With widespread news about ISIS selling kidnapped women and girls as sex slaves, smiting necks of non-Muslims, or expelling them from their homes, one would assume that everyone on the planet views ISIS as wicked. Yet not only in the Muslim-majority countries, but also in Europe, Australia, and even the U.S., ISIS has drawn support. The group is obviously successful in continually recruiting Muslim men, women, even children as its members. What in the world makes these individuals love ISIS? Here are three possibilities.
First, ISIS knows how to use the Qur’an. In every possible way, the militant group attempts to support its claims and actions through Islam’s scripture. ISIS’s members use not only Islamic, but specifically Qur’anic terms, verses, and rhetoric heavily. They rely on literal readings of texts in the Qur’an, while their opponents, it seems, depend on various interpretations provided by later Muslim scholars. To support expelling, mutilating, beheading, and crucifying their enemies, ISIS provides verses such as (Qur’an 5:33; 8:12; 47:3-6). To encourage their members to participate in jihad and thus inherit the terrific Paradise waiting for them, ISIS recites (Q 47:15).
Extensive use of the Qur’an by its members is crafted to make ISIS appealing to Muslims, especially those who are unaware of the various interpretations offered by later Muslim scholars. For instance, in a recent interview with Canadian citizen Abu Osama (aka Farah Mohamed Shirdon) on VICE News, he affirmed that: “no one recruited me, actually no one spoke or said a word to me, all I did I opened the newspaper, I read the Qur’an—very easy.” Abu Osama travelled to Syria to join the caliphate, and, in a previous video, ripped up and threw his passport into a burning fire, after declaring: “This is a message to Canada and all the American tyrants: We are coming and we will destroy you, with permission from Allah the almighty.” This is intense, but shows clearly how some Qur’anic passages and the literal way through which they are used in public media and newspapers by ISIS appeal to many Muslim enthusiasts.
Second, ISIS knows how to use the early Muslim history to support its claims and military operations. It is noteworthy to mention that the Sunni Muslims view the early years of Islam not only as history, but specifically as a sacred one. Not only the prophet Muhammad, but also his companions were heroes; examples and role models to follow. The years of Muhammad, his prophetic career, his raids and expeditions, and his first four successors (caliphs) are commonly viewed as the best days in Islam, especially among the Sunni.
ISIS’s leaders are aware of this fact, and they seem to have read their history very well. They quote stories documented in Muhammad’s biography to support their treatment of prisoners of war or expelling the non-Muslims from their lands. They use the well-known Muslim leader Khalid ibn al-Walid as an example to support their three options given to non-Muslims (convert to Islam, pay jizya, or sword), as well as smiting the necks of the enemies. When Muslims hear or see the stories provided by ISIS from the early Muslim history, some do not think critically beyond the literal expression in the stories. They simply think that applying the stories as they are found in the “sacred” texts is to be commended.
Third, ISIS is quite appealing to some as it serves as the fulfillment of the long awaited dream of the one unified Muslim umma (community). With the emergence of ISIS, for the first time in centuries, Muslims from many ethnicities and cultural background can claim to be “one” in Allah’s restored caliphate. They pine for the “golden days” of Islam. They are called by ISIS’s leader to emigrate to the Islamic caliphate, where the Islamic sharia is applied with high precision. This makes ISIS’s message and call appealing to some, especially those who have been reading the recent happenings with an eye on the past sacred days of the Muslim prophet. In a recent interview with an ISIS recruit, Khadija (not her real name), she was asked why she joined ISIS. She said that the recruiter promised, “We are going to properly implement Islam.” In short, the dream of the one unified umma replaces and surpasses every other dream, even the personal and national ones.
There are of course other factors at play, but these religious factors are not to be ignored. Non-Muslims are not responsible for interpreting or reinterpreting Muslim sources. It is instead the duty of Muslim scholars to react to ISIS. Without a doubt, several Muslim clerics have previously criticized ISIS, and recently a collective effort appeared in an open letter signed by 126 Muslim scholars. Yet, the verses, texts, and historical accounts used by ISIS to harm mutual coexistence and religious freedom need more attention and a rigorous, reliable explanation from the Muslim community. ISIS can only be stopped when zealous Muslims are able to find an expression of their faith more in line with Islam’s scripture than ISIS’s expression. The world is watching while hundreds of Muslims seem to be debating within themselves whether or not ISIS really is that best expression. Muslim scholars must wrestle with these textual elements and provide what they believe to be the “correct” Islamic teaching concerning caliphate, jihad, and treating the non-Muslims. Efforts to accomplish this great task are much needed, long awaited, and highly to be commended.
Ayman S. Ibrahim is a post-doctoral fellow of Middle Eastern History, holding a PhD from Fuller Graduate Schools, California.