Experts weigh in (part 3): 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.

Sohaira Siddiqui, professor of Islamic theology at Georgetown University Qatar, wrote about ISIS’s selective use of Islamic texts and traditions, which it uses to forward its own agenda.

Next up, Andrew March, Associate Professor at Yale University, analyzes how ISIS has repurposed a 7th-century text to justify its methods of governing Christians residing within its “state.” 

Andrew March: There is a certain set of Islamic legal practices or institutions that are important for the Salafi-jihadi ideology underpinning the Islamic State, not only because they can be traced back to scriptural foundations but also precisely because they accentuate the contrast between Islamic norms and modern international ones. Whereas many modernist interpretations of Islamic political ethics (including those issued by Islamists) seek to downplay the essential conflict between non-negotiable Islamic norms and those that enjoy broad international legitimacy today, Salafi-jihadis of the ISIS stamp eagerly embrace especially those practices that can be attributed to the Prophet and the earliest Muslims that offend modern sensibilities.

The reinstitution of slavery, the summary execution of prisoners, and the revival of the dhimma status for non-Muslims do precisely this. They serve to announce the sovereignty of a particular legal order, and the more such practices shock non-Salafis, the more clearly they proclaim the absolute independence and self-sufficiency of the Islamic legal order. They declare “Islamic governance answers to no moral standards other than God’s, and these are known solely by the texts of revelation and practices of the Salaf.”

But texts never speak entirely for themselves, and still less do they apply themselves. We ought to be past the point of marveling that—lo and behold!—there are Islamic textual justifications for most of what ISIS has done in the past year and instead look in a more granular fashion at which texts it elevates, which it tacitly ignores, and (most of all) how it actively repurposes (what it thinks are) 7th century texts for the 21st century. I try to do this here with its reintroduction of the dhimma contract for Christians living under its rule.

The Islamic State has long declared that it regards the “Pact of ʿUmar” as the sole authoritative framework for legal relations with “protected” Jewish and Christian communities. In a document issued in the name of the previous head of the (then-) Islamic State of Iraq, Abū ʿUmar al-Baghdādī in 2007, the group declared that all people of the book in Iraq had fallen into a state of war with Muslims and Islam and must secure their peaceful coexistence anew through a fresh covenant of protection along the lines of the letter that the Caliph ʿUmar had received from Christians in Jerusalem and approved with a few changes. This document survives primarily in the later Muslim histories of the early conquests, but is regarded as authentic by Muslims.

In May 2014, shortly before the declaration of the Caliphate, the group still known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria issued a “Document of Security” (Wathīqat al-amān) for the Christians of Raqqa. This document cleaves closely to the language and substance of the preserved text of the “Pact of ʿUmar” (at points laughably so), but also contains some notable additions and subtractions.

The May 2014 Wathīqa imposes twelve conditions on Christians, in exchange for “the security of their lives, wealth, churches, and their children,” and the freedom to not be coerced out of their religion. (1) They cannot build (or rebuild) new places of worship, in the city or its environs. (2) They cannot wear crosses or carry religious books in the streets or markets frequented by Muslims, or pray loudly. (3) Muslims must not hear them read books, bang clappers, or beat drums inside their churches. (4) They must not engage in any act of hostility to the Islamic State, such as harboring spies or individuals sought by the judiciary of the Islamic State, and that they must report and hand over anyone conspiring against the Islamic State. (5) They must refrain from engaging in any rituals of worship outside their churches. (6) They must prevent no Christian who wishes to from embracing Islam. (7) They must respect Islam and Muslims in word and deed and not insult any aspect of Islam. (8) They must pay the traditional tax imposed on non-Muslims (the jizya) in gold dinars, in an amount based on their wealth. (9) They may not carry arms. (10) They may not trade pork or wine with Muslims, or consume them in public. (11) Their graves must be separate from those of Muslims. (12) They must comply with anything imposed on them by the Islamic patrols, such as modesty in their dress. If they abide by these conditions, the document promises that their lives, honor and property will be respected. But if they violate any of them then they lose their protection (dhimma) and will be treated as if they belong to a warring or enemy population.

This document is a mix of almost ostentatious fidelity to the preserved Pact of ʿUmar text and some intriguing revisions. The attempt to project fidelity begins even with the order in which the stipulations are introduced, with the condition of not building or repairing religious buildings figuring first in both documents. There is no particular reason why this would be the most urgent order of business in 2014. There is also the use of some very specific terminology and turns of phrase in the 2014 text that are clearly designed to suggest a literal application of the 7th century one: the words for children or offspring (dharārī), monks’ cells (ṣawmaʿa rāhib), clappers used in churches (nawāqīs), sheltering spies (īwāʾ al-jawāsis), and displaying public respect for Islam (tawqīr). These words are not necessarily archaisms, but there is clearly the attempt to issue a document that sounds and feels like the Pact of ʿUmar even at the expense of practicality. (How many monks were living in Raqqa in 2014? Were Muslims often confronted with the sound of liturgical percussion issuing from churches?)

Given this desire to be seen to be resurrecting the original terms of toleration and protection for non-Muslims within the Caliphate, it is worth noting some intriguing additions and subtractions. The 7th century Pact of ʿUmar (or the text passed down in later written tradition) is actually written in the voice of the Christians of Jerusalem. It is their proposal to ʿUmar and is written in the first person plural: “We have obligated ourselves not to rebuild…” and so on. The 2014 text is issued in the name of Abū Bakr al-Baghdādī (at that time still “just” the Commander of the Faithful and not yet Caliph) and the Islamic State and reads in the third-person plural: “They shall not rebuild…”

But there are some interesting substantive subtractions as well. The 7th century text obligates the Christians to quarter Muslims in their churches and homes “day or night” and to feed them for three days if needed, to not teach their own children the Quran, to rise from their seats and offer them to Muslims if need be, to not take on the same nicknames (kunyas) as Muslims, to not ride on saddles, to not use Arabic script in their seals, to always dress in the same clothing (including with a distinctive sash around their waists), to cut their forelocks, to not shine light on any of the Muslims’ roads or markets and to not take slaves from those apportioned to Muslims. Many of these conditions point to a contemporary concern with Christians infiltrating and potentially confusing the outnumbered Muslims, obviously not an issue in 2014 Raqqa. But, still, why not throw them in there for old times’ sake?

Apart from these omissions, the 2014 text also adds some conditions not present in the 7th century one. The requirement to not only refrain from any acts of hostility or aggression against the Islamic State (a phrase not in use in the 7th century), but to hand over individuals sought by the judiciary is new, as is the specification of the jizya payment and the requirement to comply with anything imposed on them by the Islamic patrols by way of public modesty and morality. The focus in these new provisions seems much more on the circumstances of active civil governance than military occupation. Intriguingly, the 2014 text seems slightly more permissive in one way: whereas the original forbids the sale of intoxicants entirely, the 2014 one forbids trade in alcohol and pork with Muslims, and their consumption in public.

It’s a banal point, but the scholars and propagandists of the Islamic State are not only ostentatiously applying the letter of the texts that they have from the earliest period, but also tinkering with them for their own purposes. I doubt they would be embarrassed by these observations. Matters like the specific terms of the dhimma contact are not essential matters of faith or creed that no one may ever reform by a single dot, but are applied, practical matters that ultimately serve the welfare of the community. Fidelity to earliest practice is a core aspect of their appeal and self-legitimation, but ISIS is not exempt from the “Fundamentalists’ Dilemma:” if they show themselves to be pragmatic on this area of political legal practice, then how many more areas will show themselves to be matters of expediency rather than principle? Ostentatious displays of textual literalism might thus be understood more as ways in which the arrival of a new sovereign order is displayed and enunciated, rather than keys to a long-term governing rationale.