Friday, March 20

Names for the Islamic State

From Wikipedia
If you’ve paid attention to my occasional references, both here and on Facebook,  to the monstrosity that has appeared of late in the Middle East as the latest manifestation of the madness of Islamic terrorism, you may have noticed that I most often simply call it “The Islamic State.”  I briefly explained the reason in the past:

I refuse to call it “ISIS” or “ISIL” (“Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/the Levant”) because the geographical limitation implied by either is not in accord with Islamic ambitions, and anyone who thinks that Islam will be content with either and not total world submission is a fool; better to recognize it for what it is, Dar al’Islam, the “House of Islam,” that conceives itself in a neverending war with Dar al’Harb, the “House of War,” i.e., anything outside Dar al’Islam …. [LINK]

I would like here to expand somewhat on why I think “ISIS” and “ISIL” are less appropriate terms.

First, my statement that “anyone who thinks that Islam will be content with [less than] total world submission is a fool” – or at least (and more charitably) ignorant – is pretty much self-evident.  The adherents and the holy book, as well as its Prophet, make pretty clear the attitude and intention of Islam: 

From the Qur’an, considered by Muslims to be literally the words of Allah:

2:291: "Slay the unbelievers wherever you catch them." [LINK]

2:193: "Fight them, until there is no more dissent and religion is that of Allâh" [LINK]

8:55: "The vilest of animals in Allâh's sight are those who disbelieve." [LINK]

8:12: "I will instil terror into the hearts of the unbelievers: smite ye above their necks [behead] and smite all their fingertips off them." [LINK]

9:28: "Verily, the unbelievers are unclean." [LINK]

9:29: "Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture as believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, and forbid not that which Allah hath forbidden by His messenger, and follow not the Religion of Truth, until they pay the tribute readily, being brought low." [LINK]

[See also Taylor Marshall’s post here:  LINK]

From the Haditha, the sayings of Muhammad:

Sahih Muslim 2889a: “Allah drew the ends of the world near one another for my sake. And I have seen its eastern and western ends. And the dominion of my Ummah [the Islamic community] would reach those ends which have been drawn near me and I have been granted the red and the white treasure and I begged my Lord for my Ummah that it should not be destroyed because of famine, nor be dominated by an enemy who is not amongst them to take their lives and destroy them root and branch, and my Lord said: Muhammad, whenever I make a decision, there is none to change it. I grant you for your Ummah that it would not be destroyed by famine and it would not be dominated by an enemy who would not be amongst it and would take their lives and destroy them root and branch even if all the people from the different parts of the world join hands together (for this purpose), but it would be from amongst them, viz. your Ummah, that some people would kill the others or imprison the others.” [LINK]

From an influential 20th-century Islamic scholar:

Syed Abul A'ala Maududi (1903-1979): “Islam is not a religion like the other religions of the world, and Muslim nations are not like other nations. Muslim nations are very special because they have a command from Allah to rule the entire world and to be over every nation in the world. Islam is a revolutionary, totalitarian ideology that comes to destroy any government made by man. The goal of Islam is to rule the entire world and submit all of mankind to the ideology of Islam. Any nation or power that gets in the way of that goal, Islam will fight and destroy. In order to fulfil that goal, Islam can use every power available every way it can be used to bring worldwide revolution. This is Jihad.”  [LINK]

For the last decade and a half there has been an ongoing effort to explain away these and many other such statements, both historical and by the current leaders of Islam, as being not representative of the core of Islam, being somehow “fringe” to the belief of the great majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.  Oddly, the overwhelming majority of such apologists have been non-Muslims.  With only occasional, half-hearted exceptions, there has been a deafening silence from within the Islamic world itself.  And often, when an Islamic voice is raised to condemn such notions to the world at large, besides being magnified by a mainstream media desperate to forward such a narrative of “peaceful Islam,” a little digging finds that same voice spewing forth very different rhetoric among its own [e.g. LINK] – in accordance with the doctrine of taqiyya, “deception,” which is permitted and even mandated both by the Qur’an and the Prophet himself, especially in dealings with the Infidel [LINK].  In short, how can you even believe Islamic “moderates” when they do speak out?  We don't deserve the truth!

Except – When they proclaim their ambitions, to raise the flag of Islam on the dome of St. Peter’s, to destroy “the Great Satan” and bring the world to submission … That I think you can believe.  With the escalating barbarity of atrocities committed in Islamic State-held territories – all of which accord perfectly with the teachings of the Qur’an and the behaviour of the Prophet, which is really the only moral example Islam admits – these “extremists” increasingly demonstrate that they are nothing if not absolute literalists.  Muhammad beheaded the Bani Quraiza Jews of Medina [LINK] – behead away!  Muhammad “married” six-year-old Aisha (although he didn’t consummate the marriage until she was nine!) [LINK] and distributed captive women to his men – and discouraged "interruptus’ing" coitus with them [LINK] – rape away!  Muhammad cut off the hands and feet of the men of the tribe of Uraina  and let them bleed to death [LINK] – chop away!  … I’ve seen conflicting reports on Muhammad burning anyone alive  – but his nephew Ali, the fourth Caliph, certainly did, although he was criticised for it because “Allah’s Apostle forbade it, saying, ‘Do not punish anybody with Allah’s punishment (fire)’” [LINK] – all that could just be an example of the insidious doctrine of abrogation [LINK].  This means that earlier and often more moderate injunctions typically from the Meccan phase of Muhammad’s life as the Prophet, between 610 and 622, are countered, superseded, and negated by increasingly harsh mandates to religious bellicosity and punishment of those daring to resist that came later during the Medinan phase from 622 to 632.  All the Qur’anic verses as well as sayings and examples of the Prophet are considered holy, but many earlier precepts are considered abrogated by later pronouncements – and since the Qur’an as well as the Haditha and accounts of Muhammad’s life were only put into writing much later, at least a generation, and the Qur’an in particular is not organized chronologically at all, puzzling out which precepts are abrogated and which are current is a perplexing conundrum.  A good rule of thumb, however, seems to be:  The harsher it is, the later it is – and if an apologist for Islam (whether Muslim or Western) is citing it seemingly against the Islamic State, it’s likely early and probably abrogated by something later (and the Muslim may well be conscious of that fact – taqiyya).  Conversely, if they claim scriptural warrant, there probably is something somewhere … I’ve no doubt they believe there is.  One thing that is often overlooked is that there is ultimately no touchstone for authoritative interpretation of the Quran or the Haditha beyond the individual's judgment – it’s sola scriptura all the way ….

As sometimes happens, that got a bit away from me, but my point stands.  Believe them when they say they want to convert, kill, or subjugate you – and claim a divine mandate to do so.  Getting back on track….

Why are “ISIS” and “ISIL” less appropriate terms than simply “The Islamic State”?  And what about the occasional use of another term, “DAESH” (which is sometimes simply rendered “Daesh”), as purportedly the Arabic term?

Taking the latter first, yes, DAESH is how surrounding Islamic governments often refer to it.  And of late it’s increasingly being heard out of western mouths.  It is one of several different renderings of the Arabic acronym for “al-Dawlah al-Islāmīyah fī al-ʻIrāq wa-al-Shām,” and is therefore basically equivalent to ISIS or ISIL.  (Other forms are DAISH, DA’ESH, and DA’ISH.)  Except that when spoken as a word it sounds much like the Arabic words daes, "one who crushes something underfoot", and dahes, "one who sows discord" – and is considered derogatory by the Islamic State itself.  Which could be a good enough reason to use it…! … except a) needlessly antagonizing the enemy by calling him names is a bit juvenile even if emotionally satisfying (doesn’t keep me from doing it from time to time, but not in “semiformal” writing), and b) it suffers from the same geographical/conceptual limitation that ISIS/-L does.  The use of a derogatory term for the upstart Islamic State within “their” territories or on their doorstep is understandable in the case of the surrounding Islamic governments who consider it (rightfully) to be an immediately existential threat to their being.  But I don’t think that’s sufficient cause for us to employ what to us sounds like just another name, and even more so looks like just another name when rendered in writing as “Daesh.” 

So what specifically do ISIS and ISIL mean? – and what do the various parties mean when they use them?  Are they really synonymous as many take them to be?  Is there a subtle subtext in the use of one over the other?  Why do I think neither is sufficient?

ISIS stands for “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.”  It’s the most widely used name and is pretty much the English equivalent of DAESH – with a similar, though not-so-derogatory,[1] correspondence to another name, that of an Egyptian goddess.  Which sounds pretty simple, especially since geographically the areas under the group’s direct rule are at present confined to eastern Syria and northern Iraq.  Except, “Syria” here comes from the Arabic “al-Sham,” which means “Greater Syria" — not the modern nation by that name.  It includes Syria, Lebanon, parts of Turkey, and parts of Jordan.  Conceptually, most Arabs include the entirety of the area between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates River, south of the Taurus Mountains and north of the Arabian Desert.  It is more than just “Syria,” which usage for English speakers means just the modern nation.  But it just so happens there is a western name, albeit one that is somewhat obsolete and little-used today, that corresponds more directly with the typical Arabic conception of al-Sham.  That name is “The Levant.”

ISIL stands for “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” and is in fact a better English equivalent for DAESH than is ISIS.  “The Levant” is a term only seemingly related to the name “Lebanon” (it actually comes from the Latin levare “to rise” and French levant “rising,” i.e., the sun, therefore “The East”) and in any case refers to much more than just that modern state – basically the Levant is the entire eastern Mediterranean coast from Turkey in the north around to the borders of Egypt in the south, and its hinterland regions, so Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian territories; historically Cyprus has been included as well.  As a Latin/French-derived name used mainly by western writers from the 15th century forward (still used today in archaeological and historical circles, although rarely in daily discourse), it pretty much corresponds to the wider Arabic conception of al-Sham and would thus seem to be preferable to “Syria.”  And, in fact, such bodies as the United Nations and the US State Department, and US spokesmen up to and including President Obama use it pretty much exclusively.  (Secretary of State Kerry has used the term “Daesh” in certain situations, but I’m not sure how frequently, and after he did so in December the State Department reiterated their standard usage as “ISIL.”  Having a bit of a dim view of Kerry’s intelligence, I have no idea whether he even understands any connotation Daesh might have.)

But, besides the inherent geographic limitation even in the wider meaning of “ISIL” in the face of obvious and proclaimed ambitions on the part of the leadership, drawn from the very bedrock of the religion their espouse, there is also an unfortunate subtext in usage of the term.  Given the notoriously cold reception our only staunch ally in the region receives in the United Nations, as well as the remarkably shabby treatment that ally has received from the Obama administration, I tend to believe that both bodies – and Obama himself – are well aware that historically the Levant has included the modern state of Israel – and that Israel opposes use of the term “ISIL” (using “Da’esh” instead).  Obama and company just don’t care.  Or perhaps they do ....

Finally, my preferred term:  The Islamic State.  To begin with, this was indeed, on 29 June 2014, the name declared by the group hitherto known as ISIS/ISIL/DAESH (and earlier by other names) when they furthermore proclaimed the formation of a Worldwide Caliphate.  It has been largely rejected by outsiders, who claim that usage of the term in some way “validates” the group.  “Validating” or not “validating” the group and its ambitions seem to me irrelevant.  We are not going to win this war – and war it is – by propaganda.  The argument that “It’s neither ‘Islamic’ nor a ‘State’” is empty rhetoric – and indeed deceptive.  It is fundamentally Islamic – see above – and whether it is a “state” or not depends on your definition.  For me, the term most closely corresponds to what is the reality, in fact, to what is a hallowed concept in Islamic thought although the terms themselves do not appear as such in the core texts – the dichotomy between Dar al’Islam and Dar al’Harb.  Make no mistake:  The idea goes straight back to Muhammad and the Qur’an.

The two terms are usually rendered “House of Islam” and “House of War.”  They mean the parts of the world that are under the rule of Islam and the parts of the world that are not … yet.  Sometimes it’s argued that the “House of Islam” should be rendered as “House of Peace” – but that would be a different term, Dar as-Salaam.  Yes, as is frequently pointed out, Islam is related to the Arabic word for “peace,” but it is not peace as we understand it, i.e., an absence of war.  And Islam is not the “Religion of Peace.”  The root for both words is the triconsonantal stem S-L-M, carrying the connotation of “submission.”  The noun “iSLaM” means most literally “submission” – to Allah – and a “muSLiM” is “one who submits.”  The noun “SaLaaM” means “peace through submission.”  If there is no submission (islam) there can be no peace.  And thus there is a perpetual state of war between the “House of Islam” and the rest of the world, i.e., the “House of War.”  This is exactly the concept that the Islamic State is playing into, and the proclamation of the Worldwide Caliphate makes it clear.  As a self-proclaimed Caliph, the former “civilian detainee” of the US forces in Iraq Ibrahim Abu Du’a al-Badri A.K.A. “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi” claims to be a “successor” (the meaning of the word) to Muhammad himself with the Prophet’s religious, political, and military authority over all Muslims wherever they may be.  He thus claims headship of the Dar al’Islam.  I’m actually a little surprised he didn’t claim that name as well….

Of course, dar does not mean “state.”  It means “house” – as it’s usually translated in this context.  That nonetheless does not really convey what it means.  I run into that problem when I introduce the concept to my students, and there I usually propose “world” as the best way to get the meaning across – “World of Islam” or “Islamic World” vs. “everything else.”  Dar does not, of course, mean “world,” either, but I think it works conceptually and corresponds roughly to a couple of the alternative “dictionary meanings” – besides “house,” those include “abode,” “structure,” “place,” “land,” and “country.”  And, lining up well with the lattermost two of those, in today’s day and age of nation-states where conceptually a sovereign, self-governing (even if by thugs, fanatics, and terrorists) territory is usually called “state,” that seems the best translation to me.

One of the most basic things necessary to win any war is to recognise the enemy and what they are fighting for.  With their geographic limitations, I don’t think that “ISIS” or “ISIL” does that.  I believe that “The Islamic State” without qualification does – and conceptually includes the fundamental ambition at the heart of the movement.  So would “Dar al’Islam,” but that’s just too esoteric for common parlance.  So, in my opinion, “The Islamic State” best captures the nature of evil that we face.

Thanks for reading. 

[1] I have not, of course, asked a member of the Islamic State what they think of being called by the name of an Egyptian goddess….

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