Menace or Misunderstanding

Edwin Cook January/February 2015

The beheading of journalist James Foley in August 2014 by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)1 riveted the attention of the Western world to the threat posed by radical Muslim groups.

Although the majority of Muslims worldwide are surely civil, peace-loving citizens of their respective countries, such actions by ISIL raise the question, Is the Muslim faith a menace to the world at large, or is such an allegation based on gross misunderstanding? An adequate answer includes consideration of at least two factors: ISIL views regarding an Islamic caliphate and the nature of the Islamic faith itself with respect to shari’a law.

Michael J. Mazarr, professor of national security strategy at the U.S. National War College in Washington, D.C., and an adjunct professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, argues that radical Islam is a movement motivated by anti-modernist sentiments.

As logical and historically grounded as Mazarr’s arguments appear, William J. Bennet and Seth Leibsohn counterargue that to view radical Islamism as a reaction to modernity is dangerously misleading. In The Fight of Our Lives, they refocus the spotlight of the “war on terrorism” from radical Islamists to American citizens. They express their concern that American citizens, initially alerted to national danger right after September 11, have now become complacent in the ongoing war effort. They describe how “hard America,” whose mantra of seeking to guard our nation, has lost its perceptive ability, and is transforming into a “soft America” that values diversity at the expense of national security. Rather than seeing some elements of Islam, whether distorted or not, as the seedbed for radical Islamists, “soft America” wishes to downplay the latent, potential threat to our national safety.5 In support of their contention, they quote Faisal Shahzad (the Times Square bomber) as he was sentenced in a New York court:

“If I am given a thousand lives, I will sacrifice them all for the sake of Allah fighting this cause, defending our lands, making the word of Allah supreme over any religion or system. . . . Furthermore, brace yourselves, because the war with Muslims has just begun. Consider me only a first droplet of the flood that will follow me. And only this time it’s not imperial Japan or Germany, Vietnam or Russian Communism. This time it’s the war against people who believe in the book of Allah and follow the commandments, so this is a war against Allah. So let’s see how you can defeat your Creator, which you can never do. Therefore, the defeat of U.S. is imminent and will happen in the near future, inshallah [“Allah willing”], which will only give rise to much awaited Muslim caliphate, which is the only true world order.”6

So what is the Muslim caliphate to which he referred?

Islamic Caliphate

The Arabic term khalifah is used to denote “those who succeeded the prophet Muhammad as the real or nominal ruler of the Islamic world.”7 After the death of Muhammad (A.D. 632), Abu Bakr, his father-in-law, succeeded him as leader of the Islamic movement. Abu Bakr and the following three caliphs who succeeded him are referred to as Rashidun (rightly guided) caliphs. Some Islamic scholars claim the caliphate ended with these four caliphs, but generally speaking, recognition of a legitimate caliph to succeed Muhammad distinguishes the two main branches of Islamic followers. Sunni Muslims recognize Abu Bakr as the rightfully appointed caliph to succeed Muhammad. Contrariwise, Shia Muslims believe that Muhammad’s son, Ali, was the rightful caliph who should have succeeded him.

After the rightly guided caliphs, the Umayyad (A.D. 661-750) and Abbasid (750-1258) dynasties continued to govern the growing Islamic world through caliphs.8 Early in the Abbasid dynasty, military rulers governed by de facto power while yielding formal obeisance to the caliphate. By 1055, with the conquest of Baghdad, a formal distinction between the caliph and sultans (the ones with power) began. Sultans valued the caliphate since it gave legitimacy to their rule through “diplomas of investiture, robes of honor, and other symbols of authority from the caliph.”9 Additionally, Islam had become so extensive geographically—entering Spain, northern Africa, Iran, and Mesopotamia, part of Afghanistan, Syria, and Anatolia—that governors presided over subterritories within a dynasty.

The longest ruling of the later Islamic dynasties was the Ottoman rule (1281-1923). The strength of the caliphate ideology is demonstrated by Sultan Abdulaziz (ruled 1861-1876), who “renewed stress on the claim to the caliphate . . . largely in response to the appeals of Muslims outside the empire, especially of refugees from countries that had fallen under non-Muslim rule. Under Sultan Abdulhamid II, who came to the throne in 1876, the claim to the caliphate (written into the constitution of the same year) emerged as a major instrument of the Ottoman’s Pan-Islamic policy as well as of their absolutist rule at home. The sultan-caliph sent emissaries throughout the Islamic world to urge unity under his leadership, and his claim to the caliphate received support wherever Muslims found European empires encroaching.”10

In 1922 the Turkish Grand National Assembly began to attack the Ottoman dynasty by abolishing the sultanate and leaving the caliphate intact to merely perform spiritual functions. This action was so highly debated and criticized, even by Muslims living outside of the Ottoman territory, that “in March 1924, the assembly resolved the matter by abolishing the caliphate.”11 Widespread shock ensued among Muslims, since the Ottoman dynasty had long claimed legitimacy to the caliphate. In the decades following the abolition of the caliphate, most Muslims have not shown great interest in a revival of it, perhaps because of the divergence of interpretations regarding its implementation and function, as noted in the historical reaction of 1924. However, some more recent radical, militant Islamist groups—such as “the Islamic Liberation Party and its Egyptian offshoot, the Jihad Group”12—as well as ISIL, have called for its reestablishment. What is the real intent, then, of such an appeal?

To better understand the classical function of the caliph, Glenn E. Perry identifies the work, Al-ahkam al-sultaniyah (principles of government), written by al-Mawardi (c. 1058), as encompassing the best explanation of the religious role of the caliph. In Muslim political philosophy, since the role of the state is religious in nature, so must be that of the caliphate. Thus, the caliph’s duties included “enforcement of the law and defense and expansion of the realm of Islam, distribution of funds (booty and alms), and the general supervision of the government.”13 Under such guiding principles the caliph was concerned with dar-al-Islam (Muslim-dominated territory) and how to expand it, as well as enforcing the shari’a law (eternal law of Allah). He was properly viewed as the “guardian of the faith,” combining both a religious and political role into one.14

Thus, radical Islamists, whether motivated by purely religious reasons or by strong reactions against modernity, desire to reestablish an Islamic caliphate that all Muslims would recognize and render allegiance to. Efforts of this type, naturally, include establishing Islam as the dominant, superior faith and the extension of dar-al-Islam on a global scale.

Islam and Shari’a Law

Although most Muslims currently show little interest in reestablishing a caliphate, with nearly 2 billion members worldwide out of a world population of almost 7 billion, Muslims certainly merit consideration on the playing field of world politics. Speaking from a geographical perspective, Islam refers to territory under Islamic rule as dar-al-Islam, and territory under non-Muslim control that borders Muslim territory as dar-al-harb, or “territory of war.”15 Designation of a region as dar-al-Islam requires that specific conditions exist, namely, that shari’a be implemented and that Muslim sovereignty is established. Dar-al-harb is so designated to indicate the need for the non-Muslims to convert to Islam and if noncompliant, then, through conquest, or war, the harbis (those who refuse to convert) are forced to embrace Islam.16


Although one may argue that dar-al-harb is not a part of modern Islamic practice since Muslim countries are part of organizations that recognize the national sovereignty of non-Muslim nations, yet in theory dar-al-Islam and dar-al-harb will always remain part of Islamic faith, since such juridical concepts are part of the eternal law of Allah, known as shari’a.

Paul Marshall explains how shari’a should not be misunderstood as merely a legal code, but instead should be understood as including spiritual guidance for Muslims. Thus understood, it more aptly means “the way” in spiritual and legal matters for followers of Islam. Hence, any Muslim who speaks against shari’a is naturally considered as one who speaks against Islam itself. Marshall expresses his concern regarding shari’a and the threat it poses to democratic principles of equality, religious freedom, women’s rights, etc., by noting how, even in moderate Islamic countries, “extreme shari’a grows because those who oppose it can be vilified, ostracized, imprisoned, beaten, or killed.”18

One might legitimately ask, Is Islam really a religion of peace? The term Islam “is derived from the Arabic root s-l-m, which means submission or peace. Muslims are those who surrender to God’s will or law and as a result, Muslims believe, are at peace with themselves and with God.”19 However, in light of Islam’s history of persecuting non-Muslim religious groups, one may contemplate, “If two groups are in contention, peace can only be achieved if one of the two acquiesces to the other, i.e., submission to Allah through adopting the Islamic faith.”

Persecution and Dhimmitude

Since its inception Islam has engaged in conflict with other religious movements. In A.D. 610 Muhammad received a revelation he identified as coming from Allah through the archangel Jibrail (Gabriel).20 This was the beginning of a series of revelations lasting 22 years.21 These revelations were eventually collected and written down as the Quran. Muhammad preached from 610 to 622 in Mecca, a polytheistic society, but facing growing persecution, he and his followers moved (Hijrah) to Medina. After gaining more followers, Muhammad’s forces returned and conquered Mecca in 630.22 In order to convert the pagans of the Middle East, who worshipped a multitude of gods, Muhammed “consolidated Muslim rule over the remainder of Arabia through diplomatic and military means and conversion.”23 By A.D. 900, as Islam spread farther to the West, it subdued Jews and Christians, both groups recognized in the Quran as “people of the Book [the Bible].” As monotheistic religions, these groups were treated differently by Muslim conquerors than polytheistic groups, which usually were required to convert to Islam upon pain of death.24

The capture of Jerusalem in 639 by Muslims was a major precipitating event in the series of conflicts known as the Crusades. Muslims built the Dome of the Rock, which was completed in about 692 and became a place of frequent pilgrimage for Muslims. During the following three centuries, Christians were allowed access to Jerusalem for pilgrimages. However, by the turn of the millennium, access was denied, which sparked a strong Christian reaction. The Crusades, a series of religious battles between Christian and Muslim forces, were fought roughly from A.D. 1095 to 1291. Revisionist scholarship of modern times portrays Christians as the aggressors who provoked these battles for selfish, economic advantages. Thomas F. Madden, however, associate professor and chair of the History Department at St. Louis University, counters such a “politically correct” viewpoint.25 He explains that the Crusades were a Christian response to protect religious believers and to secure sacred sites against Muslim aggression, which had already been occurring for several centuries. Rather than allowing Christianity to become obliterated through Muslim conquests, as Zoroastrianism had been, both Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians united to defend Christian believers. After several Crusades, and with growing Muslim hegemony, the purpose of subsequent Crusades shifted from religiously motivated protection of Christianity to include a broader concern of protecting Europe itself from Muslim onslaughts.

And how were conquered Christians and Jews treated? “The people of the Book” were given dhimmitude status, meaning “in the covenant of protection (dhimmah) with the Muslim power”26 and thus called dhimmi. Dhimmis were allowed to retain their faith and to practice it privately, but they were forbidden to make converts of Muslims. Dhimmis did not have equal legal status with Muslims. They were required to pay a tributary tax in recognition of the protection given to them by Muslims, known as jizyah.27 If the jizyah could not be paid, then the children and wives of dhimmis were taken as payment and forced into slavery.28 Nowadays, Islamic scholars are divided in opinion regarding the correct understanding and application of the jizyah.29 There is a disagreement as to how to assert this in modern nation state Western systems.30

Additionally, dhimmis were obligated to maintain a submissive and respectful attitude toward Muslims. This included speaking to Muslims in a low voice, with lowered eyes, and only when given permission to speak.31 In Persia and Yemen, during the early 1900s dhimmis were not allowed to build their homes higher than those of Muslims as a sign of inferiority. Likewise, dhimmis in Damascus during the fourteenth century were forced to build “the threshold of their shops below street level so that they would always appear in an inferior position before a Muslim.”32

Although Islamic scholars may be divided in opinion regarding the application of regulations under dhimmitude, there is certainly no question in the mind of the world regarding the extremist actions taken by radical Islamists toward dhimmis (non-Muslims). In the modern Middle East, Eastern Europe, and northern Africa, regions that once had Christian communities and churches have been under growing persecution by radical Muslim movements. In the October issue of Voice of the Martyrs newsletter, the stories of Habila Adamu, “Naomi,” and “Daniel” describe the tragic, inhumane treatment they have suffered for being Christians. Their persecutors are followers of Boko Haram, a militant Islamic group in Nigeria.33 Their plight highlights the condition of other Christians in those areas, many of whom have died at the hands of their attackers.

1 The FBI uses this term and abbreviation as opposed to the media, which uses ISIS (accessed from—abc-news-topstories.html , on Oct. 7, 2014).

2 Michael J. Mazarr, Unmodern Men in the Modern World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. ix.

3 Ibid., pp. 1, 2.

4 Ibid., p. 2.

5 William J. Bennet and Seth Leibsohn, The Fight of Our Lives: Knowing the Enemy, Speaking the Truth, and Choosing to Win the War Against Radical Islam (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publisher, 2011).

6 Faisal Shazad, in “The Faisal Shazad Transcript,” New York Times, cited in Bennet and Leibsohn, Introduction, p. xii.

7 Glenn E. Perry, “Caliph,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, ed. John L. Esposito (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), vol. 1, p. 239.

8 Nicholas Badcott, Pocket Timeline of Islamic Civilizations (Northampton, Mass.: Interlink Publishing Group, 2009), pp. 7-12.

9 Perry, p. 240.

10 Ibid., p. 241.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid., p. 242.

13 Ibid., p. 239.

14 Ibid., p. 240.

15 Rudolph Peters, “Dar-al-Islam,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, vol. 1, p. 338.

16 Muhammad-Reza Djalili, “Dar-al-Harb,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, vol. 1, p. 337.

17 Paul Marshall, “Introduction:The Rise of Extreme Shari’a’” in Radical Islam’s Rules: The Worldwide Spread of Extreme Shari’a Law (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2005), pp. 1-4.

18 Ibid., p. 5.

19 John L. Esposito, “Islam, An Overview,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, vol. 2, p. 243.

20 Badcott, p. 4.

21 Esposito, “Islam, An Overview,” p. 244.

22 Badcott, p. 5.

23 Esposito, “Islam, An Overview,” p. 245.

24 William M. Brinner argues that “although the disappearance of pagan religions in areas conquered by Islam has been little investigated, there has been considerable scholarly discussion about the causes for the transformation of once predominantly Christian and Zoroastrian areas, with relatively large Jewish minority communities, into largely Muslim ones. The thoroughness of the process cannot be laid to the use of force or threats of death, although these did occur at times, but rather to a variety of factors. Some of these were economic,… social” [and] “spiritual reasons such as genuine respect for and attraction to Islamic teachings and practice” (William M. Brinner, “Conversion,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, vol. 1, p. 320).

However, Bat Ye’or refutes this contention based on investigation of source documents of the time and concludes, “This general picture of destruction, ruin, massacre, and deportation of urban and rural captive populations was common to all the conquered territories in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Well documented by contemporary Syriac, Greek, and Arabic chronicles, the few examples provided illustrate a general situation as it recurred regularly during the seasonal razzias, over the years, and for centuries.” (Bat Ye’or, The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude [Cranberry, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1996], pp. 51, 52).

25 Thomas F. Madden, “The Real History of the Crusades,” (accessed Oct. 15, 2014).

26 Ronald L. Nettler, “Dhimmi,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, vol. 1, p. 374.

27 Vincent J. Cornell, “Jizyah,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, vol. 2, p. 377.

28 Bat Ye’or, a recognized specialist on dhimmis and “dhimmitude,” states, “When Amr conquered Tripoli (Libya) in 643, he forced the Jewish and Christian Berbers to give their wives and children as slaves to the Arab army as part of the jizya” (Ye’or, p. 108).

29 Cornell, pp. 377, 378.

30 Nettler, p. 374.

31 Ye’or, p. 93.

32 Ibid.

33 The Voice of the Martyrs, October 2014.

Article Author: Edwin Cook

Edwin Cook has a doctorate in church-state studies from the J.M. Dawson Institute at Baylor University. He writes from Waco, Texas.