What relationship does the Islamic State have to Islam?
“Absolutely nothing” is the answer almost every Western politician gives. For example, U.S. President Obama adamantly stated in a televised speech that the Islamic State “is not Islamic.”
This begs the question: How does one determine what is—and is not—Islamic?
The traditional answer, the Islamic answer, has been as follows:
What do the core texts and scriptures of Islam say about the thing in question, call it “X”? Does the Koran, believed by Muslims to contain the literal commands of Allah, call for or justify X? Do the hadith and sira texts—which purport to record the sayings and deeds of Allah’s prophet, whom the Koran (e.g., 33:21) exhorts Muslims to emulate in all ways—call for or justify X?
If any ambiguity still remains concerning X, the next question becomes: what is the consensus (ijma‘) of the Islamic world’s leading authorities concerning X? Here one must often turn to the tafsirs, or exegeses of Islam’s most learned men—the ulema—and consider their conclusions. Muhammad himself reportedly said that “My umma [Islamic nation] will never be in agreement over an error.”
For example, the Koran commands believers to uphold prayers; accordingly, all are agreed that Muslims need to pray. Yet the Koran does not specify how many times. In the hadith and sira, however, Muhammad makes clear believers should pray five times. And the ulema, having considered all these texts, are agreed that Muslims are to pray five times a day.
Thus, it is most certainly Islamic for Muslims to pray five times a day.
But while both Western politicians and Islamic apologists readily accept such methodology to determining what is Islamic—prayer is in the Koran, Muhammad clarified its implementation in the hadith, and the ulema are agreed to it—whenever the thing in question deals with anything that makes Islam “look bad,” then the aforementioned standard approach to ascertaining what is Islamic is wholly ignored.
Let us consider some of the most extreme acts committed by the Islamic State—beheadings, crucifixions, enslavements, sexual predations, massacres, and the persecution of religious minorities—and put them to the test, see if they fill the same criteria, see if they are Islamic or not, especially in the context of jihad, which has its own set of rules.
The Islamic State beheads “infidels,” including women and children. This aspect of the Islamic State has provoked horror around the world.
Is it Islamic?
The Koran calls for the beheading of Islam’s enemies, especially in the context of war, or jihad: “When you encounter infidels on the battlefield, strike off their heads until you have crushed them completely” (47:4). Another verse states: “I will cast terror into the hearts of infidels—so strike off their heads and strike off all of their fingertips [i.e., mutilate them]” (8:12).
As for the other criteria—the example or Sunna of the prophet and the consensus of the umma—Timothy Furnish, author of the 2005 essay, “Beheading in the Name of Islam,” writes:
The practice of beheading non-Muslim captives extends back to the Prophet himself. Ibn Ishaq (d. 768 C.E.), the earliest biographer of Muhammad, is recorded as saying that the Prophet ordered the execution by decapitation of 700 men of the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe in Medina for allegedly plotting against him. Islamic leaders from Muhammad’s time until today have followed his model. Examples of decapitation, of both the living and the dead, in Islamic history are myriad…. For centuries, leading Islamic scholars have interpreted this verse [decapitation verse, 47:4] literally…. Many recent interpretations remain consistent with those of a millennium ago.
As for crucifying people, which the Islamic State has been doing regularly, Koran 5:33 asserts that “the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land.”
Accordingly, crucifixions are common throughout Islamic history. After Islam’s prophet died in 632, many Arabs were accused of apostasy. The first caliph, Abu Bakr, launched a jihad campaign on them, and many “apostates” were crucified as an example to the rest. In the book Witnesses For Christ: Orthodox Christian Neomartyrs of the Ottoman Period 1437-1860, crucifixion is listed as one of the many forms thousands of Christians were executed by the Muslim Turks.
More dramatically, in her memoir, Ravished Armenia, Aurora Mardiganian described how in the early twentieth century she saw 16 girls crucified, vultures eating their corpses: “Each girl had been nailed alive upon her cross, spikes through her feet and hands,” wrote the Armenian survivor. “Only their hair blown by the wind covered their bodies.”
More recently, people (including children) have been crucified by self-proclaimed jihadis in the name of Islam in countries as diverse as the Ivory Coast and Yemen.
Slavery and Rape
Again, from the highest scriptural authority in Islam—the Koran—to the greatest role model for Muslims—Muhammad; from Islamic history to current events, the sexual enslavement of “infidel” women is a canonical aspect of Islamic civilization.
Koran 4:3 permits men to have sex with “what your right hands possess,” a term categorically defined by the ulema as “infidel” women captured during the jihad.
The prophet of Islam himself kept and copulated with concubines conquered during the jihad. One captured Jewish woman, Safiya bint Huyay, was “married” to Muhammad right after the prophet had tortured her husband to death to reveal hidden treasure.
And before this, Muhammad’s jihadis had slaughtered Safiya’s father and brothers.
Unsurprisingly, she later confessed that “Of all men, I hated the prophet the most—for he killed my husband, my brother, and my father,” right before marrying (or, less euphemistically, raping) her.
Khalid bin Walid—the “Sword of Allah” and hero for aspiring jihadis around the world—raped another woman renowned for her beauty, Layla, on the battlefield—right after he severed her “apostate” husband’s head, lit it on fire, and cooked his dinner on it.
What of wide-scale massacres? In this video, for example, the Islamic State appears herding, humiliating, and marching off hundreds of male hostages (the number often given is 1,400) to their trenches, where Islamic State members proceed to shoot them in the head—all while the black flag of Islam waves.
In fact, the prophet himself ordered merciless massacres of “infidels.” After the battle of Badr, where Muhammad and the first Muslims prevailed over their enemies, Muhammad ordered the execution of a number of hostages. When one of the hostages, ‘Uqba, implored the prophet to spare him, saying “But who will look after my children, O Muhammad?” the latter responded, “Hell.”
More famously, Muhammad ordered the execution of approximately 700 Jewish men from the Banu Qurayza tribe. According to the sira account, after the Jewish tribe surrendered to his siege, Muhammad had all the men marched off to where ditches were dug and promptly executed by beheading—just like the Islamic State marched off and executed its victims near trenches in the video.
The Islamic State is even responsible for resurrecting a distinctly Islamic institution that was banned in the 19th century thanks to the intervention of colonial powers: “dhimmitude,” that is, exacting tribute (jizya) from conquered Christians and Jews and subjecting them to live as third-class citizens who must embrace a host of debilitating and humiliating measures, including not to build or repair churches, not to ring church bells or worship loudly, not to display crosses, not to bury their dead near Muslims, etc.
These measures are also derived from the core texts of Islam. Koran 9:29 calls on Muslims to fight the “People of the Book” (interpreted as Christians and Jews) “until they pay the jizya with willing submission and feel themselves subdued.” And the Conditions of Omar—named after one of the “righteous caliphs”—explains how they are to “feel themselves subdued,” that is, the exact way the Islamic State decreed.
Past and present ulema are confirmed that Koran 9:29 and the Conditions of Omar mean what they plainly say. Thus, according to Saudi Sheikh Marzouk Salem al-Ghamdi speaking during a Friday mosque sermon:
If the infidels live among the Muslims, in accordance with the conditions set out by the Prophet—there is nothing wrong with it provided they pay Jizya to the Islamic treasury. Other conditions [reference to Conditions of Omar] are … that they do not renovate a church or a monastery, do not rebuild ones that were destroyed … that they rise when a Muslim wishes to sit… do not show the cross, do not ring church bells, do not raise their voices during prayer …. If they violate these conditions, they have no protection.
Based on the above exposition, it is false to say, as President Obama does, that the Islamic State “is not Islamic.” Indeed, even in the most savage of details—including triumphing over the mutilated corpses of “infidels” and laughing while posing with their decapitated heads—the Islamic State finds support in the Koran and stories of the prophet.
It is dishonest to accept the methodology of Islamic jurisprudence—is X part of the Koran, hadith, sira, and does it have consensus among the ulema?—but then to reject this same methodology whenever X is something that makes Islam look “bad.”
In the context of jihad, all that the Islamic State is doing—beheadings, crucifixions, massacres, sexual enslavements, and the subjugation of religious minorities—is Islamic.