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A Muslim Trying to Make Sense of the Allure of Islamic State – Professor Hussein Solomon

October 10, 2015


A Muslim Trying to Make Sense of the Allure of Islamic State

By Hussein Solomon 

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 3 (2015), Number 9 (October 2015)

Since the emergence of Islamic State (IS) I have been struggling, as a Muslim, to understand their allure for many of my fellow Muslims. Why are Muslims not universally appalled at the horrific execution videos which the militants regularly produces or the systematic rape of Yazidi women? True, there have been denunciations by Islamic bodies around the world regarding the actions of IS, yet thousands still flock to fight under their banner. By March 2015 20,000 people from 90 countries[1] have already flocked to Iraq and Syria to fight under the banner of the Islamic State (IS) and their self-styled “Caliph” Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi[2] (whose real name is Ibrahim Badri al-Qurashi al-Sammarai).  Six months later another 10,000 foreign recruits joined IS. To put this into perspective – the pace at which this recruitment is occurring according to the US State Department is, “greater than that at which foreign militants have gone to Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years”[3]. Those arguing that Islamic State is some sort of lunatic fringe group which does not represent true Islam however cannot explain why gory IS videos graphically portraying decapitations and the like have attracted so many Muslim followers[4].

Go beyond the superficial denunciation of IS, however, and look closely at its ideology and one cannot but come to the conclusion that Islamic State is a natural outcome of much discourses in political Islam for the past 300 years. As Abdel Bari Atwan has noted, “IS has not sprung from nowhere. It is the latest evolutionary step in the Salafi-jihadi movement…[5]. Indeed, Islamic State justifies each of its actions on the basis of precedents set by Islamic tradition. In justifying declaring its statehood, Uthman bin Abd al-Rahman al-Tamimi, a senior official of IS’ Shari’a Committees drew parallels between this and the establishment of the first Islamic state by the Prophet Muhammed in Medina[6]. Similarly when IS detractors’ attack the organization for the practice of forcing thousands of Yazidi women into sexual slavery, IS responded in their English-language journal Dabiq, that these Yazidi women were the “spoils of war” and is Islamically permissible. The article in Dabiq went on to quote the Qur’anic chapter “Women” where men were allowed to have up to four wives in marriage as well as those women the “right hands possess[7]. For IS, those words literally translate into “captured in battle”[8]. Professor Ehud Toledano, an expert on slavery in Islam at Tel Aviv University concurs with the IS position, “They are in full compliance with Koranic understanding … what the Prophet has permitted, Muslims cannot forbid”[9]. In August, 2015 reports surfaced that IS had used chemical weapons, specifically mustard gas against the Kurds. Interestingly, a prominent Saudi Al Qaeda supporting cleric – Nasser bin Hamad al-Fahd – who has since shifted his allegiance to IS issued a fatwa (religious ruling) on the use of weapons of mass destruction, “If the infidels can be repelled from the Muslims only using such weapons, their use is permissible, even if you kill them without exception and destroy their tillage and stock[10].

The popularity of IS across much of the Muslim world cannot be denied. By way of example, consider the following: a rigorous survey conducted by the University of Maryland and World Public Opinion; for instance, found that 76 percent of Moroccan Muslims and 74 percent of Egyptian Muslims wanted the strict application of shar’ia law in every Islamic country. Further, the survey revealed that 71 percent of Moroccans and 67 percent of Egyptians desired this outcome: “To unify all Islamic countries into a single Islamic state or Caliphate”[11]. Should we then be surprised when a YouTube video surfaces of a football match in Morocco where fans of the Casablanca club – Raja Club Athletic – chant “Daesh, Daesh” (the Arabic acronym for IS) and “God is Great, let’s go on jihad”. Should we be surprised that an estimated 1500 Moroccans have joined IS?[12]

Further credence to suggest that Islamic State is not merely some sort of lunatic fringe in the Muslim world was a poll conducted by the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network amongst its Arabic-language viewers. Of the 56,881 polled, a staggering 81 percent voted `yes’ to the question: “Do you support the victories of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (IS) in your region?[13]  Moreover, a survey by the Qatari-based Arab Centre for Research and Policy studies have highlighted the fact that those Muslims who find IS appealing are drawn to its military achievements, its commitment to Islamic principles, its declaration of an Islamic Caliphate and its willingness to stand up to the West[14]. A COMRES Research Institute poll conducted amongst British Muslims, meanwhile, found that 27 percent were sympathetic towards the motives behind the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices[15]. To put it differently, one in four British Muslims felt that a person insulting the Prophet Muhammed deserved death. Exhaustive surveys conducted by Pew and European Social Survey covering 42 percent of the global Muslim population reveal that 17.38 percent of Muslims worldwide express terror sympathies. To put it differently, almost one in five Muslims or 295 million people globally are potential recruits to IS[16]. Polls such as these also underscore why Muslims in ninety countries have flocked to fight under the IS banner. These surveys also illustrate why it is factually incorrect to think of IS as something marginal or alien to Muslim society.

These polls increasingly render hollow declarations from US President Obama and Muslim ulema (clergy) and leaders that “Islam is a religion of peace[17]. As Tarek Fatah[18] has noted, “It is true that for many Muslims, Islam is a moral compass that guides them in their daily, law-abiding lives. But, for many others, Islam is intrinsically interwoven with the doctrine of armed jihad and the goal of ultimate Muslim supremacy over non-Muslims”. From a strategic perspective denying the popularity of Islamic State is erroneous in the extreme. How else can one explain the fact that an estimate 31,500 IS fighters[19] can control a population of 10 million in the area the size of Great Britain that they control in Iraq and Syria? Whilst, it may not be politically correct to state it, the simple fact is that there are large numbers of Muslims who in the words of Saladdin Ahmed[20], “… not only excuse murder, torture, rape, sexual enslavement, and genocide against minorities, but also consider them religious duties”.

Given the fact that IS quotes from the Qur’an and certain Prophetic traditions, Ebrahim Moosa[21] calls for a `doctrinal overhaul’ of Islam – one which negates the Salafist rejection of interpretation of scriptural sources. The need to move away from a dogmatic, literal Islam which lends itself to justify decapitations, sexual slavery and war towards one which is regarded as an organic text, a living Qur’an if you wish adapting to the needs of particular peoples living in the 21st and not the 7th centuries. Islamic State will cause murder and mayhem in the short-term but will ultimately be confined to the dustbin of history. To prevent another violent expression of Salafi jihadism, Muslims need to seriously consider Ebrahim Moosa’s courageous call for a doctrinal overhaul of Islam.


[1] Raymond Ibrahim, “The CIA Doesn’t Know Why Muslims Join IS,” PJ Media. 18 March 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 4 June 2015.

[2] Hussein Solomon, “South Africa and the Islamic State,” RIMA Occasional Papers Vol. 3 No. 3, April 2015, p. 2. Internet: Date accessed: 21 April 2015.

[3] Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “Iran Still Aids Terrorism and Bolsters Syria’s President, State Department Finds,” The New York Times. 19 June 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 1 July 2015.

[4] “The Islamic State: The propaganda war,” The Economist, 15 August 2015, op. cit.

[5] Abdel Bari Atwan, “When it comes to `Islamic State,’ the West just doesn’t get it,” op. cit.

[6] Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The Evolution in Islamic State Administration: The Documentary Evidence,” op. cit.

[7] “Islam and slavery: The persistence of history,” The Economist. 22 August 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 24 August 2015.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bridget Johnson, “Saudi Cleric Who Issued Fatwa on WMD Permissibility Pledges Allegiance to IS,” PJ Media. 25 August 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 27 August 2015.

[11] Andrew G. Bostom, “Benghazi: From `See no Sharia’ to Ansar al-Sharia,” The American Thinker. 25 December 2012.

[12] James M. Dorsey, “Moroccans fans support for ISIL: Protestors of Jihadists,” Hurriyet Daily News. 13 October 2014. Internet: Date accessed: 13 October 2014.

[13] Tarek Fatah, “Face Reality: Many Muslims Support IS,” The Toronto Sun. 16 June 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 17 June 2015.

[14] Tausch, op. cit., p. 8.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., p. 4.

[17] Tarek Fatah, “Face Reality: Many Muslims Support IS,” op. cit.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “CIA says IS numbers underestimated,” Al Jazeera. 12 September 2014. Internet: Date accessed: 16 September 2015.

[20] Saladdin Ahmed, “Islamic State: More popular than you think,” op. cit.

[21] Ebrahim Moosa, “My madrassa classmate hated politics, then joined IS,” op. cit.

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