What Americans — and policy-makers — really need to know about ISIS

Former President Obama once famously declared that “ISIL is not Islamic,” prompting a slew of reactions that he was undermining the ideology driving terrorism. Still, some agreed that ISIS (or ISIL) is obviously a terror group that exploits religious texts.

This debate is an important dimension of homeland security and foreign policy — not just for the purpose of deciphering an enemy defined by ideology but to address the anxieties of millions of American-Muslims imperiled by rising hate crimes

The subject exploded in 2015 with Graeme Wood’s article in The Atlantic, “What ISIS Really Wants.” Wood claimed ISIS is “very Islamic … the religion preached by ISIS’s followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” modeling the acts of the very founder of the religion that “Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge.” Recently, Wood followed up his Atlantic piece with a book, “The Way of The Strangers: Encounters With The Islamic State,” rekindling the debate.

The prophetic model

Wood’s argument is that ISIS propaganda contains foundational narratives to re-establish the caliphate based on what is known as “the prophetic model” — emulating the prophet Muhammad and his immediate followers. 

{mosads}When Muhammad established government, his immediate task at Medina was to forge a cohesive set of agreements to bring the city’s factions onto a functional platform of governance. The culmination of this effort has led some academics to believe this may well be the first act of a state constitution based on freedom of religion, equality and justice, precipitating the American constitution.


The principles were smack out of the Quran: verse 2:257 guarantees freedom of religion, and verse 4:136 upholds equality under the law. The core theological grounds for military engagement in verses 22:40-41 reinforce these ideals. Critically, the Quran (60:9-10) forbids Muslims from fighting less in defense of fundamental freedoms.

The early Muslims were hardly defined by war. They went on to build a highly advanced civilization furthering education and science. Muhammad is honored by the U.S. Supreme Court of Justice. Napoleon Bonaparte said he hoped to unite humanity under the principles of The Quran. George Bernard Shaw saw Muhammad as the savior of humanity. And Michael Hart picked Muhammad as the most influential person in history, not just because of his religious success but his secular legacy too.

The caricature

The broader stroke of historical legend and testimonials of revered intellectuals should serve as the true meaning of the prophetic model, not a caricature purported by throat-slitting zealots.

This caricature is built by cherry-picking verses from the Quran and then expanding into select textual narratives. All Muslims agree on the sanctity of the Quran as preserved and uncorrupted in its original form, but not any other text. Most Muslims view secondary texts with a contingent attitude, and some even outright reject them, since there is no true guarantee of their authenticity. These texts remained as oral traditions for a hundred years after Muhammad, during which time they were exposed to handling. Ibn Ishaq, one of the great chroniclers of traditions in Islamic history, frequently cautioned his readers with terms “God only knows” or “it is alleged” to express his skepticism about many traditions. 

Take, for example, the accounts by Peter Frankopan, director of the Oxford Center for Byzantine Research, in his bestseller “The Silk Roads.” Frankopan states that the extraordinary progress of Islam led some threatened Christian clergy to paint the Arabs in the worst possible light. In fact, says Frankopan, the Arab conquests were neither brutal nor as shocking. 


Per Graeme Wood, mainstream Muslims reject ISIS because it’s a tiny heretical faction in a religion of 1.6 billion adherents. To this, ISIS’s theological rebuttal is a prophecy of Muhammad’s that his community will eventually suffer downfall: There will be 73 sects but only one chosen sect. This would be historically consistent with how religious dispensations and transformations begin as minorities and heresies. And so, ISIS would have the theological upper hand here.

But, Wood misses a crucial component of the prophecy and its pointer to a known history. 

Muhammad prophesied that events will occur in my community as happened to the Jews. In the first century, the rise of violence in certain Jewish sects was so intense that historian Flavius Josephus was compelled to call it the Fourth Philosophy, in addition to the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes. The extremist zealots took on a murderous rage that Josephus describes as an unfortunate aberration of Jewish tradition and a reign of terror.

Ironically, The Atlantic recently featured another cover story related to ISIS where authors Emerson Brooking and Peter Singer wrote: “Some 2,000 years ago, Jewish zealots known as the Sicarii, or ‘dagger-men,’ stalked Roman-occupied Jerusalem. Rather than killing quietly in alleyways, they made sure to slay Roman-sympathizers before a crowd. The aims of these town-square assassinations were the same as those of the Islamic State’s YouTube beheading: to send a signal to as large an audience as possible.”

The Ahmadiyya movement in Islam also claims to be the religion’s chosen sect. Ahmadiyya denounces the violent interpretation of jihad, instead pointing to the historical parallel of Jewish extremists as rationale for why Muhammad’s prophecy of the return of Jesus Christ is allegorically fulfilled in Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908). Like ISIS, the zealots took a non-contextual view of the military successes of early Jewish leaders, murderously cleansed the holy land of Romans, infidels and apostates, and believed the end of the world was nigh with the imminent arrival of the Messiah and a war of global conquest. 

In conclusion, this would provide an intellectual and historically vetted alternative to the narrative of Graeme Wood’s ISIS fanboys or ISIS’s own theologians. For now, rhetorically, the right thing to do for American politicians, policy-makers and the larger public would be to side with President Obama’s statement: “ISIL is not Islamic, nor is it a state.”


Amer Aziz is a member of The Muslim Writers Guild of America and blogs at The Huffington Post and OnFaith. The views expressed here are solely his own. Follow him @WriterForAhmad

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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