How ISIS Distorts the Qur’an to Justify Its Actions

This is my research project within the framework of California State University, Northridge’s ENGL455 class, Literacy, Rhetoric and Culture.

Ever since 9/11, terrorism has spiked significantly – and with it: Islamophobia. Extremist groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban have been spreading terrorism in the Middle East and the Western world, while a new emerging extremist group has evolved and inspired more than 70 terror attacks worldwide, causing more than 1,200 deaths since 2014.1 ISIS, short for Islamic State of Syria and Iraq aim to establish an Islamic State and fights everyone in its way in order to reach this goal. For my project, I am examining the rhetoric of ISIS, the literacy we should have of about extremism and the impact of ISIS inspired terror attacks on the actual Muslim culture.

First, I will explain the core of Islam as religion and its main elements. Next, I will examine islamic extremism and ISIS. Lastly, I will conclude with an analysis on how ISIS uses the elements of Islam, particularly the Qur’an to justify its actions.


More than 1.6 billion Muslims make Islam to the second largest religion in the world. A Pew Research Center study on growth projections of world religions predicts Islam to become the largest religion by the end of the century, due to its fast growth rate.2

The core of Islam is the submission to God, who is called Allah in Arabic. Many Westerners have a misconception of the term Allah and believe Muslims worship a different God than Christians and Jews, while in fact, it is the same.

The most important elements in Islam are the Qur’an and the 5 Pillars, which guide Muslims in terms of morals, ethics, religious behaviors and proper worship practices.

The 5 Pillars of Islam 3

Shahadah (= Declaration of Faith): Faith in God is the most basic and most important requirement in Islam. Shahadah is a brief one-sentence prayer declaring one’s faith. Muslims repeat the prayer multiple times in their lives and non-Muslims have to say the prayer in front of witnesses in order to convert to Islam. The prayer says:


“There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah”
(Ash-hadu al laa ilaaha illallah wa ash-hadu anna Muhammad ur rasulullah)

Salah (= Prayer): Muslims are required to pray at least five times a day: At dawn, noon, late afternoon, sunset and nightfall.

Zakah (= Charity): The literal translation of Zakah means purification and growth. Muslims are obligated to give parts of their wealth to benefit those in need, if they can afford it. This aspect also supports social welfare and economic growth.

Sawm (= Fasting): On Ramadan, during the ninth month of the Muslim year, Muslims abstain from eating and drinking from dusk to dawn. They are also supposed to abstain from negative emotions, such as anger, envy, greed etc. Fasting encourages Muslims to seek closeness to God and relate to the hardship of the poor.

Hajj (= Pilgrimage): Every Muslim who is physically and financially stable, is supposed to visit the sacred city of Mecca at least once in their lifetime. Mecca is prophet Muhammad’s birthplace and the place he received his first revelation. More than 2 million Muslims undertake the journey each year.

The Qur’an

The Holy QuranThe Qur’an is the most essential text in Islam. It is considered to be the final revelation from God to humanity, brought by prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an is made out of 114 suras (chapters) varying in length and clarity. Some verses explicitly state responsibilities and rules of Islam, while other verses are vague and open to interpretations. Islamic scholars encourage Muslims to approach those verses with an open mind, not seeking an absolute truth. Yet, some people use such verses for their benefit and to support their agenda.

Islamic Diversity

When prophet Muhammad died in 632, Muslims debated over the future leadership. Essentially, the debate and discords led to the split of Islam into different subgroups, who believe in various different historical events or disagree with the correctness of such events. The biggest split occurred into Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, who again have multiple subgroups. Sunnis make up 87-90 percent and Shi’a about 10-13 percent.4 Most Shi’as live in Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and India.

The following illustration shows the severance of Islam into various different communities.


Islamic Extremists

Today’s Sunni population mostly accepts the historical events after Muhammad’s death. Others disagree and don’t accept some of the events, forming their own perceptions of Islam. However, all communities follow the Qur’an and the 5 Pillars, remaining peaceful within the religion. Yet, marginalized extreme groups have emerged, claiming that only their views are acceptable.

The very first Islamic extremist group, the Azariqa a subgroup of the Khawarij, were formed in 657, 25 years after Muhammad’s death. A research on Islamic sectarianism describes that “the Azariqa consider every grave sin an act of unbelief (kufr), designate the territory of their opponents as the Abode of Unbelief (dar kufr), and tolerate even the killing of their opponent’s children (…) the Azariqa appear implacably separatist, and hostile to all non-Kharijites to the point of allowing their children to be legally killed.” 5


Azariqa believed committing a sin would take away muslimhood and every non-Muslim had to be executed. They were convinced people who didn’t follow their views on Islam were sinners and therefore had to be killed.

The Azariqa was heavily marginalized by mainstream Islam and eventually went extinct. However, we can examine similar believes in subsequent Islamic extremist groups, such as the Taliban or Al Qaeda and the most recent emerging group ISIS.


The ISIS flag states she Shahada to declare its faith to God.

ISIS or ISIL are abbreviations for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. The levant is the territory in the eastern mediterranean. ISIS’s main goal is to establish an Islamic State following its Islamic views, also called caliphate. Ideally, the caliphate would spread over the entire world. In a mission statement, ISIS proclaims: “The shade of the blessed flag will expand until it covers all eastern and western extents of the Earth, filling the world with the truth and justice of Islam and putting an end to the falsehood and tyranny of jahiliyyah [ignorance], even if America and its coalition despise such.” 6 

To spread the caliphate (Islamic state), ISIS disregards state borders, which “it sees as man-made creations at odds with the notion of a caliphate” and any notions of democracy or citizenship. Therefore, ISIS has invaded and taken large territories in the levant and surrounding areas.7


ISIS belongs to the Sunni branch of Islam but supports extremist views the majority of Sunnis don’t agree with. Initially, ISIS split from the militant Sunni extremist group Al Qaeda and fought against the United States in the 2004 Iraq war and later against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. In 2014, Al Qaeda disowned ISIS for it’s over-extreme actions. Today, ISIS is has seized more control and power than any extremist group ever before and is a terroristic threat to be taken seriously.

ISIS Recruitment and Followers

ISIS mainly uses military forces and brutality to force people into supporting the terror group. In other cases, Muslims from Sunni-dominated populations in countries like Iraq and Syria have voluntarily joined ISIS because they were oppressed by Shi’a (Iraq) or Alawite (Syria) governments.8 To recruit people in the West, ISIS has been publishing the propaganda magazine Dabiq in different languages, which includes topics such as “the best way to carry out a knife attack” or “slaughtering the unbelievers.” Overall the magazine emphasizes the visions of establishing a global caliphate and purifying Islam.9


ISIS vs. Qur’an

ISIS uses several scripts and prophetic texts, several written by ISIS leaders themselves, to justify it’s actions. For the purpose of this research, I only focus on ISIS’s interpretations of the Qur’an, which is the most important text in Islam.

The Qur’an strictly prohibits violent actions against oneself as well as others. According to the Qur’an, violence and murder is only permittet in self-defense. ISIS takes this aspect to a metaphorical level and claims its self-defense against the Western world as it claims the Western world is a threat to Islam.

Some Qur’an verses 10 used by ISIS in terms of the justification of violence and killings:

Fight in God’s cause against those who fight you, but do not overstep the limits. God does not love those who overstep the limits. (…) If they do fight you, kill them – this is what such disbelievers deserve – but if they stop, then God is most forgiving and merciful.
Qur’an 2:190-193

Why should you not fight in God’s cause and for those oppressed men, women, and children who cry out, ‘Lord, rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors (…) The believers fight for God’s cause, while those who reject faith fight for an unjust cause. Fight the allies of Satan: Satan’s strategies are truly weak.”
Qur’an 4:75-76

God will defend the believers; God does not love the unfaithful or the ungrateful.
Qur’an 22:38

These verses are open to the severeness of their interpretations. The first verse is one of the most referred verses in terms of violence. However, the focus often lays on the words “Fight in God’s cause against those who fight you” and “If they do fight you, kill them,” disregarding the part about not overstepping the limits of violence and to not use violence if the opponent does not actively seek violence.

Several incidents and rulings of ISIS seem to be based on vague interpretations of the Qur’an to benefit the group’s messages and actions. An example of a commonly misused Qur’an verse to justify beheadings can be found in the following video: 11

A common practice within ISIS is rape and sex slavery. A detailed report by the New York Times stated that “claiming the Quran’s support, the Islamic State codifies sex slavery in conquered regions of Iraq and Syria and uses the practice as a recruiting tool” to attract young men with sex.12 According to ISIS, raping non-believers is not a sin, but encouraged by the Qur’an to draw closer to God. The New York Times article narrated how young girls raped by ISIS fighters described the act of rape similar to an act of worship, in which the fighters prayed to God prior and after the sexual conduct. The Qur’an does in fact not explicitly name rape, but also doesn’t discourage forced sexual conduct, which gives people a lot of freedom for interpretation.

An important aspect to keep in mind is the fact that the Qur’an was written between 609 – 632 CE, a time in which women had no rights at all and were commonly held as sex slaves. In multiple verses the Quran requires to trade women well and increases their social rights in terms of divorce, domestic violence, inheritance and segregation. The Qur’an also limits the amount of wives a man could marry to four – under the condition he is able to provide for all of them and treat them well. In pre-Islamic times, women were declared not to be full human beings and men could marry an unlimited number of women, without the requirement to treat them properly. Compared to modern times, the verses of the Qur’an about women seem problematic due to heavy limitations on women’s rights. However, the Qur’an was initially designed to guide Muslims toward a direction of equality and liberation – compared to pre-Islamic times, the rights given to women by the Qur’an were revolutionary and a big step toward change.

You will never be able to treat your wives with equal fairness, however much you may desire to do so, but do not ignore one wife altogether, leaving her suspended.”
Qur’an 4:129

Among others, this passage is one example of the Qur’an telling men to treat women as best as they are capable of. However, many other passages still reflect the notions of archaic Islamic times, which is unfortunately heavily abused by ISIS. The group released a “rape handbook” in 2015,13 which describes the conditions and process of permissible rape in detail.

Muslims on ISIS

Many scholars, including Islamic theology dean and professor at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt (one of the most prestigious universities for Islamic studies) Abdel Fattah Alawari claimed ISIS “has nothing to do with Islam,” who is “deliberately misreading centuries-old verses and sayings.”14 To distance Islam from ISIS, more than 120 Islamic scholars worldwide addressed an open letter to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014 “refuting the group’s religious arguments to justify many of its actions.”

Muslims around the world have voiced their disapproval of ISIS, condemning it’s violence and it’s distortion of the Qur’an.15 

Muslims against ISIS


ISIS heavily distorts verses in the Qur’an and elements of Islam to justify its violent actions against the innocent. Islamic scholar and professor Abdel Haleem explains  “the prevalent message of the Qur’an is the one of peace and tolerance but it allows self-defense,” which is supported by multiple verses in the Qur’an. Afterall, the Qur’an emphasizes:

The servants of the most merciful are those who walk upon the earth easily, and when the ignorant address them harshly, they say words of peace.
Qur’an 25:63

The verse encourages Muslims to remain peaceful, even in times of hardship. In today’s era of islamophobia and extremist-inspired terror attacks, it is important to remember the real intentions of Islam – the ones of serving God, demonstrating kindness and maintaining peace.


1.Yourish, Karen, Derek Watkins, Tom Giratikanon, and Jasmine C. Lee. “How Many People Have Been Killed in ISIS Attacks Around the World.” New York Times. N.p., 16 July 2016. Web.
2. Lipka, Michael. “Muslims and Islam: Key Findings in the U.S. and around the World.” Pew Research Center, 22 July 2016.
3. Esposito, John L. Islam: The Straight Path. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. Print.
4. Liu, Joseph. “Mapping the Global Muslim Population.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. N.p., 07 Oct. 2009. Web.
5. Gaiser, Adam R. “What Do We Learn About the Early Khārijites and Ibāḍiyya from Their Coins?” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 130, no. 2, 2010
6. Dabio. Issue 5. Foreword.
7. Lister, Tim. “ISIS: What Does It Really Want?” CNN. Cable News Network, 11 Dec. 2015. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.
8. Ferran, Lee, and Rym Momtaz. “ISIS Trail of Terror.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 23 Feb. 2015. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.
9. “The Islamic State’s (ISIS, ISIL) Magazine | Clarion Project.” 10 Sept. 2014. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.
10. Haleem, Abdel. The Qur’an. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Print.
11. Sreenivasan, Hari. “Islamic State Group Uses Only Half of a Quran Verse to Justify Beheadings — See What’s in the Other Half.” PBS. PBS, 9 Oct. 2014. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.
12. Callimachi, Rukmini. “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 Aug. 2015. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.
13. Shammas, John. “ISIS Release ‘rape Handbook’ to Fighters, with 15 Sickening New Rules Revealed.” Mirror. N.p., 29 Dec. 2015. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.
14. Landay, Jonathan, Warren Strobel, and Phil Steward. “Exclusive: Islamic State Ruling Aims to Settle Who Can Have Sex with Female Slaves.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 29 Dec. 2015. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.


  1. Dear Cati:

    This is a very well-constructed project which coherently lays out the often misquoted and misinterpreted texts in the Qur’an, used as propaganda and justification for violence and extremism. Do you think it is possible to educate young men to question what they are being told? Or is the message of ISIS playing into some sort of deep seated psychological distortion in a group that hungers for violence in the name of God? Do the people who enact violent deeds even read the Qur’an or do they simply do as they are told by those in power? My guess is that the latter is true, in which case, the Qur’an is being used simply as an absolute source of rightousness–with almost hypnotic power. If that is the case, how can this tendency be countered? Would an understanding of rhetoric help? Maybe, but maybe not?

    In any event, this project has earned a score of 95–an A.

    Happy holidays!

    Irene Clark

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