Given the obvious unwillingness of the present US administration to use the terms “Islamic/Muslim” as descriptors for ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Sham/Syria), al-Qaeda, AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda wing in Syria) and others, as well as the protestations of some moderate American Muslims that such groups and their behaviors do not represent “true” Islam, it is important to answer this question thoughtfully.
Those who say “No” in answer to this question marshal as their principal argument the bromide that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance, and what ISIS and other terrorists have concocted is a perversion of Islam that cannot be laid at the feet of the real religion. Unfortunately, the politicians and talking heads who sing this tune know very little of the history and beliefs of Islam. Moderate Muslims who do know something of their own history and theology, on the other hand, and who nevertheless speak of Islam as “the religion of peace,” use those words in a very specialized sense, and hope that no one will look too deeply into what they say.
According to orthodox Sunni Islam, Muhammad is considered the “perfect human,” the role model for all Muslims to emulate. Muhammad commanded his followers to fight the non-Muslim world until all submit and acknowledge the supremacy of Islam. This command came from God, according to the Quran:
“And fight them until there is no more Fitnah (disbelief and worshipping of others along with Allah) and (all and every kind of) worship is for Allah (Alone). But if they cease, let there be no transgression except against Az-Zalimun (the polytheists, and wrong-doers, etc.)” – 2:193 (see also 8:39).
In the ten plus years of his leadership in Medina until his death (622-32), Muhammad ordered some seventy-four raids or battles against non-Muslim groups or communities. According to Islamic sources, he personally led at least twenty-six of these. A few years before his death, Muhammad gathered an army of thirty thousand to march north from Medina seeking conquest of the Byzantine Empire. They camped at Tabuk (NW Arabia), and never met the enemy, but Muhammad’s expansionist intentions were clear. After this, he sent letters to the rulers of surrounding Christian and Persian realms, urging them to “…embrace Islam and you will be safe.” Safe from what, one might ask. Safe from the attack, conquest and plunder of future Muslim armies, which, as history records, was indeed the primary means by which Islam spread so rapidly in the first one hundred years after Muhammad’s death. It should come as no surprise, then, that his followers even today see warfare (jihad) as an appropriate tool (under certain conditions) for the advancement of Islam.
Modern, moderate Muslims correctly assert that, according to Shariah law, jihad of an offensive type can only rightly be ordered by the recognized caliph of Islam (whereas jihad of self-defense needs no official authorization), and that since no caliph has been recognized by the Islamic world since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1924, no Muslim has the right to call for or engage in a jihad of aggression against non-Muslims. Hence, they say, ISIS is operating as a rogue element, without the consent of the rest of the Muslim world, and thus cannot be considered truly Muslim.
But ISIS has two responses to this. First, they have “recognized” their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who traces his lineage to the Quraysh tribe of Muhammad, as the caliph of the whole Muslim world. He is known to them as Caliph Ibrahim, and ISIS invites the rest of the Muslim world to rally under his leadership. As the new Caliph, he has declared jihad against Islam’s enemies, and so the actions of the armies of ISIS have legitimacy, in their eyes. Second, even if the majority of the Islamic world does not accept al-Baghdadi as its legitimate caliph, the actions of ISIS are defensible on the grounds of self-protection. “We were attacked first,” they might argue, “by Western coalition forces in Iraq and by hypocrites=false Muslims (which in their eyes means principally Shiite Muslims under the direction of Iran, or agents of corrupt Sunni governments, i.e., all the Gulf states), “and so we have the right to wage war in response.”
Yet, one might argue, doesn’t ISIS disqualify itself from legitimacy through its inhumane and barbarous treatment of those it deems enemies? Don’t such actions as mass beheadings, immolation of prisoners, torture, rape, slavery, theft, and gratuitous humiliation of captives demonstrate that this movement is at odds with historic Islam?
Unfortunately, the answer to this as well is negative. ISIS leadership has justified all of its actions firmly on the basis of the commands of Allah found in the Quran and the example (Sunnah) of Muhammad found in Islam’s widely revered Hadith traditions (second only to the Quran in divine authority). It appeals to legal pronouncements made by well-known jurists of Islamic history for support of its barbarity. Its worldview is squarely in the camp of Islam historically. Al-Baghdadi, far from being a fringe revolutionary with a hazy grasp of Islam, earned both a Masters and a Ph.D. degree in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad before briefly serving as an imam and then joining the Sunni insurgency in post-war Iraq. Those who claim that ISIS leadership only uses Islam as a front for pursuing other more mundane ventures are ignorant of the enormous sway this religion holds over the thinking and behavior of al-Baghdadi, who knows the life and teachings of his prophet well.
Early Islamic sources confirm that Muhammad ordered beheadings of enemies, the torture of those refusing to hand over hidden treasure, the amputation of limbs or crucifixion of those who transgressed his laws, the rape of conquered non-Muslim women and their consequent enslavement together with their children, as well as the execution of any adolescent males and adult men who refused to submit to Islam. Of course all of the possessions of those conquered were seized as booty and distributed among the Muslim combatants and wider Islamic community. The practices of immolation and gratuitous humiliation are traced not to Muhammad directly but to his honored successors known as the Rashidun, the four “rightly-guided caliphs” who ruled for the first thirty years after Muhammad’s death. (Examples of all these can be readily found in the early historical sources penned by Muslims, not “haters of Islam.”)
While I readily acknowledge that there is so much more to Islam than this one segment of history and teaching, it is impossible for any honest observer to deny that the horrific practices and frightening goals of ISIS find their foundation squarely in the teaching and practices of Muhammad, and the legacy of his companions who knew him best.
Hence, my answer to the question “Can ISIS rightly claim to be Islamic?” is Yes, as much as any other group citing Muhammad as its source and model. Outside politicians and apologists have no standing to render judgment on what constitutes “true Islam,” and what stands as a perversion. It will be up to the larger Muslim world to define for itself what true Islam stands for, and then to police its own ranks to see that adherents toe the line. Moderates today clamor that the “extremists” have hijacked and perverted their religion. The fundamentalists, on the other hand, decry the moderates as hypocrites who refuse to embrace all the requirements of Islam. Who will win this debate? Only time will tell, but my money is on the fundamentalists, who have the unchangeable sacred texts of the religion on their side, and who are willing to give up their lives to advance the cause.
That leaves me with one last question: If ISIS genuinely can lay claim to being Islamic, then why won’t the US administration use the phrase “Islamic terrorism/extremism” to describe this group and others operating under the same worldview? My thoughts on that tomorrow….