Divine Test or Divine Punishment? Explaining Islamic State Losses

Since it began losing territory in Iraq and Syria in 2016, the Islamic State’s official line for explaining its losses has been that God is subjecting the believers to a test or trial (tamhis, ibtila’). The theme was introduced in May 2016 by Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, the Islamic State’s official spokesman until his death later that year, in an audio address recalling the struggles of the Islamic State of Iraq between 2006 and 2012. Al-‘Adnani reminded listeners of “God’s practice of testing and trying the mujahidin,” hinting that more of the same lay in store. In October 2016, an editorial in the Islamic State’s official Arabic weekly, al-Naba’, spoke similarly of God’s habit of “trying the believers with misfortune and hardship … before God’s victory will descend upon them.”

In other words, so the message goes, take heart and despair not, for the divine tribulation will surely pass and the triumphant march toward final victory will resume. As Abu al-Hasan al-Muhajir, al-‘Adnani’s successor as speaker, put it in a speech in April 2017: “If we are dispossessed of a city or an area or a village, this is only the testing and trying of the Muslim community, in order that the ranks may be purified and the filth expunged.” Thereafter, he said, God will give victory to the believers and, as prophesied, they will go on to conquer the world.

To most members and supporters of the Islamic State, this message might be persuasive enough. But not all are on board. Indeed, a large number have pushed back spiritedly against the notion that their suffering is somehow a divine test, accusing the Islamic State of being responsible for the present travails. According to them, what we are witnessing is not a divine test so much as a divine punishment. The Islamic State’s leadership, in this view, erred badly, indulging ideological extremism, corruption, and oppression, thus incurring God’s wrath. The two explanations for the Islamic State’s losses are thus the trial thesis and the oppression thesis. As the Islamic State prepares to cede its final pocket of territory in eastern Syria, the adherents of the latter may be growing.

The oppression thesis takes form

The oppression thesis dates back to at least summer 2017, when two Islamic State scholars composed letters setting out a litany of complaints against the caliphate’s leadership. The two letters, by Abu Muhammad al-Husayni al-Hashimi and Abu ‘Abd al-Malik al-Shami, respectively, were described in an earlier post, and since have been translated by Aymenn Al-Tamimi (see here and here). As will be recalled, these men were reacting to a series of developments involving the promulgation of a memorandum on takfir (excommunication) seen by the scholarly class as too extreme and the subsequent death of several scholars who objected to it. Yet their concerns went beyond the immediate context of the takfir dispute.

Al-Hashimi questioned the Islamic State’s very claim to be following “the prophetic methodology,” arguing that “oppressors, ignoramuses, and innovators” had taken over the caliphate while Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was nowhere to be seen. Al-Shami complained similarly of “oppressive, errant, deficient, and extremist commanders” who had seized the reins of power in the caliph’s absence. Both claimed that these leaders were advancing a Kharijite ideology, referring to the early Islamic sect famous for its extremism in takfir. In al-Shami’s words, the Islamic State was “exchanging its religion for the religion of the Kharijites,” while dissenters were being imprisoned or killed.

As a result, according to the two letter-writers, the Islamic State’s worldly fortunes were being affected. God was punishing the pseudo-caliphate. “Do you not have a reminder and an admonition in all these dreadful events and calamities that are befalling the Islamic State?” al-Hashimi asked al-Baghdadi, quoting Qur’an 6:42: “Indeed, We sent to nations before thee, and We seized them with misery and hardship that haply they might be humble.” Al-Shami was equally strident on this score. “Indeed,” he wrote, “what the Islamic State is going through today is not a test, as the misleading media lead us to believe. Rather it is a substitution”—a reference to God’s threats in the Qur’an (9:39, 47:38) to “substitute another people instead of you.”

For both writers, a key piece of evidence was a statement made by Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani back in April 2014, in a speech defending what was then the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. In the speech, al-‘Adnani beseeched God to punish the Islamic State if it veered toward extremism. “O God,” he exclaimed,

if this state be a state of Kharijites, then break its back, kill its leaders, bring down its flag, and guide its soldiers to the truth. O God, and if it be a state of Islam, ruling by Your book and the practice of Your prophet and waging jihad against your enemies, then fortify it, empower it, make it victorious, establish it in the land, and make it a caliphate on the prophetic methodology.

In the eyes of al-Hashimi and al-Shami, God’s reply to al-‘Adnani was abundantly clear. The signs of His disfavor were everywhere and irrefutable. “Indeed, I see the confirmation of this entreaty being realized before us,” al-Hashimi commented. “We have seen clearly how al-‘Adnani’s entreaty … was answered,” wrote al-Shami. The extremist and oppressive functionaries appointed by al-Baghdadi were getting their comeuppance. And yet, as is God’s way, all were paying the price. Al-Shami quoted verse 8:25 of the Qur’an: “And fear a trial which shall surely not smite in particular the oppressors among you; and know that God is terrible in retribution.”

The oppression thesis gains steam

Even though al-Baghdadi retracted the controversial takfir memorandum in September 2017, in a sign of support for the scholars and their somewhat more nuanced position on takfir, the concerns voiced by al-Hashimi and al-Shami lingered among the scholars, unconvinced as they were that the leadership had truly changed. Over the next year and more, the scholars continued to air grievances of the same kind, and they continued to be imprisoned and killed. That the Islamic State was inviting punishment was a recurring theme in their remarks.

A major spokesperson for the oppression thesis was the Jordanian-born Abu Ya‘qub al-Maqdisi, for a time the head of the Islamic State’s Office of Research and Studies. In mid-March 2018, he addressed a letter to “those in authority” in which he elaborated his concerns and called on his correspondents to reform. Among other things, al-Maqdisi criticized them for imposing limits on the range of acceptable religious discourse, particularly as concerns takfir. In his view they had come “to equate themselves with God in commanding right and forbidding wrong,” which was to say they were usurping God’s sovereignty. Al-Maqdisi complained further of “the spread of innovations,” including “the throwing of accusations of unbelief and innovation without restriction,” and “the spread of oppression and violation of blood and property.” It was these transgressions, he submitted, that were to blame for the current troubles:

We are certain that the successive losses, defeats, and setbacks that have befallen this state are not the result of a shortage of numbers and materiel. Indeed, the cause of this is sin, which has drawn the wrath of the Almighty and the visitation of His retribution against us all.

Al-Maqdisi called on his correspondents to correct their errors, but the advice did not go over well. Repeatedly imprisoned in 2018, he was executed toward the end of the year on charges of apostasy.

Another Islamic State scholar who publicly espoused the oppression thesis was the Saudi Abu al-Mundhir al-Harbi. In a sermon during the siege of the Province of al-Raqqa (presumably late 2017), he said, “Indeed, this tribulation and this setback that we are passing through, we have no doubt that it is a punishment from God for what our hands have perpetrated … We have sinned and oppressed and grown arrogant.” It is necessary, al-Harbi continued, for us “to repent sincerely to God, to recognize that we have oppressed and transgressed and grown arrogant and haughty.”

Two other scholars to sing this tune were the North African Abu Mus‘ab al-Sahrawi and the blind Egyptian Abu ‘Isa al-Masri. In early summer 2018, al-Sahrawi delivered a sermon in eastern Syria excoriating the leadership for oppression and extremism. “What has befallen us,” he told his congregation, “what has broken our back, divided our authority, and empowered the enemies of God over us is oppression and extremism in religion.” According to the media group that uploaded the sermon online, al-Sahrawi was henceforward banned from preaching. Also speaking that summer, likely also in eastern Syria, al-Masri likened the Islamic State to a sinking ship. “Just as oppression and corruption sink the ship,” he said, “so extremism in religion sinks the ship as well.”


Distributing these works online is a collection of dissident media agencies comprising Mu’assasat al-Wafa’, Mu’assasat al-Turath al-‘Ilmi, and Mu’assasat Ma‘arij. The first of these has also published articles by pseudonymous scholars blaming the Islamic State for its failures. (See, for instance, this March 2018 essay by Abu Suraqa al-Hashimi.) Yet an even more critical outlet in this regard been a media group called al-Nasiha (“Advice”), launched in 2018 as a forum for giving advice to the caliph.

Since its founding, al-Nasiha has published some twenty essays by a small group of writers. The most prolific of them is a certain Ibn Jubayr, who has given the impression of being in the Islamic State’s last holdout in eastern Syria. While extremely harsh in tone, Ibn Jubayr has for the most part exhibited a begrudging loyalty to the caliphate. Echoing the concerns of al-Hashimi and al-Shami, he has complained of the marginalization of the scholars, the effective disappearance of al-Baghdadi, the spread of extremism, and the consolidation of power in the hands of a small group of unscrupulous and repressive men. In July 2018 he told the latter that “your soldiers see you as the cause behind the erosion of the [Islamic] State and its breakup.” And in October 2018 he said to them, “Your oppression and your arrogance toward God … have served the coalition and brought us to where we are today.”

Gradually, al-Nasiha veered in the direction of outright opposition. The starting point was a speech by al-Baghdadi in August 2018 in which he reiterated the trial thesis, came to the defense of his deputies, and decried division. Ibn Jubayr responded with a critical commentary, noting regretfully that the caliph was very much aware of the oppression being unleashed by his underlings. The breaking point for him seems to have come in December 2018, when a number of imprisoned scholars were killed in a coalition airstrike on a prison in the Syrian village of al-Kushma. In an essay on the event, published in February 2019, Ibn Jubayr claimed that the Islamic State was now in some ways worse than the infidel states of the Middle East. Mentioning al-Baghdadi, he remarked, “may God swiftly set him right or replace him,” and addressing his deputies, he said, “God has made you and your false caliphate a [warning] sign for all who see your oppression.”

Al-Naba’ responds

It was not till early February 2019 that the Islamic State’s Central Media Department (Diwan al-I‘lam al-Markazi) finally took it upon itself to refute these arguments, devoting an article to them in al-Naba’. “One of the greatest crimes and greatest innovations that we are seeing today spreading among the people,” read the article, “is their plunging into some of God’s foreordainments and their attempt to explain God’s will by means of them.” This was al-Naba’s way of attacking the view that the Islamic State had invited God’s punishment. Those espousing this view, the article said, “deny categorically that what is befalling some of the believers today is the test by which [God] will raise them by degrees.” Rather, they claim that the cause is God’s anger at the “sin or oppression” of the Islamic State’s rulers and the “deviation of [its] creed and path.” And they argue that His anger will not be lifted until these supposed errors are corrected.

The problem with this argument, according to al-Naba’, is that it presumes knowledge of the unseen—namely, knowledge of God’s “foreordainments”—and to claim such knowledge is “manifest unbelief.” “The Muslim servant,” al-Naba’ says, “knows that what befalls him or others is by God’s wise decree, but he does not know God’s intention behind this decree.”

Two weeks later, an author for al-Nasiha wrote a refutation of the al-Naba’ article, disputing the idea that to judge the Islamic State negatively was to claim knowledge of the unseen. “It is known in the religion by necessity,” wrote the author,

that oppression does not please God, that unwarranted killing does not please God, that extremism in religion does not please God, that torturing Muslims does not please God, that imprisoning them and terrorizing them and wrongly seizing their property does not please God … The things that anger God were clarified and established by Him in His book and in the practice of His prophet.

Furthermore, he went on, there are numerous verses of the Qur’an that show that “sins incur God’s anger, His retribution, and His punishment.” As God says (Q. 40:21), “God seized them for their sins.”

“Injustice” in Baghouz

In light of the above, it is worth noting that several Islamic State members who have fled the last bastion of Islamic State rule in Syria, in Baghouz, seem to subscribe to some version of the oppression thesis as outlined by Ibn Jubayr and others. One of them is Shamima Begum, the British “ISIS bride” who recently explained to the Times of London why “[t]he caliphate is over.” “There was so much oppression and corruption that I don’t think they deserved victory,” she said. If her account is to be believed, her Dutch husband was imprisoned by the Islamic State for six months on charges of espionage, during which he was subjected to torture. “There was a lot of similar oppressions of innocent people. In some cases fighters who had fought for the caliphate were executed as spies even though they were innocent.” A similar complaint was voiced by the American Hoda Muthana, who mentioned the oppression of the Islamic State in an interview with the Guardian. “In the end,” she said, “I didn’t have many friends left, because the more I talked about the oppression of Isis the more I lost friends.”

Speaking with Agence France-Presse, a man named Abdul Monhem Najiyya offered a different kind of criticism: “There was an implementation of God’s law, but there was injustice … The leaders stole money … and fled.” As for al-Baghdadi, he complained, “He left us in the hands of people who let us down and left. He bears responsibility, because, in our view, he is our guide.”

Another harsh verdict came from one Um Rayyan, who told the Associated Press, “I think this is the reason for the failure of the Islamic State … God protected us (from the international coalition.) But when there was corruption inside us, God stopped making us victorious.” Her particular grievance was the elevation of Iraqis over non-Iraqis, a theme to which Ibn Jubayr devoted an essay.

Of course, some of these comments are self-serving and should be assessed skeptically. Yet they do suggest that the oppression thesis has its adherents among those fleeing the caliphate. As the al-Naba’ article indicated, objections of this kind have been “spreading” (muntashira). Whether they might erode the Islamic State’s base of support is hard to say, however, as the trial thesis has its devotees as well. As a woman in Syria recently told a CNN journalist, “God is testing us.” For the moment, this appears to be the dominant narrative among former residents of the caliphate. How dominant it remains will be a measure of the Islamic State’s strength in the years to come

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Cole Bunzel

Cole Bunzel, the editor of Jihadica, is a Hoover Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is the author of "Wahhābism: The History of a Militant Islamic Movement."

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