There was a time when Isis was the name of an Egyptian goddess or the posh Oxford name for the river Thames. However over the past few weeks the word has come into general usage as an acronym for the body which was formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and now calls itself the Islamic State.
This body is a strict Sunni Muslim organisation that emerged out of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and which aims to use the territory it now controls in Iraq and Syria as the basis for a development of an Islamic Caliphate stretching across the Middle East and North Africa. It regards the national boundaries that exist in these areas as artificial and wants to replace the various nations that currently exist with a single purified Islamic state.
In pursuit of these aims ISIS fighters have attacked government forces in both Iraq and Syria and have used horrific amounts of violence, deliberately publicised via social media, to persuade enemy troops to flee rather than resist. For example, a recently released Isis video has shown captured Iraqi soldiers being executed one by one, with their bodies being thrown into a river.
Isis is very hostile to Shiite Muslims, whom it regards as heretics, and it has offered Christians and Jews the choice between converting to Islam, accepting subservient ‘dhimmi’ status and paying a special tax, or being put to death.
What are we to make of all this from a Christian perspective?
The first thing we need to accept is that Isis is a body that is driven by theology. It does what it does because it believes that its version of Islam is one that is faithful to the teaching of the Quran and to the example of Mohammed as recorded in the Hadith, the authoritative traditions about his life and teaching. In its view what it is doing is being faithful to God by seeking to establish a unified Islamic state where people will lead their lives in accordance with God’s revealed will. Its military activities, the violence it engages in and the choices it offers to Christians and Jews are, in its view, all divinely sanctioned by the Quran or the Hadith.
Other Muslims, not only Shiites, but more moderate Sunnis, question Isis’ interpretation of the Quran and the Hadith, but from a Christian point of view the whole Isis project is necessarily theologically flawed precisely because it is an example of Islamic theology. This is because all forms of Islamic theology, from the most radical to the most moderate, involve a rejection of the truth about God and how he wants us to live that have been made known to us through Jesus Christ.
The core belief of Islam is that ‘there no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.’ The one creator God has revealed his will finally and perfectly, primarily through the divinely inspired words of the Quran given to Mohammed and secondly through Mohammed’s own life and teaching. To live as God wants is to live in accordance with this revelation and Islamic teaching and Islamic law are attempts to codify and apply it. For Islam Jesus was one of a line of prophets leading up to Mohammed, but he was not the Son of God, since for Islam the idea that God has a son would compromise his oneness.
For Christian theology, by contrast, God is not only one, but also three. As Article I of the Thirty Nine Articles puts it:
‘There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.’
Furthermore, God the Son is not only God, but also Man, since he has taken human nature upon himself as Jesus Christ for the sake of out salvation. To quote Article II:
‘The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God and very man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile His Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men.’
Jesus is therefore more than a prophet leading up to Mohammed. He is God incarnate and as such he is the one through whom we can know God and relate to him as our Father through the power of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus himself said ‘I am the way, and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.’ (John 14:6)
The written witness to Jesus can be found in the divinely inspired words of the Bible which promise in the Old Testament that Jesus will come and testify in the New Testament that he has come. To live as God wants us to live is to live in line with this twofold biblical witness within the community of the Church.
What all this means is that Islamic and Christian theology are in complete disagreement about who God is, how he has made himself known, and what it means to live rightly before him.
From a Christian perspective therefore, regardless of whether Isis’ version of Islam is more or less faithful to the Quran and the Hadith than other versions, because it is a form of Islamic theology it is fundamentally flawed from the outset. What it says about God and his will is quite simply misleading.
This would be true even if Isis was not a militant military organisation that practices horrific violence in an attempt to overthrow the existing governments of the countries in which it operates. However, this is, of course, what Isis is and that is something which from a Christian viewpoint makes it even less acceptable. The Christian faith teaches that governing authorities should be respected rather than rebelled against (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-14) and that the way people are to be brought into subjection to God’s will is not through violent coercion, but through the peaceful witness of God’s people in word and deed, as can be seen throughout the Book of Acts. Isis is therefore clearly acting in an ungodly manner.
Finally, the choice that Isis offers Christians of apostasy, servitude, or death is clear proof that it is an organisation which, even if unknowingly, is fighting against God. He who persecutes God’s people persecutes God himself (Acts 9:5) and this is what Isis is doing.
How, then, should Christians respond to Isis?
First of all, they need to respond with steadfast witness to Christ and the truth of the Gospel. The Book of Revelation is concerned with how the powers of evil that assault God’s people are defeated and what it tells us is that this is achieved through Christians remaining faithful to Christ to the point of death. ‘And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death’’ (Revelation 12:10-11).
Secondly, they need to pray. As Revelation also makes clear, it is ultimately God who sustains his Church and defeats its persecutors and so Christians need to take seriously Jesus’ injunction to ‘ask, seek and knock’ (Matthew 7:7-8) and pray hard for those who are suffering because of the activities of Isis. The charity Open Doors, for example, has asked for prayers:
- for God to change the hearts of those who are persecuting Christians;
- for God to uphold Christian refugees who are weary and exhausted through the support of the body of Christ;
- for God to give wisdom and strength to the government in Baghdad to resolve this crisis.
Thirdly, they need to give to support those in need because of Isis’ activity, such as the Christians who have been forced to flee their homes in Mosul. ‘But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth’ (1 John 3:17-18). Donations can be made, for example, through the Barnabas Fund website at www.barnabasfund.org or throught the website of Iraqi Christians in Need at www.icin.org.uk.
Fourthly, they need to speak up for Christians and others in Iraq and Syria who are suffering because of Isis. It is the responsibility of those in authority to act on behalf of those who are needy and vulnerable and they must be urged to do so in this case. For starters there are various petitions that can be signed and social media campaigns that can be supported.
Finally, in line with the clear teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-48), as private individuals Christians are called to practice love and non-retaliation in their relations with members of Isis. However, it is also legitimate for those who have been given governmental authority to exercise the power of the sword (Romans 13:4) by using force, including military force, against those such as Isis who are attacking the lives and property of innocent individuals and proper for Christians to take part in this kind of military activity if they are called to do so.
Isis will not succeed in its mission of creating a pure Islamic state and it will not succeed in doing permanent or terminal damage to the Church. Christ has built his Church on the rock and nothing, not even the gates of death, can overthrow it (Matthew 16:18). However, Isis can still do an appalling amount of damage on its path to inevitable failure and our duty as Christians is to work with God to limit this damage as much as possible.
Martin Davie’s commentary on the Thirty Nine Articles, Our Inheritance of Faith, is available from Gilead Books at www.gileadbookspublishing.com