Open letter to the future ISIL recruit

The urge is to become a hero that shakes the world, in fame and glory, which is not necessarily a religious passion.

ISIL foreign fighters
Beware of those who would call on you to abandon your individual path, writes Akyol [Reuters]

Dear fellow Muslim, who has a heart for “jihad”, or struggle, in the name of God,

I actually doubt that you are a regular reader of these pages, but still wanted to give it a shot, and penned this letter to convey a few friendly thoughts.

You are probably young, devoted and angry. You are angry because our civilisation, the Muslim world, has been in a state of humiliation for at least two centuries. We have been colonised by European powers, occupied by foreign armies, or oppressed by our own tyrants.

Meanwhile, our values have been eroded, our most sacred symbols have been ridiculed. There was, in fact, a time when we Muslims led the most glorious civilisation on Earth, but that is long gone. In our recent past, we have suffered defeat after defeat, disgrace after disgrace.

As a Muslim who is serious about his faith and his identity, I think your concern with this modern-day trauma of our ummah, the global community of believers, is only noble.

With that concern in mind, you can do wonderful things, such as educating yourself to become a scholar, a scientist, a businessman, or an artist.

With your work, you can make great contributions to our ummah, which desperately needs an intellectual, scientific, economic or aesthetic revival. Do keep your concern for Islam, and I would suggest you make it a motive for self-development.

Do engage in a jihad, or a struggle, in other words, but do this in a way that will really elevate your family, your community, your ummah – in peace, civility and dignity.

Meanwhile, beware of those who would call on you to abandon your individual path and commit yourself to their bizarre “jihad” – a violent, merciless, bloodthirsty campaign, such as the one carried out by the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

ISIL narrative is defined by a resolute certainty. The 'caliphate' knows what the right interpretation of Islam is, gives the best judgment on every matter, and zealously punishes everyone, including fellow Muslims, who dare to disagree.


For one thing, in the history of our Islamic civilisation, jihad never amounted to indiscriminate slaughter as carried out by ISIL. The Koran did order the earliest Muslims to “Fight in the way of God against those who fight you,” only to add: “But do not go beyond the limits.” (2:190) Our prophet, peace be upon him, explained the limits: “Do not kill the very old, the infant, the child, or the woman.”

Hence in our history, armed jihad always meant a war between armies, while non-combatants were never seen as targets. Moreover, fellow Muslims were never targets of jihad, no matter which sect they belonged to, or which political line they upheld.

That is why massacring innocent civilians today on the streets of Paris, Mosul or Raqqa is no jihad. It is nothing but cold-blooded murder, which is a grave sin.

If this is the case, you can ask, why so many Muslims have joined ISIL? What motivates them? Aren’t they pious people who put their lives at risks for “the sake of Allah”?

Well, certainly, they say, and they even perhaps believe that. But if you look at them a bit more carefully, you will see that their motivation is less about venerating Islam or Allah, and more about venerating their very selves – their “nafs” or ego.

Because the whole struggle of ISIL – and similar groups – is focused on becoming the vanguards of our ummah, entitling themselves with a leadership position, while looking down upon, even condemning, all other Muslims.

According to their narrative, while all other believers are sleeping in their ignorance or treachery, they are the only ones who see the light and take the challenge. They are, as the ISIL people call themselves, “the Lions of the Caliphate” and “the Best of all Men.”

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Mind you: the real urge here is to achieve power, fame and glory, which is not necessarily a religious passion.

Some secular ideological groups of the recent past were driven by the exact same urge. A number of communists, as the self-declared vanguards of “the proletariat”, also gave themselves the mission to lead a world-changing battle, often leading to much death and carnage.

On the one hand, they were very self-sacrificing; they left their comfortable homes to fight and die for “the revolution”. One the other hand, they were indulging themselves in a most powerful aphrodisiac – the vanity of being one of the selected few, with the privilege to judge and punish the rest.

In contrast, for centuries, pious Muslims followed a purely religious urge: to humbly surrender themselves to God. To honour God, they shied away from all extravagant claims about themselves, their role in history, their place in the ummah. In fact, they intentionally emphasised their limits, shortcomings and flaws to rid themselves from any trace of arrogance.

To see the contrast here, compare the ISIL narrative with the traditional Islamic rhetoric. ISIL narrative is defined by a resolute certainty. The “caliphate” knows what the right interpretation of Islam is, gives the best judgment on every matter, and zealously punishes everyone, including fellow Muslims, who dare to disagree.

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Traditional Islamic sources, on the other hand, are full of cautions against resolute certainty. Imam Shafi, one of the renowned jurists, famously said that in any debate in which he engaged, he wanted his adversary to win: In that case, he would learn something new, and also would save himself from any arrogance.

In the same line of modesty, many Islamic scholars began their arguments by the common phrase of humility, “According to the persuasion of this pauper”, a term emphasising their poverty in knowledge. They would also typically conclude any argument by reminding: “God knows the best.”

It is no accident that ISIL, in its sermons, videos or publications, never uses the disclaimer, “God knows the best”. That would mean ambiguity, and ambiguity would not serve their purpose.


For ISIL claims to know what God knows, and wants to dictate it to the rest of us. If you think this is a way of honouring God, you would be wrong. It is a way of using God to claim power over men.

So, my dear fellow Muslim, please give a thought to all this before being tempted by the calls to become a “Lion of the Caliphate”. If you feel passionate about doing something for God right away, follow His counsel in the Koran: “In the day of hunger, feed an orphan, or a poor man lying in the dust […] and enjoin compassion.” (90:14-17)

Go and help the Syrian refugees, for example, or any other wronged people in your part of the world. You won’t become another “Jihadi John” to shake the world with shock and horror.

But God will know you, and you will be winning His consent. And you will walk with Him, in modesty and dignity, for the rest of your life.

Mustafa Akyol is a Turkish journalist, regular opinion writer for Al-Monitor, and author of Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.