World & Nation

Why the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has many names

Islamic State of Iraq and Syria
This image posted on a militant news Twitter account on June 12 shows people raising the flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria at an army base in Iraq’s Nineveh province.
(Albaraka News)

Some people call it the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. Others call it the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. Why does the Al Qaeda splinter group have more than one name?

Because the group, which in recent days has seized large swaths of Iraqi territory, did not name itself in English. Both above-mentioned names are translations from Arabic, and the word in question — translated as “Syria,” “the Levant” or, sometimes, “greater Syria” — is the Arabic word “Sham.”

The Levant generally means the land that borders the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea, from Egypt to Greece. Syria is in the middle of that area, which also includes Israel, Lebanon and part of Turkey.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the name Levant comes from the French word “lever,” which means “to rise” (the English word “levitate,” for example, has a similar root) and which refers to the east — because that’s where the sun rises.


There is a narrower usage of “Levant” that aligns more with a sense of “greater Syria": After World War I, the French mandate of Syria and Lebanon was dubbed the Levant States, according to Britannica. (The two countries became independent in the 1940s.)

Regardless of how its name is translated, the group, notorious for its harsh application of sharia, or Islamic law, is contributing to instability in Iraq and beyond. Secular and moderate Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Syria have little wish to embrace the militants’ austere brand of Islam, but the impulse toward separatism based on tribalism, sectarian loyalties or ethnicity has demonstrated enduring appeal in countries across the region.

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