Theology matters: The case of jihadi Islam
July-September 2016
By: Rudiger Lohlker

The selected texts and videos have been assembled from various sources, including older Al Qaeda files, Hamas, Free Syrian Army documents, translations of Sun Tzu into Arabic and even a translation of Israeli texts: a highly pragmatic selection indeed. And yet all of these technical military resources are explicitly embedded within a specific religious tradition that jihadis clearly regard as their own. In other words, the creators of this jihadi military blog regard their efforts as the natural, contemporary outgrowth of Islamic history and tradition. When reciting the basmala (“In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Graceful”) and so forth, the authors of these texts are not mindlessly employing a culturally determined phrase. Rather, they consciously subscribe to a religiously impregnated discursive formulation and a history of contemporary jihadism that dates back to the Afghan-Arab volunteers.

The IS caliph

The core of the IS identity consists of two elements: the caliphate and violence (Lohlker 2015 and 2016a). One of the prerequisites for proclaiming a caliphate is to have a leader who possesses the requisite qualifications to serve as caliph. Leaving aside other elements of the theory of proclaiming a caliphate, we see that IS argues for Abu Bakr al-BaghdādÄ«’s legitimacy as caliph by stating that he has proved to be a successful fighter, and that he is also a religious scholar who has authored several books. He fulfills another requirement for becoming caliph, due to having the appropriate genealogy to the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fātima.

A video

A recent video, “Night Arrows,” demonstrates how IS-Islam makes powerful references to religion, and appropriates the symbols and emotions associated with Muslim religiosity, in its propaganda material.

The video depicts a city at night and a minaret, which evokes the idea of the call to prayer. The setting of the video is thus contextualized: it takes place within a Muslim city, in which the mosque is the most important structure. The film cuts to a man slowly rising from his sleep, taking a candle and then proceeding to perform his ritual ablutions with water from a clay jug. Afterward, the man enters another room to pray. An audio file can be heard featuring the voice of Abu Musab al-ZarqāwÄ«, the founding father of al-Tawhid wal Jihad, a precursor organization to IS. The audio file begins with a call for Muslims – adherents of jihadi Islam – to pray for those who fight on their behalf, in service to God and Islam. 

Golden, sparkling light descends into the hands of the praying man, symbolizing the blessed character of al-ZarqāwÄ«s speech, which calls upon Muslims to pray for jihadi fighters, and this golden light becomes an integral part of the prayer. The candlelight slowly fades away to reveal a landscape with two birds flying at sunset. A voice in the background tells viewers that “the Sunna,” the obligatory example of the Prophet, must be followed as “established by God for his creatures,” and that this includes the struggle (jihad) against oppressors. Once again, what may at first glance appear to be a political statement is embedded within a profoundly moving religious context.

A following sequence contains a political statement, displaying video clips of Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin and Francois Hollande speaking. In the background, a voice talks about the necessity of retaliating against the West for its “war against Islam and Muslims.” The narrator continues to explain that the crimes of these aggressors are evident, and include the destruction caused by the anti-IS coalition’s bombing campaign. The next video sequence shows buildings in ruins, people trying to help severely injured victims (especially children) and an enraged elderly man calling upon the wrath of God.

The film cross-fades to images from the Paris attacks in November 2015, as the narrator continues to speak about retaliation, before fading once again to a sequence that shows fighters training for urban warfare. The narrator calls upon “those who arise in sincere belief to fight unbelief in the world” to take revenge for the Russians’ bombing (Putin’s image is shown) of “Muslims’ homes.” Such fighters, the speaker continues, prepare themselves for battle by trusting fully in God (armed IS fighters are shown parading in their vehicles), and their first and most vital weapon is “belief” (Ä«mān). Viewers are told that these IS warriors are conscious of their previous sins and have repented.

The film proceeds to show Muslims at prayer, in order to emphasize once again that all aspects of life should be oriented toward God. Prayer, which is an integral expression of belief, is considered to be “the most important weapon.” While showing an old man praying alone, followed by a boy and an old man praying together, a brief Koranic recitation concludes the segment of the video. A man appears and elaborates upon the virtue of prayer, and again we experience a cross-fade to a congregation of men praying. The narrator explains that these men are beseeching God to aid them against their enemies.

Another man appears speaking in Turkish. He calls upon Muslims, to whom he refers as “jihadis,” “to help the religion of God at least by praying.” The “help” requested translates to waging war against the enemies of God. The speaker is sitting in front of row after row of books written in Arabic. They appear to be religious literature, suggesting that the man is a knowledgeable scholar of Islam. Again, the congregation of praying men appears and a song may be heard describing “those who stand in unity,” which refers to Muslims – those who affirm the unity of God.

Another speaker tells viewers that the sky belongs to God, as does the earth, the rivers and the sea. Enormous mountains appear, along with beautiful forests and a waterfall. The film cross-fades to warplanes and the speaker tells viewers that God will ultimately destroy the aggressors’ high-tech weapons. This will be accomplished through the devotion of IS fighters, who are shown recovering the corpses of their comrades who have been slain in battle, suggesting that Islamic State warriors will fight to the death. Footage displays natural catastrophes that have occurred in the United States and the speaker proclaims that God will punish America through earthquakes and other disasters.

The video constitutes a true amalgamation of religious symbolism and ideas, which are visually manifest in the form of prayer and the film’s adept use of religious formulae. This allows for an identification of jihadis with Muslims in general: for the religious justification of a political agenda, and for persuading viewers that nature, and the Islamic State, are expressions of God’s omnipotent power. If one were to ignore the central role of religious symbolism and doctrine in the film it would be impossible to comprehend, or describe, the substance and emotional power of its message.


Anti-Shiism is a paradigmatic element that illustrates the religious dimension of Sunni jihadism. Enmity against Shiites, who are often dehumanized and referred to as “filth” (eg, Lohlker 2016b), is embedded within a centuries-old discourse of marginalization and persecution that, in modern times, has been reinvigorated and disseminated throughout the world, with massive financial, logistical and political support from Saudi Arabia.

It may be tempting to interpret this sectarianism as a mere ideological disguise, meant to conceal the geopolitical interests at work (Saudi Arabia versus Iran, or IS versus Iran, for example). However, we may better understand the nature of the current Sunni–Shite divide if we reconceptualize it as a political conflict that has succeeded in amalgamating centuries-old religious traditions, and strengthened the bitter antagonism felt by both sides, by tapping into these religious lines of force.


In addition to the considerations already put forward in this essay, as evidence of the religious foundation of jihadism, we may add other elements of IS thought and the IS theology of violence (Lohlker 2015, 2016a), such as: the religious imperative to establish a caliphate based on violence; the prevailing apocalyptic mood; a thoroughly constructed set of gender rules based upon religious texts; the anti-smoking campaign waged by IS, on religious grounds; the internal structure of IS, which mirrors institutions mentioned in the history of Muslim communities; police/market control (hisba); social welfare (zakāt); and the introduction of a new currency called the gold dinar, similar to that used in the early days of Islam. All this provides ample evidence of the religious foundation of jihadism, and the manner in which jihadis envision their overall strategic aims.

As the anthropologist Scott Atran has written: “This is the purposeful plan of violence that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-anointed Caliph, outlined in his call for ‘volcanoes of jihad’: to create a globe-spanning jihadi archipelago that will eventually unite to destroy the present world and create a new-old world of universal justice and peace under the Prophet’s banner. A key tactic in this strategy is to inspire sympathizers abroad to violence: do what you can, with whatever you have, wherever you are, whenever possible. … While many in the West dismiss radical Islam as simply nihilistic, our work suggests something far more menacing: a profoundly alluring mission to change and save the world.”

That is why religion matters: it is the fuel that enables the jihadi machine of destruction to rumble forward. Cutting off the “supply of fuel” requires offering alternative conceptions of religion – and many other things. Religion matters, but it is not the sole solution to the threat posed by jihadism. Hard power may be required, but soft power (youth workers, teachers, community and family empowerment, etc) is also required. Political, social and economic conditions may provide the soil for the rise of jihadist entities, but religion – in fact, a specific construction of religion – is an integral part of the problem.

We need to help the people affected by this theology of violence, both victims and perpetrators. In order to help those attracted to jihadi Islam create another form of self-identity, we must remind ourselves of Eagleton's remark back in 1991: “Only those interventions will work which make sense to the mystified subject itself.”


Rudiger Lohlker is professor for Islamic Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria. His fields of research include Islamic extremist movements and the history of Islamic ideas.

Please login to leave a comment