Why ISIS is a Muslim problem

A young Singaporean man, Sulaiman Daud, had a Facebook post that called Muslims to own the “Islamic problem” that is ISIS. It went quite viral. I tried looking for the post, but it seems that, for whatever reasons, it is unavailable. But many various websites (e.g. Mothership.sg) have already reproduced his post in full.

I think there are three ways (though that may not be what Sulaiman intended to imply) to interpret why ISIS is a Muslim problem. First, ISIS poses real problems for the vast majority of Muslims. Second, ISIS is a result of the way some Muslims interpret Islam. Third, the problem of ISIS can only be solved by Muslims being an integral part of the solution.

First, ISIS poses real problems for the vast majority of Muslims. As a result of the acts of terror by Islamic extremists, Muslims who live in predominantly white nations such as USA and Australia, have to put up with increasing anti-Islam sentiments. Perhaps this is exactly what ISIS wants. Because this will make more Muslims, especially the youths, feel disenfranchised and thus drive them to join ISIS.

Second, ISIS is a result of the way some Muslims interpret Islam. As the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology puts it, to say that ISIS is un-Islamic is to have a “cotton-candy view” of Islam. He goes on to say, “People want to absolve Islam. It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.”

Indeed, many of the things that ISIS does is in The Koran. For example, the Koran specifies crucifixion as the only punishment permitted for enemies of Islam. The tax on Christians finds clear endorsement in the Surah Al-Tawba, the Koran’s ninth chapter, which instructs Muslims to fight Christians and Jews “until they pay the jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” The Koran also does prescribe that those who do not believe be struck upon the necks, presumably so that they are beheaded, as well as to cut off the hands of thieves.

The Koran also does speak of creating a caliphate, which is the ultimate goal of ISIS:

God has promised those of you who have attained to faith and do righteous deeds that, of a certainty, He will make them Khulifa on earth, even as He caused [some of] those who lived before them to become Khulifa; and that, of a certainty, He will firmly establish for them the religion which He has been pleased to bestow on them; and that, of a certainty, He will cause their erstwhile state of fear to be replaced by a sense of security [seeing that] they worship Me [alone], not ascribing divine powers to aught beside Me. But all who, after [having understood] this, choose to deny the truth – it is they, they who are truly iniquitous!” [24:55] (Surah Al-Nur, Verse 55)

Leaders of the Islamic State have taken emulation of Muhammad as strict duty, and have revived traditions that have been dormant for hundreds of years. “What’s striking about them is not just the literalism, but also the seriousness with which they read these texts,” Haykel said. “There is an assiduous, obsessive seriousness that Muslims don’t normally have.”

Of course, many other Muslims will say that ISIS has taken these Koranic verses out of context and misinterpreted them. Or that the practices that ISIS is adopting, though prescribed in the Koran, are anachronistic and not suitable for this historical juncture. But, as Haykel explains, “The only principled ground that the Islamic State’s opponents could take is to say that certain core texts and traditional teachings of Islam are no longer valid”. And to some Muslims, this is considered apostasy.

The way that the Muslims drawn to ISIS interprets the Koran is certainly problematic. But it isn’t the only one. In fact, some Muslims have countered that the Koran in many places specifically commands against the sort of violence that ISIS is perpetrating. For instance, the Koran equates one murder to the elimination of the whole human race (5:32), and considers persecution and disorder on earth as an even worse offense (2:217). It emphasises peace, justice and human rights. It champions freedom of conscience and forbids worldly punishment for apostasy and blasphemy. And, apparently the Prophet Muhammed had warned against the rise of religious extremists such as ISIS.

Lastly, because ISIS is, in part, a problem of how some Muslims interpret Islam, the problem can only be solved by Muslims being an integral part of the solution.  Ali A. Rizvi, a Canadian writer and physician, wrote an open letter to moderate Muslims in Huffingtonpost, calling for more Islamic reformers. While he does not specifically suggest what sort of reforms are needed, other people have.

One possible reform is to promote what’s known as the quietist Salafism as a viable extreme to the violent Salafism of ISIS. The first priority of quietist Salafists is personal purification and religious observance, and they believe anything that thwarts those goals—such as causing war or unrest that would disrupt lives and prayer and scholarship—is forbidden. Quietist Salafis believe that Muslims should direct their energies toward perfecting their personal life, including prayer, ritual, and hygiene. Through this fastidious observance, they believe, God will favor them with strength and numbers, and perhaps a caliphate will arise. At that moment, Muslims will take vengeance and, yes, achieve glorious victory. But they believe that this will  only happen through the righteous will of God. Not human action.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb suggests another equally radical reform. He suggests to focus on changing the Wahhabi/Salafi education that results in “the promotion of intolerance by which a Shiite or a Yazidi or a Christian are deviant people.” He suggests that “o correct the profound Saudi problem, we need to start by sending to them our preachers, educating them into tolerance, explaining the very concept of the separation of church and state. Or, better even, encourage Muslim preachers who promote religious tolerance (“laka dinak wa li dini“) — instead of seeing them ostracized.”

Whatever the reforms needed, I believe that because the problem of ISIS is a problem for Muslims, of how Muslims interpret Islam, it can only be solved by Muslims being an integral part of the solution. Do not get me wrong. Unlike Nassim, I do not believe that the West has no part to play in solving this problem. They do. As do we all. But Muslims MUST play an equal, if not bigger role, in the solution. Or as Sulaiman Daud puts it: own the problem.


3 thoughts on “Why ISIS is a Muslim problem

  1. Yes. I am substantially in agreement.

    It’s OUR problem; hopefully we have the will, the stamina and the gumption to seek out and address hard truths, by calling a spade a spade, we MAY one day find ourselves making a real difference. But so long as we advocate soft pedaling in the mistaken (.. speaking only for myself..) hope of preserving bruised egos/feelings at the expense of harsh reality, we only hone our skills at double-talk and in the event we actually do succeed, we only mask the truth and sabotage an already almost impossible task.

    In every way worthwhile, Sulaiman Daud stands head and shoulders above most of us. He and others like him are my inspiration.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “But so long as we advocate soft pedaling in the mistaken (.. speaking only for myself..) hope of preserving bruised egos/feelings at the expense of harsh reality”

      With regards to this, I think Nassim Nicholas Taleb did it best in his article pointing out that we need to address Saudi Wahabism if we want to truly solve the ISIS issue. Very hard hitting that one.


      • Thank you for the lead. I think I did come across that particular view and thought process before.

        You know, I did say what I said above but when actually faced with the kind of fare NNT serves up, I often find myself somewhat deflated and frustrated. How can such a harsh reality (..if indeed, it is in fact a reality …) even begin to gain traction ….. firmly entrenched, enormously powerful and wealthy, vested interests; manipulated needy desperate masses; and an essentially indifferent global community … ever find enough common ground to come together.

        And even if considering much more palatable, significantly less violent initiatives? So much water has passed under the bridge, and so many positions have been dug-in so deep, so tenaciously, is there still enough common ground left on which to begin to build foundations for effective, meaningful solutions. Considering who are the principal players onstage and the sometimes not so shadowy ones backstage, all in the context of recent history, will they, can they, realistically be expected to achieve consensus collectively? Most regrettably, I must confess I am hard-pressed for hope or for optimism.

        Then again, the voice of reason tempered by innate wisdom, does sometimes speak up and is heard above the deafening silence. For now, I fear it has to suffice. But I am grateful we heard one such voice just now.

        Thank you for addressing this conundrum.

        Liked by 1 person

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