How ‘Islamic’ is ISIS? This debate does not matter

In recent weeks, there has been much debate about how “Islamic” the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is. Some people falsely claim it represents “pure” Islam, while others insist ISIS is totally out of line with the teachings of the Prophet Mohammad, and should not be considered Muslim. But this debate does not really matter – we should be asking more important and relevant questions.

The discussion does not have any practical relevance. Deciding whether ISIS is Muslim does not change the way it perceives itself, or the way its sympathizers perceive it. As important, the discussion does not influence the attitude of non-sympathizing Muslims toward ISIS. Muslims and non-Muslims alike reject it because of its actions, not because of its alignment or misalignment with Islam.

Even if the question had practical relevance, there is no way to answer it definitively. Anyone familiar with religious scripture knows that its interpretation is by nature inconclusive. This does not mean we stay silent while others insist ISIS and Islam are one and the same. We should deconstruct their motives instead of responding to their line of argument.

The right question

The question that matters is: How did that question become so important in the first place? Two reasons stand out. The first is that Islam and Muslims have come to be treated as a monolith. According to that logic, saying ISIS is Muslim means every Muslim is a potential terrorist, which impels Muslims to respond. Our response to those saying ISIS is Muslim should be: So what? ISIS being Muslim means nothing and is without consequence.

The debate over ISIS and Islam is really about identity, not theology

Abdullah Hamidaddin

The second reason is that when it comes to identity politics, Islam has come to be treated as the primary and defining identity for Muslims, regardless of all the other identities one has. Thus a French Muslim woman, an American Muslim black man and an Arab Muslim are all first and foremost Muslim, then everything else. What this implies is that any Muslim would feel an affinity and sympathy with any Muslim.

This is of course not the case. Each of us has multiple identities – religion is but one of them, and is not always the primary one. An alternative logic would consider that a French Muslim has more affinity with a French atheist than with an Indonesian Muslim. All of this may sound abstract, but such are issues of identity. The debate over ISIS and Islam is really about identity, not theology.


Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1


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