Is ISIS Medieval?

A while ago I read a thought-provoking discussion of the goals of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and how that jihadist group draws from pre-modern Islamic religious texts in formulating its tactics and its appeal to violent extremist Muslims.  The author is at his provocative best in likening well-intentioned Western liberal attempts to define ISIS as un-Islamic as a kind of takfirism, or labeling certain Muslims as unbelievers.  I think he misses the point when he delegitimizes practicing Muslims for describing ISIS as un-Islamic, and indeed, his article provoked a firestorm of criticisms, refutations, and abuse over the use of the term “Islamic” for ISIS.  For practitioners, islam is submission to God’s will, and if ISIS is going against God’s will, then they are ipso facto not islam.  It does not require historical naivete (or, as Prof. Haykel evocatively termed it, “a cotton-candy view of their own religion,” although see his clarification here) to acknowledge that many things historically practiced by Muslims are inconsistent with what most modern Muslims understand to be God’s will.  However, the real bone I want to pick with the article is the way it simply accepts the Salafi account of what medieval Islam was, an account which is itself revisionist history.

Put simply, the “medieval Islam” to which ISIS and other Salafis appeal never existed as such.  Too many scholars play along with this modern chimera, though they know better, and thus are complicit in a cultural genocide which is reducing the fascinatingly diverse pre-modern Middle East to a one-dimensional textbook description of Sunni Arab Islam, complete with five pillars evidently erected by Muhammad himself.

Was Muhammad medieval?

The older categorization of historical periods, based on Enlightenment European suspicions and sympathies, marked the end of the ancient world in 500 CE, with a subsequent medieval millennium until the Renaissance broke out of Italy (and the Protestants broke from Catholic priestcraft) to inaugurate the modern era.  On this account, modernity is a European invention (and, more specifically, a Florentine or even Petrarcan invention) which was brought by Napoleon to the Middle East when he invaded Egypt in the summer of 1798.  So Muhammad was entirely medieval, and everything Middle Eastern from before 1798 was as well.  On the other hand, this Euro-centric periodization has more recently been superseded by considering Muhammad a figure of late antiquity and modernity a more global phenomenon, encompassing at least the heyday of the Ottoman Empire under Suleiman the Magnificent.

The point of this question is not to justify one periodization of history over another.  All periodizations are somewhat arbitrary, and largely matters of definition.  But recognizing the slippage of periodizations indicates that we cannot take “medieval” as a universally understood concept.  Instead, we need to define what we mean by “medieval.”  When we do so, we immediately find that “medieval” in fact means many things.

In the Atlantic Monthly article linked above, Graeme Wood warns readers against “a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature.”  As opposed to al-Qa’ida’s relentless modernity (including shopping at Walmart) “wearing medieval religious guise,” Wood contends that “much of what [ISIS] does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.”  So evidently “a seventh-century legal environment” is medieval, as may be a quest for the apocalypse.  (Below we shall indicate that the legal environment of ISIS did not in fact exist in the seventh century, or indeed any century before the present.)

Later, Wood returns to medieval matters by quoting Prof. Haykel’s estimate of the Islamic State’s practices: “‘Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,’ Haykel said. Islamic State fighters ‘are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.'”  The tradition we’re discussing here is in fact a textual tradition (the sunna), consisting of the sayings and actions ascribed to Muhammad (the hadith) as reflected upon by later generations of particularly Sunni Islamic leaders (the ulama) who claimed to provide the authoritative definition of Islam for all Muslims.  We will discuss the formation of the ulama, and the degree to which their pronouncements can be taken as descriptive, below.

“Medieval” refers not only to law and to stories in this article, however; it also refers to violence.  Wood described an Australian convert to jihadi Islam as “living out a drama that looks, from an outsider’s perspective, like a medieval fantasy novel, only with real blood.”  The discussion of severe punishments for certain crimes evokes both the legal system discussed above and the violence: “medieval-style punishments for moral crimes (lashes for boozing or fornication, stoning for adultery).”  Finally, Wood references recent use by ISIS propaganda of “Hollywood war movies set in medieval times” (specifically featuring horseback warriors).  Violence is part of the story.

What did Muhammad say?

The cornerstone of all doctrinal Sunni thought is the sunna.  The Qur’an is thought of as God’s speech, but as Muslim religious leaders have always acknowledged, it provides contradictory injunctions about what to do.  The solution to this problem, they decided, was the doctrine of “abrogation,” by which later revelation was thought to abrogate earlier commands with which it conflicted.  But since the Qur’an wasn’t revealed with date-stamps, Muslim authors after Muhammad came up with systems which explain when each part was revealed, and therefore which were revealed earlier and which later.

The Qur’an is often obscure, however, or specific to its context.  Rather clearer and more directly relevant to particular later cases are the hadith, stories told about what Muhammad (or, less frequently, one of his Companions) said or did.  These stories are taken to be normative, because clearly Muhammad and the people who followed him during his lifetime had the best idea of what islam consisted of.  The difficulty, acknowledged by all Muslim religious scholars, is that stories were circulated about Muhammad that were clearly falsified.  People made stuff up.  Instead of denying this fact, the ulama came up with criteria for judging historicity by which they hoped to sift the wheat from the chaff.  The criteria adopted by the ulama, interestingly, are sometimes precisely opposed to how a modern historian would evaluate authenticity, rejecting stories that modern experts think more plausible and privileging reports which modern scholars would consider more suspect.

Eggheads and Real Life

The result was a developing legal doctrine which was self-consciously designed by the ulama to justify their own existence, and phrased as assertions about what Muhammad said or did in the early 600s, even though the ulama class only developed in the late 700s and early 800s.  Ever since, the ulama have clamored for recognition as the sole legitimate sources for the definition of Islam, in which they in fact had little success.  To take one example, as demonstrated by Marion Katz in her excellent 2014 book Women in the Mosque, throughout the medieval period the ulama increasingly and repeatedly insisted that women be prohibited from going to Friday prayers in the mosque (despite, as it turns out, a hadith apparently prohibiting just such a prohibition), and yet sufficient evidence indicates that women continued to attend the mosque in a wide variety of capacities (sometimes even as preachers and teachers) into the early modern period.  The ulama failed to impose their vision of Islam on the wider community of Muslims.

The ulama also partially failed to impose their legal system upon the state.  Although Muslim rulers early learned the value of claiming to uphold the shari’a, in practice rulers and religious leaders often disagreed upon what the actual laws ought to be.  There were courts run by the ulama, but there were also appeals to the rulers, who often took a different line.  Neither the religious leaders nor Muslim rulers is clearly “better” (by anachronistic modern liberal standards) in this contest: ulama wanted more restrictions upon non-Muslims than most rulers were willing to enforce, while Muslim warrior-leaders used the death penalty far too freely for the tastes of the scholarly religious types.  And sometimes the ulama actually sheltered non-Muslims from mob violence, or unsuccessfully attempted to do so.  The point is not to identify a “villain” of medieval Islam, but to demonstrate the diversity of views and practices which characterized Middle Eastern societies, a diversity which ISIS today rejects and works to eradicate.  The “seventh-century legal environment” put forward by ISIS is based on taking the wishful thinking of late medieval ulama, retrojecting that onto the foundation of Islam (as many of the ulama themselves hoped Muslims would do), and enforcing those rules with an immediacy never before known in an Islamic society.  The “seventh-century legal environment” never existed before the present.

Medieval Realities and Scholarly Blind-spots

What was the real medieval world, and how did it get so garbled in the modern era?  The former question is much more difficult to answer than the latter.  All historians of the medieval period face a shortage of sources, a shortage which has led most historians of Islam to read primarily the normative sources of the ulama.  While scholars recognize the distinction between prescriptive and descriptive texts, there is often a temptation, where no descriptive source has been located, to attempt to evaluate the descriptive value of the normative sources.  When no historical source says, “This is how it is,” scholars sometimes place too much credence (lacking something better) in the abundance of texts which say, “This is how it ought to be.”  But these are exactly the texts upon which ISIS and other Salafis (a much larger category than ISIS, of course) base their current practice, likewise misreading the wishful thinking of medieval ulama as descriptions of the earliest Muslim society, the golden age when every Muslim acted as they should.

But there are in fact abundant descriptive sources for the medieval Middle East, if only more scholars would access them.  The descriptive sources in Arabic are well known to Islamic historians, given Americans’ erroneous identification of Middle Easterners with Muslims and Muslims with Arabs, thus conflating the fields of Middle Eastern history, Islamic Studies, and Arabic.  (In fact, most Muslims today are not Arabs and do not speak Arabic, and most Muslims live outside the Middle East in Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.)  But numerous Persian sources also exist, only some of which have been explored, while the Cairo Geniza sources are largely studied by historians of Judaism rather than of the Middle East (with a few notable exceptions, from the first attempt at wider appeal by Goitein to the syntheses of Mark Cohen and the more recent work of Marina Rustow).  Medieval sources in Armenian and Syriac are almost entirely neglected by Middle Eastern historians, and almost everyone else.  In the medieval period, Coptic ceased to be composed and Turkish began to be written more widely, while Kurdish and various neo-Aramaic dialects were widely spoken – though not yet written – in large parts of the Levant.  Some sources for the medieval Middle East are even composed in “European” languages such as Latin and Greek.  The medieval Middle East was a polyglot place.

The medieval Middle East was also a multi-religious region.  While scholars have long known of the existence of non-Muslims in the medieval Middle East, they have largely presumed that nothing interesting could be said about them.  The non-Muslims who formed the entire population at the time of the conquests are widely assumed either to have assimilated quickly (most studies of Islamization terminate with the Abbasid revolt of 750) or to be entirely irrelevant in a society ruled by Muslims.  Yet a few studies have demonstrated that Muslims were a demographic minority in much of the Middle East until late in the medieval period, the era of the Crusades or even later.  The bulk of non-Muslim population would surely have had an effect, a greater effect on Islamic society than the normative and ignored proposals of the ulama which many scholars prefer to study, yet the effect of non-Muslim populations on “Islamic” society is entirely unstudied.  To give two examples, the Muslim ruler Zengi, who snuffed out the first Crusader State in Edessa in the 1140s, bought off the local Christian population by giving them church bells, despite the fact that the ulama regarded church bells as prohibited by the so-called Pact of Umar, while a fifteenth-century ruler of Baghdad is rumored to have converted to Christianity and employed a Christian as his chief civilian governor.  Indeed, not all rulers in the medieval Middle East were Muslims: Byzantines reconquered parts of Syria, Anatolia did not first “become” Middle Eastern with the Turkic invasions, the Crusaders ruled parts of the Levant, and the Mongols entered the Middle East as pagans with Buddhist sympathies.  Religious diversity was a fact of life at every level of medieval Middle Eastern society.

The one thing which this article gets right about medieval society was that it was undeniably violent, but even this violence should be put in perspective.  Judicial punishments were more frequently corporal than practiced by the modern Western penchant for incarceration, but then incarceration was prohibitively expensive in a pre-industrial society.  And if the rulers had followed the stipulations of the ulama, then the death penalty and the more severe mutilations would have required an almost prohibitive burden of proof (a point which ISIS likewise seems to neglect).  Wars were frequent, but the nationalist violence of the early twentieth-century exterminated larger portions of the Ottoman Empire’s population than medieval wars did, and wars have been both more frequent and more devastating in the last half-century than in most periods of the medieval Middle East.  Modern technology makes violence more severe, and the state monopoly on violence has broken down in the Iraqi conflicts of the past twelve years and the Syrian civil war.

Is ISIS Medieval?  No.

As Prof. Haykel emphasized to ThinkProgress in the wake of the Atlantic article, ISIS is ahistorical and revisionist.  This means not only that they do not take the development of Islam into account, but that the Islam that they practice is not in fact the Islam practiced in any place by any Muslims in the medieval period.  Some medieval ulama might have longed to see their desired rules promulgated so forcefully, and many medieval rulers (Muslim or otherwise) would have jumped at the power of modern military technology, yet it did not exist.  In fact, most medieval religious leaders and rulers alike took a more pragmatic line (not, as is often claimed, a more “tolerant” line) in light of the divergences of language and religion around them, whereas ISIS has taken the takfiri line of Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792, not medieval) even further in light of the rapid Islamization of the Middle East in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.  Whether ISIS is Islamic or not depends on which definition is used, but who they are and what they’ve done could only exist in the modern world.

Scholars have the tools to challenge this narrative of medieval Islam falsely derived from prescriptive texts as synthesized by modern Salafis.  But the deployment of the term “medieval” in modern Western discourse has always been a term of abuse, a term to “other” those segments of our own and others’ societies which we find repugnant.  Since Salafis often glorify aspects of Islam that most modern non-Muslim Westerners find repugnant, a term of abuse masquerading as a historical descriptor validates the Salafis’ own distorted view of history.  On the other hand, the narrative of an “Islamic” Middle East which gave way to the “modern” Middle East through European influence panders to Western feelings of superiority over Islam and the rest of the world as the sole inventor of modernity and all its glories.  This false dichotomy is enshrined in almost all American university course catalogs, in defiance of the fact that the Middle East has never been more Muslim than it is today.  But as long as modern scholars continue to validate the Salafi line of a “purer” Islam over against a modern Europeanized Middle East, they will be lend credibility to ahistorical modern jihadis like ISIS and be silently complicit in the cultural genocide enacted by ISIS by which Middle Eastern non-Muslims are erased from their own past.


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