ISIS a Step Beyond Wahhabism

In a 2014 debate on Real Time With Bill Maher, Sam Harris, an atheist philosopher, claimed that “Islam at this moment is the motherlode of bad ideas” (Real Time with Bill Maher). As acts of terrorism committed by Muslims have increased, this sentiment has grown among the general public. These Muslims profess Islamism, not Islam. It is essential to distinguish the two. Islamism is a political ideology that seeks to establish sharia law (referenced to as God’s law) worldwide through literal submission. This is contrary to the Quran’s teachings which emphasizes that “there is no compulsion in religion” (Letter to Baghdadi, 19). Terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) disregard such verses that clearly nullify their political aspirations and horrid actions. ISIS’s goal is to expand its current caliphate until it encompasses the entire world. Bassam Tibi, a political scientist and Professor of International Relations, argues that such an objective “is not faith but the imposition of a political system in the name of faith”(Tibi, 3). Muslims and non-Muslims, who do not follow the fringe version of “Islam” that ISIS adheres to, are labeled as apostates and subjected to death. Such beliefs and ideologies are inspired by the ultra-conservative Wahhabi movement which falls within the broader sphere of Islamic fundamentalism (Mirbagheri, 29). ISIS has taken liberties that Wahhabism would otherwise not allow. It elevates lesser jihad, which involves warfare and militant action, over its preferred alternative, the greater jihad, which focuses on a more individualistic spiritual fight (Mirbagheri, 137). The group chooses violence as its preferred method of re-establishing Islamic hierarchy in the world. This is in stark contrast to another recent movement occurring within the religion known as Islamic modernism which is classified by “the reform of Islamic tradition through emphasis on the Quran and Sunnah to meet the needs of modern society, including its institutions and technology” (Esposito). There is a consensus among scholars and religious authorities alike that Islamists organizations like ISIS are un-Islamic. In an open letter penned to ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his followers, more than 120 scholars vehemently denied any link between Islam and ISIS by labeling ISIS’s rhetoric as purely ignorant through systematic counter analyses (Letter to Baghdadi, ). Religious authorities such as Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, the Saudi grand mufti, have publicly expressed that “the ideas of extremism, radicalism and terrorism do not belong to Islam in any way, but are the first enemy of Islam, and Muslims are their first victims, as seen in the crimes of the so-called Islamic State and Al Qaeda” (The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia). Quranic exegesis is secondary to ISIS. The Hadith which consists of texts recounting Prophet Muhammad’s way of life has been manipulated. The group takes what is written at face value and ignores the context and time period in which the verses they employ were revealed. ISIS severely deviates from Wahhabism as it has perverted Islamic texts like the Quran and the Hadith in order to legitimize its caliphate and ambitions.

In order to understand where ISIS’s ideology is rooted within the confines of Islam, it it essential to understand the different approaches to Islam in relation to the conjunction of politics and religion. In his book, War and Peace in Islam: A Critique of Islamic/ist Political Discourses, Farid Mirbagheri cites establishment Islam, political Islam, and liberalist Islam as three different variants of the religion. He defines establishment Islam (a modern example being Iran) as being comprised of “traditionalism, adherence to jurisprudence and a belief in historicity of shari’a, whereby religious law is immune to socio-political developments and evolution” (Mirbagheri, 20. There is a clear clerical hierarchy within establishment Islam where the ulema (religious scholars) have final say on religious matters. As Mirbagheri points out, there is a general separation between politics and religion within establishment Islam. Violence for the sake of the proselytizing and religious dominance is forbidden in this approach. Historically, most Islamic empires have practiced establishment Islam (Mirbagheri, 17).

Eventually, as European colonialism tilted power and economic stability to the West in contrast to the ever weakening Islamic world (which coincided with the fortunes of the Ottoman empire), Mirbagheri observes a new strain of Islamic thought coming into the fold, the advent of political Islam (Mirbagheri, 21). He is sure to make a clear distinction between the two key players within political Islam, the Islamic revivalists and Islamist reactionaries. The Islamic revival movement, in the contemporary sense, can be attributed to Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) who was the founder of Wahhabism (Böwering, 231). Al-Wahhab stressed the oneness of God and aimed for a purification of the faith by returning to the teachings of Prophet Muhammad and the early Muslims (Böwering, 231). This message carried a greater weight in later centuries as revivalists sought to “avert the westoxification of Muslims” (Mirbagheri, 21). Modern twentieth century revivalists such as Muhammad Iqbal of Pakistan and Hassan-al-Banna in Egypt were not preoccupied with militarism as a means to “restore the glory of the past”(Mirbagheri, 22). Their approach was “intellectual in nature” with an emphasis on “pure and undiluted Islamic values that they believed would rescue Muslims from their plight (a politically subjugated, economically poorer and technologically backward status compared to the West)” (Mirbagheri, 21). Although it called for ideological reformation within Islam, Islamic revivalism did not have established ulema at the helm of its movement thus allowing scholars to question the legitimacy of its creed (Mirbagheri, 21). Without these authoritative religious figures, any “regular joe” who had the ears of the youth could employ Islamic texts as a way to create fervour for political aspirations. This is how Islamist reactionaries (examples are ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda) came to be. They are an offshoot of the revivalists, albeit the reactionaries are more aggressive and adamant about the creation of a caliphate (Mirbagheri, 23. Islamist reactionaries brought with them a new founded obsession with concept of jihad. Mirbagheri notes that “the beginning of this trend may be marked with the Islamic revolution in Iran, what solidified the jihadists’ call for holy war against the United States started in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation era” (Mirbagheri, 23). Violence and a general disregard for human life became the mainstay of Islamist groups. Hell bent on re-establishing Muslim dominance via a caliphate, reactionary Islam does not dwell on issues that truly ail Muslim society today: illiteracy, poverty, misogyny, healthcare, and antiquated cultural norms.

Political Islam, having destabilized and wreaked havoc in an already weakened region in the Middle East, forced some Islamic scholars to adapt a new form of interpretation and thinking hence establishing liberalist Islam as we know it (Mirbagheri, 25). Islam at its advent was ahead of the status quo. The problem now is that the religion severely lags behind it. However, liberalist Islam also known as Islamic modernism has sought to bring the religion into the 21st century. The underlying principle of Islamic modernism is to selectively apply aspects of western developments, such as reforms in modern science and technology, to Islamic culture (Mirbagheri 27). The core of liberalist thinking lies in the understanding that while God’s message is “absolute, unchangeable and holy, our understanding is relative, changing and therefore subject to constant scrutiny and doubt” (Mirbagheri, 26). One of the most influential proponents of Islamic modernism was Muhammad Abduh whose goal was to encourage Muslims to reclaim their Islamic heritage through adopting Western knowledge – knowledge that he argued was in fact Islamic since the success of Europe can be credited to Islam (Mirbagheri, 27). Thus, Abduh’s work was mostly geared towards educational reform that would guide Muslims to think independently. According to Abduh, educational reform coupled with a return to ijtihad (the concept of Muslims individually determining their Islamic practices as long as they were oriented towards the will of God) would be central to the process of Muslims reclaiming their heritage in the modern world (Mirbagheri, 26). Furthermore, Abduh claimed that if an existing reading of the Qur’an seemed irriational then a new interpretation through human reason should and must be found. This bold stance placed Abduh at the center of criticism and suspicion throughout his career. Many in fact, equated Abduh’s teachings to heresy. Overall, the liberalists claim that the message of the Quran extends beyond ethics and also “promotes the application of reason” (Mirbagheri, 27). Therefore, from the standpoint of liberalists, the responsibilities of a religious government, such as health, education, transportation, and welfare, do not differ from those of a secular government (Mirbagheri, 27). By meeting the material needs of its people, a religious government will allow them to pursue intellectual and spiritual thought necessary to rethink and contextualize the teachings of the Quran in a modern setting (Mirbagheri, 28).

A subsect of political Islam, or Islamic fundamentalism, is the Wahhabi movement, which has been characterized by modern governments as one of the roots of international terrorism. The Wahhabi movement, however, is not directly affiliated with terrorist organizations, such as ISIS, but began as reactionary offshoot of Islam. During the 18th century, the Ottoman empire suffered extensive military defeats that resulted in the subsequent loss of Muslim territories (Armstrong). This instability prompted a return to the basics of Muslim faith in order to elevate their society to the imperial forefront once more. Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was from Saudi Arabia during the 18th century and is renowned as one of the most influential revivalists (Böwering, 231). Although he was criticized for radical thinking, his teachings were in reality focused on fundamental theological principles of exclusive devotion to God; completely independent from the more radical school of thought (ijtihad) that grants individual agency in Quranic interpretation. In fact, he “wished to institute what might be termed a regime of godliness, but not the historical caliphate nor a particular political formation” (Böwering, 231). According to various scholars, “the waging of violent jihad is not inherently associated with puritanical Islamic beliefs” that self-identified Wahhabis align with (Blanchard, 3). As we can see, the original goal of the Wahhabi movement was not politically charged but was rather aimed at “returning the community of Muslims to the original teachings of the Prophet Muhammad” (Böwering, 231). It is important to note that militancy and jihad were not a part of this fundamentalist attempt to remedy the Muslim world. In some writings, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab asserted that those who deviate from monotheism should be labeled as unbelievers (takfir) and that there exists a divine edict to combat unbelievers (Böwering, 231). The first step toward the perversion of Wahhabism took place when Saudi leader, Muhammad ibn Sa’ud, took advantage of Wahabi rhetoric for political advancement (Blanchard, 4). In particular, ibn Sa’ud used the Wahhabi principle of takfir – declaring people disbelievers – to legitimize Saudi expansion and subjugation of groups of people along the Arabian Peninsula (Mouline). The Wahhabi mission has continued to be exploited in the past century – namely by terrorist organizations like ISIS who employ Wahhabi tenants and Islamic scripture to justify their political and terrorist agendas, which they claim to be for the greater good.

To understand how ISIS, a self-proclaimed Islamic organization, has failed in regards to Islamic faith, it is important to recount the history and grass roots establishment of ISIS. Since the inception of the group in 1999, Jordanian Islamisist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, like his contemporary, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi decried the existence of Shia Muslims (the second biggest muslim sect after Sunnis) and clamored for a Sunni Islamic State state in Iraq (McCants). It is crucial to note that even fellow high-ranking jihadists, like Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri (both were masterminds of the 9/11 attacks), saw Zarqawi’s views as fanatical and extreme. Whereas Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda were cynical of the west, Zarqawi had issues with fellow Muslims who did not follow an ultra-conservative branch of Islam (Mirbagheri, 52). His loathing of Shiites and Westerners was physically manifested when his militant group, as a part of the insurgency, launched several suicide attacks against UN and embassy buildings, Shia mosques, civilians, and Western soldiers during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Their attacks against the West have become more frequent as independent individuals find inspiration from ISIS’s use of Wahhabist rhetoric.

Terrorists groups like ISIS frequently invoke Islamic scripture in support of their political and terrorist agendas. As a result, a violent jihad has become synonymous with the doctrine of Islam.

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