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Major ISIS leader abandons Islam

A lack of trust in the Quran led to his decision

Robert Cerantonio when he was taken into custody in the Philippines in 2014 Associated Press

Major ISIS leader abandons Islam

Australian citizen Robert Cerantonio converted to Islam when he was 17. Describing his conversion, he said he was “Catholic by name only” and “didn’t go to church except on Christmas or Easter,” but as a teenager, he was surrounded by Muslim friends who called him to Islam, and he simply converted. In his conversion, he appears to have known neither Christianity nor Islam.

When ISIS declared the establishment of the new Islamic caliphate in 2014, Cerantonio joined the terrorist group and quickly became its leading recruiter in Australia, due to his charisma and reliance on Islamic texts and historical examples from Muhammad’s life. He also supervised the translations of ISIS propaganda articles into English because of his language skills. A jihadist par excellence, Cerantonio attempted to travel from Australia to fight among the warriors of ISIS, but he was arrested. He has been in prison since 2016 and is supposed to be released in a year.

However, in a surprising report, Cerantonio declared he is now convinced that Islam is a false religion and that ISIS has committed unforgivable atrocities against humanity. Consequently, he has openly abandoned Islam and renounced ISIS.

“Seeing individuals dedicate themselves to tyrannical death cults led by suicidal maniacs is bad enough,” Cerantonio said, lamenting his years as a part of ISIS. “Knowing that I may have contributed to their choices is terrible.” According to Islamic law, he’s an apostate from Islam—a capital crime punishable by death.

But why did he abandon Islam, and what made the ISIS ideology appealing to him in the first place?

Cerantonio rejected Islam once his trust in the authenticity and reliability of the Quran vanished. He said he studied the Quran critically and deduced, “The Quran was not divinely inspired.” He discovered that the author of the Quran “plagiarized” a pre-Islamic fictional Aramaic account.

This realization clearly shocked Cerantonio, but why?

The vast majority of Muslims believe a lie about their book—that the Quran is the only divinely preserved scripture. They believe it is unmatched, errorless, authentic, and unchanged, while all other scriptures—including the Bible—are considered corrupt and altered. Muslim scholars have advanced this erroneous claim for more than 12 centuries, and it has driven multitudes to embrace the religion of the supposedly unmatched Quran. But this mistaken knowledge can only flourish in a soil of ignorance. Once Muslims, like Cerantonio, begin to read the Quran critically and subject it to scrutiny, the eventual rejection is imminent.

ISIS appeals to Muslim enthusiasts because of its close adherence to Islamic texts.

But what made ISIS appealing to Cerantonio after his conversion to Islam?

He reveals that ISIS was attractive to him because it follows Islamic texts as written. For him, the practices of “mass murder and sex slavery” were supported by religious teaching and “consistent with the religion.” While many—especially in the West—may claim that these atrocities have nothing to do with Islam, Cerantonio is clear: Extremist jihadists are on solid theological ground, based upon the Quran.

Cerantonio mocks Western attempts to restore extremists to “true Islam.” For him, programs calling extremists to “moderate Islam” are simply “idiotic” and “all rubbish.” He explains that jihadists can rely on sacred Muslim accounts and easily refute all objections to jihadism. They can read the Quran.

Cerantonio’s words reveal a major reason why ISIS appeals to many Muslims. When they long to apply Islamic texts as written, these groups offer fertile soil by pointing to the Quran and Muhammad’s life and stating they follow and apply them literally. Clearly, these groups are only radical in the eyes of those who take Islamic texts less literally.

This attractive appeal of ISIS to Cerantonio is not an exception. Other examples exist of Muslims swayed by the text-based justification for violence.

Canadian citizen Abu Osama (this is his Muslim name, which he adopted after his conversion to Islam) described his reason for joining ISIS in an interview in 2014: “No one recruited me, actually no one spoke or said a word to me, all I did I opened the newspaper, I read the Quran—very easy.” The same reason is evident in the example of a female recruit. She was asked in an interview why she joined ISIS, and she said the recruiter promised, “We are going to properly implement Islam.”

ISIS appeals to Muslim enthusiasts because of its close adherence to Islamic texts. While other nonreligious factors might drive some Muslims to join extremist groups, it is implausible to deny the theological appeal.

Cerantonio did not renounce ISIS because of its atrocities, he did so because his trust in Islam, its texts, and its claims collapsed. As for ISIS, we should be warned. The group might have been crippled militarily and politically for now, but the driving ideology is still vivid and alive—even as it preaches a doctrine that kills.

A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.

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