Many news outlets have Westernized the name of the group which has just declared a “caliphate” in the territory its name describes. (The ISIS video is embedded at the end of this post.) The media have often rendered the name Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Now that ISIS has formally declared its “caliphate,” however, it’s time to stop applying different conventions, and use the one that most accurately conveys what this whole thing is about. That name is the one ISIS uses: Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.*
The reason this matters is that al-Sham and the Levant are not merely diverse cultural ways of referring to some territory on a map.
European authors in the Renaissance referred to the area that largely overlaps al-Sham as the Levant (for “rising,” in French; i.e., the East, where the sun rises). “Levant” has passed into common use among modern Westerners as a way to refer to the lands bordering the easternmost coast of the Mediterranean Sea, from southern Turkey down to Israel and Gaza.
The Arabic al-Sham sets the core of the land of al-Sham as Syria, which is called Bilad al-Sham, and means “land on the left hand.” You will also see al-Sham rendered as Greater Syria. (The name Syria descended to us from the Greek, through Roman usage, and is a whole other story.) Facing the sun from the holy sites in Saudi Arabia, al-Sham is on the left hand, and Yemen is on the right hand.
Al-Sham is not just Syria, however, which is why translating ISIS’s Arabic name as “Iraq and Syria” is wrong and misleading. The land encompassed by al-Sham is considered to include modern Syria, a sliver of southern Turkey, part of northern and western Iraq, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Lebanon. A state of Iraq and al-Sham would incorporate those lands with the remainder of Iraq.
“The heart of the abode of Islam”
But al-Sham has more than a mere geographic meaning in Islam. For one thing, Damascus was the seat of the Umayyad Caliphate beginning in A.D. 661. (There’s political freight, and a potential source of division, with each significant date in Islamic history; 661 was the year Ali, the last of the “rightly guided caliphs,” was assassinated. The “rightly guided caliphs” had been the actual companions of Mohammed, before he died in 632.) The Umayyads were established in Damascus from 661 to 750, when the Abbasids conquered them and moved the seat of the caliphate to Baghdad.**
Alert readers will detect “Iraq and al-Sham” in this brief history. If you’re wondering whether Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, is looking back this far in history for political inspiration, the answer is yes. He’s actually looking even further back in history. (Remember, al-Baghdadi is a graduate-level scholar of Islamic history.)
But for the moment, just this far back will do. In Islam, al-Sham is considered essential territory for the proper rule of the “umma,” or global body of believers. The radical Islamist organization Hizb-ut-Tahrir issued a statement in 2012 affirming this as a principle of the faith. The statement was issued in response to a pair of statements by the Syrian National Council and the Muslim Brotherhood in March 2012, which were couched as “covenants” to govern the future of an Islamic Syria.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir took issue with the corrupt Western approach of the SNC and Muslim Brotherhood covenants, which both referred to instituting democratic political practices:
These pacts have in common the intent that Syria becomes a democratic state in which people legislate their own laws, permitting and prohibiting as they wish, instead of legislation and the right to prohibit and permit being for the Lord of the people, the Lord of the Worlds. They also intend Syria to be a secular civil state, in which religion is separated from public life. In such a case, Islam would not be the centre of life, the director and base of laws and canons. The flag of truth, the flag of ‘There is no deity save Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah’, would not be raised. They intend a Syria with man-made laws as a civil republic, not much different from how it is now, except for a change of faces or some cosmetic adornment! …
[T]he painful fact is that [this] comes from movements branded as being Islamic! So the matter is graver and the danger is greater.
The people of al-Sham did not expend their pure blood, make those great sacrifices, rise up from the masajid shaded by the reverberations of takbeer, raising the call of truth to return to how they were, ruled by the laws for which Allah سبحانهوتعالى has not sent down any authority!
Hizb-ut-Tahrir then invoked the Quran and a hadith affirming the title thesis of the group’s statement (“The heart of Islam is al-Sham and its covenant is ruling by Islam”):
They will not accept that their blood goes to waste or that their sacrifices go in vain. Nay, they will not be content with having other than the rule of Islam, for they are the people of al-Sham, their land is the heart of the abode of Islam. The Messenger of Allah صلىاللهعليهوسلم said,
“Behold, indeed the heart of the abode of the believers is al-Sham” (Ahmad), and “The heart of the abode of Islam is al-Sham” (Tabarani).
This will be a matter of reality by the leave of Allah, in spite of the enemies of Allah and what they desire.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir thus emphasizes that al-Sham has a special meaning for Islam’s rule on the earth. When ISIS or another Sunni radical group speaks of al-Sham, it is not referring merely to the territory Westerners refer to when we say “Levant.”
Nor does the religious history invoked start with the first Umayyad caliph. According to the traditional histories of the “Islamic conquests” (now referred to in a less martial tone as the “Islamic openings”):
Zaid ibn Thabit reported: When we were with the Prophet ~ writing down the Qur’an on animal skins, he said, “Blessed be Al-Sham.” They said, “Messenger of Allah, why is it blessed?” He replied, “Because the angels of Allah spread their wings over it.” (Narrated by ibn Abi Shaibah, Imam Ahmad and Al-Tirmidhi.)
The Mother of the Faithful ‘A’ishah reported: One day, the Prophet ~ woke up terrified saying, “To Allah we belong and to Allah we return.” I asked him, “What is wrong? May you be dearer to me than my father and mother!” He answered, “The pillar of Islam was taken from behind my head so I missed it so much. Then I looked and found it fixed in the heart of Al-Sham. A voice told me, ‘Muhammad! Allah chose Al-Sham for you for and His servants. He destined it to be a source of honor to you, a gathering place for your Resurrection, power and reputation. If Allah bestows grace on someone, He lets him live in Al-Sham and grants him some of its blessings. If He is wrathful on someone, He gets an arrow from His quiver that is hung in the center of Al-Sham and shoots him with it so that he will not be happy in this life or in the Hereafter.” (Narrated by Ibn `Asakir.)
Back to the beginning
But wait! There’s more. To accurately understand the perspective of al-Baghdadi and ISIS, it’s necessary to recognize the emphasis of Islam on the supersession of previous revelation: that is, Islam’s role as a supersessionary successor to the revelations of Christianity and Judaism.
Note here that I am not commenting one way or another on the validity of supersession. I am a Christian, and I don’t believe it’s valid, but unless we acknowledge that this is Islam’s perspective, we will not understand why al-Baghdadi, in proclaiming a caliphate, has taken the name Ibrahim, or Abraham. In doing that, he means precisely to invoke the patriarch Abraham – literal genealogical and covnenant patriarch of the Jews, and considered the spiritual patriarch of Christians – whom Islam claims as the original patriarch of Muslims.
Abraham lived and roamed in the territory of “Iraq and al-Sham.” In his wanderings, he moved from his birthplace, Ur, in what is now southern Iraq, to the land of Canaan. In the time when the books of Moses were written (1450-1410 B.C.) – including Genesis, which recounts the story of Abraham – Canaan corresponded largely to what Westerners now call the Levant, and Muslims who want to emphasize religious history call al-Sham.
Jews and Christians have an essentially similar view of the meaning of Abraham’s movements around Canaan, and the religious import of his covenants executed there. Islam has a supersessionist view that differs on some important matters. My purpose here is not to fight a battle over religious interpretations, but to observe that the dispute exists – although none of the three faiths would put it in those terms, each one affirming that there is no dispute, because its revelation on each matter is the valid one. (Again, Jews and Christians don’t differ on the essentials; e.g., the religious meaning of the child of promise – Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac – as opposed to Ishmael, or of God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17.)
That Islam reinterprets some of Judaism and Christianity, and claims to be a supersessionary revelation, is a reality of longstanding, which is coming home to roost in the political events of the 2010s. The proclamation of ISIS is one of those events.
Westerners won’t find a lot of popular resources in our languages to explain what an Islamic historical view of Middle Eastern territory may be, and how the “revelations” of Islam may relate to claims about the interest of God Himself in geography. But that is exactly the dimension in which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and ISIS must be understood. It is not too much to say that al-Baghdadi proposes to triumphally claim al-Sham, along with Iraq, for the Islamic Abraham.
Here is an Islamic teacher, laying out, in brief and simple terms, an Islamic view of the history surrounding Abraham in al-Sham (the translation is from the original and makes garbled but comprehensible English; emphasis added):
History which we (Muslims) are sure and more interested about
Ruins is mostly for people who didn’t follow messengers of Allah the God of all humans.
We should not be proud to be Phoenician or Saurian …
We are all from Adam and Adam is from ….
Allah created Adam then he descended to earth (some traces says in Sham).
Allah taught him all the names.
Messengers become after Adam to teach people the way of Allah.
The Father of Prophets is Ibrahim was [in] Sham and went to Mecca to build the first house of Allah. Then Muhammad SAAS travelled from Mecca to Alquds [sic. – Jerusalem] before alquds is Conquested yet.
It is not accidental that the three geographic reference points mentioned here are “Sham,” Mecca, and Jerusalem.
The “geographization” of the Islamist challenge
Westerners are unwise to try to speak only in the terms of the modern political abstractions – the patterns and “-isms” – that serve as our mental touchstones today. The world of settled borders that has been safe for our abstractions is under assault as it has not been for a very long time. Declining to notice what motivates this assault is not a way of protecting that safe, settled-borders world.
There has been much speculation, with the rise of ISIS, that the “Sykes-Picot agreement” dating to 1916 is dead as a blueprint for borders and claims in the area encompassed by “Iraq and al-Sham.” And that’s a valid way to think about it – a way that resonates much more with Middle Easterners than with Westerners (most of whom now have no idea what Sykes-Picot was) – but it doesn’t go far enough.
Sykes-Picot was drawn up in secret as a way of dividing the Ottoman Empire, which was dismantled by the Western victors at the end of World War I. ISIS doesn’t propose to resurrect the Ottoman Empire. The scope of al-Baghdadi’s vision is much older and more religious than that. In essence, he wants to rewrite the history of Iraq and al-Sham under an Islamic Abraham 2.0.
To do that is to try to reopen the bidding not just on the borders of 1914, but on the region’s whole history since Isaac and Ishmael went their separate ways some 4,000 years ago.
This is not the vision of the Muslim Brotherhood or al-Qaeda. Their concept is one of global jihad. Its basic view is abstractly universalist in a sense that resonates with the mentality of 20th-century moderns; its emphasis is on undermining the West and unifying Islam across borders and continents. Al-Baghdadi’s vision is territorial and historical, focused on establishing a caliphate in a particular place, and proclaiming a particular narrative about it as the truth of God Himself.
That said, the two visions may conflict for the purposes of current-day politics and tactics, but not necessarily as an eschatological idea of the future course of all things. There is room for ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood to make common cause, as well as to oppose each other, assuming they both continue to operate from their different power bases.
We don’t know yet what kind of success ISIS will have in establishing itself. Iran and Russia may succeed in beating it back and defeating al-Baghdadi’s initiative. But the ISIS idea won’t die easily. It’s a vision for a caliphate that encompasses Jerusalem, the territory of modern Israel, and regional locations revered from Islamic religious history – and it is tethered to a powerful religious-historical narrative. I foresee it being one of the main rallying concepts for what I have dubbed the “race to Jerusalem.”
I predicted in 2009 that Barack Obama’s essentially hostile orientation to the national security requirements of Israel would open the door to the chaos we are seeing now in the Middle East. I won’t rehash the whole thesis; follow the links from the last link above if you’re interested. The relevance of that prediction to ISIS is that ISIS represents one of several approaches we will see to aligning the forces to proclaim Islamic supremacy over Jerusalem.
One way or another, a coalition of regional armies will have to position itself to menace Jerusalem and induce the city to fall (again, for evidence that this is a high-priority objective of Islamists, see the links. ISIS has referred to it on a number of occasions, including the “Sykes-Picot” video embedded below, and an ISIS rally captured in a video from earlier this year. For another view of how important some observers expect ISIS to be to the conquest of Jerusalem, see this article posted in a Pravda forum for the delectation of its readers. Warning: the original piece is from a vilely anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist website. The author offers quotes from ISIS and its associates, which I don’t vouch for. They may or may not be valid. But if you run some web searches, you will see just how widespread is the expectation that the ISIS caliphate will defeat Israel and “liberate Palestine”).
Of the various strategic concepts there may be for the race to Jerusalem, the ISIS caliphate would certainly put all the eastern approaches to Israel – from Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Judea and Samaria in the West Bank – in the hands of a single ruler.
The ISIS concept doesn’t incorporate Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, however – or Shia Iran. In terms of Islamist eschatology, it represents, variously, the narrative of a faction, and perhaps a piece of a puzzle. It is exactly what we should have expected to erupt when the president of the United States put in question the American commitment to enforcing the modern order overlaid on the Middle East.
We no longer have the luxury of seeing such a factional narrative as a weird artifact of religious history: a meaningless abstraction. Because of the deliberate withdrawal of U.S. power, the factional narratives are increasingly driving events. It’s the conventions of the Western-brokered international order – a United Nations, recognized borders, processes for negotation – that are becoming the meaningless abstractions.
Trying to enforce a historically antiseptic Western term – Levant – for the territorial aspirations of the ISIS-proclaimed caliphate is a misguided rearguard action. If you want to set the terms of the dialogue, you have to bring the biggest guns. The West has decided to abandon that role. ISIS is fighting to rule “al-Sham,” and the West ignores that at its peril.
* I am going with the rendering “al-Sham,” which is most common way of adding the article among English speakers. Variants are “as-Sham” and “ash-Sham,” reflecting variations in Arabic convention. English itself wouldn’t put an article before “Sham,” and readers will sometimes see the name written “Iraq and Sham.” I use the article because doing so evokes better the Arabic original, and has the right feel, suggesting the importation into English of a whole expression that has a special meaning in Arabic.
** The seat of the Abbasid Caliphate (see map below) was moved to Samarra, Iraq in the 9th century. It is the only remaining Islamic capital that retains its original plan and architecture. The Abbasid Caliphate survived to 1258. It is useful to keep in mind that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a native of Samarra, and would have grown up with, and learned as his historical perspective, the idea of a Syria stretching down into modern Israel, along with the territory of modern Iraq, being ruled as a unified entity by an Islamic caliphate headquartered in his hometown.