ISIS – What is it? Where did it come from?

ISIS (Daesh)* is a flowering thorn attached to a stem and rooted in a life-sustaining soil. ISIS is the bloom; an extremist messianic Wahhabism (Salafism) is the stem; its soil, a longing to return to radical Islamic tradition, to expel Western influence from the Middle East, and to launch global Islamic rule. To mix metaphors: “Daesh [ISIS] has a mother: the invasion of Iraq. But it also has a father: Saudi Arabia and its religious-industrial complex.”**

To say that ISIS is not Islamic is to be disingenuous. But to tar all of Islam, and therefore Muslims, with this brush is like saying that Northern Ireland’s Protestant/Roman Catholic war represents all Christians or that Buddhist conflict in Sri Lanka or Myanmar is a sample of all Buddhists.

However, what is not understood is that ISIS’ roots reach back to the mid 1700s, from which emerged al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the late 1980s and ISIS in Iraq in 2006. Today we live with news of violence on a grand scale and are shockingly horrified by its rise to global prominence. ISIS is both notorious and mystifying. Most Muslims too are scandalized by this vicious and bloodthirsty mob, bewildered by its expansion, and unsure of its future.

ISIS religious beginning
Startled by its seemingly rapid rise in early 2014, we are learning  that ISIS is another, more virulent manifestation of an Islamic movement from the mid 1700s led by an Islamic cleric, Wahhab (Muhammad ibn ‘Abd-al Wahhab, 1703-1792). He was scandalized by what he saw as loose living and superstition, believing a Muslim should live in strict observance to the rituals of Islam and follow a literal interpretation of the Qur’an. Under a tribal militia group called the Ikhwan, Wahhabi’s influence rose in central Saudi Arabia as an Islamic movement. In 1744 Wahhab made an agreement with tribal leader Muhammad ibn Saud (his successors today are called the House of Saud), and over the next 150 years their influence fluctuated in the Arab Peninsula. Two expressions of Wahhabism evolved: Wahhab said only by education and debate could Islam advance. Ibn Saud saw it otherwise: advancing the faith by the sword, decapitating tens of thousands to build his political power base. After WWI the Saudi chief Abd-al Aziz was aided in his consolidating of power by Wahhabist theology creating in 1932 what today is Saudi Arabia.

The role of Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Wahhabi fundamentalism surfaced in 1973 as the exploding price of oil gave the Saudis money, influence and power. We know Saudi Arabia to be a prime exporter of oil, but what is less known is its export of radical Islam.  The Muslim World League began opening offices wherever Muslims were living, funding the building of mosques, printing educational curriculum, and sending out Wahhabi preachers. As scholar Karen Armstrong notes, all the while they demanded “religious conformity in return for their munificence, so Wahhabi rejection of all other forms of Islam as well as other faiths would reach as deeply into Bradford, England and Buffalo, New York as into Pakistan, Jordan or Syria: everywhere gravely undermining Islam’s traditional pluralism.” (Author of Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence)   

The Saudi kingdom today downplays this more radical form of Sunni Islam, even though it accepted takfir – declaring a Muslim to be an unbeliever.  This allows Muslims to kill other Muslims as part of its national policy, and to enforce strict religious laws such as cutting off hands of thieves, beheading criminals, and severely restricting women. In the 1980s, encouraged by the Saudi princes, many young men went to Afghanistan to expel the infidel Soviets, and in the 1990s to Bosnia and Chechnya to support Muslims under attack.

Out of that world Asama bin Laden was fueled to rescue his Muslim community humiliated by infidels.  He was also incensed that the evil West (the US military) was present on the sacred soil of his homeland. In 1989 al Qaeda was created which in time morphed into ISIS (2006).

The long history of strict, sectarian Islamic doctrine linked to violent punishment to enforce its narrow and puritanical practices, found its beginnings in the Bedouin tribal militias of Ikhwan, inspired by Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia 270 years ago. This was played out in the Paris ISIS killings of November 2015, as one of the suicide bombers is reported to having been radicalized in a Salafist (Wahhabi) mosque in Chartres, France

The division within Islam
Befuddling to non-Muslims is the major historical division within Islam.  The  majority of Sunnis, who make up 87 percent of Muslims worldwide, are located mostly in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia and most North African countries. The other 13 percent of its global community is Shia, its majority residing in Iran, as a majority in Iraq and a minority in India. Altogether there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world.

In the hotbed of the Middle East these two factions often see each other as infidels, just as they regard Christians or Jews. Their deep and hostile division was born from a dispute over succession after Mohamed died in 632. This major fault line is partly political: Shia, or “followers of Ali,” link themselves with Mohamed’s son in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib.  The Sunni, or “people of tradition,” believe that selection is best made from looking for the most qualified in the community.

Adding to ISIS’ explosive nature is that Iran, which is Persian, is the global center of the Shia sect. Next door to them is Saudi Arabia, holder of the holy site of Mecca, both Arabic and Sunni. Most Muslims in the Middle East, apart from Iran, Turkey and the Kurdistan province in Iraq, are Arabs. All that this tinderbox needs is a spark: The Sunni Saudi powerhouse is Arab and the Shia’s epicenter, Iran, is Persian. The Arabs and Persians are hostile neighbors, contentious and fighting each other by way of proxy battles in Syria.

Antagonisms of the region are both contemporary and historic in people bred in the art of making fine Islamic religious distinctions.  Theirs is a region of world sites etched with memory of strong and vibrant Jewish and Christian communities, now nearly obliterated or vacated.  Their political sensitivities have been grieved by foreign geographic rejigging of territory.

We are witnessing wars upon wars, the settling of historic grievances.  In more recent days we see the unsettling of peoples by the 2003 invasion; after the invaders had popped the corks of fizzing cultures, we watched as they blew apart.

* I’ve used the better-known acronym ISIS, meaning Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIL, Islamic State in Iraq and Levant. (Levant is an ancient term referring to the eastern Mediterranean.) IS is how it is now used, meaning Islamic State, self-named to convince the world that Islam is now theirs to rule. Daesh is a pejorative term formed by an acronym from Islamic Resistance Movement in Arabic.

** Kamel Daoud, New York Times

ISIS Part II will deal with the difference between al Qaeda and ISIS, the meaning of a Caliphate, and other issues foundational to our understanding.

Brian C. Stiller
Global Ambassador, The World Evangelical Alliance
November 2015


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One Response to “ISIS – What is it? Where did it come from?”
  1. jonwrcongo says:

    Rikk, here is the dispatch that prompted me to introduce you to Brian Stiller. Meet Brian, acquaintance and friend of many years, and someone I appreciate and respect.

    Brian, meet Rikk Watts; passionate man (who loves the wind with boat beneath), husband, father, father-in-law to our daughter, grandfather to our two shared joys, prof at Regent and now, client (as I do some renovation upgrade in their residence today.)

    Something tells me the two would spark good conversation between the two of you, should that occasion arise.


    Jon Congo C: 778-378-6981 Sent from my iPhone


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