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18 February 2015


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Charles I

Thank you Adam for expanding on this very important article. I'd just like to remember and thank whoever first posted the link and got me going on about it. I was particularly enthralled by the Return of Jesus - on the side of the Caliphate - at the Battle of Dabiq.

Notice how the cradle of civilization is to be its grave? What are we on now, the 7th iteration of the original Sumerian creation myth?


I read Mr. Woods article this morning and I agree that it an important one and will hopefully be the basis for some intelligent discussions about what to do with this group. One problem will be whether policy makers will pay attention.

Babak Makkinejad

Adam L Silverman:

The PDF file that you have linked is a step in the right direction in my opinion.

But it is not going to persuade anyone within ISIS leadership or rank-and-file; in my opinion.

They are like the Protestants of Islam, claiming that they can understand Revelation without the aide of tradition or reason.

-Iranian Pilgrim to Mecca: We believe that Quran has to be interpreted.

-Blind Arab Sheikh: We do not.

-Iranian Pilgrim to Mecca: Quran states that "the Blind cannot see God..."

-Blind Arab Sheikh: starts swearing at him...

Adam L Silverman


I think a good, though by no means perfect, analogy is to the Protestantism of Cromwell and the Puritans. While the comparison isn't perfect, and we have too small a sample for making proper truth claims, I think there is a life course to monotheism. I think there are plausible, if imperfect, analogies between Luther and the group of Egyptian and Egyptian based clerics and scholars (al Afghani for instance) in regards to the original Protestant reform movement and the earliest of the modern Islamic reform movements. The second generation of Islamic reformers/revivalists were similar to where Calvin conceptually took Protestantism. The third generation, who sought to get to the future through establishing an idealized past, are similar to where Knox was trying to take the Reformation. Finally, the intention to violently impose a community of truly faithful, such as we now see with ISIS and largely saw with al Qaeda, is somewhat parallel to Cromwell's movement. None of these are perfect comparisons, but it may be that what we're seeing are essentially part of the human dimension or social component of religion as it ages.



This is a splendid piece of analysis with fascinating historical analogies. One possible conclusion to be drawn, is that a focused effort should be made to inflict a highly visible, humiliating defeat on ISIL. Where and how? I'm just offering policy guidance, operations are somebody else's responsibility.

I can think of only one partial historical exception to the iron law of millennial movements' disintegration. It is early Christianity. All of the early Apostles and their followers believed that the Second Coming/Judgment Day/the Apocalypse were coming soon - in their lifetimes. That is why they elided so many theological and organizational questions for decades. It was only at the end of the 1st Century that a few leaders promoted the idea of a giving the movement a structure. I believe it was the self-appointed 'Bishop' of Antioch who was in the forefront. By the middle of the second century, the building of the Church was well under way - and based on the centralized Roman model. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon (Lugdunum) and polemicist supreme, targeted the Gnostics above all because they could not be disciplined theologically or organizationally. The Church literally wiped them out by the early 4th Century.

Perhaps al-Baghdadi instinctively recognizes this challenge and, therefore, has pushed the idea of a Caliphate for the very purpose of creating an enduring structure if the earth doesn't open and devour the nonbelievers.

Babak Makkinejad

Thank you for your comments and analogies.

I think, if we go by analogical thinking, we have to conclude that ISIS, Jihadism, neo-Salafism etc. will be with us for decades.

Hopefully, the level of atrocity in places such as Nigeria and Pakistan, in the name of Islam, will force mainstream scholars and leaders as well as the laymen to explicitly name and shame those barbaric people. In turn, this could trigger off some movement in mainstream Islam towards a more open model (of thinking and behaving).

One would hope that this could be a bit like European nationalism. Since the NAZIs, extreme forms of nationalism based on overtly ethnic notions have become 'haram', to use the Islamic term. Some good has thus come out of that monstrous episode in Europe's history. People say: "That's where it can lead if you push things too far," and it is true.

I must add that this whole thing reminds me of the Boxer Rebellion - which could be considered as a very raw expression of Chinese resistance to foreign domination.


Exactly who are you referring to as "scum" who should all be killed? All 1.6 billion Muslims? The President? I think you sound far worse than any of them


Thanks accepted. And my thanks to Adam Silverman for the follow up. Interesting analysis.

David Habakkuk

Adam Silverman,

I think this is a truly admirable piece.

It may also be interesting to reflect on secular millenarianisms, such as Nazism. In MI6, the unit which collated and interpreted the decrypts of Abwehr communications was run by Hugh Trevor-Roper, a classicist turned historian of seventeenth-century Europe.

The radical difference between the conservatism of the General Staff of the Wehrmacht, and the nihilistic millenarianism of much of the Nazi leadership, was something of which he was intensely aware – and unsuccessfully attempted to get Churchill to exploit.

Your central point about the fragility of messianic cults may be of interest here, in relation alike to what happened after the war, what happened during it, and also what happened before it.

If one believed that Hitler was, in essence, simply deploying the black arts of 'mass politics', as pioneered by the Bolsheviks, in support of traditional German conservative aims, then certain conclusions naturally followed.

The appropriate response was then indeed 'appeasement', and, ironically, an awareness of the elements of instability in Hitler's personality, and in his regime, strengthened the case.

It was natural to conclude that it would be the height of folly to blunder into a war to prevent the reincorporation of the Sudetenland into Germany – and also that this was what Litvinov, with his honeyed words about 'collective security' was trying get you to do.

If however one saw Hitler as a nihilistic millenarian cultist, then precisely the reverse conclusions followed. The inevitable effect of 'appeasement' would be to hand Hitler precisely the kinds of successes on which a cult thrives.

Moreover, implicit in the argument you make about the fragility of such cults is the possibility that, paradoxically, the leader of one might have quite 'rational reasons' for playing 'va banque', as indeed Hitler said he had always done.

A system dependent – as that of Nazi Germany was – on the ability of a millenarian cult to involve the nation as a whole in the worship of a 'charismatic' leader, continually reinforced by 'kitsch' triumphs, may be able to stabilise itself, but may not.

The leader may sense that to abandon the 'Flucht nach vorn' would mean that his system would collapse, and take him with it.

In the event, the cult of Hitler held up, remarkably well, for most of the war. However – in keeping with what your argument about fragility would suggest – contrary to what many in the West feared, it essentially died with him.

The possibility that a coup against Hitler – such as Trevor-Roper was trying to encourage – would simply lead to a new 'stab in the back' myth, and thus obscure the catastrophic nature of Nazism, posed intractable problems for those among the German conservatives who wanted to engineer such a coup.

It remains, in my view, a major reason for thinking the strategies of 'absolute silence' and 'unconditional surrender' were right. But then, the price paid for the total defeat of Germany was to frustrate any possibility of limiting the damage Nazism could do.

And this, of course, included the inconceivable carnage throughout Europe, the culminating stages of the Holocaust, and the coming of Soviet power into the heart of Europe.

Patrick Bahzad

It would be too long to get into all the differences and commonalities that could be pointed out, but Protestantism first of all is a wide mixture of Churches, starting with the most ancient one of them all, the Waldesian Church, which started in 1170, about 350 years before the Reformation … It is still present in the Alpine Valleys of Northern Italy and is part of the "Community of Protestant Churches in Europe". There were also other attempts at reforming the church, dating back to a period before Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg (Wycliffe and Hus for example). Just a side note, pointing to the diversity existing within what we refer to as Protestantism.

The Reformation as such is not just characterized by a return to the fundamentals of the Holy Scriptures, i.e. only the Bible is sacred as expression of the Revelation, and tradition is rejected not because it may be an interpretation of the Bible, but because it is considered to add elements to it that were not there in the first place. In particular, it should be noted that many of Luther's theses had to do with practises he rejected within the Catholic Church, which – he argued – had been corrupted in numerous ways.

Another aspect of Protestant thinking is that it meant a modernization and innovation with regard to scripture, which was translated in vernacular language, i.e. German, French and others, and used during sermons, while it was the Catholic Church that insisted on keeping the Bible in latin for mass, thus remaining closer to the original way Christianity had been built in the West (not getting into dogmatic differences with the Orthodox church in the East Roman Empire, as that would make it even more complicated, even if only taking into consideration events after the Schism of 1054).

But Protestantism was thus a movement going both ways: back to the Scripture and the fundamentals, but also allowing for a a much wider diversity of creeds and variations in the faith professed by the main Reformers, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli or Melanchthon. The various sub-groups that were born out of the reformist movements of these "founding fathers" sometimes didn't have many things in common, from a purely religious point of view. This diversification of the Protestant creeds has even been enhanced with the discovery of the New World, where small protestant minorities that were being persecuted in their home country used to escape to.

Overall, the main mistake when making the comparison between 16th Reform being the Christian version of Islamic return to fundamentals (i.e. fundamentalism) is to forget that Protestantism is not based on the religious drive to rescucitate a "golden age" that had existed in the past and that it's actually an aggregate of very very different Churches, many of them having actually more in common with Catholicism than with other Protestant churches.


"Working to peel the tribes away from ISIS and organize them to fight against ISIS, provides one very workable portion of any potential counter-ISIS strategy."

The obvious problem here is that this practically means arming them to enable them to defend themselves against IS predations.

That did work against AQI with the 'Sons of Iraq', and may well work again against IS.

It also is conditional on the Shia overvoming their habitual revulsion against armed Sunnis. The Shia government in Baghdad has a demonstrated aversion against Sunni. They already dropped support fro the tribes once, and then persecuted them.

That's a second problem right there.

And to make things messier, Shia concerns about armed Sunni are not all that unfounded. I understand that, historically, to Shia (farmers) in Iraq, armed Sunni (herders) are what a Wolf is to Sheep - a threat (that predates Saddam).

Is that understanding accurate?

Can the Sunni be armed while addressing the fears by Baghdad? Will the Baghdad government (permanently) accept a more federalised structure in which they have limited control over the Sunni areas (that said, at a certain point they probably have no choice but to accept realities)?


Adam Silvermen

A couple of factual points:

1- Ijma' exists within the jihadi groups as well. The acceptance by the followers of the leader's opinion as to what is Islam IS ijma'. 2- There are no longer any "mujtahids" in Sunni Islam. That "gate" among the roots of the law was closed in the early Abbasid Caliphate. The "mujtahids" today are all in Shia Islam. pl


What are the eschatological expectations of the Sunni jihadis like IS and Nusra? They do not await the "return" of the Shia mahdi and the accompanying end of days. Their mahdi is a much less angelic figure. He is rather a great leader come from among them to help create a kingdom of the godly here on earth. These wahhabi jihadis detest the elevated spirituality of the Sufis, any devotion to saints and other popular features of religion such a local pilgrimage. For them the struggle is to build a kingdom of perfect obedience to what they see as God's law is all. What is it that they are going to be disappointed about? The Dabiq Prophecy? Ah, well then we can avoid the village of Dabiq and they will be crushed with disappointment. No, perhaps we should welcome such a battle. Millennial Christians waited on mountain tops in 999 AD for the end of the world. We got over it. pl

Patrick Bahzad

First of all, thx to Tigershark for posting the link, and thx to Adam for doing a critical essay on the Atlantic's piece about ISIS.

I've read it in full now and overall (Woods' article I mean), and I would tend to disagree with any assessment qualifying it as "good". It is interesting in certain regards, but the impression it left me with, was that I was reading a reasonably well researched high school paper, whose best part was the quote it gave at the end (fascism according to Orwell), even though there was some sense of inevitability about that sort of ending … the recurring and misguiding comparison and reference to islamo-fascism, even under the disguise of an Orwellian quote !

One of the weakest parts about the whole article is that it stays very much on the surface of things and Woods analyses what he considers ISIS theology at face value, never questioning it under the premises of the actual buildup of ISIS and the Caliphate, where secularist baathist members are very prominent and may have a different agenda, in the end, than the salafi/takfiri element within the organisation. I'm not saying he should have based his analysis of such issues, but mentioning them would have been wise, such could be the tensions between both these ideological constructs.

Now regarding the article itself, I think it focuses way too much on the apocalyptic dimension he sees in ISIS, which may be related to the author's own Christian cultural background than to beliefs actually held by a majority of ISIS affiliates. There are also a number of fundamentally flawed assessments, such as stating that there are "essential differences" between ISIS and Al Qaeda, from a theological point of view. This is flat out wrong, there are different approaches maybe, but fundamentally both organisations have a lot more in common in their beliefs than what Woods suggests. That there may be colliding egos and considerations related to power politics is another issue.

The author also seems to have only a very superficial idea about the history of Islam and about the basic principles of the various currents within Islam itself. Writing, like Woods does, that "the Islamic State promulgates laws" is total non-sense. The laws to which the Islamic State abides to are basically the laws of Allah, as expressed through the Revelation of the Quran and the words of the Prophet. There's no other human made law possible. That would already be apostasy.

The historic references or descriptions given in the article also point to lack of background in history of the Middle-East, both past and present.

Regarding past events, Woods tries to make it clear for example that 18th century Wahhabism was born in a totally Muslim environment – Woods' words – while early Muslims were surrounded by non-Muslims. It would be interesting to know if Woods realizes that the Saudi Wahhabis also considered themselves to be living not surrounded by Muslims, but with 'Shia' apostates next door, in the East and North of the Arab peninsula.

The Saudi Wahhabi attack on Karbala for example, in 1802, certainly wasn't considered by its perpetrators to be an attack on other Muslims ! They certainly would not have considered the Shia Qarmatians to be Muslims, and when they went on the rampage in Bahrein, they probably still had the pillaging of Mekka and Medina of 930 in mind, when the Qarmatians took the Kaaba and brought it back to Hajar. An all Muslim Arabia in the 18th century ? Certainly not to the House of Saud !

Regarding the understanding of the current situation, Woods' article is literally riddled with doubtful assumptions, factual mistakes and partial assessments, that largely forget to mention the role of the West – in particular the US – in the current process of fragmentation of the Middle-East. Unfortunately half-truths and omissions never make for a good estimation and outlook on things.

Woods states for example that ISIS' ambitions were evident as soon as 2011. He adds that back then the group hadn't committed mass atrocities yet. In August 2009 for example, ISIS – then still ISI – bombed the Iraqi foreign and finance ministries, killing over 100 and injuring 600. ISI claimed responsibility for these bombings. On October 25th 2009, ISI car bombs killed 150 and injured over 700 in Baghdad again. And finally, last example, in December of the same year, multiple car bombs by ISI killed around 130 and left over 400 injured. How can a supposedly well informed journalist twist the truth so much to fit his narrative ?

Woods' ignorance about some if ISIS origins and Abubakr Al-Baghdadi's resume in particular also are cause for several misguided asssessments of government action against him. The example of hostage Peter Kassig and the attempted intercession by Salafi preacher Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi is very telling in that regard. Woods is very critical about the idea to reach out to ISIS and its Caliph through al-Maqdisi, stating this may have provoked the hostage's death. What he forgets to mention – maybe he doesn't know – was that this was a last resort move, based on the personal links existing between al-Maqdisi and al-Baghdadi: indeed, before the US invasion, al-Baghdadi was preaching in a mosque in Samarra and studied the writings of al-Maqdisi, whom he deeply admired. Trying to reach out to the leader of ISIS himself through al-Maqdisi may look as a mistake in hindsight, but it was totally understandable it the time it was attempted.

The last part of Woods article is probably the one that reveals best the lack of understanding of the author for the situation in the Middle-East in general, and its implications in terms of international law or balance of power. Woods suggests for example that militarily occupying parts of Syria (and Iraq) would overpower the Caliphate. One might argue that Iraq could, under certain circumstances, appeal for an international coalition to help oust ISIS, although this is a very unlikely prospect, but it is totally out of the equation in the case of Syria.

As far as I know, Syria is still a sovereign State, and short of UN-resolution, invading and oocupying parts of the country would be tantamount to a breach of international law, which neither Russia nor Iran would accept … It would be like operation "Iraqi Freedom" only ten times worse. But these considerations are not even voiced in the article.

The fact that ISIS occupies a territory with about 8 millions people, situated partly in the "Fertile Crescent" (ISIS controls about 40 % of Iraqi wheat production), pretty rich in oil fields, as well as phosphate and gas reserves worth 2 000 billion US dollars, should have encouraged the author to be more careful when branding the Caliphate as "mostly inhabited and poor".

Finally, Woods should ask himself wether his candour is not tantamount to being totally naïve when he declares that "neither the Kurds nor the Shia will ever subdue the Sunni heartland of Syria and Iraq […] but they can keep the Islamic State from fulfilling its duty to expand". Maybe he should wonder whether that wasn't the whole idea in the first place !

William R. Cumming

Thanks Dr. Silverman for IMO excellent analysis!

I do have fundamental problems with religions that are grounded in the APOCOLYPSE or ARMAGEDDON. Why? In some ways all human religions struggle with the notion of what next. Many if not most scientists think that the PLANET EARTH now is in the middle of the sixth great extinction and certainly space science has really started to understand the threat to the existence of LIFE ON EARTH from asteroids. So a contrary faith, that humans will survive may well be just that not based on reason.

In the meantime however humanity on the planet EARTH must organize to the extent possible to survive. IMO Dr. Malthus was probably correct in his analysis in the long run [and he failed to understand or predict how willing humans are to poison PLANET EARTH]!

My thesis is that humanity and governments must cooperate and collaborate for human survival to have some chance.

In order to have that happen there must be honesty and openness in the FP of nations. As to what happens inside existing national boundries we must be clear in our analysis.

The principal tenet of ISLAM is not conducive to rationalism or secularism. Christianity struggled for over 300 years with the battle between faith and reason which has not ended even in that religion.

The real driver for the following extracted language in Amendment I to the U.S. Constitution: "CONGRESS SHALL MAKE NO LAW RESPECTING ESTABLISHMENT OF RELIGION, OR PROHIBITING THE FREE EXERCISE THEREOF; . . ." was to protect a government by the people, from the people, and for the people from religions that might be established past, present, or future.

NAZISM and COMMUNISM IMO were and are religions. Islam IMO also mandates a totalitarian outcome. Am I wrong?

Babak Makkinejad

Thank you for your comments.

To me, the salient common feature between Protestants and the Neo-Salafis/Wahabis has been this rejection of the Tradition and the requirement for the interpretation of the Revelations.

Furthermore, I should think that both groups sought religious purity and deep deep piety; another common feature.


Might it be possible to focus on a particular prediction or prophecy that ISIS has made overtly and repeatedly in social media, and take them up on their claim? An anti-ISIS coalition could present a compiled declaration of prophecy by ISIS, then set about very publicly "testing" said claim. The trick would be to focus on the claim, and not the prophecy itself.

A raid on Dabiq perhaps, wherein ISIS is kicked out of the place, the town is defended for a time, while the caliph is taunted into showing up to fulfill his claim to prophecy - then a departure when it becomes clear that, out of cowardice, he will not? This is obviously just my sophomoric attempt to come up with such a scenario, but I think something along these lines might be useful to discredit ISIS, in particular among Western recruits. Naturally the folks already participating in the doomsday cult would find a way to explain it away, but doesn't Adam's analysis at least mean that ISIS would be pretty vulnerable to such "strategic trolling," as it were?

Adam L Silverman


This is why I said that the analogs were imperfect. While it is true that the Lutheran reforms were not intended to get back to an idealized golden age, later developments in Protestantism did seek to do just that. In fact some of the made in America variants and developments have tried to do so as well. I'm honestly not married to this idea. Every time I've sat down and started to think about it seriously and considering pulling the research and source material needed to really do a deep dive I come to the conclusion that I might be right, I might be wrong, but I definitely am not sure that I could make an argument that is definitive enough to prove my point. This is partially due to the fact that what I think is support for my argument, could like be used against it. Overall I do think that social movements, and religions are social movements, do have a life course. Whether they're unique and individual to specific sects or denominations at certain times and places or whether there are some generalizable patterns, is, I think, a research and analysis project that is close to impossible.

Adam L Silverman

Professer Brenner,

Thank you - that is high praise indeed. I think your point about the early Christianity is a good one. There were, however, several of the early Jesus' communities that did not make it. Some of these were observed by larger more powerful groups, others like the Ebionim were put down by the early Pauline hierarchy after they lost the protection of Judaism for being seen as finally pushing too far from what was acceptable at that stage of Judaism's development from a temple and priestly based tradition to a synagogue/rabbinic/prayer based religion.

Adam L Silverman

Mr. Habakkuk,

I think the comparison to the millenarian components of NAZIism is interesting. Especially, the internal debates within British leadership over what to do and how to approach things. I think, however, the major difference with ISIS is that 1) they aren't in any real position to capture a functioning state or create one. Professor Juan Cole did a good piece on this the other day, also partially in response to the Woods' article. One of the reasons that ISIS has been as successful as its been in Syria and Iraq is that it has been able to exploit ungoverned or poorly governed spaces in those countries that resulted from existing internal conflict - the Syrian Civil War and the ongoing inter-Sectarian conflict in Iraq and 2) I don't actually see anyone recommending appeasement.

Everything else - I think you're spot on.

Adam L Silverman


On item #1 complete agreement. I was asked by a friend to also do a post on this topic for his site and I hammered this point in that one - I was trying not to just write the same post twice. As for point #2 - I actually learned to use the term to cover all ulama when an undergraduate. For some reason that was the term that was used in the ME Studies program I was in at the time - it has stuck, but I'll work to confine it to Shi'a scholars and jurists from now on.

Adam L Silverman


That's a good question. It is clearly not the Shi'a mahdi, hidden Imam stuff. Other than the Woods' article this week and his shorter article on ISIS in 2014, the only research and analysis I've found that refers to this - as in a report from someone at a research institution, not a media report - online or traditional, is a Brookings posting by Will McCants from last OCT. What McCants is relaying and analyzing, and which Woods seems to have picked up on from McCants' work, is that members of ISIS and those in support of ISIS are spending time on social media, especially twitter, talking about the Dabiq Prophecy. This prophecy, attributed to the Prophet, apparently calls for a decisive battle between the Umma and the forces of Rome at Dabiq in Syria. Here's the rub - I can't find a decent, mainstream accounting or recounting of the prophecy online. Certainly nothing with an isnad attached to it. What I do find is an Institute for the Study of War report on it from last August, a number of British news reports on it between August and December, which quickly got mirrored in those portions of the American online world that use Muslim today they way they would've used Communist in the late 1950s if they'd been in business back then... I've emailed a former cultural advisor counterpart of mine. He's not only a naturalized Muslim American with a PhD in economics, he's got an advanced degree in Islamic Law and Theology. When I hear back from him, I'll update. The more I dig into this, the stranger it seems.



"For some reason that was the term that was used in the ME Studies program" Many academic programs in ME studies are run by the ignorant. pl

William R. Cumming

P.B.! An extremely interesting and informative comment! My knowledge base of religions generally and Islam specifically a thin gruel. Although I do believe in Jesus Christ, the Saviour.

One question? Does ISIS believe in ethnic cleansing?

William R. Cumming

P.L.! ALL: Am I correct that whatever their merits less than one dozen existed prior to 9/11?

Is there a consensus in the M.E. academic programs
as to the motivations of the 9/11 deceased perps?

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