Who hasn’t heard extremism among Muslims equated with “going back to the 7th century”? Not only a colloquial mantra, that’s the gist of Graeme Wood’s article "What ISIS Really Wants" in The Atlantic. Wood is thankful, though, that most Muslims are somehow naïve of what their Prophet, peace on him, originally taught. Rather, as ISIS rampages, they only purport the words, ideas, and images of Islam, propping up cardboard cutouts of the real thing in front of their fulfillment of the worst stereotypes.
1) The center of Islam is affirmation in belief and action of the exclusivity of Allah in His actions, His names and attributes, and His worthiness of worship and devotion. In other words, the ultimate imperative of Islam is that a person avoid allowing anything to compete with Allah's rights in his or her life or heart. At-Tawheed it's called. The remainder of Islam extends from at-Tawheed and maintains it. Namely, Shari’ah (Islamic law) is not only a way of personal life in accordance with the above, but also family, community, and state life. Shari’ah includes automatic alternatives and exceptions with regard to foreseeable circumstances. Further, fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence, is the nuanced application of the law based on actual, current circumstances. These built-in flexibilities allow a Muslim of sound knowledge to live intelligently in any century without diverting from Islam.
Shari’ah stipulates that a Muslim living in a non-Muslim land must follow the law of that land except in matters that contradict Shari’ah at the personal level. For example, if Islamic prayer were banned in France, then Muslims there would still be obliged to pray, even as they follow the remainder of French law. Within the Islamic state, the whole of Shari’ah applies once all prerequisites have been met. Nowhere in the world is Shari’ah authentically and fully implemented at the state level, nor is it likely to be without a khalifah (single leader for all Muslims), which is also virtually impossible at this time. Here's why, and this is important with regard to ISIS: The key to the establishment of an Islamic state is having a khalifah chosen by consensus or perhaps something like a super-majority of Muslims. Typical Muslims have been in a condition of wahn (internal weakness) for at least a century, desperately far off from the sort of knowledge, unity, and character required to coalesce around a single leader for all Muslims. ISIS's designation of al-Baghdadi as khalifah is an artificial leap-frog over reality and totally invalid; thus, despite their name, ISIS does not constitute an authentic Islamic state.
2) Certain elements of the Shari’ah at the state level--according to strong, well evidenced scholarly opinions--cannot be implemented except either by judgement of the khalifah or an appointee. Those elements include corporal and capital punishments and taxes on non-Muslim protectorates. That means 100% of ISIS's beheadings and such (and those of all others) are invalid according to the Shari’ah even without consideration of any other particulars. However, even if their khalifah were valid (an impossible hypothetical) the particulars of those actions would also disqualify them. The Shari’ah is so specific in the situations and purposes that call for capital punishment, while also being so strict it the burden of proof, that there is seldom a situation that would authentically require implementation. This is why even in the mid-7th century the practice was exercised only in extraordinary circumstances that totaled in the single digits.
3) While the doomsday sequence of prophecy ISIS aims to bring on is explicitly reported in authentic sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace on him, those same reports prove the fantastical events are beyond their control. To summarize, the transitional event that initiates the end times is when a man born with the name Muhammad Ibn Abdullaah—without knowing himself to have any extraordinary purpose or designation—will rise in prominence such that Muslims openly affirm him as a leader while he is standing in a most particular location near al-Ka’bah in Makkah, shortly after which an army will rise up to attack him and those Muslims only to be swallowed up by the earth as a sign the hitherto ordinary man is, indeed, al-Mahdi, the foretold end-time leader. ISIS cannot produce this man and if they did he would fight against them, not with them. Further, to get to their doomsday promise land they would also have to orchestrate the return of Jesus, peace on him, and the emergence of his foe, ad-Dajaal (the anti-Christ, more or less), the respective leaders of the battle they long for. On the contrary, Allah ordered the Muslims not to urge on the Day of Judgement and the Prophet, peace on him, said that if you are planting a tree and the end times come, finish planting the tree. The 7th century message forbids Muslims from being doomsday-ers, urges patience, and enjoins good till the very end.
4) The default position of the Muslim toward the non-Muslim should be one of kindness and justice. Allah says, "Allah does not forbid you from those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes—from being righteous toward them and acting justly toward them. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly." As well, consider the story of the Jew who consistently left garbage day after day in front of the door of the Prophet, peace on him. When, one day, the Prophet didn't find any garbage, he went to check with the Jew if he were feeling alright. The Jew accepted Islam on the spot. Contrariwise, there certainly are verses in al-Qur'an which call certain Muslims to kill certain non-Muslims. For example, at the time of the Prophet, the Quraysh persecuted the Muslims in the face of growing acceptance among visitors to Makkah and its residents of the Prophet’s message, which was simply to worship none except Allah. The trend threatened the idol-based religion of the Quraysh and the prestige and economic benefits of hosting polytheist pilgrims to the Ka'bah. In response, the Quryash tortured Muslims, including by leaving them buried or trapped in the desert sun. They slandered the Muslims. They boycotted the Muslims such that they had nothing to eat but leaves and dry camel skin. Etc. Eventually the early adherents were forced to entirely abandon their wealth and livelihoods and migrate north to al-Madinah. At a point, outside al-Madinah, 10,000 of those Quraysh were coming down on 300 Muslims with the intent to end it all. It is with regard to that exact situation that Allah revealed the twelfth verse of the eighth chapter of al-Qur’an authorizing the Muslims to fight back with full, lethal force. Incidentally, both religious and secular scholars agree those Muslims succeeded in repelling the Quraysh. More importantly here, what’s absolutely clear is that Islam is not pacifist.
That said, the Shari’ah demands firm restrictions on military engagement, restrictions ISIS wantonly disregards. Foremost, killing of non-combatants is forbidden with much emphasis on safeguarding women, children, and the infirm. Even after the time of the Prophet, peace on him, Abu Bakr made this the first of the ten limitations he confirmed among the Muslims with regard to battle. Anyone who kills citizenry has violated the Shari’ah, and Muslims only do so in violation of the 7th century message.
Further, the Muslims are not permitted to damage an enemy beyond the level of damage done to them, and, if the enemy offers peace, the Muslims must desist. Ransacking or so much as overturning a tree, even, are forbidden. Profoundly, as well, personal anger is an invalid intention for lethal force as evidenced in the narration in which Ali was about to prevail in a fight when he inexplicably tossed his sword aside. When his foe asked him why he gave up the fight, Ali explained that when the man had spat in his face it had made him angry, and he could not kill out of his own, personal anger.
5) Historically, Islam has profoundly, perhaps uniquely, united peoples of various backgrounds and ways of thinking. It’s no secret anymore that while Europe was in the Dark Ages, the height of Islamic civilization made connections spanning from Rome to India. Modern sciences, invention, and medicine owe a great deal to that golden age in the east. Some histories indicate the goods and ideas crusaders returned with from the Muslim lands eventually fueled the European enlightenment, and the famous Persian, al-Biruni, is only one of hundreds of prominent Muslim thinkers and inventors of those centuries. For those in need of a primer, perhaps begin by perusing the accolades of old southern Spain, what was known as al-Andalus, where the Muslims established a glorious society, interestingly responsible for saving the Jews when they were under persecution by the Christian Visigoths. Without getting carried away, though, this author openly admits the Muslim empires did many things that were not Islamic, and the many of the leadership of the most famous, the Ottomans, were arguably not really Muslims at all. But the religion was paramount to the accomplishments of those ages and the overall sophisticated, rational societies that served as their backdrops. Allah says He “explains in detail the signs for a people who give thought.” Despite the disarray among modern Muslims, al-Qur’an demands unity and, midway through its second chapter, makes the bull’s eye a middle or justly balanced society. When Allah has decreed a matter, then the Muslim has no option, but Islam views reason as a blessing and a means to understanding. ISIS is rational, but only in the precision of its divisiveness; they would tear down the world before they achieved meaningful unity.
6) Islamic scholarship has a label for a distinct stream of sectarianism opposed by the majority of Muslims: khawaarij. ISIS prolifically overlaps with khawaarij in at least one clear way: They exaggerate in takfeer, which is saying someone is a disbeliever or that their Islam is invalid. Tragically, also, they are like khawaarij of the past in their exaggerative use of the ruling to make Muslims among the primary victims of their violence. Wood actually affirms this when making ties between al-Qaeda and ISIS. Wood first quotes the Prophet, who said, “If a man says to his brother, ‘You are a disbeliever,’ then one of them is right,” meaning that if a Muslim were to mistakenly call a believing Muslim a disbeliever, then the accuser would be the real disbeliever. Wood then reports that al-Qaeda’s Zarqawi “heedlessly expanded the range of behavior that could make Muslims infidels." Wood gives the example that al-Qaeda would declare takfeer in response to shaving of the beard, which would be an exaggeration in takfeer because the most extreme response to a man who shaved his beard by 7th century Muslims was to avoid praying behind him. The Prophet’s saying doesn’t tie al-Qaeda and ISIS with the 7th century message; it distinguishes them from it by urging the reservation from takfeer both organizations abandon.