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Imad Alhajj, Uppsala Universitet

Throughout Islamic history, the notion of Hisba has undergone various periods of development and reconceptualization. Etymologically, Hisba is an Arabic term that literally means reward (Almaany, 2020). Furthermore, Hisba is an Islamic doctrine, based on an articulation of a Ḳur ānic verse: “Let there be one community (umma) of you, calling to good, and commanding right and forbidding wrong; those are the prosperers” (Cook, 2003, pp.11-26). Thus, Hisba relates to the sense of obligation experienced by every Muslim and the state to perform two mandatory Islamic requisites: promoting good and forbidding evil. From a social and political perspective, Hisba aims to change and protect from behaviours that do not conform to the socio-religious norms and practices of said societies (Abdelsalam, 2005, p.548).

Hisba is based on the value “that if one encounters someone engaged in wrongdoing, one should do something to stop them” (Cook, 2001, pp.561-584). However, Hisba’s virtues inherently impact individual freedoms in what Cook calls the “clash of the values”: to stop wrongdoing is a good value, but “violat[ing] privacy” is a bad one (Cook, 2003, pp.57-64).

Hisba is about righting a wrong and changing the course of behaviours considered a vice or sinful to conform to a given society’s norms. This righting wrong process mediates the social relationship between two parties – the Muhtasib – the person appointed and carries out Hisba, and the offending party – muhtasab alaihi – who is regulated by the practice (Abdelsalam, 2005, p.548). Hisba is carried out as a monitoring regime to mediate social relationships between parties involved through righting wrong. Islamic regimes exercise this practice in various forms of governance, institutions, names, and mandates. For example, in Sudan, Hisba is officially referred to as the Public Order Police. In Iran, Hisba takes various forms in the Islamic Religious Police, or as they are better known throughout different Islamic countries—the morality police  (BBC Monitoring, 2020). Furthermore, there is no area of agreement among Islamic scholars to what extend the Hisba duty of righting wrong could be exercised through violence (Abdelsalam, 2005, p.544). Nevertheless, Hisba has been rarely discussed as a practice of violence employed to garner social and political control.

Brief Overview of Hisba Through Islamic History

A brief recounting of the notion of Hisba through Islamic history shows that it was developed and conceptualised in various conventions and functions. Abdelsalam argues that Hisba was institutionalised even before the 8th century (2005, p.547) even though not by name. Historical sources indicate that Hisba first emerged as a governance role within the Rightly Guided Caliphate era (632–61) (Kadi and Shahin, 2013, pp.81-82). In pre-modern Islam, the muhtasib was appointed to inspect the markets and supervise moral behaviour. Therefore, he interfered in other people’s lives if they commit what is considered misconduct or a crime against God and prevailing religious conventions, other people’s lives, or both (Mansour, 1995, p.9). For example, duties included preventing harassment on public roads and monitoring the public to ensure that they are pious and fulfilling religious duties and norms, e.g., such as praying. Later on, it appears that the muhtasib was considered to be the market police whose duties were formulated to impose taxes, especially in the Ottoman Empire (Al Janabi, 2013). Mansour argues that Hisba as a religious function was institutionalised for the first time within a state to serve the Abbasid Caliphate’s (750–1258) political agenda. Under the pretence of enforcing righteousness, the aim was to get rid of political enemies of the state and kill them on charges of heresy and apostasy in order to consolidate power into the hands of the Caliphate (Mansour, 1995, pp.10-13).

Islamic regimes exercise this practice in various governance forms, naming of institutions, and mandates in the current era. For example, the Saudi Arabian Kingdom has institutionalized a committee in charge of Hisba: The General Presidency of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 2020). In Sudan, Hisba is synonymous with the Public Order Police, while in Iran, Hisba takes various forms in the Islamic Religious Police (BBC Monitoring, 2020). Because there are various Islamic schools of law and opinions regarding the concept of Hisba, thus, there are different definitions of Hisba (Mansour, 1995, pp.15-50). Furthermore, Islamic scholars, “even within one school of law,” also have different approaches regarding Hisba (Abdelsalam, 2005, p.554). Most importantly, there is no area of agreement among scholars to what extend the Hisba duty of righting wrong could be exercised through violence (ibid., pp.7-10).  

Building on the above, one can argue that Hisba mediates the social relationships between participants groups or agents through the righting wrong process to change the course of norms of a given society to conform with the attribution and self-attributed standard practices of a participant group. 

ISIS’s Hisba Practices of Violence

Caris and Reynolds argue that the self-acclaimed ISIS considered itself to have “the duty to govern both the religious and political lives of Muslims” (Caris and Reynolds, 2014, p.4). During their reign between 2014-2019, ISIS established administrative structures that consisted of offices such as the Shari’a’ department, education, and courts and punishments (ibid., p.4). The Hisba practice and institution was part of religious outreach and enforcement (ibid., pp.4-18). ISIS established the morality police as their third element of the Shari’a department (ibid., p.15). Their duty was to punish violators according to their interpretation of Shari’a (ibid., p.16). ISIS’s morality police practices took various forms. For example, ISIS harshly restricted women’s movement and clothing. These rules were often enforced violently, as a case that took place in the summer of 2016 in Deir Ez-Zor province illustrates: “Six women were put into so-called Iron Cages, some were beaten with lashes, or their husbands were beaten with lashes on their behalf” (Mohammed, 2016). Those punishments furthermore had a collective element as they were carried out in public spaces, with others who were forced to watch. 

In the same line, it is essential to note that Hudd is considered the core element of ISIS’s Hisba. Hudd (pl., Hudūd) is an Arabic term that describes a fixed physical punishment or penalty in Islamic Law (Peters, 2020). For example, flogging is one form of physical punishment used for those who were late in attending group prayers in mosques or smoking. An example from Raqqa city in 2014 elaborates on how ISIS’s Hisba carried out their violent enforcement rules and spread fear among populations.

“There are only five minutes left until the time of the […] prayer. People quickly enter the mosque square, men, youth, and children, as they enter the mosque, the talk about the young man, who was whipped forty lashes because he was three minutes late for prayer. From afar, three men in ‘Afghan dress’ appear with automatic rifles on their shoulders and hands, heading to the mosque and entering it, and as they enter the imam begins to raise the call to prayer. On the opposite side of the neighborhood, specifically, Tel Abyad Street, roaming black cars in which armed masked men in their vehicles are roaming the streets quickly, in an attempt to catch and grab the violators who are not committed to the decision to close shops and go to pray in the mosque. In Al Naeem Roundabout and Al Khidr intersection, the busiest traffic nodes in the city, the movement stops almost completely. Children were witnessed spreading carpets and mats on the ground to pray for those who cannot go to the mosques” (Alalam News Network, 2013).

It is essential to note that the documentation of norms is considered the central pillar of Hisba’s monitoring regime. Hisba members kept systematic records of the “alleged violation” of norms that did not suit their conventions. Allegedly to “rectify issues and find suitable solutions” (Caris and Reynolds, 2014, p.16). The documenting practice of violations had clear and vividly explicit details of types and levels of violations, e.g., cursing, trimming beards for men. Thus, to document the violations, ISIS’s Hisba monitored the populations on foot and via vehicle patrols. Even the numbers and types of those patrols were recorded daily. Also, the patrol vehicles were often provided with loudspeakers and “often broadcast religious guidance over the loudspeakers during patrols” (ibid., p.16).

Figure 1: Example of a Hisba Police arrest record (Source: Callimachi, 2018)

An example from Libya shows that ISIS’s Hisba “combed the streets at prayer times, herding residents into mosques” (Human Rights Watch, 2016). Furthermore, those who did not attend the prayer or continue to conduct “business transactions during prayer time” were subjected to “flogging punishment” as one of many forms of Hadd (ibid.; Peters, 2020). By monitoring the prayers and checking attendance, ISIS’s Hisba was used as a tool to garner political control by spreading fear and terror. ISIS’s Hisba imposed different forms of heavy Hudud penalties in public spaces on those who did not follow their orders or did not conform to their conventions to deter like-minded individuals (Peters, 2020). The actions of ISIS’s Hisba went beyond just flogging as physical punishment but included spreading fear by ”firing shots” while touring villages and imposing ”digging trenches” as labour punishment (Darwish, 2016):

Digging trenches was more than just hard labour, “the Hisba’s members […] use the locals, not the fighters to dig these ditches because most of the time the airplanes shoot at them. So the locals die digging the ditches, not the fighters” (Almohammad et al., 2017, p.20).

ISIS’s Hisba seized every opportunity to impose various forms of Hadd on those that violated ISIS’s imposed norms. Among them for example, the “flogging [a] man with 1,500 lashes” in Deir-Ez-Zor, a city in the northeast of Syria close to the Iraqi border, because he helped an elder female and was consequently charged with accompanying a female who is not a family member (Darwish, 2016). “During the execution of flogging the man […], [ISIS] toured the young man in thirty villages. In each village, the young man was flogged with 50 lashes. The aim was for the people of the region to see it and its punishment would be a deterrent to anyone who tries to break ISIS laws” (ibid.).

In an attempt to describe the impact of ISIS’s rule on civilians under its control, the OHCHR report illustrates with full horrifying details stories from survivors of ISIS’s reign. According to the OHCHR report, “ISIS has beheaded, shot and stoned men, women and children in public spaces in towns and villages” across its controlled areas in Syria and Iraq during 2014 (2014, para.32). Not only were executions recorded, but social media was also utilized by ISIS’s Hisba’s members to spread terror within communities throughout the whole territory under its control and beyond (ibid., paras.34, 63 & 66). According to a witness to an amputation in Raqqah:

ISIS declared through mosques that ‘Al-Hadd’ […] in this case for looting, would be implemented against someone in [a public square]. At the designated time on the following day, a man was brought to the square, blind-folded. A member of ISIS read the group’s judgment. Two people held the victim tightly while a third man stretched his arm over a large wooden board. A fourth man cut off the victim’s hand. It took a long time. One of the people who was standing next to me vomited and passed out due to the horrific scene”  (The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2014, p.6). Also, the report describes how Hisba “followed a consistent pattern” (ibid., para.33):

“ISIS, often through the morality police, informed residents of the time and place of the execution and urged them to attend. Those found on the streets nearby were taken by force to witness the killings. Before executions, ISIS fighters announce the victims’ ‘crimes’. Following the killings, the corpses are placed on public display, often on crosses, for up to three days, serving as a warning to local residents. Witnesses saw scenes of still-bleeding bodies hanging from crosses and of heads placed on spikes along park railings” (ibid., para. 34).

ISIS’s morality police continued these violent actions by exposing “the mutilated bodies of male victims” on public display, as “a warning to [the] local population of the consequences of failure to submit to their authority” (ibid., para.33). As such, these actions were considered “deliberate acts intended to humiliate and degrade the victims and their families” (ibid., para.44). ISIS did not torture only in public spaces but also in prisons. What is more, ISIS’s Hisba used new physical torturing techniques. ISIS also had female Hisba. Al Khansa were considered the most infamous female Hisba for its brutality. The Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently page on Facebook, which was reported by the British newspaper Daily Mail, pointed out that members of the Al-Khansa’ Brigade used an apparatus similar to bears’ traps to punish women who did not comply with their strict rules (Sky News Arabia, 2017). ISIS’s Hisba female members used the new physical torturing methods called the Biter torturing women and cutting their bodies. In the report, the former ISIS Hisba female member confessed that she and her Hisba’ female members used the Biter more specifically in the bodies’ sensitive areas. An example below of ISIS’s Hisba punishment for charges such as breastfeeding a toddler in a public garden can elaborate: 

“She [the confessor] stated that in an incident that she and her Hisba female brigade members arrested a woman in one of the corners of Al-Rasheed Park, breastfeeding her daughter. Her husband, who was brought by Hisba, was given the choice, to express his discretionary punishment for what his wife had done, between flogging him and his wife or exposing the woman to the Biter. But the wife insisted that she should be punished, and she thought that the Biter was something less hurtful or a kind of lighter punishment from flogging. So, she chose the Biter. But she was hospitalized after that due to the deep wounds in her breastfeeding breast” (Sky News Arabia, 2017).

To capture how ISIS’s Hisba shaped the norms of the population under its control gradually, Mara Revkin brings to attention a critical vantage point in how ISIS started to establish, what she terms, the ISIS “Social Contract” (Revkin, 2016). In the early stage of its control, ISIS followed a “hearts and minds” soft strategy “through ideological” outreach (ibid.). However, after a couple of months, ISIS started to behave like a normal state by collecting taxes (Ibid). Later on, ISIS became more brutal (Almohammad et. al., 2017, p.12). It established Hisba as a monitoring regime mediating its social relationship with societies under its control.

A research report produced by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (2017) called The ISIS Prison System describes diverse torture techniques. The physical torture included “seven methods named as follows: Lashing, the Fuel, Bisat al-Rih (Flying Carpet), Shabeh (Ghost), German Chair, the Biter, and the Tire” (ibid., p.2). The documentation is based on a compilation of reports from “Fifty-five ISIS cadres (defectors, returnees or prisoners) and 17 Syrian civilian interviewees who had been detained by ISIS. The interviewees were asked, regarding their knowledge of and first experiences of incarceration in ISIS prison facilities” (ibid., pp.1-3). Moreover, throughout the interrogation processes, “detainees were subjected” to various forms of “psychological methods of torture. These included the threat of execution, promises to receive similar fates as other tortured fellow detainees, solitary confinement, and the placement of severed heads in cages in which detainees are being held” (ibid., p.2). “The use of torture served as a reinforcement of ISIS,” spreading terror (ibid., p.3). “In that sense, torture was a violent method that used to scare civilians into submitting to ISIS’ theological codes and socio-political aims” (ibid., p.3). The report also highlights how ISIS’s Hisba members arrested individuals for “smoking, dress infringements, or breaking ISIS rules […] and placed them in the ISIS’s jail where flogging/lashing and other punishments would take place. In the case of women, if they were arrested, these beatings took place privately inside the prisons where the women were flogged on their bare skin or bitten with a metal device. Two defectors and one woman who had served in ISIS’s Hisba told about women using this metal device to ‘bite’ other women on fleshy parts of their bodies including their breasts—causing one woman to bleed to death” (ibid., p.10). The following example explains how they carried out the practice: 

“We would take off the clothes of the woman until she is in her underwear then we would beat her with a lash and then there are special women in the Hisba[h] for biting and they would bite that woman. So we would torture that woman so badly that when the husband came from the other side she wouldn’t be able to walk. Then from out of this prison she would feel I would never do this again because of the things she suffered from the imprisonment. Her husband needed to pay a fine and […] to purchase the proper abaya and sign the paperwork that he would comply to the rules completely in the future” (ibid., p.10).

A further example of triangulating the former ISIS Hisba member’s account according to “one of the interviewed former detainees, a 63-year old woman, who was tormented with the biter. She detailed the events, with a degree of confusion, during her interview:

My daughter-in-law told me that my niece just got hospitalized. We have animals at home. I was cleaning after them, so I showered before leaving the house. I was in a hurry. There was hand soap in the bathroom, so I quickly washed myself with it. I took one of the boys with me. Your aunty [one of the common ways older women from Raqqa refer to themselves] is an old woman. They want us to wear it [niqab] all the time and they do not allow us to walk without a Harm [brother, father, son, grandson]. I cannot see through it [niqab] anyways. I took one of the boys to walk me to the hospital. We walked passed a group of women and men. The men shouted and ran towards me and the boy. They started to hit me with their canes. The Hisba[h].” [Here the interviews refers that it was ISIS’s Hisba who stopped her in the street]. I hunched on the ground. I asked them what I did. One man said that when you wear a perfume it is like you have Zina [sex out of wedlock] with every male who smells you. I told that I do not smell. I remember the hand soap might have a scent. I told them the story. They did not want to listen. I was crying the whole time. The women of Hisba[h] took me to jail […] In the Hisba[h] jail they tied me to a chair and uncovered my chest. I cried and begged them to forgive me. One of them [a female ISIS captor] told me to shut up. She then looked at my breast and asked me what happened. I told her I had cancer. She told me that she will make the other side look the same. She asked me whether I heard of the biter. I just cried. When she bit me with it I screamed so that maybe all the people in Raqqa heard me” (ibid., p.44).

In 2015, the “ISIS Research and Studies Bureau”, published a research paper under the title Refinement in the provision of torture. This paper was argued to “put a code of conduct for the refinement of torture” (Hassan, 2018). It has been characterized as an attempt “to tame its security elements who went too far in torture to the extent of brutality” (ibid.). However, Hassan’s (2018) analysis of the research paper concludes that it also legitimised the violence carried out by Hisba, including torture, as long as this violence was directed against so-called infidels and apostates. The author concludes that the paper provided psychological justifications for the use of violence.

Analysing the nature of ISIS’s Hisba, it appears, on the one hand, a useful tool utilised to change many norms within societies under its control. Such as, Mosques were used to make an announcement and calls for public gatherings to watch physical punishments. On the other hand, Hisba had collective elements and was used as a tool of coercion and control. The latter became evident in the public readings of judgments and announcements of ‘crimes’ and violently imposing attendance on the population to witness its actions. Most importantly, ISIS’s Hisba carried out its various forms of violence in public spaces, intending to serve two goals. First, to spread its terror as a kind of ritual practice. Secondly, to prevent those who might oppose the rule of the ISIS conventions. For example, ISIS employed “the practices of ‘takfir,’ declaring someone to be a heretic to justify attacks on any individual or group it perceives to be a challenge to its dominance” (The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2014, para.32). This view points towards what the OHCHR concludes in its report that 

“the testimonies collected reveal that ISIS seek[ed] to subjugate civilians under its control and dominate every aspect of their lives through terror [and] indoctrination, […]. ISIS has sought to entrench its militant extremist ideology by indoctrinating children and suppressing freedom of expression. Surveillance, coercion, fear and punishment [were] used to inhibit any dissent. Discrimination on the basis of gender [was] used to implement rigid social norms” (2014, para.73).

In summary, through the bulk of Islamic history, the conceptualisation of Hisba has evolved into different institutions and leverages of practices among society. In the same line, the duty of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is considered the foundation for all individual and social oversight, governance, and monitoring initiatives encompassed in Hisba. Thus, Hisba is considered a vital monitoring regime in Muslim communities. In some cases, it becomes a veritable practice of violence.

Imad Alhajj was a student in the program International Humanitarian Action at Uppsala Universitet in the years 2019-2020 and wrote this entry during an internship at the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum.


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