You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

What ISIS Really Is

Graeme Wood’s new book, "The Way of the Strangers," asks whether the murderous group is truly Islamic.

Tauseef Mustafa/Getty Images

Last February, just as President Barack Obama was about to host his Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, Graeme Wood of The Atlantic published an essay that blew the lid off the ISIS debate. The piece, “What ISIS Really Wants,” appeared after a spate of terrorist attacks in Ottawa, Paris, Copenhagen, and Sydney. A frightened public was also rattled by the Islamic State’s dystopian imagery, and the videos of black-clad murderers in the desert holding knives to the throats of helpless Americans. Wood’s essay appeared to answer the questions swirling around ISIS with a deceptively simple premise: He wrote that the “reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.”

Penguin Random House, 352 pp., $28.00

The piece set off a firestorm. Dozens of commentators wrote rebuttals to the article, which was itself a measured and informed retort to Obama, who had been vigorously trying to de-legitimize ISIS by calling it un-Islamic. Wood tracked down some of ISIS’s most vocal propagandists and pamphleteers in the West, and far from being bumbling clowns—though there was certainly an element of cartoonishness in all of them—they offered cogent arguments for why the Islamic State was the only legitimate ruler of the Muslim world. They steeped their claims in Islamic history, and littered them with references to the glorious time of the Prophet Muhammad and the first four Caliphs. As prophesied by the Hadith—the sayings and doings of the Prophet, compiled two centuries after his death—these radicals believed in a coming apocalyptic war with the West. Obama’s summit was suddenly overshadowed by the very people he claimed were not real Muslims.

Obama certainly had good reasons for attacking ISIS as a cancerous mutation of Islam. He did not wish to give ISIS the legitimacy it so desperately craved, nor did he wish to alienate the overwhelming majority of Muslims who were as repulsed by ISIS as anyone else. However, Obama’s claim that ISIS is not Islamic was not entirely accurate. ISIS is as Islamic as the next Muslim sect. The individuals within ISIS—at least those who take its claims seriously and are not in Syria for the joy of riding tanks in the desert—are clearly arguing from within the Islamic tradition, replete with scriptural justifications. They have an imagined past of historical glory, and they look desirously—as all religious cults do—to a promised utopian future. ISIS fanboys and social media starlets argue over precedent, jurisprudence, theology, history, and political economy. Not Islamic? ISIS could rant and rave about Islam until the end of times.

ISIS is making serious claims for itself, and these claims need to be challenged and rebuffed on their own terms. To help us better understand those terms, Wood has enlarged his article into a book, The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State. The question that propels the book is the same: Is ISIS Islamic? But this obscures a more foundational question, one that seems to be at the heart of the non-Islamic world’s anxiety about this great religion: What is Islam?

The title of Wood’s book is a reference to a passage from the Hadith that ISIS sympathizers like to quote: “The Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him, said, ‘Islam began as something strange and it will return to being strange, so blessed are the strangers.’” Islamic State supporters—who, like Al Qaeda, hail from the Salafist sect of Sunni Islam—are proud of their minority status, and see it as evidence that the stubborn, immoral Muslim majority has been led astray by modern indulgences like democratic government and human rights. On the first page of the book is a diagram depicting the Islamic State’s view of humanity: on one side are Muslims who have pledged allegiance to ISIS’s self-declared Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; on the other are apostates—including Muslims who support democracy and secular government, and the Shia—and infidels, including Hindus, Yazidis, and secular humanists.

ISIS supporters mean exactly what they say, and this comes through in the men Wood interviews. American foreign policy, Baathist power politics, and post-colonial grievances all have their role in any analysis of ISIS, but religion cannot be minimized. “Religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have traveled to fight,” Wood notes. Readers are taken on a global journey to meet the frothing fans of ISIS. In London, we encounter Anjem Choudhary, a British lawyer-turned-loudmouth who has parroted his extremist views on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show. In Cairo, we come upon Hesham, a fundamentalist obsessively trying to convert Wood to Islam. In Melbourne, there is Musa Cerantonio, a prolific propagandist for ISIS. It is a testament to their sincerity that at least two of the ISIS supporters profiled in this book are now in prison.

As a work of narrative journalism, Wood avoids the common pitfalls of Westerners writing about Islam. He is not an anthropologist swooping in to study the primitive natives in their natural habitats, nor is he an Orientalist refracting “the East” through the lens of the West. Rather, Wood wants to know these people, to get in their skin, to understand how they see the world. Unlike most journalists writing about Islam today, there is no partisan axe to grind here, no hidden agenda to subtly advance.

But some of the people Wood encounters come off less as serious intellectuals than compulsive groupies of a militant cult, reminiscent of the groveling Ayn Rand evangelists in college who clutched at their copies of The Fountainhead. Take Musa Cerantonio. Wood found him through “a number of tweets, Facebook posts, and videos circulated by Islamic State supporters,” and it became apparent that this convert had “achieved literal cult status for his preaching.” Following his own reading of Sunni law, Musa claims that only “physically intact” Muslim men from the Prophet Muhammad’s tribe—the Quraysh—are eligible to become Caliph. Because Musa follows a tradition within Islam that says that even a single stretch of road would suffice as territory for the Caliphate, he takes off to the Philippines to look for a physically intact Qurayshi man who will lead the Muslim world. The Quixote-like romanticism and innocence on display here would be cute if it weren’t so disturbing.

Converts are well-represented in Wood’s basket of deplorables. The last names of these “born again” Muslims are Cerantonio, Georgelas, and Pocious. A 2009 jihadist recruiting manual that Wood cites ranked the likelihood of people converting to Salafism or jihadism. Unsurprisingly, non-religious people ranked first, and deeply religious people last, including memorizers of the Koran. Furthermore, recruits and converts were deliberately not exposed to other strains of Islamic thought, from rationalism to mysticism. Experiencing the plurality within the Islamic tradition would vitiate the puritan call-to-arms. “The Islamic State preyed on a constant feeling of self-incrimination, a reminder that no life is sinless and every soul has its own enemy within,” Wood writes. “ISIS then weaponized that fanatical sense of shame by declaring their jihad the only absolution. The guiltier the conscience the better, since there is more sin to expunge. The recruit’s fear grows more intense, and the need for absolution more urgent, with each thump of the jugular.”

Targeting the vulnerable, the naive, the innocent, the young—this is ISIS’s recruitment strategy. Those who sign up in either word or deed are clearly in search of something greater than themselves, and they have found it in a millenarian interpretation of the faith. To these troubled men, Islam is not an opiate of the masses; it is a euphoric, reality-bending, and ultimately self-annihilating psychedelic.

Beyond the zealotry and fanaticism of the ISIS fanboys, however, is an intellectual lineage that Wood traces back to the thirteenth-century polymath and iconoclast Ibn Taymiyyah, as well as his seventeenth-century student Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who popularized the idea that Muslims could apostatize other Muslims and kill them for sinning. Despite ISIS’s repeated claims to not care for scholarship that came after the seventh century, ISIS ideologues love to cite Taymiyyah and Wahhab.

In claiming to be Islam’s truest followers and preparing the slaughter of insufficiently devout Muslims, ISIS is the intellectual heir not of the Prophet but of an early Islamic group known as the Kharijites. This was a rebellious sect—their name translates as “those who broke away or departed”—that split from the early Muslims and murdered their allegedly sinful brothers in the faith. When the Caliph Ali agreed to a form of arbitration that the Kharijites considered unholy, a Kharijite militant murdered Ali during his prayer. Imagine the gall: to murder the cousin and blood kin of the Prophet of Islam, and to justify it on Islamic grounds!

Wood points out that ISIS followers hate being called Kharijites. It’s an insult that hits the insecure militants where it stings the most—the legitimacy of their claims. The Prophet Muhammad warned of these modern-day, desert-dwelling Kharijites: “There will come a people from the east who recite the Koran but it will not go beyond their throats,” said Muhammad. Indeed, the Koran hasn’t even gone beyond their skulls. No one can be holier than ISIS, because ISIS has made disagreement into a capital offense. They have broken away mutinously from the rest of Islam, just as the Kharijites did. If anyone has a stake in the defeat and elimination of ISIS, in intellectual thought and on the battlefield, it is other Muslims.

Still, ISIS contends that it is merely fulfilling God’s law by returning Islam to the time of the Salaf, the earliest Muslims. They stop the clock in the seventh century. Everything else goes, from Rumi to the mystical strand of Islam called Sufism. Much of the problem is that the simplicity of Islam’s message, contained in the Koran, is overwhelmed by the example of the early Muslim actors in Islam’s story. ISIS supporters—and Salafists more generally, and indeed, a large number of Muslims—revere Muhammad and the first four Caliphs to such an extreme degree that it elevates them to pedestals that appear divine. Muhammad and his companions are to be emulated, end of story. They are, in effect, infallible. What’s forgotten in this distortion of history, and in this deification of the Prophet, is that Muhammad and his companions were not saints, still less angels; they were imperfect mortals subject to error. The Koran itself does not hold Muhammad above reproach, as it chides him for preaching to a rich man while ignoring a blind one.

Perhaps Muhammad is worthy of great reverence because he is believed to be god’s messenger. But the four Caliphs who followed Muhammad were anything but flawless. The second Caliph, Omar, discouraged conversion to Islam because he did not want the Persians polluting the religion of the Arabs. According to the Shia, Omar was also a brute who assaulted the daughter of the Prophet (and wife of Ali), causing her miscarriage. His successor, Uthman, was a corrupt aristocrat who gave himself the grandiose title of “deputy of God.” Both were assassinated.

What ISIS and far too many Muslims do is elevate these men into the holy sanctum, placing them beyond the realm of discussion or dissent. Taken to its logical end, those who worship other humans are committing idolatry. ISIS worships the Word (Koran), the Spirit (God), and the Flesh (Muhammad, his companions, his direct descendants, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), which look awfully a lot like the trinity. In so doing, ISIS itself is guilty of polytheism, the gravest sin in Islam, and the same sin the Salafists say the rest of us Muslims are committing.

ISIS would consider this blasphemous talk, but it is not new. Nearly a century ago, in 1925, an Egyptian scholar and jurist at Al Azhar, the famed seat of Sunni learning, published Islam and the Foundations of Political Power. In it, Raziq argued that Islam had no formal role to play in politics; that the Koran had not mentioned the Caliphate; and that Muhammad’s unique role as messenger meant that the political role he played ended when he passed away:

None of the scholars who attested that the appointment of a caliph was a religious duty could substantiate this thesis with a verse from the Qur’an. …History does not offer us a single example of a caliph whose image is not associated with the fear inspired by the brutal forces surrounding him. …The caliphate had always been, and still remains, a disaster for Islam and Muslims. It has been a constant source of evil and corruption.

Wood doesn’t touch on this, but that’s because his book is about ISIS, not Islam. What is often forgotten is that Islam is a living tradition with fourteen centuries of development and debate, poetry and polemic. Every single point the Islamists and jihadists make is contested from within Islam. Since Muhammad’s death, there have been innumerable legal debates and countless sects; the flourishing of poetry, music, mysticism, art, and mathematics; and the syncretic blending of the Islamic tradition with civilizations in Turkey, Persia, Spain, the Balkans, and India. Taken as a whole, Islam is how Muslims understand themselves, not how jihadists understand Muslims. The religion is ambiguous, capacious, and contradictory. It contains multitudes.

To the Western layperson, Islam must seem quite different. After all, 62 percent of Americans do not personally know any Muslims. Think of what this means: Over half the country’s population knows Muslims only through what they see on television, and what they see on television are not human beings with complex, layered identities, but monsters—jihadists on CNN, would-be suicide bombers in Homeland, murderers in The Night Of. Stereotypes of Muslims are closer to anti-Semitism than anything else: They are the cunning adherents of an authoritarian faith, living underground and armed with a secret mission to overthrow the world and impose their values.

Is this what Islam is? A puritanical guide for destruction? Or is it the way the majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims understand themselves, and how they peacefully conduct their affairs? Is it the poetry of Hafiz (“O beautiful wine-bearer, bring forth the cup and put it to my lips”)? Is Islam the religious debates in the royal court of the Mughal emperor Akbar? Is Islam the transcendent verses of the Sufi mystic Bulleh Shah, who said, “I am free; my mind is free”? Is Islam the Koran as translated by Muhammad Asad, a polymath who dedicated the Muslim holy book “to people who think”? Is Islam the mentality of the suicide-bomber strapping on his vest? Or is Islam the spirit of the 15-year-old schoolboy who jumped on an approaching suicide-bomber before he could attack the boy’s school, saving the lives of his precious classmates?

As President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take the oath of office, the questions asked in Wood’s book will only intensify. Trump’s incoming national security advisor believes America is at war with Islam, and his incoming chief counselor believes the West is engaged in a clash of civilizations. In the Middle East, Muslims must build lives in countries that have deprived them of opportunity for generations, all while avoiding the possibility of their children being slaughtered. In Asia, Muslims look in vain for leaders who can actually develop their economies rather than fattening their own stomachs. In America, Muslims are forced to condemn terrorism while being labeled as guilty by association. Dark winds threaten to make a terrible storm even worse.

The tragedy of Islam is that the battle between Sunni and Shia, and the war between ordinary Muslims and the Islamic State, could have been avoided if the earliest Muslims we deify were not so selfish and power-hungry. As Muhammad lay ill on his deathbed, approaching his final hours, the Prophet of Islam asked his companions for writing materials so he could make a statement. This was a rare act of authorial urgency, and it was thought that, finally, after much delay, Muhammad was going to name a successor and avoid the political discord everyone saw coming. The Messenger had asked for his instructions to be documented. But the Caliph Omar, my namesake, was too worried about his own political ambitions, and said there was no need for such a statement.

The writing materials were never brought, the successor never named, Muhammad’s final guidelines never set down.

Soon thereafter, Muhammad took his last breaths, passing away like any other mortal. His final words, according to one tradition, were: “Oh God, have pity on those who succeed me.”