If there is one benefit to the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), it might be that it has brought together paradoxes and forced all concerned local, regional and international parties to examine the origins of ISIS and analyze its effects. Despite its recent birth, ISIS can function as a microcosm of the complexities of our region, as well as the intellectual contradictions. Despite its nihilism, ISIS is full of meaning. Despite its absurdity, it is laden with symbolism and potential interpretations. Since ISIS was born with a fringe nature, shaped in crisis and apocalypse, and has subsequently developed in a similar context, most of the analysis attempting to understand ISIS has also followed a similar interpretative track. With the emergence of ISIS, many internal and external narratives have exploded onto the scene, all following a pattern as though they are moving through a “house of mirrors,” full of concave, convex, and asymmetric mirrors—a process that has made it easy for many believers to evoke religious texts concerning a period of “bewilderment of the believer.”
Every existing narrative about ISIS has clustered into two broader conflicting broader narratives, or perhaps even three or four—into an infinite deconstructionist process. Absolutism, as well as religious, historical, or political determinism characterizes these narratives.
The Religious Narratives
Religious narratives reflect timeless, historical interpretations on the basis of texts about sedition and epic battles themselves. According to dominant readings, these interpretations are related to two conflicting time periods: the time of the “first strife” and the time of the “later strife.” This has led many Muslims to consider ISIS through the lens of the medieval Kharijites, along with all the textual details related to the behavior of its fighters and their image—whether in their zealous religious worship or idiotic legislation. According to this understanding, these fighters are the “dogs of Hell,” as some prophetic traditions state. This reading of ISIS as modern-day Kharijites is adopted by fighters and proponents of the Syrian regime to suggest that that ISIS is not entitled to interfere in Syrian affairs and are in fact, like the Kharijites, rebelling and a departure from the legitimacy held by true Syrian fighters. Mujahid Ma’mun Diraniyya expresses this in his essay entitled, a Fighting ISIS is Like Fighting the Kharijites and Transgressors.” Paradoxically, this view was also adopted by religious institutions allied with existing regimes in the Arab world and the Syrian regime in particular, as well as some Sufi personalities—such as the former Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, in a statement he issued entitled “ISIS is Satan’s Plant.” Such statements place everyone—different opposition groups, Salafi brigades, ISIS fighters, and even Wahhabism in particular and Salafism in general—in one basket.
From another perspective, religious narratives have caused others to view ISIS as a manifestation of epic eschatological battles, complete with “black flags” and the marching of the epic armies (the Sufyani Army)—all of which prophesize end-of-time battles. This is present in two different Shi‘i and Sunni interpretations. ISIS sympathizers, whose imaginations are amplified by illusions of grand conflicts and hope for salvation at any price, embrace this interpretation. This explains why ISIS attracts actors from varying backgrounds, across the Gulf, the West, Asia, and North Africa. They all believe they either have come to the “land of the caliphate” or are determined to do so, in hopes of eternal salvation and as retaliation against the nationalist sentiments at the hands of which they have been suffering in their own respective states.
In opposition to these two religious narratives, other narratives have emerged rejecting the adoption of theoretical parallels and historical approaches. In his article, “ISIS Between Embarrassing the Jurist and Reducing the Intellectual,” Karim Mhammad concludes that the problem of the narrative of the “first strife” stems from embracing a legalistic approach as a widespread pattern of thinking that is easy to adhere to in Arab thought. For him, this is always the case when assessing our phenomena and linking smaller events to greater ones, and has therefore terrorized our collective imagination. The same applies to other interpretations that are based on the concept of strife, which is characterized by intensity in the tendencies on two sides: the intellectual side, whether religious or not, that definitively rejects modeling our reality after epic salvation battles; and the other that presents the dreams of miserable individuals and the ones who are imprisoned in a salvation-based, nihilistic future.
Narratives of Political Dependency
In addition to the religious narratives, there are other narratives relating to notions of political dependence. A group of contrasting narratives emerged in an attempt to analyze the nature and the parties involved in this political dependence. In his article “How Was ISIS Formed? (1-2),” Nawwaf al-Qudaimi attempts to identify a number of the political and operational characteristics of ISIS. These include the ascendance of military figures in the hierarchy of power within the organizational structure of ISIS, “the majority of whom were officers in the Ba‘thist Iraqi military during the reign of Saddam Hussein.” Although this is not the only feature that al-Qudaimi presents, he nonetheless refers to the fact, as do other writers, that ISIS is hijacked by certain regimes that have comprised it. These include former regimes like that of Saddam Hussein, or current regimes like the Syrian Ba‘thist regime in an attempt to distort and infiltrate the Syrian revolution.
In contrast to this interpretation, which does not only depend on the element of being politically hijacked, others have presented a detailed demonstrative interpretation that dismisses this hijacking altogether or at least dismisses different aspects of it. In “The Decisive Conclusion on the Relation and Connection Between ISIS and the Ba‘th,” Wael ‘Isam argues that this hijacking is more sectarian than political— meaning that the involvement of the Iraqi Ba‘thists in ISIS is not as much a revenge for the old perished Ba‘th as it is a revenge against the Shi‘i sect that has allegedly suffocated Iraq. This analysis demonstrates a point made by numerous observers that Iraq’s ISIS is different from its Syria’s counterpart, and that the Syrian regime’s seizure of ISIS is not ideological but rather pragmatic—as al-Qudaimi himself says in a different section of his article.
At any rate, as Azmi Bishara concludes, the question of hijacking is fruitless. His article, , “Who Stands Behind ISIS?” uses a title made up of a question that reflects the political rivalry that was transformed into pacts and camps, or that was transformed into conflicts over or between identities.” This renders the reasons for accusations of seizure clear. This also makes the accusations definitive, throwing them all in the basket of the other, be it the United States vs. Russia, or Iran vs. Saudi Arabia, and so on.
The Narrative of Wahhabi Counterparts
Perhaps the most widespread narrative is the one specifically connecting ISIS to Wahhabi discourse and to the Salafi one in particular. According to this narrative, writers retrieve a number of older or contemporary contrasting historical perspectives with the objective of deconstructing the intellectual foundations of ISIS. Still, this begs the pressing question: Why do many people feel comfortable with such quick characterization? And consequently, which Salafism are we talking about when we talk about ISIS? Some observers take this easy way of making such connections because of the fact that the form and discourse of ISIS are both distant from the world of contemporary modernity. But then to where do such forms and discourses belong? It has been established among experts on Salafism, both Salafi discourse and movements, or the Wahhabi movement, that there are certain details and discourses that are in conflict within such movements. But what it is common among all these discourses and movements is one factor: they are founded on the duality of returning to the fundamentals and rebelling against what is official. Otherwise there is considerable disagreement. Al-Qudaimi in his “How Was ISIS Formed? (1-2)” believes that we cannot consider “the organization of the Islamic State a mere natural development for Jihadi Salafism or of the Wahhabi school.” He sites three reasons:
(a) ISIS appears to exist outside the circles of the scholarly authoritative references of Salafi Jihadi groups in the Arab world.
(b) The fact that ISIS has not issued a foundational, sweeping legislative and theoretical work that presents its theological and political stances.
(c) The fact that many of the well-known and influential figures in Jihadi circles do not belong to ISIS.
Although these factors are realistically accurate, observers of Salafi operational patterns do not see these reasons as being a valid evidence of the connection between ISIS and such discourses. Generally speaking, the Salafi discourse is rebellious and divisible. As a result, it does not necessarily have to contain well-known leadership. It can even be an internal division and rebellion against a widely known leadership, and a breakaway from prominent authorities. As for ISIS, not issuing a foundational jurisprudential theoretical statement, however, follows from its instrumentalism, which is related to the context of its origin and track, which I engage with later. It is through this instrumental tendency that Mansur al-Hajla, in his“Is ISIS Salafi-Planted?,” argues that ISIS is different from its corresponding Najdi Salafi version. However, they are in harmony and concordance beyond this. However, an examination of the origin and the development of Wahhabism can shed light on this contested relation. In “Wahhabism, the Brotherhood of Those Who Obey Allah, and ISIS—Has History Repeated Itself?” by Abd Allah al-Maliki, “You Can’t Understand ISIS If You Don`t Know the History of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia” by Alastair Crooke, and “ISIS, Wahhabism, and Anathematization: Differences and Similarities” by Badr al-Ibrahim, all three authors present an examination that is worthy of contemplation—especially with regard to operational Wahhabi pattern that is internally divisible and is ready to employ and soften texts depending on the instrumentality and relative position and of the movement. After King Abd al-Aziz bin Abd al-Rahman recruited a group of religious fighters, named the “The Brotherhood of God Obedient” (Ikhwan Man Ta‘a Allah) through a historical-social alliance between the religious and political authorities, “Such a relation was expressed by way of reviving and striking a historical and harmonic deal through intermarriage, with King Abd al-Aziz marrying the daughter of Shaykh Abd Allah bin Abd al-Latif Al al-Shaykh—the supreme scholar of the Wahhabi school of thought at the time.” Abd al-Aziz sought to get rid of his Ottoman and British opponents along with their agents in Hijaz through a set of fatwas –known as the fatwas of “Wahhabi Old Testament,a as al-Maliki calls them, or the “foundational texts or fundamental radical Wahhabism,” as al-Ibrahim calls them—which permit the killing of those opponents and agents as well as prohibits dealing with them. When Abd al-Aziz gained control, he started allying with the British, creating a modified version of a “pragmatic Wahhabism”—to use al-Ibrahimiahhabismith t—which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has since then adopted. This is the Saudi Arabia that has called ISIS “Islam’s biggest enemy,” as the mufti of the kingdom, Shaykh Abd al-Aziz Al al-Shaykh stated.
Such behavior has caused the “Brotherhood of God Obedient” to rebel against King Abd al-Aziz and issue the Wahabbi fatwas known as the “Wahhabi New Testament”—,hhabi Nagain use al-Malikiw Testamentg —which permits the anathematization of the followers of King Abd al-Aziz and at the same time deal with the British against the interests of the king in unrestrictive instrumentalism. In any case, referring to Wahhabi counterparts is rather polarizing. Some observers consider ISIS to be a version of modified Wahhabism, which the Saudi kingdom is founded upon, seeing the relevance of both factors of anathematization and funding or financial support of which preceded the emergence of ISIS. Others deem ISIS to be a version of the original Wahhabism—which is more accurate—that represents the “Brotherhood of God Obedient,” especially in upholding the founding texts of anathematizing Wahhabism for anyone who does not believe in the type of monotheism that the state has adopted and established, along with the concept of global Jihad and expansionism. ISIS, however, differs from original Wahhabism in that it does not seek a political ally or a historical or social alliance between the religious and official political authorities. Here, the prince or caliph in the context of ISIS is preacher and king all at once. Within this context, it is possible to ask why this fundamentalist Wahhabism, as represented by the organization of ISIS, is targeting the Saudi regime, despite all the talk about the financial support that the comes to ISIS from inside the Saudi kingdom.
Is ISIS a Form of Islam?
There is one explosive issue that revolves around all these narratives and is likely to persist. The explosion of this issue may be another positive side to the emergence of ISIS, the more some observers engage with it. The emergence of ISIS has opened the door to questioning the real relation between ISIS and Islam. The public idly gives in to comfortably answering this question of the relation between Islam and ISIS by saying that ISIS does not represent the real Islam, and that real Islam is something else. Meanwhile, others, with the same degree of intensity, have reduced Islam with all its components to the form of ISIS. Between these two approaches there are marginal interpretations as well as various internal ones. The emergence of ISIS has inspired a group of intellectuals to search and excavate the roots of ISIS. Their interpretations have varied, starting from identifying the problems within Islamic texts, moving all the way to factoring in the alliance between traditional religious institutions and Arab regimes, and ending with the poor implementation of Islamic sharia. The majority of these analyses agree that the sharia texts have a significant role in the structure of ISIS. However, there is disagreement on the impact of the roles of these religious texts. Some observers refer to these texts as being the raison d’etre of ISIS, along with other extremist Islamic movements—as clearly seen in some orientalist and some leftist Arab literature. Others pinpoint it to an invalid interpretative methodology that ISIS is deploying. For those who see the problem in the texts, there seems to be a real dilemma. This is because they see that the official religious institutions’ statements denouncing ISIS and its actions to be no more than a rejection of the “actor,c but not of the corresponding body of “laws” or “actions.” And as a result, these religious texts are seen as suspended texts that are applicable only by the “real justice” of the religious institutions.
The Savagery of ISIS and the Social and Psychological Reasons for its Formation
In contrast to these religious, historical, and political narratives, we also find a set of analyses that deconstruct the phenomena from the perspectives of sociology and psychology. The environment in which ISIS operates is a continuation of the environment that expands across the Arab space and time—one of previous colonialism and successive autocracy, an environment of religious and national non-belonging, an environment of moral nihilism, an environment of deepening sectarian identities. In his aforementioned article “Who Stands Behind ISIS?” Azmi Bishara makes reference to all the previous components and the nihilistic savagery of ISIS. In a psychoanalytic examination in “The Science Behind ISIS Savagery,” neuroscientist Ian Robertson sees the phenomenon of ISIS as having historical resemblances in recent human history, and—although it is not connected to a single religion—the phenomenon is applicable to religious deployment. Robertson traces the emergence of ISIS to five social and psychological factors: savagery begets savagery, submersion in the group, the out-group as objects, revenge, and the role of the leaders.
All such narratives and interpretations, with their genealogical approach, allude to the excessiveness of meaning resulting from the nihilism of savagery in the age of Arab modernity. As Karim Muhammad says in “ISIS Between Embarrassing the Jurist and Reducing the Intellectual,” ISIS is “a sheer metaphysical desperation of the modern times . . . It is a huge camp for nihilists, who posses an excess of meaning. It is a nihilism resulting from the excess of meaning, not its absence.”
A homogenous and solid mixture of factors can cause the emergence of ISIS. Some of the previously discussed narratives can serve as the ground for the springing up of such an organization. In his essay, “The Fathers of ISIS,” Ziad Majed states that ISIS has six “fathers.” They are: occupation, despotism, Iranian sectarian aggressiveness, Gulf Salafism, historical puritanism, and violence. There are two other factors that are deemed central according to Badr al-Ibrahim in “ISIS, Wahhabism and Anathematization: Differences and Similarities”: the disintegration of the legitimacy of the Arab state, and the inequitable globalization as represented by capitalism and the new world order.
By examining the context within which ISIS has emerged, we can identify how and why it was born. ISIS was created in Iraq and the Levant, home of the glories of two historical caliphates and in the environment of two Ba‘thist regimes, one ideologically rightist and the other is leftist. The environment of Iraq has featured British colonialism and then Ba‘thist despotism, only to be followed by US occupation and then sectarian oppression. Syria, however, has witnessed an oppression of a minority targeting the Syrian majority that can hardly be matched. As a phenomenon, ISIS developed in the fourth year of the Syrian revolution—a year that came at the heels of three years of peaceful activism, the birth of the Free Army, and subsequently the emergence of the armed brigades with Jihadist tendencies. All these brigades came together in a larger formation, and then consequently fragment and divide among themselves according to respective loyalties and changes in funding—or rather changes in the policies of Gulf financiers, as well as the differences among these financiers, both as regimes, or among themselves as individuals and regimes altogether. In the beginning, the objective of the Syrian revolution was nothing other than changing the regime, creating a civil state, and eradicating political absolutism which has suffocated all things wordily by the retrieval of words like “eternity” and “resurrection” (which is ba‘th in Arabic)—all of which create a reference to a metaphysical discourse. With the brutality and savagery that the regime has perpetrated, this political absolutism was transformed bit by bit into a metaphysical absolutism that has stifled all things otherworldly in the eyes of the religious and unreligious—so much so that some of these individuals cried out “take your death away and leave our death alone.” In metaphysical eternities, which bring the worldly into becoming otherworldly, an organization like ISIS can be born and can fight with instrumentalism, deploying a nihilist approach, against all local, regional, and international actors and, at the same time, recruit local, regional, and international “metaphysical fighters.” It is not strange in this case that the land of the caliphate then— unlike the case of Afghanistan and other—would attract recruiters from all nationalities. It is not strange then that a British ISIS fighter would slaughter a US journalist on the soil of the promised land of the caliphate. Nor is it strange that an Egyptian ISIS member would kill a Syrian fighter from the Free Army or the Brigade of Islam, since he is part of those “awakening” movements (plural sahawat, singular sahwa) that fight alongside Western states and continue to call for the spread democracy. It is equally not strange that an ISIS soldier would slay a soldier of the Syrian regime for being a Nusairi, Alawi who is an ally of the international “infidel Christianity.” It is also not strange for the caliph to declare his caliphate based on a prophetic method (khilafa ‘ala minhaji al-nubuwwa) but still at the same time call it a modern “state,” which slays its enemies with a knife.
[This article was originally published in Arabic on Jadaliyya. It was translated into English by Tarek Ghanem.]
 For more on this transformation in Wahhabi theory, see the previously cited article by Badr al-Ibrahim.