The ISISlamic Debate

Much has been said recently as to whether or not the Islamic State is Islamic. President Obama explicitly said in September that “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’” The White House referred to ISIS as “violent extremists” rather than “Islamic extremists”. One hundred and twenty Muslim scholars wrote an open letter to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, accusing ISIS of misinterpreting Islamic law in order to justify horrific acts of violence, and arguing that not only does ISIS not represent Muslims, but that it isn’t at all Islamic (Ortega). Dar al-Ifta, a leading Islamic authority in Egypt, has even requested a change of name from ISIS to QSIS — “al-Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria,” in order to reject the “stereotypes that attach the name of Islam to bloody and violent acts committed by such groups” (Taylor).

On February 16, 2015, Graeme Wood said in no uncertain terms that the “reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” In his 10,000-word cover story in The Atlantic, “What ISIS Really Wants,” Wood claims that the “religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam,” and while nearly all Muslims can and do reject ISIS, “pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it” (81). Wood’s article created a ripple in the media and inspired a flurry of response pieces, many taking issue with his claim of ISIS being Islamic.

Ironically, many of Wood’s critics are guilty of doing to Wood what they accuse him of doing to Islam: interpreting his text literally, while twisting and misinterpreting his words in order to make an argument against him that will fit their view of the political context.

For the most part, Wood’s critics seem to confuse two distinct notions: ISIS being unIslamic and ISIS misrepresenting Islam. It is one thing to claim that ISIS misinterprets Islam, Islamic law, or Muslims in general — which is legitimate and warranted. But it is another to claim that ISIS is not at all Islamic.

“Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to… ‘the Prophetic methodology,’” Wood says in his article. “Which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail” (81).

Wood interviews as his main expert Bernard Haykel, a Princeton scholar and the leading expert on the group’s theology. Haykel says that the Muslims and Muslim organizations who say ISIS is unIslamic are “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion,” and that it is only through “willful ignorance” that they claim that ISIS has distorted Islamic texts, in an effort to “absolve Islam.” 

Wood builds his case throughout the article as to why ISIS is Islamic. He argues that ISIS practices takfir, or excommunication, and proclaims Muslim sinners to be apostates. These sins include denying the holiness of the Quran or Muhammad’s prophecies, selling drugs or alcohol, wearing Western clothes, or even being a Shiite — because any innovation to the Quran means denying its initial perfection. ISIS has marked for death the heads of state of any Muslim country which has elevated man-made laws above laws made by God (81-82).

ISIS’s main victims are Muslim apostates, while Christians are spared execution as long as they pay a tax, as endorsed in the ninth chapter of the Quran. Wood claims that the “Koranic authority for this practice is not in dispute.”

Haykel tells Wood that in his estimation, “the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war,” including acts of slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings, which Haykel says aren’t things Jihadists “are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition.” Wood points out that the Quran “specifies crucifixion as one of the only punishments permitted for enemies of Islam” (83).

Wood claims that “all Muslims acknowledge that Muhammad’s earliest conquests were not tidy affairs and that the laws of war passed down in the Koran… were calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time” (83). ISIS is using ancient Islam as its base. So while Muslims can claim ISIS’s practice of Islam is out of touch with modern times, they are wrong to say ISIS has nothing to do with the tenets of the religion.

None of the subsequent articles criticizing Wood’s claim of ISIS being Islamic, actually address these points. Jack Jenkins of ThinkProgress said in his late-February piece, “What the Atlantic Left Out About ISIS,” that Wood’s article “echoed the inaccurate belief that since ISIS’s theology draws upon Islamic texts to justify its horrendous practices, it is an inevitable product of Islam.” But that is his specific (mis)interpretation of Wood’s article. Wood’s claim isn’t that ISIS is an inevitable product of Islam, but simply that ISIS is Islamic. Jenkins’ arguments don’t directly dispute Wood’s.

In his piece, Jenkins interviews Haykel for clarification into Wood’s article. Haykel does admit that he pointed out things to Wood which he didn’t include in his article — one of which is that ISIS’s theology is ahistorical, which means they justify their “horrific actions by essentially pretending that the last several centuries of Islamic history never happened…. So ISIS’s view of Islam is… unhistorical. They’re revising history.”

But Haykel reiterated his belief to Jenkins by saying that ISIS is “rooted in Islam, and they are Muslim, and they are just either Muslims in grave error or they are Muslims who have strayed into heresy.”

In his March 10, New Statesman article, “How Islamic is Islamic State,” Mehdi Hasan claims that the “conventional wisdom that a violent reading of the Quran is the cause of political violence is wrong” (27). He strongly disagrees with Wood and says that “to claim that ISIS is Islamic is egregiously inaccurate and empirically unsustainable, not to mention insulting to the 1.6 billion non-violent adherents of Islam across the planet” (33).

Hasan quotes forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman as saying that religion in ISIS plays a “role of justification.” Hasan claims ISIS is “using religion to advance a political vision, rather than using politics to advance a religious vision,” and that religion “plays a role not as a driver of behavior but as a vehicle for outrage” (28).

Hasan points out that ISIS has managed to unite the entire 1.6 billion Muslim world against it, who have “unanimously condemned and denounced ISIS not merely as unIslamic but actively anti-Islamic” (30).

In his criticism of Wood, Hasan, like Jenkins, does not address Wood’s main points of why ISIS is Islamic. Instead, he offers counter arguments that run parallel, not counter, to Wood. Wood doesn’t say that religion is what’s driving people to join ISIS, but that still doesn’t mean ISIS isn’t Islamic. Wood acknowledges that many Muslims have condemned ISIS, but points out that it is one thing to condemn, another to deny ISIS as Islamic. It is in this way that Hasan, and many of Wood’s critics, keep running in neutral, defending themselves against arguments that Wood isn’t making.

Another argument against Wood’s claim is that the world doesn’t seem to assign religion to other violent (or non-violent) groups. Hasan quotes Abdal Hakim Murad, who teaches Islamic studies at Cambridge University, as saying, “Just as Christianity in Bosnia 20 years ago was not properly represented by the churchgoing militias of Radovan Karadzic and just as Judaism is not represented by West Bank settlers who burn mosques, so, too, Islam is not represented by Isis” (30).

In their September piece for ThinkProgress, “Why ISIS is Not, in Fact, Islamic,” Jenkins and Igor Volsky say that the “issue, of course, isn’t unique to Islam. The Ku Klux Klan burns crosses and preaches hate in the name of Jesus Christ.”

But it’s ridiculous to say that yarmulke-wearing settlers aren’t Jewish just because other Jews don’t condone their actions or even think they’re acting on behalf of the religion. Similarly, it can’t be denied that the KKK was made up of Christians. Their religion cannot be denied for the convenience of worldwide members of those communities who believe the actions of extremists contradict the spirit of their faith.

In support of Wood’s argument, Joshua Keating of Slate thinks “it goes too far to suggest… that any acknowledgment that ISIS is a religiously motivated group either lends it legitimacy or indicts Islam as a whole.” He uses an American analogy: “The LDS church bristles at media descriptions of breakaway polygamous sects as ‘Mormon,’ but it would be misleading to pretend that the motivations of these fundamentalist groups have nothing whatsoever to do with Mormon theology, despite their differences with current mainstream Mormon beliefs.”

And Wood, in his article, says that focusing on the “exclusion of ideology reflects another kind of Western bias: that if religious ideology doesn’t much matter in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul. When a masked executioner says Allahu akbar while beheading an apostate, sometimes he’s doing so for religious reasons” (82).

But Jenkins and Volsky, while agreeing that “ISIS is an abomination of Islam,” argue that “just because you shout God’s name while committing murder doesn’t make your actions righteous. Islam, as millions of Muslims can attest, is a peaceful religion that calls on its followers to choose community over conflict.” Reverend Franklin Graham said on Fox News that Islam is a “violent form of faith” rather than a “religion of peace” (Jenkins, “What the Atlantic Gets Wrong). President Obama argues that “no religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim” (Killough).

Here the argument against Wood shifts to whether or not Islam is a violent or peaceful religion, when a religion is neither. People are violent or peaceful, not their religion. And while no religion condones the killing of innocents, religions have a funny way of deciding who is or isn’t innocent. Leviticus 20:10, for instance, states that adulterers should be put to death.

Wood quotes Haykel as saying, “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts” (83).

But Wood even states that it is simplistic and exculpatory to equate the problem with ISIS to “a problem with Islam.” Wood permits that the religion allows different interpretations, but that every Muslim, including ISIS members, is “morally on the hook” for the interpretation he or she chooses to follow. “And yet,” Wood adds, “simply denouncing the Islamic State as unIslamic can be counterproductive, especially if those who hear the message have read the holy texts and seen the endorsement of many of the caliphate’s practices written plainly within them” (90).

Wood allows that “Muslims can say that slavery is not legitimate now, and that crucifixion is wrong at this historical juncture. Many say precisely this. But,” Wood adds, “they cannot condemn slavery or crucifixion outright without contradicting the Koran and the example of the Prophet.”

Haykel adds, “The only principled ground that the Islamic State’s opponents could take is to say that certain core texts and traditional teachings of Islam are no longer valid” (91-92).

Jenkins says that according to Islam scholars, Wood “glosses over one of the most important components of any faith tradition: interpretation.” Jerusha Tanner Lamptey, Professor of Islam and Ministry at Union Theological Seminary in New York, told Jenkins that “Wood’s argument perpetuates the false idea that Islam is a literalistic tradition where violent texts are taken at face value.” Lampty says in Jenkins’ piece, “Texts have never been only interpreted literally. They have always been interpreted in multiple ways… [Wood’s comments] create the [impression] that Islam is literalistic, backward-minded, and kind of arcane and archaic, and we’ve moved past that narrative’” (Jenkins, “What Atlantic Gets Wrong”). Ironically, both Lamptey and Jenkins discuss Wood’s text using a literal interpretation.

Wood also asserts that Islamic texts are shared by all Muslims, not only ISIS, and that, as Haykel says, “these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else” (83).

Hasan quotes Murad, of Cambridge University, as saying that only endorsement by religious leaders can give ISIS legitimacy. “If Sunni Islam’s leaders consider ISIS inauthentic, then that is what it is.” Murad says Haykel’s claim is “unscholarly”, “incendiary” and could possibly “raise prejudice and comfort the far-right political formations” (30).

But neither Islamic leaders nor ISIS have a monopoly on Islam or the Islamic texts, or on deciding who is or isn’t Islamic. The Caliphate of ISIS has a PhD in Islamic studies and is a religious leader (Hasan 27). Why is he less qualified to determine his organization is Islamic than other leaders of Sunni Islam? Who is Murad to decide? Islamic leaders — and the Muslim community at large — don’t have the right to determine what is or what isn’t Islamic based on what’s convenient for public opinion, self image, and an overall good feeling for Muslims. Muslims and Islamic leaders cannot say ISIS has nothing to do with the tenets of the religion just because the organization does not live within the ideals of the “mainstream” religion.

In his Washington Post opinion piece, Fareed Zakaria says that calling ISIS Islamic “would make many Muslims feel that their religion had been unfairly maligned. And it would dishearten Muslim leaders who have continually denounced the Islamic State as a group that does not represent Islam.”

Riham Osman, of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, points to fears within the Muslim community that associating Islam with terrorism contributes to discrimination against all Muslims (Singer). 

But this is exactly Wood’s point: to avoid these fears and feelings, it should be made clear that ISIS doesn’t represent Islam, which is different from ISIS not being Islamic, a claim that none of Wood’s critics can factually prove.

It is similar to a mother disowning her son for committing a horrendous act. She can say he went against how she raised him and the family values. She can condemn him and even testify against him in court. She can claim he has misrepresented her name. Just because her son is a “bad person,” doesn’t mean she’s a “bad mother.” But to deny the fact that she gave birth to him, to deny he came from her body and that they share the same DNA, would be factually — and ethically — wrong.

Tony Ortega reached out to Wood for his reaction to his critics’ objections that Wood wasn’t qualified to make his assertion because he doesn’t know better than the Muslim scholars he goes against. Wood responded that his critics were “confusing what is Islamic with what is right.” He said he purposefully didn’t delve into whether ISIS’s interpretation of Islam is right, but rather argued instead that “ISIS is Islamic, in the sense of drawing on the long and varied traditions and core texts that Muslims share. They did not make these practices up out of whole cloth.’”

Those responding critically to Wood are doing so in an open debate journalism and the media provides. But their tactics and counter attacks on Wood — disavowing an organization of its religion strictly because its actions don’t follow their stated ideals of the mainstream religion —   only serve to shut down the debate. Wood’s article was one of the most well-researched and in-depth pieces done on ISIS so far. He wasn’t afraid to make the claim that offended scores of Muslims. He lay down facts at the base of his argument. But the responses and criticisms against him didn’t deal with what was factual and correct, but rather what was convenient, politically correct, and, understandably, the way Muslims want their religion to be viewed by others, unmarred by the horrors of ISIS. Wood’s critics describe the color of the apple, while Wood analyzes the essence of the orange. It is a shame the responses that arose weren’t based more on facts and less on emotion. At the very least it could have created a genuine debate, rather than how Loren Thompson at Forbes put it: “The two sides in this debate seem to be talking past each other” (Rollins).


Hasan, Mehdi. “How Islamic Is Islamic State?” New Statesman 10 Mar. 2015: 26-33. Print.

Jenkins, Jack. “What The Atlantic Gets Dangerously Wrong About ISIS and Islam.” Think

Progress 19 Feb. 2015. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

—. “What The Atlantic Left Out About ISIS According to Their Own Expert.” Think Progress

26 Feb. 2015. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Jenkins, Jack, and Igor Volsky. “Why ISIS Is Not, in Fact, Islamic.” Think Progress

17 Sept. 2014. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Keating, Joshua. “ISIS Is Islamic, But Obama Is Right Not to Describe It That Way.” 

Slate Magazine 18 Feb. 2015. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Killough, Ashley. “Strong Reaction to Obama Statement: ‘ISIL Is Not Islamic'” CNN 11 Sept.

2014. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Mazie, Steven. “How Islamic Is ISIS?” Big Think 20 Feb. 2015. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Ortega, Tony. “America’s Most Prominent Muslim Says The Atlantic Is Doing PR for ISIS.” Raw Story 17 Feb. 2015. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Rollins, Ron. “ISIS: What Does It Want? What Should We Do?” Dayton Daily News 1 Mar.

2015. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Singer, Peter. “US Extremism Strategy Avoids Naming Islam.” Manawatu Standard [Palmerston

North, New Zealand] 15 Mar. 2015. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Taylor, Adam. “Meet QSIS.” The Washington Post 26 Aug. 2014. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Wood, Graeme. “What ISIS Really Wants.” The Atlantic Mar. 2015: 78-94. Print.

Zakaria, Fareed. “The Limits of the ‘Islamic’ Label.” The Washington Post 19 Feb. 2015. Web. 15

Mar. 2015.

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