Small Wars Journal

ISIS: Public Legitimacy Through the Reenactment of Islam’s Early History

Fri, 08/15/2014 - 1:20am

ISIS: Public Legitimacy through the Reenactment of Islam’s Early History

Andrew Salzmann

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or the Levant (Lost in Translation), is re-enacting the early history of Islam in order to establish its legitimacy with the peoples of the Middle East. This may be a powerful tactic, and U.S. policy makers must tune their ears to what the legitimating symbolism used by ISIS says.

In a series of essays entitled Theopolitical Imagination, William Cavanaugh reminds us of the critical role which the imagination plays in constructing political power.  “How,” he asks, “does a provincial farm boy became persuaded that he must travel as a solider to another part of the world?” By a narrative about the state, which, despite its armies and offices can only marshal these resources by inspiring “disciplined acts of the imagination,” by training people to imagine themselves as “deeply, mystically, united to a wider national community.” While the West secularized the political imagination centuries ago, evocative religious themes still forge the imaginative political bond for many in the Middle East—and not just the jihadis who do respond to the call to travel as soldiers to other parts of the world. The use of mythic narrative can resonate powerfully with the wider public which values that narrative; by reenacting such a narrative, the actors can gain legitimacy. As Roland Barthes writes, because myth “aims at causing an immediate impression,” it does not matter if one is “later allowed to see through the myth”; the first impression created by the confluence of symbols can be powerful enough to have its effect.  

Some Basic Comparisons

I would like to list a few basic resonances between the early history of Islam and the rise of ISIS by which ISIS establishes claims to legitimacy in Islamic societies.

Surprising success with small numbers. The Prophet Muhammad established his military dominance with a small group of companions, a trope which has indicated divine favor in the Near East for millennia. Annemarie Schimmel, in her And Muhammad Is His Messenger, notes that the battle of Badr, in which the Muslims defeated a far stronger Meccan army, “was perhaps the most important miracle for the young community, a miracle that helped them find their identity,” so much so that “the very name Badr became the cipher for the undeniable proof of Muhammad’s God-given role as leader.” While the exclusion of Sunnis from full participation in the Iraqi government by Nouri al-Maliki, and the alienation of Sunni soldiers in the Iraqi armed forces which that caused, enabled ISIS and its allies to seize control of large amounts of Iraqi territory with little effective resistance from national security forces, nonetheless the repeated refrain that a small band of warriors rapidly bested a larger force resonates closely enough with the story of the Prophet that it easily lends a sense of legitimacy.

Triumphant Return of the Exile. The prophetic revelations of Muhammad were not well received by the people of his hometown, Mecca, and his first disciples faced such tension that he sent a group of them to Abyssinia; eventually, escalating difficulties drove the Prophet Muhammad and his followers to seek refuge in Medina, an event (the hijra) which marks “year one” in the Islamic calendar. Eight years later, Muhammad and his followers returned to Mecca triumphant, effectively ensuring their dominance in Arabia. The choice of Abu Bakr “al-Baghdadi” as a nom de guerre by ISIS leader Dr. Ibrahim does more than associating him with the historical home of the Abbasid Caliphate; it sets up a military conquest of the city which he is “from” as a re-enactment of the Prophet’s actions. Charles Allen’s history of the Wahhabi movement, God’s Terrorists, narrates how the Wahhabis’ own “re-enactment of the Prophet's famous migration” helped to win support for their cause.

The House of Islam. Prior to this triumphant return to Mecca, the Prophet Muhammad established Medina as a dar ul-Islam, from which subsequent raids and campaigns were launched—including the campaigns against Mecca. Although dar ul-Islam can simply refer to a Muslim-majority country, in Wahhabi ideology, the establishment of a truly worthy dar ul-Islam was viewed as necessary for the expansion of the realm. Jihadists who view other Islamic countries or governments as illegitimate can stake the success of their campaign in part on the establishment of a dar ul-Islam from which to launch expansionary campaigns. This belief is one explanation for Osama bin Laden’s own settlement in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. Reports not only of the silencing of church bells—objects of particular disdain in the ahadith which constitute the texts of sharia law—in Mosul, but of Christians being driven from the city suggest that ISIS is attempted to establish a haven of only the purest practice of Islam (Church Bells Fall Silent in Mosul as Iraq’s Christians Flee).

Cleansing of Idols. When the Prophet Muhammad did take Mecca—peacefully, as the people of Mecca realized they were outmatched and therefore surrendered—he ordered the Ka’aba divested of its 360 idols; all Muslims were directed to continue the pre-Islamic hajj pilgrimages to the Ka’aba, now the center of, and restricted to, Muslim worship. While ISIS is joined by established states, such Saudi Arabia, in destroying popular shrines or historic places (even ones connected with Muhammad’s life) in the name of fighting idolatry, the destruction of both popular Islamic shrines and pre-Islamic history in the areas which ISIS controls would represent a new intensity of cleansing from “idolatry” which brings to mind the actions which followed (and furthered) the Prophet’s Muhammad’s own consolidation of power—the more so to the extent that they extract outrage. The curators of the archeological remains at Ninevah, now within ISIS territory, have expressed their deep concern over the fate of these artifacts. (ISIS Is About to Destroy Biblical History in Iraq). The traditional tomb of the prophet Jonah was famously destroyed. (Shocking Moment ISIS Militants Take Sledgehammers to Mosul Tomb of Prophet Jonah).  There is more recent concern about the future of biblical remains (ISIS Is About to Destroy Biblical History in Iraq).

Military Tactics. Fred Donner, in his account of the origins of Islam, Muhammad and the Believers, notes that the Prophet Muhammad’s successor, Abu Bakr, expanded into Syria by first establishing alliances with rural tribes and avoiding “more heavily settled areas”; in doing this, Abu Bakr “seems to have continued… Muhammad’s concern with ensuring control over nomadic groups as a basic strategy in building a secure base of power.” While the focus of ISIS on peripheral and tribal populations may be viewed with derision in the West, or at least seen as a sign of relative weakness, it resonates with the Prophet Muhammad’s own tactics. Do the traditional Muslim stories of the alliances made between the second caliph, ‘Umar ibn al-Kattab, and tribes of what is now Iraq still resonate today? While military strategy is hardly an “article of faith,” sharia law itself draws its validity from the belief that the actions of the Prophet Muhammad, precisely because of his excellence in obeying God, merit imitation by his followers. (Not to study the ahadith on the topic of battle would represent a significant failure to understand some of the logic informing the decision-making of ISIS leaders.)

Visions of the End of the World. In his address to the world’s Muslims after his assumption of the title of caliph, ISIS leader Dr. Ibrahim advised that “if you hold to it, you will conquer Rome and own the world, if Allah wills.” (Rome Will be Conquered Next, Says Leader of 'Islamic State') The ahadith predict that the years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad would entail the conquest of Arabia, Persia, the Byzantine empire, and, finally, the dajjal (the anti-Christ). The drive to conquer Byzantium (now Istanbul) was so powerful that, when the city finally fell in 1453, Muslims everywhere adopted the symbol of that city—a crescent moon and star—as the sign of Islam triumphant. But the full significance of this symbolism is lost on many Americans and Europeans. We do not identify ourselves with Byzantium, and we forget that the name “Byzantine empire” was invented by modern historians. The Byzantines and their neighbors called themselves “the Kingdom of the Romans.” When Dr. Ibrahim speaks of conquering Rome, he refers less to the capital of Italy than to his presumptive Western opponents en masse. By adopting the language of ahadith about the end of time to their cause, ISIS is narrating itself into a “clash of civilizations” in which the West is reduced to the Caesaropapism of medieval, Christian Europe and, therefore, an appropriate opponent for ISIS’ own religio-political caliphate.

(For a committed devotee of the end of times, even the location of the current fighting may be meaningful. Multiple ahadith depict the final battles of history taking place around Syria, ultimately against the Byzantines. One hadith asserts that the last hour will not come until the Byzantines attack Dabiq, sometimes identified as with the village by that name between Aleppo and Antioch.)

Political Imagination and the Declaration of a Caliphate

These actions, evocative of the early history of Islam, have now been crowned with the declaration of a restored caliphate, a move so ambitious that it must appear either bold or ridiculous. To the vast majority within the Islamic world, it does appear ridiculous, but even then the immediate impression, by concretely raising the possibility of a caliphate, powerfully remains, destabilizing assumptions that it is impossible or unnecessary. (Some of this defensiveness over the cooptation of shared symbolism was on display when opponents reacted to Dr. Ibrahim’s black robes—similar to those of the Abbasid caliphs—by declaring he looked like a Christian priest.)

Richard Bulliet (It’s Good to Be the Caliph) recounts how the centuries-dormant caliphate returned to the Muslim political imagination when, in 1872, the Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid II revived the title; when it was abolished by the Republic of Turkey some fifty years later, that abolition created “a shock wave of varying intensity throughout the Muslim world” and inspired international conferences to weigh the possibility of restoration. American perspectives on religion, influenced by Western Christianity, can obscure the impulse behind sympathy for the caliphate. Although the first generation of Christians advocated a (qualified) deference to Caesar, the first generation of Muslims emphasized the importance of the political unity of believers under a common amir or caliph. As a result, Western leaders must recognize that calls for the reinstitution of a caliphate might not be cynical subversions of religion for political gain, but actually the product of genuine religious desire; leaders who sincerely view Dr. Ibrahim’s call as a “mere manipulation” of religious sentiment demonstrate their failure to understand the full spectrum of Islamic belief.

Bulliet rightly points out that the modern Muslim world has developed new structures for realizing this instinct towards political cooperation, such as the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation. Bulliet notes that none of the OIC states “will recognize Baghdadi’s grandiose proclamation,” but he may be wrong to conclude that without such recognition the declaration “will remain meaningless.” Nation-states, by definition, resist higher authorities, and Egypt or Tunisia are no more inclined to recognize a man claiming to be caliph than Germany would be to recognize a pretender to Holy Roman Emperor. But Dr. Ibrahim is not speaking to these nation-states; he has not sent envoys to the governments of Egypt or Tunisia; he does not expect to be recognized by them. He directly addresses individual Sunnis because he is fighting directly for their political imagination—with some success. The video of an address by Houston’s Sheikh Waleed Basyouni offers an “on the ground” account of (and critical response to) Dr. Ibrahim’s success in capturing the imagination of young Muslims (ISIS 1 of 2: A Historical Analysis of Their Ideology, and the Kharijites). In London, the flag of the “caliphate” was recently raised over a housing development (Who is Sister Christine? Brave Nun, 77, Rips Down Isis Flag in Tower Hamlets). Over 2,000 holders of EU passports have joined the fight for ISIS, and some are already returning home (40 ISIS and al Nusra Fighters Arrested—In Kosovo).

Even so, one significant implication of the declaration of a caliphate may be less about what it will compel others to do and more about what it will allow ISIS to imagine itself as capable of doing. While many Sunni jurists restrict jihad to three traditional categories (those who attack Muslim countries, who apostatize, or who restrict the peaceful spread of Islam), a caliph has expanded ability to declare jihad against non-Muslim states. Indeed, precisely by declaring a caliphate, ISIS makes clear that it has global aims.

Disrupting the Resonance of ISIS with Early Islamic History

If the resonance between the early history of Islam and recent actions of ISIS threatens to bestow some form legitimacy on Dr. Ibrahim’s organization in the political imagination of some, a few points can be listed which might disrupt that narrative.

In the first place, one of the jihadists’ most important assets is the dar ul-Islam to support expansionary policies; the “legitimacy” of a jihad, for some, would be connected to the perceived legitimacy of the associated dar ul-Islam.

ISIS needs to suffer a humiliating loss. A lasting military loss would permanently disrupt the mythic power of their rise. It must be stressed that there is no room for the truly chosen of God to suffer humiliation—there is literally no room for “the cross” in Islam, which rejects as a lie Jesus Christ’s humiliating death. (This dynamic animates much of the concern over blasphemy in Islam.)

ISIS needs to be seen as enjoying luxury, particularly to the detriment of its obligations to the poor. By the end of his life, Muhammad was wealthy, but even then traditional accounts associate him with frugality—and associate luxuries either with sinful indifference to the poor or with the domain of women rather than warriors. The reality of this liability is illustrated by the reaction to the expensive watch worn by Dr. Ibrahim in his initial appearance as caliph.

While the protection of Shia shrines will help drive Iranian opposition to ISIS, the extent to which ISIS can be shown to profit off the sale (rather than destruction) of pre-Islamic artifacts may cast doubt on the purity of their deen, in that, if one accepts that the proper practice of Islam involves the destruction of artifacts, ISIS can be shown to continue to benefit from their sale (as appears to have been their practice with Syrian antiquities).

Paralleled to Mecca’s conquest, Baghdad’s peaceful surrender would be symbolically disastrous.


I am not a specialist in Islam and so I can only offer a “back of the envelope” assessment of the religious imagery and logic associated with the actions of ISIS and its declaration of a caliphate. However, I believe that at least this much must be said to escape biases born of the cultural blinders particular to the North American context.

When Francis Fukuyama famously wrote about the “end of history” after the fall of the Soviet Union, he meant that with the end of the Cold War the Western political imagination became fixed on democracy and market capitalism and could not credibly imagine organizing society in a different way. The political imagination of a number of Muslims is not yet fixed and a consensus about political organization in the modern world is still developing.

Our Western consensus can become a real, strategic disadvantage if our own lack of political imagination leads us to assume that free market democracy is the default state of human affairs instead of a centuries-long Western achievement and that when military intervention removes opposing obstacles (like ISIS) Muslim societies (like Iraq) will “naturally” revert to free market democracy. The failure of Iraq—and the success of ISIS—is not just a question of military or economic resources but a question of political imagination, and as a question of political imagination not a problem which military force, such surgical airstrikes, could quickly resolve. While military action may be demanded for humanitarian aims such as the protection of embattled religious minorities, even so it remains the case such use of force alone does not shape a culture’s political imagination.

About the Author(s)

Andrew Salzmann is an assistant professor of theology at Benedictine College (Atchison, KS). He is also a subject matter expert with the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies.


Greg Blandino

Fri, 08/29/2014 - 4:22am

Interesting article, and a small point to add vis a vis the choosing of the nom de guerre Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and the implications of this name in regards to future IS actions. The author covers the implications of al Baghdadi, I'd like to cover Abu Bakr.

The 7th century Abu Bakr's role differs in mainstream Sunni and Twelver Shi'ia hagiography. For the Sunni's, although he is the first caliph, he is considered an average leader at best with a reign of 2 years and some months. However his importance is much more emphasized in Shi'ia a cowardly, schmoozing villain that conspired to rob the rightful Ali of his caliphate and set a chain of events in motion that supposedly led to Fatimah dying. Choosing Abu Bakr as a nom de guerre is a not so subtle middle finger to the Arab Shi'ia, Persians, and Alawites the IS has designated as their main enemy, though with little implication for American/Western audiences. It perhaps points to a more regional focus than the current media coverage suggests.

Osservatore Vecchio

Tue, 08/19/2014 - 2:41pm

Compliments to the author on pointing out the role of the imagination in powering IS, and Western failure to imagine this. Its fighters evidently believe they are fulfilling a myth and this, added to the pervasive cult of death animating radical Islamists, gives them élan in battle, resources and weapons aside. In addition, it makes sense that IS parallels with early Islamic conquests would stoke the support of outside believers. It seems the IS has some strong cards in its suit, and from other readings it appears they are putting together a religious argument for legitimacy that can perhaps be rebutted by specialists, but will nonetheless enjoy acceptance among existing and potential supporters. It will also be hard to show ISIS enjoying luxury. They must be defeated militarily, one town at a time. But they appear to be taking wise steps to preempt a second Anbar Awakening.


Fri, 08/15/2014 - 2:27pm

In reply to by Abd ur-Raheem …

Thank you for sharing your view on this situation, it is very helpful. A Muslim friend of mine also let me know that to a Sunni, Baghdad and Damascus hold an important significance. Anyone who captures them from either apostates or disbelievers, or dies trying to do so, are heroes or martyrs.

Abd ur-Raheem …

Fri, 08/15/2014 - 8:36am

Very accurate portrayal of the connections between the community of the Prophet ﷺ and the Islamic State.

One thing -

A successful armed response to the IS will not necessarily impede their progress or dismantle the religious narrative. It's important to remember that after Badr came 'Uhud and 'Uhud was militarily a grave defeat. However, later on, after revelation from God came to Muhammad ﷺ, 'Uhud came to be viewed as a success.

Verses 135-148 in Surat 'Ali 'Imran were revealed in response to the loss. The purpose of the Muslims' defeat and humiliation was manifold.

1. It gave the Muslims a lesson in seeking forgiveness.
2. It made clear that violating the commands of the Messenger ﷺ whether in religious or worldly (military) matters is a grievous sin.
3. That paradise is the reward of those who are forgiven.
4. Calamities have befallen people before the Muslims and the end of those who disbelieve is always the same.
5. The believers are superior to disbelievers even in defeat.
6. God will alternate success and defeat.
7. This alternation is for the purpose of testing those who believe and identifying the hypocrites.
8. The test is present so that those for whom Paradise is destined may earn it and so that those for whom Hellfire is destined may earn it.
9. Muhammad ﷺ will die, but the religion must continue.
10. God alone decides who dies.
11. If God did not allow some of the Muslims to die, then none of them would earn martyrdom.

If the IS is anything like the companions of the Prophet ﷺ, then they must be expecting defeat. Martyrdom carries the highest of rewards and it is not beyond probability that many within the IS are eagerly awaiting death.

In other portions of the Quran, God derides the disbelievers pointing out to the Muslims that the disbelievers are cowardly and hide behind high walls and barricades, afraid of confronting the Muslim army. This statement is analogous to the fact that the enemies of the IS hide behind technology, through planes and drones. Airstrikes can only embolden the IS as it can point to the verses of the Quran and argue that today's disbelievers are the same as yesterdays disbelievers and that victory belongs to those who hold firm to the religion.