We need to talk about how Islamic State interprets Islam

Islamic State billboards in Raqqa. Reuters/Nour Fourat

Since capturing swathes of Iraq and Syria, Islamic State has embarked on a cyber-offensive to spread its message through social media. A great effort has been made to block and remove the content, to understand how this information spreads – and to understand why some find it so convincing.

But it is also important to look at the message itself. Islamic State’s claims are not plucked out of the sky. As unpalatable as they may be, they are framed by religious narratives and debates about Islam that have spanned centuries.

A look at Islamic State’s online magazine, Dabiq, reveals arguments built on Wahabbism, a fundamentalist branch of Islam. There are invocations of the founder Ibn Taimaya, “Sheik al Islam”, and references to Ibn Abbas, Ibn Masood, Ibn al-Qayyim, Ibn Hajar, Muhammad Ibn Abdil-Wahhab, Bukhari, and Sahih Muslim – Muslim scholars either collecting, interpreting, or narrating Hadith (the words of the prophet). The broader message is blunt: “Kill whoever changes his religion [Sahīh al-Bukhārī]”.

To claim that Islamic State is not related to Islam is therefore naive, even wilfully dismissive. It ignores the interpretations of Islam that IS presents in its videos, statements and other communication.

Arguing that IS is comprehensively Islamic, on the other hand, is simplistic, too. That is to see the group as representing all Muslims and the different and competing readings and interpretations of Islam around the world. Clearly, they do not.

Grabbing either of these easy, polar explanations for what IS represents will not provide a solution to the problem. We need to consider some controversial issues upon which most of the varying sects of Islam agree in order to understand IS, and subvert its narratives.

Selective reading

For example, IS invoked Sabi – the Arabic term for the enslavement of women – when it kidnapped Yazidi women in northwest Iraq in August 2014. It argued that this was justifiable because the Yazidi are “infidels”.

When reporting on what had happened to the Yazidi women, Arabic media shied away from having an honest discussion about Sabi. Questions were asked about whether it was justifiable to call the Yazidi infidels, but less about whether the practice of Sabi itself was justifiable.

Later, the question of Sabi was raised among Muslim scholars who generally agree that the practice existed before Islam and continued during the religion’s early stages. The debate was about whether Sabi can justifiably be revived as a practice if a caliphate is created – as IS would argue.

Some Muslim scholars tried to contend this by undermining the legitimacy of IS and its self-proclaimed caliphate. Some went further to stress that Sabi is not legitimate in our age – but they were few and far between. They failed to provide a strong counter-narrative to IS.

Scholars of Islam attend a meeting on extremism in Egypt. Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

The Islamic State’s demand that Christians should either convert to Islam or pay Jizya, a tax imposed on non-Muslims in return for protection and services, has also caused problems.

In an open letter to leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, 120 Sunni scholars criticised how IS was interpreting Islam but failed effectively to respond to its claims. Instead, their comments about whether jizya is still applicable in the modern world were vague and contradictory.

They first described Christians as “Arabs” and “friends” who should not be subject to jizya, but then the tax was put into two categories: one against groups who waged war against Muslims, and the other — described as similar to Zakat (a tax paid by Muslims) — imposed on Christians who did not wage war. Having tried to establish that jizya was illegitimate, the scholars had failed to offer a coherent religious argument against it.

There are plenty of other problematic cases that arise from IS activities. Can atheists or apostates be killed, for example, as some extreme interpretations of Islam suggest?

An honest debate

There is no immediate magical solution to this problem. A comprehensive, constructive, and critical reading of Islamic fiqh (the human understanding of Sharia law) and history in all its stages requires a huge collective effort. That effort needs to include governments, religious authorities and other institutions, such as academia and the media.

Such effort needs to start with challenging religious messages that incite hatred or violence. That should include TV channels that support sectarian and ethnic division. These are not only broadcast from Arabic countries but also from Western countries, including the US and Britain.

Given the political conflict that feeds religious and sectarian conflict – often supporting and funding extremist voices delivering the message of hatred among and beyond Muslims – this might be difficult to achieve in the foreseeable future. Still, there are steps that need to be taken to pave the way for this ultimate goal.

People are already creatively trying to shift the extremist language and narratives through comedy and factual programmes. These efforts often emphasise the human over religion or ethnicity.

And messages of this kind can be found in religious texts too – even if they are largely overlooked by extremists. Take the Quranic verse: “there is no obligation in religion”; the Hadith by prophet Muhammed: “religion is how you treat others”; and the saying by Ali Ibn Abi Talib, cousin of prophet Muhammed, “people are two types: your brothers in religion, or your human counterparts, otherwise”.

We need to listen to these messages and use them to confront violence. It will be a long journey, but it is worth all our efforts. If we defeat IS but do not have an honest, critical re-reading of Islam, another group will only come along to replace it.

As the debate among Islamic scholars has shown, it has been difficult to establish the consensus that, even if sabi and jizya were once considered valid, they are no longer legitimate. But that very difficulty reinforces the need to undertake the task.

This article was updated after publication at the author’s request to clarify an issue in the text.