Experts weigh in (part 2): How does ISIS approach Islamic scripture?

Will McCants:
One of the reasons Graeme Wood’s article on the Islamic State in the Atlantic stirred controversy is his statement that “the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” Graeme was careful to explain what he meant, but the phrase left the impression that the Islamic State embodied Islamic ideals. “Islamic” is too broad a category. Other categories wouldn’t have worked either. One could also say the Islamic State is “very Sunni” and “very Salafi” but those would be inexact too.

Rather than rehash the debate, I thought we could get a better sense of the relationship between the Islamic State and Islamic scripture if we answer a narrower question: how does the Islamic State approach scripture? By scripture, I mean the Quran and the hadith, the words and deeds attributed to Muhammad and his Companions.

First up was Cole Bunzel, who wrote that ISIS maintains an online network of religious scholars who seek to legitimate the group’s hardline worldview through scripture, grounding ISIS’s actions in an extremist but historical interpretation of Islamic texts.

In the midst of the sturm und drang following the publication of Graeme’s article, Sohaira Siddiqui wrote a thoughtful post for Jadaliyya on how the Islamic State approaches the medieval scholastic tradition of Islamic jurisprudence. She’s an assistant professor of Islamic theology at Georgetown University’s Qatar campus, so she’s got a lot to say on the subject of the Islamic State’s use of scripture.

Sohaira Siddiqui: When reading materials released by ISIS or legal verdicts produced by their courts, ISIS relies upon various sources: sacred texts, namely the Quran and hadith, and the actions of the Prophet’s early companions and subsequent generations. These laws can be understood to either enhance the “dignity” of Muslims, to strike fear in the hearts and minds of their enemies, or to create a religiously ordered society.

The use of scriptural sources and history is not only important for religiously legitimizing their actions, it also promotes their overall objectives. In other words, they subject scripture and history for their own political and religious motivations. Thus far, when Islamic scholars have assessed ISIS’s use of scripture, many have asserted that ISIS is literal and also cherry-picks from scripture to fulfill their desired objectives. While I agree, I would argue that ISIS engages with purpose based reasoning and thus often steps away from the literal meaning of texts when necessary.

For example, in rationalizing the burning of the Jordanian pilot, ISIS first pointed to airstrikes carried out against Muslims, then referenced verse 126 in Sura al-Nahl which allows for commensurate retaliation, and finally ended with examples from the time of the Prophet and companions in which fire is used. In this case, an analogy is constructed between the effects of an airstrike and the deliberate burning of an individual. Here elements of purposive, not textual, reasoning are involved; that is striking fear into the minds of the enemies. To deliberately set alight an individual has only a tendentious link to the launch of missiles. Thus what appears to be a literal application of the right of commensurate punishment becomes more nuanced when analyzed in greater detail.

Let us take another case which shows ISIS to go beyond the literal meaning of the text in order to suit their objectives. In part the notoriety that ISIS possesses is due to their propaganda videos and images which depict life within ISIS controlled areas. This depiction of human images, however, is contrary to a literalist reading of numerous prophetic hadith — found in the canonical collection of Bukhari and Muslim — which forbid the creation of pictures and the replication of the human image. In fact, many of the scholars which ISIS quote to support their actions vehemently prohibit the capturing of the human image. Their abandonment of explicit hadith demonstrates that they adopt a legal methodology which is scripturally-centric and literal, but flexible if literalism alone will circumvent their objectives. 

Combining reasoning from texts with purpose based reasoning is not something ISIS has newly invented. Classical jurists in the 11th century articulated that there are certain objectives of the Sharia, namely the preservation of life, religion, lineage, property and honor. While jurists were continuously engaged in deriving laws from the sources, the presence of these objectives functioned as a check and balance system which ensured that the laws they generated were in accordance with the objectives of the law as understood by God. These objectives were therefore derived from the Quran and sayings of the Prophet and were understood to represent divine intent with regards to the law. However, when ISIS is using purpose based reasoning, they are not concerned with what is the divine intent of the law is; rather they are concerned with creating laws which fulfill their own political desires. In this sense, what ISIS is engaged in resembles more religiously legitimated political reasoning than any attempt to holistically understand the texts or the overall objectives of the law.