ISIS made something of a splash with the first two editions of its polished online magazine Dabiq, named for a town in northern Syria where Islam holds that an apocalyptic battle will occur at the end of the present age.
Analysts abroad have “gotten” the points that ISIS has declared a caliphate and is trying, with the magazine, to appeal to young jihadis, “over the heads of other [Islamic] communities,” to come to the Islamic state and join its enterprise. Many observers are impressed by the slick organization and production of the Dabiq periodical. They note the juxtaposition of appealing themes like “caring for orphans” with bloody and violent images of ISIS conquests in Syria and Iraq, which of course are framed, smoothly and professionally, as victories for a force of righteousness.
Westerners have picked up on the messaging tailored for us in our languages (Dabiq is published in several); some even pick up on messages that may be only incidental. In one such case, Bryan Preston at PJ Media interprets a passage from the third issue of Dabiq as a Western-oriented branding exercise: ISIS depicting itself, for Western consumption, as a “multi-racial melting pot.”
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In another case (see the Jamestown link above), Dr. Michael W.S. Ryan discusses the concept of “millah Ibrahim” – which may be translated at the “religious community of Abraham” – and turns almost immediately to relating it to a jihadist tract from the 1980s that questions the Islamic legitimacy of the Saudi royal family.
Neither of these treatments is wrong, per se, but both miss the mark. This is largely because of a very fundamental incompatibility of the Western with the Islamic mindset, or worldview. Opening a window on Islamic thinking requires inhabiting the worldview of Islam, and that worldview doesn’t translate well into Western thought. Neither is the converse operation an easy one.
Perhaps a shortcut method of understanding the dynamic is looking at how Ryan, in taking on the first issue of Dabiq, frames his discussion of millah Ibrahim.
The magazine is carefully crafted with symbolism that would be meaningful to jihadists, some amounting to “dog whistles” perhaps to signal to potential recruits that Islamic State is pursuing the stated goals of various jihadist groups and individuals that might otherwise be considered rivals or even enemies.For example, the use of the term “Millah Ibrahim” means the religious community or path associated with the patriarch Ibrahim (Abraham).
This is a very Western perspective: detached, skeptical, careful to keep its options open as regards conclusions about the subject’s theme and motive. It’s possible that ISIS could be blowing dog whistles at potential recruits – that ISIS’s priority is recruiting, and that it will do whatever is successful in that regard.
But it may also be a self-blinding Westernism to assume that if a group has produced a very professional recruiting tool, the group’s pragmatic priority of recruitment trumps its devotion to more impressionistic – even ecstatic – but less measurable goals.
What if ISIS really does see the world, and its own path into the future, in terms of a literal religious community, one that, from its perspective, synthesizes the faiths which arose over the centuries among the descendants of the patriarch Abraham?
The ISIS manifesto
The third issue of Dabiq indicates to me very clearly that it does. If we have eyes to see, we will recognize that ISIS isn’t blowing dog whistles at all. Nor is it ISIS’s priority to cater to Western ideals about melting pots. ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, has a very specific vision, and he isn’t just using the 20th-century tracts written by others to influence impressionable young men in his quest for power. His career of conquest has been political and territorial, in the sense understood by Westerners, but his ideological allusions are religious and apocalyptic. He means it when he says “millah Ibrahim.” He sees ISIS as carving the path that will bring millah Ibrahim to its full geographic fruition as the end-state of the age.*
This is why it’s so important to understand that ISIS stands for Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. “Sham” is largely coterminous with what the West calls the Levant, but it has meanings for Islam that are both historical and eschatological. Al-Baghdadi, a doctoral scholar of Islam and one-time cleric from Tikrit, Iraq, grew up steeped in those meanings, as thoroughly as it is possible for anyone to be. #
Of special significance among those meanings, as I outlined in June (link above), is the legacy of Abraham, which – in a form altered from the text of Genesis – is foundational for Islam, and which unfolded across exactly the territory Al-Baghdadi has been busy conquering over the last two years.
Al-Baghdadi, in appointing himself caliph, has taken the name Ibrahim for a reason. In the third issue of Dabiq, he makes that clear, with an entire passage on the meaning of Abraham the patriarch to the enterprise of ISIS. Post-modern, Western eyes may pick up more readily on the seeming appeal to the idea of a multi-racial melting pot. But the important words to pick up on are the name Abraham (or Ibrahim), and the call to hijrah (faith-directed migration), which are not separate but intertwined.
Bryan Preston quotes from Dabiq on the uniqueness of the “Islamic State,” where the text asks about other states in history:
Were any of them established by the emigration of poor strangers from the East and the West, who then gathered in an alien land of war and pledged allegiance to an “unknown” man, in spite of the political, economic, military, media, and intelligence war waged by the nations against their religion, their state, and their hijrah?
The text goes on to note what Westerners would call the diversity of the jihadis assembled in Syria and Iraq:
[S]oldiers and commanders [are] of different colors, languages and lands: the Najdi, the Jordanian, the Tunisian, the Egyptian, the Somali, the Turk, the Albanian, the Chechen, the Indonesian, the Russian, the European, the American, and so on. They left their families and their lands to renew the state of the muwahhidin in Sham, and they had never known each other until they arrived in Sham!
ISIS’s emphasis on the uniqueness of this development is noteworthy, but the point is neither self-congratulatory nor self-consciously framed for a Western audience. The next line is key:
I have no doubt that this state…has become the largest collection of muhajirin in the world, is a marvel of history that has only come about to pave the way for al-Malhamah al-Kubra (the grand battle prior to the Hour).
If we were to put this in Western terms, it would read something like this: “I have no doubt that the righteous are assembling to prepare for the battle of Armageddon (the great battle that will end with the Coming of Jesus Christ to rule over the next age).”
Armageddon and Islam’s “grand battle prior to the Hour” are to occur in somewhat different ways; Islam’s traditions on this differ from those of Judaism and Christianity. The entire sequence involving a great battle at Dabiq, in northern Syria, is absent from the prophecies of the Bible. So Christians should not hear “Armageddon,” per se, in the proclamation about al-Malhamah al-Kubra, but rather a somewhat analogous point of reference for the eschatological import of what the Dabiq article refers to.
The role of al-Sham
With that in mind, see what Dabiq has to say about the territory of al-Sham (p. 9; emphasis added):
Sham is the land of malahim [that is, battle; the implication, in particular, is that it is the land of eschatologically significant battles – J.E.]…
Allah’s Messenger…linked this blessed land with many of the events related to al-Masih, al-Mahdi, and the Dajjal.** …
Allah’s Messenger…said, “I saw as if a pillar of the Book was taken from underneath my pillow, so I looked and it was a shining light extending towards Shām. Verily faith, at the time of tribulations, is in Shām.”
Allah’s Messenger…said, “Shām is the land of congregation and dispersal [meaning resurrection].”
Shaykh Hamūd at-Tuwayjirī…in commenting on some of the narrations about the tribulations and battles in Shām, said, “In these narrations is evidence that the bulk of at-Tā’ifatul-Mansūrah (the victorious group) will be in Shām near the end of times, because the Khilafah [caliph] will be there. They will continue to be there clearly upon the truth until Allah sends the pleasant breeze and it takes the soul of every person who has faith in his heart…”
Sham is thus clearly framed as the geographic heart of the Islamic eschaton. There is a strong sense that Al-Baghdadi sees a divine hand in the current opportunity – offered by the turmoil in Syria and Iraq – to reestablish an Islamic caliphate with its center there.
The Abraham connection
Now see the connection with Abraham and hijrah, on p. 10 (emphasis added). The heading of this segment bring everything together:
Hijrah to Sham is from the millah of Ibrahim…
[Rephrased for meaning – J.E.: “Migration to Sham is a faith-directed event modeled by Abraham, and meaningful on the same principles to those who belong to his faith covenant”]
The segment expounds on this proposition:
The hijrah of the strangers to Shām was in adherence to the path of Ibrāhīm…who established for them the tradition of declaring enmity and hatred towards the mushrikīn [“polytheists”; e.g., Christians] and their tawāghīt [heresy].
[Note – J.E.: The sentence above refers to the migration of “strangers” to Syria and Iraq since 2012. But Abraham also migrated as a stranger to Sham, coming from Ur which is now in modern Iraq. (Sham is referred to in the Old Testament by the name Canaan.)]
The “strangers” converging on Sham are the diversity-poster crowd that Bryan Preston picked up on, back on p. 4. It should be clear at this point that their “diversity” holds a particular meaning for ISIS: that the Muslim faithful of the whole earth are gathering under a caliph in preparation for the end of the present age.
Allah’s Messenger…said, “There will be hijrah after hijrah. The best people on earth will be those who keep to the land of Ibrāhīm’s hijrah. Then there will remain on the earth the worst of its people. Their lands will cast them out, Allah will hate them, and the fire will gather them together with the apes and swine.” …
[The next paragraphs, discussing the “pleasant breeze,” describe an event for Muslims similar (but not identical) in concept to the “Rapture” outlined in New Testament prophecy, in which Christian believers are taken up from the earth.] The passage then continues:
Shaykhul-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah…said, “Islam in the end of times will be more manifest in Shām. […] So the best of the people on the earth in the end of times will be those who keep to the land of Ibrāhīm’s hijrah, which is Shām.”
Ibn Taymiyyah also said, “So he informed that the best of the people on the earth are those who keep to the land of Ibrāhīm’s hijrah, in contrast to those who pass through it or leave it.” The land that Ibrāhīm made hijrah to is Shām. In this hadith, there are glad tidings for our companions who made hijrah from Harrān (an area of Iraq) and elsewhere to the land of Ibrāhīm’s hijrah, and followed the path of Ibrāhīm and the religion of their prophet Muhammad. …
Allah’s Messenger…said, “Matters will run their course until you become mobilized armies: an army in Shām, and an army in Yemen, and an army in Iraq.” Ibn Hawālah said, “Choose for me [which army to join] if I reach that time.” He [the Messenger – J.E.] said, “Go to Shām, for it is the best of Allah’s lands, and He draws His best slaves to it. And if you do not, then go to your Yemen and drink from your wells. For Allah has guaranteed me that He will look after Shām and its people.”
Issue Number 3 of Dabiq emerges as the true manifesto of ISIS and Al-Baghdadi. It outlines what they think is going on in the world, spiritually and in terms of supernatural forces, and what they believe their role is to be. The layers of transliterated Arabic and ritual verbiage in the text of the average Islamic explication are always off-putting to Westerners, but I hope to have made things clearer with the treatment here.
There’s a lot more to say about how (or if) Baghdadi’s vision fits with that of other Islamic leaders and visionaries. I’ve made the point before that al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood have had a somewhat different vision from Al-Baghdadi’s, no less ideological or “Islamist” but certainly less territorially specific and focused on political conquest. Iran has yet a third vision – a Shia vision, with a different view of the Mahdi, and one that begins with an existing “rump” empire. The Islamist vision of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which also begins with a rump empire, counts as a fourth vision: Sunni, less immediately apocalyptic, and tethered to a relatively recent historical reality of geographic reach.
Al-Baghdadi – Apocalypse Boy, if we may call him that (with a hat tip to Aaron Eckhart’s character in The Core) – has set a match to the tinder with his army’s unique career of rapid maneuver. This is distinctive and disruptive, certainly, but it may also, in the end, save our bacon. If you can put the problem on a map, you’re halfway to being able to outmaneuver and defeat it.
In any case, we’re going to be talking about Apocalypse Boy and ISIS for some time. Whatever the outcome, the old status quo is history.
* There is a very great deal to unpack in discussing the concept of a “religious community of Abraham,” or “faith group of Abraham.” The concept can be expressed in various ways, depending on what one wants to convey. I alluded to it briefly in my post in June, making the supremely important point that it is impossible to use the concept as a basis for anything, without taking a stand on whose view of mankind’s covenant relations with God – the Judaic, Christian, or Islamic view – is the valid one.
Some analysts in the West refer to a grouping of “Abrahamic religions,” by which they mean Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which all claim Abraham as an essential patriarch. But since the premise that that concept includes Islam is anathema to both Jews and Christians – albeit for reasons that diverge on some matters – it is really only Muslims who can refer to it.
That said, Islam has to change the history and the promises recorded in the Old Testament to produce its overarching “Abrahamic” synthesis. (Which is why it’s incompatible with Judaism and Christianity.) Islam’s project is not one of reinterpretation but of supersession. In plain terms, Islam, in order to claim Abraham, says that Jews and Christians are wrong about him. (Further discussion here.)
There is thus heavy freight riding on the idea of a religious community of Abraham. The freight becomes heavier with the added point that the word “millah” comes from the same root as the Hebrew word “millah,” used repeatedly in the Old Testament, which means word, message, revelation, or statement. All these meanings have an obvious connection with faith or religion, and all have great import for the covenant-based theologies of Judaism and Christianity. Islam cannot speak of millah Ibrahim without appropriating a core tenet of Judaism – a people linked by a covenant with God – and one that Christianity acknowledges and honors as central to its own theology.
There is no way to have a complete discussion of all these matters in a short blog post. What I hope to convey here is the momentous nature of the concept ISIS is expressing with millah Ibrahim. Far from being a dog whistle, millah Ibrahim effectively functions as a doctrinal pillar for what ISIS intends to do: gather the faithful linked by a covenant tracing back to Abraham, in preparation for the battle that will end the current age.
(For a targeted discussion of millah Ibrahim, which compares the Islamic perspective with that of Jews and Christians, see here.)
** Al-Masih (or Isa al-Masih) is Jesus the Messiah, who in Islam is a prophet. Al-Mahdi is the “promised one” of Islam who will preside over a universal caliphate. Sunnis (for the most part) do not believe the Mahdi has been born yet, whereas Shias believe he lived in the 9th century and is currently hidden from mankind, waiting for a day of reappearance. The Dajjal is the “anti-Christ,” whom Isa al-Masih will fight in a great battle as part of the process leading to the appearance of the Mahdi.
# A note on the maps: As befits a long-superseded geographic idea from the Dark Ages, it’s hard to find a modern map depicting properly the boundaries of “Bilad al-Sham,” or the land of the left hand. “Sham” is not Syria (nor is it “Greater Syria,” as outlined in the post-World War II political concept). It’s bigger than Syria and includes a sliver of southern Turkey, parts of modern-day Jordan and Iraq, and all of Lebanon, Israel, and the Palestinian-Arab territories. Sham was a way of referring to a geographic region rather than a defined political entity, and as such, it existed inside the various caliphates that succeeded Mohammed. (In this, the regional designation “Sham” was actually similar to the way the Greeks and Romans referred to the same region, with variations on what the Romans came to call Syria Palaestina.)
It was during the Rashidun, or “Rightly-guided,” caliphates in the 7th century that Muslims adopted the expression Bilad al-Sham, to refer to what was called Canaan in the time of Moses, and what Westerners now call the Levant. That’s my reason for providing the map that shows the territory of the Rashidun caliphates. Within that territory, the area marked in purple on Map 1 shows a pretty good view of Bilad al-Sham.