Reclaiming the Islamic Political Tradition: Reflections after ISIS


One of the greatest political challenges Islam faces is the relationship between religion and state, a political construct that dominates and tolerates no rival. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria highlighted this crisis, as the Muslim world continues to produce political bankruptcy through failed states, authoritarianism, and the ugly miscegenation of state and religion.

Muslim scholars and civil society unanimously condemned ISIS as being neither Islamic nor a state, and decried it as being outside the Islamic tradition, as a literal group of Khawarij. Though well intentioned, the belief that ISIS was not a state is wrong. ISIS was a state by all modern definitions. While ISIS was outside the Islamic tradition, it was within the fold of modernity, as ISIS’ raison d’etre was entirely political, any recourse to Shari’a merely justification for the pursuit of power. Because the modern state represents a religion in itself and so becomes inherently at odds with Islam as a worldview, ISIS’ proclamation of being the true Caliphate was anathema. Carl Schmitt’s famous declaration in Political Theology puts it succinctly:

All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularised theological concepts not only because of their historical development – in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent god became the omnipotent lawgiver. [1]

Islam cannot be reduced to a political construct, as man-made constructs cannot encapsulate the divine. ISIS’ adoption of the modern state as a vehicle for what it perceived to be the Islamic Caliphate and worldview was an inherent contradiction. As Schmitt explains, the modern state assumes the powers of God in regulating society, as opposed to God’s Will manifest through our submission to Him. The state, then, becomes the highest calling of life, with ISIS mimicking the Western nation-state in its omnipotence and demand for sacrifice [2]. Its claim to legitimacy lay in it being a Jihad state – waging war against the “infidels” that attack Muslims or resist its dominion. ISIS utilised one of the hallmarks of the modern state, mass conscription and mobilisation, for its political aims under the cover of Jihad – what is otherwise an individual and societal moral imperative to struggle for the sake of God became a political sacrifice for the sake of the state.

One way ISIS’ rule manifested Schmitt’s thesis is its firm bureaucratic and statist control of policing and mandating morality. The instrumentalisation and perversion of Hisba, a form of moral policing to enjoin the good and forbid the evil is an example. Instead of creating a community of righteous believers, Hisba became a method of inspecting the loyalties of the citizens of a state, epitomising the totalitarian state that dictates and enforces what it decides as being morality. There can be no dissent: one law, one rule, one state. In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault analysed the role of the Panopticon – the modern prison system which allows the Guard (an all-seeing eye, akin to the dictator) to view all prisoners without the prisoners knowing if they were being watched. The Hisba, originally a moral imperative in pre-modern society, became a tool of political power and the Panopticon of the state.

The Islamic state, that strange miscegenation of Medina with Westphalia, is always in mortal danger of linking the moral austerity of monotheism with the repressive and supervisory powers of the modern nation state. Contrast such incipient totalitarianism with classical Islamic polities which left the Sultan’s subjects alone in most of their affairs. [3] – Abdul Hakim Murad

Another of ISIS’ claims to legitimacy was its self-proclaimed status as bastion of the Sunni people: the first and only true citizens of the state, to the detriment of all others. Its expulsion of the ancient Christian community of Mosul and attempted annihilation of the Yazidis were not representative of a purported genocidal strain in the political tradition of Islam, but rather, a modern form of state-engineered control. What ISIS  enacted was neither pre-modern nor a product of Islam; it was a direct continuation of the homogenising process first pursued in 19th century Europe and later expanded to the Muslim world through colonialism. ISIS mangled Islamic jurisprudence for its political aims: those did not adhere to the state’s ideology were deemed a threat to its power, and none more so than those who did not share the identity of ISIS, particularly Christians, Yazidis, and the Shia. Minorities that had prospered for over a thousand years under Islamic rule were suddenly told that Islamic jurisprudence mandated their cleansing or exile.

The Schmittian thesis – that the state is a form of secularised theology – is perhaps the most exact epithet on the condition of the modern state. ISIS can be analysed within these parameters, as its use of Islamic theology paid lip service to what were actually political goals. The extensive use of takfir as a weapon against those perceived to be enemies, based on the excuse that they espoused heresies, was no different than the state excommunicating its enemies for opposing its dominion. As Mussolini famously declared, “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” ISIS waged war against all internal forces that existed besides itself, including civil society and independent scholarship, and against all external forces, including the FSA, the Assad regime, the different Kurdish forces, the Shia axis, the Saudis, the Americans, and every conceivable non-ISIS actor in existence. Perhaps Mussolini, not Al-Zarqawi, was the true father of ISIS.

Were all Muslims until ISIS wrong? Was ISIS confused? Or did ISIS know what it was doing and adopt the modern theory of progress for its own ends, having assumed its form was the best and final form of history? ISIS disregarded pre-modern jurisprudence if it did not serve the aims of the state– in this case: the drive towards homogenisation, which would have been appalling under the true Islamic tradition.

This, then, shows the truly modernist origins of the organisation that calls itself the Islamic State. The suggestion that Islam was the primary cause for ISIS is a deflection from the failures (or successes?) of Western foreign policy in destroying Muslim societies. Such destruction produced political vacuums that were filled quickly by those willing to adopt the logic of the modern state, such as homogenisation and total war. This should come as no surprise; the nation-state has birthed demons repeatedly, lest we forget the rise of fascism and communism, which were not merely anomalies of modernity, but its brutal conclusion.

Although ISIS has not been wholly defeated, neither militarily nor ideologically, it has lost most of its territory and been reduced to guerilla warfare and disparate terrorist attacks. As the dust settles in Iraq and Syria, this is a critical moment for introspection. Muslims must analyze the origin and progression of these events, as it is insufficient to pretend ISIS was an aberration. Groups like ISIS may rise again if underlying issues are not solved. We must recognise the imperative to reconnect with the Islamic tradition. We must form our own worldview and epistemological inquiry to analyse modernity so as to develop pathways to prosperity and liberty without recourse to nihilistic violence that only deepens our total subjugation under modernity. We must re-orient our understanding of the political condition of the Muslim Ummah, moving away from statist ideologies that clash with our understanding of a God-centred worldview and form our own, unique understanding of the role governance plays in society and with religion.


  • Takfir: Excommunicating someone from the religion.Jihad: A form of struggle, usually in the form of war.
  • Hisba: The duty to enjoin the good and forbid the evil, usually represented by an inspector who would oversee the markets, businesses, medical practises, etc. to ensure standards.
  • Sharia: Religious law, (mostly) derived from Qur’an and the Hadeeth corpus.

Further Reading:

Works Cited:

  1. Schmitt, Carl. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Ed. George Schwab. Chicago University Press: Chicago, 1985; 36.
  2. Hallaq, Wael. The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament. Columbia University Press: New York, 2013; 89-97..
  3. Murad, Abdal Hakim. Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions. Quilliam Press: Cambridge, 2012; 51.

    Image by Simon Stalenhaag

About the Author: Dimashqee is a student of history and politics, focusing on statecraft, geopolitics, and world history (including Islamic civilisation and rise & decline theory).

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

8 thoughts on “Reclaiming the Islamic Political Tradition: Reflections after ISIS

  1. Great article. ISIS viewed their mission as an effort to modernize Islam to bring its political manifestation closer to the western machinations of the nation state. In so doing adopted all the fascistic qualities of western political systems.

  2. Agree with need to know history and ideas underpinning nation state (and modern social and political phenomena more broadly), but this article is a shoddy attempt at dealing with an important question. Firstly, why would one discuss the issue around ISIS; this is entirely unhelpful. It’s like discussing racism centred around the KKK. Secondly, the argument itself is arbitrary in that it simply selects one view about the modern state in the western tradition–the Schmittian thesis about modern politics as secularised theology–and builds off it as if its self-evident. Schmitt’s thesis has reputable opposition (in Blumenberg for instance; ‘The Legitimacy of the Modern Age’) and strong critique (Asad, for example). Thirdly, the author implies that we can speak of Islamic ‘governance’, yet this word is as susceptible to the same arguments made against ‘state’. Ironically, given the author’s citation of Foucault’s Panopticon, the broader notion which Foucault critiques, to which this is linked, is ‘governmentality’–roughly, attempts to control/mould/direct the conduct of others including, but not exclusive to, political governance. Fourthly, can one really make a robust argument about how Islamic governance/polity is different from the modern state without, on top of understanding the latter, understanding and articulating in concrete terms what the former is?

    1. ” Firstly, why would one discuss the issue around ISIS”

      This article was specifically about ISIS, hence, discussing the issue of ISIS. I really don’t know what else I can say about this.

      The choice of Schmitt was a particular one, once again, choosing a particular thesis about politics and modernity, which I prefer. It being arbitrary was on purpose. If you prefer others, that is entirely your prerogative. But I remain the one writing this particular article on a particular theory on a particular issue. If you would like to contribute to the discussion and expand on it, you are more than welcome.

      As for the issue of governance/government/state, it’s not an argument based around semantics. The modern state can be considered a entire phenomenon in itself, regardless of the fact that it is a political entity that seeks governance (as one facet of its existence). There are other factors (which Foucault discusses too) leading to the ability and desire of the state to control and mould its subjects in ways hitherto unseen. Hence, the modern state is distinct from non-MS/pre-modern forms of governance/government/etc. An argument against governance as a whole is the preserve of anarchism.

      Granted, the article may have been worded better to reflect the particular nature of what I was talking about so as to not make it seem like objective reality, but it does not then become a shoddy article simply based on anothers preferences and viewpoints.

      This is but one essay in a series that will be published on Traversing Tradition. Things such as discussing Islamic governance, the nature of the modern state, paradigms and worldviews and so on will also be discussed. Once again, we have word and time limits and we cannot rush to produce everything in one go, and hopefully as the discussion continues, more will become clear.

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