Is ISIS Actually Islamic?

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ISIS has been at the center of media attention since the group began taking over and controlling large portions of land in Iraq last summer, but amid this coverage, several important misconceptions about the organization and its goals have emerged.

The Atlantic recently published an article titled “What ISIS Really Wants,” which discusses the group’s underlying ideology and the misconceptions about it in the western world. Writer Graeme Wood carefully researched the organization by studying nearly every available source of information about it. Central to Wood’s article is the idea that the Islamic State adheres to established Islamic texts and principles and is not simply a group of crazy people twisting religion to support their blood lust.

While the claim that the Islamic State is Islamic may not be surprising–most radical extremist groups tie their goals to religion one way or another–Wood takes ISIS’ connection to Islam a step further. He says,

“The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”

This argument is important to understanding ISIS–religion clearly plays a vital role in its actions and recruiting strategy–but this quote and the implicit argument throughout his article has dangerous implications for the religion of Islam. While Wood does not make the outright claim that Islam is a violent religion, many readers have interpreted it that way. As a result, some variation of this logic arises: ISIS is the purest manifestation of Islam, and peaceful Muslims are somehow less faithful to their religion.

That argument, however, is a dramatic mischaracterization of the Islamic State and is a serious insult to the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world.

I am not an expert on Islam, and determining the proper way to interpret the Quran and its foundational texts should be left to Islamic clerics and individual Muslims. Historically, there have been many different interpretations of Islam, and while ISIS’ ideology represents one interpretation that does not mean it is right or even valid. Not only do clerics believe ISIS misinterprets many of Islam’s sacred texts, they also note that the group’s “literal” interpretation is very exclusive. The passages that the Islamic State chooses to justify its actions are very specific, and the group ignores those that may conflict with its actions.

Nearly all of the world’s Muslims reject the Islamic State and its abhorrent actions that are reportedly done in the name of Islam. In addition to aggressively denouncing the cruel actions of ISIS and the misinterpretation of Islamic texts that supposedly justify them, most Muslims object to ISIS’ refusal to acknowledge the peaceful and compassionate teachings that clerics commonly accept.

Wood’s article ignited a debate over ISIS and its beliefs, so much so that its reception prompted him to write a short follow up summarizing the responses he received. Many respondents acknowledged the importance of ideology to ISIS, but argued that other factors–like group identity and the current circumstances in Iraq–are equally important to understanding ISIS. Some went even further, challenging Wood’s assertion of “the Islamic State’s medieval nature.” John Terry, writing for Slate, argued that the Islamic State selectively remembers the medieval times to fit its modern goals.

ISIS’ ideology is a variant of Salafist-Jihadism, which calls for a return to the “pure” practice of Islam that was established during the early days of the religion using outward violence. The first issue of ISIS’ Dabiq magazine includes a section titled “The World Has Divided Into Two Camps.” ISIS believes that it is the true manifestation of Islam and that all others are in a state of disbelief, which makes them enemies. One aspect of ISIS that makes it unique in the context of radical Islam is its use of takfir, or the practice of excommunicating another Muslim. In fact, the vast majority of its violence is directed toward Muslims and has led its recent rift with al Qaeda.

The nature of the organization and the stated commitment to its apocalyptic goal presents unique challenges for the United States and the coalition against it. The Clarion Project summarizes this issue in a recent article,

“The fundamental problem of Islamists seeking to trigger these end-of-times events will remain. The Islamic State could be crushed, but others with similar beliefs will arise. This entire mindset of fulfilling prophecy through war needs to be challenged by peace-seeking Muslims.”

Kevin Rizzo
Kevin Rizzo is the Crime in America Editor at Law Street Media. An Ohio Native, the George Washington University graduate is a founding member of the company. Contact Kevin at



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