ISIS stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and it originally comes from the Arabic name "Islamic State of Iraq and Sham." The word Sham in its contextual Islamic meaning stands for ancient Syria that included more than the current state of Syria. Countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine were all part of ancient Sham. A more accurate translation of the name is ISIL – "Islamic State of Iraq and Levant" – rather than ISIS. Levant stands for ancient Sham. Later on ISIL leadership changed their own name to Islamic State (I.S.). Their ambition is to spread east, west, south and north. For instance, if one day in the future Boko Haram in Nigeria submits to the current leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi as the Caliph Ibrahim, then the territory in north Nigeria which is under the control of Boko Haram becomes in their view a part of the Islamic State although it is not geographically connected to it, like Alaska to the United States.
For years now, and especially since the Arab Spring, there has been an identity crisis for many Muslims. "Who is the real Muslim" is a burning issue for many Muslims today. Is the real Muslim a person whose beliefs are like those of Sayid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic State or what is called "Political Islam"? Or does the term "Muslim" refer more to someone who practices the kind of Islam that is a private relationship with God, as some Muslims around the world perceive Islam to be? Most Muslims fit somewhere between those two extremes.
One of the pillars of Islamic fundamentalism in the 20th Century was Sayid Qutb whose writings have had a tremendous influence on the Islamists, the Islamic State and political Islam.
Sayid Qutb left Egypt in 1948 to come to the States with a scholarship from the Egyptian government for two objectives: 1) To get exposed to the educational system in America so that he will return to Egypt and reform the educational system in his country, and 2) To get polished, or to get westernized. I personally think that he was polished and westernized enough already. He loved classical music and loved the Hollywood movies of the 1940s. Sayid Qutb left Egypt as a secular Muslim and after spending time in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Greely, CO; and California he returned to Egypt as a Muslim Fundamentalist. I have a whole chapter on his life in my book on Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt: The Rumbling Volcano. For years I have asked my students to read Sayid Qutb's book Milestones which is available to download free from the Internet.
Muslims today who are going through an identity crisis and who do not want to abandon Islam have mainly two choices, either in the direction of what some call "pure Islam" of the seventh century as Sayid Qutb propagates, or to a kind of Islam which can flourish in the 21st Century. Mahmoud Taha was a Sudanese theologian who presented a theory in his book The Second Message of Islam that gives an answer to the theory of abrogation (nasekh wal mansoukh). In his response he presented a unique picture for the future of Islam. The more than 30 pages introduction to Mahmoud Taha's book, written by his disciple An-Naim, makes the book worth buying. An-Naim articulated how Taha's theology reverses the theory of abrogation. The theory of abrogation is the heart of the argument of the Islamists or Political Islam. The only challenge that I have seen so far to the theory of abrogation has been presented by Mahmoud Taha and An-Naim. In my book The Crescent Through The Eyes of the Cross, I address this theory in chapter 7 and illustrate the moderates' perspective in chapter 4.
I learned that in Egypt today there are millions of former Muslims who have become atheists. The Egyptian government has now set up an agency to deal with "atheism." In the twentieth century this was unheard of. Because of Khomeini, al Qae'da, ISIL and other manifestations of political Islam, and because of Christian TV programs aired in Arabic and directed towards the Middle East, the identity crisis is becoming more and more a burning issue for many Muslims.
What an opportunity for the gospel when people dare to think and are at crossroads on their lives' journeys.