Unless someone lives off the grid completely cut off from the world, most people have heard or seen the rise of ISIS (al-Dawlah al-Islāmiyya fī al-`Irāq wā al-Shām). ISIS, or, ISIL is an acronym for “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria/Levant” and is a self-proclaimed state straddling parts of Syria, Iraq and has even gained headway into Turkey. It is infamous for its barbaric practices, exploitation of women and children, as well as, its gross misinterpretation and application of so-called Islamic law. This post focuses on the 10 most important questions and answers students will have regarding ISIS. Note that this post is geared toward kids/teens and a full fledged refutation on the proofs ISIS uses to justify its actions would warrant a separate post and additional research.
1. Who is ISIS and where did they come from?
ISIS is a self-declared “Islamic country” that took over parts of Iraq and Syria. Iraq and Syria are two countries in the Middle East with overwhelming Muslim populations. ISIS’ de-facto capital is Raqqa in Syria and is controlled by a man called Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He claims to to be the Leader of Muslims and he invites all Muslims to join his “Islamic State.” It is pointless to go into conspiracy theories on how they receive military and financial aid. It is also pointless to speculate which foreign government or intelligence agency is behind the creation of ISIS. What we can safely say is that tyrannical regimes and political instability in Syria and Iraq greatly contributed to ISIS’ call to establish themselves as an alternative to the current lawless state in that region. ISIS functions like an extreme militia trying to become a legitimate government. Click to read more about how ISIS established itself in Raqqa.
2. Why is ISIS calling itself a “caliphate” and what is a caliphate?
The word, “caliphate,” is from the Arabic word of “khilāfa” and describes governments that ruled the vast lands conquered by Muslims during the time of Muhammad (pbuh). Because the people around Muhammad (pbuh) succeeded him in governance after his death, its leader is named Caliph or “Khalīfa.” The Islamic caliphate was first established with Abu Bakr. Omar followed him in governance. ‘Uthman, followed by Ali were also Caliphs. Two major dynasties followed them, the Umayyad and the Abbasid Caliphate. The Ottoman Caliphate was the last caliphate and it was a painful cessation of Muslim geographic unity under one political establishment. While other parts of Muslim lands were ruled by regional powers during various times, the caliphate as a whole is a powerful historical symbol of unity. ISIS capitalizes on this nostalgia by creating a “state” to assure its followers that they are true believers bringing back a core tenet of Muslim/Islamic identity that had been lost to colonialism, “sins”, “evil,” and the west.
ISIS fundamentally believes that it must re-establish the caliphate when the Ottomans lost to the European powers around World War I. Furthermore, ISIS believes that by calling itself an Islamic Country (caliphate), it would be a legitimate country that would unite the Muslims and their countries back into one glorious super power. As Muslims, there is no concrete proof from the Quran or Sunnah instructing Muslims to “establish a caliphate.” ISIS engages in many un-Islamic practices to silence its critics in the name of the “Caliphate.” Opposers are killed because they are “rebels” against a so-called “Islamic State.” The reality is that the establishment of such a “state” is not only controversial, but that it twists the meaning of caliphate from that of a stewardship to that of a tyranny.
3. What are ISIS’ goals and what are their main arguments?
ISIS does believe in the 5 pillars of Islam and the 6 pillars of Iman. But where they greatly differ from that of mainstream Muslims is in how they want faith to manifest. For Muslims, Islam is to be manifested through submission to the divine, peace, learning, selflessness, moral uprightness, justice and kindness. ISIS aims to manifest this faith by uniting Muslims under one Islamic government. They think that establishing it is the end goal of Islam. Muslims are to lend their support to support this state. But in truth, the end goal of Islam is not to establish a state, but to create a state of peace and submission within one’s hearts towards God. That somehow Islam and Muslims are incomplete without an Islamic State is not true.
To create this state, ISIS members are obsessed with using militancy and violence to subdue people into submission. People who fall in line are true believers. Opposers are by default disbelievers. Worse, all conventions of decency and morals do not apply to non-believers and opposers because they are not worthy of such. With this goal in mind, they decontexualize specific rulings and injunctions from the Quran and Sunnah and read everything from a lens of “us vs. the world. They usually harp on aggressions and transgressions that happen to Muslims to rile up people to join their cause. To manage the people that live in areas under their control, ISIS keeps them in line by reminding them of the crimes of previous regimes. But because ISIS is an “Islamic country,” therefore, whatever they do is “okay” for the sake of the state and “allowed” within Islam. ISIS believes that they should be able to “force” people to behave and think in a certain way for the greater good. Therefore, they are extra eager in punishing people and making sure that they follow their version of Islam. It is said that ISIS believes that their actions will hasten the end of the world – a shallow and aimless dream. No one can hasten the end of times. Therefore, they believe that the only way is to fight and bring it about. ISIS hopes to do all of this all while engaging in brutal extremism such as killing, beheading, raping, pillaging and terrorizing. For us, the lofty goal of bringing strength to Muslims should not be through violence as ISIS has done, but through education, peaceful dialogue, political engagement, and religious tolerance.
4. Are ISIS Muslims?
ISIS’ leaders, followers and supporters claim to be Muslim. But what makes a person Muslim? It’s simple. If someone says that they believe in one God and that Muhammad is the final messenger, it makes them a Muslim. However, that is between them and God. Nothing makes a person a non-Muslim unless they engage in major disbelief. Thus, ISIS is run by people who claim to be Muslims but their behavior is heretical and criminal. You might think that their crimes would make them disbelievers. People can easily say, “Well, if they really believed in the Quran and Sunnah, they wouldn’t be doing these things.” This is the same tricky argument ISIS uses in dealing with their opponents. Those who oppose them are routinely killed as apostates and disbelievers. They argue that those people, if they truly believed in the Quran and Sunnah, wouldn’t be opposing ISIS. Therefore, they must be disbelievers and are worthy of being killed. To sum it up, ISIS is “Islamic” inasmuch as they claim it as such – a claim rejected by 99.99% of Muslims. Simply put, ISIS members are extremist un-Islamic criminals who do happen to be Muslims. Importantly, it doesn’t make us any less Muslim if they claim the same faith. The best example to give is that of a citizen of any country who commits a crime. Depending on the crime, they still remain a citizen no matter how barbaric or criminal. The things that would make a person not a citizen are limited: treason, espionage, renouncement of citizenship and a few other acts. In the same way, it doesn’t make us less citizens of any country simply because another citizen committed crimes in the name of that country’s freedom, democracy and justice.
5. ISIS says that they are following Islam. We say we follow Islam as well. Who’s right?
For Muslims, what governs our practice of Islam is not what is claimed on our tongues, but what is found in the Quran and Hadith along with its balanced traditional understanding and application. ISIS also claims to follow the Quran and Sunnah. But the difference is that their version of Islam is void of sanity, mercy and balance. They simply change Islam based on whatever justifies their goals. Imagine if your parent tells your older brother, “Don’t let your brother play video games until they finish the homework.” You finish the homework and he says, “Nope. You must finish the homework for the whole year.” Would you accept that interpretation? No. In fact, he takes it so far as to call the national guard to stop you from playing video games. Would you not call him extreme? Of course. The problem is similar, but on a much worse level for ISIS. ISIS leaders and sympathizers don’t understand Islamic law or its practice, but instead, twist laws found in the Quran and Sunnah to justify their crimes in the name of Islam. ISIS represents an extreme fringe group that is not representative of the overwhelming vast majority of Muslims. Muslims do not agree with their style of interpretation or practice. The truth is that traditional everyday Muslims around the world are right and believe that ISIS is wrong – very wrong.
6. What does ISIS’ flag stand for?
ISIS is all about making people think that they are Islamic and legitimate. Their flag says the testimony of faith and an image of Muhammad’s seal he used to stamp letters. They aim to show the world that they are “true” Muslims and followers of Muhammad. Would you accept someone who stamped pork as Halal? No! At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what symbols or slogans are used. The truth is that their actions are a disgrace to the testimony of faith and the seal of Muhammad (pbuh).
7. Why would anyone want to join ISIS?
While the news loves to show that many people join ISIS, ISIS has at most 20,000 fighters. Even if we added up the sympathizers for ISIS around the world, in comparison to the rest of the Muslim population, ISIS represents such a microscopic percentage. The overwhelming majority of Muslims do not want to join ISIS. In fact, people who do join ISIS are people who have very little understanding of the religion. Many of them are frustrated with themselves, feel guilty about sinful pasts, and have been tricked into thinking that the way to solve the problems of the Muslim world is to kill and terrorize. That perhaps they are so sinful, the only way to be forgiven is to kill – a sick way out. This is all from Shaytaan to make one give up hope in God’s mercy by projecting one’s weaknesses onto others and look for fault in others. As Muslims, we do not solve our problems through killing or terrorizing. We solve it through peaceful means. You don’t need to move to a so-called Islamic state to be a better Muslim. We solve it through repentance. We don’t delegitimize others to feel better about oneself.
8. Are Muslims stopping ISIS?
Yes. People in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and other countries do try to stop ISIS. But for us, that path is dangerous. The best way to stop ISIS is by learning more about Islam and not falling into the ideological traps set by ISIS. Anyone who reads the life of Muhammad and his message of tolerance does not need a scholar to show that ISIS is dead wrong. Anyone who reads the Quran will realize how twisted ISIS is in taking a few verses out of context to justify their crimes.
9. Why should I care about ISIS when they are far away in a foreign country?
It is important to care about what ISIS does because they harm all people – especially Muslims. They hurt, kill and terrorize innocent people and they are only making the lives of people in Syria, Iraq, Turkey and other countries miserable. The Prophet (pbuh) taught us that a Muslim should be concerned with the affairs of other Muslims. When people harm other people, we must show empathy and care. We as Muslims should stand up against any injustice.
10. What can I do to prove that Islam and Muslims don’t agree with or support ISIS?
The best way to prove that you don’t support ISIS is by learning about Islam and practicing its true teachings. Whether or not ISIS exists for another 10 years, God forbid, or, 10 days, should not be your motive in being a peaceful and loving person towards everyone. The best form of dawah is by having good character. Protesting against ISIS is only effective inasmuch as one is practicing Islam’s true teachings of peace and tolerance. More importantly, our identity as Muslims is not built on who we aren’t, but who we can be. We must be sincere in our claim that we are Muslims by following it to our best ability. Here are a few tips on what you can do:
- Be careful of how you use social media. More often than not, our facebook/twitter/instagram feeds show what is trending and not what is accurate. Don’t sit on forums and get lost in dumb endless debates.
- Learn your fundamentals (Arabic, Quran, Hadith, Seerah etc) and sit with righteous scholars to learn. Systematically learn from the basics up and avoid cherry picking interesting topics will shield you from developing major holes in your thinking development.
- Be aware that ISIS is not a solution to the problems of the Muslim world. In fact, ISIS is a major headache for Muslims. The solution to our problems is by reforming our hearts and minds.
- Join efforts to help your communities become more united. Go to different masajid. Meet other people. Partake in volunteering. Be a part of a peaceful solution for change.
- If you are having anxiety about what’s happening in the world with Muslims, seek counseling and help.