The Political Theology of ISIS: Prophets, Messiahs, & "the Extinction of the Grayzone"

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More than any other actor on the contemporary Arab political landscape, ISIS represents the most expansive and potent threat to the territoriality of the modern Arab nation states, and it has exceeded the expectations of all observers in its expansiveness and resilience. While it is true that the rise of ISIS was enabled by a confluence of interests, it is now abundantly clear that ISIS has a dynamic project of its own and is not a mere proxy for such interests. ISIS entirely rejects the current order and its beneficiaries, and as such, it claims to carry the revolutionary project to its conclusion. The ISIS alternative to the failed Arab states is not just a normative Islamic cultural identity that guides the actions of the state, but an Islamic State that is itself the embodiment of the imagined new order. By examining the political theology of ISIS, this essay aims to understand the challenge posed by ISIS to the struggle for justice in the contemporary Arab and Muslim World. 

Reviews & Praises


Ebrahim Moosa, Professor of Islamic Studies in the Keough School of Global Affairs, University of Notre Dame:

In a nuanced but bitingly critical reading of the ideology and ideologues of the proponents of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as Daesh, as well as the propaganda of al-Qa’ida, Ahmad Dallal points out the threat these groups pose to Muslim thought and practice in the world today. Dallal points out that the political theology of ISIS is nihilistic: to sacrifice self and other for the sake of a blind justice that justifies unlimited retaliatory cruelty. In many ways ISIS is an extreme throwback of similar mid-twentieth century radical groups who mocked the entire complex history of Muslim thought by turning to hollow slogans such as “sovereignty derives from God.” The ideologues of ISIS are shrewd: they deploy narratives of truth in the service of falsehood-kalimatu ḥaqqin urīda bihā bāṭilun-as a well-known Muslim theological aphorism states. They succeed in hoodwinking the naive and lead astray the earnest Muslims onto a path that Dallal describes “a twisted model of prophetic justice.” In Dallal’s view, with which few can disagree, ISIS and radical groups consist of a cocktail of maladies and poisons dating back decades. They are the harvest of failing and corrupt political orders in Muslim majority societies tied to the merciless politics of globalization and ambitious Western political designs. This is compulsory reading for its incisive, bracing and honest accounting of ISIS and a more than subtle indictment of the reigning theologies of contemporary Islam.


Amal Ghazal, Professor in the Department of History, Simon Fraser University:

There is no shortage of studies on ISIS and the political and socio-economic conditions that led to its emergence and growth in the Arab world. From the invasion of Iraq and its devastating aftermath to the civil war in Syria and the country’s political fragmentation, the path that has led to ISIS is clear to all, as are its links to and differences from its predecessor, al-Qaida. Yet despite all the ink that has been spilled on the topic of ISIS, there remain big questions that have gone unanswered, let alone probed. ISIS has been treated, and rightly so, as a symptom of the political, economic and social crises plaguing the Arab world. And yet scholars avoided pointing to the big elephant in the room: the political theology of ISIS. It has been some sort of a taboo to engage in any meaningful analysis of a theology to which ISIS adheres. The fact that ISIS defines itself and its world view in clear religious terms have remained a small detail that scholars have preferred to avoid discussing for fear of catering to Islamophobia if any link between ISIS and the Islamic tradition is established. Ahmad Dallal’s The Political Theology of ISIS: Prophets, Messiahs, and “the Elimination of the Grayzone” is the first attempt to fill this embarrassingly large gap in the literature. Dallal is the first one to address this contentious topic systematically and intelligently, without catering to, or being restrained by, the politics surrounding any discussion or debate of ISIS’ religious dimensions.

The book begins by situating ISIS where it belongs, in an Arab world shaken by Arab uprisings and the chaos and the political vacuum that ensued. They paved the way for different realities and ISIS has been one of them. It is, as an Islamic State, “the embodiment of the imagined new order.”(6)

Having a project of its own, Dallal analyzes the political theology of ISIS that defines and drives that project. He is not referring here to a specific Islamic theology but to a contemporary approach “that traces the genealogy of political concepts and explores analogies between the political and the religious in the social imaginary.” (7) The significance of this definition is that it captures the essence of ISIS, one where the political and the religious inform each other and cannot be studied in isolation of each other. Dallal best captures the meaning of a political theology by stating that ISIS “constructs narratives that provide a systematic theological account of the political experiences of its members and advocates…”(8) ISIS’ political theology results in “actual interventions in the real world” (8), which, as Dallal pointedly reminds us, we don not have the luxury to ignore.

Framing his analysis of ISIS in terms of a political theology naturally leads Dallal to ask and to answer the thorny question of whether ISIS is Islamic or not. There are those who, horrified by ISIS and its acts, want to deny ISIS any religious pretence. And there are those who want to equate ISIS with Islam and make ISIS as the only possible embodiment of Islam. It would be both ridiculous and malicious to reduce Islam and the Muslim communities to ISIS, as Dallal explains, but this does not deny ISIS its Islamic identity as it advocates a particular interpretation of Islam, uses Islamic references and recruits based on them. Dallal’s aim in this book is to understand how ISIS positions itself within the Islamic tradition it claims to stem from and belong to, and what arguments it makes invoking that tradition.  

Following a brief political history of the rise of ISIS as it branched out of al-Qa`ida under the leadership of Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi, Dallal analyzes both the genealogy and the architecture of political concepts deployed by ISIS. He does so by drawing attention to the main texts that have defined (and informed) the political theology of ISIS but he focuses mostly on one in particular, Idarat al-Tawahhush: Akhtar marhala sa-tamurru biha al-Umma (The Management of Savagery: The Most Difficult Phase through which the Ummah will Pass).

Dallal draws six conclusions from those texts that best characterize the political theology of ISIS: no room for compromise with opponents, violence as an explicit method of polarization and recruitment, the intentional manufacturing of systematic chaos, an all-out sectarian war against Shia Muslims, the primacy of the project of the state, and absolute obedience for this state.

These conclusions also explain the main differences between ISIS and al-Qaida, having two key ideological differences pertaining to sectarianism and the state. Regarding the former, al-Qaida is reluctant to declare, let alone endorse, a sectarian war against Shia Muslims as its main objective. As for the latter, al-Qaida does not consider the one territorial state as an end by itself, the way ISIS does. However, the state is of utmost urgency to ISIS because it is “the embodiment of all that is Islamic and the meaning of Islam is reduced to serving it… The state thus becomes an object of worship in its own right.” (26) Here, Dallal makes a very pertinent observation. While the necessity of the state is embedded in classical Islamic political theory, the ultimate reference point in the classical tradition is the Muslim community whose interests, embodied in the concept of public order, the state should serve. However, for ISIS, the ultimate reference is the state that the Muslim community should serve. Blind obedience to the ultimate sovereign, the caliph of this state, is required. His role is to compel people to follow Shari`a law. Based on these premises, ISIS, Dallal observes, “turns cruelty and brutality into the very act of worship.” (29). Needless to say, ISIS resorts to questionable and unmethodical legal interpretations to justify its political project and the violence it is predicated upon. While its interpretations are derived from within the Islamic legal tradition, they are responding to the global and regional politics that ISIS uses as a comparative point of reference. ISIS routinely compares its cruelty to that of those it considers its enemies and the enemies of Muslims, and it sees it as being of a lesser degree. Nevertheless, it judges cruelty, a brutal one no less, as being necessary to win over the opponents, being Muslim or not. Its behaviour, Dallal points out, is thus one of a criminal Mafiaso heroism.

Dallal concludes that ISIS, by reducing God’s sovereignty to mechanical renditions of the law, twists the Islamic civilizational project. God’s mercy is thus delivered through Jihad that brings suffering, which is portrayed by ISIS as a form of justice. By combining prophetic justice with a messianic justice, ISIS wants not to be held accountable for the results of its actions. ISIS’ cruelty, violence and unaccountability thus make it “a symptom of the very order it claims to unseat.” (32) And with its disregard for human suffering, it “operates within the logic of the cruelest forms of global capitalism… ISIS is a symptom of severe global and regional maladies.” (33). Dallal brings us here full circle as he shows that ISIS’ political theology hasn’t developed in the abstract but in conversation and in relationship to the present.

In sum, this book is an essential and required reading on the topic of ISIS. It is no longer acceptable to deny ISIS its religious identity and religious pretences as if this solves the problems or the dilemma ISIS’ claims and acts pose to Muslims and non-Muslims. What is needed is a level of engagement that Dallal has set an example for, an engagement that allows us to better understand how and why ISIS anchors itself within the Islamic tradition. Unless we probe ISIS from that same angle with which it defines itself, we perpetuate a state of denial, if not of ignorance. ISIS is but a name to a phenomenon we need to examine and contextualize. Dallal’s book has got us on the right track to be able to do so.


Anthony R. Byrd, Emory University:

Dallal seeks not simply to describe ISIS or explain its rise, both of which have been done before, but rather to interpret ISIS through a genealogy of the religious and political concepts they employ. His analysis weaves together contemporary political philosophy, anthropology of religion, and key primary sources in a way that gives readers purchase on the Islamic State’s political theology. It is a unique success in the field.  



Read the interview Jadaliyya conducted with Ahmad Dallal.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Ahmad Dallal (AD): Much has been written about ISIS. Most studies address specific aspects of the movement’s activities, but fall short of identifying the overall ISIS project that is used to homogenize and integrate the diverse constituencies targeted by ISIS. In this essay, I try to identify the key features of the larger project of ISIS, its political theology. To my mind, a radical critique of the ISIS project cannot rely on simply highlighting the weakness of the legal interpretations used by ISIS, or the price ISIS exacts in human life and suffering, but must interrogate the larger project within which the ISIS legal arguments are embedded, and within which its violence is justified.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AD: The essay addresses the political theology of ISIS, that is, the distinctive feature of the ISIS political and religious project. Among other things, the essay addresses the question of religiosity of ISIS; the genealogy and architecture of the religious and political concepts deployed by ISIS; the differences between ISIS and other contemporary jihadi movements; and the way ISIS justifies its actions. The essay draws on the literature that theorizes the global Islamic strategy of jihad, including writings shared with other jihadi movements, as well as writings specific to ISIS.

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Table of Contents



The Religiousity of ISIS

Pedigrees of the Political Constructions of ISIS

The Pillars of the ISIS Ideology

The Conflation of Prophetic and Messianic Justice in the ISIS Tradition


About the Author


About the Author

Ahmad Dallal has a storied intellectual history between Lebanon and the United States, where he has demonstrated his core interest in research and teaching about the cultural traditions of the Islamic world. Dallal is currently professor of history at the American University of Beirut. Between 2009 and 2015 he served as Provost of the American University of Beirut. Prior to that, between 2003 and 2009, Dallal served as chair of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. He had previously taught at Stanford University, Yale University, and Smith College. Dallal has written and lectured widely on a variety of topics, including the Islamic disciplines of learning in  medieval and early modern Islamic societies, the development of traditional and exact Islamic sciences, Islamic medieval thought, the early-modern evolution of Islamic revivalism and intellectual movements, Islamic law, and the causes and consequences of 11 September 2001 attacks. Dallal earned his PhD from Columbia University in Islamic studies, and his BE in mechanical engineering from the American University of Beirut. He is the author of An Islamic Response to Greek Astronomy: Kitab Ta‘dil Hay’at al-Aflak of Sadr al-Shari‘a (1995), and Islam, Science and the Challenge of History (2012).

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