The Political Theology of ISIS: Prophets, Messiahs, & "the Extinction of the Grayzone"
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.
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Ebrahim Moosa, professor of Islamic Studies, 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.
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).
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