Ideology of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant

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The ideology of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Daesh), which controls territory primarily in Iraq and Syria, has been described as being based on Salafism, Salafi Jihadism,[1][2] and Wahhabism.[3]

Important doctrines of ISIL include its belief that it represents the restoration of the caliphate of early Islam, and that all Muslims are required to pledge allegiance to it;[4] that a "defiled" Islam must be purged of apostasy, often with bloody sectarian killings,[5] that the final Day of Judgment by God is near and will follow the defeat of the army of "Rome" by ISIL;[2] that a strict adherence to following the precepts "established by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers" is necessary, surpassing even that of other Salafi groups.[2]


Experts disagree on the importance of ideology in ISIL. According to Cole Bunzel, not all members of ISIL are aware of the ideology of the group they support.[1] On the other hand, Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, who specializes in the study of ISIL, argues that many Western observers fail to understand the passionate attachment of ISIL—including to its rank and file—to religion doctrine: "Even the foot soldiers spout" Quranic verses "constantly. They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time."[2]

A jihadism based ideology[edit]

The ideology of the Islamic State is based on Jihadi-Salafism, "a distinct ideological movement in Sunni Islam", according to Cole Bunzel of the Brookings Institution and Graeme Wood of The Atlantic. According to their works, and ISIL itself, it unites two streams of Islamic thought that are the original Moslem Brotherhood and Salafism, though ISIL regards the modern Moslem Brotherhood and Hamas as traitors and apostates. "We believe that jihad in God's path is an individual obligation, from the fall of al-Andalus until the liberation of [all] Muslim lands, and [that it is an individual obligation] in the presence of a pious person or an impious person."[1][2] British newspaper The Guardian defines the organisation's ideology as "generally viewed as identical to al-Qaida's or the Saudi version of Salafism – adherence to fundamental Islamic tenets."[6]

Tenets of ISIL ideology[edit]

Salafi Jihadists such as ISIL believe that only a legitimate authority can undertake the leadership of jihad, and that the first priority over other areas of combat, such as fighting non-Muslim countries, is the purification of Islamic society. For example, ISIL regards the Palestinian Islamist Sunni group Hamas as apostates who have no legitimate authority to lead jihad and it regards fighting Hamas as the first step before confrontation with Israel.[7][8]

Names used to describe the group[edit]

Sunni militant[edit]

USA Today writes that "The Islamic State is a group of Sunni militants" that "believes in the strict enforcement of Sharia law."[9] In a conversation with a Western journalist (Thomas L. Friedman), a deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia (Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud), described ISIL's message to Saudi and other Arab Muslims as: "The West is trying to enforce its agenda on you — and the Saudi government is helping them — and Iran is trying to colonize the Arab world. So we — ISIS — are defending Islam."[10]


It adheres to global jihadist principles and follows the hard-line ideology of al-Qaeda and many other modern-day jihadist groups.[11] However, other sources trace the group's roots to Wahhabism. The New York Times wrote:

For their guiding principles, the leaders of the Islamic State ... are open and clear about their almost exclusive commitment to the Wahhabi movement of Sunni Islam. The group circulates images of Wahhabi religious textbooks from Saudi Arabia in the schools it controls. Videos from the group's territory have shown Wahhabi texts plastered on the sides of an official missionary van.[7]

ISIL aims to return to the early days of Islam, rejecting all innovations in the religion, which it believes corrupts its original spirit. It condemns later caliphates and the Ottoman Empire for deviating from what it calls pure Islam,[12] and seeks to revive the original Wahhabi project of the restoration of the caliphate governed by strict Salafist doctrine. Following Salafi-Wahhabi tradition, ISIL condemns the followers of secular law as disbelievers, putting the current Saudi government in that category.[13]

According to The Economist, dissidents in the ISIL capital of Raqqa report that "all 12 of the judges who now run its court system ... are Saudis". Saudi Wahhabi practices also followed by the group include the establishment of religious police to root out "vice" and enforce attendance at salat prayers, the widespread use of capital punishment, and the destruction or re-purposing of any non-Sunni religious buildings.[14] Bernard Haykel has described al-Baghdadi's creed as "a kind of untamed Wahhabism".[7] Alastair Crooke describes ISIS as adopting Wahhabi "puritanism," but denying the "Saudi Kingdom any legitimacy as founders of a State, as the head of the Mosque, or as interpreter of the Qur'an. All these attributes ISIS takes for itself."[5]

Radical Islamist[edit]

The BBC defines the group's ideology as "radical Islamist," that "aims to establish a "caliphate", a state ruled by a single political and religious leader according to Islamic law, or Sharia." Furthermore, the BBC adds that "IS members are jihadists who adhere to an extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam and consider themselves the only true believers. They hold that the rest of the world is made up of unbelievers who seek to destroy Islam, justifying attacks against other Muslims and non-Muslims alike."[15]

"Global Jihadist ideology"[edit]

Australian National Security informs that "The Islamic State is an Iraq and Syria-based Sunni extremist group and former al‑Qa'ida affiliate that adheres to the global jihadist ideology."[16]


Sunni critics, including Salafi and jihadist muftis such as Adnan al-Aroor and Abu Basir al-Tartusi, say that ISIL and related terrorist groups are not Sunnis, but modern-day Khawarij—Muslims who have stepped outside the mainstream of Islam—serving an imperial anti-Islamic agenda.[17][18]

Ideological implications of the Caliphate[edit]

Having declared itself to be a new Caliphate, and al-Baghdadi to be the new Caliph, ISIL has declared support for itself obligatory for all Muslims. Al-Baghdadi has declared "We inform the Muslims that, with the announcement of the caliphate, it has become obligatory for all Muslims to give Bay'ah and support him", and "O Muslims in all places. Whoso is able to emigrate to the Islamic State, let him emigrate. For emigration to the Abode of Islam is obligatory".[1] This hold true for all other jihadi groups including Al-Qaeda which (ISIL believes) has lost its reason for existing independently.

According to Hayder al Khoei, the central importance of the restoration of the caliphate of early Islam to ISIL's philosophy is symbolised by the Black Standard ISIS has adopted, a variant of the legendary battle flag of Muhammad displaying the Seal of Muhammad within a white circle, with the phrase above it, "There is no God but Allah".[4][19]

Without a caliphate, there can be no offensive jihad, according to traditional Islamic law. According to jihadist preacher Anjem Choudary, "Hitherto, we were just defending ourselves," but now ISIL can fight to the forcible expansion into countries that are ruled by non-Muslims. Waging of war to expand the caliphate is an essential duty of the caliph, so according to its ideological supporters like Anjem Choudary, ISIL is not just allowed to fight offensively but forbidden not to.[2]

Importance of Salafism[edit]

Author Graeme Wood has noted the importance of the "governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers", from which ISIL insists it "cannot waver".

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, "the Prophetic methodology," which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail.[2]

While other jihadis are salafist in doctrine, ISIL been more exacting in following early practices by "embrac[ing] slavery and crucifixion without apology," as well as a jizya tax on Christians.[2]


Takfiring (declaring self-proclaimed-Muslims apostates who must be killed) large numbers of Muslims has been a point of difference between itself and other jihadis such as Al-Qaeda. ISIL is "committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people".[2] Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of ISIL predecessor group, al‑Qaeda in Iraq, from roughly 2003 to 2006, expanded "the range of behavior" that could make large number of self-proclaimed Muslims infidels (kafir) -- including "in certain cases, selling alcohol or drugs, wearing Western clothes or shaving one's beard, voting in an election—even for a Muslim candidate—and being lax about calling other people apostates".[2]

One example of the willingness to takfir is a statement not only calling for the revival of slavery (specifically of Yazidi) but takfiring any Muslim who disagreed with it.

Yazidi women and children [are to be] divided according to the Shariah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations … Enslaving the families of the kuffar and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Koran and the narrations of the Prophet … and thereby apostatizing from Islam.[2]

Importance of violence[edit]

ISIS has been noted for what most have called "appalling"[20] or "horrifying" brutality,[21] its release of videos and photographs of beheadings, shootings, caged prisoners being burnt alive or submerged gradually until drowned.[22] Among other effects, the group's mass killings and publicizing of them led to a split between it and Al Qaeda.[20]

ISIL's violence is "not some whimsical, crazed fanaticism, but a very deliberate, considered strategy", according to some analysts,[5] who often quote a 2004 work published online entitled Management of Savagery[23] (Idarat at-Tawahhush), which is described by several journalists and analysts as influential to ISIL,[21][5][24] and intended to provide a strategy to create a new Islamic caliphate.[25]

Management of Savagery asserts that "one who previously engaged in jihad knows that it is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, deterrence and massacring."[26] While "savage chaos" is unpleasant it has to be remembered that even "the most abominable of the levels of savagery" are better "than stability under the order of unbelief," i.e. any regime other than ISIL.[27] [28]

One observer has described ISIL's publicizing of its mass executions and killing of civilians as part of "a conscious plan designed to instill among believers a sense of meaning that is sacred and sublime, while scaring the hell out of fence-sitters and enemies."[28] Another describes it purpose as to "break" psychologically those under its control "so as to ensure their absolute allegiance through fear and intimidation", while generating "outright hate and vengeance" by its enemies.[29]


One difference between ISIL and other Islamist and jihadist movements, including al-Qaeda, is the group's emphasis on eschatology and apocalypticism—that is, a belief in a final Day of Judgment by God, and specifically, a belief that the arrival of one known as Imam Mahdi is near. ISIL believes that it will defeat the army of "Rome" at the town of Dabiq, in fulfilment of prophecy.[2] Following its interpretation of the Hadith of the Twelve Successors, ISIL also believes that after al-Baghdadi there will be only four more legitimate caliphs.[2]

The noted scholar of militant Islamism William McCants writes:

References to the End Times fill Islamic State propaganda. It's a big selling point with foreign fighters, who want to travel to the lands where the final battles of the apocalypse will take place. The civil wars raging in those countries today [Iraq and Syria] lend credibility to the prophecies. The Islamic State has stoked the apocalyptic fire. [...] For Bin Laden's generation, the apocalypse wasn't a great recruiting pitch. Governments in the Middle East two decades ago were more stable, and sectarianism was more subdued. It was better to recruit by calling to arms against corruption and tyranny than against the Antichrist. Today, though, the apocalyptic recruiting pitch makes more sense.

— William McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State[30]

Women and sex roles[edit]

ISIL publishes material directed at women. Although women are not allowed to take up arms, media groups encourage them to play supportive roles within ISIL, such as providing first aid, cooking, nursing and sewing skills, in order to become "good wives of jihad".[31]

A document entitled Women in the Islamic State: Manifesto and Case Study, released 23 January 2015 by the media wing of ISIL's all-female Al-Khanssaa Brigade, (issued in Arabic and not translated by ISIL but by an anti-Islamist Quilliam Foundation[32]) emphasized the paramount importance of marriage and motherhood (as early as nine-years-old) for women. Women should live a life of "sedentariness", fulfilling their "divine duty of motherhood" at home: "Yes, we say 'stay in your houses,' ....."[32][33] Under "exceptional circumstances," women may leave home—doctors, teachers, women studying Islam are exempt from confinement, as are women if they are needed to fight jihad and ordered to do so by religious leaders when there are not enough men around to protect the country from enemy attack.[32][33]

In education, the document author envisions a system where girls complete their formal schooling by age 15. Women are encouraged to study, provided the content is not "worldly" knowledge, but religious, for example Shari'ah, (Islamic law). Women should not study

these worthless worldly sciences in the farthest mountains and the deepest valleys, ... She travels, intent upon learning Western lifestyle and sitting in the midst of another culture, to study the brain cells of crows, grains of sand and the arteries of fish!

If instead she studies fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), "there is with no need for her to flit here and there to get degrees and so on, just so she can try to prove that her intelligence is greater than a man's."[33]

The treatise decries Western feminism and the blurring of lines between the roles of each sex, which has caused Muslims to forget how to worship God properly. "Women are not presented with a true picture of man", and men have become emasculated.[32]

Equality for women is criticized on the grounds that

Women gain nothing from the idea of their equality with men apart from thorns ... Under 'equality' they have to work and rest on the same days as men even though they have 'monthly complications' and pregnancies and so on, in spite of the nature of her life and responsibilities to their husband, sons and religion."[33]

In practice[edit]


Residents report that the ISIL dress code for women was both very strict and strictly enforced.[34] Shortly after tasking control of Mosul in 2014 residents reported that ISIL distributed from door-to-door a "Bill of the City," detailing its plans for governing the city, and declaring that women should wear a "wide, loose jilbab, stay in your homes and leave them only in cases of necessity." [35]

The dress code was implemented gradually and completed with the requirement that every part of the female body including the eyes be covered in public. Some former female residents complained that this prevented them from such basic tasks as seeing where they were going; or when shopping seeing what they were buying and what change was being given them.[34]

Thousands of sets of niqab were distributed to shops in Mosul after the ISIL takeover and decrees ordered that women wear them along with gloves. ISIL billboards gave details of required apparel for women stating that outer gowns should be "thick and not reveal what is beneath" and should "not draw attention."[34] Regulations on dress are enforced by Diwan al-Hisba or "morality police" who issue citations and confiscate IDs. According to the New York Times, "depending on the offense, he was forced to pay a fine, or else either he or his wife was sentenced to a whipping, recent escapees said."[34] In one case a woman resident complained that she was arrested by a vigilant morality police officer who spotted her lifting her veil to let food enter her mouth while on a family picnic. She was sentenced to 21 lashes administered with "a cable that had metal spikes on the end" and had to be hospitalized afterwards.[34]


The Diwan al-Hisba also enforced laws on behavior for men in Mosul, who were fining and flogged for infractions such as "incorrect beard length, for failure to pray at the sanctioned time, for possession of cigarettes and alcohol".[34]

Initial reception[edit]

Following the announcement of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIL's predecessor) in 2006, there was much celebration on Jihadist websites. A number of popular forums added counters that counted the number of days that had passed since the Islamic state's establishment, with a statement underneath: "[a certain number of] days have passed since the announcement of the Islamic State and the [Muslim] community's coming hope…and it will continue to persist by the will of God." However, outside of jihadists online, it was not considered by people as an official state.[1] Abu Umar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir both insisted that the Islamic State of Iraq was not simply a new name for Al Qaeda in Iraq, but was an actual state. When other Iraq-based Salafi factions like the Islamic Army in Iraq refused to recognize it as a state and give it their allegiance, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi called them "sinners".[1]


U.S. Secretary Of State John Kerry said in statement that "[ISIL] is not Islamic", and denied it was a state, instead calling it a terrorist organization. Neither governments nor peoples recognize it as legitimate government.[36]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Bunzel, Cole. "From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State" (PDF).
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Wood, Graeme (15 February 2015). "What ISIS Really Wants". The Atlantic. Retrieved 19 February 2015.
  3. ^ Crooke, Alastair (27 August 2014). "You Can't Understand ISIS If You Don't Know the History of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia". Huffington Post. Retrieved 11 April 2015.
  4. ^ a b Endtimes Brewing Huffington Post (UK) article by Anne Speckhard, 29 August 2014
  5. ^ a b c d Crooke, Alastair (30 August 2014). "The ISIS' 'Management of Savagery' in Iraq". The World Post. Retrieved 2 December 2015.
  6. ^ Hassan Hassan. "The secret world of Isis training camps – ruled by sacred texts and the sword". the Guardian.
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  8. ^ Mamouri, Ali (29 July 2014). "Why Islamic State has no sympathy for Hamas". Al-Monitor. Retrieved 1 August 2014.
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  14. ^ "Crime and punishment in Saudi Arabia: The other beheaders". The Economist. 20 September 2014. Retrieved 7 November 2014.
  15. ^ "What is Islamic State?". BBC News.
  16. ^ "Islamic State - Australian National Security".
  17. ^ Paraszczuk, Joanna (7 February 2014). "Umar Shishani's Second-in-Command in ISIS Slams Scholars Who "Sow Discord" & Don't Fight". Chechens In Syria. Retrieved 8 July 2014.
  18. ^ "The slow backlash – Sunni religious authorities turn against Islamic State". The Economist. 6 September 2014.
  19. ^ What the ISIS Flag Says About the Militant Group, article by Ilene Prusher, 9 September 2014
  20. ^ a b WRIGHT, LAWRENCE (June 16, 2014). "ISIS's Savage Strategy in Iraq". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2 December 2015.
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  22. ^ Lee, Ian; Hanna, Jason (12 August 2015). "Croatian ISIS captive reportedly beheaded". CNN. Retrieved 12 August 2015.
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  28. ^ a b Atran, Scott; Hamid, Nafees (16 November 2015). "Paris: The War ISIS Wants". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 20 November 2015.
  29. ^ Reardon, Martin (6 Jul 2015). "ISIL and the management of savagery". Al Jazeera. Retrieved 20 November 2015.
  30. ^ McCants, William (2015). The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 147. ISBN 978-1-250-08090-5.
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  32. ^ a b c d Winter, Charlie (5 February 2015). "QUILLIAM TRANSLATION AND ANALYSIS OF ISLAMIC STATE MANIFESTO ON JIHADIST BRIDES". QUILLIAM. Archived from the original on 19 January 2016. Retrieved 23 November 2015.
  33. ^ a b c d ABDUL-ALIM, JAMAAL (8 March 2015). "ISIS 'Manifesto' Spells Out Role for Women". The Atlantic. Retrieved 23 November 2015.
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  35. ^ Al Aqeedi, Rasha (February 2016). Hisba in Mosul: Systematic Oppression in the Name of Virtue (PDF). Program on Extremism at George Washington University. Retrieved 12 December 2016.
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