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Ashura: This is how an event more than 1,300 years ago today sparked the birth of Isis


Islam is misunderstood because many of us – Muslim and non-Muslim – are ignorant of Islamic history. It is this secret history that can tell us not only where Isis really come from, but why they are not going away any time soon, despite losing their territory.

For example, this Tuesday is Ashura, one of the saddest days of the calendar for the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims, marking the day the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Husayn ibn Ali, was killed during the Battle of Karbala, But few Muslims – and even fewer non-Muslims – truly understand what happened on this day over 1300 years ago.

This was the crucial date when, just a few years after Prophet Muhammad’s death, Islam went from being practiced as a divine religion to being a tool used by a regime that, like its modern counterpart, had little interest in faith and more interest in territorial expansion and supremacism.

It was the birth of the first Isis, as a militant, brutal perversion of the religion massacred a vulnerable minority. The hijacking and abuse of Islam goes back a long way and it has been an ongoing struggle for Muslims to isolate their faith from its often grimy historical context. This is a fact not appreciated by the majority of counter-extremism experts, meaning that much of their work is ineffective or even counter-productive, as policies and strategies are employed which target entire Muslim communities when really the pivot to violence and supremacism has always been isolated to very few marginal and radical individuals.

After 800 years of conflict between the Byzantine and Persian empires, a power vacuum had emerged, which the new empire of Islam filled. But expansionism came at a cost: the brutal Umayyad dynasty who seized control of Islam had to eliminate all rivals, including the Prophet Muhammad’s own family. It is this injustice – and the chain of events it led to, where Imperialism in the name of Islam was unleashed on much of the civilized world – that many Muslims will mourn on Tuesday.

But this is about much more than history – it is about how, at the hands of a few self-elected strongmen, extremism and supremacism came to be a common byproduct of Islam’s interaction with the world, to the point where the two are almost indistinguishable to some. It is this blurring of the lines between faith and empire, that has led so many to wonder if Islam can peacefully exist in the modern world. It has also created powerful imagery of Islam’s “glory days”, used by extremists the world over to inspire their impressionable young recruits.

As many jump between two caricatures of Islam (that it is either an inherently violent and fascistic ideology, or that Muslims are perennially innocent victims of hatred and discrimination) we must understand that there are two Islams, both of which are very real. There is the Islam of the Umayyad dynasty and their modern ideological descendants in Wahhabism and Isis, which is a violent perversion of a harmonious faith. And there is the Islam of the vast majority of the world’s Muslims, which is an Abrahamic faith in the lineage of Judaism and Christianity.

Both Muslims and non-Muslims do the religion an injustice by confusing the faith with the historical acts committed in its name. There is a western intellectual tradition, going back to Orientalism and the idea of the “Clash of Civilisations” that primes some observers to believe that Islam is indeed an aggressive, alien force. Many in the far-right seem more comfortable with the idea of being in perpetual conflict with Islam than with an acceptance of a shared Abrahamic tradition among the three major monotheistic faiths.

At the same time, some Muslims fall into the trap of idealizing their own history. Many in the diaspora prefer the self-image of being part of an ancient (albeit militaristic and unjust) empire, than an embattled minority with a range of complexities and often socio-economic disadvantages.

At the extreme end of this scale are some Islamists who believe that all the problems in the world can be solved merely by the existence of a Caliphate, regardless of its moral compass. The date 1924 (the end of the last Caliphate, the Ottoman Empire) has been immortalized by many activists who want nothing other than a return to Islamic political authority – whatever the outcome of that regime.

This idea, that the simple existence of a Caliph (however brutal or barbaric he may be) will solve all the world’s problems, is dangerous. Isis showed what happens when it is taken to its natural conclusion.

But this ideology is not going to go away: “power at all costs” has been a belief amongst some Muslims from the time of the Umayyads and the Ashura massacre that will be commemorated on Tuesday.

It was Yazid, the Umayyad commander, that introduced the Arabs to beheadings and the eating of one’s enemies’ vital organs – both of which are favored tactics of Isis. And their sense of supremacism, evident in their exclusion of other tribes and sectarian minorities from power, is still alive today in some parts of the Muslim world.

Most importantly, Yazid used the Quran to justify his war crimes, and called his enemies (including Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussain) apostates.

If all this sounds familiar, it is because Isis themselves do not identify as a 21st century grouping, but rather the continuation of this war that began on the sands of Kerbala, Iraq 1339 years ago. It is a war that is far from over.

Salim Kassam is a community activist and co-founder of