Black Banners of ISIS

The Roots of the New Caliphate

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David J. Wasserstein
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , August
     260 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The recent rise to prominence of the “Islamic State” organization (IS) has sparked academic and journalistic discussions about how it should be interpreted and contextualized. Participants in such debates often tend to stress different aspects of the phenomenon, so that it is either understood as primarily driven by apocalyptic visions of the future, as rooted in sociopolitical developments in the contemporary Middle East, or as an expression of serious attempts at implementing religious ideals expressed within the earliest sources of Islam. 

David J. Wasserstein’s contribution is arguably an example of the latter of these focuses. Depending, to some extent, on the author’s knowledge about medieval history and early Islam, Black Banners of ISIS argues that IS is driven forward by a genuine concern for the reinstatement of ideals associated with the earliest forms of Islam, and that the wider resonance of the organization’s message relates to how its conduct can be regarded as the credible expression of these ideals. In terms of sources used, a double approach is applied, whereby contemporary IS material is read in relation to some of the foundational texts of Islam. This is a welcome approach, as it helps clarify important aspects of IS’s own worldview and ideology; complementing those analyses that depend upon insights into modern political developments for their understanding of the organization. For political scientists, politicians, and civil servants, contextualizing descriptions of such basic concepts as “caliphate”, “hadith”, and so forth, may certainly prove useful, so that discussions on IS are nuanced through increased awareness about relevant religious notions. 

No matter the benefits of this approach, one obvious drawback is that it leaves open substantial gaps in terms of how the IS phenomenon is historicized and related to its sociopolitical context. Since the book puts most of its focus on either early medieval or late modern sources, relevant developments in-between are almost entirely omitted. The result is an apparent lack of either historical nuance or engagement with existing scholarship on relevant post-medieval developments; something which recurrently presents problems for Wasserstein’s arguments. Accentuating these problems, Wasserstein often demonstrates a very limited reading of materials from IS’s official corpus of texts, speeches, videos, and so forth. As a result, his interpretations of central concepts, primarily through the help of medieval sources, occasionally result in decidedly anachronistic conclusions. One noteworthy example is a discussion of a prominent IS slogan, which presents the organization as a “caliphate upon the prophetic methodology” (49-53). Wasserstein uses this discussion to simply inform readers about the early medieval origins and Abbasid era usage of the phrase, a perhaps defensible digression, but one which tells us remarkably little about how or why IS itself has chosen to use and interpret it as part of its own propaganda. A more extensive reading of official IS media quickly reveals that the organization’s own references to the phrase and its associated hadith often serves the explicit purpose of stressing issues related to the supposed setbacks, humiliations, and oppression of Muslims during the modern era. 

The above criticism should not be read as mere nit-picking. It highlights a recurring and fundamental problem regarding the author’s use of IS material – one which is further demonstrated by Wasserstein’s manifest confusion regarding the nature of materials analyzed. “Al-Hayat Media Center” is described as “the media outlet of IS” (23; emphasis added). This is simply erroneous, since al-Hayat is merely one ofseveral outlets officially associated with the organization. Moreover, al-Hayat has a specific purpose, focused on the distribution of media in non-Arabic languages: any analysis which depends excessively on its output will therefore be limited accordingly. This results in, for example, the author’s inability to appreciate the circumstances and elaborate narratives surrounding IS’s declaration of a caliphate (28), while the manifest lack of knowledge about arguably more significant Arabic-language outlets (e.g., the much older “Al-Furqan Foundation” which is in charge of distributing material directly associated with IS’s official leadership) often enables the sort of decontextualized and/or anachronistic conclusions criticized above. Many of the questions posed by the author could easily have been answered through a more well-developed understanding of the actual scope of relevant sources, of historical developments, as well as of the related work of other researchers. 

Such an expanded focus would likely have problematized one of the book’s most central premises—namely, that the IS phenomenon is primarily rooted in a deterministically “Muslim” concern about the reinstatement of the caliphate, rather than in reaction to 20th century sociopolitical developments (and associated Western expansionism). Anyone who ponders the political roots of IS must consider the American-led occupation of Iraq as a decisive development, while IS’s official ideology (in fact, its official way of framing the immediate need for a caliphate) intimately relates to perceptions about the supposed ills that have befallen the world’s Muslimsin recent centuries. Tellingly, the symbolic accompaniment to the caliphate proclamation on the 29th of June 2014 was not the elaborate discussion of early Islamic texts or medieval history, but a pair of videos that celebrated the eradication of colonial borders explicitly referred to as those of “Sykes-Picot” (i.e., a reference to the French-British agreement that divided the Ottoman Empire after world War I). The noteworthy timing and profound symbolism of this is never really considered by Wasserstein, although it signals notable complexity regarding IS’s historical consciousness and worldview. The serious treatment of such ideological complexity would likely have reinforced the presented analysis with necessary nuance and contextual rootedness. 

In summary, Black Banners of ISIS reads like an attempt at connecting textbook-style information about basic Islamic concepts to the IS phenomenon­­­—a research task that can be described as both commendable and desired. It is, however, severely undermined by how a manifest lack of nuanced knowledge about IS and its ideology help make wider analyses both indistinct and largely superficial.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gustav Larsson is a doctoral candidate in the Study of Religion at Linnaeus University.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David J. Wasserstein is professor of history and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University. He has written widely on Islamic and Jewish history. His books include The Rise and Fall of the Party-Kings: Politics and Society in Islamic Spain;The Caliphate in the West; and (as co-author) The Legend of the Septuagint from Classical Antiquity to Today.


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