Is the so-called Islamic State Islamic?

by - 3rd September 2014

A debate has raged on this website among scholars on whether the 'essence' of Islam is what gives rise to the sickening violence in Syria and Iraq, degrading all our lives and politics.

Yet when experts cannot agree, it is little wonder how unconvincing Barack Obama and other leaders sound when they declare definitively that the so-called IS 'speaks for no religion', and in reference to the beheading of journalist James Foley, 'no just God would stand for what they did yesterday ...'

One scholar wrote on this site of 'the battle for the soul of Islam'; a struggle between contested variants of a definitive core that is apparently self-evidently available to us, though obscured by prejudice and 'heresy'. Incredibly, we wait to be rescued once more by revelation interpreted by theology.

Evil of which all of humanity is capable is apparently susceptible only to clerical wisdom. We all hold our breath as men of the Book struggle to find humane resources within a Qur'an that also seems to justify at the right time female slavery, and dismemberment. Allah is after all 'the Merciful'. That it is unclear when or why he exercises this mercy is a moot point.

Helpful then to read some contemporary Muslim scholars on the provenance of jihadism to counter infidel confusion. While so-called IS jihadis work themselves up into a lather of rage against the kaffir, we infidel look into ourselves and find that rage justified. We reinterpret their behaviour within our own worn-out paradigm, since to do otherwise is the heinous crime of 'othering' - which we have been taught is orientalism, racism and Islamophobia.


We have required a degree of religious literacy not available in a culture that has run down its religious sensibility to vanishing point.

Madawi al-Rasheed at King's College, London writes in Dying for Faith that most analysis of jihadism considers it a manifestation of 'religiously motivated violence'.

Such violence is often believed to be caused by radical religious interpretations, economic deprivation, anomie, and identity issues among young Muslim men.

'Although these are important dimensions, they fail to account for the phenomenon', she says. 'Such analysis offers a description of the world in which jihadism thrives rather than a causal relationship between it and such dimensions.'

Crucially, the answer for al-Rasheed lies in jihadism itself: 'Jihadism is a culture with its own poetics and politics.' It is, she says, a 'ritual of life and death' with its own long theological roots. It is also rooted in a particular place - Saudi Arabia - and from there exercises its influence on susceptible young Muslim minds across the world.

Jihadism must be understood on its own terms, in other words. It cannot be reinterpreted through a lens of Western thought or action, though in the global village, they are implicated, but no more nor less than Christendom was implicated in the rise and triumph of Islam in the earliest years.

But this complicity does not fully encompass the self-defined longings for justification, righteousness, and power that always were there and found historic expression in conquest.

This is, as Michael Burleigh writes in Sacred Causes in relation both to Nazism and Islam-fascism, the stuff of religion. Secular discourse cannot begin to do justice to the evil and irreconcilability of the human heart. Jihadis like Nazis live within a thought-world that senses its own powerlessness and finds blame in 'the other' - be that other supposedly heretic Muslims, corrupt rulers, Christians, Jews or most vulnerable of all, religions that are not even covered by Qur'anic proscription,such as Yazidis and Hindus. That sense of powerlessness here finds reciprocation and outlet in the Qur'an.


Jonathan Birt, aka Yahya Birt who did his Islamics fieldwork on jihad discourses as a participant observer among salafis in Britain in the 1990s - i.e. before 9/11 - has recently attempted to look back at that period of British Islam to discern the formation of British jihadis before that terrible day polarised and radicalised all our thinking.

That formation was clearly discernible, was open and known to the intelligence services and the police, and grew under an extraordinary and tacit 'covenant of security', he writes.

Some radicals (he cites Omar Bakri Mohammed) publicly stated that they understood this tacit agreement to be in place. 'Former senior British government advisers on security matters have equally noted its existence', he writes, citing C Black's 7/7, the London Bombs: What Went Wrong' published in 2005 by Gibson Square.

Britain was openly dubbed 'Londonistan' by the French as a result. This covenant meant that jihadis could come and go so long as they reserved their activities for overseas. They were free to return to Britain at leisure.

Birt asserts that these bearded young men in pyjamas, Afghan hats and Doc Martins had to make do with Bosnia and Chechnya for their motivational examples of heroism and suffering around which to bond. '...what is relevant here is that during the 1990s there was enough latitude to enable the ideological foundations for a "grievance theology" to be laid down.'

No one did anything to prevent it. It happened openly, in Britain, sanctioned by British intelligence.

It didn't have much to go on, but enough as a precursor for what we are now beginning to witness.

In other words, there is a mindset created by a sense of belittlement and frustrated 'gloire', or what we used to call 'amour propre', that hunts down a justification for itself.


Far from being just a pointed reaction to the perceived crimes of the West in Iraq or anywhere else, it drew its narrative from the Qur'an. Younger Muslim disdain for the error and superstition of their backward parents provided a context, says Birt, 'that allows me to observe that the jihadi Salafis defined themselves against most structures of authority, whether credal, political, or community based. 

'To most the umma is in error, fallen into political lassitude and credal misguidance, led astray by the godless West; and to uphold her honour, and to establish the rule of religion, the banner of jihad must be unfurled.' This defiance was equally strong against Barelwi piety and the structures of traditional community authority, he notes.

'This discourse moves seamlessly between theology and politics and at the same time promotes the idea ... [of the chief ideologue of the afghan jihad against the Soviets] that the Islamic 'ideology' can only truly be upheld and promoted through sacrifice and the use of violence, attached surprisingly to a very early Qur'anic verse, well before fighting was prescribed', writes Birt: surprising in that the early verses are regarded as irenic.

In other words, an Islam that is demoralised and feels strongly its own decrepitude and humiliation finds and found resources for recovery and renaissance in Islam itself.


Says Birt: 'As the Muslim community has become morally corrupt, it was necessary to look outside for a grand cause - in this case, the cause of global jihad.'

New York, London, Aleppo, Raqqah, Jeddah, Kabul, Sinjar got the brunt for no other reason than that they happened to be there.

The answer to the question Is IS Islamic? is Yes and No.  Islam has other modes and manifestations. Tarif Khalidi, in his recent book Images of Mohammad: Narratives of the Prophet in islam Across the Centuries describes at least six types of Islam that all depend on how Mohammad is idealized.  

And that points to one profound conclusion: that the evils of which the human heart is capable are common to all, and cannot be addressed by the banal goods of addictive capitalism which was thought by serious scholars to be the apogee of history.  

Out of the struggle against the evil in ourselves arises what once was known as civilization and that struggle does not end until Christ returns, as Christians and Muslims both believe.

Evil is deadly and brooks no appeal, yet until recently, the word itself had fallen into disuse. Wicked was a musical; an ice cream.

Dealing with evil is a spiritually discerned exercise which requires leadership by those so gifted, and a collective response which creates a far tougher, more realistic context than multiculturalism has provided us with.  

It is the duty of government and its electorate to recover the spiritual meanings and achievements of 'civilization' - and believe them worth defending and restoring with everything we've got - before it's too late.


NOTE:  Essays cited are in Dying for Faith: Religiously motivated Violence in the Contemporary World edited by Madawi Al-Rasheed & Marat Shterin, published by I B Tauris in 2009.