The Islamic state of Iraq and Syria goes by many names. Names such as ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State, the Caliphate, and Daesh have been used by politicians and the media to describe the group which currently controls large chunks of Iraq, Syria, and Libya.
While there is not widespread agreement on what exactly to call them, there seems to be a general consensus among politicians that the Islamic State has absolutely nothing to do with Islam.
The US government refuse to call the group Islamic, but rather refer to them as violent extremists. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in 2014 called them the 'Un-Islamic Non-State.'
So if ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, what is it that they actually believe?
In order to understand ISIS, it is necessary to understand something of Islamic history. Central to the mission of ISIS is the re-establishment of the universal Islamic Caliphate.
The Caliphate refers to the original Islamic state, the umma, which was set up by Muhammad in the seventh century in Arabia. Following the death of Muhammad in 632 AD, a caliph was selected to take Muhammad's place as the religious and political leader of the umma.
From 632 to 661, a succession of four caliphs (who retrospectively came to be known as the four 'rightly-guided' caliphs) ruled over the Islamic state: Abu Bakr (632-634), Umar (634-644), Uthman (644-656), and Ali (656-661). After the death of Ali, a dispute arose over the election of the next caliph, leading to the first Islamic civil war and the division of the umma (which has persisted to this day between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims).
While over the subsequent centuries, a number of Islamic dynasties claimed the title of the caliphate, none fully represented the entirety of the Islamic community. The last recognised caliphate, the Ottoman Empire, was abolished by Kemal Ataturk in his secular reforms in Turkey in 1924.
For many, the original, undivided caliphate is held to be the epitome of Islamic civilisation—both the historical pinnacle of Islamic achievement and an ideal to be returned to.
It is precisely this model that ISIS have been seeking to emulate since their declaration of the caliphate in June of 2014. Their leader, Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri, has even taken on the name Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (literally, Abu Bakr of Baghdad) in reference to the first caliph of the Islamic state.
ISIS's stated goal then, is to return Islam to the pure state in which it existed during the seventh century before the division of the umma, and to complete the conquests which had been started by its caliphs.
The Islamic conquests
The second category needed to understand ISIS is their interpretation of the Islamic concept of jihad.
As with their model for law and political organisation, ISIS also turns back to the original caliphate for instructions on their dealings with non-Muslims and surrounding nations.
Following the death of Muhammad in 632, the caliphate embarked on an extraordinary project of conquest, with its armies spilling out in all directions from Arabia.
In the West, Roman Egypt was conquered, followed by the Berber tribes of North Africa and the Visigothic Kingdom of Spain.
To the North, Roman Syria and Persian-occupied Iraq were in Muslim control by 640 AD.
To the East, the Sasanian Persian Empire was obliterated, and Muslim conquests reached across Afghanistan all the way to the borders of India.
The motivation for these conquests came on the basis of certain verses in Sura 9 of the Quran (generally considered to be the final Sura revealed to Muhammad).
In Sura 9:29, Muhammad gives his followers the commandment to:
'Fight against those who believe not in Allah, nor in the Last Day, nor forbid that which has been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger and those who acknowledge not the religion of truth [i.e. Islam] among the people of the Scripture [Jews and Christians], until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.'
During the early Islamic conquests, the caliphs of the umma used this scripture (along with others) as the template for bringing Islam to new regions.
Before they commenced an invasion, the Muslims would first invite their opponents to accept Islam—in which case they would then be left alone.
Secondly, they would be offered the opportunity to keep their religion, but to submit to Islamic rule and special taxation (jizyah). Under Caliph Umar's direction, the terms of this submission were laid out in significant detail—a submission, in the words of Sunni scholar Ibn Kathir, designed to ensure their 'continued humiliation, degradation, and disgrace.'
Thirdly, if they rejected all offers, the Muslims would continue to fight them until they had been defeated.
During the seventh century, jihad was understood almost exclusively in this sense as a military struggle against the enemies of Islam. It was not until much later that the doctrine developed and began to take on a more nuanced meaning.
For ISIS, in their desire to return Islam to its pure seventh century form, it is this understanding of jihad which informs their relations with non-Muslims both inside and outside their borders.
In their treatment of Christians, Yazidis, and those Muslims they deem to be Munafiqun (hypocrites), ISIS has strived to be consistent with what they believe are the values of the seventh century caliphate.
So is ISIS Islamic? If you compare them to the way most Muslims act, the answer is probably no. Likewise, their claim to caliphate-hood is a tenuous one at best.
However, this does not mean ISIS can be dismissed as an un-Islamic group that has nothing to do with Islam.
There is a method to ISIS's madness. Their social, political, and theological organisation is based on a conservative, literalist form of Islam—aspects of which can be seen in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Afghanistan.
Their understanding of jihad, while narrow, has been highly influential throughout Islamic history, and has been supported by many of Islam's greatest theologians.
So while it would be wrong to say that ISIS is representative of all Islam, it would be equally wrong to say that it does not represent Islam at all.
In many ways, ISIS is a part of Islam. It represents a literalistic, idealised form of Islam which has been present, in different times and places, right throughout its 1400 year history.
Simply refusing to examine ISIS's theology, its claims to legitimacy, and its precedents in history, is ignoring the problem.
And ignoring the problem won't make it go away.
Tim Newman lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. He holds an MA in History (focussing on attitudes towards warfare in Islam and Christianity).
Tim Newman's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/tim-newman.html