ISIS Embraces Critical Scholarship of the Bible?
The fifteenth issue of ISIS’ English-language propaganda magazine Dabiq spread across the internet this month. This issue focused on an extended critique of both western secularism and Christianity in attempt to convince westerners to convert to Islam and join the Islamic State.
This blog has previously examined how the increasingly ideological and post-state nature of modern war is creating a situation where scholarship will be increasingly appropriated by armed groups and the purveyors of ideological arguments will frequently become targets. The new issue of Dabiq provides an interesting opportunity to examine an instance of such appropriation in action.
Its centerpiece is a fifteen page article titled “Break the Cross.”Although the article is unsigned, it was obviously written by a native English speaker who appears to be familiar with critical scholarship of the Bible and early Christianity as well as a very basic reading knowledge of Hebrew and Greek.
Upon closer examination, however, the article’s sources appear largely culled from public domain books and other material freely available on the internet. Assuming that the author of this piece is located within territory held by the Islamic State, this may be due to a lack of available resources. Reports that ISIS has burned libraries in the territories it controls could further limit the accessibility of knowledge to the group’s researchers.
The article cites only two very out-of-date scholarly sources by name to support various textual arguments related to the Bible: Strong’s Concordance (published in 1890) and Adam Clarke’s 1831 Commentary on the Bible (making full use of the author’s 19th-century antisemitic prejudices).
The rest of the article’s sources are more obscure but can be revealed through some internet sleuthing. The article discusses – correctly – the semantic relationship between various names for God in Semitic languages (p. 49 in Dabiq issue #15). But then the author gives the name for God in “Chaldean” as 𐎛𐎍 , utilizing a Ugaritic font which happens to be found in the English language Wikipedia page for the Canaanite god El instead of the Akkadian signs for the equivalent noun ilum. (Ugaritic fonts, being alphabetic and therefore containing far fewer signs, are better supported than Akkadian cuneiform fonts on most computers).
The author commits a similar error in discussion of the word בַּר , which means “son” in Aramaic. The author, wishing to argue that Jesus’ contemporaries referring to him as the “bar of God” in their native language could mean something else besides “son of God,” appears to have looked up the Hebrew word בַּר in Gesenius’ 1846 Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon and found that it means “beloved” or “pure” (p. 56). The two are different words, in different languages, and derived from different roots (The Hebrew בַּר is derived from the verb בָּרַר , while the Aramaic has no clear triconsonantal root).
It has often been said that atheists merely believe in one less God than religious people, and many of the arguments the author uses against Christianity can be found on many skeptic websites. Arguments that the Gospels were written at a late date (p. 50), that the date of Christmas was an appropriation of the birthday of the god Sol Invictus, or that the Comma Johanneum is not original to 1 John 5:7-8 (p. 53) are readily found while browsing the online atheist community.
Other arguments are more specific to the online Muslim apologetics community. A number of the Dabiq author’s arguments seem derived from those presented on the website Answering Christianity, maintained by American Muslim apologist Osama Abdallah. Most of what Abdallah writes is standard mainstream Islamic apologetics, albeit in a less polished internet format. Abdallah renounces violence and attempts to spread Islam by peaceful persuasion only, and his website argues that ISIS was created by the CIA and Mossad to discredit Islam.
Nevertheless some of his arguments have now been appropriated by ISIS, including arguments that Simon of Cyrene may have been crucified instead of Jesus as evidenced by Gnostic writings (p. 54-55), that Muhammad was the prophet promised in Deuteronomy 18:18 (p. 59), and the argument that the Greek word parakletos in John 16:7-11, generally taken by Christians to refer to the Holy Spirit, was originally written periklytos, “the admirable one,” and therefore also refers to the coming of Muhammad. (the latter argument was originally made by Muslim convert David Benjamin Keldani in his 1928 book Muhammad in the Bible).
All that this shows is how the work of a great number of people unconnected to and unsupportive of ISIS and their goals has been collated and redirected for the purpose of recruiting people to join the Islamic State.
Thanks to the magic of the internet, everyone is now an expert. And since everyone is now an expert, even a brutal and thuggish organization occupying a stretch of landlocked, mostly undeveloped desert land in the Middle East can now throw together seemingly sophisticated scholarly-sounding recruiting pitches based on amateurish misinterpretations of hundred-plus year old extremely outdated but free and public domain source material.
Welcome to 21st century war.