Believe it or not, we could actually learn something from Islamic State

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the spiritual and political head of IS, is a clever theologian and Qur’anic artisan. EPA/Islamic State Video

Currently, Islamic radicalism and terrorism occupy much of the media, especially via movements such as Islamic State (IS). Because of IS’s hostile nature, Islam as a whole can be seen as inherently hostile. Many theologians could tell you that’s simply not the case.

The problem is that theologians tend to be ignored – which is a shame because they could have much to offer to understanding what drives IS as well as its differences with Islam as a whole.

We – the authors of this article – have recently published a book, Reconciling Islam, Judaism and Christianity, that focuses on precisely these issues. Namely, the theologies that have bound (yet have troubled the relationship between) Islam, Christianity and Judaism for more than a thousand years.

It’s clear to us that incomplete understandings of Islamic theology hinder understanding the forces driving IS and lead us to the wrong conclusions about Islam in general.

The role of theology in our education

Modern, educated Westerners tend not to take theology of any kind seriously. When weighed against the rational methods of modern education, theology seems rather vague and uncertain.

As a consequence, when Western politicians are trying to deal with an issue such as IS, they will turn to what they understand. They will employ diplomats, political scientists and economists, but not a theologian. So we find politicians trying to manage what they barely understand.

This is the blind alley into which our educational assumptions have led us – and why we are at such a disadvantage in dealing with the likes of the IS agenda. Because, applaud or deplore it, much of that agenda can only be unpicked and understood through the lens of theological analysis.

The misunderstood ‘allure’ of the Islamic State

Love him or hate him, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the spiritual and political head of IS, is a clever theologian and Qur’anic artisan.

He knows the power of a sacred text, and its attached theological discourse, to inspire and incite populations to action. Sometimes, those who are incited are alienated, poor, or have unhappy histories, and so are bent on vindication.

Broadly speaking, Western leaders and their populations understand this analysis because it fits in with their educational understandings. Hence, much Western commentary tends to generalise the point and ascribe to all IS followers these troubled backgrounds and motives.

What Western populations understand less well is how people from relatively stable, well-off, untroubled, and often Western professional backgrounds can be drawn into IS ideologies and practices.

The basis of this motivation is to be found in careful analysis (some would say skewing) of the Qur’an and other Islamic sacred texts, and clever crafting (some would say manipulating) of a theology that paints the West as infidel – particularly Judaic and Christian adherents – along with those Muslims cast as recalcitrant or simply belonging to the wrong Islamic sect.

It can’t be denied that the IS leader, al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi scholar said to have doctorates in Islamic Studies and Education, understands all this very well.

It’s all in the theology

While history can be called on to illustrate the message, al-Baghdadi knows it is theology that fuels the fire.

Western states must employ strategies to counter such agendas, for their own sake as well as that of the majority of people in the Middle East (largely Muslim) who suffer at the hands of them.

In a word, we can actually take a leaf out of al-Baghdadi’s book – and develop in our populations better understanding of how theology can work to empower people to do both great work as well as become negatively bent on a cause.

How can we improve our understanding?

A starting strategy would be a more serious commitment to educate our children and students about the religious beliefs and values of those with whom they have to form a society – national and global. Only in a couple of states is this done well, and then only as an elective at senior secondary level.

Greater emphasis could also be given to the teaching and researching of theology and religion in our universities. Finally, governments and community groups could engage more positively and intelligently with people of different beliefs and values specifically about the theologies that underpin their beliefs.

If these strategies were implemented, a natural outcome would be in a greater theological literacy all around. Another would be in recognising that a well-informed interfaith theologian, biblical, or Qur’anic scholar, might actually have important insight on the IS challenge and similar troubling international agendas.

In our book, we acknowledge that long-term troubled relationships between Islam, Christianity and Judaism persist. On the positive side, however, we explore what has happened in the past when such populations educated themselves about their theological differences, and committed themselves to dealing with them in the interests of forming harmonious societies.

The research has led us to believe that such harmony can happen again but it will be assisted greatly if we take interfaith theological education more seriously.


This article is part of The Conversation’s Religion + Mythology series.