The Black and White (and Blood-Red) Roots of ISIS

The latest gruesome video released by ISIS showing the beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff, just thirteen days after the execution of James Foley, is a stark reminder – if such reminders are necessary – of the blood-thirsty brutality of ISIS.

ISIS’s flag is black and white, the perfect colors for a group that seeks to implement “Islam,” which it sets against a world of disbelief (kufr). Christians, who’ve been living amongst Muslims for over fourteen centuries (though members of ISIS are anything but historians) must either convert to Islam, pay the tax (jizya), or die.

It appears, though, that Christians are being killed despite having paid the jizya, which historically ensured that non-Muslims were protected by the State, and were free to practice their religion. If CNN reports are to be believed, Christian men are being beheaded, as are children, and the women are being taken as wives by ISIS members. If such reports are true, these acts are in major contravention of the most basic precepts of Islamic rule. But then again we are dealing with a group that draws its inspiration from Wahhabism, a fundamentally anti-intellectual tradition.

Taking its name from its founder Ibn Abdul Wahhab (1703-1792), Wahhabism is based on the idea that Islam has been corrupted over the centuries; that Islam has been changed by so-called Muslims from a religion of pure monotheism, to a superstitious culture of saint- and grave-worship. (Which is how Sufism, the central dimension of Islam, practiced by the vast majority of Muslims through the longue durée of Islamic history, is characterized by Wahhabis.)

Wahhabism asserts that the fourteen centuries of science, arts, literature, philosophy, religious scholarship, and non-religious scholarship – all aspects of Islamic civilization, or any civilization for that matter – are fundamentally corrupt and must be done away with. Anything that has not been explicitly sanctioned by the Prophet of Islam is considered an innovation (bida) destined for hell that therefore must be purified – far too often by violently removing it from the face of the earth.

The Saudi royal family, which goes back to Muhammad Ibn Saud (d.1765), a tribal chief of Diriyyah (near present day Riyadh), struck a deal with Abdul Wahhab. Abdul Wahhab would be given sponsorship in lands under Ibn Saud’s rule, while Abdul Wahhab would give religious legitimacy to Ibn Saud’s political authority.

The Wahhabi conquest of Arabia that followed saw Wahhabis going into towns and cities and summarily putting to the sword anyone who did not affirm the Wahhabi doctrine. “Historical sources describe horrendous massacres committed by Wahhabi forces in the eighteenth century all across Arabia,” writes noted scholar of Islam, Khaled Abou El-Fadl, in his book The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists. Ibn Saud and Abdul Wahhab’s alliance eventually became the cornerstone of the present Saudi kingdom, established in 1932 with the long-term support of the British, who had wanted to gain a foothold in Arabia, and to destroy the Ottoman caliphate (both of which had been achieved by then).

Fast forward to the present. ISIS is systematically butchering Christians despite their Quranic designation as “People of the Book” – a special status also accorded to Jews. The argument that Wahhabis of ISIS’s stripe put forward is: The Jews and Christians that God refers to in the Quran are not the same as Jews and Christians today. Christians today worship Jesus and Mary. They are therefore idolaters. And idolaters must either become Muslim or they must die.

This is terrible nonsense. In the Prophet’s own lifetime, and in the lifetimes of his companions who took over the first Islamic State following his death, Muslims signed treaties with Jews and Christians, and their lives and property were considered inviolable.

ISIS is also butchering Shias and Yazidis. The Wahhabi position is that The Shia are not really Muslims, they venerate Ali (the Prophet’s son-in-law) while undermining the Prophet, so off with their heads!

As for the second group, they are considered devil-worshippers, so it’s perfectly fine to let them die of thirst on the mountains. What a tragic reversal of history. Early on in his career, the Prophet and his young community were forced out of Mecca by the imposition of economic and social sanctions by the Quraysh (the mortal enemies of Islam) and they had to live in conditions of virtual starvation for three years in a gorge. It was hoped that they would just die of hunger and thirst.

The Saudi government has, in the name of purifying Islam of “idols,” systematically been demolishing major sites of Islamic heritage throughout Mecca and Medina, such as the graves of vitally important Islamic personages. (Although they haven’t yet been able to do so, no doubt from fear of a major backlash from Muslims across the globe, there has long been serious talk of destroying the Prophet’s tomb – again, because, according to Wahhabi doctrine, it constitutes an “idol.”) In their place, the Saudi government has been erecting enormous monuments to the grossest form of materialism.

With mirror image zeal, ISIS has been demolishing major sites of religious importance, including the Prophet Seth’s shrine. Although it doesn’t have the money to erect its own idols to capitalism and consumerism, what money ISIS does have – and it is not insignificant – appears to be coming from Saudi coffers.

Describing the “signs” of the end of times, the Prophet said:

There will come a time for my people when nothing of the Quran will remain except its outward form, and nothing of Islam will remain except its name – and they will call themselves by this name, even though they will be people furthest from it.

ISIS is the black and white, blood-soaked face of a fallen Islam with no historical or intellectual substance; an Islam that bears no resemblance to the Islam it’s trying to replace, or the Islam that it’s seeking to recreate. At the very least, then, we may hope and pray (and act in our individual and collective ways) that – as with all things – ISIS too will pass.