February 24, 2015
God’s Pious Dictators – or – Is ISIS Islamic? Depends who you ask.

Islamic Values


5 min read

First, I’d like to point out that almost no one I know thinks that ISIS are good guys.

They also don’t think they are the astronomical threat to all humanity that they are made out to be. They feel that the media gives them way too much play.

Do they (and I) believe they are off their rockers? Yes.
Do they (and I) believe that they too will pass? Yes.
Do they (and I) believe that some other group will be propped up in their place? Probably (Remember Khorasan?)
ISIS is a miniscule sliver in the ocean of Muslims worldwide. Take a look at this:

If you believe that, why are you writing this?

Good question. I believe that we as Muslims are caught in a thought loop. Our conversations about ISIS are ones that confirm us as the good guys, confirm ISIS as the bad guys, and confirm to those we are fearful of that “we are good people and you are safe.” I wrote this because I believe this bubble needs to be popped. You probably will not like this if you are looking for the “Glorious Divine Thunderbolts against the Insanity of the ISIS Dolts” (those of you familiar with Arabic refutations will get that). This is not an expose of ISIS, nor is it a refutation or triumphant response to their stupidity. It certainly is not a justification for them either, but instead is meant to promote introspection, especially for Muslims.

If you came here looking for a fiery repudiation or a verse for verse take down, then you should probably stop reading now.

ISIS is not Islamic, except when it is, but it still isn’t

Most if not all responses to the issue of ISIS have fit neatly into this group’s leadership being traditional/charismatic in nature. You’ll hear those that are against ISIS (and some that are against all things Islam) say “ISIS is really, really Islamic.” Why you ask? Well look at them citing all those Quran verses and listen to the credos they rattle off to cement their own legitimacy. This reminds me of a bad joke told in the Arab world: An Arab ruler goes to France, and as soon as he comes back mandates that all children in his country are provided early language lessons in French. When asked later by a confidante, he intimates to him “You’ll never believe this, but even the children in France know how to speak French fluently!”

On the other hand, those that are against them say “ISIS is really, really un-Islamic.” Reason: they have no “clerics of repute” (a completely subjective term). This is certainly not a proper rebuttal, and really is just an appeal to authority. How could it be proper when most “clerics of repute” who’ve spoken out about ISIS have themselves supported oppressive regimes that do as bad or worse to their own populations? Like it or not, just as scholars in Syria aren’t subordinate to those in Egypt, nor are those in Morocco subordinate to those in Yemen, people purported to be scholars and in the service of ISIS are not subordinate to any other scholarly body. It must be said however that whom you are attached to is not as important as the argument you are making, and so there is such a thing as legitimate scholarship which is closer and more faithful to holistic readings of texts than others. “Men are known through the truth,” stated Ali b. Abi Taleb, “not the truth through men.”

“So much room … for activities!”

The article that launched a thousand blog posts and articles has to be The Atlantic’s piece by Graeme Wood. In no necessary order this was followed by: H.A. Hellyer, Yasir Qadhi and Daniel Jou, Haroon Moghul, Steve Niva, Jack Jenkins, Ross Douthat, and Steven Mazie. (Edit 2/25/2015: I’ve followed up this article with a list of all responses, scroll to the bottom.) I will not attempt to pick apart these articles or address the issues in each. Some of these are stronger than others. Some of them amount to a whole lot of bitching about nothing. Some of them draw conclusions from incomplete information. Others perpetuate age old orientalist tropes on the nature of radicalism in the Muslim world. A few make the important point that we should not be doing what groups like ISIS want, branding them as the only valid interpretation and not giving any credence to other more holistic and amenable ones. What I will say is that these explanations don’t sufficiently explain the nature of ISIS. There have been a plethora of Muslim populations that have sustained invasion, mass murder, colonization, and oppressive governments without resorting to what ISIS has resorted to. There are a few inconvenient truths that Muslims (and other apologists) do not want to admit to or engage openly. This is a disservice to the cause of clarifying Islamic Law and securing the safety of Muslim communities.

To me, all of these articles miss the point on a very crucial issue: Islamic discussions of politics are centered on creating and sustaining “pious dictators.” This model of governance upholds the persona of the Caliph/Imam/Ameer/Sultan as the Prophet’s Vicar. It grants both religious and political legitimacy by viewing the right to rule as somehow deriving from the will of God.

Now imagine this scenario:

You are lonely frontiersman. You have your plot of land and your well of water. You discover oil but are unable to drill. You and all your neighbors are in the same predicament. An oil baron moves in. Tells you that Christ loves you, and that part of that love is for you to love and serve him, the baron. When you refuse, he denies you work. Poisons your wells. Kills your kids. Rapes your wife. Cripples you and spits on your parents. A local gang leader shows up and says: Let’s show these bastards what we’re made of! My cousin has a revival tent, and he’ll be sure to get the crowd riled up to help you, if you can share the glory of the Lord (*wink*wink*) with God’s humble servants.

Why live in service of the glory of the baron’s lord when you can have your own lord and all the glory too? With socio-political conditions like these, it is only natural for an ISIS to arise. If I can be my own divinely appointed king, why would I listen to your ministers that appoint you? Religious texts are used (as they have been through our history) to promote power and authority. But what is it about Islamic texts that bring about an ISIS? To me, the issue of power and authority have more to do with this than any other issue, including Takfir.

Everyone does Takfir

There is a heavy aversion to Takfir in Islamic thought. Prophetic traditions state,”When one of your calls his brother a Kafir (unbeliever) then it applies to one of them.” That said, everyone has done takfir. Everyone. It would simply be a bore to list all of the instances of takfir that are mentioned by a variety of Islamic ideological groups. Books of Islamic Law and theology are rife with lists of acts that if performed dictate that a person has abandoned faith and must renew it. Some of them reach the level of adjudicating the issue and having a judge decide the person’s fate. All agree however that the punishments for leaving faith (known as ridda) are not meted out in a wanton fashion by just anyone, but they must be performed by the “legitimate ruler of the Muslims or his appointee.” Here’s the problem: Just as you have your texts, scholars, and reasons, so does ISIS. Just as you promote yourselves, scholars, and rulers as the “legitimate ruler(s) of the Muslims or his appointee(s)┝ so does ISIS. So making an appeal to the illegitimacy of Takfir in your argument with ISIS will not work. Blaming the Wahhabis (yawn) will not work. Telling us Turkey (through Erdogan) is to blame, will not work. Making it all political with no religious influence, will not work.

The issue here is not whether ISIS is Islamic.

Things are labeled “Islamic.” What does that even mean? When was this a term used in our history except in the modern period as a group identifier of all things indicative of Muslim orthodoxy? It was used as a broad descriptor for ideas/movements that appeared in Islamicate cultures and lands. So is ISIS Islamic? Depends on how you define Islamic. If you consider the latest “Native Deen” album or Iznik tile collection to be Islamic, then yes. And if you are speaking about a cultural descriptor, in the vein of Hodgson’s definition of Islamicate, then yes. Qadhi and Jou’s article makes this point well at #13, differentiating between descriptive and explanatory use, which really is the best contribution to the conversation made in that article.

But if you limit the conversation strictly to terms of governance and political operations (and the theological and legal implications tied to them), you really can’t say anything more about them being Islamic than “Well yes, but they are renegades (Ahl al-Baghy).” Renegades (Ahl al-Baghy) were Muslims revolted, using violence to rectify some wrong. I know, for some critics this is not enough, but most Muslims find requests by non-Muslims to excommunicate ISIS to be inane. Why would I now do to them, what they easily do to me?

Even for a Muslim to say that we don’t do Takfir and instead we classify them as Renegades (Ahl al-Baghy) has its own consequences. By doing this, you are acknowledging their grievances. You are showing that their use of religion as a force multiplier was only to draw attention to the oppression they’ve presumably faced. This means their motives and intentions to stand against oppression could possibly be characterized as “Islamic” in an explanatory sense, but their actions cannot be “Islamic” in the descriptive sense. Well according to you, that is. They have their own way of looking at things.

Two Ways of Looking At It

The previous way of looking at things, whether right or wrong, whether we like it or not, is connected to Muslims and to Islamic thought. Arguing about the extent to which ISIS deserves the attribution of Islamic is really, really useless without looking at what it is they saw in Islamic thought that motivated them out of an apolitical nihilistic delusion to a politically apocalyptic delusion. If other nations are the baron supported by God, why wouldn’t the frontiersman become a baron as well?

If one were to argue the point, and if government is a monopoly on violence à la Weber: then why is ISIS not a government? They claim to be, and they have a monopoly on violence. Other Muslim scholars are saying they are not, but why? Why is what ISIS has done any different than what has happened throughout history? From the Fatimids, the Moravids, the Ayyubids, the Seljuks, the Ottomans, the Hashemites, Aal Saud, and even Sisi in modern Egypt. All used religious rhetoric of some sort coupled with some form of authority and violence to establish themselves. Each of them viewed themselves as the “legitimate ruler of the Muslims” or as “the Prophet’s Vicar” or as “God’s Authority (Sultan) in the earth.” What makes your form of violence any more legitimate than their form of violence? Can we reasonably counter one claim of a monopoly on violence (i.e. ISIS) with an equal claim to that violence (i.e. Majority Islamic States)? The religious rhetoric about what it means to have authority and be the “legitimate leader of the Muslims” has to change. Yes, some things about Islamic thought have to change.

God’s Pious Dictators

The differentiating factor here has to be that the agent of force we support is one that is not just a monopoly on violence but is an accountable one, limited institutionally and accountable institutionally. Medieval Islamic governance focused on producing “God’s Pious Dictators.” This system will not produce the forms of governments that are needed for sustainability in the Muslim World. It can easily be said that ISIS is about as Islamic as all the “Islamic” nations opposing it, regardless of which scholars (of repute or not) support them. As Muslims we can do a lot better for the Middle East, the Muslim World, and the rest of the world by getting out of our shells, engaging our history and law critically. We need to reevaluate how our faith interacts with political power, engages that power, and holds that power accountable. This is not a call for secular humanism. We need to engage with our tradition in a manner that meets the standards of legitimate interpretation, but also the needs of modern social order. We need to build a religious framework that can encourage accountability and due process.

Addendum: In order to keep everything in one place, I decided to update links to other articles that come out on the topic.

Update 2/25/2015: I’ve added a bunch of other articles on the topic, along with brief comments on each (including those mentioned above). Having read all of them, I stand by my assertions above. In fact, some of these pieces only confirmed for me what I was referring to above. I’ve included everything I’ve come across,  which including this post comes to 20 in number. The summaries below are quotes from the articles that sum them up, along with some of my impressions.

- The Atlantic’s piece by Graeme Wood. The article that started it all.

The responses:

  1. - ‘What ISIS Really Wants’: The Response, A survey of reactions to The Atlantic’s cover story—from think tanks to jihadist Twitter by Graeme Wood
    Summary: A response from Graeme Wood to many of the articles written. I liked it, if you read the original read this as well.
    Summary: Twenty-one points that not only critique Wood’s essay and ISIS’s ideology, buts other issues as well. Most of them have nothing directly to do with the issue of ISIS. Many are a complaint about foreign policy. The biggest contribution is “#13. The Bait and Switch.” This point is the single best contribution to the subject in this piece.
  3. - The Atlantic’s big Islam lie: What Muslims really believe about ISIS by Haroon Moghul
    Summary: Muslims don’t believe ISIS, and what did you expect to happen when you invade a country and leave it in turmoil? The Atlantic is trolling Muslims.
  4. - This stupidity needs to end: Why the Atlantic & NY Post are clueless about Islam by: H.A. Hellyer
    Summary: ISIS has no sanad or “chain” back to traditional scholarship, so they lack legitimacy. Reformations, like Salafism (which the author wrongly conflates with Wahhabism) and Revivalist Modernism have cut corners and created Islamism. Also, Colonialism. Islamism is not Islam, and like other extremist movements will probably go extinct. The key to fighting ISIS is disseminating basic literacy in normative methodologies of interpretation. The author seems to not realize that this is as he admits, what created reformist movements and brought about ISIS.
  5. The ISIS Schock Doctrine by Steve Niva
    Summary: The hybrid doctrines of ISIS (Salafism and Leftism) may actually represent a form of belief and action that can spring up anywhere today, given a set of violent conditions and grievances to work with,  the doctrinal roots of ISIS must also locate its origins in the “ecology of cruelty” in Iraq.
  6. - What The Atlantic Left Out About ISIS According To Their Own Expert by Jack Jenkins
    Summary: He expands on Haykels comments, which are slightly different than how Wood characterizes them. There is a difference between wholesale dismissals based on emotional narratives (which most Muslims engage in) and in scholarly responses (like the “Letter to Baghdadi” that went out. However, see Kecia Ali’s article below.) Its not just about what ISIS wants, but what all Muslims in the Middle East want as well.
  7. What The Atlantic Gets Dangerously Wrong About ISIS And Islam by Jack Jenkins
    Summary: The danger of Wood’s piece is that like ISIS and other literalists groups, he cherry-picks verses of the Quran, and by suggesting that literalist selective readings are “Islamic” he in the end validates ISIS’ claims. Its no wonder then why right-wingers felll head over heels for Wood’s article. Quoting Prof. M. Fadel: “Muslims who reject ISIS aren’t doing it because they’re bad Muslims. They just have a compelling version of Islam that they think is much better.”
  8. In Defense Of Islam by Ross Douthat
    Summary: If we describe ISIS as Islamic we also should give the rest of Islam credit for being Islamic as well, and for having marginalized barbarism. Basically, stop playing favorites.
  9. How Islamic Is ISIS by Steven Mazie
    Summary: “There are better and worse interpretations of faith traditions, and it is conceding way too much to give “behead and burn” the same credence as mainstream interpretations of Islam according to which people treat each other with respect and honor.”
  10. - Beyond Authenticity: ISIS and the Islamic Legal Tradition by Sohaira Siddiqui
    Summary: Essentially, if ISIS does not quote precedent, they are wrong. And if they do, they are wrong, because they don’t agree with “Muslim Scholars?” One of the hard questions that Muslims will have to answer: Is the answer to socio-political woes more neo-traditionalism? While I appreciate the extent the author went to express who she sees ISIS as veering away from normative Sunni law of war, there are still many unanswered questions about the extent that those medieval legal particulars are applicable.
  11. ISIS and Authority by Kecia Ali
    Summary: “The rejection of ISIS on the basis of its distance from the classical tradition and its unacceptability to contemporary scholars who claim to constitute the legitimate inheritors of that tradition is not a panacea…” this method is more wishful thinking than it is based on actual readings of the tradition. Wood’s static definition of tradition (a body of texts) is a reaction to that attitude. I like this article.
  12. – How ‘Islamic’ Is the Islamic State? by Juan Cole
    Summary: Sects are on a spectrum, and while they carry a Muslim moniker they are not indicative of normative ethics of that religion. To assert otherwise is a theological, not sociologial. The failure to not make this distinction is just another form of Orientalism. I like this one two.
  13. Graeme Wood links to this Anonymous Islamist reacting to his piece. Summary: “The truth lies between the two extremes of “this has nothing to do with Islam” and “this is Islam in its purest manifestation”.”
  14. - Shadi Hamid on Graeme Wood’s “What ISIS Really Wants.” Summary: A storyfied collection of tweets basically asks how much we should “…privilege “religion” in understanding religiously-motivated groups.” Shadi is one of the few people that knows what he is talking about on the ME and gets actual air time.
  15. - Nitpicking Wood’s Piece Matters by Andrew Anderson Summary: ISIS’s discussion about enslaving Yazidis shows that it takes jurisprudence seriously but the failure to contextualize ISIS actions properly (for the author: Mongol invasion not early Islam) is the problem with Wood’s piece.
  16. - Enough about Islam: Why religion is not the most useful way to understand ISIS by JM Berger Summary: Saying “Islamic” is like saying “the KKK is white.” Don’t over extend into causality. Religion isn’t the only factor, use identity-based extremism and apocalyptic cults instead of religion.
  17. What ISIS really is: Sham Muslims, real criminals (COMMENTARY) by Bruce B. Lawrence
    Summary: Quoting Juan Cole, “…very large numbers of ISIS are just criminals who mouth pious slogans. The volunteers from other countries often have a gang past.” So who is it that can judge orthodoxy? Again, stop playing favorites. I’d contend that this may be true of the rank and file, but ISIS has courts and other admin positions, so its not that easy. Somebody is putting together the arguments used by the rank and file cannon fodder.
  18. Enough on ISIS Already by Daniel Varisco
    Summary: ISIS quotes Quran; so what? They have followers that are Muslim; doesn’t make them “very Islamic.” ISIS’ actions show they want schock value, not fiqh value. Use of the apocalypse is a self-serving ideological dodge. See the link above to the anonymous islamist. He seems to allude very clearly to ISIS and alQaida not only prophecy, but trying to plan according to it. Self-fulfilling prophecy anyone?
  19. God’s Pious Dictators – or – Is ISIS Islamic? Depends who you ask by Joe Bradford which is this article you’re reading.
  20. The Clash of Civilizations that Isn’t by Robert Wright
    Summary: There are political, rhetorical, and academic reasons not to call ISIS “Islamic” much less “very Islamic.” One problem with Wood’s piece is he selectively uses Haykel to give ISIS more than thier due, but even then does not give Haykel his due. He misrepresent’s Haykel’s more nuanced views, as seen in the followup with Jenkins (article listed above). “[N]o religion is a religion of peace, because all religions can have violent manifestations.” Just like ISIS (and alQaeda) are making their apocalyptic views a self-fulfilling prophecy, so too are those in the West that buy into Huntington “The Clash of Civilizations.” We were freaked out by AlQaeda, overreacted, and here were are. Now that we getting freaked out about ISIS, where will we end up? The author seems to indicate the same sentiment I expressed on Twitter when Wood’s piece first came out. “It used to be called “beating the drums of war”, now its called releasing a piece in @TheAtlantic et al and holding an #OpenCVESummit. My statement may or may not be true, and Wood’s piece being released at that time may simply be a coincidence. Wright’s article was criticized here for criticizing Wood for using a single scholar (Haykel), then ends with quoting Maajid Nawaz. The irony.
  21. The Phony Islam of ISIS or What Muslims Really Want by Caner Dagli
    Summary: Also published in the Atlantic, this piece reiterates a lot of the points made above. He reiterates the mistakes of Wood’s piece in not differentiate between normative and descriptive ideas of what “Islamic” means. The main contribution that he makes that what ISIS engages in is not literalism, but instead exclusivism. This is of critical importance, but unfortunately the author does not expand on this more. The one major flaw of this article is perhaps the almost simplistic way that ISIS’ ideology and actions are blamed on cherry-picking hadith and that “…jurists and theologians of every stripe, Sunni and Shiite, have devised rational, systematic methods for sifting through ḥadÄ«th.” The problem with this is that (as far as I have seen) ISIS does not merely quote hadith, but cites medieval jurists to substantiate their positions. The idea of blaming ISIS’ actions on cherry-picking of hadith also belies those issues that are based on opinions of which there are consensus in medieval Islamic law or are held by a majority of jurists. The rest of the article concentrates on the false dilemma of Muslims either being hypocritically in denial of their texts or willfully ignorantly of those texts which the author says Wood’s article places them in. Dagli does a good job of voicing the frustrations of the common Muslim placed in that dilemma, but does jump the gun a bit in making renunciation of Islam the only alternative. That space would have been better served to wrap back around to the ideas of scholarly interpretation and the need for context and interpretation.
  22. What we talk about when we talk about ISIS by Eamon Murphy
    Summary: I haven’t read it yet 🙂
  23. Why ISIS isn’t medieval by John Terry
    Summary: Haven’t read it yet.
  24. The Question of Theodicy and Jihad by Ziya Meral
    Summary: Haven’t read this one either. Although Mohamed Ghilan seemed to like it.
  25. ISIS: What’s a Poor Religionist to Do? by Aaron Hughes
    Summary: The best of the bunch, I thoroughly enjoyed this article. The last two paragraphs are essential for anyone researching or opining on this issue. From the article: “The task for scholars of religion is to discuss the rhetoric of authenticity, not what or whose Islam is more authentic. We need to contextualize and explain, not to adjudicate and deprive. The moment we … say what gets to count as an authentically Islamic … all those who do not ascribe to them cease to be objects of study. In so doing, we actually end up depriving Muslim actors … of their agency. The critique of Orientalism, thus, turns on its head and engages in precisely the sort of essentialization of which it was so critical.”
  26. Prominent Islamic Scholar Refutes Claims of ISIS’s Links to Islam By Yasmine Taeb & Sina Toossi 
    Summary: An interview with Sh. Hamza Yusuf wherein he says what almost everyone else has been saying. Its a mix of “authorities say” to “they’re not Islamic” to “blame it on the Salafis” to “blame it on foreign policy.” One good point mentioned: “[Hamza Yusuf] points out that eschatological hadiths state the apocalypse will occur when oppression is rampant and Muslims are dominated and persecuted by others”a narrative that ISIS has successfully exploited.” which points to the apocalyptic rhetoric of ISIS. It should not be lost on the reader that a large portion of those texts also point out that Muslims will be oppressed, not themselves doing the oppressing. That’s a point I wish would have been made, that you know if ISIS is spreading wanton violence they would need to ask who those hadith apply to. Probably the best point made at the end is this article: “You don’t fight ideas with bombs. Bad ideas are like weeds: unless a garden is cultivated in their place, they just grow back. That garden is a more tolerant and merciful and truer version of Islam.” That’s a great policy suggestion, but does nothing to help Muslims critically engage with troubling areas of their tradition.
  27. How Islamic is Islamic State? by Mehdi Hasan
    Summary: I skimmed through this article, because at the outset of reading I found the author indulging in what most others have done, and by the end of the article did what so many already: formed an opinion based on the opinions of others, not the merits of the arguments. The gist here is: IS is not Islamic because a whole bunch of people said so AND by saying they are Islamic is to give them the credentials they are desperate for. Well, to do the opposite will do the same! If you say IS is Islamic, they say “Yeh they agree with us!” if you say they aren’t, “Boo dirty Kuffar! This proves we are Islamic!” So in reality, there is no value whatsoever to claiming something is Islamic or not. Being “Islamic” is cultural identifier, not a legal one. There is certainly no legal category in Islamic law called “Islamic.” What most Muslims want when they say something is “not Islamic” is “I don’t support that and don’t like it.” It simply an elastic term that can manipulated like so many others. The Islamic or not debate has been beaten like a dead horse. Better for readers to consider is Cole Bunzel’s newest paper out from the Brookings Institute entitled “From paper state to caliphate: The ideology of the Islamic State.”


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