Between IS and God: What Must Be Understood

By Rayyan Al-ShawafJuly 31, 2017

Between IS and God: What Must Be Understood

The Way of the Strangers by Graeme Wood

IN The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State, author Graeme Wood often finds himself hemmed in by two very different but equally self-righteous groups of people as he tries to make sense of radical Islam’s latest avatar.

On one side stand several of the Islamic State’s fundamentalist Muslim partisans, who advocate holy war and slavery. Facing them is a far more diverse mix of Muslims representing the majority of Islam’s adherents. These people all revile IS, yet they tend to dismiss the discomfiting claim that it represents at least one aspect of multifaceted Islam.

For readers who accept the fatuous proposition that the Islamic State is un-Islamic, Wood’s insistence on examining it as a group with “a coherent view of the world rooted in a minority interpretation of Islamic scripture that has existed, in various forms, for almost as long as the religion itself” will prove illuminating, and possibly infuriating. For everyone else, such intellectual honesty will have an initially bracing effect, yet after a while, Wood’s repetitive and somewhat defensive treatment of the matter cannot but feel like variations on a truism.

The chief import of The Way of the Strangers, which relates Wood’s interactions with Islamic State supporters and opponents around the world over a period of two years, lies in the author’s exhilarating venture into anti-IS Muslim theological arguments.

Islam is not reducible to holy war and slavery, and the more astute Islamic thinkers, while not denying the place of such phenomena in their religion, attempt to construct reasoned arguments that circumscribe that place within a specific set of conditions that no longer apply in our day and age. Of course, this approach cannot wholly satisfy those who believe the objectionable phenomena in question are never justified, irrespective of context. Still, if it persuades even some Muslims unaccustomed to filtering Islam through the lens of time and circumstance to do just that, we can expect a host of happier consequences.

According to Wood, a national correspondent for The Atlantic who also teaches political science at Yale University, the origins of The Way of the Strangers date to 2004, when he worked for a courier company in Iraq — and contemplated rising Islamic radicalism. In a more immediate sense, the book evolved out of a lengthy article he wrote for The Atlantic. Titled “What ISIS Really Wants,” it appeared in the March 2015 issue of the magazine. The controversy that erupted over Wood’s departure from universal pieties that normally accompany discussion of his subject (in particular the bromide that the Islamic State is not Islamic) probably accounts for the author’s painstaking attempts to demonstrate that, when it comes to Islam, “hard though it is to admit, the Islamic State’s claims often fall within the bounds of rational, if not decent, debate.”

Significantly, it isn’t just numerous Muslim laypeople and even clerics who refuse to confront IS’s stated Islamic rationale for its deeds, but also Western academics specializing in Islam, many of whom are non-Muslim. “In my conversations with scholars of Islam,” Wood recounts, “few of the people who dismissed the Islamic State as a product of false Islamism — Jacobinism with an Islamic veneer — were able to name a single cleric or scholar associated with the Islamic State, or a fatwa or other statement by that scholar.” The good news is that this unconscionable situation has begun to change; Wood points to Princeton University as producing experts on the intellectual underpinnings of specifically jihadi strains of Islam.


It is most regrettable that, these days, we sometimes forget that a secular state has no business trying to convince citizens who believe in a higher law that they should interpret it in a manner that ensures compatibility with the law of the land. Indeed, precisely so as not to undermine its secularism, such a state would make it clear that its constitution trumps any and all laws of purportedly divine origin. Heeding God’s commands (whether or not you’ve understood them correctly) is no excuse for violating man-made ones.

Individuals, however, are an altogether different matter. Even if secular themselves, they don’t embody secularism, and are free to engage believers in debate as to just how one should determine what God wants. As it happens, debate along these and other lines is very much a part of Wood’s modus operandi when conversing with his interlocutors (as is making use of his caustic wit), who span the globe. Although his book’s subtitle, “Encounters with the Islamic State,” is misleading (he never goes anywhere near the caliphate straddling Iraq and Syria), he does spend a significant amount of time with several of the group’s far-flung cheerleaders.

A couple of these figures, such as Australian convert Musa Cerantonio (who’s now facing trial) and Briton Anjem Choudary (since convicted), have received a good deal of media coverage over the past few years, owing to their propaganda and sometimes even recruitment on behalf of IS. A Cairene tailor named Hesham, on the other hand, is a more low-key and circumspect fan. He lived in New York for several years, so he speaks English, but otherwise Wood’s Arabic goes a long way in Egypt. And then there’s Yahya al-Bahrumi, or John Georgelas, an American convert who has joined IS in Syria. Though he never meets Georgelas, Wood interviews his father and tracks his British wife’s self-actuated deprogramming following their split and her return to the United States from Syria, children in tow.

“Most of my interview subjects,” remarks Wood, referring to the aforementioned IS fellow travelers, “have been well-spoken.” He should be commended for seeking out such people, when he could have easily opted to interview those possessing little knowledge of religious matters, the “dullards and goofballs” whom he concedes make up the bulk of IS and virtually all other ideological movements. And yet, the less space this review accords such individuals, the better. Not because they might otherwise garner undeserved attention (it’s too late for that), but rather due to the sad reality that, alas, their ilk has become all-too-familiar these past few years.

Moreover, Wood focuses on ideological beliefs — as opposed to, say, psychological inclinations — which vary little between these men. At the end of the day, the Cerantonios, Georgelases, Heshams, and Choudarys (as well as “the Choudarheads,” Wood’s memorable term for this last’s acolytes) are among the world’s distressingly numerous “sick romantics, a visionary company whose longing for meaning was never matched by an ability to distinguish good from evil, or beauty from horror.”

Then there are the religious Muslim opponents of IS. At least here we get some variety — and not just in terms of nationality: Yasir Qadhi, a Muslim-born American cleric whose hardline views have softened with time; Hamza Yusuf, an American convert who has been a respected Sufi scholar and noted moderate for decades; Yahya Michot, a Belgian convert who is an expert on — and admirer of — Ibn Taymiyyah, the pugnacious medieval theologian who spent most of his life in Damascus and is a huge influence on contemporary extremist Sunnis; Breton Pocius, a quietist Salafi imam in Philadelphia who now goes by the name Abdullah; and Hizb ut-Tahrir supporters Hassan Ko Nakata, an Islamic law professor from Japan with mixed feelings about the Islamic State, and Da Masked Avenger, who isn’t a rap star, but a British Islamist with a slight predilection for cloak-and-dagger theatrics.

Wood proves inconsistent as a debater. When arguing with IS detractors who insist that the group has nothing to do with Islam, he cites its partisans’ immersion in the Qur’an and Hadith (collected sayings attributed to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad), emphasizes their Islam-drenched worldview, and refers to the all-important historical precedent set by the Prophet himself. Consider, for example, some of his statements concerning slavery:

Muslims stress that the Prophet demanded that slaves be treated well — other than their enslavement and forced intercourse — and repeatedly reminded his followers of the reward for those who free slaves. (The Islamic State informs its fighters that freeing a slave is among the most meritorious acts.)

Wood then makes it a point to add: “He never abolished slavery, however, and practiced it himself to his death.”

However, when remonstrating with IS fans over their support for the group’s controversial practices (including slavery and rape), Wood’s penchant for arguing from any sort of Islamic perspective seemingly abandons him, and he contents himself with appeals to common decency — hardly a winning strategy with this crowd.

It’s also unfortunate, in that this book’s inquiry into theological warfare against IS constitutes its finest feature. Whether compelling or sophistic, the anti-extremist arguments his religious interlocutors deploy are faithfully reproduced by Wood, yet he shrinks from using them himself to engage in any figurative bludgeoning of IS supporters and sympathizers.


What of these anti-IS arguments? Let’s start with blanket dismissals of the group. Of those attempts to depict IS as a bunch of un-Islamic Muslims, only one merits serious consideration. This is the allegation, made here by Yasir Qadhi (and elsewhere by other Muslim figures, including most recently Jordan’s King Abdullah II at the Arab-Islamic-American summit in Saudi Arabia), that IS militants are latter-day Kharijites. The Kharijites emerged from a dispute over succession to the leadership of the Muslim community two and a half decades after the death of the Prophet.

“The common bonds between Kharijism and the Islamic State scarcely require explanation,” acknowledges Wood. He continues:

Both groups rejected authority and created chaos; they urged revolt against unjust rulers as a matter of principle, despite a general preference in Islam for obedience, even to unjust leaders. The Kharijites practiced mass excommunication; the Islamic State cuts off the heads of “apostates” daily, and it declares whole classes of Muslims (e.g., the Shia) infidels. The Kharijites broke off or departed [kharaja] from the Muslim mainstream; the Islamic State has stated that it defies mainstream Islam (and thus returns to real Islam). Most of all, both groups are just really mean.

In fact, the Kharijites were in some ways even more extreme and violent than the Islamic State. However, like IS today, they did not go so far as to adopt an antinomian position, as the odd millenarian (and usually Shiite) Muslim movement has done throughout history; indeed, although IS and the Kharijites may interpret Islam in a manner radically different from that of most of their coreligionists, they do not absolve themselves of the obligation to observe its strictures — as they understand them. Additionally, as Wood notes, excommunicating IS and proceeding to wage war on it in the name of true Islam would recall both Kharijite and IS tactics. And that is something most moderate and liberal Muslims would like to avoid.

Interestingly, although IS bristles at the charge that it is a throwback to the Kharijites (its theologians have marshaled several arguments to counter the accusation), it is not otherwise perturbed by its status as a minority Muslim movement — and a widely despised one at that. Indeed, IS stalwarts derive fortitude from a hadith in which the Prophet is reported to have said, “Islam began as something strange, and it will return to being strange, as it was in the beginning. So blessed be the strangers.” Wood’s book takes its title from this hadith.

When it comes to who might offer potentially game-changing criticism, from an Islamic perspective, of specific IS practices, Hamza Yusuf and the like take themselves out of the running. Their more spiritual, Sufi-influenced version of Islam is just too different from that of IS, as is Yusuf’s emphasis on a classical scholarly tradition (he memorably calls himself a “Catholic Muslim”) that IS believes has served to subvert and even supplant the religion’s canonical texts, beginning with the Qur’an.

Instead, you might find yourself contemplating an observation made by a British member or supporter of the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group that believes in a caliphate, but not necessarily along the lines of IS, which it officially opposes despite certain defections in its ranks. After acknowledging that Islam permits slavery, Da Masked Avenger (or the plain old Avenger if, like Wood, you’ve hung out with the fellow at Starbucks and seen what he looks like) pointedly adds, “But Islam does not command the taking of slaves.”

This line of reasoning (which can be applied to several other aspects of Islam that one might find objectionable) is simple but powerful. To be sure, making a distinction between slavery being permitted as opposed to required will not convince a hardcore IS member to give up his pursuit of owning fellow humans. Yet it may well have the desired impact on a Muslim who’s wavering on the subject of whether to support enslavement of infidels — and is too knowledgeable about his religion to fall for claims that it prohibits the practice.

Another debating strategy, one steeped in scholarly rigor, is proposed by Yahya Michot, the Ibn Taymiyyah expert. IS and other hardline Sunni Muslims revere Ibn Taymiyyah due to his fundamentalism and truculence. Michot, who teaches Islamic theology at Hartford Seminary, “suggests that the Islamic State’s own favorite scholar be turned against it.”

Far from playing down Ibn Taymiyyah’s ideological rigidity (and thereby guaranteeing that his larger argument would fail to make inroads with the IS crowd), Michot, who has translated some of his work into French, seems to concede that the man was very much a puritan and harbored intolerant views. Crucially, however, he “argues that Ibn Taymiyyah has been misused, and that more careful assessment will prove — even to the most likely foot soldiers — that the Islamic State’s theology of jihad is bogus.”

Additionally, for all his opposition to idolatry, Ibn Taymiyyah apparently set all kinds of conditions for the punishment of perceived idolaters such as Shiites — including that they be aware of their heresy. In one of Michot’s translations (Wood neglects to mention the title of the work in question in the endnotes, even though he specifies the page), Ibn Taymiyyah is quoted as opining: “Many people may be growing up in places and times in which many of the sciences of prophethood have faded.” People who fall into this category “shall not be accused of unbelief.”

In Michot’s analysis, what has led to widespread misunderstanding of Ibn Taymiyyah’s teachings is that, for many people, they were filtered through Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, the 18th-century religious leader who sought to purify the Islam of his native Arabian peninsula, and whose austere teachings form the ideological foundation of modern-day Saudi Arabia (and, ironically enough, Qatar). Paraphrasing Michot, Wood writes, “The Saudi cleric obscured Ibn Taymiyyah’s tolerance by removing the excuse of ignorance in selected instances of apostasy and excommunication.”

Wood continues:

Another cause of Ibn Taymiyyah’s apparent obstinancy is that until recently, much of his oeuvre was inaccessible. Ibn ‘Abd al Wahhab read and quoted him. But he likely did not go to Damascus, the repository of the largest Taymiyyan manuscript cache, and he definitely did not have access to the texts anyone can find online today. A full edition of his fatwas was not compiled until the 1960s.


To these interpretations, theories, and arguments, we might add a few that Wood doesn’t cite, but which have gained currency in pockets of the Muslim world. Qur’anists, who have appeared in different forms and under various names throughout history, maintain that the Qur’an alone is the source of Islam; the Prophet’s reported words and deeds are not only those of a mere mortal, but are often partly or wholly fabricated and therefore unreliable. This is significant when one takes into account the fact that many Muslims seek to emulate the Prophet’s actions — including his controversial exploits. The Hanafi school of Muslim jurisprudence (one of Sunni Islam’s big four) has historically gone so far as to permit giving precedence to Muhammad’s later example when it conflicts with what the Qur’an states, based on the belief that he was divinely inspired even when not serving as a conduit for the holy book’s transmission to humankind.

Consider, also, non-mainstream approaches to the issue of contradictions in the Qur’an itself. Traditionally, resolving these contradictions has come by means of abrogating the relevant verses of Meccan surahs (Qur’anic chapters) in favor of their Medinan counterparts. The rationale behind this practice, known as naskh in Arabic, is that the Medinan surahs were revealed to Muhammad after the Meccan ones, and so should supersede them in cases of conflicting injunctions. Unfortunately, the Medinan surahs, which have come to form the crux of the corpus of Islamic law called shariah, are more belligerent and personally intrusive than their Meccan counterparts, which allow for greater personal freedoms and something approaching equality between Muslims and monotheistic non-Muslims, as well as between men and women.

In 1980s Sudan, where a predominantly Muslim north with control of virtually all state institutions was attempting to apply shariah countrywide without regard for the wishes of a largely animist and Christian south, one Mahmoud Muhammad Taha proposed a way out of what increasingly looked like an impasse. Taha was a religious Muslim from the north with no time for secularism. Yet he didn’t relish the idea of discriminating against non-Muslims — as mandated by all reigning interpretations of shariah.

Essentially, Taha turned naskh on its head, and took things a step further by arguing that the universalist and tolerance-minded Meccan set of surahs should supplant, in toto, the narrowly focused Medinan set. Taha contended that the Medinan surahs were meant for the very first Muslims of seventh-century Arabia, who were not only embattled, but also had just demonstrated their inability to live up to the earlier Meccan surahs’ higher standards, which was why God provided them with a substitute more suited to their limitations. In our day and age, Taha maintained, Muslims the world over are capable of abiding by the lofty moral precepts of the Meccan surahs, which should be revitalized for that purpose.

Taha’s ideas receive explication in his book The Second Message of Islam (translated from the Arabic and with an introduction by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, a long-time devotee of the author who has taken his arguments further and now calls for secularism), and are discussed at length in Mohamed A. Mahmoud’s Quest for Divinity: A Critical Examination of the Thought of Mahmud Muhammad Taha as well as Edward Thomas’s Islam’s Perfect Stranger: The Life of Mahmud Muhammad Taha, Muslim Reformer of Sudan. Taha was executed for sedition and apostasy by the Islamic regime of Sudan in 1985.

A different take on the confounding question of Meccan and Medinan surahs can be found in Maher S. Mahmassani’s (admittedly apologia-oriented) Islam in Retrospect: Recovering the Message. For Mahmassani, an observant Lebanese Muslim, believers should not attempt to smooth over the contradictions (which he regards as perceived inconsistencies) between the two sets of surahs, let alone posit that one set overrides the other. To do so, he cautions, would be to imply that God is fickle, and that it falls upon us mortals to render His book coherent. Mahmassani’s solution lies in considering the contradictions deliberate and tackling them head-on, using logic and reason to determine — on a case-by-case basis — whether it is wiser to apply this Meccan or that Medinan surah’s injunctions.


For all his welcome exploration of anti-IS Islamic theological arguments, Wood doesn’t seem to believe that they have much chance of success — at least in the near future. In this regard, he overextends himself, depicting IS as a harbinger of what will increasingly characterize Islamdom in our times. “The current horror show in Syria is, at best, the beginning of another cycle of religious war” ranks as the most distilled expression of Wood’s portentousness. Yet the statement is part of a larger and even more ambitious contention. In Wood’s view, what we are seeing today is a religious reformation of the kind other religions have experienced, as with Christianity and the birth of Protestantism. “Now it’s happening for the Muslims,” he asserts, “and the incarnation of the reforming impulse is the Islamic State.”

If some observers have desperately tried to convince us that, as Barack Obama put it during his tenure as US president, “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ […] And ISIL is certainly not a state,” Wood believes it is a lot more than an Islamic state. Indeed, he seems convinced that IS not only qualifies as a new phenomenon (with an age-old ideological lineage), but as one that may well come to define Islam as a whole.

In reality, the Islamic State is a more extreme (and violent) manifestation of twin tendencies that have long characterized Sunni Islamism: textual literalism and political reaction. Wood himself points to the importance of both these proclivities when discussing the spectrum of Sunni Islamist groups that are termed Salafi. “Salafis take the Koran, the example of the Prophet, and the actions and beliefs of these men and women [the first three generations of Muslims, in line with a hadith pointing to them as exemplary] as their primary sources of religious authority, and they reject the opinions of many Muslims who came later,” he notes.

So, in broad terms, Sunni Islamism (arguably to a greater degree than its Shiite counterpart) is identifiable by its yearning for an idealized version of the Muslim religion’s beginnings. Salafis translate this desire into political programs geared toward recreating much of that past and enshrining as law the injunctions of the Qur’an and Hadith, as well as the opinions of the earliest Muslims, which — taken together — they consider to constitute shariah. Most Salafis are not jihadis, and few jihadis are as bloodthirsty as IS, but otherwise there is little to distinguish the latter’s ideology, including its break with centuries of Islamic jurisprudence and cultural accretions, from that of its peers. As if to underscore this point, in 2016, Adil al-Kalbani, a former imam of the prestigious Great Mosque of Mecca — so called because it is built around the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site — pointed out that IS subscribes to the same belief system as that espoused by Salafis in general, but added that he and his Salafi compatriots in Saudi Arabia went about fulfilling its prescriptions in a more “refined” manner.

IS isn’t even necessarily more ambitious than other major Islamist movements of recent vintage, whether Salafi or not. Ayatollah Khomeini sought to launch a worldwide Islamic revolution from Iran. The fact that Iran is Shiite and most Muslims Sunni made this impossible. Though IS doesn’t suffer that handicap, it has failed to spark mass uprisings in Sunni countries.

Crucially, IS’s coalescence into a state has lessened its chances to reform/destroy Islamdom. And it hasn’t turned into just any kind of state, but one that continues to entice like-minded Muslims from around the world to migrate to it. This has simplified the target for the array of countries bent on exterminating the group. The great irony here is that the Islamic State’s statehood will secure its downfall.


Yet what about the pitiful reality that, for some people, holy war, slavery, rape, and martyrdom will obstinately continue to exercise an allure? Toward the end of The Way of the Strangers, Wood performs the thankless but imperative task of throwing cold water on any optimism that a military drubbing of IS will undercut its ideas. He does this following a discussion of Islamic apocalypticism. As you might imagine, the upshot of the apocalypse, which IS has on several occasions indicated it believes to be around the corner (at most a few short decades away), is that the infidels lose — big time.

What counts as more important, given that time seems in no hurry to end and IS teeters on the verge of collapse in Iraq and Syria, is what will become of all its starry-eyed (and addle-headed) apocalypticos. These days, their conviction that the end is nigh remains unshakable. Wood reports that his conversations with IS fellow travelers revealed as much. “My experience was not unique,” he adds. “Jürgen Todenhӧfer, the German writer who visited Mosul and Raqqah in December 2014 in the company of Islamic State fighters, says that of the hundred-odd people he interviewed there, nearly all mentioned apocalypse.”

After the Islamic State is trounced, those of its members who haven’t ended up dead or in jail for life will (at some point) return to their mundane pre-IS lives. Bereft of their beloved caliphate, they’ll have to figure out what to make of its sordid legacy, including the fact that it didn’t usher in the end days. A disavowal of the whole blood-soaked misadventure, replete with contrition over their role in it, would go some way toward mollifying those of us who’ve watched the affair with horror.

We’d do well to steel ourselves for disappointment. As Wood reminds us, fanatics are often impervious to real-world developments that contradict their narrative. Those Islamic State graduates inclined to do something about their continued longing for a caliphate will probably pop up in places characterized by a security vacuum and therefore conducive to the establishment of a revamped IS. The others, strewn across the globe, will wait to see if IS 2.0 does in fact come into existence, at which point they might migrate to its territory, or, failing that, perhaps launch jihadi attacks on its behalf in their home countries. The conclusion we must draw is that the (fast approaching) military defeat of IS, while absolutely necessary, will not end the nightmare.

All the more reason, then, to start doing what Wood’s book lays the groundwork for. In addition to taking the reader on an unsettling and often fascinating journey into the minds of IS supporters and opponents, The Way of the Strangers invites us to debate extremist Muslims in earnest, to do so preferably without resorting to sophistry or apologetics, and to draw on Islamic sources to boot.


Rayyan Al-Shawaf reviews books regularly for LARB and many other publications.

LARB Contributor

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a book critic and editor based in Malta. His reviews and essays have appeared in the Boston GlobeChristian Science MonitorGlobe and Mail, Miami HeraldPopMatters, San Francisco Chronicle, Toronto StarTruthdig          Washin​gton Post, and elsewhere. His debut novel, When All Else Fails, was recently published by Interlink Books.


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