The Islamic State: Alternative Statehood?
No. 4 2015 October/December
Vasily A. Kuznetsov

PhD in History
Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russia
Head of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies


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Why Radicals’ Policies Are Attractive for the Middle East Arabs

This article is a shortened version of the paper written for the Valdai International Discussion Club and co-authored with Palestinian researcher Valid Salem. Full text is available at:  http://ru.scribd.com/doc/288169093/Valdai-Paper-32-The-Islamic-State-An-Alternative-Statehood

In the last year, an alternative model of statehood for the Middle East region has become a widely discussed topic. While the ideas of various alternative projects appeared quite often in the 20th century (in connection with the establishment of the State of Palestine, the Kurdish problem, the Third International Theory of Muammar Gadda?, etc.), they occupied a marginal place and hardly ever came close to realization (it will suffice to recall the idea of democratic confederalism by Abdullah Ocalan). However, the rapid strengthening of the Islamic State (IS) and its exoticism seem to create the impression of a sudden emergence of a real alternative.

IS formed in 2006 from the merger of eleven factions of Iraqi Al-Qaeda was little known before 2013 – the organization comprised only a few thousand people during the first years of its operation, mainly former soldiers and officers from Saddam Hussein’s army. The organization’s activities were then aimed against the Americans and the new U.S. government that had conducted a tough lustration policy to remove the Baath party and the entire old elite from the political space.

The radical transformation of an ordinary jihadist group was associated, firstly, with the escalation of the Syrian conflict which destabilized the situation in Iraq by way of “transfusion” across the border and, secondly, with the rise in the spring of 2011 of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who set a course for the organization’s self-financing through robbery, expropriation of property owned by “infidels,” racketeering, bootlegging, etc.

IS became widely known in the summer of 2014, when militants seized Mosul and started aggressive attacks in Iraq and Syria.

At present, IS controls the territory in Syria and Iraq, the size of which is comparable to that of the UK, with a population of 8 million people. Tens of thousands fight for IS (according to some sources, 80,000-100,000 people) from various countries of the world, including over 1,700 men from Russia (unofficial data suggest that the figure is much higher).

It is clear that the question of the Islamic State’s nature remains open; however there are certain prerequisites which allow it to be considered a state rather than just a new edition of a jihadist organization, and much has already been said and written about it by now. Nevertheless, the following two questions remain most relevant: (1) what kind of project IS proposes (if any) and (2) can IS turn out to be effective in solving key statehood-related problems in Arab countries, i.e. can it solve the nation-building problem, overcome the fragmented nature of the societies and harmonize institutional development?

It must be noted, though, that even if it fails to solve these problems but succeeds in overcoming the obvious manifestations of the region’s current statehood crisis, it can well be defined as a temporarily successful project, despite all its barbarity and cruelty.


Proposing its own state-building project, IS continues the Sala? tradition calling on the Muslim community to go back to the time of Prophet Muhammad and the rightly guided caliphs. While this general Sala? idea has always been quite popular in the Arab and Muslim world, different thinkers and religious and political leaders gave it radically different interpretations.

Unlike Muslim Brotherhood, Tunisian Ennahda, Hamas, and other Islamist organizations that try to build their ideologies on a combination of Islamic values, nationalist ideas and democratic principles (it bears reminding that Hamas, in its time, came to power through democratic elections), IS, just like Al-Qaeda that produced it, occupies a fundamentally anti-modernist and anti-Western position. Therefore, the analysis of the project proposed by IS suggests referring to the early Muslim statehood model and identifying its key elements.

The problem here is that there are two ways in which statehood, as applied to the Arab Muslim political history and culture, can be understood.

On the one hand, it can imply the real statehood that existed in the region in the precolonial period. This “real” statehood in the Arab Muslim world was of a twofold origin: on the one hand, it was engendered by Muhammad’s religious call; on the other, by the Arab Muslim conquest in the 7th-8th centuries and the necessity to control the conquered territories. The ambiguity of the origin affected the structure of the Arab Muslim state and the sources of its legitimacy as well as its political identity. On the one hand, it was an Islamic state for Muslims whose main institutes were established by Muhammad and the rightly guided caliphs; the caliph’s power was religiously justified; and the non-Muslim population (mainly, Jews and Christians) that was considered “protected” (dhimmi) had its own jurisdiction and paid special taxes. On the other hand, it was an ethnocratic state: in the Umayyad period, it was Arab; in the Abbasid period, Arab-Persian and Arab-Turkic, etc. Its rulers actively used the historical mythology to justify their claim to the caliphate, and relied on tribal and ethnical groups in exercising their power.

In addition to the combination of religious-ideological and ethnic tribal elements, the real Arab Muslim statehood was characterized by active naturalization and transformation of public administration practices in conquered and neighboring nations (primarily, Byzantium and Iran), their rethinking and gradual sophistication of the political system.

Finally, this real statehood was distinguished by a generally secular nature of institutes (as far as they can be talked of at all) and public administration methods.

Naturally, the last statement does not imply the secularity of the state but means emancipation of real political power from its religious origins. Since approximately the 10th century (the Buwayhid period) the Abbasid caliph had reserved the exclusive function to legitimate the power of real rulers – at first, Buwayhid amir al-umara’ (commanders) and, later, Seljuk sultans.

At the same time, it can imply the concept of Islamic statehood, to which IS, in fact, refers. This concept developed in works of Muslim legal scholars was not, in its main part, designated to describe the existence of political reality and was not a result of it. For thinkers who elaborated it, it was not about teaching the ruler how to rule better (for this purpose, a genre of “mirrors for princes”– specula principum – was used) and not about explaining the power phenomenon, in which philosophers were interested, but about describing a righteous state as it had been meant by the sacred texts of Islam. It is not an accident that the key work devoted to Islamic statehood, Al-Ahkam as-Sultaniyyah (“The Laws of Islamic Governance”), was written by Al-Mawardi as late as the 11th century, when a single caliphate no longer existed.

It appears that today one can identify several elements of the Islamic statehood concept, which have the most significant impact on the project proposed by IS and explain its differences from the idea of nation state – ummah (umma), imam (imam), dawla (dawla), bay’ah (bay’a) and jihad (jihad).

First, the Islamic State is not a nation state because an ummah, in its medieval meaning, is not a nation. As noted by Palestinian and Egyptian thinker Tamim al-Barghouti, “physical existence of individuals is called an ummah when these individuals have an image of themselves as a collective, and when this image is guiding them to do things in certain ways distinct from others”. Thus, in contrast to a nation, in its “biological” sense, an ummah is not a natural phenomenon. But nor is it an imaginary community resulting from the socio-economic development of society – in contrast to the “social” meaning of a nation. An ummah, which implies spiritual and ideological affinity, may be determined by neither its settlement territory, nor its numerousness (Prophet Ibrahim was initially an ummah just by himself), nor its political organization. If the sense of nationhood requires the acquisition of statehood, the ummah will need political arrangements solely due to practical necessity, but the absence of the state will not result in its degradation or disappearance.

However, on top of everything else, an ummah is a community following its imam, whose function is fundamentally different from that of the leader of a nation state: “Imamate is to replace (li-caliphate) prophecy in the defense of faith and the administration of the world (ad-dunya),” al-Mawardi wrote in the 11th century.

The imam (in the Sunni theory) is neither a sovereign, nor a legislator, nor a judge. He is rather a coordinator whose aim is to watch over the observance of interpretations of the sacred texts recognized by the community of religious and legal scholars, an administrator, a teacher and a role model for Muslims following him along the path of faith and, thus, forming an ummah. It is for this very reason that the absence of the imam weakens the ummah and renders it incomplete.

In political terms, al-Mawardi identifies ten main functions of the imam, and this list largely corresponds to the entire Sunni tradition. Most of these functions, although requiring political action, have religious justification or designation: to ensure religious lawfulness, to apply punishments established by God to defend the rights of believers, to protect the House of Islam (Dar al-Islam), to fight those who refuse to become Muslims, to raise taxes (in accordance with the Islamic Sharia), to appoint believers and law-abiding men to official posts, to manage the ummah, and to protect faith. In addition, there are two purely administrative duties: to secure border regions and to determine the treasury revenue and expenditure in a reasonable manner; and one purely religious – to support religion.

In the Sunni tradition, the imam may not be elected but should be appointed directly by his predecessor or the community of religious scholars or should seize the power.

Although the imam is the leader of an ummah rather than a state (dawla), he, in fact, acts within the framework of the latter.

However, the Islamic State is not a state proper, also because a dawla, in its medieval sense, is actually not a state. Dawla is a secular organization of the ummah from which it receives its legitimacy. In the classic period of Islamic history, to which the spiritual sentiment of IS refers, dawla meant primarily a dynasty, not a territory. Dawla is an initially temporary and sufficiently flexible establishment, which is not territorial and sovereignty is not its characteristic because, as it belongs to God, it is delegated by God to the ummah, by the ummah to the imam, and by the imam to rulers of lower ranks. As a result, dawla constitutes a polity, or a potestary system, which is, in principle, multi-leveled and capable of organizing itself based on the network principle. Thus, for example, the Abbasid Caliphate was a dawla (and it was called not caliphate but Abbasid dawla, or House of Islam) as were its constituent kingdoms of Tulunids and Tahirids. Volga Bulgaria which had no actual connections with the caliphate was also viewed by Baghdad as part of this dawla, because it was the Abbasid caliph who was the source of its legitimacy.

In the modern world, dawla is not usurped by IS – in a certain sense, the southern regions of Libya controlled by Hezbollah, the Palestinian territories controlled by Hamas, and internal areas of the “great” Sahara controlled by nomadic tribes, all constitute a dawla  within the medieval meaning of the term. Having considerable political independence, they certainly weaken the nation statehood in the region.

A critical element of the IS statehood is bay’ah, an oath of allegiance given by certain social groups and individuals to the imam. It is bay’ah that ensures the connection between the ummah and imam and its real sovereignty. Furthermore, bay’ah exists in modern Arab monarchies, ensuring traditional legitimacy of rulers.

As to jihad, in accordance with the ideas of Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia described in their well-known document “Our Ethos and Our Program” and following the radical Salafi tradition, it is understood as armed combat with those who refuse to convert to Islam, being a personal duty of each Muslim and one of the principles of religion (Usul ad-Din). Therefore, a refusal to be engaged in jihad results in takfir, an accusation of apostasy.

Thus, the political order proposed by IS should, a priori, be free from certain weaknesses of the existing model of statehood. In theory (but not in practice), the Islamic State may not have problems with incompleteness of the nation-building project because it rejects the very idea of nation. It also seems unable to have problems with its legitimacy deficit and sovereignty because its legitimacy comes from God and its sovereignty covers the entire Muslim ummah. As for institutional development, the fragmented nature of society and other problems faced by modern states in the region, they are questions of political practice rather than religious theory.


Seeking to establish firm control over the territories, IS has to earn loyalty of the local population and, hence, perform robust social activities (payment of salaries, charitable campaigns, construction of infrastructure facilities, law enforcement, etc.). The fact that IS brings, although very cruel and distorted but still understandable, order based on the well-known rules, ensures that it will receive support from the (surviving) population tired of anarchy and the chaos of war.

Social activities force IS to improve the structure and methods of administration. Thus, al-Baghdadi was proclaimed caliph, he has two deputies, a cabinet of ministers, and the rulers of twelve vilayets are subordinated to him. The active participation of former officers from Saddam’s elite enables the organization’s leaders to use their administrative experience.

At the same time, religious elements occupy a considerable place in the management structure: the Consultative Council (shura), which verifies the administration’s decisions for their compliance with the Sharia principles, as well as the Sharia court and the Council of Muftis.

Many modern government institutions in IS receive a religious interpretation. For example, IS social services are managed by the Department of Muslim Services. On the whole, it can be stated that in the process of its institutional establishment as a state, IS synthetizes elements of a nation state and the archaic nature of Islam, which make it neo-modernist.

While in institutional terms such synthesis helps build a certain imitation of real statehood, it creates new controversies in other terms.

Thus, the idea of territorial statehood (in Syria and Iraq) in the Islamic State is naturally coherent with the non-territoriality of dawla, because many jihadist groups all over the world declared themselves subjects of caliph al-Baghdadi and IS branches. While the nature of relations between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and its branches is not quite clear, they can be described within the paradigm of the ummah-dawla relationship and, in a completely Western manner, as franchising.

The duality of territorial identity of IS results eventually in the split of the organization into pragmatists oriented towards the strengthening of the political entity in a limited territory and romanticists pursuing indefinite expansion. However, such a split can hardly be viewed as a factor weakening IS, because the organization has an evident opportunity to export romanticists to the IS branches all over the world.

The archaic and modern values are combined in state-building in a bizarre way, too. On the one hand, the Islamic egalitarianism, the idea of ummah unity forces IS to foster prevention of the ethnic and tribal heterogeneity of society in the territories it controls (naturally, after all infidels have been eliminated). On the other hand, solving the problem through confessionalism creates new dividing lines.

All these bizarre and quite modernist entwinements are supplemented by the Islamic State’s active information activities aimed at spreading the organization’s influence in the world.

Thus, today the Islamic State is only able to solve the problem of external manifestations of the statehood crisis – to restore institutions and renew the socioeconomic contract between society and the state, reinforce its sovereignty over the limited territory, and solve border-related problems. However it is obvious that none of these problems has been fully solved or can be solved within the framework of the model being built.

The created institutions and the economic basis of the social contract, being as exotic as they are, may provide a solution for the time of jihad and continuous expansion; however, they must be reviewed in order to maintain daily living activities of a normal state. Of course, there is certain irony of history here, because to achieve this IS members will have to repeat the path of the Umayyads and the early Islamic statehood in general, the creation of which as statehood and not as a conquering polity was connected with the cessation of expansion during the Abd al-Malik caliphate. At that time, as it is known, the inability to adapt resulted in the Abbasid revolution and the split of the Caliphate. 

It is also not quite clear how the sovereignty issue is addressed today – bay’ah is still quite a weak instrument of reinforcement for partially modernized societies. It is clear that, at first sight, the IS government can control a certain (and considerably large) territory; however, it is unknown how deeply and strictly they control it. It makes the statement of sovereignty even more doubtful, given that the state is not recognized by the world community (since it has been recognized as a terrorist organization).

As for the borders and territorial and administrative order, the network structures, franchising systems and non-territorial nature certainly sound very romantic. However, in practice one can speak of the true Islamic State only in the Syrian and Iraqi territory. For other territories, it is rather some kind of branding, which reveals a unique situation in each individual case. For example, in Libya the Islamic State is, in its essence, a convenient form of self-presentation and consolidation of a number of small tribes. In fact, the unity of the Syrian and Iraqi area also raises many doubts, partly because of the Iraqi domination in the IS administrative structure.

Finally, the situation in the Islamic State is even worse when it comes to solving profound statehood problems. The idea of a united Islamic nation is certainly poetic, however it can be attractive only for a limited number of enthusiasts, mainly from the Western Islamic pseudo-ummah, but it takes no account of the existing regional identities, which, in real social practices, are usually more important than confessional. Furthermore, insofar as it relates to the Syrian and Iraqi population, they are forced to join IS to avoid horrible conditions of war and simply because they have no choice. The situation is the same with young people from many Arab countries who join IS not to fight for religious ideas but because of disappointment with their own states. “There is no justice, no freedom, and no future” are the words one can hear from youngsters in the poor regions of Tunisia who have decided to join IS, where they think they can find all this. In this discourse, freedom and justice are understood quite specifically – as freedom from humiliation and alienation by the state.

These young people believe that IS provides an opportunity to overcome social and political fragmentation – IS elites do not usurp power, and they are authentic. However, in practice, this has so far been achieved solely through repressions and genocide of social groups, while the need for development, strengthening of sovereignty (if IS survives all other “if’s”) and institutions will require a stronger repressive system torn off from society to an even greater extent than in other Arab countries. So, IS will most likely have difficulty overcoming the fragmented nature of society.

Regarding institutions, the Islamic State is creating government institutions  while civil ones are completely nonexistent. Such a situation can continue only during the war.

Nevertheless, despite all obvious weaknesses of IS as a state-building project, one cannot deny that it is very attractive for a certain number of people living in the region. In all appearances, this attractiveness is associated not with the confessional nature of the state itself and, certainly, not with the cruelty of its policy, but with the abovementioned seeming authenticity of the Islamic State.