Experts weigh in (part 1): How does ISIS approach Islamic scripture?

William McCants and Cole Bunzel

Will McCants: One of the reasons Graeme Wood’s controversial 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.

The Islamic State is frequently criticized for cherry-picking Islamic scripture to justify its heinous deeds. There is merit to the criticism to the extent that we all suffer from bias when we read texts. But the criticism implies that the Islamic State is not just biased but cynical—only picking cherries that suit its purpose but deliberately leaving the rest to dangle on the tree. The Islamic State is not just ignorant of the Islamic legal tradition, the argument goes, but willfully misrepresenting it for the group’s own evil ends.

To see if the criticism has merit, I’ve asked several scholars to explain how the Islamic State approaches scripture. First up is Cole Bunzel, who wrote a detailed paper on the Islamic State’s ideology.

Cole Bunzel: It would be a mistake to think that there is no underlying methodology to the Islamic State’s approach to scripture. The group’s reading of religious texts, while sometimes appearing to reflect political rather than religious concerns, is not ex nihilo contrived. Its scholars and leaders adhere—often explicitly—to a distinct movement in Sunni Islamic political thought called Jihadi-Salafism.

This is a fringe movement, to be sure, but is by no means lacking for scholarly depth and productivity. A network of self-described scholars, publishing on websites and various outlets online, generates a daily output of books, essays, fatwas (Islamic rulings), and more. This is in addition to the Islamic State’s own ideological production.

Not all Jihadi-Salafis are Islamic State supporters; indeed, some of the most important ones routinely censure the group and support al-Qaida.  Nonetheless, Jihadi-Salafi ideology is the necessary starting point for understanding the group’s approach to scripture.

Jihadi-Salafism developed over the course of the later 20th century, combining elements of radical Muslim Brotherhood activism with aspects of the purist Salafi tradition predominant in Saudi Arabia. By the end of the millennium, the Salafi elements prevailed. Non-Salafi thinkers like the Brotherhood’s Sayyid Qutb became more-or-less ancestral figures. The movement increasingly focused on upholding the tenets of the strict Salafi theology or creed—a set of obligatory beliefs propounded most forcefully by Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) and Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792), who held strong sectarian views.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of the forerunner group to the Islamic State, exemplified this trend in the late 1990s, when he distanced himself from Osama bin Laden, a man he deemed theologically deficient. Today the Islamic State continues this trend: most of the group’s publications draw on Salafi-Wahhabi thinkers, and its chief scholar casts the Islamic State as the true bearer of the Salafi tradition with its emphasis on dissociating from “unbelievers” and waging jihad against “heretics” (particularly the Shia).

In contrast to its approach on theological matters, the Islamic State’s use of scripture is more flexible—and thus less predictable—when it comes to matters of law. Its legal methodology can be called Salafi in the sense that it is not premised on one of the four Sunni Muslim legal schools and it emphasizes direct engagement with the Quran and traditions of the Prophet. Its views on administration and governance, for example, as expounded in a seminal 2007 treatise, rely on a range of sources from across the Sunni legal tradition. This treatise invokes the non-Salafi scholar Juwayni (d. 1085), for example, for the obligation of appointing an imam (or pseudo-caliph) posthaste. Likewise, in the June 2014 caliphate declaration the official Islamic State spokesman invoked another non-Salafi authority, Qurtubi (d. 1273), to establish the same obligation.

A collection of fatwas issued by the Islamic State further exemplifies this legal approach. In issuing a ruling, the authors directly interface with scripture and arrive at an individual judgment. Yet they are also keen to situate their rulings within the broader Islamic legal tradition, pointing out the different positions taken by various legal scholars and schools over time. Sometimes their rulings reflect minority opinions from the tradition, as was the case with justifying the immolation of the Jordanian pilot, and the group seizes on those opinions to make its case.

The Islamic State’s approach to scripture—and to the theological and legal traditions surrounding it—can be summed up as follows: In matters of theology, the group promotes a strict and uncompromising understanding of the Salafi creed. Muslims who hold the wrong beliefs can and must be killed. On matters of law, the group cuts its own way within the larger legal tradition, often invoking premodern legal authorities whose positions accord with its own. Certainly, the Islamic State’s use of scripture is selective, but rarely is scripture simply plucked from the texts.