The Etymology of the Islamic State

Prior to adopting the name “Islamic State”, the terrorist organisation referred to by American President Barack Obama as ISIL and French President François Hollande as Daesh went through many different iterations, each with its own name.

Islamic State flag in Mosul
A motorist drives beneath a flag of the Islamic State at the entrance of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul (via Associated Press)

Aaron Zelin, founder of the fantastic website, outlined the group’s development since its establishment in Iraq in early-1999. The group that has come to be known as the Islamic State was founded as Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (جماعة التوحيد والجهاد)– Organisation of Monotheism and Jihad — by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The group did not gain notoriety until in 2004, following the American invasion of Iraq, it adopted the name Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (تنظيم قاعدة الجهاد في بلاد الرافدين) — Al-Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers (Mesopotamia), better known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). For a brief period in 2006, prior to Zarqawi’s death, the group was organised into Majlis Shura al-Mujahedin (مجلس شورى المجاهدين) — the Mujahedin Shura Council. Following Zarqawi’s death in a US targeted strike in June 2006, the group was rebranded in October 2006 as dawlat al-iraq al-islamiyya (دولة العراق الإسلامية) — the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).

Having been nearly wiped out by the American surge in support of the sahwa (صحوة) — awakening — of Sunni tribes in Iraq, ISI capitalised on the opportunity presented by the Syrian civil war. In 2013, the organisation was once again rebranded as al-dawla al-islamiyya fil-iraq wash-sham (الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام) — the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) — after announcing its expansion into neighbouring Syria. This development greatly altered the course of the Syrian conflict, blurring the lines between “moderate” rebel groups and “radical jihadist” fighters. Aside from that, the name change caused a debate about how to refer to the group in English. This debate was further compounded when on 29 June 2014, the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the formation of a Caliphate and the group’s name changed to simply al-dawla al-islamiyya (الدولة الإسلامية) — The Islamic State.

Prior to the 29 June announcement, the Associated Press (AP) referred to al-dawla al-islamiyya fil-iraq wash-sham as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. AP explained that al-Sham refers to the region stretching from southern Turkey through Syria to Egypt — including Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan. According to AP, since the group’s stated goal is to restore an Islamic state in this entire area, ISIL “is the most accurate translation of the group’s name and reflects its aspirations to rule over a broad swath of the Middle East”. This naming also avoids the misconception that the group’s aspirations are limited to Iraq and Syria — as some outlets chose to translate “al-Sham” as simply Syria. Additionally, AP noted that ISIL is the term adopted by the United Nations.

In September 2014, AP updated how it referred to the group following the Caliphate declaration. Despite President Obama’s continued use of the term ISIL, the AP decided to “use phrases like “the Islamic State group” or “fighters from the Islamic State group”…to avoid phrasing that sounds like they could be fighting for an internationally recognized state”. On the other hand, a report from 3 July 2014 shows that the Reuters news agency immediately adopted the term Islamic State to refer to the group, having previously labeled the group as ISIL.

President Obama continues to use the term ISIL, even after the group has dropped “Iraq” and “al-Sham” from its name in June 2014. The President uses the name, but refuses to acknowledge the group as either “Islamic” or a “state”, making the continued use of the acronym of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant curious. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper also uses ISIL to refer to the group. French President Hollande believes he has come come up with a solution to the perceived problem of granting the group legitimacy as an “Islamic State” by choosing to refer to the group as Daesh — داعش — which comes from the Arabic acronym for the group — الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott appears to have adopted this stance as well. While Daesh may not have the words “Islamic” and “state” in it, the acronym cannot exist without the Arabic terms for these words, so its impact is limited.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, it is strange that non-Muslim Western leaders who already lack credibility in the Islamic world are self-appointing themselves to determine what is “true” Islam and what constitutes “moderate” versus “extremist”. This potentially makes it “easier for the group’s sympathizers to dismiss the criticisms as mere imperial dictation”. It is also disingenuous to say that this organisation’s actions have nothing to do with Islam. As Shadi Hamid and Will McCants write:

While religion isn’t always the best way to understand the motivations of ISIS and its followers, it is, at the very least, relevant. We may not think the followers of the Islamic State are motivated by true Islam (whatever that might be). But it matters that they are motivated by what they think is true Islam.

There may not be a perfect way to refer to the Islamic State, especially in a language other than Arabic, but perhaps less focus should be put on ways to discredit the group through nomenclature and more thought should be put into how credible individuals and organisations can be supported as they lead the ideological fight against the group.

In Arabic, the nomenclature is slightly less complicated, yet still has led to different news agencies and actors referring to the Islamic State by different names. Al Jazeera, for instance, refers to the group as tanzim al-dawla (تنظيم الدولة) — Organisation of the State — which imitates the widespread term used for al-Qaeda in Arabic media: tanzim al-qaeda (تنظيم القاعدة). Similarly, rival armed groups in Iraq and Syria refer to the group simply as al-dawla — The State. Each of these terms purposefully avoids labeling the group as “Islamic”, yet are more genuine and impactful than attempts by Obama or Hollande to employ the same strategy. Perhaps more symbolic was the Egyptian Dar al-Ifta’s call to refer to the group as Qa’ida Separatists in Iraq and Syria (QSIS). Boasting a Facebook campaign page with over 13,500 likes, Dar al-Ifta — which issues fatwas (formal Islamic legal opinions) — called on the international media to stop using ISIS in order to clarify “the tarnished image of Islam across the globe due to the terrorist group’s horrendous act of attaching the name of Islam to their appalling acts which could not be justified under any religion or creed.” These words are a near mirror image of those used by President Obama, who said:

ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state; it was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government nor by the people it subjugates.

ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple, and it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.

These words carry much more weight, however, coming from an established religious institution rather than the President of the United States, a position that has lost much credibility in the Islamic world due to multiple wars in the wider Middle East region over the past three decades.

Another popular way of referring to the group in Arabic is by using the phrase ma yusamma bil-dawla al-islamiyya (ما يسمّى بالدولة الإسلامية) — the so-called “Islamic State”. This approach has been adopted by the activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, which documents the violence perpetrated by the organisation in its de facto capital of Raqqa in northeastern Syria. This naming rejects the legitimacy of the organisation’s “Islamic” nature while not denying the fact that its followers claim to be motivated by their faith.

Linguistically, one of the most interesting results of the emergence of ISIL/ISIS/Islamic State is the fact that it has led to the creation of new words in Arabic. The first of course is داعش (dā’ish) — the acronym which has come to be a new proper noun used to refer to the group. From this, a new countable now was created: داعشي (ج) دواعش (dā’ishī pl. duwā’ish) — meaning a member of Daesh. Finally, a new verb was even created: دعّش، يدعّش، تدعيش (da’sha, yuda’ishu, tada’īsh) — which can be given a (very) rough translation of “to Islamic State-icise” or “to radicalise due to the influence of Daesh”.

تدعيش الثورات العربية
An Al Jazeera Arabic article titled “tada’īsh al-thawrat al-‘arabiyya” (The “Islamic State-isation” of the Arab revolutions)

The naming of the Islamic State matters because names carry identity and invoke legitimacy.

Clearly, the Islamic State invokes the identities of “Islam” and “statehood”. This is of consequence because other groups or individuals already defining themselves along these terms are forced to adamantly defend or oppose the group’s use of their identity. Obama and Hollande’s decision to refute the “statehood” of Islamic State, as well as their decision and various other actors’ refusal to refer to the group as “Islamic” shows the salience of identity in the ideological battle caused by the Islamic State’s rise.

Similarly, when invoking these identities, the Islamic State draws upon the legitimacy which these terms carry. “Islam” can act as a recruitment strategy alone, attracting individuals seeking to defend the ummah (أمّة) — global Muslim community — from a variety of threats including Western oppression and Shia rafidah (رافضة) — “rejectors of the Islamic faith” embodied by the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad and his supporters, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah. The Islamic State’s emphasis on statehood draws upon the idea that it is the legitimate authority over the population under its rule — through the establishment of Sharia courts, social welfare systems, etc.

In the case of the Islamic State, Western leaders should not have a stake in discussing how to appropriately name the group. Insisting that the Islamic State is neither “Islamic” nor a “state” does not erase the reality that the Islamic State has mobilised radical Islamist ideology — based, however loosely, in what it perceives to be the “true” Islam — in order to embark on a massive state-building enterprise. Western attempts to confront the group on the battlefield or ideologically through the use of different names and labels have thus far failed to break the goals of the Islamic State, embodied in its slogan of “baqiya wa tatamaddad” (باقية وتتمدّد) — remaining and expanding. Ultimately, what President Obama or any other Western leader calls the Islamic State or says about their ideology will not help reduce the group’s influence or legitimacy. What is needed is an understanding of what drives the group in order to successfully support the local, regional and international actors that themselves have the legitimacy to win the war of ideas against the Islamic State.

Kevin Moore

Kevin Moore holds an MSc in Arab World Studies from the University of Edinburgh.


5 thoughts on “The Etymology of the Islamic State

  1. jonafras January 26, 2015 / 8:23 AM

    The legitimacy thing is definitely an issue in Jordan as well – e.g. Hayat FM (the “Islamic format” radio channel) always refers to IS as الدولة.

    تنظيم الدولة I’ve also heard mentioned, and also الدولة الاسلامية المعروفة بداعش “the Islamic State known as Da’esh”. Da’esh seems to be the generally accepted “folk” terminology for it though (judging from call-ins).

    It might be interesting to do a proper comparison of how different Arabic media outlets handle this – including in different countries. In terms of naming, on the one hand, but perhaps also how the State and its 3anaaSir enter into discourse as linguistic elements – are they referred to as agents? personalized? Is it just this blob-like unknown force that everyone is afraid of but never professes to know very much about? (This is what I get from many people calling in to speak on radio here.)

    Just food for thought!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kevin Moore January 26, 2015 / 8:36 AM

      Yes, I think that a next step is to take a look at naming conventions across local media in a few different countries of the region. I’ll have to find some time to put that together.

      I’ve noticed that Moroccan media seems to prefer داعش and do not feel obligated to explain the name any further. No “تنظيم” or “ما يسمّى ب”.

      I wonder if geographical proximity, regime type (ie. both Jordanian and Moroccan monarchs like to play up their Islamic legitimacy), or perceived internal threat has any impact on the name used.


  2. Hamish Kinnear January 26, 2015 / 9:17 AM

    Interesting stuff, it is a fairly strange phenomenon. To be honest I am a bit confused by why western media outlets don’t just refer to it as its English acronym ‘IS’, similar to the media using IRA to refer to the Irish Republican Army during the Troubles. Seems like a re-run of Harry Potter and ‘he who must not be named’ at the moment…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kevin Moore January 26, 2015 / 12:10 PM

      Shadi Hamid and Will McCants made that exact comment:

      “President Obama said … “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.”

      Now, there’s nothing wrong with verbally poking your enemy in the eye, especially when the enemy is awful and your words are accurate. But there are two problems with this strategy.

      The first is what Harry Potter fans would recognize as the Voldemort Effect, wherein the books’ protagonists fearfully refer to the villain Voldemort as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to avoid attracting his attention. Refusing to say the name of the Islamic State does something similar by enhancing the allure of the Group-That-Must-Not-Be-Named in radical quarters.”

      I also saw a great comment somewhere that Western politicians still refer to Hezbollah by its name, even though most people have an issue with them claiming to be the “Party of God.”


      • Anonymous January 26, 2015 / 4:37 PM

        Probably because no-one knows what hezbollah actually means haha


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