yarmouk camp

yarmouk camp
Yarmouk Refugee Camp

Thursday, August 28, 2014

What Is ISIS? Understanding The Terminology

When the conflict in Syria comes up in conversation these days you can be sure that the subject of ISIS is sure to follow. ISIS is in the news. Being the most overtly violent group in the Syrian conflict ISIS certainly know how to capture a headline. Car-bombings. Suicide-bombings. Public executions. Beheadings. Rapes. Sex-slavery. Massacres. Nothing is off limits for this group of fanatics.

But the question still remains "Who, or What, is ISIS?" Furthermore "What does ISIS want?"

The ISIS Flag
Zarqawi. Remember this guy?

What is ISIS? Understanding The Terminology.

In order to understand the evolution of ISIS we need to become acquainted with their history. Let's break it down into point form:

1. ISIS are Salafists. Salaf means "ancestor", so a Salafist is one who emulates the austere behaviour of the earliest Muslim ancestors. There are many other Salafist groups, some operating in Syria as rebels fighting the Syrian Army, some operating in a political capacity, as in Egypt. It is of no small interest that in the Egyptian elections following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak a few years ago, the Salafists won 27% of the vote. In a country of 80 million that is a lot of Salafists, and itself partly explains why the old military regime quickly reasserted itself. But ISIS have taken the concept of being a Salafist to a whole new level.

2. ISIS are Sunni. Sunni means "habit", so a Sunni is one who emulates the habits of Muhammed. Sunnis are the predominant stream of Islam, with the lesser group being the Shiites. The split between the two groups effectively began when Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammed, was murdered was praying in Kufa, and his younger son, Hussein, was ambushed and beheaded at Karbala. Shiite means "faction", as in "the faction of Ali". The split between these two groups, and the emergence of a plethora of other sub-denomination groups over the last 1000 years can fill many volumes and won't be addressed here. But understanding this fundamental difference between Sunni and Shiite is essential if one is to make sense of the actions of the Sunni ISIS, especially in their actions against the Iraqi Army, the Syrian Alawite Army, and the Lebanese Hezbollah - all of whom are Shiite.

3. The most instantly recognisable icon of ISIS is their flag, the distinctive black so-called "war flag". Black war flags actually aren't all that new. The Afghans rode under a pure black banner in their wars in the 19th century. The writing on the flag is often described as "child-like". Indeed, there is something simplistic in this calligraphic form, and certainly when compared to the more detailed and elaborate calligraphy of the high-periods of Islamic culture. But the script has been deliberately chosen by ISIS for it is what is known as Kufic script, which was the script used at the time of Muhammed and also used to compile the earliest Quran. Kufic script takes it's name from Kufa, which, somewhat ironically was the city chosen by Ali to be his capital, and from which, by descent, the various strains if Shiites have emerged - the arch-enemies of ISIS. But it is important to remember that Sunnis generally revere Ali as being of the house of Muhammed. The flag shows a Shehada, an Islamic creed saying "There is no God but Allah and Muhammed is his prophet. Below is the traditional seal of Muhammed.

4. So ISIS are Sunni in the most strict sense of the term. ISIS want to emulate their ancestors. ISIS read the Quran literally, and as anyone who has read the Quran would know, in a literal sense, there is no shortage of calls to vengeance, violence and the threat of eternal flaming hell when it comes to non-believers. So the use of violence against anyone with a divergent opinion is legitimized in the eyes of ISIS. The Salafist view of society has the community (Umma) being ruled by the Sharia (legislation). This religious legislation can be quite harsh to say the least

5. Early Salafist movements. Ever since the death of Muhammed Muslims have argued about the appropriate way to carry on. Dynastic successor-states emerged, most notably the Umayyad (c.650-750 AD, capital at Damascus), Abbassid (c.750-1250 AD, capital at Baghdad), and Fatimid (c.970-1170 AD, capital at Cairo). There have been many other greater and lesser dynasties, such as the Egyptian Ayyubids and Mamelukes, the Turkish Seljuks, Khwarazmians, Ottomans, Afshars and Qajars, the Persian Samanids, Ghaznavids, Safavids, and the Indian Moguls. But along the way there have always been attempts to by some Muslims to return to that original age and manner of life as exemplified by their ancestors. The most significant such movement was started by ibn-Wahhab, a fundamentalist cleric in Arabia in the 18th century. Wahhab made a deal with ibn-Saud and to this day the Saud are the temporal rulers of Arabia and the Wahhabis hold the most important clerical positions.

6. Wahhabism. As most of us know it was the extremely austere Wahhabi school of thought that led to the emergence of Osama bin Ladin, the invention of al-Qaeda, the events of 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq by the United States, and the war that predictably followed (2003-2011 AD). When the United States invaded Iraq every fundamentalist zealot went directly to Iraq to join in the fight. The State Department at the time said that it was better to fight them "over there". Whether or not this is true they certainly opened up a hornets nest, leading to the situation we have with ISIS today.

7. AQI. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (2003-2006 AD). Naturally, one of the many groups to get busy fighting in Iraq was al-Qaeda. The face of al-Qaeda in Iraq was the Jordanian Zarqawi, who was one of the first fundamentalists to use the shock method of taping a beheading. This act was a sign of things to come. Zarqawi was killed in 2006 AD.

8. ISI. Islamic State of Iraq (2006-2013 AD). During this period a number of important things happened. First, there was a name change. Second, the Sunni extremists in Iraq adopted the "take shelter and wait it out" approach. With Zarqawi dead the organisation had lost key leadership. Also, the United States was on the offensive, but, as with most people with long histories, they knew that this would come to pass. At the same time, the Arab world experienced a series of revolutions in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Egypt, commonly known as the "Arab Spring". In March 2011 this surge of political change arrived in Syria, signalling the start of the Syrian conflict. Two very important events happened during this period. First, when the fighting was in Iraq, many Syrian fundamentalists went to Iraq to fight and gained invaluable experience. They returned home to fight in the Syrian conflict. But the Syrian conflict also opened the door for the ISI to get into Syria and expand outwards.

9. ISIS and ISIL (2013-2014). A split in the organisation of al-Qaeda in Iraq (ISI) led to an important, highly militant splinter group being founded, named variously ISIS and ISIL. There is a lot of confusion regarding these terms, but the best way to elucidate the problem is to go straight to the source. ISIS is an acronym for ad-Dawlat al-Islamiyya fī’l-‘Iraq wa’sh-Sham: The Islamic State in Iraq and Ash-Sham. The crucial term here is Ash-Sham, which really means "the land to the left hand", specifically, "the land to your left as you face the east where the sun rises". Interestingly the opposite of Sham is Yemen, which is to your right, or south, if you face east. So Sham variously means Syria, Damascus, but more generally The Levant. ISIL is an interchangeable term more understandable to us westerners, meaning The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, the "Levant" being the Latin term for the east, or where the sun rises (as in lever). So these terms really mean the same thing. The UN and US use ISIL. The BBC uses ISIS.

10. IS (2014-). 2014 has been the big year for ISIS. First, they broke away from al-Qaeda and became their own entity. They proclaimed that the major Salafist fighting force in Syria, Al-Nusra, fell under their control. Al-Nusra reacted to this news very poorly, pushing ISIS out of Syria. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda's elusive leader, Zawahiri, broke off relations with ISIS, saying that al-Qaeda would only work with Al-Nusra in Syria. However, big events lay in store...

There is a lot of confusion as to the terminology employed when referring to ISIS. ISIS has had many manifestations and has gone by many different names. But changing names is not limited to ISIS. Other rebel groups involved in the fighting seem to change names, and allegiances, at the drop of a hat, making it even more difficult to draw order from the chaos. I don't know if this is a peculiarly Arab trait, but ISIS is the issue at hand and that is what we will focus on here.

On June 29th 2014 the leader of ISIS, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, to use his nomme de guerre, declared the existence of a new Islamic State, following the dramatic capture of Mosul, the second city of Iraq. From now on he is to be known as Caliph Ibrahim. There has been a lot of confusion about this name change, with some saying that use of the term gives validation to this organisation. However, the reality is that the term ad-Dawlat al-Islamiyya was selected to describe the organisation. These mutifarious terms have led to no end of hair being torn out by those who wrestle with the details of this conflict. To confuse matters further, some have started referring to them as Da'ish, arguing it is an acronym for al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa al-Sham. Why this is so is beyond me because, although no real Arabist, I think Arabic terms derived from the root Da'i, such as Dawla and Dawlat refer to missions, as in religious missions, and a Da'i is a "missionary". If this so then the IL could even be interpreted as "The Islamic Mission".

So now the head of ISIS has his own Islamic State and has proven to be very capable, and now also very wealthy. ISIS activities now span Syria as far as Lebanon and Turkey. The question of "What ISIS Wants" will follow in the next installment.

Caliph Ibrahim. In With The New.

Zawahiri. Out With The Old.


  1. Very comprehensible, Bruce. Just to add that the black flag of ISIS is an important symbolic reference to the Abbasids, who raised it to signal their revolt against what they saw as the moral decay of the Umayyad Caliphate. This is significant as many Muslims regard the Abbasid Caliphate as their 'Golden Age'

    1. Thanks David, I need to look up that black flag of the Abbasids. I think it is interesting to reflect that ISIS may have more in common with early austere groups like the Kharajites. The arrival of the Abbasids was very popular I realise, but as is so often the case, with the passage of time they became alienated from the general population - for the two centuries of Seljuk rule they were titular caliphs at best...

  2. Thanks Bruce for this enlightening summary. I look forward to the next installment.