What Can We Learn From ISIS?

by Theo Poward

The story of ISIS since around 2014 has been one of terrifying spread and painful recovery. It was and is a plague. But unlike medical plagues, it prompts violence in its carriers, violence that destroys the societies that they belong to. The symptoms were obvious, brutish, and well documented. But, the cause has been subject to much debate and still avoids accurate definition in most conversations on the matter. Trying to define the cause, in the hope that we can halt further spread of this disease, is the focus of this piece. To do so, I rely on some brilliant and insightful academic articles that came out early this year.

Why do people turn to groups like ISIS?

Attempts to explain the cause of this sickness fall into two main camps. Those that argue that the cause is Theological, specifically that the problem lies in the theological tradition of Islam itself. The only point of disagreement within this group is whether it is a feature or a bug of Islamic Theology. The other main camp wants to argue that the sickness is born from socioeconomic disenfranchisement. That people only join terrorist groups like ISIS if they see no hope in their future for their voice to be heard or their needs to be met.

There is not enough strong evidence to back up either of these positions. The fact is that while some have found evidence linking a belief in Scriptural Literalism and support for terrorist violence amongst some Muslims, (111, Fair and Salva) this would do little to help us explain where Non-Islamic Terrorism comes from; White Nationalism in the US, for example, does not have a scripture per se to fall back on, so how does this finding help us? 

And to the second point, while there is clear evidence that groups like ISIS are more effective at recruiting members against the backdrop of conflict or repression; the average terrorist is usually no worse off than the average civilian, socio-economically speaking; in fact they are often better educated than the general population. (112, Fair and Salva)

Monotheism and Polytheism

We need a new answer. I propose that the first group is right in arguing that the problem lies in Theology. But they are utterly wrong when they claim that it is a problem with Islamic Theology. Let me explain.

The reason for this mistake comes from how we tend to imagine theological systems. They are imagined as cultural systems, with an emotional / non-rational basis, that (depending on who you listen to) are either locked in eternal conflict with each other, or basically the same when all is said and done. On top of this there are about seven big ones, (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc) and the rest can be grouped together or ignored.

None of this is accurate, and because these thoughts lie as the basic assumptions of any attempt to understand the world, we are woefully ill-equipped to actually understand what something like ISIS represents.

ISIS territory in 2014

Perhaps it is ironic then, that ISIS knew exactly the threat that they represented, because they had to deal with its worst version of it within their own ranks. ISIS, and other extremist groups, are often presented as monolithic in their ideology. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. ISIS’s theology was a plague, and it was itself plagued by theology. Since 2014 to the present, there has been ideological infighting in the Islamic state, primarily in 2014 and then since 2016. ‘Indeed, ideological infighting in the Islamic State has been rampant, with serious consequences for the group’s unity and even perhaps its long-term survivability.’ (12, Bunzel)

Before we get into it. It is important to lay some groundwork. Assessing the theology at play requires a new ways of evaluating theological positions. Instead of monolithic cultural groupings, we need spectrums across which to compare and contrast different theological positions. Luckily for us, ISIS was obsessed with exactly such a spectrum. Although they may not have seen it as such, and many of us may not either.

The Difference between Monotheism and Polytheism, is assumed to be a numeric difference. How many gods do you count? With Atheism as an option for those who refuse to take part in this game. But it is more complicated than this. ISIS knows this, they declare everyone who is not themselves Polytheists. Why? Because they measure belief in a divinity in a functional, and very practical, way.

To understand what a person believes, look at how they act, look at what they devote their lives to, look at what power compels their actions. That is how you understand their theology; it is how you find their god.

Taking this to a deeper level we can see that what is really at play here is the nature of reality. Is reality a complex interplay of different forces, and therefore open for interpretation and change. Or is reality unitary and defined, and therefore there simply to be understood. Are we active in shaping reality; or passive in receiving it? Do many truths exist or does one? It is important to understand this way of thinking about theological difference, because it is actually a much more useful way of assessing different systems. The question of Monotheism and Polytheism is not ‘How many gods exist?’ The debate between these two positions is actually closer to the debate between Universalism and Relativism: How many realities exist?.

We can understand this as a spectrum, with groups like ISIS occupying the very end of the point that belongs to Monotheism. For them there is only one answer for everybody; it is not of regional but cosmic significance. And in the face of this truth there is no negotiation, and no room for compromise. You agree with them, or you are wrong.

By this merit even other Muslims count as polytheists for the simply fact that they vote or accept the laws of a nation state. Because by doing so they accept another god, a nation, that can compel them to act in a certain way, something only God should have the privilege of doing. 

Jihad: Transcendent or Immanent

There is another spectrum that is essential to understanding ISIS’ theology. Thankfully there is a term already in wide circulation that offers a pathway to understanding it.

ISIS are Jihadists, this is not controversial. But Jihad itself is a contested term. There are two types of Jihad; internal and external. And it is important to understand the difference and what principles are at play behind the scenes.

Theologically speaking, the nature of God and the path to salvation directly reflect the nature of evil. How do you picture evil? Is it an internal corrosive force, or an external threat. How do you picture the divine? A transcendent power that calls followers to self-mastery, or an imminent power that calls them to exert control over their surroundings. The answer is never straightforward. But, it translates directly to questions of power, control, and divinity.

The big question is whether we are the source of evil and suffering in the world, or not. If we are the source of evil and suffering then if falls upon us to exert control over ourselves, to stop damaging our surroundings. The struggle with evil here is akin to a possession, we need to regain internal control.

If we are not the source of evil and suffering, then we need to remain vigilant and strong in the face of external threats, and control our surroundings. The struggle with evil here takes the form of a battle, we need to take up arms and armour in order to defeat the monsters at the gate.

As with Monotheism and Polytheism, this is a spectrum. And nowhere is that clearer that the concept in Islamic theology of Jihad. Jihad is the struggle against oppression. But there are different types of Jihad; internal struggle and external struggle. In other words, Islamic theology recognises evil as some combination. An internal corrosive force that can also be an external threat.

al-Baghdadi in 2014

The more we think of evil as external then the more we will want control over our surroundings, we will want power in order to exert this control. This control has a purpose, to purify everything around us, to literally ‘cleanse’ the world of evil so that a proper connection to the divine can be established. Purity, is central to this strand of theological thought.

The point to make, however, is that in mainstream Islam the greater Jihad is the internal one, the evil that should occupy your attention is the evil within yourself. But it is clear that for ISIS this is flipped. Their desire for purity in everything comes before any attempt to struggle with their own demons. This separates them into conflict with the rest of the world.

Nowhere is this clearer than their insistence on strict monotheism, and their readiness to excommunicate, declare takfir, anyone who doesn’t reach certain standards of monotheistic purity. 

Usually in mainline Islam, Sunni or Shia, Declaring someone Takfr (excommunicating them) is a risky business. One Hadith states – “If a man says to his brother, ‘O Unbeliever’, it redounds upon one of them” The message is clear: ‘Do not call someone an unbeliever unless you are absolutely certain.’ (13) The Wahhabi movement within Islam argues that it was a duty to call out polytheism, or insufficient monotheism. (13) If you don’t call it out because you are unsure, then you share in the impurity. 

‘‘The Islamic State, representing the more hardline wing of the jihadi movement, accordingly embraces a more doctrinally exclusivist brand, encouraging takfir (excommunication) of Muslims deemed insufficiantly pure in regard of tawhid (monotheism). The Taliban, for instance, once the vaunted ally and defender of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida, was cast as beyond the pale: a “nationalist” movement all too tolerant of the heretical Shi’a… This led leader in Al Qaida (al Zawahiri) to label the Islamic State extremists.’ (12)

Yes, Al-Qaida, has long considered ISIS to be too extremist. This is because ISIS pushed the logic of this desire for purity to its natural end. And with it, found their own end. Thanks to Cole Bunzel’s work we get to see exactly what this looked like as ISIS pulled itself apart from the inside.

The Ideological conflicts in ISIS

Before we recount this history. It is important to remember two things. First is that most of these events happened within the past 5 years. ISIS is not history, these things are still happening today. Second, we tend to see and think of groups like ISIS as monolithic ideological uniforms, marching with black flag in hand. The following conflict is all internal to ISIS, there is little to no reference to outside groups. It comes to us through ISIS’ own broadcasts, documents that have been found as their territory shank, internet posts, and put together by the hard work of people like Cole Bunzel of Jihadica. Please check out their work. 

The Hazimis

According to Bunzel, the conflict can be traced back to an obscure, middle-aged Saudi scholar from Mecca, called Ahmad ibn ‘Umar al-Hazimi. al-Hazimi gained a following while preaching in Tunisia in 2011 following the revolution there. 

In 2013 he explicitly argued against the defence of ignorance when dealing with polytheists. If you fail to excommunicate a polytheist, then you share in their sin whether you were certain they were guilty or not. This extends to people who vote in elections, or supplicate the dead. No room for interpretation is left, if an action might denote polytheism, then the person must be a polytheist, and if a muslim fails to excommunicate them then they share in the polytheism. This thought animated a wing of the Islamic State, The Hazimis (13). This group were represented by a Tunisian named Abu Ja’far al-Hattab.

Other members of ISIS recognised that if people could declare takfir, excommunicate, others so easily, then the society would be pulled apart by ‘Takfir with infinite regress’ (14). 

This group, the Hazimis, were deemed dangerous for the Islamic State. In 2014 seventy were executed, including al-Hattab, after being imprisoned and tortured. Fifty escaped to Turkey. Some even formed sleeper cells, intent on overthrowing the Caliphate from within for being insufficiently monotheistic.

The Methodological Committee

A new issue arose among Saudi IS members, who debated whether takfir, excommunicating unbelievers, was foundational to Islam, or a requirement for Muslims. The issue was raised by an internal investigator al-Bin’ali in a letter written in february 2016. He was worried that if it is foundational, as ISIS had officially stated, then surely the Hazimi group was right in their insistence on ignorance being no defence. (14) He was basically worried that ISIS’s ideological posture lent logically fed into this society-destroying chain of excommunication. And this needed to be clarified, he could perhaps be described as a moderate, as far as ISIS is concerned. He also believed that Muslims living outside of ISIS’ territory could still be considered Muslims, if lapsed, rather than the official position, that they were unbelievers.

Soon afterwards, an official committee argued for the opposite of al-Bin’ali’s concerns. They thought that in fact ISIS should be more ready and happy to excommunicate others. 

The committee agreed with the problem of endless excommunication was serious, but also that excommunicating polytheists should not be postponed for any reason, and banned discussion about whether it was a foundational principle or a requirement. (15) This was seen as a compromise, and it was made through the effort of a man called Al-Furqan who had been warned by Al-bin’ali about the extremists within ISIS.

The Takfir Memorandum and the Scholarly Backlash

Al-Furqan, the man who wrote the compromise was killed in an airstrike in 2016 (15). Shortly afterwards, the theological conflict rose up again. Al-Furqan’s replacement, Al-Wad’ani, sided with the ‘New Extremists on the issue of declaring takfir foundational to Islam’ (16)

This lead to al-Bin’ali and other scholarly, “moderates” breaking protocol and publicly disagreeing with the declaration.

al-Bin’ali was killed in an airstrike on may 31st 2017. Another of his allies was killed in an airstrike soon afterward. Their supporters suspected that their locations had been leaked to the enemy, as a politically expedient way of removing them. Another ally, Abu Muhammad al-Hasimi, made this accusation explicit in July 2017. He accused extremist committee members of killing Scholars (16). It was denied. The following month, August 2017, another of their allies was killed in an airstrike (17).

This was open warfare. As Bunzel writes:

 ‘Extremist figures such as Abu Hafs al Wad’ani were using their newfound power to isolate and perhaps even eliminate the scholars. Naturally, the latter were losing confidence in the Islamic State’s leadership, and some, such as al-Hashimi, were on the verge of leaving the caliphate altogether. At this point, al-Baghdadi realized that he needed to intervene before the scholars and their supporters completely abandoned ship.’ (17)

The “Return to the Truth”

Al-Baghdadi gave more support to the scholars. Reforming the Delegated Committee, overturning the previous ruling, naming the excommunication of polytheists as a requirement not a foundation, and imprisoning the extremists.

ISIS territory 2017

One of those extremists, Al-Wad’ani was imprisoned, he escaped as the IS territory shrank, wrote a letter to Baghdadi saying that this new course was tearing the Caliphate in two. He was recaptured and executed by the IS as a defector. (17)

Meanwhile, the scholars were unsatisfied by what they saw as half-hearted support from al-Baghdadi, some of their work was withheld, and any dissent from their side was attacked under Baghdadi’s leadership.

Needless to say, Baghdadi’s compromise was unpopular. He couldn’t find a middle ground, arguably because one did not exist. Instead he tried ‘papering over the ideological divisions in the Islamic State’ (18). Bunzel reminds us to see the wider context: 

‘What is most striking about the ideological infighting described above is that much of it has coincided with a pivotal moment in the Islamic State’s history – namely, its loss of the vast majority of its territorial holdings in Iraq and Syria between 2016 and 2017, These setbacks, rather than distracting from theological debates, have instead intensified and exacerbated them.’ (18)

ISIS is not defeated, but seeing this inherent weakness has seen leaders in the relatively moderate Al-Qaida offering a home for the ‘disaffected moderates who are threatening to leave the IS.’ (18)

As far as we know, this is the current state of affairs within ISIS. A fragile peace held together by a dictatorial central power that bans discussion of their animating theology, because whenever discussion does happen it becomes clear just how dangerous it is.

Conclusion – What is the lesson we can take?

al-Baghdadi earlier this year, 2019

The desire for purity of whatever position becomes extremism. Monotheism is not the problem here, we should be able to think that we are right and that other people are wrong without wanting to kill those people. Monotheism doesn’t make extremists. No, the path to extremism is the desire for a pure society. This is the logic behind takfir of infinite regress. This was recognised as dangerous even by ISIS members for the very practical reason that it tears society apart. Driving people kill each other until there is no-one left.

ISIS teach us one thing: even members of ISIS realised that focusing in on purity, with no compromise, no negotiation, no nuance, it is the path of self destruction. 

Ironically this lesson may be more real to the moderate (relatively speaking) members of ISIS. Because they saw the deaths happen in front of them. But, it is essential to note that this is increasingly a global problem. Borders are being strengthened, nuance is being destroyed. And along with this, all the people who live in borderlands and are born from nuance are being killed. This is happening across the world.

Let’s return to the problem we started with: Why do we have such a hard time identifying that which draws people to extremism? Well, if it truly is the quest for purity then it makes sense that we wouldn’t recognise it, or even want to recognise it. Because the very same problem exists in every society around the world. 

We can’t blame it on Islam, because its just as easy to see the same desire for purity in Christianity, Hinduism, and even more strongly in practically every nationalist system around the world. The problem isn’t socio-economic status, because rich and successful people crave purity just as much as the poor and dispossessed do. The lesson from ISIS does not tell us about Muslims or the Middle East, it tells us about Humanity, and it is a threat, a cautionary tale. 

For us this increased desire for purity plays out as a general background slow burn of an existential crisis, not a literal life and death struggle to free ourselves from the black hole of purity. We are far enough from it to only see the symptoms, whereas ISIS occupied the brink. They declared a caliphate on the ideological territory of an event horizon. And, staring into the void, too late recognised the forces they were playing with were out of their control.

Purity is baked into how we imagine theology. The idea that you must belong to one, or none, of the great theological traditions. The idea that they are either all right in their own way, or that they are all wrong. Both of these are very widely held starting assumptions with Theology. They also do violence to the real lived complexities that come when humans try to engage properly with what they believe the nature of reality to be.

Things need to change.


Bunzel, Cole. “Ideological Infighting in the Islamic State.” Perspectives on Terrorism 13, no. 1 (2019): 12-21. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26590504.

Fair, C. Christine, and Samta Savla. “Understanding Muslims’ Support for Suicide Bombing in West Africa: A Replication Study.” Perspectives on Terrorism 13, no. 1 (2019): 105-22. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26590512.

Mironova, Vera. “Who Are the ISIS People?” Perspectives on Terrorism 13, no. 1 (2019): 32-39. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26590506.