Ideas behind ISIS - ISIS: An Introduction and Guide to the Islamic State (2016)

ISIS: An Introduction and Guide to the Islamic State (2016)

Ideas behind ISIS

ISIS is an organization driven by ideas and ideology—not just ideas alone, but also a system of belief within which many disparate ideas are brought together. These beliefs give the group its power to recruit and to operate. They also drive the way in which ISIS operates within the territory it currently controls as well as regionally and globally. In this chapter, some of the beliefs that are most powerful in driving this action are explained.

Management of Savagery: Violence as a Tool

Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage through Which the Islamic Nation Will Pass (إدارة التوحش: أخطر مرحلة ستمر بها الأمة) is the title of a long (more than 200 pages) manifesto written by a salafi-jihadi thinker named Abu Bakr Naji that was published on the Internet in 2004. Based on its publication date, it is clear that this was written for the broader salafi-jihadi community and not specifically for ISIS. That said, the recommendations in the book are significant when viewing the actions of ISIS over time and how it views the violence it performs. In Western media, the violence gets the attention as is intended.

Though the book and its thinking have been described as “al-Qaeda’s Playbook,” this is probably not true. Naji advocates for numerous small attacks rather than spectacular Hollywood-style or 9/11-style attacks. Al-Qaeda always seemed to be looking for another big attack and ISIS was content with consistent smaller ones as described and advocated for by Naji. That said, this work describes the thinking and behavior regarding how to use violence in the fight between salafi-jihadis and their opponents.

The first doctrinal point identified in the book is that ISIS is fighting a war of attrition or exhaustion where the intent is to drain the resources of the opponent powers such that they no longer have the will to continue the struggle. Second, violence is to be used as a means to generate both energy within the salafi-jihadi community and a sense of urgency within the broader Sunni Muslim community. The author of this work and other salafi-jihadi thinkers acknowledge that the vast majority of Sunni Muslims are not awake to the perils of the West with respect to their belief and their way of life. Thus, the violence will do three things simultaneously. One, it will wake the broader the community to the perils facing them. Two, the violence will bring Western powers into the Muslim world where they will commit their own violence. This will further estrange the Sunnis from the West, causing them to hate the West and struggle against it. Three, the allies of the West within the Muslim world will be discredited. This will come about through the inability of the West to prevent ISIS from targeting Western powers. In addition, the Saudi, Egyptian, Jordanian, and other governments will look weak and wrong because of their reliance on and association with Western powers that would then be responsible for all of the damage in the Muslim world.

The main idea is that violence is not an end to itself. The salafi-jihadis are not killing people and destroying things for a material benefit. They are beheading, burning people alive, and conducting suicide bomb attacks as part of a program to create an environment of Sunni energy and outrage against the West in an attempt to inspire the Sunnis to rise up and support the caliphate. Statistically, ISIS is not killing the most people in the region. It is not comparatively the most violent. What it is, is the most adept at propagandizing that violence into a broader objective.

Salafist Ideology

The Arabic word salaf (سلف) means forefathers. The roots of this idea are derived directly from the words of the Prophet Mohamed when he said:

The best people are those of my generation, and then those who will come after them (the next generation), and then those who will come after them (i.e. the next generation), and then after them, there will come people whose witness will precede their oaths, and whose oaths will precede their witness. (Sahih Bukhari Volume 8, hadith number 437)

This is in essence, a greatest generation argument. The greatest generation of Muslims was that of Mohamed and Mohamed’s companions. The next greatest generation was the following generation and so on. The idea of what is called Salafist thought is to return to the practice of Islam as it was lived by those first Muslims. Note that it is sometimes called Wahhabism because the two ideologies are similar and many groups that are Salafist are also Wahhabis. (See entry on Wahhabi later in this book.)

One of the earliest to espouse this idea is a man referred to as Ibn Tamiya (Tāqī al-Dīn Aḥmad ibn Taymiyyah, January 22, 1263-September 26, 1328) who was writing in the aftermath of the Crusading period and in the midst of the Mongol invasion. In an attempt to understand why these bad things were happening to Islam, he postulated that it was because Muslims were not essentially right with God. The solution to the problems of Islam was to get right with God. Who was right with God? Mohamed and those of his generation. This was proven not simply by the statement of the prophet provided previously, but also through the battlefield success of Islam in those earliest generations when Muslims conquered the Persian Empire in total and inflicted numerous defeats on the Roman Empire as well. In the first three generations of Islam, the Muslims united the Arabian Peninsula under Islam, defeated two major empires, and established control that extended from the Iberian Peninsula in the west to the Indus River Valley in India in the east. This was seen as miraculous proof of being in alignment with God. Ibn Tamiya also suggested that killing Muslims who were working with the Mongols was not wrong as they were supporting an evil or, if innocent, then God would grant them martyrdom. This is part of the logic that many salafi-jihadi groups use today in justifying their attacks on what most in the West see as fellow Muslims.

Salafis adhere to the word of God in the Quran and to the traditions of the prophet as provided by his own statements and observed and attested behavior. They do not accept a dialectical approach to reasoning the intent of God by human disputations or human innovation.

This original intent interpretation is critical to understanding the mind of ISIS in terms of its governance and the right way to live a Muslim life or even the right way to be Muslim. In their most strict interpretations, ISIS followers view those who do not agree with this original interpretation as not being fully Muslim; they are seen as being either apostate or being wrongly guided. Such people need to repent and return to the basic beliefs of God as outlined in the salafi tradition.

Religious End-of-Days Interpretations

Numerous other groups, to include all those who claim allegiance to al-Qaeda, are salafi-jihadis. Nearly all such groups would accept the reasoning described in the Salafist Ideology section. One of the areas where ISIS is significantly different from other groups is in its views of the end of days and its role in the end of days. As in other religions, end of days’ literature in Islam is not widely accepted across the Sunni-Shia divide and not even among the Sunni. The Quran contains little of the details with respect to the end of days. Most of the information comes in the hadith. (See entry on Hadith later in this book.) Since those statements are sometimes in dispute, this leads to a wide set of interpretations. Though the details are in variance, the general condition of the earth as a place rife with wickedness and behavior in opposition to the will of God is almost universal for understanding these final days. What follows in this section is an abbreviation of the ISIS interpretation of these events.

According to this interpretation, the fighting in the final days will be between an army of light and an army of darkness. The army of light or army of righteousness will wear black, carry black flags, and it will begin its ascendency from Syria and spread into Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). It will fight battles in which it is successful as it expands. Depending on the sources, the battles fought by the army of the righteous may be against the antichrist (Masih al-Dajjal [المسيح الدجّال] or false messiah) or against other forces that are manifesting the behaviors of the end of days. It will lose battles and win many. A Roman-Crusader army will arrive in northern Syria and in this valley northeast of modern Aleppo, Syria they will fight the army of the righteous. The name of the valley and the village that used to be there is Dabiq. In this final battle, Jesus will arrive and he will lead the army of the righteous against the Dajjal and bring about the destruction of the army of darkness and the ushering in of the judgment.

As ISIS interprets these events, it is the army of the righteous. It is currently fighting a Roman-Crusader army aided by the unbelieving Shia. It is currently in the early period of success as it has advanced from Syria and into Mesopotamia. It is not clear if it currently believes that the Dajjal is on the earth leading the fight against it though it is certain that it believes and teaches that it is fighting the forces of evil as foretold in the hadith. It regularly characterizes its opponents as Roman-Crusaders.


The Arabic word for caliph means successor because there is no prophet after Mohamed. He is the last and final word on revelation from God. This means that the establishment of governance is under the direction of those who succeed the prophet. As kingdom is derived from king, caliphate is derived from caliph. The early leaders are referred to as the Rashidun or rightly guided caliphs. They include the first four caliphs following the prophet. Based on the earlier explained salafi ideology, they provide the pattern that ISIS leaders hope to follow. These men were humble and pious. They governed the community of believers, or ummah, according to the direction of God or the sharia, which is primarily based on the Quran; the hadith from the prophet; and the patterns of the prophet’s life or sunna (from which is derived the term sunni). Finally, modern sharia also includes Islamic jurisprudence or what could be called legal interpretation or court precedence. ISIS holds to a more strict interpretation of sharia that does not include as much of the jurisprudence which it believes to be corrupted.

The caliphate or kingdom of Islam (as it could be interpreted) once declared, is the gathering place for Muslims. Thus if a Muslim is not seeking to travel to the caliphate, then he or she is not truly a Muslim. Such individuals are either nonbelievers or apostates. Additionally, all believers are expected to obey the commands of the caliph as he is the designated and recognized successor to the prophet.

This should cause readers to question whether or not ISIS’s claim to having the caliph and founding a caliphate is legitimate. The simple answer is that most Muslims around the world do not accept Caliph Ibrahim (i.e., Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) as a legitimate caliph nor do they accept that a caliphate has been established in Syria and Iraq. Despite this statement, there are thousands and even tens of thousands who are motivated by this declaration.

ISIS declared a modern state of Islam on October 15, 2006. This was the first time it named itself the Islamic State of Iraq. This date was not as publicized as the later designation of the caliphate on June 19, 2014. Regardless of the interpretation, it believes that it has a state and it is ruled under the guidance of one who is the successor of the last prophet for God. This state is to be the gathering place for the faithful, and the commands of the caliph are to be adhered to by the faithful. Those who do not obey and gather are thus enemies of that state and its soldiers in one fashion or another.


One of the most publicized aspects of ISIS developed after it laid siege to the al-Sinjar mountain area of northwestern Iraq and captured hundreds of Yazidis. The news went out that it made the women slaves. This act garnered significant world attention. This section provides the ISIS justification for this behavior. First, for the women to be considered eligible for slavery they had to be non-Muslims captured in military operations. It is essential for the woman to be an unbeliever for this to be permissible as an apostate woman (for example, Shias or Sunnis who do not agree with the ISIS interpretation) are generally forbidden from being treated as slaves. This last point is debated among the scholars referenced by ISIS. In this matter nonbelieving women are considered as chattel and can be bought and sold and traded as any other property. They are not viewed as equal to a believing Muslim by ISIS.

Many who criticize this practice on humanitarian grounds miss the fact that in a community that does not view all humans as equal, such pleas fall on deaf ears. ISIS does make some concessions to the property as having some humanity in that it does not allow the separation of prepubescent children from a mother by sale or trade. They must be kept together until the child comes of age. There are numerous other rules regarding what is permissible in the relationship. Simply stated, such a person is the property of the captor to be treated as he wishes with some constraints. This is one of the benefits of war and a reminder to the unbelievers and believers of the superiority of ISIS fighters.


In Arabic the word for idolatry is shirk (شرك). The word does not literally translate to idolatry, but rather it is from a verb that means to share and in this context it means to share a place with God or to accept the existence of multiple gods (polytheism). Those who attribute a partner to God are called mushrik (plural is mushrikun) (مشرك or مشركون). It is important to understand that the first pillar of Islam is the declaration that there is no god, but the one God. This testimonial statement implies that the elevation of anyone or anything to being coequal with God is a sin and one of the most serious sins that can be committed. At various times in Islamic history, obedience to this dictum included the defacing of mosaics including human faces and the destruction of statues. Some sects of Islam today still view artwork including humans as inappropriate. This was true to a greater degree 1,400 years ago.

When ISIS goes into a museum and begins to deface or destroy ancient statues, monuments, or relics, it is doing this to destroy evidence of idolatry. All those who honor or value such objects are considered idolaters or polytheists and as such are subject to harsh penalties to include death. Given their interpretation of the faith, these policies are essential to enforce the basic tenets of Islam including a statement that is required to even be considered a Muslim—there is no god, but the God and Mohamed is the messenger (or prophet) of the God. This is all about accepting the one and unified divinity of God or tawhid.

Those who suggest that selling such artifacts can be considered hypocrisy may have something of a point, but it could also be considered a legitimate way to dispose of the items while benefitting the community of believers and those waging the war against unbelievers. If ISIS can earn money from unbelievers, all the better.