English speakers have yet to agree on a word, phrase or acronym to label the terrorist group making news for such atrocities as beheading noncombatants and butchering unarmed prisoners.
A few years ago, American journalists started referring to the group that was calling itself “Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham” as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), but this acronym has proved to be a poor choice; it suggests that the group’s focus is limited to Iraq and Syria.
The term al-Sham does not stand for Syria. The English translation of al-Sham is “the Levant.”
Levant came into English from French in the 15th century with the meaning “East,” (from French lever, “to rise.”) The region referred to was in the East. The sun rises in the east, ergo, levant (rising), present participle of lever.
The Levant is “the eastern part of the Mediterranean, with its islands and the countries adjoining.” According to one interpretation, the Levant is made up of Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and part of southern Turkey. Others claim that the Levant refers only to Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.
The Associated Press has rejected the continued use of ISIS, preferring ISIL (L for Levant) as a more accurate interpretation of al-Sham. John Daniszewski, AP vice president and senior managing editor for international news, says, “We believe this is the most accurate translation of the group’s name and reflects its aspirations to rule over a broad swath of the Middle East.”
Since June 2014, when the terrorist group named a “caliph” and dropped both Iraq and Levant from its name, ISIL has become less than accurate as a reflection of the group’s aspirations. Referring to themselves as “the Islamic State” reflects their self-image as a reincarnation of the medieval caliphate founded in the 7th century. The Umayyad caliphate (661-750) conquered lands from Arabia to Spain; their advance into Western Europe in 732 was turned back by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours.
The words caliph and caliphate derive from Arabic khilafa, “succession.” A caliph is seen as the successor of Muhammad. A caliphate is a sovereign state ruled by a caliph under Islamic law (sharia). The office of caliph combines the functions of king and priest.
British journalists seem to have decided on the initials IS as a short way of referring to the group without limiting its perceived goals to any particular region of the world. They use the term “Islamic State” for the first reference in an article and the capitalized initials IS in subsequent references.
It seems to me that either ISIL or IS is preferable to ISIS. As a student of mythology and comparative religion, I cringe every time I hear the murderous terrorists referred to by an acronym that sounds like the name of the benign mother goddess Isis. And I sympathize with women like Isis Martinez of Miami who sees people “recoil in disgust” when she introduces herself these days.
Postscript: I just heard an American reporter on NPR refer to the group as IS.