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Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Its Understanding of Jihad




By Abdelfattah Kadiri

 15 April 2015

 Tokyo – In the last decades, many Islamic movements have claimed Jihad as the basis of their doctrine. This article strives to deal with the issue of Jihad particularly. It focuses specifically on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria/Sham (ISIS) and its understanding of Jihad.

It moves on to analyze different understandings of the Holy Texts: the Quran and the Traditions of the Prophet (Hadith) that relate to Jihad. In other words, the article brings forth verses from the Quran and Hadith that ISIS uses to justify its actions. It concludes with a glimpse of the open letter written by celebrated Muslim scholars explaining their points of view on Jihad, attacking innocent people and elaborates on their attitudes towards the Islamic State in general.

The main questions of the research:

What has Jihad stood for in history, and how does ISIS understand it? What kinds of Qur’anic verses do they rely on? What types of Hadith do they use in their justifications/interpretations?

Jihad throughout History

Jihad/Holy War is always linked to religion, and has been one of the tools used to defend religion and its followers. However, with time, the notion might have changed in order to serve some states’ or groups’ goals. In early Islamic history, the permission of Jihad was given to Muslims as a means of defending themselves from persecution and injustice, namely referring to the Qureshi tribe’s treatment of Muslims. Allah in the Quran says:

“Permission [to fight] has been given to those who are being fought, because they were wronged. And indeed, Allah is competent to give them victory.” Surat Al-Haj [22:39]

Moreover, the last time Jihad was used officially was by the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. The Ottoman Empire, as an example, invoked Jihad as a mean to motivate people to fight effectively to defend its subjects. The Ottoman Empire considered states including Britain, France, and Russia enemies. In this vein, in his article “Jihad”, David Motadel argues, “The holy war was thus not a religious conflict in the classic sense, waged between ‘believers’ and ‘infidels’. As only Britain, France, Russia, Serbia and Montenegro had turned hostile to the caliphate, only they could be considered enemies of Islam.” [1]

ISIS is one of the newest groups that has cited Jihad as the basis of its doctrine, and has been manipulating the term ‘Jihad‘ as a tool for achieving its goals whether those goals are religious or not.

I have tried to focus mostly on Al-Baghdadi’s speeches, but unfortunately, there are not many of them. In his first speech in which he announced himself caliph, he did not deeply discuss the meaning of Jihad, so I turned to other videos published in the name of the Islamic State. Furthermore, I focus less on secondary sources because they may introduce ISIS in a way that does not align with ISIS’s beliefs, hence why I have avoided them.

Definition of Jihad for ISIS:

Firstly, I would like to start by citing Alireza Doostdar, Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies and the Anthropology of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He opens his article “How Not to Understand ISIS” by stating, “I should begin by emphasizing that our knowledge of ISIS is extremely scant. We know close to nothing about ISIS’ social base. We know little about how it made its military gains, and even less about the nature of the coalitions into which it has entered—from other Islamist rebels in Syria to secular Ba‘athists in Iraq. ‘Beliefs’ are made simply to fill the explanatory void.”

ISIS uses the term ‘Jihad’ in all its speeches, but does not discuss its interpretation of the term. Even Al-Baghdadi does not specify what he means by ‘Jihad’ in his first speech as caliph. However, we can interpret the meaning of Jihad from their actions and selected speeches posted on YouTube that elaborate on their beliefs and doctrines, one of which is by a member of ISIS named himself, Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi Al Quraych Al Husayni. This video states the most important pillars of their doctrine.

Firstly, they believe that all manifestations of polytheism must be destroyed. Secondly, Rafida ‘Shiites’ are apostates; as they do not apply various Islamic rules, they should be killed. This explains why ISIS is killing many Shiites. Thirdly, they believe all magicians (not differentiating between the practice black magic or other forms) are not Muslims, and therefore should be killed. Fourthly, they believe all people who bear witness (shahada) are Muslims except those who, they deem, believe in sacrilege.

However, they fail to mention these nullifiers of Islam, leaving these matters to their own jurisdiction. Fifthly, all Muslims must reject secular law and go back to the Islamic courts that are in the Islamic State, anyone who goes to other courts is a non-Muslim. Sixthly, secularism, communism, nationalism, etc. are clear blasphemy and against Islam. As a result, all parties that participate in political life, even Islamic parties, are none Muslims and all participants occupying positions in those parties are non-Muslims. However the subjects in question are considered Muslims until ISIS has evidence that shows the opposite. Seventhly, those who help ISIS’s enemies are targets. Eighthly, Jihad is obligatory for each person. Ninthly, all states that apply secular law, even Muslim states, are non-Muslim and should be fought in order to kill the rulers and their helpers. In addition, fighting Muslims who follow secular law takes precedence over fighting non-Muslims.

In the analysis, I focus on Qur’anic verses and the sayings of the Prophet that Al-Baghdadi and his followers rely on in order to legitimize their crimes against innocent people.

Qur’anic verses that have been cited by Al-Baghdadi:

Al-Baghdadi cites as many verses as possible in order to motivate people to fight for ISIS’ cause, specifically verses that call for enforcing Islamic rules. What is interesting about his first speech is that he does not delve into the explanations and interpretations of these verses, which may imply he does not recognize scholars who spend their entire lives interpreting/studying the Quran. Moreover, this indication is an opportunity for his opponents to discredit Al-Baghdadi and his followers as they do not have the ability to understand the Quran and the Hadith properly as they were intended. Furthermore, per his speech, Al-Baghdadi seems to focus more on verses that promote violence to serve his purpose of using violence against others. Here are some examples of the verses that he cites during his speech:

Fighting has been enjoined upon you while it is hateful to you. But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah Knows, while you know not. Surat Al-Baqarah [2: 216]

And fight them until there is no fitnah (disbelief and polytheism) and [until] the religion, all of it, is for Allah. And if they cease – then indeed, Allah is Seeing of what they do. Surat Al-‘Anf?l [8: 39]

We have already sent Our messengers with clear evidence and sent down with them the Scripture and the balance that the people may maintain [their affairs] in justice. And We sent down iron, wherein is great military might and benefits for the people, and so that Allah may make evident those who support Him and His messengers unseen. Indeed, Allah is Powerful and Exalted in Might. Surat Al-?ad?d [57: 25]

Allah has promised those who have believed among you and done righteous deeds that He will surely grant them succession [to authority] upon the earth just as He granted it to those before them and that He will surely establish for them [therein] their religion, which He has preferred for them and that He will surely substitute for them, after their fear, security, [for] they worship Me, not associating anything with Me. But whoever disbelieves after that – then those are the defiantly disobedient. Surat An-N?r [24: 55]

So do not weaken and do not grieve, and you will be superior if you are [true] believers. Surat ‘Ali `Imran [3:139]

[It is that] you believe in Allah and His Messenger and strive in the cause of Allah with your wealth and your lives. That is best for you, if you should know. He will forgive for you your sins and admit you to gardens beneath which rivers flow and pleasant dwellings in gardens of perpetual residence. That is the great attainment. And [you will obtain] another [favor] that you love – victory from Allah and an imminent conquest; and give good tidings to the believers. Surat As-Saf [61: 11,12,13]

Sayings of the Prophet cited by ISIS:

From my observation watching their videos, I did not come across many Hadiths; leading me to believe the scarcity of Hadiths is either because they have enough Quran verses justifying their actions, or they consider the Quran as the foundation, therefore rendering the need to cite Hadiths unnecessary. However, Al-Baghdadi does cite the Prophet’s military preparations against the Qurashies during Ramadan. In addition, the video outlining the doctrine of the Islamic State mentions one Hadithreferencing statues and graves. Nevertheless, if we are to compare the use of Qur’anic verses versus hadith, we can see that ISIS relies heavily on Qur’anic verses as opposed to Hadith.

Some Figures ISIS Considers Role Models:

There is not much known about ISIS’ role models as its leaders rarely cite Islamic figures, thereby strengthening their opponents’ argument that ISIS interprets Qur’anic verses and Hadith literally without using scientific tools scholars have used from Islam’s earliest days in order to explain the Quran and theHadith properly. The only instance in which ISIS has cited a known scholar was Ibno Hazm Thahiri ‘(d 1064), who is known for his literal interpretation in dealing with religious texts in his discourse, and he is known for refusing several sources of Tachrie (legislation) such as analogy.

In conclusion, in line with popular belief and media representation, ISIS relies on violence and strives to justify its actions through religious texts, which have negatively influenced Islam’s image. Instead of demonstrating mercy, solidarity, tolerance, and other honorable characteristics of Islam, ISIS has done its utmost to deform the image of Islam which Muslims all over the world have sought to correct.

In response, many Muslim scholars have written an open letter to ISIS with the intention of conveying just how wrong the Islamic State is, which one hundred and twenty-six scholars have signed to date. In this open letter, scholars invalidate the caliphate that was declared by Al-Baghdadi and his followers; they also assert that one cannot ignore the Islamic sciences while interpreting Islamic texts. In addition to re-establishing the Islamic policy toward killing innocent people, which Islam strictly prevents, the letter reminds ISIS and other readers that no one has right to force people to convert to Islam.

In one of his YouTube speeches (published September 20, 2014), signatory Hamza Yosef declares the Islamic State and its followers non-Muslims. He says that they are Ahlo Iblis (people of Satan). Yosef brings forth several Hadiths that describe a group of people who will act against people and religion, and he says that these descriptions apply exactly in the case of ISIS.

Hamza Yousef says in the translation of this Hadith: “Stay put and do not go out then you will see weak insignificant people. They are not notable. They have no learning they have no scholars among them. Their heart like pieces of iron, and they, in another Hadith, show no mercy towards their enemies; they are the people of dawla (state). They will not have any covenant. You cannot trust them with anything they say. They call for the truth, but they are not from the people of the truth. Their names are Abu Bakr, Abu Omar etc. and they do not go by their real names. They go back to towns and places such as Al-Baghdadi, Alanbari Al Misri etc, and they do not go by tribes as Arab used to do. They have long hair wearing it like women. They start fighting each other.”

[1] Motadel, David. “Jihad 1914.” History Today 64, no. 9 (September 2014): 41-42. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed October 19, 2014). Photo