NOTE: This article seeks to present readers with the vision of the world as seen through the eyes of Islamic State fighters and their wider Muslim audiences, a perspective redolent with religious symbolism and a genuinely millenarian view of the region and of the world.
President Obama’s decision to engage directly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) means that the United States is poised for yet another post-9/11 Middle Eastern conflict. This essay describes the world as seen through the eyes of ISIS fighters and their wider Muslim audiences.
I will use the acronym IS rather than to ISIS because the Islamic State's polity is based on the model of the decentralized global empires established soon after the death of the Prophet Mohammad and his four immediate successors. IS has made Raqqa, in the former Syria, its capital. It recognizes neither Iraq nor Syria, making the term ISIS misleading to those who wish to understand this movement.
The sudden and rapid expansion of IS is steeped in the history of the Islamic world. In the Islamic worldview, the distant past is but yesterday and the future Golden Age exists today. One need only institute sharia to realize a perfect world since sharia is timeless and inerrant. The world of the ninth century when the systems of Islamic law were codified differs not at all from the contemporary globalized world.
Today, the Islamic State occupies vast swaths of land in Iraq and Syria and it continues to grow. Already equal in size to Jordan, IS has the potential to expand exponentially as the artificial borders of the region vanish.
When they dismantled the border separating Iraq and Syria, jubilant IS fighters announced that at last they had erased Sykes Picot, the secret 1916 pact in which France and Britain divided the territory of the defunct Ottoman Empire’s lands by drawing lines in the sand.
The pact created states that the French and British then colonized. Ethnic and religious minorities served as caretakers at the expense of their Sunni Muslim majorities. In the West, Sykes Picot has been forgotten by all but historians. To Muslims Sykes Picot happened only yesterday and the humiliation which it engendered lives on in the hearts of all.
Chaos is the mother of creation in the Middle East. The birth pangs of the Golden Age which the Islamic State sees itself as bringing to fruition must be, according to prophecy, protracted and bloody. The model of the Golden Age, the Umayyad Empire, was born of the chaos that followed the shocking death of Mohammed (632 CE) only two years after the creation of the first Islamic state.
The brief reigns of each of the four Rightly Guided Caliphs, the last claimants of the Prophet’s mantle recognized as legitimate by both Sunnis and Shi’ites, left in its wake a crisis of authority which continues to this day. The Umayyads, who followed the four Caliphs, were tribal in nature and Sunni in orientation. In the eyes of the Sunni Islamic State, the glories of the Abbassids, successors to the Umayyads, carried the seeds of their own demise due to the influence of Shi’ism in the revolt that broke the Umayyads' power.
The 13th century Mongol invasion dimmed the light of Islamic civilization. In the protracted chaos that followed, the faithful could offer no resistance to incessant incursions by the kafir (non-Muslims). Sykes Picot was but one symptom of this centuries-long malaise.
The Islamic world is again in crisis. At such times, the tribal roots of the region return to the surface as the oppressive regimes of the region’s tyrannical rulers dissolve into irrelevancy. Chaos dogs American interventions in the region as the United States is coming to be seen not as the new Crusaders, but rather as the Mongolian Hordes of our time.
In Muslim eyes, for the West there is no god but democracy, and America is its prophet. Each American military action, justified to the war-weary population as a mission to bring the light of democracy to remedy the dark chaos of the Middle East, has left death and dissolution in its wake.
In Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the story is the same. The Americans intervene and governmental institutions and militaries implode. In the resulting vacuum, tribes, clans and families form militias and raise armies of thugs in a struggle for the husk of the fallen states.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder of IS, seeks to build upon the teachings of Ibn Taymia. Ibn Taymia lived in the wreckage of the Islamic world in the wake of the Mongolian invasions. A jurist of the Hanbali school, the conservative form of sharia practiced in modern day Saudi Arabia, Ibn Taymia’s has been revered by Islamist fighters through the ages.
Generations of Islamist leaders—from Hassan al-Banna who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1929 to Osama bin Laden in our own day—embraced Jihadist dreams believed to embody the vision of Ibn Taymia.
For Abur Bakr al-Baghdadi, as for IS, sharia is the hammer wielded to purify the faith from bida (innovation). The prevention of bida in any form is tantamount to the Prophet’s smashing the idols which had defiled the kaaba, Islam’s holiest site.
Also, the Islamic State conducts jihad against invaders and practices takfir to warn Muslims of their sins and to expel them from the faith if they do not heed corrections. Expulsion is tantamount to apostasy which is punishable by death. The Islamic State is breathing life into the spirit of Ibn Taymia in the modern world.
On a deeper level, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi serves as the Amir (religious leader) of the Islamic State. The teachings of the Quran and hadith (non-inspired sayings of the Prophet) however, suggest that he may be something greater still.
It is said in hadith that in the Last Days a Mahdi will emerge from the family of the Prophet to lead the faithful to victory over the Dajjal (anti-Christ figure) and his armies in order to bring about an ideal world in which all Muslims live in perfect surrender to the Will of God.
Could it be mere coincidence that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is a member of the Koreish bloodline, the tribe of Mohammed, and descends from many of the other Arabian tribes of the Prophet’s day? And is it not the case that in the chaos that engulfs the Islamic world, the signs of the End exist in profusion?
Even Abu Bakr’s name carries the echoes of Islamic glory. Abu Bakr was the name of Mohammed’s father-in-law, the first successor to the Prophet. This Abu Bakr preserved Islam from dissolution when many of the new Muslims felt that Mohammed’s death annulled their baya (oath of allegiance). They departed Mecca to return to their tribes but Abu Bakr used force to return the Arif (lost camels) to the bosom of the faith.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Abu Bakr of our day, survived American persecution and prisons, and broke with Al Qaeda when they would not abandon their fixation with taking power in individual countries. He can lay greater claim to legitimate authority than any leader in the Middle East.
Hadith reveals that God will send Mahdis of two kinds. Every hundred years God will select a Mahdi who will fight against the falling away of Muslims and return them to the true path of Islam. At the end of time God will send the Mahdi who, with Jesus at his side, will usher into being the Golden Age of perfect peace and justice this world.
Is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi a mahdi or even, God willing, the Mahdi? Has God sent signs and wonders to herald the coming of the Mahdinate?
The rapid expansion of the Islamic State mirrors the rise of the original Islamic Caliphate which, in only fifty years, grew from an infinitesimally small coalition of Arabian tribes into the greatest empire the world had known. During this time, men, hearing the teachings of the Prophet and seeing the justice and power of the Islamic Empire, flocked to Mecca to offer their baya to the Prophet.
If Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is indeed a Mahdi or even the Mahdi sent by God, it would be a grave sin against God to ignore the call of the Islamic State.
Indeed, the faithful from all corners of the world are coming to help build the Islamic State; men to fight and women to wed the men who have dedicated their lives to jihad. More than one hundred fighters have come from the United States, many more from Europe, and some from as far as China. These fighters have made an impact and their example has caused others to heed the call.
One American recently accepted martyrdom as a suicide bomber while a British Rap Artist, Abdel Bary aka L Jinny aka Jihadi John, is thought to have carried out the beheading of at least two Western journalists. Bary berated the governments of David Haines and Stephen Sotlof before killing them.
However, the battlefield deeds of male fighters are less important than their social media contact with people in their countries of origin. The Islamic State’s foreign-language propaganda is filling the void left by the death of the American Anwar al-Awlaki who was remarkably successful in bringing English-language speakers to carry out jihad at the behest of Al Qaeda.
The importance of the women who have left the comforts of the West to become wives of IS fighters has been largely overlooked. Somali immigrants to the United States have contributed a number of such women. While the US government has done little to stop the Somali women from leaving, a white American teenager was arrested by American authorities as she sought to travel to Syria to join a jihadist whom she had met on the Internet.
Ultimately, it is the children who are born in the Islamic State who will bring its vision into being. They alone will be uncontaminated by the pernicious influences of the kafirsand the hypocrites (the term given in the Quran to false Muslims). Raised and educated in the Islamic State by the mothers of the faithful, these children will grow up to be pure Muslims whose example will draw the faithful from around the globe.
Citizenship in the Islamic State however does not require one to live within its expanding borders. The borders of the Islamic ummah (community) extend to the abode of every Muslim just as the shahada (the phrase which is both a profession of faith and an act of conversion to Islam) can be recited anywhere in the world. In this spirit, Nidal Hassan, the US Army psychiatrist who sits on death row after his killing spree at Fort Hood, Texas, has written a letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to offer his baya and request recognition as a citizen of the Islamic State.
If the Islamic State survives its coming battle with its perceived American Dajjal, its vision of dissolving the borders that separate the ummah will divide the world between the Dar al-Islam (House of Islam) and the Dar al-Harb (the House of War) as foreseen by the Prophet Mohammad.
President Obama’s decision to confront the Islamic State is the ultimate confirmation of God’s favor. IS has for some time invited the United States to battle with them directly in full confidence that, God willing, the Americans will be no more successful in fighting the Islamic State than they were in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, and indeed anywhere else it has deployed its forces since World War II.
The men of the Islamic State have openly declared that “death is the gateway to Paradise!” Be it by life in the Islamic State or by death in its defense, the victory of IS fighters is assured.
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“al-Hayat Media Center presents a new video nashid from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham: ‘Let's Go for Jihad!’” Jihadology: A Clearinghouse for Jihadi Primary Source Material, Original Analysis, and Translation Service, accessed September 24, 2014. http://jihadology.net/2014/06/15/new-video-nashid-from-al-ḥayat-media-center-lets-go-for-jihad/.
A visual guide to the crisis in Iraq and Syria. “Amid Airstrikes Against ISIS, Refugees Flee Syria.” New York Times, September 24, 2014, Middle East.http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/06/12/world/middleeast/the-iraq-isis-conflict-in-maps-photos-and-video.html.
“First Appearance of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi” (English Subtitles).YouTube.com, July 7, 2014.
Vice News. “Ground Zero Syria: Chapter 1 (Parts 1-6).” YouTube.com, September 4, 2014.
Dark, Edward. “US strikes in Syria won’t turn locals against Islamic State.” Al Monitor: the Pulse of the Middle East, September 16, 2014. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/09/syrians-support-islamic-state-refuse-us-strike.html.
Zahriyeh, Ehab. “How ISIL became a major force with only a few thousand fighters.” Al Jazeera America, June 19, 2014, International.http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/6/19/isil-thousands-fighters.html.
Image Credit: CBSNews.com
Author, Jeffrey Kaplan, (Ph.D. UChicago 1993) is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and Director of the Institute for the Study of Religion, Violence and Memory. His latest book, Terrorist Groups and the New Tribalism: Terrorism's Fifth Wave, examines millennial violence among African terrorist movements.
Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.