Lecture| ISIS and the Caliphate: The Uses and Abuses of History

The lecture entitled “ISIS and the Caliphate: The Uses and Abuses of History” was presented by Prof. Hugh Kennedy (Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East, SOAS) and chaired by Dr. Nassima Neggaz (Oriental Institute, Oxford). Prof. Kennedy started the lecture by emphasizing that the caliphate has meant different things to Muslims in different communities and across different times. The same is true for the group which calls itself ISIS and whose leader declared himself caliphate. The lecture explored ISIS as an intellectual project through its English publication ‘Dabiq,’ and how the group has appropriated Islamic history and imposed its vision on it to justify its actions.

The speaker stressed the importance of working out why the group presents itself the way it does to understand their appeal, and that simply calling ISIS un-Islamic or a terror group “doesn’t get us very far.”

Prof. Kennedy explains that the group’s view of early Islamic history is an essential legitimizing device. They work on the assumption that if Prophet Muhammed or the Sahabas (his companions) are claimed to have done something then it is justifiable for them to do it.

ISIS is also a thought revolution because they reject all the basis of arguments we have had in Middle East politics. It rejects socialism in any form and the will of the masses has no validity; if the masses are not doing the right thing then they need to be taught what to do by ISIS. Other concepts such as nationalism are completely rejected.

For ISIS, nothing after 800AD really matters. They do not refer to the crusades and even a heroic figure in Islamic history like Saladin is not mentioned.

As for the group’s publication ‘Dabiq,’ the people who write for it know a lot about early Islamic history. This is why their message has been effective, as part of their appeal is trying to show that they know more about Islam than others—hence their academic project is essential for appeal and justification.

Prof. Kennedy explains that the title ‘Dabiq’ refers to a meadow grazing area in Allepo, which has symbolic significance as in Islamic legend, it is where an early Islamic army gathered before attacking the Byzantine Empire. The publication appeals strongly to ancient values and uses ‘Wild West’ romantic imagery as part of their appeal; the knights of Islam (fursan) and the pledging of allegiance (bay‘a) by the laying down of hands are emphasized.

The speaker also discussed a ‘Dabiq’ code: For ISIS, there is no point in bashing crusades or criticizing democracy as they want to distinguish themselves from other jihadist group. He then discussed some of the common terminology the group uses to identify other groups. Prof. Kennedy concludes by predicting that the group does not have a viable sustainable economic model and their decision that the caliph has to be of Qureishi dissent will prove to be problematic as it contradicts their universal egalitarian appeal.