The Goals of the Islamic State: Hijrah, al-Haramayn and Hegemony

News Abroad
tags: ISIS, Islamic State, Hijrah, al-Haramayn

Timothy R. Furnish is a Ph.D. in Islamic history (Ohio State, 2001) who works as a consultant, researcher and author on the topics of Islam, Mahdism, Jihadism, Shi`ism, other Islamic sects, the Caliphate and Eschatology in general.  This article first appeared at his blog:  MahdiWatch (blog).


Murad IV and his current epigone. The former had a bigger sword, albeit a smaller watch. 

What are the goals of the Islamic State/ISIS/ISIL/”Da`ish?”  Some commentators and journalists seem to think these are simply to continue beheading, oppressing and terrorizing.  But self-proclaimed Caliph al-Baghdadi and his ansar have more concrete aims in mind—based on my reading of ISIS publications, review of its videos, scrutiny of its actions and putting all those in the context of Islamic history.  

Short-term, ISIS wants to consolidate the Iraqi and Syrian territories which it  has occupied into a functioning state.  This plan appears to be working quite well, for ISIS has expanded its area of control since US (and “Coalition”) airstrikes began late 2014.  (If you don’t like Department of Defense-derived “Wall Street Journal” maps, take a look at these of Syria and Iraq by an independent observer—both clearly show ISIS expanding its domain.)  At the same time, it conducts an on-going agenda of both jihad and da`wah—the former mainly against near enemies, but also including appeals for individual sympathizers to go after Western targets where they live; the latter focused on attracting as many Muslims as possible to make the hijrah from their current locales to the Islamic State.  Again, both sides of this Islamic coin are well-spent, from al-Baghdadi’s perspective. 

Long-term, ISIS—as many breathlessly have reported—aspires to not just ruling all the Islamic portions of the Middle East, Europe and South/Central Asia, but Rome and points further west, including the United States.  This may be a hookah-dream, but considering that the ideology—if not quite all the brutal activity—of ISIS has solid grounding in Salafism, both its Wahhabi and Deobandi (South Asian) versions, it’s something that should be taken seriously by non-Muslims. 

It is the medium-term goals of ISIS that should most concern us.  I submit that these primarily are two-fold:  1) to goad us—that is, the United States—into inserting ground troops into, particularly, Syria, as a means of fulfilling the hadith about the great apocalyptic battle  near Dabiq; and 2) to take over Saudi Arabia, or at least to cause such regional instability that Riyadh’s regime fractures, and ISIS Toyotas ride triumphantly into al-Haramayn, the “two holy places” of Mecca and Medina. 


The circuitous, quasi-road route for ISIS Toyotas to take to Islamic legitimacy.  Cutting straight south would shave many km/miles off this trip.

The first objective I have discussed at length on this website, in many posts going back into 2013. (Feel free to review.)  The second one, thus, I will now address.  The idea had  occurred to me before, but struck home again recently as I was re-reading portions of the insightful  God’s  Caliph:  Religious  Authority in the First Centuries of Islam by Patricia Crone and Martin Hinds (Cambridge, 1986/2003)—in particular this: “[I]t was control of these places [Mecca and Medina] rather than world domination which gave the Ottoman caliphate a certain plausibility, just as it is control of the same places which gives the Sa`udi monarchs a quasi-caliphal role today” (note 18, p. 100).  

In order to have true, historical caliphal legitmacy, one must rule the two most holy sites of Islam.  And while ISIS labels all extant Sunni regimes in the Middle East as ţaghūt, “idolatrous” and/or “tyrannical,” the Sa`udi one which holds sway over Mecca and Medina is obviously the most odious.  So those who think that ISIS will drive toward al-Quds, Jerusalem, first are wrong—its primary near enemy is the Sa`udis, not the Jews/Israelis.  

In addition, those writers and analysts who stress the vast differences between [pseudo-] Caliph al-Baghdadi and his Ottoman predecessors might want to take a few courses in Ottoman history.  While not, institutionally, a fundamentalist Islamic state (if for no other reason than a large, and influential, minority of the Empire was Christian), some Ottoman sultans were not all that dissimilar to the ruler of ISIS.  Murad IV (d. 1640) hated Sufis, Shi`is, tobacco, coffee and alcohol (in that order), waging jihad—both personal and public—against  all of them (although he died of cirrhosis, probably from secretly imbibing).  Murad was heavily influenced by the 17th century Ottoman Sunni fundamentalist movement known as the Kadizadelis, whose ideas ISIS echoes, albeit probably unknowingly.  

Unlike al-Baghdadi, however, Murad led his troops personally into battle and, of course, already ruled the two holy cities down in Arabia (the Ottomans having conquered them in 1517).  Perhaps if Islamic State’s caliph would emulate his Ottoman predecssor regarding the former activity, American forces could ensure that we wouldn’t have to worry about him gaining the legitimacy that comes with the latter.  But if al-Baghdadi stays “above” the fray—conveniently out of it, that is—then ISIS’s goal of extending its caliphate 1400 miles south remains a worrisome one, that should concern not just the Sa`udis but American policymakers.

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