The evil of ISIS has been filling news bulletins with stories that seem to be incessantly in competition to show how low the human being can get. From slaughtering innocent people in unimaginable savagery, to trading sex slaves, to destroying religious and historical sites, ISIS has made the terror of the likes of al-Qaeda and Taliban look rather constrained, which is some feat in its own right. No wonder that even al-Qaeda has condemned ISIS.
One depressing way of being reminded of ISIS is the news of people abandoning their studies, jobs, and families to swap their civilized, peaceful lives with living under ISIS. We have seen in the past foreign young males join terror groups like al-Shabab in Somalia and al-Qaeda’s various offshoots. But none of these savage groups managed to create the appeal of ISIS. News reports have been talking about young girls from Europe and elsewhere crossing the Turkey borders into Syria to become jihadist brides. Even whole families have been travelling to live under ISIS.
ISIS and other terror groups have a lot in common, but ISIS has managed to create something the other groups have failed to do: the dream — or, more accurately, nightmare —of an “Islamic state.” It has enforced this perception by its cleverly chosen name. It further strengthened its manipulation of misguided Muslims by calling its head “caliph,” thus invoking another, related concept — “caliphate” — that those Muslims yearn for.
The concept of “Islamic state,” which basically means one that is fully based on Shariʿa law, has unique attraction for some Muslims. Its effect is powerful enough to stop its believers from seeing the crimes of such a state regardless of how despicable and un-Islamic they are. This dangerous intoxication with the concept of “Islamic state” is the result of giving it religious significance it does not have and never had. Seekers and supporters of the Islamic state often believe that Islam can be fully practiced only under an Islamic political system. The more extreme devotees think that an Islamic state is so critical to Islam that establishing one is a major, if not the most important, duty of the Muslim. They almost equate it to Islam itself, seeing what is practiced by and in an Islamic state as a true representation of Islam.
Yet Islam is first, foremost, and ultimately about the relationship between the individual and Allah. The servant can get near to their Lord regardless of the political environment in which they live. An individual would not become a better Muslim, for example, if they moved from the UK to live in an Islamic country, such as Saudi Arabia or Iran. The spiritual connection that the Muslim has with Allah transcends any environment in which the Muslim lives. The Qur’an, for instance, gives many examples of people who were so close to Allah despite living in communities that did not share their faith and even treated it with extreme hostility.
Muslims who join ISIS or go to live in territories it controls often feel that this would further strengthen their faith. Unfortunately for them, that could never happen. While the relationship with Allah can be affected by the kind of company one keeps, living under Islamic law or not does not affect that relationship in any way. The Qur’an repeatedly says that one’s relationship with Allah is strengthened by faith and good works, including worship, in particular “dhikr (remembrance)” of Allah, as in this verse: “Remember Me and I will remember you” (2.152). There isn’t the slightest hint that living in an Islamic state has anything to do with one’s nearness to Allah. Seeking better practice of Islam and a closer relationship with Allah by looking for an Islamic state is nothing but a misunderstanding of Islam. Islam is a state of heart and mind, not a political state.
But this is also a misunderstanding of the historical function of the Islamic state. The first Islamic state was founded by Prophet Muhammad after his forced migration from Mecca to Medina. Muslims could not practice their new religion without state protection. This is similar to what happened to the earlier Christians who continued to face persecution until Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity and made it the religion of the Roman empire. This is how things worked back then and continued so for many centuries afterwards. While religious persecution remains today a serious problems in many parts of the world, it is not so in others. It is no secret that it is safer for Muslims today to practice their religion in the West than some Muslim countries where they face sectarian persecution or state hostility to religiosity in general. ISIS itself implements an extreme form of sectarianism.
The effect of misunderstanding Islam and the historical role of the Islamic state is exacerbated by the distorted, unhistorical image many Muslims have of past Islamic empires. Muslim writers consistently romanticized Islam’s political history, failing to distinguish between the religion and politics. Most Muslims grow up with a highly sanitized history of the Islamic states of the past. Yet the reality is that the Islamic empires shared many of the flaws of other empires. Islam was often used as a cover for political and tyrannical aspirations, something that started with the establishment of the first corrupt, hereditary state, the Umayyad, merely three decades after the departure of the Prophet. So while an Islamic state continued to be a necessity for protecting Muslims, it was not always much better than other empires or an intrinsic element of the Muslim’s relationship with Allah. I have written in more detail about The Islamic Caliphate Between Past Myths and Present Delusions.
Muslims who choose to fight with ISIS or live where it rules are driven by various forms of misunderstanding and ignorance, some of which involve the concept of “Islamic state” or “caliphate.” They think an Islamic state, not only Islamic spiritual practice, is necessary to draw near to Allah. They also believe that Islam needs an Islamic state. This misunderstanding is facilitated by a distorted history of past Islamic states. Those Muslims are in need of better education of Islam and history, but it is equally critical that ISIS is not allowed to look like a state/caliphate and have that appeal to Muslims who do not understand their religion enough.