By Gabriel Said Reynolds
December 6, 2015
Soon after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself caliph, or leader, of all Muslims on June 29, 2014, the movement he leads declared that it would no longer be known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but simply the Islamic State.
This name change was telling. It reflects the ambition of ISIS to be a transnational movement that demands the loyalty of all Muslims, no matter their home country — and its claim to represent Islam, a religion practiced by well over 1 billion people across the planet.
To many outside observers, however — not least of whom are Muslim observers — ISIS does not represent Islam. To make this point, more and more commentators have begun to refer to the movement by its Arabic acronym — Daesh — or as the “so-called” Islamic state. On social media it is not uncommon to find activists speak of the “UnIslamic State” and its “pseudo-caliph.”
On the other hand ISIS does seem to appeal to some Muslims. New recruits continue to find their way to Syria and Iraq to join the movement, and news recently broke that one of the San Bernardino shooters, Tashfeen Malik, allegedly pledged allegiance to ISIS the morning of the assault.
So how Islamic is ISIS, really? In March of this year, Graeme Wood declared in the Atlantic Monthly: “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.”
Wood points to the way in which ISIS seeks to justify all of its policies and actions — from morality laws involving dress codes to public floggings, crucifixion and enslavement — with verses from the Koran, statements of the Prophet Muhammad or rulings of classical Islamic jurisprudents.
Those “very Islamic” colors with which ISIS paints itself are on display in the movement’s flashy online magazine, Dabiq. The twelfth and latest issue, with the words “Just Terror” on the cover, celebrates the downing of a Russian plane and the coordinated attacks in six different sites in Paris.
The foreword to the magazine frames these attacks as part of a struggle of the Muslims against their enemies, “the Crusaders,” and quotes frequently from the Koran. For example, the author claims that the way the French and the Russians fight only from the safety of their cockpits reflects the following passage: “They thought that their fortresses would protect them from Allah; but Allah came upon them from where they had not expected, and He cast terror into their hearts so they destroyed their homes by their own hands and the hands of the believers.” (59:2).
The use of this Koran quotation is critical to understanding ISIS’ claim of being Islamic. Classical Islamic tradition applies this Koranic verse to a particular incident between Muhammad and one of the Jewish tribes in the city of Medina in Arabia, a tribe named Banu Nadir.
It is said that after the rise of tensions, Muhammad had Banu Nadir expelled from the city and that the tribe literally took apart their homes to salvage the wood and other materials (“they destroyed their homes by their own hands”). From this perspective, the verse is about an incident in the past, but ISIS makes it about the present.
It is this sort of actualization of Koranic verses (and the traditions surrounding Muhammad which are not found in the Koran) that shapes this peculiar militant ideology.
To ISIS, the militant material in the Koran is not only about the first Muslims and the conflicts in their day, it is about Muslims today.
Most Muslims, however, believe verses in the Koran which seem to justify holy war need to be “contextualized,” in the way most Christians contextualize much of the Bible: They were meant for Muhammad’s time and place, not every time and place.
The same issue of Dabiq includes an article on the legitimacy of polygamy based on Koran 4:3, a verse which seems to give permission to a man to marry up to four women. “This is a verse as clear as the sun,” writes the article’s female author. In fact, in the great majority of Islamic countries polygamy is permitted and practiced. Nevertheless, other Muslims make the case that polygamy was allowed in the context of early Islam, but is no longer allowed today.
Similar debates are proceeding among Muslims around other questions including slavery, apostasy, freedom of speech, dress and intermarriage. The very definition of what it means to be Islamic in the modern world is being worked out by Muslims.
In this light it should be noted that the overwhelming majority of Muslims have an unfavorable opinion of ISIS and are opposing its claims. Yet it should also be noted that there are forces in the Islamic world that are on the wrong side of this ideological battle.
Saudi Arabia, above all, continues to be an advocate for strict forms of interpretation which sow the seeds of radicalism. In other words, the worldview of America’s worst enemy is also, in at least one sense, embraced by one of its closest allies.
Gabriel Said Reynolds is Professor of Islamic Studies and Theology at Notre Dame. His research is focused above all on the Qur'an and Muslim-Christian relations. He wrote a dissertation on the remarkable Islamic history of Christianity of ʿAbd al-Jabbar (d. 1025); the dissertation won the Field Prize at Yale and was published (Brill 2004) as A Muslim Theologian in the Sectarian Milieu. Reynolds also prepared an introduction and translation of this history, published by (BYU 2008) as The Critique of Christian Origins.