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Understanding ISIS

A particular tradition motivates and dominates militant Islam

Islamic State group's flag flies in an area west of Kirkuk in Iraq on Sept. 30, 2015. Associated Press Photo

Understanding ISIS
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The notorious radical group ISIS announced last Thursday that it has a new leader, whom they identified as caliph, claimed to be Muhammad’s successor.

The group is known among some as the Islamic State and among others as the caliphate—a word cherished by many Muslims, as it refers to the golden days of Islam, when Muhammad’s companions and successors—caliphs—led Muslims after he died, presumably following his footsteps and applying Islam in their territory as he taught it.

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the restoration of the Islamic caliphate in large parts of Syria and Iraq in June 2014. He was killed in a U.S. raid in October 2019. After him, there were two successive leaders—both killed in 2022, and now there is a new leader.

ISIS is highly committed to Islam in its Sunni version—a version largely embraced by over 85 percent of Muslims worldwide. ISIS has been crippled politically since 2019, but its driving force is far from dead.

To understand ISIS and what gives it its life support, keep in mind one word: tradition.

Tradition is critical to Sunnis and collectively refers to accounts of what Muhammad said and did—any of these accounts is a sacred tradition for Muslims. In Arabic, a tradition is known as Muhammad’s Sunna, which refers to his sayings, customs, and pattern of life. A Sunni Muslim is a follower and lover of Muhammad’s Sunna, or tradition.

But why is the Sunna significant in Islam? Because it is textual and authoritative.

Muhammad’s Sunna has detailed statements covering numerous topics and is considered the second highest authority in Islam, only after the Quran.

However, there is a problem.

The Quran is often vague, and some passages lack clear context. A reader cannot know who is speaking to whom and about what exactly. This is why the Sunna is important.

If the Quran is sometimes ambiguous, the Sunna is detailed, specific, and absolutely clear.

Nothing is random about what ISIS claims or does. For ISIS, Muhammad’s Sunna is the driving force, and its members seek to apply it as written.

From the Sunna, we know how Muhammad raided his enemies, massacred some, and spared others in return for their payments. This is precisely what ISIS applied when they raided regions of Syria and Iraq. Once ISIS identified the enemies of Muhammad and Islam, these became an open target. We also know from the Sunna how Muhammad dealt not only with his many wives in private rooms but also with his captive slaves and his concubines. This is precisely what ISIS follows and why ISIS members don’t find it wrong to use Yazidi girls as sex slaves.

Muhammad’s Sunna is clear in its statements and receives its authority from the Islamic belief that he was the best human who ever lived. While non-Muslims may oppose his behavior in the Sunna, many Muslims honor that image and emulate him. When the world cries “evil” about enslaving young girls, ISIS simply ignores it or laughs, because its members know that their deeds are endorsed and supported by what they view as sacred texts.

This is why ISIS uses heavily ideological words like “caliph” and “caliphate,” not “leader” or “country,” because the terms themselves are highly theological and rooted in Muhammad’s Sunna.

Consider these true examples: The ISIS founder called himself Abu Bakr. Why? His name was actually Ibrahim Awad, but he decided to be known as “Abu Bakr,” since this is the name the Sunna gives for Muhammad’s first successor. Using a name based on the Sunna appeals to religious zealots and advances a clear Islamic message.

Similarly, once he founded the militant group, he promised to conquer Rome. Why Rome, in particular?

Because the Sunna states that one of Muhammad’s main targets was Christian Rome. By using “Rome,” the ideological force is at its highest power since the word itself is so significant to those who adhere to and cherish Muhammad’s Sunna. After al-Baghdadi was killed, the next caliph called himself Qurashi, in reference to the name of Muhammad’s tribe, Quraysh.

Nothing is random about what ISIS claims or does. For ISIS, Muhammad’s Sunna is the driving force, and its members seek to apply it as written.

It all comes back to this important word: tradition, Muhammad’s Sunna.

Of course, this literalist devotion of ISIS annoys modernist and liberal Muslims, who want to present Islam favorably to a contemporary world. They insist on distancing the religion from patterns reflecting the practices of seventh-century Arabia.

Ultimately, ISIS now has a new caliph, but its beliefs and strategy remain unchanged. We know the pattern. While the group has indeed been crippled militarily, at least for now, its driving force is still very much alive.

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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