Making sense of ISIS: Is it Islamic or not?

Syed Soharwardy spoke for a group of 38 Canadian Muslim leaders who say ISIS is not Islamic.

Syed Soharwardy spoke for a group of 38 Canadian Muslim leaders who say ISIS is not Islamic.

A group of Canadian Muslim imams and scholars recently issued a fatwa against ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), saying that its violent ideology is a violation of Islamic practice. On behalf of 38 leaders, Syed Soharwardy presented the religious edict March 11, which included this sentence: “The behaviour and the actions of ISIS/ISIL has consistently proven that they are NOT Muslims and they cannot be trusted by the Muslims.”

He said during a press conference that “this fatwa is not new; for the last few years, especially for the last few months, around the Muslim world, the overwhelming majority of Muslim imams and scholars have been saying the same thing. During the last hajj [annual pilgrimage to Mecca], the Grand Imam of Saudi Arabia . . . [said] ISIS is un-Islamic . . .”

President Barak Obama takes more or less the same line, saying earlier this year: “We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”

While it is good to see Canadian Muslim leaders distancing themselves from the likes of ISIS, and while one can understand Obama’s political motivation for not speaking ill of Islam, they are, in the end, confusing the issue.

whatisisreallywants1Earlier this month, a visiting missiologist with a focus on Islam and Christian ministry in Muslim contexts pointed out (during several seminars) that the great majority of Muslims are peace-loving and that there are many expressions of Islam. Nonetheless, he said, ISIS and similar movements are undeniably Islamic.

He pointed to the following article by Paul Martindale as a good introduction to that reality and added that a longer article in the current issue of The Atlantic (What ISIS really wants) is also well worth reading.


One of the first questions that many are asking about ISIS is whether ISIS members are really Muslims or not. Moderate Muslims, embarrassed by the brutality of ISIS’s methods, largely reject the Islamic State as a legitimate expression of Islam. They also question whether ISIS militants are authentic Muslims or just thugs and criminals.

ISIS members claim to be Muslims and in their own eyes they are the only true and legitimate expression of Islam carefully following the example of the Prophet Mohammed and the practices of the earliest Islamic community in Medina.

Since Islam contains a wide diversity of expressions, ISIS can’t be dissociated from some supposed ‘true Islam.’ Islam is far from uniform. Therefore, ISIS adherents are legitimate Muslims. 

“ISIS is a deeply religious, fundamentalist, restorative ideology with long and deep roots both in history and in decades of radical preaching in certain types of mosques across the world.” [1] 

One important criterion that can help to determine whether ISIS is Islamic is whether or not their interpretation and practices correlate with those of prior Islamic communities of the past. According to Graeme Wood, “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”[2]

Bernard Haykel says ISIS is very Islamic.

Bernard Haykel says ISIS adherents are very serious about the Koran.

The foremost secular authority on the Islamic State’s ideology is Bernard Haykel, a Princeton scholar. “Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion that neglects what their religion has historically and legally required.”[3] 

In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. . . . “There is an assiduous, obsessive seriousness” about the group’s dedication to the text of the Koran, he says.[4]

The Islamic State is following what it believes to be the practices of the Prophet Mohammed that were characteristic of the earliest and least corrupted community in Islamic history. They are following the Prophet’s example in scrupulous detail.

Part of their definition is that Islam must have a territory and exist as a political entity to be fully realized and present. For ISIS, the caliphate is not just a political entity but also a vehicle for salvation and all Muslims are obligated to pledge their loyalty to the Islamic caliphate once it exists as well as immigrate to the territory where the Caliph is applying these laws.[5]

isilflag1The ISIS interpretation of Islam is not by any means a majority interpretation of Islam by Muslims today. Nearly all Muslims reject the Islamic State’s claim to be an authentic interpretation of Islam. It is also not entirely consistent with the ways that classical Sunni Islam has been practiced in history. 

However, based upon the founding texts of Islam and on certain earlier periods in Islamic history, the ISIS interpretation of Islam is consistent with how Islam has been interpreted and practiced in the distant past. 

Given the wide diversity of expression within Islam, the ISIS interpretation of Islam is authentically Islamic and ISIS members are Muslims. The ISIS interpretation and application of Islam is one of many possible or theologically ‘legitimate’ manifestations of Islam as Wood writes in his Atlantic Monthly article. In a number of ways it resembles the early expressions of the Islamic community better than that of most modern Islamic states.

Once ISIS is contained and no longer has territory under its control, the ‘caliphal’ ideology that it espouses will be delegitimized. Its authority and appeal to the disenfranchised Muslims around the globe will be undermined since its very existence centres around creating an Islamic Caliphate within a territory that it controls. As in previous times the hopes of a Muslim return to political dominance will once again be dashed and Muslims will once again be asking the question, ‘What Went Wrong?’[6]

[1] Beating Back ISIS, Dr. Martin Accad, February 29, 2015, Director of Middle East Studies, Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, on-line article,

[2] What ISIS Really Wants, Atlantic Monthly, March 2015, p. 81.

[3] Ibid, p. 83.

[4] Ibid, p. 82.

[5] The Caliph of the Islamic State is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

[6]  What Went Wrong?  Bernard Lewis, 2002, Oxford University Press.  For an excellent treatment of radical Islamic ideologies from a moderate Muslim scholar’s perspective see: Islamism and Islam, Bassam Tibi, 2012, Yale University Press.

Dr. Paul Martindale is an adjunct assistant professor in Islamic Studies and Cross-Cultural Ministries at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. This article first appeared on COMMA and is re-posted by permission.

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