North Africa, West Asia

ISIS is not mediaeval

Not only is this popular description historically inaccurate, but such oversimplification can also be dangerous because it affects how we approach this threat.

Ali A. Olomi
14 October 2014

“ISIS is mediaeval.” We hear it on the news, we hear our politicians repeat it, and it has become so common that it is part of the discourse about the Islamic State who is alternatively known by the acronym ISIS. But is this accurate? Is it useful to describe ISIS as mediaeval?

ISIS is a complicated and dangerous threat that in reality we know little about. Despite all the intelligence gathered, it remains an organisation that we have been unable to fully comprehend. Given the complexity, it is absolutely essential that we understand this threat before we can properly come to a solution. This is where calling ISIS mediaeval becomes a problem. Not only is it historically inaccurate, but such a gross oversimplification can also endanger the way we approach this threat.

Make no mistake; there is nothing mediaeval about ISIS. Thinking about ISIS as some atavistic remnant of a more barbaric age is just downright wrong. Firstly, it is ahistorical; nothing about the ideology of ISIS or even its methods is remotely in line with mediaeval Islamic civilisation.

In fact, it was mediaeval Islam that produced the robust rational tradition of the religion, that gave birth to the legal schools of thought known as the madhaabs, and which went on to inspire the European Renaissance with its love of the classics, philosophy, and science.

It is also mediaeval Islam that blossomed into the ecumenical spirit of Sufism, the mystical heart of the religion. Far from being mediaeval, ISIS and its Salafist ideology is a complete rejection of the beautiful culture and civilisation of mediaeval Islam.

It outright rejects the traditional legal schools that require discourse, debate, and critical examination in favour for their own perverted interpretation. They dismiss the philosophical and rational culture of mediaeval Islam in favour for authoritarian puritanism. They decry the mystical Sufism and aggressively oppress them alongside any other group that does not fall into their narrow vision like the Shia, or even their fellow Sunnis who may be to be liberal-minded.

When ISIS is described as mediaeval not only is it historically inaccurate, but we are also marring the beautiful traditions that sprung up from mediaeval Islam. The shared heritage of mainstream Muslims is the mediaeval tradition. It may not seem like a significant distinction, but it takes aim at the important history of the very people who are standing up against ISIS: other Muslims.

Rather than help Muslims in their struggle for who speaks for Islam, we are allowing ISIS to set the narrative when we call them mediaeval. We are wiping away all the beautiful traditions that gave birth to the wide world of Islamic thought and instead choose to only see through the lens of ISIS.

There is a geopolitical element here as well. When we claim that ISIS is mediaeval we are failing in the arena of intelligence. Calling them mediaeval is a dismissal, a refusal to take a hard look at the roots and ideology of ISIS.

ISIS did not spring from the mediaeval Abbasids, nor do they want to return to the blooming civilisation of Al-Andalus. They were not born from rational tradition of Islamic discourse and scholarly debate. They were born out of the crucible of modern warfare. They sprung from the Iraq war, took root during military occupation, found succour from the tatters of a war-torn society, were armed with modern technological warfare, and fight under the ideological banner of hypernationalism.

ISIS is not mediaeval–it is a modern monster. Everything about the way it operates is uniquely modern. Certainly, they draw inspiration from older groups and ideologies like the Salafi and Al Qaeda, but onto those they fuse their own unique and perverted purview.

If we simply dismiss ISIS as some barbaric remnant of a bygone era we are failing to truly grasp the nature of the threat. This is why history matters. Understanding the origins, roots, and history of a group like ISIS lends itself into astute policy-making. It avoids what historian, David Armitage calls “short-termism” where our approach and policies can see no further than the end of a political term.

ISIS is a complicated threat. Any true solution to the problem that ISIS poses will require a sophisticated and informed policy that recognises that we cannot simply shoot and bomb them out of existence, if the conditions that birthed them are never addressed. How can we ever hope to address the political, social, and economic conditions from which ISIS sprung if all we see them as is mediaeval?

This is the problem when politicians and pundits set policy without any knowledge of history. 

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