An Analysis of ISIS and its Relation to Traditional Islam
In today’s world it is easy to assume that ISIS and traditional Islam are the same thing. The news often reports phrases like “radical Islamist terrorists” and “radical Islam.” Has society made a correct assumption? Are all people who follow Islam potential terrorists? Does Islam seek to promote such terrorist behaviors? This paper seeks to address these questions and uncover the differences between the two, if any.
Traditional Islam began over 1,500 years ago and currently has around 1.6 billion followers. The word “Islam” actually means “submission to God.” Therefore, a Muslim is someone who strives to submit to God.
Islam has spread completely around the world. You can find Muslims in North and South America, Western Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Their principal homelands lie in the area commonly referred to as the “10/40 Window” (between 10 degrees latitudinal north and 40 degrees latitudinal north ranging from the eastern side of North Africa to the western side of Asia). Majority of Muslims are Asian (60%) and the rest are Arab (22%) sub-Sahara African (12%) and Eastern European (5%) .
Islam was founded in 610 A.D. by a man named Mohammed. During Mohammed’s time, polytheism reigned, and people were worshipping many gods at the same time. Mohammed had a vision from a being he thought to be an angel who told him, “There is only one God, and His name is Allah. Worship Him.”
Islam, at its core, is a religion based on faith, life, piety, freedom, religion, peace, and morality. Researcher Sohaib Sultan states: “Islam believes in a God of mercy, a scripture of mercy, and a Prophet who was sent as a mercy to all the world.”
ISIS began in 2003 as a “blowback” of the U.S. invasion and dysfunction of Iraq. In the earliest stage there were several Sunni extremist groups who were fighting back with the U.S. in hopes to provoke a civil war. The group, at that time, was called al Qaeda which was in Iraq with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in command pledging allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Zarqawi was killed during a 2006 U.S. airstrike, but the group continued . ISIS is a post-al Qaeda terrorist group.
With over 30,000 fighters, ISIS holds territorial lands in both Syria and Iraq. It maintains an extensive military operation, controls communications, controls infrastructure, and funds itself. It can be said that ISIS is a pseudo-state which is led by their military.
The goal of ISIS is to control certain territories thereby creating a “pure” Sunni Islamist state that is governed by a strict interpretation of
Sharia Law. It also seeks to remove the political borders that the Western governments created in the Middle Eastern regions. ISIS seeks to become the sole political, military, and religious authority over all the Muslims in the world. ISIS core message is more about power and revenge than anything else.
Differences Between ISIS and Traditional Islam
In the first section of this paper we saw that traditional Islam is a relatively peaceful religion that stresses mercy and peace. This is significantly in conflict with the agenda of ISIS. Where do these two paths cross? What is the relationship between terrorist groups such as ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al Shabab in Somalia, the Taliban with traditional Islam?
Many people believe that ISIS is a group that is based on the religious beliefs of Islam including following the examples of the Prophet Mohammed . This is where most of the confusion comes into play. ISIS uses Islam as a vehicle to carry out their political agenda by reinterpreting the fundamental meaning and purpose of Islam. In other words, they are twisting the Quran to say what they want it to by weaving lies in with the truth and preying on the ignorance of the people.
The message of ISIS is vastly spread not only by social media, but through certain mosques as well. Researcher Ian Pelletier suggests the motivations of ISIS are:
- “Market and Reinforce: Emphasizes consistency of Islamic State’s strategic objectives with mainstream Islamic Law.
- Obfuscation: Ignores/blurs contradictions between Islamic State’s strategic objectives and mainstream Islamic Law.
- Leveraging: Connects areas in which Islamic State strategic objectives are consistent with mainstream Islamic Law to social movement catalysts in order to gain momentum.
- Reinterpretation: Justifies a radical reinterpretation of Islamic Law as essential to address past issues or current shortfalls within society and achieve the strategic objectives of the Islamic State. “
ISIS interprets Islam from a very radical point of view that is rooted in the extremist fraction of Salafi/Wahhabi Islam within the Hanbali Sunni tradition .
The strategic goals of ISIS are as follows:
“Permanently break down political boundaries and cultivate conditions for government failure and regional sectarian civil war in Iraq and Syria.
Establish the Islamic Caliphate by controlling terrain across Iraq and Syria, governing the population within, and defending against external threats.
Bring like-minded people to fight alongside and settle within the Islamic Caliphate.
Expand the territory of the Caliphate to connect with the wider Muslim community. “
Traditional Islamic Law (Sharia) is based on the Quran which follows the hadith or the teachings of Mohammad. It is traditionally viewed as a statement of relatively easy limits and not a source of rigid and inflexible rules to be imposed in any circumstance . It is supposed to be based on the premise of justice and equality for everyone . Historically it has been determined that Islamic Law had the most humane and liberal fundamental principles as it fostered peace with self and society. Groups such as ISIS use Islamic Law instead for harsh discipline and to control the people.
Sharia, as it was originally intended, was used as a guideline for societal norms and values. It served as a model in which one could pattern their life after. Some of the many positive attributes of Sharia are: a belief in God, daily prayers, asking/receiving forgiveness, freedoms of choice, strong sense of community, love your neighbors, exercise self-control, do not abuse religion to exploit or abuse others, and must respect the rights of others.
Conflicts Between ISIS and Mainstream Moderate Muslims
There have been many practicing Muslims who do not agree with nor adhere to the beliefs of extremists’ fringe groups such as ISIS. In an open letter from 120 Islamic scholars and clerics to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, they challenged ISIS’s ways as being un-Islamic. They further claimed that ISIS routinely twists and perverts Islamic Law selfishly to achieve their own agenda.
The letter went on to illustrate the contradictions between ISIS’s theology and that of traditional Islamic Law. The scholars accused them of citing only portions of the Quran without taking the whole spirit of the Quran and Hadith into account. It was also noted that ISIS had a practice of killing innocent people and that jihad was only meant for defensive measures during a war. Offensive measures of Jihad, without proper cause, was equal to criminal conduct and was not acceptable in traditional Islam . The letter also went on to say that Islam forbids the mistreatment of Christians and no one can be forced to convert to Islam against their will.
Author Wael Hallaq states that, “Sharia is not a rigid unchanging ‘Law of God’ and when applied correctly, it is flexible. The way it is interpreted and implemented by ISIS makes it a little more than a list of fixed punishments, ritual requirements and oppressive rules that are enforced with coercion upon a marginalized group of people. In addition, it is increasingly clear that ISIS selectively interprets Sharia.”
One may ask how ISIS is able to get away with using Islamic Law to achieve its objectives. They accomplish this by convincing people that their views are in fact inline with mainstream Islamic traditions. They have a knack for rationalizing any perceived contradictions that are found within their belief and the traditional teachings.
Al-Baghdadi, while addressing his fighters said, “Beware, O lions, the state that they reach a Muslim woman or child or sheikh without you, for if this happens, then, by God, you have no excuse for yourselves before me. Look to yourselves and do not be a place of blame. Put their bodies before yours. Their blood before yours and their fortune before yours, and beware of being happy to live in a day when the honor of a Muslim woman is transgressed, or the blood of a child is spilled, or an elderly sheikh is insulted, for what deliciousness can there be in life if this is in it or even a part of it?”
While his speech is complimentary with Islamic Law in principle, he is trying to energize his fighters to fight in a war that is not justified according to Islamic Law. He stresses that not only is the war just, but it is according to Islamic Law which it a bold lie. They may sincerely believe that their war is justified due to their extremist views, but according to traditional Islamic Law, they are not qualified to wage war with anyone unless it is a defensive measure. ISIS does not engage in defensive measures as a rule—they are very offensive in their tactics.
Extremists groups, such as ISIS, claim to be Islamic in their beliefs, but they do not adhere to the basic tenants of the faith. They twist and turn the Quran and Hadith to make it say whatever they need it to say that will further their agenda.
ISIS is a violent terrorist group that has been attracting many young people. They seek out those who are vulnerable, who are seeking religious righteousness, adventure, power, and a sense of belonging. They are also known for producing sexual opportunities for the young men by keeping women as slaves. This is extremely contradictory to traditional teachings and philosophy of traditional Islam.
It is certainly a disservice to the majority of Muslims to assume that all Muslims are somehow connected to terrorist activities. In America, ever since September 11th, 2001, there has been a remarkable increase of violence and hatred against Muslims from such assumptions.
Extremists groups are not representative of what it means to be a Muslim in today’s world. We need to see them for who they are and not for the vehicle they misuse which is Islam. Furthermore, it is very unhelpful when the media keeps reporting phrases like “radical Islam” and “Muslim extremists” as this further perpetuates the discrimination and hatred against innocent and peace-loving Muslims.
There is no link between ISIS terrorism and traditional Islam. ISIS fundamentally changes the core beliefs of Islam and inserts their own interpretations to make it into something that is self-serving.
Extremists can be found in most religions. The only way to combat this is to be very knowledgeable of your own religion and beliefs so that you will recognize a falsehood when you hear it. Sadly, many people simply believe what they are told and that is it. Such people can be easily caught up in extremist groups as they lack knowledge.
The same can be said for Christianity. We are not exempt from those who have perverted God’s Word to make it say something that it never was intended to say. This is how cults are formed, and again, is due to a lack of knowledge. The bible says that the people perish due to a lack of knowledge (Hosea 4:6).
ISIS operates via intimidation, fear, legalistic authority, assassinations, and bombings . This is nothing like what traditional Islam teaches. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It is not fair to classify all Muslims by such rouge fringe groups.
For two years I worked and lived in an Islamic country. I never met anyone who was associated with ISIS nor any other extremist group. I found the Muslims there to be very friendly, eager to help, and welcoming. That experience really helped me to see them for who they really are and without the media bias that was projected to me.
Many Muslims do not even consider groups such as ISIS to be true Muslims. They look at them in disdain as the perverters of Islam. Usually these are the more educated people who know what Islam is supposed to be. Sadly, a lot of Muslims have a lower educational level which would be very conducive to being led astray. Many modern Muslims are Muslim in name only and not in practice which makes them an easy target for extremists.