Does ISIS represent Islam or Muslims?
Since the events of September 11, 2001, I have been keeping track of the reactions of Islamic institutions and organizations located in the Middle East and across the Western World. These reactions remained mostly unchanged throughout the dozens of terrorist incidents committed by Muslims against Western targets, starting with the events of September 11 in 2001 and ending with the Paris attacks and the San Bernardino shooting in 2015. The reactions followed three predictable patterns: the first emphasized the justification angle, i.e. we condemn the attacks, but the fact is that Muslims are being oppressed in Palestine and later in Afghanistan, then in Iraq and finally in Syria; the second pattern focused on reminding the Western World that al-Qaeda does not represent Islam, Boko Haram does not represent Islam, and ISIS also does not represent Islam; and the third took the form of warnings against any attacks on Muslims or Mosques in the West.
None of this was surprising since Islamic organizations and institutions are known for showing little concern for the truth as they blindly defend their faith. What was surprising was President Obama’s conviction that ISIS did not represent Islam. This either means that he does not know Islam as well as he thinks, or that he knows, but his selective truth-telling is meant to convey a completely positive and innocent image of Islam, in a way that brings to mind the reactions of Islamic countries and organizations.
It should be noted that many people remain confused when it comes to ISIS/ISIL/Daesh and similar organizations, wondering whether they represent Islam or Muslims? Making no distinction between Islam and Muslims, or confusing one for the other is a common mistake. The confusion is partly stemming from Islamic ideology, which dictates that a Muslim’s devotion to Islam must supersede anything else no matter how valuable, be it a homeland, community, ethnicity, duty, accomplishment, relations or ties of any sort. Thus, Muslims are sort of confined into an “Islamic bubble”, where they are first and foremost defined by their religion. This is the core of Islamic ideology, whether old or contemporary, which may explain how easy it is to mix up Muslims with Islam, to the point where any criticism of Islam as a religion is considered an abuse of Muslim people!!!
On one hand, it is true that ISIS does not represent Muslims, because Muslims are widespread across the religious spectrum, in between moderates, conservatives, extremists, and terrorists. In many cases, research and intelligence data estimates that 10% -15% of the Muslim population are extremists, while religious conservatives make up about 30% of the Muslim population (a conservative Muslim is considered a potential extremist, while a Muslim extremist is a potential terrorist, so terrorism may begin with the conservative and culminate with the terrorist). The remaining Muslims (more than 50% of the Muslim population) are on various spectrums due to their interaction with different cultures and civilizations and the influence of those cultures, which makes them more a product of the human community rather than the Islamic community.
On the other hand, ISIS does represent Islam, which is a fact acknowledged by scholars who have studied Islam and Islamic history. It is not unreasonable to claim that ISIS represents the essence of Islam like no other, and that it is the perfect embodiment of the early era of Islamic history that followed Prophet Mohammed’s migration to Medina. ISIS, therefore, serves as an honest and authentic mirror that reflects the face of Islam, providing helpful insights for those who have no knowledge of true Islam:
First: ISIS believes that the true and pure form of Islam is found in Prophet Muhammad’s era, and the period that followed his death under the reign of the four Caliphs. Therefore, it is striving to recapture that time and to literally recreate that early era in full details. They adhere to a recorded saying (hadith) by Prophet Muhammad claiming that “The best amongst the people are those living in my century (generation), and then those coming after them, and then those coming after the latter.”
Second: Every criminal act committed by ISIS, whether burning, crucifying or slaughtering victims, is in accordance to Islamic law, and was supported by legitimate references and arguments based on the Quran and Sunnah, which were provided by ISIS before each crime was committed. Furthermore, ISIS has a highly qualified team of Islamic scholars and experts on Islamic law and doctrine, and its founder holds a doctorate in Islamic law. As a result, knowledgeable Muslim scholars find it difficult to dispute the legitimacy of ISIS actions.
Third: ISIS main goal is to revive the Islamic Caliphate, following in the footsteps of the Prophet of Islam, and driven by his recorded sayings and commandments. Islamic organizations worldwide share this conviction and seek to achieve the same goal.
Fourth: the flags and banners raised by ISIS are those of Muhammad, and their Islamic cheers and slogans are literally copied from the first Islamic era, when they were originally uttered by Muhammad and his companions.
Fifth: ISIS believes in Islamic nationhood, meaning that Muslims belong above all to the Islamic Nation, hence ISIS call to Muslims across the world to join them in battle and to live in their Islamic State. Those who have responded to that call may belong to various countries, but they all share the same belief in Islamic nationhood, and the conviction that ISIS is committed to true Islam.
Sixth: ISIS represents a Jihadi, invading and violent Islam, which began with the State established in Medina, and only ceased during periods in History when Muslims were subjugated.
Seventh: ISIS Islamic discourse is an extension of the main Islamic rhetoric first formulated by Muhammad and his companions, and later echoed by senior Imams across the four sects, and by writers of hadith and prominent Muslim scholars and jurists throughout history. ISIS did not deviate from this discourse, and has preserved its content and spirit.
Eighth: The practices maintained by ISIS, in every aspect of life, are an exact replica of the Islamic traditions and practices of early Islam.
Ninth: The bringing down of civilizations has been considered a legitimate Islamic pursuit throughout history, and is the one achievement that Islam can fully claim. Islamic organizations around the world believe that the Prophet of Islam had promised in a recorded hadith to defeat Rome, i.e. the contemporary Western European civilization. Islamic organizations, from the Muslim Brotherhood to al-Qaida and finally ISIS, have embraced that promise as their main purpose. They have faith that they will eventually bring down the Western civilization, and this faith, which fuels their hostility toward the Western World, is rooted in Muhammad’s approach and promises.
Tenth: ISIS devotion to Islam has also made Al-Azhar, which is considered a key institution in the Sunni world and the defender of true Islam, refrain from accusing them of apostasy, on the basis that they are monotheistic believers who have done no harm to the Muslim faith. An accusation of apostasy means that a Muslim’s faith was discredited, and found to be lacking or impure. In that context, Al-Azhar’s lack of censure can only mean that ISIS is keeping true to the spirit of Islam. It is worth mentioning that Al-Azhar had branded dozens of intellectuals, writers and artists in the last five decades as apostates and unbelievers, yet it refused to discredit al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, ISIS, bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi since they were deemed to be faithful and good Muslims. Furthermore, not a single Islamic fatwa has been issued in an Islamic country to denounce these terrorists as heretics.
Al-Azhar is not the only Islamic institution that did not denounce ISIS as apostates who are acting outside the bounds of Islam. This lack of action and the silent refusal to cast ISIS out of the Islamic fold is a common stance among Islamic institutions and organizations across the world, despite the fact that these organizations routinely use the “kafir/apostate” label as a key weapon against their adversaries, which clearly implies that, from their perspective, ISIS is far from being an enemy.
Eleventh: The fact that Muslims fail to report the terrorists who live among them, and whose whereabouts are well known, strongly suggests that they believe them to be devout Muslims who uphold true Islam. For example, Ayman al-Zawahiri still lives among Pakistani Muslims, and the Pakistani government was aware of bin Laden’s presence and was taken by surprise at his death in a US raid. Most of the Islamist terrorists across the world, whether in the East or the West, are known to their Muslim neighbors and community, yet this community continues to harbor them and cover their tracks, despite being aware of the seriousness of the crimes they are committing or planning to commit.
Finally: We have seen dozens of demonstrations around the world where Muslims strongly protested against cartoons or drawings criticizing Islam, or against a shot in a movie or a statement by the Pope of Rome that they thought was against Islam. One sentence in an article or an artwork that criticizes Islamic history was deemed significant enough to warrantee a protest. If Muslims truly believed that al-Qaeda, ISIS and similar organizations were a disgrace to Islam, shouldn’t they be out in the streets en masse to protest their actions? It is quite telling that not a single protest was launched against these terrorist organizations in any Islamic country.
This brings us back to the argument made in the beginning of the article: ISIS is uniquely qualified to represent Islam since it is faithfully applying Islamic law and provisions, without exceptions and to the letter. Yet, it does not represent Muslims since many Muslims do not fully adhere to Islam nor do they literally apply its provisions … and therein lies the difference.
Magdi Khalil is the founder and president of Middle East Freedom Forum-Cairo-Washington