On October 7, Hamas operatives carried out a terror attack in the south of Israel. In several hours, they murdered over 1,000 men, women, and children; torched houses and burned their residents alive; kidnapped babies, adults, and elderly men and women; raped women, and in all likelihood men also. As pictures and clips of these atrocities made their way from the terrorists’ go-pro cameras to social media platforms, many of the viewers were reminded of ISIS, and the hashtag #HamasisISIS began to circulate. The link between the two organizations was mentioned also by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Joe Biden. Gradually, mainstream media venues such as Time, The Washington Post, and others joined the discussion about the similarities and dissimilarities of the two terror organizations, transforming the accusation into a major public debate.

Although most of the experts who are familiar with the two organizations note that the Hamas and ISIS operatives employed similar forms of violence, they also observe that their worldviews are significantly different. According to these experts, one notable distinction between the two organizations is their goal: Whereas ISIS aims to establish a global caliphate, Hamas aims to establish one state—Palestine. Another discrepancy is the relations of these two Sunni fundamentalist organizations with Shiite Iran: Whereas ISIS considers Shiites to be their archenemies, Hamas sees Shiite Iran as a close ally. These, and other organizational and ideological differences, lead most scholars of Sunni fundamentalist organizations to contend that the two organizations are profoundly dissimilar.

Furthermore, Hamas and ISIS both have a history of vocal controversy and bloody conflict. In 2015 ISIS released a video in which it rebuked the “Hamas tyrants” and accused them of failing to implement Islamic law. During that period, when ISIS attempted to establish a presence in Gaza, Hamas clashed and killed its operatives. Whatever others may think about the similarities or dissimilarities of these two movements, they certainly do not see themselves as treading the same path.

There are several angles from which to compare Hamas and ISIS: actions, ideologies, and projection of public image. Although the similarities of their actions and dissimilarities of their outlook have been discussed in aforementioned debate, much less attention has been given to how these organizations discuss their actions and how they merge violence with religion. Specifically, how do Hamas and ISIS discuss their acts of violence? Do they rely on religious justifications to legitimize their actions?

To address these questions, it is necessary to examine the attitudes of Hamas and ISIS toward politically motivated violence. Their shared point of departure is that the employment of violence is legitimate since it is the only way that they can protect Muslim societies; Hamas asserts that it defends Palestinians against Israel, and ISIS asserts that it defends the entire Islamic world against Western colonialism and cultural imperialism. However, their documented acts of terror place them outside the bounds of internationally sanctioned laws of war and are admonished the world over. Although both organizations are aware of this international indignation, they deal with it differently. A detailed examination of the rhetorical strategies that they employ, particularly the religious reasoning that they use, will reveal the vastly different ways that they think about the world and how they situate themselves in it.


When Israel presented evidence of Hamas’s brutalities, such as murder of children, rape, and burning people alive, Hamas denied that their operatives carried out such acts. When it was confronted with the New York Times article on sexual violence during the October 7 attack, or with closed screenings of footage taken from Hamas’s go-pro cameras before US Senators or Hollywood executives, Hamas accused Israel and Western media of fabricating the evidence. For example, in a statement on Telegram, Hamas contended that this evidence was the result of “the coordination of some Western media outlets with the Zionist misleading campaigns that promote unfounded lies and allegations aimed at demonizing the Palestinian resistance […].” Placing aside the veracity of Hamas’s disavowal of Israel’s accusations, it is clear that their leaders were intent on distancing Hamas from the inhumanity of their operatives. Realizing that the horrendous pictures taken from their go-pro cameras are a political liability, their spokesmen deny that members of their organization perpetrated such crimes.

Hamas’s line of argumentation, which strives to build a positive public image, is based on two claims that appear in a document called “This is our narrative . . . why the al-Aqsa flood?” The first claim seeks to disconnect Hamas from the acts of terror that were committed on October 7, by claiming that it was Israeli soldiers who killed their own civilians, and the few civilians that Hamas operatives killed was accidental, due to the fog of battle. The second claim, and this is a cardinal point in comparison to ISIS, is to sideline Islamic discourse when it addresses the attack perpetrated on October 7. Instead of drawing on religious reasoning, Hamas articulates a national liberation and human rights narrative. Its sole and very short reference to Islam is that the acts ascribed to its operatives contradict Islamic principles, and therefore it is inconceivable that Hamas committed them. Other than that, there are hardly any references to Islamic reasoning or citations from holy texts. Bearing in mind that the Hamas Charter is replete with references to the Qur’an and Prophetic traditions, this is a significant departure from Islamic legitimization and a turn toward the political rationale of Western liberal circles. Be it cynicism or pragmatism, Hamas’s line of defense adapts its rhetoric to a new audience—Western supporters of the Palestinian cause. These new aficionados of Hamas are not very likely to find the medieval religious citations and antisemitic diatribes that appear in Hamas’s Charter palatable, but they are most likely to embrace human rights discourse.

In contrast to Hamas, ISIS does not conceal the callousness of its operatives and openly claims that their conduct is in line with Islamic values. Its publications are awash with statements asserting that their acts of violence and sexual enslavement are permitted by Islamic law and part of their apocalyptic vision. In an article about the enslavement of Yazidi women in Dabiq (4: 14), ISIS’s English language magazine aimed at foreign audiences, it was argued that the Yazidis worship Satan, and therefore it was permitted to enslave their women and treat them as concubines. The article states explicitly that “[T]aking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Sharia [Islamic law].” According to ISIS’s understanding of Islam’s laws of warfare, polytheist women were considered the spoils of war, and therefore it was permitted to enslave them and force them into sexual acts. Rejecting such practices, according to the article, is tantamount to abandoning Islamic law.

Furthermore, this same article asserts that the enslavement of women is an indication of the coming apocalypse: “It is interesting to note that slavery has been mentioned as one of the signs of the Hour as well as one of the causes behind al-Malhamah al-Kubrā” (Dabiq 4: 15). The “Hour” is the end of time, and “al-Malhamah al-Kubra” are the final battles in which the Muslims will overcome their enemies. In these battles, many slaves will be captured, and therefore, enslavement is deemed a portent of the Hour. In this manner, ISIS implanted the notion of concubinage in their apocalyptic scenario and as a result, ISIS’s men enslaved thousands of Yazidi women, which they bought and sold like chattel. Sadly, reports from rescued Yazidi women confirm that this was not merely a hypothetical discussion about law or apocalypse but instructions for concrete behavior.

According to ISIS’s apocalyptic vision, it was chosen by God to bring about the end of times. This choice entails divine support on the battlefield, and therefore, ISIS does not need to take into consideration earthly power relations when making military or political moves. Consequently, the reasoning that guides their decisions and conduct is detached from the constraints of martial concerns.

ISIS also stands behind other horrific acts, not just the enslavement of women, but also burning alive human beings. ISIS dedicated an article in Dabiq to the burning of the Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh. Al-Kasasbeh participated in an operation in northern Syria and his plane crashed in the vicinity of Raqqa in December 2014. In January 2015 he was placed inside a cage and burned alive. In February 2015 ISIS released a video of his execution and concurrently published an article in Dabiq (7: 5–8) which was accompanied by several gruesome pictures of al-Kasasbeh’s execution and a detailed explanation of why they chose to burn him alive. Al-Kasasbeh, they contended, was a pilot who bombed, burned, and buried many Muslims. Basing themselves on the logic of a Quranic verse that instructed to punish the enemy by the same means that the enemy hurt Muslims, ISIS asserted that it was legitimate to burn al-Kasasbeh. They also referred to prophetic traditions and historical cases in which the Prophet’s Companions acted similarly. The article concludes with the claim that punishment with fire is necessary to terrorize the enemy. It is worthwhile to recall that Hamas also burned humans alive when they torched several homes while the residents were inside during their October 7 attack However, to the best of my knowledge, they have not addressed the issue with any explicit explanation.


Although the terror attacks perpetrated by Hamas and ISIS resemble each other, the two organizations presented these actions in a different, contradictory, manner. Whereas ISIS takes pride in its operatives’ actions and asserts that such violence is sanctified by Islamic law, history, and apocalyptic vision, Hamas does all it can to distance itself from those actions. It argues that its operatives did not target civilians and that Hamas explicitly instructed its operatives not to hurt women and children. The fact that these claims contradict a plethora of evidence, such as recordings from their operatives’ go-pro cameras, pictures of charred bodies, dozens of elderly men and women as well as children who were kidnapped to Gaza, and testimonies of rape, reveals that its officials are concerned about its public image and aim to improve its position in Western public opinion by bluntly denying the facts with which they are confronted. Whereas ISIS takes ownership of the atrocities that its operatives committed and unabashedly ties them to its interpretation of Islam, Hamas is uncomfortable about associating such acts with its members and therefore denies that its operatives carried them out. Furthermore, despite its profound religious commitment, it leaves religious doctrine out of the discussion.

One of the reasons that the two organizations conduct themselves so differently is that ISIS is oblivious and even contemptuous of Western public opinion and international support, while Hamas is eager to improve its image in Western eyes and gain international support. This contradictory attitude toward Western public opinion goes hand in hand with another disagreement between them: their attitude toward Western political thought, mainly the pivotal notion of the nation-state. ISIS asserts that nation-states are illegitimate and are a ploy meant to divide and weaken the Muslims. Its adamant opposition is conveyed in its heated diatribe against the Sykes-Picot Agreement and its glee in filming a bulldozer demolish a border between Syria and Iraq. Instead of being parceled out into nation-states, they argue, all the Muslims must unite under a caliphate.

By contrast, Hamas accepts the notion of the nation-state. In its Charter, Hamas writes that it is “a unique Palestinian movement,” and that “nationalism is part and parcel of its [Hamas’s] religious creed,” implying that Western political ideas and institutions such as nationalism are in congruence with an Islamic worldview and values. Thus, whereas ISIS considers Western notions of the nation-state and Islam to be mutually exclusive, Hamas perceives the two as compatible.

The opposing views of Hamas and ISIS regarding nationalism come across in a disparaging remark that ISIS made several months after the October 7 massacre and was quoted in a leading newspaper, al-Araby al-Jadid. According to ISIS, Hamas’s massacre was misguided because it was executed to serve a nationalist agenda. Furthermore, in this article, ISIS, who view themselves as Sunni Muslims, added another censorious remark in which it denigrated Hamas’s collaboration with the Shiites of Iran—whom ISIS regards as its demonic archenemy.


Let us go back to the question with which this essay opened: Do Hamas and ISIS rely on religious justifications to legitimize their actions? ISIS is ideologically purist, and its religious thought determines its actions. This approach is manifested in its literalist legal doctrines, which rely on ultra-conservative medieval views, allowing, for example, the enslavement of women and other forms of behavior that today would be considered sexual abuse. Its religious vision also shapes their perception of power relations in the world, which is based on apocalyptic thinking, and directs them to fight and win the Malahim al-Kubra. Due to this insular approach, which relies solely on their interpretation of Islam and dismisses military and political considerations, they have clashed with numerous forces that surround them, including Sunni-run states. ISIS’s rigid religious outlook serves as their political blueprint, which justifies, and shapes the extreme acts of violence that they perpetrate.

Hamas, by contrast, is distinctly different from ISIS in that it is guided by realpolitik exigencies rather than a rigid interpretation of Islam. It is much more flexible ideologically, and therefore it integrates Western political concepts into its political vision. Furthermore, it does not shy away from unscrupulous policies such as collaborating with its Shiite mentor, Iran, or lying brazenly about the actions that its operatives committed on October 7, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. This is an opportunistic approach that aims to win over international support. Thus, whereas religious principles serve as vague inspiration for their political conduct regarding acts of violence, they do their utmost to disconnect between their religious outlook and the terror attacks that their operatives committed.