Who Founded ISIS? Millions of Muslims Think Muhammad Did.
ISIS is the Muslim answer to St. Francis and his followers, who closely imitated Jesus.
Donald Trump exasperated journalists when he spoke hyperbolically about President Obama as the “founder” of the jihadist organization called ISIS. It is hard to tell, behind all the dodging and weaving and sarcasm, what Trump was actually saying:
- That Obama’s pullout from Iraq handed the terrorists a golden opportunity?
- That the intolerant Shiites whom Obama left in power drove Sunnis to such extremes?
- That Obama is secretly a Kenyan Muslim mole?
With Trump you can never tell, since he often sprays several such messages out to the public, without confirming which one he really means. Trump is that rare candidate whose statements you need to parse as if he were the unreliable narrator of a novel, because you’re not sure even he knows precisely what he meant.
Not that it matters much. In three months the campaign will be over, one way or another. But ISIS we will have always with us, or its equivalent, in one part of the world or another, for as long as Islam exists — because the organization ISIS is only the latest form taken by one perennial, historically and theologically grounded, interpretation of Islam.
That’s what Graeme Wood argues in his carefully researched essay, “What ISIS Really Wants.” As Wood writes:
The reality is 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.
Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.
Muhammad was many things. He said that he was a prophet. We know that he was a warlord, a theocratic ruler, a persecutor of religious minorities, and a conqueror who claimed that it was legitimate to take as concubines (that is, sex slaves) the wives of unbelievers whom he defeated in battle. The religious law which he proclaimed as divinely inspired, and intended by God to prevail across the earth, prescribed the death penalty for “crimes” such as adultery, homosexual conduct, and “apostasy” from Islam. Muslim authorities teach that Muhammad was not a god or even an angel, but the “perfect model” of human conduct for a male — and hence that his every action as a Muslim is worthy of imitation.
Because of all these hard religious facts, theocratic, violent movements like ISIS have existed in some form, somewhere, in Muslim countries since Islam was founded; when they take power, they form regimes such as Saudi Arabia’s, which institutionalize violence and religious coercion in bureaucratic form. Instead of throwing homosexuals from the tallest point in town (as ISIS does, in imitation of Muhammad’s earliest followers) it might behead them after a trial. Which really is rather cold comfort, if you are the victim.
In her scholarly work, Bat Ye’or has documented how since Muhammad founded Islam, up through the 20th century Armenian genocide and the 21st century actions of ISIS, some Muslims have used the power of the state, or simply organized bands of religious vigilantes, to grind down and destroy ancient Christian communities from Baghdad to Algeria — via crushing taxes, degrading laws, systematic discrimination, mass kidnapping and murder. All these Muslims cited the example of Muhammad and authoritative Islamic sources (the Q’uran and Hadith) to justify their actions. It is hard to see why we should think that all Muslims will stop acting that way today — and indeed there is no sign that they will, now that reckless immigration policies have established them as the fastest-growing religious group in large parts of Europe.
I won’t dive into the fool’s game of arguing, from the outside, which version of someone else’s religion is “orthodox” or normative, and which one is a deviation that betrays its founder’s spirit. There is nothing more foolish than the spectacle of president, pontiff, or pundit relying on his undergraduate survey course in comparative religions — plus a few talking points from a glib speech writer — to lecture the well-schooled, deeply devoted members of another world religion about the “authentic” content of their own faith.
Here’s a safer way to approach the issue: If all throughout the history of a religion, there has been a significant contingent of believers who interpreted its founding figures and scriptures one way, and have lived accordingly, then it’s a “legitimate” interpretation — in the same sense that we say that there may be multiple “legitimate” readings of the Declaration of Independence, as seen in various political movements through our history. We cannot call it a “perversion” or a “hijacking,” even if we profoundly disapprove of it.
Always, in every vital creed, there will live one powerful instinct which we might call “originalism” — the urge to recover the literal meaning of the founding texts in their original context, and obey them as strictly as possible in direct imitation of the founder. Whether or not we decide that the “originalists” are absolutely right in their assertions about the “authentic” way to live their faith, we cannot deny that they are on to something. We can learn much about the essence of a particular religion from those who spend their lives trying to recover its original “purity.” Orthodox Jews and ascetic Buddhists show us something real about their faiths, which we wouldn’t learn if we only listened to their more modernized or syncretist co-religionists.
In Christianity, we have seen the originalist impulse emerge most obviously in monastic movements, whose members sought to imitate the poverty, celibacy, and obedience of the apostles. Other “originalist” versions of Christianity have seen families try to embrace the communal life depicted in the Acts of Apostles. The most famous direct “imitator” of Jesus was Francis of Assisi, who believed that Jesus practiced a radical form of poverty, which Francis called on his followers to embrace in a literal way. Some Christians have (perhaps misguidedly) looked to Jesus’ sacrificial death, and craved the honor of dying for him as he died for us. Most of us reject that aspiration, though we honor those who (when forced to) choose martyrdom as the price of faithfulness to Christ.
In any case, we’d condemn as ignorant some Hindu or Zoroastrian who drew on his sketchy familiarity with the Bible and Christian history, to say that monks and nuns, or Franciscans and Christian martyrs, had hijacked or betrayed the “true” Christian spirit — which the outsider somehow “knew” was really something much closer to … Hinduism or Zoroastrianism. Wouldn’t we scoff at such crass “cultural appropriation”?
ISIS imitates Muhammad and his earliest, most fervent converts with all the sincerity that St. Francis brought to the imitation of Jesus. It has been 790 years, and there are still Franciscans trying to live exactly like Jesus — all through the tides and storms of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, despite the Nazis and even under the noses of Communist regimes. What makes us think that Islam’s devoted disciples will succumb to our wishful thinking?