first world war and the fall of three great multinational world empires: Austro-Hungary (1867-1918), Russian (1721-1917) and the Ottoman Sultanate (1299-1922).

That IS’s leadership chose to declare its caliphate so close to the anniversary of Ferdinand’s assassination may not entirely be a coincidence. In a sense, the two events are connected.

Ferdinand’s assassination and the events that it brought about (culminating in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles) symbolised the final triumph of a new idea of sovereignty. This modern conception was based on the popular will of a nation, rather than on noble lineage.

The heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated on June 28, 1914.
Carl Pietzner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In declaring the resurrection of a medieval political institution almost exactly 100 years later, IS was announcing its explicit rejection of the modern international system based on that very idea of sovereignty.

Early secularisation

Other than the Ottoman dynasty’s very late and disputed claim to the title, no attempt has been made to re-establish a caliphate since the fall of the Abbasid dynasty at the hands of the Mongols in 1258. In other words, Sunni Islam has carried on for hundreds of years since the 13th century without the need for a central political figurehead.

If we go further back in history, it seems that Sunni political theory had already anticipated this problem.

The Abbasid caliphs began to lose power from the mid-ninth century, effectively becoming puppets of various warlords by the tenth. And the caliphate underwent a serious process of decentralisation at the same time.

Key contemporary texts on statecraft, such as Abu al-Hasan al-Mawardi’s (952-1058) Ordinances of Government (al-Ahkam al-sultaniyya), described the caliph as the necessary symbolic figurehead providing constitutional legitimacy for the real rulers – emirs or sultans – whose power was based on military might.

As in the case of the Shi’i Buyid dynasty (934-1048), these rulers didn’t even have to be Sunni. And they were often expected to provide legislation based on practical and functional, rather than religious, considerations.

The Muslim world, then, had arguably already experienced secularisation of sorts before the modern age. Or, at the very least, it had for quite some time existed within a political system that balanced power between religious and worldly interests.

And when the caliphate came to an end in the 13th century, both the institutions of kingship and the religious courts (run by the scholar-jurists) were able to carry on functioning without difficulty.


Wikimedia Commons

It was the 19th-century Muslim revivalist and anti-colonial movement known as Pan-Islamism that was responsible for reviving the Ottoman claim to the caliphate. And the idea was revived again briefly in early 20th-century British India as the anti-colonial Khilafat movement.

But anti-colonial efforts after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, even those primarily based on religious beliefs, have rarely called for a return of the caliphate.

If anything, successors of Pan-Islamism, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, have generally worked within the framework of nation states. Putting aside doubts about their actual ability to commit to democracy and secularism, such movements have generally envisioned an Islamic state along more modern lines, with room for political participation and elections.

Modern utopias and old dynasties

So why evoke the caliphate in the first place? The simple answer is that it has never been completely dismissed as an option.

In Sunni law and political theology, once consensus over an issue has been reached, it is hard for later generations to go against it. This was why Egyptian scholar Ali Abd al-Raziq was removed from his post at Al-Azhar University and attacked for introducing a deviant interpretation after he wrote an argument for a secular interpretation of the caliphate in 1925.

Thinkers such as Abul Ala Mawdudi tried to place a revived caliphate within some type of democratic framework.
DiLeeF via Wikimedia Commons

As many recent studies show, the idea of the caliphate and its revival has had a certain utopian appeal for a wide spectrum of modern Muslim thinkers. And not just those with authoritarian or militant inclinations.

Some leading Muslim revivalists such as Muhammad Asad (1900-1992) and Abul Ala Mawdudi (1903-1979), for example, have tried to place a revived caliphate within some type of democratic framework.

But, in practice, the dominant tendency here too has really been to seek the liberation or revival of Muslim societies within the nation-state framework.

If anything, national aspirations and the desire to modernise society existed before the formation of the new political order after the first world war. The majority of the populations of Muslim lands welcomed the fall of the three empires, or at least didn’t feel very strongly about the survival of traditional ruling dynasties.

And, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, most dynasties that stayed in power did so by reinventing their states along modern, mainly secular, models.

But this did not always succeed. The waves of revolutions and military coups that swept the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world throughout the 1950s and 1960s amply illustrate that popular sentiment identified traditional dynasties with the continuing influence of colonial powers.

In Egypt, under the Muhammad Ali dynasty (1805-1952), for example, the control of the then-French Canal epitomised the interdependent relationship between the dynasty and Western power. This was why Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) made great efforts to regain it in the name of Egyptian sovereignty when he became the country’s second president in 1956.

Inauguration of the Suez Canal at Port Said, Egypt, in 1869.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Dissolving political legitimacy

Either way, the success of the new Muslim nation states could be said to be predicated on two major expectations. The first was improvement of citizens’ lives – not only in terms of material progress, but also the benefits of freedom and the ability to represent the popular will through participatory politics.

The second was the ability of Muslim nations to unite against outside interference and commit to the liberation of Palestine. On both counts, the latter half of the 20th century witnessed abysmal failures and an increasing sense of frustration with Muslim leaders.

In many places, populism eventually gave way to authoritarianism. And the loss of further lands to Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War revealed the inherent weakness and lack of unity among the new Muslim nations.

Anwar Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel after the 1973 Yom Kippur War was widely seen as an act of betrayal, for breaking ranks in what should have been a united front. His decision to do so despite lacking popular support in Egypt only revealed the extent to which the country had evolved into a dictatorship.

Sadat’s consequent assassination at the hands of a small radical splinter group of religious militants acted as a warning to other Muslim leaders. Now they couldn’t simply ignore or lock away religious critics, even if the majority of the population still subscribed to the secular nation-state model.

Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel was widely seen as an act of betrayal.
US Department of Defence Visual information via Wikimedia Commons

This idea was reinforced by Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, as well as the failed religious revolution in the holy city of Mecca the same year.

Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Muslim leaders around the world increasingly made compromises with religious reactionary forces, allowing them to expand influence in the public sphere. In many cases, these leaders increasingly adopted religious rhetoric themselves.

Showing support for fellow Muslims in the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1987) or the First Palestinian Intifada provided an opportunity to manage the threat of religious radicalism. National leaders probably also saw this as an effective way to deflect attention from the authoritarian nature of many Muslim states.

And, as demonstrated by Saddam Hussain’s turn to religious propaganda after the 1990-91 Gulf War, it could be used as a last resort when other ways of demonstrating legitimacy had failed.

The longer view

The Gulf War also brought non-Muslim troops to Arabian soil, inspiring Osama bin Laden’s call for jihad against the Western nations that participated in it. And it eventually led to the US invasion of Iraq. That set off a chain of events that created in the country the chaotic conditions that enabled the rise of Islamic State.

If IS’s leadership is really an alliance between ex-Ba’athist generals and an offshoot of al-Qaeda, as has often been depicted, then we don’t have to go far beyond the events of this war to explain how the group formed. But the rise of Islamic State and its declaration of the caliphate can also be read as part of a wider story that has unfolded since the formation of modern nation states in the Muslim world.

As some commentators have pointed out, it’s not so much the Sykes-Picot agreement and the drawing of artificial national borders by colonial powers that brought about IS.

The modern nation-state model – as much as it’s based on a kind of fiction – is still strong in most parts of the Muslim world. And, I believe, it’s still the preferred option for most Muslims today.

People of Arak toppled the Shah’s statue in Bāgh Mwlli (central square of Arak) during 1979 revolution.
Dooste Amin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But the long century that has passed since the first world war has been increasingly marked by frustration. It’s littered with the broken promises of Muslim rulers to bring about a transition to more representative forms of government. And it has been marked by a sense that Western powers continue to control and manipulate events in the region, in a way that doesn’t always represent the best interests of Muslim societies.

An extreme high point of frustration was reached in the events of the so-called Arab Spring. The wave of popular demonstrations against the autocratic regimes of the Arab world were seen as the first winds of change that would bring about democracy to the region.

But, with the possible exception of Tunisia, all of these countries underwent either destabilisation (Libya, Syria), the return of military rule (Egypt) or the further clamping down on civil rights (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other Gulf monarchies).

I would hesitate to describe IS’s declaration of a caliphate as a serious challenge to the modern nation-state model. But the small, albeit substantial, stream of followers it manages to recruit daily shows it would be wrong to take for granted that the terms of the international order can simply be dictated from above forever.

When brute force increasingly has the final say over how people live their lives, it becomes harder for them to differentiate between the lesser of two evils.


This is the eighth article in our series on the historical roots of Islamic State. Look out for the final article tomorrow and read the rest of the series, if you haven’t already.

The Conversation

Harith Bin Ramli, Research Fellow, Cambridge Muslim College & Teaching Fellow, SOAS, University of London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The post-colonial caliphate: Islamic State and the memory of Sykes-Picot


James Renton, Edge Hill University

Since announcing its arrival as a global force in June 2014 with the declaration of a caliphate on territory captured in Iraq and Syria, jihadist group Islamic State has shocked the world with its brutality.

Our series has been examining the historic and cultural forces behind the rise of these jihadists. Today, historian James Renton looks at the fateful 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, which was pointedly denounced by Islamic State in the first video it released.


Ever since Islamic State (IS) spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani announced the establishment of a caliphate on June 29, 2014, analysts have been busy trying to explain its aims and origins.

Much of the discussion has concentrated on the IS leadership’s theology – an apocalyptic philosophy that seeks a return to an imagined pristine Islam of the religion’s founders. But this focus has led to a neglect of the group’s self-declared political aims.

For all the importance of religion in the way IS functions and justifies itself, we can fully understand the caliphate only if we pay close attention to the public explanations – the modernist manifestos – of those at the helm of its overall political purpose.

Viewed from this perspective, the caliphate appears primarily as an attempt to free the ummah – the global Muslim community – from the legacies of European colonialism.

The leaders of IS do not see their caliphate as an exercise in theocracy for its own sake, but as an attempt at post-colonial emancipation.

Looking right back

Certainly, the very name adopted by the declared leader of the caliphate suggests an acute preoccupation with a specifically religious mission that harks back to the early years of Islam.

Originally known as Ibrahim bin Awwad bin Ibrahim al-Badri al-Samarra’i (or variations thereof), he took on, long before the summer of 2014, the pseudonym Abu Bakr, the name of the first caliph (the successor to Muhammad as the religious and political leader of the ummah).

Briton Sir Mark Sykes agreed on terms with his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot, for dividing up the region after WWI.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Ruling in the years 632-4, Abu Bakr put an end to dissent against the new Islamic system in its Arabian heartlands. He established the caliphate as an expansionist Muslim empire with military campaigns in, the sources suggest, present-day Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Israel-Palestine.

As a declaration of intent, this choice of name by IS’s leader – whose full moniker became, alongside the title Caliph Ibrahim, Abu Bakr al-Husayni al-Qurashi al-Baghdadi – seems to encapsulate much of what we need to know about the new caliphate’s ambitions.

Al-Adnani’s founding proclamation made a point of celebrating the military victories of the first decades of Islam and how the ummah then “filled the earth with justice … and ruled the world for centuries”. This success, he argued, was the result of nothing more than faith in Allah and the ummah’s adherence to the guidance of the Prophet Muhammad.

But the conquest of land and the establishment of a Muslim empire – or state, as those behind the new caliphate prefer to call it – is a means to a very specific end. It is not an end in itself.

Anglo-French infamy

According to al-Adnani, the caliphate is needed to take the ummah out of a condition of disgrace, humiliation and rule under the “vilest of all people”. Al-Baghdadi, speaking two days after he was pronounced caliph, was much more specific.

The fall of the last caliphate – and, with it, the loss of a state – led to the humiliation and disempowerment of Muslims around the globe, he said. And this condition of statelessness allowed “the disbelievers” to occupy Muslim lands, install their agents as authoritarian rulers and spread false Western doctrines.

Al-Baghdadi’s vague narrative refers to the story of the dissolution after the first world war of the Ottoman Empire, which had governed much of Western Asia for four centuries.

IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, during his first public appearance at a mosque in the centre of Mosul.
Reuters

In its stead, the British and French empires took over significant parts of the region and remained for decades. When their rule came to an end, these colonial states did their best to leave behind successor regimes that would serve British and French interests and those of the wider West.

For IS leaders, these colonial machinations have left the ummah floundering ever since because they took away the essence of power in the contemporary world: sovereignty – territorially based political independence.

The caliphate is urgently needed, al-Baghdadi argues, to rectify this harmful absence. A similar argument for a caliphate, though made with a very different type of state in mind, was articulated by the UK-based scholar S. Sayyid in 2014.

The most explicit evidence of this political objective’s primacy is to be found in the new caliphate’s propaganda, which has been such an important part of the IS project.

To coincide with the announcement of the caliphate, IS released a video entitled “The End of Sykes-Picot”. Signed in May 1916, the Sykes-Picot agreement was a secret Anglo-French plan for dividing the Asian Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence and zones of direct rule for the two European empires.

The Bolsheviks discovered the agreement in the Russian state archives soon after they took power in November 1917 and revealed its contents to the world.

The Sykes-Picot agreement

The French negotiator of the Sykes-Picot agreement, François Georges-Picot.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Sykes-Picot agreement did not set out the borders of the states that replaced the Ottoman Empire, as the video suggests. But this error is beside the point if we want to understand the significance of the agreement for IS, and what it tells us about its caliphate.

In the Middle East, Sykes-Picot became shorthand for a whole narrative of Western betrayal and conspiracy in the region. But it also came to stand for the specific European colonial process of robbing the peoples of the region of their sovereignty.

And it is IS’s declared goal to undo this process. This is why “The End of Sykes-Picot”, above any other possible subject matter for an inaugural film, had to accompany the declaration of the caliphate.

For al-Baghdadi, sovereignty and Islam cannot be separated; thus the need for an Islamic state. He cannot use the term empire, even though it more accurately describes the global expansionist aims of his caliphate.

This is not just a question of semantics; it goes to the heart of the purpose of IS. The caliphate is needed, its leadership contends, to end the consequences of European empire, of colonialism. It is an effort to finally break away from the colonial condition; an attempt at a new post-colonial ummah.

Liberty from colonialism and sovereignty go hand in hand. The post-1918 world order embodied in the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations, places the idea of sovereignty at the centre of how we understand power today. Within this system, the absence of a state is the absence of power.

The military defeat of IS and its loss of territory would, of course, make sovereignty, and thus the caliphate, impossible. But this defeat will not solve the problem of the sense of powerlessness that fuelled the 2014 caliphate in the first place; it will only compound it.

The real long-term challenge that faces opponents of IS, therefore, is not the overthrow of the caliphate – as difficult as that might be – or even to defeat “extremism”. It is, rather, to overcome the narrative at the centre of IS’s call to arms: Muslim alienation from the world system.


This is the seventh article in our series on the historical roots of Islamic State. Look out for more stories on the theme in the coming days.


James will be online for an Author Q&A between 9am and 10am AEDT on Wednesday, February 24, 2016. Post your questions in the comments section below.

The Conversation

James Renton, Reader in History, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Did the Crusades lead to Islamic State?


Carole Cusack, University of Sydney

How do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of Islamic State? Our series on the jihadist group’s origins tries to address this question by looking at the interplay of historical and social forces that led to its advent.

Today, professor of religious studies Carole Cusack considers the Crusades: can we really understand anything about Islamic State by looking at its rise as the latest incarnation of a centuries-old struggle between Islam and Christianity?


In 1996, late US political scientist Samuel P. Huntington published the book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Following the collapse of communism in 1989, he argued, conflicts would increasingly involve religion.

Islam, which Huntington claimed had been the opponent of Christianity since the seventh century, would increasingly feature in geopolitical conflict.

So, it wasn’t particularly shocking when, after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, the then-US president, George W. Bush, used the term “crusade” to describe the American military response.

Framing the subsequent “war on terror” as a crusade acted as a red flag to journalists and political commentators, who could treat the events as simply the most recent stoush in a centuries-old conflict.

The actual Crusades (1096-1487) themselves evoke a romantic image of medieval knights, chivalry, romance and religious high-mindedness. But representing them as wars between Christians and Muslims is a gross oversimplification and a misreading of history.

Early Islamic conquests

That there were wars between Muslims and Christians is certainly true. After the death of Abu Bakr (573-634), the Prophet Muhammad’s father-in-law and first caliph, the second Caliph Umar (583-644) sent the Islamic armies in three divisions to conquer and spread the religion of Islam.

Whole regions that were Christian fell to Islam. The Holy Land, which comprised modern-day Palestinian territories, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, for instance, was defeated. And Egypt was conquered without even a battle in 640.

The ancient and vast Persian Empire, officially Zoroastrian in religion, had been conquered by 642. Weakened by war with the Christian Byzantine Empire, Persia was no match for the Muslim forces.

Muslim armies marched across north Africa and crossed the Straits of Gibraltar into modern Spain, eventually securing a large territory in the Iberian Peninsula, which was known as Al-Andalus (also known as Muslim Spain or Islamic Iberia).

They also marched across the Pyrenees and into France in 732, the centenary of Muhammad’s death. But they were decisively defeated at the Battle of Poitiers (also known as Battle of Tours and, by Arab sources, as Battle of the Palace of the Martyrs) by the Frankish general, Charles Martel (686-741), grandfather of the great Emperor Charlemagne.

This was seen as a Christian victory and, after Poitiers, there were no further attacks on Western Europe. The Crusades came much later.

The causes of the Crusades

The proximate causes of the First Crusade (1096-1099) include the defeat of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus (1056-1118), who was crowned in 1081 and ruled until his death. His armies met the Muslim Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 and were defeated.

This placed the city of Constantinople at risk of conquest. So, the emperor requested that the West send knights to assist him – and he was prepared to pay.

Pope Urban II (1044-1099) preached the Crusade at the Council of Clermont in 1095. He argued that the Turks and Arabs attacked Christian territories and had “killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire”.

He also promised his audience:

All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested.

This was recorded by a monk called Fulcher of Chartres, who wrote a chronicle of the First Crusade.

The four leaders of the First Crusade.
Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville via Wikimedia Commons

Thousands answered the pope’s call and the First Crusade conquered Jerusalem in 1099. But the Crusaders’ presence in the Middle East was short-lived and the port city of Ruad, the last Christian possession, was lost in 1302/3.

Many later conflicts that were called Crusades were not actions against Muslim armies at all. The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), for instance, was a Venetian Catholic army, which besieged Constantinople. Catholic Christians attacked Orthodox Christians, then looted the city, taking its treasures back to Venice.

Islam was not a factor in the Albigensian Crusade of 1209-1229, either. In that instance, Pope Innocent III (1160/1-1216) used the language of war against the infidel (literally “unfaithful”, meaning those without true religion) against heretics in the south of France. So, “right-thinking” Christians killed “deviant” Christians.

The end of the Middle Ages

It wasn’t all intermittent fighting. There were also periods of peace and productive relationships between Christian and Muslim rulers in the Middle Ages.

For instance, Charlemagne (742-814) (also know as Charles the Great or Charles I), who united most of Western Europe during the early part of the Middle Ages, sent gifts to Harun al-Rashid (763-809), the Caliph of Baghdad. In return, he received diplomatic presents such as a chess set, an elaborate clepsydra (water clock) and an elephant.

In Spain, the culture from the early eighth century to the late 15th was known as “la Convicencia” (the co-existence), as Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in relative peace (though the level of harmony has been exaggerated). And there was an exchange of ideas in fields including mathematics, medicine and philosophy.

The Christian kingdoms of the north gradually reconquered Al-Andalus. And, in 1492, King Ferdinand (1452-1516) and Queen Isabella (1451-1504) reclaimed Granada and expelled the Jews and Muslims from Spain, or forced them to convert to Christianity.

A clumsy view

Clearly, to speak of an “us versus them” mentality, or to frame current geopolitical conflicts as “crusades” of Christians against Muslims, or vice versa, is to misunderstand – and misuse – history.

Not all blood and guts: the Caliph of Baghdad Harun al-Rashid receives a delegation from Charlemagne.
Julius Köckert via Wikimedia Commons

Modern Westerners would find medieval Crusader knights as unappealing as they do Islamic State.

And it’s impossible to miss the fact that the immediate entry into heaven Pope Urban promised to Christian soldiers who died in battle against the infidel Muslims is conceptually identical to the martyrdom ideology of contemporary jihadists.

Reality is more complex – and more interesting – than the simple continuation of a historical struggle against the same enemy. Muslims conquered Christian territories, yes, but Christians engaged in reconquest.

There were forced conversions to both Islam and Christianity, and – very importantly – actual governments and monarchs were involved. It’s a simplistic thing to say that “Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state”, but there’s an element of truth in it.

The most important reason we should resist the lure of the crusade tag to any fight against jihadists is that groups like Islamic State want the West to think like that.

It justified the Paris bomb attacks of November 2015 as attacks against “the Crusader nation of France”. Osama bin Laden used the same reasoning after the September 11 attacks.

By adopting the role of Crusaders, Western nations play into Islamic State’s hands. It’s how these jihadists want the West to understand itself – as implacably opposed to Islam. But it’s not, and it never has been.


This is the sixth article in our series on the historical roots of Islamic State. Look out for more stories on the theme in the coming days.

The Conversation

Carole Cusack, Professor of Religious Studies, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Islamic State and the Assassins: reviving fanciful tales of the medieval Orient


Farhad Daftary, The Institute of Ismaili Studies

How do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of Islamic State? Our series on the jihadist group’s origins tries to address this question by looking at the interplay of historical and social forces that led to its advent.

Today, historian Farhad Daftary debunks the idea that Islamic State is based on the so-called Assassins or hashishin, the fighting corps of the fledgling medieval Nizari Ismaili state.


Many Western commentators have tried to trace the ideological roots of Islamic State (IS) to earlier Islamic movements. Occasionally, they’ve associated them with the medieval Ismailis, a Shiʿite Muslim community made famous in Europe by returning Crusaders as the Assassins.

But any serious inquiry shows the teachings and practices of medieval Ismailis, who had a state of their own in parts of Iran from 1090 to 1256, had nothing in common with the senseless terrorist ideology and ruthless destruction of IS and its supporters.

Attacks on civilians, including women and children, and engaging in the mass destruction of property are forbidden both by Prophet Muhammad and in the tenets of Islamic law. Needless to say, the Ismailis never descended to such terrorist activities, even under highly adversarial circumstances.

Significant discordance exists between the medieval Ismailis and contemporary terrorists, who – quite inappropriately – identify themselves as members of an Islamic polity.

Fanciful Oriental tales

The Ismailis, or more specifically the Nizari Ismailis, founded a precarious state in 1090 under the leadership of Hasan-i Sabbah. As a minority Shi’ite Muslim community, they faced hostility from the Sunni-Abbasid establishment (the third caliphate after the death of the Prophet Muhammed) and their political overlords, the Seljuq Turks, from very early on.

Struggling to survive in their network of defensive mountain fortresses remained the primary objective of the Ismaili leadership, centred on the castle of Alamut (in the north of modern-day Iran). Their state survived against all odds until it was destroyed by the all-conquering Mongols in 1256.

During the course of the 12th century, the Ismailis were incessantly attacked by the armies of the Sunni Seljuq sultans, who were intensely anti-Shiʿite. As they couldn’t match their enemies’ superior military power, the Ismailis resorted to the warfare tactic of selectively removing Seljuq military commanders and other prominent adversaries who posed serious existential threats to them in particular localities.

An agent (fida’i) of the Ismailis (left, in white turban) fatally stabs Nizam al-Mulk, a Seljuk vizier, in 1092.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

These daring missions were carried out by the Ismaili fidaʾis, who were deeply devoted to their community. The fidaʾis comprised the fighting corps of the Ismaili state.

But the Ismailis didn’t invent the policy of assassinating enemies. It was a practice employed by many Muslim groups at the time, as well as by the Crusaders and many others throughout history.

Unfortunately, almost all assassinations of any significance occurring in the central lands of Islam became automatically attributed to the Ismaili fidaʾis. And a series of fanciful tales were fabricated around their recruitment and training.

These tales, rooted in the “imaginative ignorance” of the Crusaders, were concocted and put into circulation by them and their occidental observers; they’re not found in contemporary Muslim sources.

The so-called Assassin legends, which culminated in Marco Polo’s synthesis, were meant to provide satisfactory explanations for the fearless behaviour of the fidaʾis, which seemed otherwise irrational to medieval Europeans.

The very term Assassin, which appears in medieval European literature in a variety of forms, such as Assassini, was based on variants of the Arabic word hashish (plural, hashishin) and applied to the Nizari Ismailis of Syria and Iran by other Muslims.

In all the Muslim sources where the Ismailis are referred to as hashishis, the term is used in its pejorative sense of “people of lax morality”. There’s no suggestion that they were actually using hashish. There’s no evidence that hashish, or any other drug, was administered to the fida’is, as alleged by Marco Polo.

The literal interpretation of the term for the Ismailis as an “order of crazed hashish-using Assassins” is rooted entirely in the fantasies of medieval Europeans.

Modern scholarship in Ismaili studies, based on the recovery and study of numerous Ismaili textual sources, has now begun to dispel many misconceptions regarding the Ismailis, including the myths surrounding their cadre of fidaʾis.

And the medieval Assassin legends, arising from the hostility of the Sunni Muslims to the Shiʿite Ismailis as well as the medieval Europeans’ fanciful impressions of the Orient, have been recounted and deconstructed.

A culture of learning and tolerance

Living in adverse circumstances, the Ismailis of Iran and Syria were heirs to the Fatimid dynasty that founded the city of Cairo and established al-Azhar, perhaps the earliest university of the world. Although preoccupied with survival, the Ismailis of the Alamut period maintained a sophisticated outlook and a literary tradition, elaborating their teachings within a Shiʿite theological framework.

An entirely fictional illustration from The Travels of Marco Polo showing the Nizari imam Alâ al Dîn Muhammad (1221-1255) drugging his disciples.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Their leader, Hasan-i Sabbah, was a learned theologian. And the Ismaili fortresses of the period, displaying magnificent military architecture and irrigation skills, were equipped with libraries holding significant collections of manuscripts, documents and scientific instruments.

The Ismailis also extended their patronage of learning to outside scholars, including Sunnis, and even non-Muslims. They were very tolerant towards other religious communities.

In the last decades of their state, in the 13th century, even waves of Sunni Muslims found refuge in the Ismaili fortress communities of eastern Iran. These refugees were running from the Mongol hordes who were then establishing their hegemony over Central Asia.

All this stands in sharp contrast to the destructive policies of IS, which persecutes religious and ethnic minorities and enslaves women.

The medieval Ismailis embodied qualities of piety, learning and community life in line with established Islamic teachings. These traditions continue in the modern-day Ismaili ethos. And the present-day global Ismaili community represents one of the most progressive and enlightened communities of the Muslim world.

The Ismailis have never had anything in common with the terrorists of IS, who murder innocent civilians at random and en masse, and destroy monuments of humankind’s shared cultural heritage.

Global terrorism in any form under the banner of Islam is a new phenomenon without historical antecedents in either classical Islamic or any other tradition. IS’s ideology reflects a crude version of the intolerant Wahhabi theology expounded by the Sunni religious establishment of Saudi Arabia, which is itself a narrow perspective that fails to recognise any pluralism or diversity of interpretations in Islam.


This is the fifth article in our series on the historical roots of Islamic State. Look out for more stories on the theme in the coming days.

The Conversation

Farhad Daftary, Co-Director & Head of the Department of Academic Research and Publications, The Institute of Ismaili Studies

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Folly of treating all refugees as would-be terrorists solves neither problem


Michael Humphrey, University of Sydney

A “draft” cabinet document recently leaked to the media suggests the idea that refugees are a potential source of terrorism and radicalisation will soon shape Australia’s humanitarian resettlement policy.

If implemented, refugees – not just boat arrivals – would be seen as a security issue. By offering only temporary residence and making Australia a less attractive destination, it makes deterrence the aim of the entire refugee program.

What’s being proposed?

Viewing all refugees through the security prism, and further restricting their rights, is a tactic to try to manage the much larger global refugee crisis. The number of refugees and internally displaced people exceeds 60 million. This is the highest since the end of the second world war.

Since the 1990s, various deterrence strategies have eroded the rights of those seeking protection onshore in Australia after having arrived by boat. These have included temporary protection visas, mandatory detention, the excision of the migration zone, the Pacific Solution and regional processing and resettlement.

If the leaked policy document is accurate, now all refugees are to be put into the category of – at best – temporary residents.

The justification for this punitive policy is the perceived connection between refugees and terrorism. The document links the outcome of earlier humanitarian policies and asylum decisions to terrorism and extremism. It points out that individuals who arrived on humanitarian-linked or refugee visas – Man Haron Monis, Farhad Jabar and Abdul Haider – have committed recent terrorist acts.

The document also identifies previous humanitarian programs as having contributed to radicalisation and the increased risk of terrorism. It says the special humanitarian program for Lebanese refugees during the civil war in the late 1970s is evidence refugees can import “extremism”, and “unsuccessful integration” can make young Muslims more receptive to extremist beliefs.

It puts forward the Lebanese Sunni Muslim experience as a warning. It argues they are today the:

… most prominent ethnic group amongst Australian Sunni extremists.

But the ethnic stigmatisation of Lebanese Sunni Muslims highlights shortcomings with the contemporary understanding of radicalisation and terrorism. It equates ethnicity with “extremism” and the potential for radicalisation with social environment.

The equation of Lebanese Sunni migrants with extremism is historically and politically inaccurate. The Lebanese civil war was primarily a sectarian struggle over power-sharing.

The terror threat, and Australia’s place in the world

Seeing Muslims in Australia through the security lens has led to the intensification of surveillance to intercept and prevent terrorist plots. Since September 11, seeing Muslim diasporas in the West this way has only reinforced the formation of transnational Muslim identities.

In other words, “Muslim” is now a transnational category targeted to manage transnational risk, not only in Australia but also Europe and North America. Muslim culture and practices are no longer merely about difference because difference has become a political marker to question national loyalty.

New laws stripping dual citizens involved in terrorism of their Australian citizenship are an expression of the ultimate sanction against disloyalty. But this might play right into the hands of Islamic State recruiters, who point to the West’s targeting of Muslims as a threat as evidence of the historical victimisation of Muslims.

The further restrictions on rights to asylum set out in this document are not primarily about terrorism or Muslims, but about the global refugee crisis. The reality of globalisation is we are deeply connected with different parts of the world. What happens there reverberates here. Terrorism is one dimension of that interconnection and appears to be here to stay.

We are facing this global refugee crisis because of our profound failure of political vision in the Middle East. The present wave of international terrorism is a symptom of the impact of a regional political conflict played out in Syria and Iraq. Australia cannot solve the global refugee crisis by deeming refugees as part of the overall terror threat to deter them from coming.

Refugee policy and counter-terrorism strategy should not be collapsed into the same space.

The Conversation

Michael Humphrey, Professor of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

If Islamic State is based on religion, why is it so violent?


Aaron W. Hughes, University of Rochester

Islamic State’s seemingly sudden prominence has led to much speculation about the group’s origins: how do we account for forces and events that paved the way for its emergence?

Today, religious studies scholar Aaron Hughes considers whether this jihadist group’s violence is inherent to Islam.


Despite what we’re told, religion isn’t inherently peaceful. The assumption is largely based on the Protestant idea that religion is something spiritual and internal to the individual and that it’s corrupted by politics and other mundane matters.

But people kill in the name of religion, just as they love in its name. To claim that one of these alternatives is more authentic than the other is not only problematic, it’s historically incorrect.

The Crusades, attacks at abortion clinics, some political assassinations, and price-tag attacks – to name only a few examples – were and are all motivated by religion.

This is because religion is based on the metaphysical notion that there are believers (in one’s own religion) and non-believers. This distinction is predicated on “good” versus “evil”, and can be neatly packaged into a narrative to be used and abused by various groups.

An imagined past

One such group is Islamic State (IS), which is inherently violent and claims it mirrors the Islam of the Prophet Muhammad. In this, it’s like other reformist movements in Islam that seek to recreate in the modern period what they imagine to have been the political framework and society that Muhammad (570-632 CE) and his immediate followers lived in and created in seventh-century Arabia.

The problem is that we know very little about this society, except what, often, much later sources – such as the Biography (Sira) of Muhammad and the work of historians such as al-Tabari (839-923 CE) – tell us it was like.

A central ideal for IS is that of restoring the caliphate. A geopolitical entity, the caliphate was the Islamic empire that stretched from Morocco and Spain in the West, to India in the East. It symbolises Islam at its most powerful.

When it was spreading across the Middle East and the Mediterranean region in the seventh century, Islam was highly apocalyptic. Many early sources, such as the second caliph Umar’s letter to the Byzantine Emperor Leo III, as well as contemporaneous non-Muslim sources, such as the mid-eighth-century Jewish apocalypse The Secrets of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and the seventh-century polemic Doctrina Jacobi, speak about the coming destruction of the world as we know it.

The destruction is to begin with a battle between the forces of good (Muslim) versus those of evil. And IS has adopted this apocalyptic vision.

Again, though, it’s worth noting two things. The first is that the majority of Muslims today don’t buy into this apocalyptic vision; it’s mainly something recycled by groups such as Islamic State.

Second, such an “end of days” vision is by no means unique to Islam; we also see it in Judaism and Christianity. In these other two traditions, as in Islam, such groups certainly do not represent orthodox belief.

Medieval tolerance

But apocalypse aside, was Islam particularly violent in the seventh century? One could certainly point to three of the first four of Muhammad’s successors (caliphs) having been assassinated.

One could also point to the tremendous theological debates over who was or was not a Muslim. And such debates included the status of the soul of grave sinners. Was such a sinner a Muslim or did his sin put him outside the community of believers?

What would become mainstream Muslim opinion is that it was up to God to decide and not humans. But groups such as Islamic State want to make this distinction for God. In this, they certainly stray from orthodox Muslim belief.

While this doesn’t make them “un-Islamic”, to say groups such as IS represent medieval interpretations of Islam is not fair to medieval Islam.

Manuscript with depiction by Yahya ibn Vaseti found in the Maqama of Hariri depicts the image of a library with pupils in it, Baghdad 1237.
Wikimedia Commons

The eighth century, for example, witnessed the establishment, in Baghdad, of the Bayt al-Hikma (The House of Wisdom), which symbolised the so-called golden age of Islamic civilisation. This period witnessed, among other things, Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars studying the philosophical and scientific texts of Greek antiquity.

These scholars also made many advances in disciplines, such as mathematics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy and chemistry, to name only a few. Within a century of its founding, Islam represented a cosmopolitan empire that was nothing like the rigid and dogmatic interpretation of the religion seen in the likes of IS.

A powerful tool

Observers in the West who want to claim that Islam is to blame for IS and use it as further proof that the religion is inherently violent, ignore other root causes of the moment.

These include the history of European colonialism in the area; US and European support for a number of ruthless Middle Eastern dictators; and the instability created by the American invasion of Iraq after the events of September 11, 2001.

It’s juxtaposed against these recent events that groups such as IS dream of reconstituting what they romantically imagine as the powerful Islamic caliphate.

The fact is that religion’s ability to neatly differentiate between “believer” and unbeliever”, and between “right” and “wrong”, makes it a powerful ideology. In the hands of demagogues, religious discourses – used selectively and manipulated to achieve a set of desired ends – are very powerful.

While it would be incorrect to say that the discourses used by IS are un-Islamic, it’s important to note it represents one particular Islamic discourse and that it’s not the mainstream one.


This article is the third in our series on understanding Islamic State. Look out for more stories on the theme in the coming days.


Aaron will be online for an Author Q&A between 9 and 10am AEDT on Thursday, February 18, 2016. Post your questions in the comments section below.

The Conversation

Aaron W. Hughes, Philip S. Bernstein Professor of Jewish Studies, University of Rochester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Islamic State lays claim to Muslim theological tradition and turns it on its head


Harith Bin Ramli, SOAS, University of London

How do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of Islamic State? Our series on the jihadist group’s origins tries to address this question by looking at the interplay of historical and social forces that led to its advent.

Today, historian of Islamic thought Harith Bin Ramli explains how Islamic State fits – or doesn’t – in Muslim theological tradition, and incidentally addresses a question often levelled at adherents of the religion living in the West.


For Muslims around the world, it’s become an almost daily heartbreaking experience to see Islam associated with all the shades of cruelty and inhumanity of so-called Islamic State (IS). It’s tempting to dismiss the group as lying beyond the boundaries of Islam. But this way of thinking leads down the same route IS has taken.

Let me explain.

Ever since the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, there hasn’t been a single central authority that all Muslims have unanimously agreed on. The first generation of Muslims didn’t just disagree, they battled over the succession to leadership of the community.

The result of this division was the formation of the main Sunni and Shi’i theological traditions we see to this day. But the blood spilt over the issue also resulted in a general sense of concern about the consequences of political and theological differences.

A consensus quickly emerged over the need to respect differences of opinion. And it was considered important to “disassociate” oneself from anyone who had differing views on these key issues. But as long as the person in question affirmed the basic tenets of Islam, such as the unity of God and the prophecy of Muhammad, he or she was still considered a Muslim.

Similar detractors

The one dissenting theological view on this matter was held by a group known as the Kharijites. It adopted the view that dissenting or corrupt Muslim leaders, by their actions, had become “apostates” from Islam altogether.

Sub-factions of this group increasingly extended their definition of apostasy to include any Muslim who didn’t agree with them. They declared these Muslims infidels who could be killed or enslaved.

The brutality of these extreme Kharijites never attracted more than a minority of Muslims, and other Kharijites adopted a more peaceful position more in line with the emerging consensus.

Widespread horror at the early divisions of the Muslim community and the terrors unleashed by Khariji extremism ensured that Islam generally embraced a pluralistic approach to differences of opinion. This emerged hand in hand with a culture of scholarship, based on the idea that the endeavour to seek the “true” meaning of scripture is an ongoing and fallible human effort.

Beyond a number of issues over which there was unquestionable consensus, different interpretations could be tolerated.

What makes IS different to traditional Islam isn’t necessarily the religious texts the group uses. To justify their practice of slavery or war against non-Muslims, they appeal to parts of the Qur’an or prophetic traditions, or legal works that are fairly mainstream and representative of the medieval Islamic tradition.

But these texts – scripture or otherwise – have always been read through the mediation of past and continuous efforts of interpretation by communities of scholars. As theology scholar Sohaira Siddiqui of Georgetown University points out, groups like IS deviate from mainstream Islam by their rejection of this culture of scholarly interpretation and religious pluralism, that is, the means by which the texts were interpreted.

This approach has roots in the group’s main theological inspiration, the Wahhabi movement. Founded on a radical interpretation of the 14th-century theologian Ibn Taymiyya, it dismissed any Muslim who didn’t subscribe to its strict interpretation of monotheism as an “apostate”.

It can also be traced back to radical political theorists of the 20th century, such as Sayyid Qutb, who rejected the modern state and attendant ideologies, including nationalism and democracy, as “idolatrous” and not based on the rule of God.

By declaring the revival of the Caliphate, IS claims to have created an alternative to the prevailing political order.

Harms of hastiness

Adopting a simple “with us or against us” approach lets IS justify denouncing Muslim rulers as “tyrants” and the religious figures who support them as “palace scholars”. In general, Muslims who don’t “repent” and support their beliefs are at risk of being denounced as “apostates” who can be killed.

Effectively, the group has revived the age-old Kharijite tendency in the form of a deadly modern political ideology.

IS is right about one thing: the solution to the widespread problems of the Muslim world cannot lie in the reaffirmation of status quo politics and the hypocritical employment of religion to prop up corrupt and oppressive regimes.

By declaring the revival of the Caliphate, IS claims to have created an alternative to the prevailing political order.
REUTERS/Umit Bektas

But its dismissal of the culture of scholarly pluralism and religious tolerance seems like an easy way to select interpretations of the scripture and religious tradition to suit its political aims, not the other way round.

Leading Muslim religious authorities, such as the Grand Shaykh of al-Azhar, have refrained from denouncing IS as “apostates”, even though they have called for the use of full military force against them. Their hesitance may be due to an awareness that such a move would simply drag the Muslim community down to the level IS wants them to be on.

Instead of labelling IS un-Islamic, the global Muslim community would do better to reaffirm its commitment to its culture of pluralism. This approach may also open up a crucial conversation that must take place about the relationship between state and religion in contemporary Muslim societies.

Many Muslims might share the IS view that there are already many signs that the end of times is approaching. But the group departs from mainstream Muslim apocalyptic theology in two respects.

First, its literature seems to omit any mention of the awaited Mahdi (the Guided One) and the return of Jesus the son of Mary, who is prophesied to defeat the Great Pretender (Dajjal, or anti-Christ). And second, in contrast to the average Muslim believer who acknowledges only a limited ability to fully grasp the meaning of these prophecies, IS arrogates for itself a central role in the unfolding of such events.

In other words, instead of waiting for God to bring about the end of times, IS hopes to prompt it through its own actions. In this respect, it has something in common with extreme forms of Christian and Jewish religious Zionism.

If one were to give IS’s followers the benefit of the doubt, excluding those with mainly criminal motives, it seems that theirs is an ideology fuelled by a hasty desire for the implementation of the will of God. And an even hastier dismissal of the more careful and humble approach of other Muslims.

As the Qur’an states:

man was created hasty by nature” (21:37), and “all mankind is at loss, except for those who believe and advise one another concerning the Truth, and concerning patience”. (103:2-3)


This article is the second in our series on understanding Islamic State. Look out for more stories on the theme in the coming days.


Harith will be online for an Author Q&A between 9 and 10am AEDT on Wednesday, February 17, 2016. Post your questions in the comments section below.

The Conversation

Harith Bin Ramli, Research Fellow, Cambridge Muslim College & Teaching Fellow, SOAS, University of London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.