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The Myth of the Islamic State

The History of a Political Idea

ISIS fighters stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, June 11, 2014. Reuters

ISIS’ declaration of an Islamic State begs a fundamental question: When and how did that concept become a part of the political vocabulary of Muslim societies? After all, the idea hasn’t been around forever, and its popularity has waxed and waned over time. In fact, its emergence and popularity are tied to the specific conditions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Muslim societies responded to European colonial rule.

As long as Muslim rulers ruled over Muslim lands, no matter how arbitrarily, the notion of an Islamic state was dormant, if not nonexistent. Although the concept of sharia existed in Muslim political vocabulary, sharia law was normally confined to personal matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. The corpus of criminal and civil law was viewed as rightfully created and administered by states. One of the greatest Ottoman sultans, Suleiman the Magnificent, was even given the title

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