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

The Myth of the Islamic State

The History of a Political Idea

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 Qanuni (law-giver) as testament to the fact that much of the legal sphere naturally fell outside the purview of sharia.

The normal order of things broke down once non-Muslim powers came to rule over most Muslim societies in the age of colonialism. European governments set out to define hardened colonial boundaries where frontiers had previously been fluid, and they attached legal sanctity to the lines drawn on maps. In the premodern states, legitimacy had been based on conquest and ability to defend territory. The states were also minimalist in terms of their intrusion into the lives of their subjects. By contrast, the colonial state’s legitimacy rested not only on conquest and holding territory but also on its capacity, modeled on European nation-states, to weld diverse subjects into a homogenous mass through a common language, a common legal system, and the provision of basic services, in return for taxes and other resources.

Iraqi security forces arrest suspected militants of the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) during a raid and weapons search operation in Hawija, April 24, 2014.

Iraqi security forces arrest suspected militants of the Islamic State (ISIS) during a raid and weapons search operation in Hawija, April 24, 2014.

The arrival of colonial rule kicked off the search in Muslim lands for the answer to what went wrong, that is, how the natural order of things—namely, Muslim

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