ISIS’s compounded ignorance is criminal but not a theology

by Dr. Hatem Bazian, on Academia 

The recent New York Times article “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape” (,
exposing the group’s attempt to provide a religious rationalization for its
pervasive use of rape in its ongoing grotesque war in Iraq and Syria, is
disturbing on many fronts. Most disturbing is ISIS’s attempt to codify “sex
slavery in conquered regions of Iraq and Syria” into some type of legal
reasoning by using classical Islamic sources—an attempt that is then deployed
“as a recruiting tool.” The article’s distressing details certainly point to a
case of compounded ignorance, but I am sure such crimes do not deserve to be
referred to as theology. Placing the
terms theology and rape in the same sentence provides
legitimacy to a criminal enterprise—which ISIS certainly is—and grants it the
respectability it so much desires. A criminal citing any reason or religious
text for his or her crime does not make that atrocious act less criminal, nor
does it make those who take the classical sources and tradition seriously
somehow implicitly connected to what is being done.
article comes on the heels of an earlier Atlantic
piece, “What ISIS Really Wants” (,
which asserted that ISIS is actually an Islamic group. The Atlantic’s piece depended on the opinion of one academic expert,
who afterward distanced himself from the article’s
framing but essentially gave the academic veneer stating, “In fact, much of
what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully
considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal
environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.”  The article forcefully claimed that “the
Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and
adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle
East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives
from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”

The question about whether ISIS is Islamic
is the incorrect question to ask in the first place. Rather, we should ask
whether ISIS’s actions and legal reasoning are consistent with Islamic legal
discourses, as codified and practiced at present by 1.4 billion Muslims, or how
far off ISIS is in its angry ignorance. Merely citing classical texts and sources
in a sophisticated manner does not by itself justify the actions of rape and
slavery, nor legitimize rulings that support those actions. Similarly, by
citing his opposition to modern economics, a bank robber does not make robbing
a bank any less of a criminal act, even if a large number of people are
sympathetic to his views.
With respect to the NYT article, it must be stressed that rape and sexual violence are
about power, control, and domination—regardless of who is undertaking these
acts and what rationalizations (including religious) are given. These acts
should be dealt with as criminal activity, and in the case of ISIS, they
constitute a deliberate war crime. Through rape, men express a distorted sense
of masculinity. They use rape as a tool for control, domination, and systematic
abuse, which they then rationalize on the basis of tribalism, cultural norms,
nationalism, ideology, religion, financial gains, and legitimate or re-imagined
historical grievances. Rape is a grave crime and should be dealt with
ISIS is a modern phenomenon that uses
classical sources to rationalize a predetermined course of action: rape as an
instrument of war. Rape as an instrument of war has been deployed more
frequently in human conflicts than we are ready to admit. We prefer not to
confront this topic because it raises more questions than it answers about the
propensity of human beings to become evil incarnate in warfare as they inflict
unimagined suffering on fellow human beings.
ISIS’s rape strategy is a “shock and awe”
deployed to cause fear and wreak havoc among its supposed enemies, which in
this case are the Yazidis in Iraq. The Yazidis are a traditional, tight-knit
community, who have been living peacefully in the area for hundreds of years,
with family honor, honesty, and good character as their foundational
attributes. ISIS’s use of terror, beheading, and rape is criminally strategic,
intended to force the Yazidis to flee and abandon their homes and towns.
Unfortunately, based on the evidence visible across northern Iraq and Syria,
this strategy has been successful. In this context, it is not theology that is
at work, but a cunning genocidal military strategy that is bent on ethnic
cleansing and that uses religious texts as a foil for followers and victims
alike. The problem with framing this strategy, as theology, is the implication
that it is rooted somehow legitimately in Islam itself. This is far from the
case. Anyone who thinks religion can be used to condone murder, rape, behead, and
make life a real living hell for people has a warped and sick view of God, the
Qur’an itself, and the Prophetic tradition.
article refocused and energized another assault on Islam’s presumed
inferiorities and the supposed inability of the tradition to deal with the
challenges of the modern world. So far, the debate has been intense, with a
laser focus on Islam, slavery, rape, minority rights, marriage, gender
relations, sexuality, wahhabism, salafism, Sufism, and whatever other issues we
consider relevant. Now, I am not challenging the factual evidence of the
article. Certainly, the article contains factual and accurate elements that
cannot be disputed. The wrenching narrative of the young girls who suffered at
the hands of ISIS is a reminder of the seriousness of the challenge we face in
confronting these criminals. If anything, ISIS’s approach is a clear example of
compounded ignorance due to the erroneous use of classical sources to support a
criminal and genocidal campaign against innocent people, including many
Muslims, who have been killed at the hands of these psychopaths. A large number
of Muslim scholars (
have already articulately refuted the arguments and rationalizations put forth
by ISIS, but more needs to be done on this front.
No one of rational mind disputes the
sickness manifested by ISIS in its attempts to use rape and slavery as
structured instruments of violence in the conduct of modern warfare (in this
case, directed at the Yazidis). Calling their actions theology is an insult to the term itself. Rape is rape, and it has
no religious justification, regardless of what a hundred or more classical
sources may say about the matter. Globally, law and society no longer accept
the practices of holding human beings in bondage or of capturing women and
selling them into slavery. This is true, regardless of religion, culture,
ethnicity, or nationality. In ISIS, we see a group of sick human beings who
claim a religious purpose for something that is not even worthy of being placed
in a garbage dump, let alone being called a theology.
Some have taken ISIS’s defense of slavery
and rape as a reason to revisit and debate the classical sources themselves.
This is always a welcome endeavor. However, in this case, it misses the point
that Muslim jurists have adopted the legal position that slavery is prohibited.
In 55 majority Muslim countries today, the existing Shari’a rulings and
practices reflect this position. The fact that ISIS dredged up classical
sources that are rich in evidence adjudicating and sanctioning slavery is not
sufficient reason to ignore existing rulings on the abolishment of slavery
across the Muslim world. The question of why Muslims in the past supported and
engaged in slavery is a completely different question and should be
disconnected from the debate and discussions about ISIS. 
It is accurate to say ISIS has relied on
and extensively cited classical authoritative sources to justify its murderous
and grotesque actions, which is a problem in itself. However, citing classical
text is essential for the group to project credibility through usurping the
ethos of the Revelation and the Prophetic tradition to support its current war.
In this context, the tradition is an instrument to gain and achieve power, no
matter what the consequences or the trail of blood left behind, including the
negation of the tradition it claims to defend. I am not one to focus on
respecting Islamic tradition just because it is a tradition; rather, I view it
as a body of texts, sources, and rulings that have evolved over generations and
that have become a tool to guide Muslims toward ethical and moral life within a
diverse world. The tradition is a vehicle with which to cross the worldly bridge,
and not an object of worship or veneration in and of itself. For ISIS, the
tradition has become both the object and the vehicle itself; thus, losing its
ethical and moral dimensions and assuming a merely utilitarian function.
The actions by ISIS are being used as an
opportunity to call again for Muslims to “reform” their tradition or to reject
Islam as unfit for modernity and the world we all share. This call is insidious
because it makes condemnation of ISIS the launching pad for a sweeping attack on
Islam itself and all Muslims. Most Muslims have nothing in common with those
joining this murderous group; in fact, the overwhelming majority of ISIS’s
victims have been Muslims. ISIS men say, “Obey us or you will die,” while
others take the opportunity to say, “You are dying because you are not
reforming.” In other words, it is their fault for taking Islam as a living
tradition seriously.
The legal distinction between Muslims,
Yazidis, Christians, and Jews that ISIS uses as the basis for differential
treatment is present in classical pre-modern sources and was informed by the
political, social, economic, and religious structures operative during earlier
periods. The pre-modern Muslim society was organized on a confessional basis,
and group relations and rights with existing authorities were regulated by it.
At present, the political structure has shifted into a citizenship-based
relationship, with rights and responsibilities regulated by a constitution.
Despite the distorted ways through which these documents came into existence,
people for the most part respect and adhere to them across the Muslim world.
What people protest and oppose is their leaders’ complete disregard for the
principles enshrined in these constitutions. The classical distinction made in
the pre-modern period is used by ISIS to give credence to its murderous and
abusive ways toward Yazidis in particular, and also at times toward Christians,
Kurds and Shia. Muslims desire more than anything else to uphold the high
Islamic ideals contained in their respective country’s constitutions. They want
justice, fairness, equality, and dignity to be the standards for all in
society. Yet ISIS has manipulated these standards through their propaganda
campaign. Defeating ISIS will not be accomplished by attempting to murder and
prosecute Islam itself; this would be a doubly failed approach. Affirming
Islam’s universal and normative values is the antidote to ISIS’s claim of
authenticity and creditability.
The next critical item in the NYT article is the issue of forced
sexual relations with slaves and marital rape. No one should dispute the
presence in classical sources of amble evidence pointing to sanctioning a
husband’s right to forced sexual intercourse with his wife or slave, as well as
various rationalizations for slavery. Any tradition that spans 1436 years and
that covers diverse regions, cultures, and ethnicities will have enough sources
to argue almost any point with or without references to an exact text. Again,
the focus should be on ISIS’s crimes and its attempt to reopen the door to
legal slavery, which the 55 Muslim majority countries and the Muftis and
scholars across the spectrum have already rejected. The sources from the past
are still available, with extensive records of cases pertaining to slavery, but
the first question that must be asked is, what is the present-day ruling on
slavery in the Muslim world? Slavery is prohibited, and only ISIS and its
followers are calling for it to be brought back. This puts them in the same
category as the Ku Klux Klan (
in the US, and they should be regarded and treated as is the KKK and not
projected as the norm.
I make a distinction between Islam as a
lived tradition within history by Muslims (who brought existing social,
political, cultural, economic, religious, gender, and tribal understandings
into their interpretations) and the word of God itself. The word of God was
given to humans so they could understand and deduce from it ethical and moral
rules and regulations that they could live by and that could guide society. It
should not surprise anyone that humans have failed to live up to and uphold the
ideals contained in the revealed texts. At various periods in the past, Muslims
bought and sold slaves and did rationalize the institution of slavery through
the use of certain texts. As a matter of fact, a number of Muslim dynasties emerged
and were led by slaves; for example, the Mamluks in Egypt and the critical role-played
by Janissary in the Ottoman State. These examples point to the integration of
the institution of slavery into societies’ macro and micro practices. Also,
Islamic history has amble evidence of slave revolts and resistance to the
institution during the pre-modern and early modern periods.
Often Muslims are quick to state that
slaves in the Muslim world were treated well, and indeed their living
conditions and treatment were nothing like what was experienced in the New
World. However, this fact should not blind people toward the ethical and moral
issues of slavery. A simple defensive attitude is not a sufficient response to
the evils of slavery. We can be critical of the institution of slavery that was
maintained and expanded by Muslims in the past, just as we must be critical of
and forceful in opposing the slave trade that was carried out in the New World,
that ravaged Africa, and that continues to shape discourses related to the
African diaspora. Although differences between these situations are important
and should be highlighted, the ethical and moral arguments at the foundation of
both are likewise critical.
The institution of slavery and the sexual
relations forced upon enslaved women are serious issues with which we have to
contend in Muslim history. Confronting the complexity and errors of the past
does not diminish or undermine our ideals; rather, it strengthens those ideals
and makes it possible to constantly engage in corrective measures. Law is born
out of social conditions, and the prevailing social, political, economic, and
gender condition likewise influenced the interpretations of revealed texts.
This principle should not be a surprise or a new issue because all existing
schools of Islamic jurisprudence have accounted for it and in particular the
role of custom as a valid independent source for the law. We can assert that
this was the accepted global norm; however, we must also ask what made the
institution possible, and why the revealed ideals did not produce an end to
slavery in the formative period or until the early 20th century.
This is the critical issue at hand.
We are certain that the Qur’an neither
categorically prohibited slavery nor affirmatively called for individuals to be
enslaved, and the same generally can be said of the authoritative Prophetic
tradition. We find a number of verses that speak to and call for the better
treatment of slaves, as well as provide ways to expiate religious shortcomings
through manumission of slaves. Islam did not call for an end to slavery, and
Muslims have to contend with this fact not in an apologetic manner shaped by
the present, but through an attempt to decipher the structures that militated
against such a call in the formative period and the decades thereafter. More
critically, Muslims who are serious about the tradition—and I consider myself
such a person—must undertake a critique of early sources that provide the
context for extending and sanctioning a pernicious Muslim institution of
slavery that was integrated into the broader global slave market. I believe we
can be ethical and moral on this question, as well as consistent in opposing
slavery in all its forms, articulations, and modalities. The Qur’an and Islam
are not diminished if we undertake such a critique, which would be rooted
within the spirit of the revelation. If God ennobles every human being, and
justice and mercy are at the root of Islam, then slavery (even if it is
purported to be humane) runs contrary to this basic epistemic and is ethically
and morally repugnant.
I am fully cognizant of and constantly
working to resolve any problems associated with examining earlier periods in
human history, including Islam, through a contemporary ethical and moral lens.
This practice often implies attaching superior principles to the present state
of affairs. Surely, we can readily list improvements in the contemporary
period, as well as shifts in the legal standards that provide greater
protection for human beings across the world. However, at the same time, the
rate of death and destruction visited upon the world in the last hundred years
challenges the efficacy of these developments. More alarmingly, some of the
countries and societies that have been at the forefront in the development of
legal norms and human rights standards have collectively been the primary
agents subverting these same international codes and engaging in massive
violations and crimes against humanity. I bring this up not to diminish the
progress made but to remedy the propensity to privilege contemporary voices in
examining the past, while silence is offered and defended concerning the mass
slaughter being done in front of the world’s eyes and live on TV and the
Internet. The same people who look and write scornfully about the Muslim past
are embedded in fomenting and defending the current regional wars, often for no
other reason than to secure or outright steal oil and natural resources.
Should it be less ethically and morally
repugnant to invade a country and cause the death of 2.5 million under made-up
and false pretexts if it is done by the so-called civilized world? Are rape,
dehumanization, and torture in Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, Black sites and rendition
more acceptable and not an ethical and moral crisis because the subject is a
Muslim? Should it be less an ethical and moral crisis if death comes by an
invisible drone raining death on a wedding party and obliterating the bodies of
those nameless and faceless Muslims in an imagined Middle Eastern geography?
Now, the so-called civilized suits sitting
in boardrooms and the embedded experts on TV will scream, and the Internet
trolls will come out and insist there is no equivalency between ISIS and
violence undertaken to “defend civilization.” This approach should be called
what it is: a red herring intended to obscure the real issues at hand and to
obfuscate the cause of the ongoing violence in the region. The question to be
asked of all those championing the supposed right to use violence to defend
civilization is what part of civilization do they purport to defend: oil;
Chevron; Shell; Halliburton; Blackwater (now named Academi,;
HSBC; Goldman Sachs; or the European Central Bank? Here, the civilizations
being defended are reduced to the priorities of the 1% and the corporations
they hold dear and consider more valuable than people across the globe. This is
not a clash of civilizations, but a capitalist, neo-liberal greed machine
focused on profits in the here. It is not an issue of theology or of the
prophets calling all to plan for the hereafter but the mighty dollar that is
the object of worship.
Why and how ISIS arrived at this grotesque
approach is worthy of study and analysis because their emergence in the region
is directly connected to the failed and presently disastrous invasion of Iraq.
What type of theology was needed to invade Iraq? And was the realm secured by
it or do we also need to invade and obliterate Iran for the capitalist gods to
be satisfied? Do success (
or rapture theology (
have anything to offer? And are we all waiting for Jesus’ return so we can
crucify him anew for chasing money changers’ out of the temple? The questions
about ISIS should be asked of all those who pushed and lobbied their way into
the so-called clean break (
and the Iraq invasion without thinking about the short- and long-term
consequences. ISIS is the product of the clean break and the shock and awe
policies, which so far have produced the most inhumane and indeed grotesque
violence and despicable rape cases.
Let’s ask Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and
Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and American Enterprise Institute experts about the
messiness of democracy and the “pottery” they destroyed (
Secretary of State Colin Powell was correct when he stated that “if you break
it, you own it.” This means the Neo-Cons own the deed for the Iraq mess,
including ISIS, because they come from the same ideological progeny of “ends
justify the means” logic. In a speech in 2004, the late Senator Edward Kennedy
pointedly named Wolfowitz and other Neo-Cons who wrote President Clinton in
1997 to urge the use of military force in Iraq: “The only acceptable strategy
is one that eliminates the possibility that Iraq will be able to use or threaten
to use weapons of mass destruction. In the near term, this means a willingness
to undertake military action, as diplomacy is clearly failing. In the long
term, it means removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power. That now
needs to become the aim of American foreign policy.” Senator Kennedy emphasized:
“We cannot simply walk away from the wreckage of a war we never should
have fought so that President Bush can wage a political campaign based on
dubious boasts of success” (
Senator Kennedy went on to say: “A recent
report by the Carnegie Endowment concluded that administration officials
systematically misrepresented the threat from Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and
biological weapons programs. They also concluded that the intelligence
community was unduly influenced by the policymakers’ views and intimidating
actions, such as Vice President Cheney’s repeated visits to CIA headquarters
and demands by officials for access to the raw intelligence from which the
analysts were working. The report also noted the unusual speed with which the
National Intelligence Estimate was written and the high number of dissents in
what is designed to be a consensus document” (
For many, the debate about Iraq’s invasion
is academic because we have moved past the question of how we got into the
mess. What we need now is a strategy to get out of it. In reality, the debate
is not academic. Responsibility for the emergence of ISIS and all the
subsequent terrorism in the region should first and foremost be placed at the
desk of the Bush administration and all the Neo-Cons still setting in offices
and currently urging for another war in Iran. These are the merchants of death
and the salesmen of war and destruction, and ISIS was born in their poisoned
and tortured wards. The fact that ISIS is using Islamic sources should not stop
us from engaging in a sound analysis of the real causes of what is taking place
in the region. Yes, Islamic texts are used by ISIS, but the cause of the
conflict is not religious; rather, it derives from a complex set of economic,
political, social, tribal, cultural, post-colonial, and neo-liberal
privatization failures that coalesced in the region and caused a collapse of
the old order. By reducing the complex factors into one (i.e., Islam and the
use of classical sources), we produce a dumbed down understanding of what is
Why is it that ISIS emerged in Iraq,
specifically after the US invasion and collapse of the central state? Why is
ISIS spreading in Syria, Sinai, Yemen, and Libya, and what are the factors at
play? Who and what countries supported the rise of ISIS by providing financing,
equipment, training, and logistical support in the initial stage, and why? What
role is being played by intelligence services in the region and outside that
are focused on the supposed Iranian nuclear threat, and how does ISIS function
within the broader containment strategy under way? What role is played by Israel
in this current containment strategy, and what new regional alliances and
coalitions are formed under the pretext of fighting ISIS, but in reality are
directed at Iran? More pointedly, what is the strategic thinking relative to
oil and natural gas in the region, and to the ongoing competition with China on
the one hand and the European Union’s dependency on supplies from the region on
the other hand?
All these questions and more are not asked.
The only dumbed-down argument is one directed to cause a mad rush to the
library to read classical Muslim sources on slavery, sexual relations with
enslaved women, permissibility of concubines, and a host of other important
historical materials. None of that will give a meaningful answer about why ISIS
exists, why now, and why in Iraq and Syria.