by Paul L. Heck (June 11, 2014)
Is this another Mali? Will western forces intervene to repel the jihadists? Or can Iraq take care of its own business? Mosul and Tikrit have fallen to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Kurdish forces have secured Kirkuk. But ISIS militants are poised to move on Baghdad. The scenario raises many immediate questions. Who is funding them? Are they collaborating with other groups? Why are youth from across the globe keen to join their numbers? Will they be able to form a viable state on the territories they have conquered? How do Sunnis in the region view this development? And how has the colossal US investment in Iraq gone up in smoke so quickly? Here I focus on a less immediate question and yet one that ought not be entirely overlooked. ISIS claims to be a force for liberation. Its forces, as they moved into Mosul, declared to its residents, “We have come to liberate you!” What does ISIS mean by liberation?
ISIS sees itself as liberating lands and peoples—but from what and for what? At its core, the liberation offered by ISIS is liberation from idolatry for Islam. The goal is to liberate people—fellow Muslims especially—from the worship of creatures so that they might freely worship the creator. This sounds odd. Who in the region claims to worship creatures apart from the creator? All who worship would deny they worship anything but the creator of all and lord of all, and none of the rulers in the Middle East, however authoritarian, are forcing people to worship fellow creatures. But ISIS has its own metrics for worship. For worship to be valid, it has to meet very specific criteria. This is not the place to go into the details, but suffice it to say that Christians and Shi‘a do not meet the criteria. Sunnis connected to the practices of Sufism also do not meet them. But there is another criterion that is extremely difficult to meet irrespective of religious affiliation. In the eyes of ISIS, the exclusive worship of the creator is compromised when lands and peoples are governed by a system of rule other than that of Islam. It is a very different way of thinking about the public good. Does monotheism have dominion over the land and its peoples?
Some might look to other factors. Is it really a failure of monotheism that drives ISIS? Is the goal simply the establishment of perfectly monotheistic worship? ISIS did not emerge in a vacuum, but it is a serious mistake to ignore how they describe themselves. The flag they fly is nothing if not the flag of monotheism (tawḥīd). Monotheism has had different meanings over the centuries even within Islam. For many, it means simply the assertion that there is no god but the one and only god. For the more philosophically minded, it is to speak of the first cause that exists by necessity and that put into motion all other causes the existence of which depends on the necessarily existent first cause. For the more mystically minded, it is the realization that only God exists, all else existing only by sharing in the unique reality of God—no reality but the reality of God! ISIS has its own understanding of monotheism, and its goal is to bring the world under its banner—a goal that in its view cannot be achieved within the framework of the nation-state. The nation-state is secular by nature. It represents a particular patch of earth where a particular people reside with a particular culture as source of its beliefs, values, and laws. It is a nation with its own sovereignty. God is not sovereign. The nation is. This is the problem. In the ISIS worldview, a nation-state might pretend to acknowledge the sovereignty of God by referencing shari‘a in its constitution, but as long as it is a nation-state, its way of life will always be nation-oriented. What is needed is a form of governance that knows no national limits and that can therefore exist under the sovereignty of God apart from the sovereignty of the nation. What is needed is a caliphate.
Some might want to blame the US and its political naiveté. Didn’t the US create the very conditions for all this to happen? The question is on the table. No one—East or West—is innocent of what is unfolding in the Middle East. We are all implicated. But it would be putting one’s head in the sand to pin the existence of ISIS on the US.
What about Islam? After all, ISIS claims to represent Islam. Can we pin it on Islam? That is not the right way to phrase the question. Beliefs get constructed in varied ways. Islam has long been a source of liberation for people over the centuries, liberation from the seductions of this world and the evil inclinations within the human soul. For believers, Islam is the means by which to preserve their personal integrity amidst the trials and tribulations of a manifestly wayward world. The message of the Qur’an is empowering in this sense. It is liberating. It is a source of liberation amidst the hubbub of a world that incessantly invites us to take advantage of one situation or another for personal gain rather than the common good. It is a great feeling to know this liberating power. It demands a response. Muslims respond by expressing gratitude to God. Some go further to share this liberation with others. They call non-Muslims to embrace Islam. Some go even further. Why not liberate the world by destroying all structures that stand between people and the liberation of Islam—or even human life that stands in the way of this goal? Here, ironically, the great liberating power of Islam becomes a force of suppression.
Long ago, in the seventh century, the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad organized military ventures to spread the message of Islam beyond the confines of the Arabian Peninsula. This sounds a bit odd: military ventures to spread a religious message? It was a different age. (But the idea of conquest as a religious mission does continue with ISIS.) The Muslims conquered lands from Spain to Central Asia. They did invite people to embrace Islam. They did require them to submit to the rule of Islam. But they did not force them to convert. The goals of the conquerors were complex. One can speak of two motives. The first was the spoils of conquest as recognized by the Qur’an. The conquered lands were now the lands of Islam, and those who fought were entitled to a share in the success. But it would be wrong to reduce the conquests of Islam to material factors. History is never so simple. It is important to recall that those who led the conquests had experienced a real liberation from the tribal powers that dominated Mecca prior to the coming of Islam. They had also heard recitation of the Qur’an that spoke of God’s promise to them, a promise of triumph and inheritance of the land in exchange for obedience. They were destined to be God’s caliphs in that sense—successors (caliphs) of past peoples who had proven disloyal to the covenant with God. God’s promise now fell to the Muslims.
The caliphate would take dynastic form. Particular clans—Umayyads and Abbasids—claimed the caliphate as their special privilege. But the Qur’an makes no mention of dynastic rule (although a hadith–a prophetic saying–suggests that leadership of the umma belongs to the tribe of Quraysh). When the Qur’an speaks of caliphs, it means successors to the land as God’s faithful servants in place of former peoples who had failed to live up to the conditions of the covenant. And the idea was put into practice. Early chronicles suggest that it was God’s message to Muhammad that prompted the conquests alongside hope for material gain. One report speaks of a towering figure of early Islam, ‘Umar Ibn al-Khattab, who in the year 635 (three years after the passing of Muhammad) exhorted the army under his command to head to Iraq to the land that “Allah promised you in His book that He would make you inherit.” He then cites the verse from the Qur’an that says God will make his religion triumph over all other religion (Q 9:33), adding that God empowers those who support it and also entrusts its people with the inheritance of the nations (mawārīth al-umam).
Another report mentions that Sa‘d Ibn Waqqās, commander of the Muslims at the Battle of Qādisiyya in the year 636, had a short exchange with Rustam, commander of the Persians. (The Battle of Qādisiyya, south of Najaf in today’s Iraq, was key to the conquest of Persia.) Rustam asked what had brought them there. Sa‘d responded that God had sent them to remove people from the worship of other creatures for the worship of God and from the injustice of other religions for the justice of Islam. God had enjoined them to call people to his religion: Those who accept it will be left on their land to govern themselves while those who refuse will be fought until the promise of God (maw‘ūd allah) is realized. When asked about the promise of God, Sa‘d explained to Rustam that it is paradise for those who die while fighting for God, victory for those who remain.
It is not difficult to see the connection to ISIS. Driving them is a particular narrative. (We all live according to particular narratives.) The narrative of ISIS is one that reflects the history of early Islam. What better way to demonstrate divine favor? If we do what the first Muslims did and respond to the message of God as they did, then surely we will reap the blessings of God that they did and thereby restore the glory of Islam. This is not to overlook differences. Whatever one might think of the conquests of Islam in the seventh century, its fighters did not indiscriminately slaughter people. They conquered. They ruled in a fashion that aspired to justice for all even if it was not democratic. (There was no democracy to be found anywhere at that time.) The outlook of ISIS is significantly different from that of the first Muslims. They have learned to be pragmatic in some respects but are in principle dismissive of human life that does not square with their brand of monotheism. In contrast, the first Muslims had a broad appreciation of the value of human life. Nevertheless, ISIS seeks to act after the model of the first Muslims. It does aspire to control territory, but the motive runs deeper. It is piety. It is a kind of piety that is not recognizable in a day when people generally submit to the secular state and acknowledge it as supreme authority in shaping their laws and guiding their lives, while confining the authority of God to the private realm. (All have a deity. Hobbes spoke of the secular state as the mortal god.) In this sense, ISIS militants are not primarily driven to control territory and resources, although that’s undeniably in the mix. First and foremost, they see themselves as pious, other Muslims as hypocrites or apostates for willingly compromising with the world and its ways. To justify this, ISIS uses verses from the Qur’an that speak of loyalty (walā’) and disassociation (barā’). The Qur’an calls people to have loyalty to God and to disassociate from Satan, but ISIS twists the meaning: One is to be loyal to “the saved sect” and to disassociate from (and even fight) all others who fall short of perfectly monotheistic worship. The meaning in the Qur’an is quite plain, so other Muslims have plenty of ground to push back against ISIS on this issue. This does not mean the ISIS phenomenon is going to disappear anytime soon. Whether or not they succeed in building their caliphate, they will continue to attract many who share their outlook and are willing to fight and die for Islam to be supreme.
All this seems a bit odd. To be religious, we assume, is not to fight but rather to partake in ritual ceremonies in which a believing community recalls its sacred past. But whatever one’s beliefs, the dividing line between the political and the theological is always fictional. We all want our beliefs to prevail in public. ISIS has its beliefs and like the rest of us wants them to prevail in public. For ISIS, it is not enough to pray. The word of God has to be exalted over the world. That means rule by Islam. But for ISIS, unlike other Muslims who may also wish to live under the rule of Islam, it also means to fight and kill those who stand in the way of the elevation of God’s word—or to be killed in the struggle (jihad) to do so, thereby winning the martyr’s crown. In the ISIS worldview, plunder and destruction logically follow from belief. Eradication of all that stands in the way of monotheism (as ISIS understands it) is but to pave the way for life under the sovereignty of God.
We all want our beliefs to triumph. All nations have used violence to achieve this goal. ISIS videos are very telling in this respect: Militants call for renewal of the covenant and the elevation of God’s word. They believe that Muslims have abandoned Islam and express a readiness to sacrifice their lives to establish “this religion.” They beseech God to make them prevail over hypocrites and apostates (in reference to Shi‘a and rulers in the region who jeopardize the status of the umma in the eyes of God by failing to rule as Islam demands as a result of their alliances with infidel powers). And they express their confidence in the promise of God. They clearly evoke the conquests of the first Muslims. The idea that they are recreating the sacred past of Islam is very empowering. It gives a coherency to their ranks and makes for a fierce loyalty to their cause that US-trained Iraqi soldiers clearly lack.
Indeed, to repel ISIS, the state in Iraq will likely have to rely on Kurdish peshmergas and Shi‘a militias rather than its own military. This confirms the failure not simply of the nation-state in Iraq but of the very concept of the nation-state in the region. Loyalties lie elsewhere. ISIS has tapped into this reality, creating a pietistic movement that gives the impression of recreating the conquests of the first Muslims. This is very attractive and makes for deep-seated commitments: the opportunity to renew the covenant and reclaim Islam’s inheritance. It is a thrilling adventure for young men, especially those sensitive to the idea that Islam has been dishonored. It is a promise from God. It is to redeem the religion of Islam from the humiliation that its own leaders have inflicted upon it by compromising with the worlds and its infidel powers. It has a biblical echo: conquest of a promised land. But we do not live in biblical times. Yet history is endlessly full of surprises: today the nation-state, tomorrow the caliphate. It’s too early to predict the future. However, even if repelled in the short term, ISIS is not going away any time soon, and attempts at “reeducation” will not work. This is a development in world history that we little understand. It will require us to think very deeply about what it means to live in a single world together. There’s no other solution. But it will take years and decades of patient openings to those we are quick to dismiss as irrelevant to global progress. There are effective ways to establish lasting friendship with people who have never met Americans and Europeans and are therefore susceptible to narratives that would make the West the enemy of Islam. (For one such friendship-building program, click here.) There are those who are dismayed at the recent advances of ISIS. How could this be happening in today’s world? Those who ask this question might be puzzled by the ISIS phenomenon, but they will be even more surprised to realize that there are others in the world—more than a few—who view things very differently and who are not unhappy with ISIS advances even if they would never join its ranks. Do we have the will to encounter one another in a spirit of openness?
That’s it for now. I may have more to say on ISIS down the road.