If Islamic State is based on religion, why is it so violent?
Islamic State’s seemingly sudden prominence has led to much speculation about the group’s origins: how do we account for forces and events that paved the way for its emergence?
In today’s instalment of our series on the origins of Islamic State, religious studies scholar Aaron Hughes considers whether this jihadist group’s violence is inherent to Islam.
Despite what we’re told, religion isn’t inherently peaceful. The assumption is largely based on the Protestant idea that religion is something spiritual and internal to the individual and that it’s corrupted by politics and other mundane matters.
But people kill in the name of religion, just as they love in its name. To claim that one of these alternatives is more authentic than the other is not only problematic, it’s historically incorrect.
This is because religion is based on the metaphysical notion that there are believers (in one’s own religion) and non-believers. This distinction is predicated on “good” versus “evil”, and can be neatly packaged into a narrative to be used and abused by various groups.
An imagined past
One such group is Islamic State (IS), which is inherently violent and claims it mirrors the Islam of the Prophet Muhammad. In this, it’s like other reformist movements in Islam that seek to recreate in the modern period what they imagine to have been the political framework and society that Muhammad (570-632 CE) and his immediate followers lived in and created in seventh-century Arabia.
The problem is that we know very little about this society, except what, often, much later sources – such as the Biography (Sira) of Muhammad and the work of historians such as al-Tabari (839-923 CE) – tell us it was like.
A central ideal for IS is that of restoring the caliphate. A geopolitical entity, the caliphate was the Islamic empire that stretched from Morocco and Spain in the West, to India in the East. It symbolises Islam at its most powerful.
When it was spreading across the Middle East and the Mediterranean region in the seventh century, Islam was highly apocalyptic. Many early sources, such as the second caliph Umar’s letter to the Byzantine Emperor Leo III, as well as contemporaneous non-Muslim sources, such as the mid-eighth-century Jewish apocalypse The Secrets of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and the seventh-century polemic Doctrina Jacobi, speak about the coming destruction of the world as we know it.
The destruction is to begin with a battle between the forces of good (Muslim) versus those of evil. And IS has adopted this apocalyptic vision.
Again, though, it’s worth noting two things. The first is that the majority of Muslims today don’t buy into this apocalyptic vision; it’s mainly something recycled by groups such as Islamic State.
Second, such an “end of days” vision is by no means unique to Islam; we also see it in Judaism and Christianity. In these other two traditions, as in Islam, such groups certainly do not represent orthodox belief.
But apocalypse aside, was Islam particularly violent in the seventh century? One could certainly point to three of the first four of Muhammad’s successors (caliphs) having been assassinated.
One could also point to the tremendous theological debates over who was or was not a Muslim. And such debates included the status of the soul of grave sinners. Was such a sinner a Muslim or did his sin put him outside the community of believers?
What would become mainstream Muslim opinion is that it was up to God to decide and not humans. But groups such as Islamic State want to make this distinction for God. In this, they certainly stray from orthodox Muslim belief.
While this doesn’t make them “un-Islamic”, to say groups such as IS represent medieval interpretations of Islam is not fair to medieval Islam.
The eighth century, for example, witnessed the establishment, in Baghdad, of the Bayt al-Hikma (The House of Wisdom), which symbolised the so-called golden age of Islamic civilisation. This period witnessed, among other things, Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars studying the philosophical and scientific texts of Greek antiquity.
These scholars also made many advances in disciplines, such as mathematics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy and chemistry, to name only a few. Within a century of its founding, Islam represented a cosmopolitan empire that was nothing like the rigid and dogmatic interpretation of the religion seen in the likes of IS.
A powerful tool
Observers in the West who want to claim that Islam is to blame for IS and use it as further proof that the religion is inherently violent, ignore other root causes of the moment.
These include the history of European colonialism in the area; US and European support for a number of ruthless Middle Eastern dictators; and the instability created by the American invasion of Iraq after the events of September 11, 2001.
It’s juxtaposed against these recent events that groups such as IS dream of reconstituting what they romantically imagine as the powerful Islamic caliphate.
The fact is that religion’s ability to neatly differentiate between “believer” and unbeliever”, and between “right” and “wrong”, makes it a powerful ideology. In the hands of demagogues, religious discourses – used selectively and manipulated to achieve a set of desired ends – are very powerful.
While it would be incorrect to say that the discourses used by IS are un-Islamic, it’s important to note it represents one particular Islamic discourse and that it’s not the mainstream one.