What is the Islamic State? Are its beliefs and practices "un-Muslim." UPDATED

The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.
— Graeme Wood, The Atlantic

Graeme Wood has written a lengthy and penetrating article from the Atlantic on the rise of Islamic State, its mission and beliefs. Why is the media so bereft of such analysis? Why are our church leaders and politicians so naïve regarding the correlation between the actions of ISIS and the teachings of the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad? The article tackles this evasion head-on.

There is a temptation to rehearse this observation—that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise—and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.

Islamic State may not be the only legitimate interpretation of Islam, but it is a legitimate interpretation of Islam.

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam. 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.

Islamic State justifies the targeting of other Muslims, especially Shia Muslims, by delegitimising them as Muslims.

In Islam, the practice of takfir, or excommunication, is theologically perilous. “If a man says to his brother, ‘You are an infidel,’?” the Prophet said, “then one of them is right.” If the accuser is wrong, he himself has committed apostasy by making a false accusation. The punishment for apostasy is death.

Denying the holiness of the Koran or the prophecies of Muhammad is straightforward apostasy. But Zarqawi and the state he spawned take the position that many other acts can remove a Muslim from Islam. These include, 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. Being a Shiite, as most Iraqi Arabs are, meets the standard as well, because the Islamic State regards Shiism as innovation, and to innovate on the Koran is to deny its initial perfection. (The Islamic State claims that common Shiite practices, such as worship at the graves of imams and public self-flagellation, have no basis in the Koran or in the example of the Prophet.) That means roughly 200 million Shia are marked for death. So too are the heads of state of every Muslim country, who have elevated man-made law above Sharia by running for office or enforcing laws not made by God.

A consequence of the takfiri doctrine is that the Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people. The leading expert on the belief systems of the Islamic State is Bernard Haykel of Princeton University. He contends that Muslims who call Islamic State “un-Muslim” are,

“embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”

In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said.

The Islamic State takes emulation of Muhammad as a strict duty and has revived traditions that have been dormant for hundreds of years.  Islamic State has continued to embrace slavery and crucifixion without apology.

“We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women,” Yazidi women and children [are to be] divided according to the Shariah [Islamic law] amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations [in northern Iraq] … Enslaving the families of the kuffar [infidels] 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 apostatising from Islam.

The Islamic State is driven by its belief that it is a key player in the end times.

During the last years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Islamic State’s immediate founding fathers … saw signs of the end times everywhere. They were anticipating, within a year, the arrival of the Mahdi—a messianic figure destined to lead the Muslims to victory before the end of the world.

What is to be done? Military intervention is thwart with danger. Wood suggests that containment is the best of a bad range of options.

Properly contained, the Islamic State is likely to be its own undoing. No country is its ally, and its ideology ensures that this will remain the case. The land it controls, while expansive, is mostly uninhabited and poor. As it stagnates or slowly shrinks, its claim that it is the engine of God’s will and the agent of apocalypse will weaken, and fewer believers will arrive. And as more reports of misery within it leak out, radical Islamist movements elsewhere will be discredited: No one has tried harder to implement strict Sharia by violence. This is what it looks like.

Denouncing the Islamic State as un-Muslim is dishonest and counterproductive,

especially if those who hear the message have read the holy texts and seen the endorsement of many of the caliphate’s practices written plainly within them. Muslims can say that slavery is not legitimate now, and that crucifixion is wrong at this historical juncture. Many say precisely this. But they cannot condemn slavery or crucifixion outright without contradicting the Koran and the example of the Prophet. “The only principled ground that the Islamic State’s opponents could take is to say that certain core texts and traditional teachings of Islam are no longer valid,” Bernard Haykel says. That really would be an act of apostasy.

Wood concludes,

That the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma at least tells us the mettle of our opponent. It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model. Ideological tools may convince some potential converts that the group’s message is false, and military tools can limit its horrors. But for an organization as impervious to persuasion as the Islamic State, few measures short of these will matter, and the war may be a long one, even if it doesn’t last until the end of time.

Related: The World’s Deadliest Terrorist Organization

UPDATE: Mark Durie: Paris attacks were not ‘nihilism' but sacred strategy

UPDATE: According to Newsweek a 2014 poll found that one in six French citizens sympathised with the Islamist militant group ISIS, also known as Islamic State.

The poll of European attitudes towards the group, carried out by ICM for Russian news agency Rossiya Segodnya, revealed that 16% of French citizens (both Muslims and non-Muslims) have a positive opinion of ISIS. This percentage increases among younger respondents, spiking at 27% for those aged 18-24.

A recent poll placed French president Francois Hollande’s approval rating at just 18%.

UPDATE: Interview with Graeme Wood.