Opinion

For ISIS, a competing vision of Ramadan as a month of conquest and jihad

Muslims offer prayers as they are reflected in the stagnant rainwater on a road on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr in Kolkata, India, on July 18, 2015. The Eid al-Fitr festival marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhury

(RNS) In a new audio message last week, ISIS’ spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, called on devout Muslims to use the holy month of Ramadan, which begins June 5, as a sacred opportunity to attack non-Muslim infidels in “the United States and Europe.”

Addressing ISIS’ supporters in the West, he explains: “we wish we were in your place to punish the Crusaders day and night.”

He affirms that Ramadan is “the month of conquest and jihad,” and encourages Muslims to “be ready” to attack the infidels in their own lands.

Ramadan is the most sacred Muslim month. For many, it is a time of fasting and self-control, meditation and Quran recitation, prayer and service to the poor.

However, al-Adnani insists it is also a time for attacking enemies with the aim of making it “a month of calamity everywhere.” It is worth noting that on the first day of Ramadan two years ago (June 30, 2014), ISIS’ caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the establishment of the long-awaited Islamic caliphate, stretching across Iraq and Syria.

The release of this new audio message coincides with the reports that the U.S.-led coalition is getting ready for more assaults against the terrorist group.

Invoking Ramadan adds an exceptionally important religious flavor to ISIS’ statements. Listening critically to this new audio message suggests ISIS is both changing its strategies and using the same religious discourse.

In his first Ramadan speech, al-Baghdadi called devoted Muslims to immigrate to lands where Islam is implemented properly. Now, the battlefield is outside ISIS’ territory. This suggests the U.S.-led airstrikes have been effective.

Nevertheless, ISIS still uses the same religious sermon, relying on sacred Muslim texts and calling on Muslims to remember their distant past as recounted in ancient texts and apply it to today’s temporal politics.

Ramadan, according to Muslim primary sources, is not only the month when the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, but also the month when Muslims celebrated their first victory over non-Muslim pagans.

In 624, under Muhammad’s leadership, the first believers initiated the Battle of Badr against the pagans of Mecca, and achieved a great victory during the month of Ramadan. Many Muslims still celebrate that victory today.

Three years later, in 627, also during Ramadan, the early Muslims raided a coalition of Meccan polytheists and Jews from Medina in skirmishes known as the Battle of the Confederates or the Battle of the Trench. This strategic victory marked a new era in consolidating Muslim power and advancing hegemony.

And in 630, again during Ramadan, Muhammad led what is known as the “conquest of the conquests,” in which he conquered his enemies in Mecca and became the sole leader in most of the Arabian Peninsula.

ISIS knows its history well. It is certain many devout Muslims view the early years of Islam not merely as the past, but as a sacred time. The example of the prophet and his companions represent hope to the faithful. Many devout Muslims yearn to emulate these early achievements. If the Prophet Muhammad led raids into neighboring lands during Ramadan, they believe, it is a sacred duty that should be imitated.

That’s why invoking Ramadan in ISIS’ recent audio message is tactical and intentional. It aims to make devout believers feel guilty if they do not consider Ramadan “the month of conquest and jihad.” It discourages the notion that piety, prayer, and worship are all that one needs to do, insisting that armed jihad and attacking enemies are also sacred duties.

During the last year, ISIS claimed responsibility for deadly attacks in France, the U.S., and Belgium. As it loses ground in the Middle East, it is increasingly taking aim at infidels abroad. But there does not seem to be any change in its use of religious texts to achieve its political agenda. This is possibly its last ideological card.

There are two competing traditions about Ramadan today: the one of ISIS, which recalls Islam’s ancient past and insists on applying it literally today, and that of other believers who long for piety, introspection, and restraint.

Which tradition will most Muslims follow this Ramadan? The world is watching.

(Ayman S. Ibrahim is an assistant professor of Islamic Studies and senior fellow of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary)

This story is available for republication.

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Ayman S. Ibrahim

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