Why ISIS is Islamic and why it matters

The question of the relationship to Islam of radical Islam in general and ISIS in particular has never struck me as perplexing. Radical Islam is the radical strand of Islam, and ISIS is an extreme version of the radical strand. Its actions are consistent with portions of the religion’s core text which are founded on the conduct and preaching of the religion’s founder.

You don’t need to be a scholar of Islam to figure this out.

But as Graeme Wood demonstrates in an important piece in The Atlantic, a scholar’s understanding of ISIS’s roots in Islam will help us figure out what to expect next from these terrorists and how, ultimately, to defeat them. According to Wood, “the Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths; it is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.”

What kind of a religious group? One that’s rooted in an “originalist” version of Islam:

ISIS follows a distinctive variety of Islam. . . .

The most-articulate spokesmen for that position are the Islamic State’s officials and supporters themselves. They refer derisively to “moderns.” In conversation, they insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.

Wood cites a telling example:

In September, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s chief spokesman, called on Muslims in Western countries such as France and Canada to find an infidel and “smash his head with a rock,” poison him, run him over with a car, or “destroy his crops.” To Western ears, the biblical-sounding punishments—the stoning and crop destruction—juxtaposed strangely with his more modern-sounding call to vehicular homicide. . . .

But Adnani was not merely talking trash. His speech was laced with theological and legal discussion, and his exhortation to attack crops directly echoed orders from Muhammad to leave well water and crops alone—unless the armies of Islam were in a defensive position, in which case Muslims in the lands of kuffar, or infidels, should be unmerciful, and poison away.

It’s tempting to say that, just as one can’t be more Catholic than the Pope, one can’t be more Islamic than Muhammad. Wood resists the temptation and puts it this way:

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail.

If ISIS is following a playbook, shouldn’t we take the playbook seriously, rather than pretending it doesn’t have one?

President Obama hopes to score points with the Muslim world by denying ISIS’s connection to Islam. But given ISIS’s “punctilious” adherence to “the prophecy and example of Muhammad,” it’s more likely that Obama simply reveals his ignorance.

But Obama has a much bigger problem than appearing unlearned. Only by understanding ISIS’s roots can we know what to expect from it. As Wood explains:

Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combated, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.

We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.

Wood’s article provides an excellent way to get acquainted. It’s well worth reading in its entirety.

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