Aleteia logoAleteia logoAleteia
Wednesday 29 May |
Saint of the Day: Pope St. Paul VI
Aleteia logo
separateurCreated with Sketch.

Islamic State Propaganda Magazine Threatens “Roman Crusaders”

Cover of ISIS magazine Dabiq


Greg Daly - published on 10/18/14

But there is nothing medieval about this ruthless enterprise, says historian Tom Holland

In a week when British police and soldiers were revealed to be on the target list of a Britain-based Islamic State cell, IS released a fourth video of captive British journalist John Cantlie.

Wearing the now trademark Guantanamo Bay-style orange jumpsuit and facing a camera, Cantlie declared that western powers are preparing for a third Gulf War and said IS has grown to a point where “not even the US military, the policemen of the world, are able to contain them.”

Cantlie, who was kidnapped in November 2012 with the American journalist James Foley, also states in the video released Thursday, in presumed response to Muslim leaders who have condemned IS as a heretical and murderous organization, “Those who have read the Qu’ran, even among Christians, know there is only one sharia law, there are no different brands.”

Although it is believed that Cantlie is writing under duress, he states in the latest issue of Dabiq, IS’ online propaganda magazine, that his words are his own. One common observation, he writes, “is that the videos are scripted, and that perhaps I have no choice in the content.”

“This,” according to the article, “is not true. The mujahidin suggest initial titles, I write the scripts, hand them over for any copy changes that need to be made and the videos are shot. It’s all very fast — the first eight videos were written, approved and filmed in just 12 days — but the mujahidin are like that. In quick, get the job done, move on to the next task.”

That IS publishes an online magazine may seem bizarre, but it shows just how IS, as philosopher John Gray observed on the BBC in July, is a peculiarly modern phenomenon, a violent millenarian cult “dedicated to building a new society from scratch,” having more in common with modern revolutionary movements than with its medieval forebears. “There’s nothing medieval,” he says, “about this mix of ruthless business enterprise, well-publicized savagery and transnational organized crime. “

Unfortunately, IS appears to think otherwise. As Benedictine University’s Andrew Salzmann argues in Small Wars Journal, IS seems to be “re-enacting the early history of Islam in order to establish its legitimacy with the peoples of the Middle East.” Salzmann says the rise of IS has echoed commonly recognized hallmarks of the rise of Islam, with IS even having emulated Muhammad’s style of war. “While military strategy is hardly an ‘article of faith,’” Salzmann says, “sharia law itself draws its validity from the belief that the actions of the Prophet Muhammad, precisely because of his excellence in obeying God, merit imitation by his followers. “ 

It seems apt, then, that IS takes the name of its magazine from a hadith — a Muslim traditional saying  which proclaims that “the last hour will not come until the Romans land at al-Amaq or in Dabiq,” usually identified with the town of Dabiq in northern Syria. 

Dabiq is rife with references to Rome and crusaders. At several points it quotes a speech by IS official spokesman Shaykh Abū Muhammad al-’Adnānī ash-Shāmī, who calls on IS fighters to “be ready for the final campaign of the crusaders,” and addresses the West, saying, “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women, by the permission of Allah, the Exalted.“ Illustrating this passage is an image of St. Peter’s Square, captioned, “We will conquer your Rome,” while the magazine’s front cover, bearing the title “The Failed Crusade,” shows a photoshopped obelisk in St. Peter’s Square surmounted with the black banner of Islamic State.

Historian Tom Holland says that Dabiq shows that the world described in his book

In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire is alive. He points to an article called “The Revival of Slavery before the Hour,” as showing how IS justifies its enslavement of Yazidis on the basis of the commonly received life of Muhammad.

The article states that “the enslaved Yazidi families are now sold by the Islamic State soldiers as the mushrikīn were sold by the Companions before them,” referring to the belief that the early followers of Muhammad enslaved those they considered infidels.

“It’s shocking and terrifying,” says Holland, “that the reliability or otherwise of the sources for early Islam have become for Yazidis a matter of life and death. It cannot bear repeating enough: we cannot be certain enough about what Muhammad did for it to sanction what ISIS are currently doing.” Obviously, Holland says, nothing could make him certain enough to justify such action, but, he says, “I can see why it might to believing Muslims.”

Stressing that until the rise of IS, “the overwhelming majority of Muslims accepted that the time for slavery was passed,” Holland says that when he wrote about the slavery perpetuated by the armies of the first Caliphate, he “never imagined it would happen again.”

“Ultimately,” he says, “the best way to stop this recrudescence of slavery is for its theological underpinnings to be demolished by Muslim scholars.”

Addressing the actions of IS in a recent article for the ecumenical think tank Theos, Holland says that it is not enough “merely to insist that Islam is a religion of peace, and leave it at that.”

“Muslim scholars,” he says, “have an urgent responsibility to demonstrate in the most painstaking detail exactly where and why the jihadis are wrong. Just as Christian intellectuals, in the wake of the Holocaust, were obliged to confront the evil purposes to which the New Testament had been put, and recalibrate their understanding of it on a theological level, so do their Muslim counterparts today need to redeem their own scriptures from the taint of savagery that is doing so much to blacken the image of their religion.” 

Recent historical work on the origins of Islam might offer one solution. Holland cites Chicago’s Professor Fred Donner as saying that “Those of us who study Islam’s origins have to admit collectively that we simply do not know some very basic things about the Qur’an –— things so basic that the knowledge of them is usually taken for granted by scholars dealing with other texts.” 

“When the evidence for what the historical Muhammad said and did is so patchy,” says Holland, “and when the traditional explanations of how the Qur’an emerged are so contested, it becomes increasingly difficult to insist that the inheritance of Islamic scripture is not thoroughly contingent. “

It is only in recent decades that scholars have learned how little can be known about the birth of Islam, and as awareness of this ignorance spreads, so Muslims may approach their holy texts differently. If Muslims recognize that stories told about Muhammad arose within a particular historical context and period, and feel freed to interpret the Qur’an outside the bounds of traditional exegesis, a new form of Islam ought to emerge, says Holland, one in which, he suspects and very much hopes, “there will no longer be a place for ritual beheading.”

Greg Daly  covers the U.K. and Ireland for Aleteia.

HistoryIraqIslamIslamist MilitantsSyria
Enjoying your time on Aleteia?

Articles like these are sponsored free for every Catholic through the support of generous readers just like you.

Help us continue to bring the Gospel to people everywhere through uplifting Catholic news, stories, spirituality, and more.

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...

Top 10
See More
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.