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ISIS, ISIL or Islamic State (IS): Where the name makes a statement

While the rhetoric against the ISIS has been consistent across the globe, their name hasn't.

ISIS-l An IS militant stands next to British hostage David Haines. whom they have allegedly executed.

Four beheadings down, the Islamic State now threatened to kill another hostage from the United Kingdom after David Haines. The brutal videos are clearly a message to US allies and a direct challenge to American authority in the region.

While the outcry against the ISIS has been consistent across the globe, their name hasn’t. United States, the United Nations and some news media agencies refer to the jihadist group with the acronym ISIL, while others use either ISIS, IS or ISIL. But what’s in a name, we ask. Apparently, a lot.


The ‘L’ in ISIL stands for Levant, a translation of “al-Sham” – which is a historic region in the Eastern Mediterranean that includes Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Cyprus. But Levant is not an accurate translation, say experts.

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READ: After beheading, Cameron says: ‘They are not Muslims, they are monsters’

Al-Sham or Levant includes Palestinian territories, Jordan and Lebanon stretching from Turkey through Syria to Egypt, while ISIS only includes Syria and Iraq, say experts. But they call it IS because that’s what the group chooses to call itself in online videos.


The New York Times explained in one of their posts in June what the term al-Sham means. “Al-Sham is the classical Arabic term for Damascus and its hinterlands, and over time, it came to denote the area between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, south of the Taurus Mountains and north of the Arabian desert,” the post said.


The acronym ISIL stands for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The US, United Nations and some sections of the media use this term. According to the CNN, the US believes that ISIL has a larger connotation because the group is clearly aiming for a larger swathe of territory beyond Iraq and Syria.



Also, the US doesn’t recognise their ultimate goal of carving out a caliphate. Besides, the word ‘Levant’ reflects the group’s aspirations of controlling vast amounts of territory than just Iraq and Syria.

An Associated Press blogpost said that ISIL is the most accurate translation of the group’s name. “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,” read the blogpost.


Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is an English translation of the Arabic acronym Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, which means the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. “The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has mutated into the Islamic State after capturing parts of Syria and Iraq,” writes consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan Khaled Ahmad in the Indian Express.

READ: Terror connection by Khaled Ahmad



“The historic Islamic term “Sham” is the name given by al-Qaeda to Syria, which the Syrians don’t like because it means “left hand” and “shame”, and instead use the pagan term, Suriya, based on the correct pronunciation of the Greek letter “y” in Syria,” adds Ahmad.

It must be mentioned that the Islamic State has already announced their ultimate goal to form a caliphate over the vast expanse of region stretching from Turkey through Syria to Egypt and also including Jordan, Lebanon and Palestinian territories.

Arabic speakers say al-Sham can be translated as Levant, Greater Syria, Syria, and Damascus.

Islamic State

The Islamic militants refer to themselves as the Islamic State. This term is used on their videos and reflects the organization’s ultimate goal of creating a caliphate across national borders. Experts believe that some Arab governments have refrained from referring to the terrorist group as Islamic State because it lends the organisation legitimacy. They prefer using the Arabic acronym called Daiish, which in short means Dawlat al-Islamiyah f’al-Iraq w Belaad al-Sham.


According to news reports, when Mosul fell to the militants, they threatened to cut of the tongues of Mosul residents who publicly referred to them as Daiish. The militants said that acronym shows disrespect and defiance.


They prefer to be called either the Islamic State (al-Dawla al-Islamliya in Arabic) or simply the State (al-Dawla) in online videos and announcements.  Experts say this term may actually make more sense because the name Islamic State means a caliphate to many muslims around the world.

First published on: 17-09-2014 at 12:06:02 pm
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