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Understanding the Islamic State
Like its predecessors, the group reads Islam’s history and its foundational texts selectively, choosing the thinkers and parts that fit into its vision of brutality. It is important to remember that, for a long time, there have been other paths.
After every fresh outrage claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS) — like the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels and the suicide bombing of a football stadium near Baghdad, which killed dozens and injured hundreds — a standard debate ensues: does Islam condone these atrocities against civilians? With its extreme violence and nihilistic mindset, the IS seems a death cult bent on senseless destruction. But the group justifies its violence, especially against civilians, with selective interpretations of Islamic texts that are rejected by a majority of the world’s Muslims.
In its slick propaganda, the IS emphasises two major themes: a righteous and idyllic life for “true” Muslims in its self-declared state in parts of Syria and Iraq, and an ideology that sanctifies violence as the only means for Sunni Muslims to achieve power and glory. The group is highly sophisticated in its use of social media and other propaganda to sow fear among its enemies, and to entice alienated Muslims living in the West to “emigrate” to its territory.
Spreading intolerance
But the mastery of those modern tools is underpinned by IS ideologues cherry-picking the sources and thinkers they choose to imitate, so they end up with austere readings of Islamic texts that run counter to a millennium of moderate understandings, including tolerance for other faiths. Like other militant movements, especially al-Qaeda and its offshoots, the IS is inspired by a group of religious scholars across Islam’s history who advocated the idea of declaring other Muslims as infidels or apostates, and justifying their killing. This notion of takfir is central to the ideology of most of today’s Islamist militant groups, who have killed far more Muslims than non-Muslims.
Since the 1960s and 1970s, militant movements and some Islamic regimes have imposed austere interpretations of the Koran and of Islamic law, the Sharia. Contrary to popular perceptions in the West, Sharia is not a monolithic system of medieval codes, set in stone and based on cruelty and punishment. Since Islam was founded in the seventh century, the body of law has co-evolved with different strains of Islamic thought: tolerance versus intolerance, forgiveness versus punishment, innovative versus literalist.
Today’s Islamist militants and repressive regimes — especially Saudi Arabia, which has used its oil wealth to export its Wahhabi doctrine by building mosques and dispatching preachers throughout the Muslim world — are obsessed with literalist interpretations of Sharia and punitive aspects of the Koran, as opposed to strands that emphasise forgiveness. The weight of Islamic history skews toward moderate understandings, but in recent decades these regimes (which also include Iran, Pakistan, and Sudan) and militants have used their influence to breed intolerance.
The Salafi trend
To believers, Sharia is more than a collection of laws — it is infused with higher moral principles and ideals of justice. Sharia literally means “the path to the watering hole”, an important route in the desert societies of pre-Islamic Arabia. Historically, Islamic law is based on four sources: the Koran; the sayings and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (the Sunnah); analogical reasoning; and the consensus of religious scholars. Most Islamist militant groups favour a literalist reading of only two sources: the Koran and the Sunnah, disregarding most legal reasoning and interpretation developed over 1,400 years. This is the Salafi trend in Islam.
Modern day militants like those of the IS are particularly keen to show that they are following the path set by a group of medieval Islamic authorities respected by most Salafis. In the 13th century, as the Mongols swept across Asia and sacked Baghdad, the Mongol warrior Hulagu, a grandson of Genghis Khan, threatened to overrun the Levant, an area of the eastern Mediterranean centred around modern-day Syria and Lebanon. While many Muslim scholars at the time lined up to support the Mongols, one jurist forcefully rejected the invaders. Ibn Taymiyya, an Islamic scholar from Damascus, issued several fatwas (religious rulings) against the Mongols — and al-Qaeda, IS, and other militants still quote those rulings today.
The Wahhabi strain
After Hulagu, some Mongol leaders nominally converted to Islam, but Ibn Taymiyya considered them infidels. He also argued that it was permissible for believers to kill other Muslims during battle, if those Muslims were fighting alongside the Mongols. Ibn Taymiyya is the intellectual forefather to many modern-day Islamist militants who use his anti-Mongol fatwas — along with his rulings against Shiites and other Muslim minorities — to justify violence against civilians, including fellow Muslims, or to declare them infidels, using the concept of takfir. The IS often quotes Ibn Taymiyya in its Arabic tracts, and occasionally in its English language propaganda, as it did in its magazine, Dabiq, in September 2014.
Ibn Taymiyya also inspired the father of the Wahhabi strain of Islam that is dominant in Saudi Arabia today, the 18th century cleric Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who decreed that many Muslims had abandoned the practices of their ancestors. Wahhab believed Islamic theology had been corrupted by philosophy and mysticism. He argued that Islamic law should be based on only two sources: the Koran and the Sunnah. He dismissed analogical reasoning and the consensus of scholars, two sources that had helped Islamic law evolve and adapt to new realities over time.
Many of the practices he banned were related to Sufism and Shi’ism, two forms of Islam he particularly abhorred. For Wahhab, visiting any grave sites violated the Muslim tenet of tawhid, or the oneness of God, which was the most important Wahhabi doctrine. To venerate anything other than the one God was shirk, or polytheism, a crime Wahhabis believed should be punishable by death.
Today, Saudi Arabia is built on an alliance between two powers: the ruling House of Saud and clerics who espouse Wahhabi doctrine. Wahhabis seek to return the religion to what they believe was its “pure” form, as practised in seventh century Arabia.
Rise of extremist movements
Of course, radicalism needs more to breed than just rhetorical and religious inspiration. As Arab nationalist leaders and military rulers rose to power in the 1950s and 1960s, they violently suppressed Islamic movements, including peaceful ones. In Egypt, the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser clamped down on the populist Muslim Brotherhood, and that helped lay the ideological foundations for the emergence of violent Islamic movements in the following decades.
The most militant thinker who emerged from that period was Sayyid Qutb, a Brotherhood leader, and swept up in Nasser’s crackdown. After enduring nine years of prison and torture, Qutb published a manifesto in the 1960s, Milestones Along the Road, in which he argued that the secular Arab nationalism of Nasser and others had led to authoritarianism and a new period of jahiliyya, a term that has particular resonance for Islamists because it refers to the pre-Islamic “dark ages.” Qutb declared that a new Muslim vanguard was needed to restore Islam to its role as “the leader of mankind”, and that all Arab rulers of his time had failed to apply Islamic law and should be removed from power. Qutb argued that it was not only legitimate, but a religious duty for “true” believers, to forcibly remove a leader who had allegedly strayed from Islam.
Nasser’s regime executed Qutb in 1966, and he became a martyr for the cause. His ideas lived on and they inspired a new generation of militant leaders, especially Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is now the leader of al-Qaeda after bin Laden’s death.
And while the IS’s ideologues do not quote Qutb as frequently as al-Qaeda’s leaders have, he clearly inspired the group’s rejection of contemporary Arab regimes and its effort to create a transnational state.
Like its predecessors, the IS reads Islam’s history and its foundational texts selectively, choosing the thinkers and parts that fit into its vision of brutality, Sunni dominance, and constant war with pretty much everyone else.
It is important to remember that, for a long time, there have been other paths.
Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and a former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday. He is writing a book on the proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran.... More
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