Middle East Resources

Placing ISIS in Broader Islamic Historical Context

By Bassam Michael Madany

On 18 October, 2015, C-SPAN 2/BookTV telecast a review of the book, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” by the American journalist, Michael Weiss, who had co-authored the work with Syrian analyst, Hassan Hassan.  Mr. Weiss spoke in a spirited manner for almost one hour and explained “how these violent extremists evolved from a nearly defeated Iraqi insurgent group into a jihadi army of international volunteers who behead Western hostages in slickly produced videos and have conquered territory equal to the size of Great Britain.”

The review was one of the most lucid and forthright exposition of a warrior organization that dreams of restoring an Islamic Caliphate that would continue its mission of conquests “in the Pathway of Allah.” I encourage everyone to listen to the program on                               http://www.c-span.org/video/?328702-4/michael-weiss-isis

Authors Weiss and Hassan covered the recent history in the Levant and Iraq in a thorough manner. I would like to place the ISIS (known in its Arabic acronym as داعش Da’esh) in a broader context of Islamic history. The leadership of this Caliphate movement takes their inspiration from certain historical events of the last 1400 years, where violence played a decisive role in settling controversies at several stages in Islam’s history.

Civil wars have marked Islam from the dawn of its history. In June, 632 A.D., after Muhammad’s death, the Islamic Umma in Medina urgently needed a new head of state.

Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law, came up with a solution; he proposed that a Khalifa (Caliph) be chosen by the leadership in Medina which consisted of the Muhajiroun (those who accompanied the Prophet to Medina in 622) and the Ansar (the Partisans from Medina.) The proposal was accepted; and he became the first Khalifa. When he died two years later, another Caliph was chosen: Umar ibn al-Khattab. The Futuhat (Conquests) continued vigorously under his leadership with the occupation of Syria, Egypt, and Persia.


Umar was assassinated in 644, and was succeeded by Uthman ibn ‘Affan, who presided over the further expansion of Islam to the East. In 656, some disgruntled Muslim soldiers who had participated in the campaign for the occupation of Egypt, returned to Medina and assassinated UthmanAli, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad succeeded him. Unfortunately for Ali, there was no consensus about his choice. Mu’awiya, a cousin of Uthman and governor of Syria, claimed that Ali was involved in the plot that resulted in the death of Uthman. War broke out between the two. Ali’s side was winning, when he was prevailed upon to accept arbitration and seek a peaceful settlement of the conflict.  Some within Ali’s army were outraged by this decision, since victory was at hand; they left his side, and assassinated him in 661. They are known as the “Khawarej” (Dissenters.) Ali’s death marked the end of the unity of Islam, and the period of the “Rightly Guided Caliphs.”


Mu’awiya assumed the position of Caliph, moved the capital to Damascus. He sought appeasement with Hassan and Hussein, the two sons of Ali. Hassan accepted a settlement with the new Caliph, and retired to Arabia; however his young brother Hussein refused any compromise. He became the leader of Ali’s Party. In Arabic, the term “Shi’a” signifies “party”; his group was first called “Shi’ite Ali,” eventually it was abbreviated into “Shi’a.”


It is important to know that both Muhammad and Ali were members of the Hisham clan of the tribe of Quraysh in Mecca; on the other hand, Mu’awiya was member of the “Umayyah” clan that had initially vehemently opposed the Prophet. This fact gave a solid reason for Hussein and his followers not to accept the legitimacy of an Umayyad Caliphate. Muslims who acquiesced to the rise of the Umayyad Dynasty were called “Sunnis.” In 680, Hussein arrived with a small group of his followers at Kufa, in Iraq. His plan was to make it a center for an active opposition to the Umayyad Caliph Yazid. He was met by a superior force, was defeated, and killed at Karbala. The martyrdom of Hussein is now celebrated annually at Karbala, Iraq, in Iran, and at other centers of Shi’ism such as at Nabatiyya, in south Lebanon. 


For some time, the Umayyads felt secure as leaders of an expanding empire. In 710, they invaded Spain, and by 732 they reached southern France where they were stopped by Charles Martel, at the Battle of Tours, near Poitiers.  However, several factors conspired to bring an end to the hegemony of the Umayyads. The Shi’ite Underground, the disgruntled Mawalis (non-Arab converts to Islam) and followers of Muhammad’s uncle, Ibn ‘Abbas, were united in their opposition to the Umayyads.  The revolt began at Khorasan, in eastern Persia, led by Abu Muslim al-Khorasani, who defeated the Umayyad-appointed governor of the province and marched westward. The end of the Umayyads came in 750 when all the members of the caliph’s house were killed, leaving a young son who managed to flee the carnage, and made his way to Andalusia (Arabic name of Spain) where he established a rival Umayyad caliphate at Cordoba.


All hope for the descendants of Hussein to inherit the Caliphate were dashed. The Abbasids succeeded the Umayyads by establishing their own Caliphate in 750. The Shi’ites remained on the sidelines, regarded as a despised minority. During the 800s, Baghdad the new capital of the Abbasids became the cultural center of the Muslim world. Several important accomplishments took place: the compilation of the Hadith, the establishment of the Four Sunni Schools for the interpretation of Shariah, and the rise of the Mu’tazilites, an intellectual elite that dealt with theological themes such as the nature of the Qur’an and Predestination. Eventually, this movement lost its appeal; a noted philosopher, al-Ghazzali, put an end to “Ijtihad” (theologizing.) The “door of Ijtihad” in Sunni Islam has remained closed ever since!

The leader of the Shi’ites is called an Imam. Ali is considered as the First Imam, Hussein is the Second Imam. The Twelfth Imam disappeared mysteriously; most likely he was murdered by the authorities. However, in Shi’ism, he is considered to be alive but hidden; he will return at the end of time to establish a world-wide Islamic Empire. In the meantime, his representatives, the Ayatollahs assume the role of guides to the Shi’ite community. In Sunni Islam, an Imam is any leader in charge of the Salaat i.e. Prayer (worship) at the mosque.

Sunni-Shi’ite Rivalry in Islam 

While Iran is today a stronghold of Shi’ite Islam, it did not achieve this position until the 16th century during the Safavid dynasty. Other concentrations of Shi’ite communities live in Iraq and southern Lebanon. The Ottoman Turks were champions of Sunni orthodoxy, and sought to limit, and often to interdict any Persian influence among the Shi’ites of Iraq and Lebanon. That policy intensified the animosity between Sunnis and Shi’ites, keeping past disputes between the two groups very much alive.

The situation did not improve after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. Britain governed Iraq for several decades, and enthroned Prince Faisal, son of Sherif Hussein of Hejaz, in Western Arabia, as king. Sunnis continued to dominate the Shi’ite majority. The same happened in Lebanon, where the French gave primacy to Christians and Sunni Muslims, with the third place given to the Shi’ites.

After WWII, the region underwent radical changes. Iraq witnessed a bloody coup in 1958, when the army murdered King Faisal II and his family, installing a succession of republican regimes, culminating with the rise of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Iraqi. Soon after the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Saddam launched an attack on his neighbor, in a war that lasted for eight years, causing the death and maiming of over a million Iranian and Iraqi soldiers and civilians.

The leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran began to influence their coreligionists in Iraq and Lebanon. They sponsored the formation of Hezbollah, a Shi’ite Militia in Lebanon, a move that alarmed the Sunni powers in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

The civil war in Syria began in mid-March, 2011, when the Syrians rose up against the forty-year Assad dynasty’s regime. As the war dragged on, Iran gave orders to Hezbollah to join the side of Bashar Assad, seeking to bolster a dictator whose connection to Shi’ism is dubious. The Assad family comes from an obscure Syrian sect of Islam that is neither Sunni, nor Shi’ite. During the French Mandate over Syria and Lebanon (1918-1946), they honored this sect with the title of “Alaouites” conferring legitimacy upon them as if they were a branch of Shi’ite Islam!

The Islamic world faces today several economic and demographic challenges. Unemployment is very high, natural resources, other than oil, are few, desertification is rising, and water supplies are not keeping up with agricultural needs. Rather than concentrate on finding solutions for these growing problems, some Islamic leaders have been preoccupied with ancient hatreds, unsolved religious and political issues at home, and often supporting violent aggressions of various sorts on the Western World.

In my attempt to place the rise of ISIS within the broader Islamic history I pointed to certain similarities between the activities of this radical movement and those of early Islamic movements such as the Khawarej, and other groups who sought to violently force regime changes.  I think for example of Abu Muslim al-Khorasani who raised the Black Flag of his rebellion in favor of the Abbasids, and succeeded to end the Umayyad Caliphate. Nowadays, the soldiers of   داعش Da’esh fly a black flag with the Islamic Shahada (Creed) emblazoned on it!

I don’t believe that in the end, Da’esh’s Utopian dream will be realized.  There are indications that certain Muslim leaders, aided by some reformist and liberal intellectuals, are doing their utmost to build societies where freedom and justice are the rule. One may point to President Al-Sissi of Egypt who recently went to Al-Azhar University Mosque in Cairo and presented its scholars with the challenge of modernizing and temporizing Islam. The movement for reform is very much alive in Tunisia, the most secularized society in the Arab world.

As the authors of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” pointed out, there were certain specific causes for the rise and spread of this movement in Iraq and in Syria. Not until the unsettled conditions in these two lands have been normalized, peace will continue to be elusive, especially in Syria. In the near future, the prospects are dim. President Putin of Russia has brought his forces into the fray in order to bolster the Assad regime. Rather than attacking ISIS, Russian war planes have been bombing areas of the Free Syrian Army. The West, on both sides of the Atlantic, has been immobilized by indecision.  Perhaps present-day Western leaders have never studied the history of Islam, and thus have no clue as to the real nature of Islamic civil wars. In the meantime, the destruction of Syria goes on relentlessly, with thousands of Syrian migrants continuing their trek across Turkey, the Balkans, Central Europe, hoping to reach their destination in Mother Merkel’s Land!