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The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State

4.14  ·  Rating details ·  937 ratings  ·  136 reviews
From Graeme Wood, author of the explosive Atlantic cover story “What ISIS Really Wants,” comes the definitive book on the history, psychology, character, and aims of the Islamic State. Based on Wood’s unprecedented access to supporters, recruiters, and high-ranking members of the most infamous jihadist group in the world, The Way of the Strangersis a riveting, fast-paced d ...more
Hardcover, 317 pages
Published December 20th 2016 by Random House (first published December 2016)
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Dec 26, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In poker, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to underestimate your adversary. The Islamic State (IS) is one adversary that both Westerners and Muslims have underestimated *and* misunderstood.

‘Cause let’s face it – who really gets IS anyway? Even to an educated audience, they seem like a jumble of names (ISIS? ISIL? Da’esh? different from Al Qaeda?), leaders, factions and philosophies falling somewhere between incoherence and chaos. How did they come about? Are these guys even Muslim? Wh
Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin
A good analogy for ISIS and whether it is Islamic is Mel Gibson he doesn't think the pope is Catholic enough. Mel Gibson is crazy and extreme but nobody would deny that Gibson is a crazy Catholic. ISIS is a minority position of Salafist Islam (being a minority of true believers in their own eyes is a badge of pride for them) it is a disgusting ideology and it's not accepted by the majority of Muslims but it is an Islamic movement in the way Gibson is Catholic even though a lot of Catholics migh ...more
Jun 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I initially came across this book while listening to the author discuss it on Sam Harris' podcast (a really thought provoking podcast by the way, regardless of how you may feel about Harris).
Admittedly, I'm not as educated about ISIS as I should be and sometimes feel overwhelmed by the massive amount of material that's been written about them. Yet this book does something very unique, it describes what ISIS believes in the words of ISIS supporters. This is not to say the author doesn't have o
Jan 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I’ve been struggling to understand the militant Islamist mindset since 9/11, when supporters of Osama Bin Laden destroyed the World Trade Center and attacked the Pentagon. In time, I learned something about Bin Laden's hatred of America because what he saw as (1) U.S. one-sided support for Israel at the expense of Palestinian concerns; (2) our support of authoritarian regimes in Mid-Eastern countries at the expense of their oppressed Muslim citizens; and (3) our military presence in Saudi Arabia ...more
Jul 13, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Incredible amount of hype around this book by someone who, according to The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, has become the world's "leading interpreter" of ISIS. It's a pretty high standard for someone whose principle work on the terrorist group's adherents leaves a lot to be desired. Goodreads doesn't allow for half-stars, but I'd give it a 2.5/5.

In sum, Wood waits til way past the halfway mark of the book to make his main argument (though one gets the feeling that he doesn't really make in a ver
Sarah Shaheen
During the extensive IS upheaval three years ago or so, I was extremely frustrated by the official self-proclaimed "modest" Muslim scholars' failure to address the Islamic State's theology and deconstruct its doctine. They resorted to pathetic lectures on love and mercy in Islam.

Instead of active intellectual engagement with their narratives and interpretations, they chose to depict them as uncouth barbarians, unfamiliar with the scriptures and classical heritage of the Ulamaa', or mentally-hij
Lalo Dagach
Jun 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: middle-east
'The Way of the Strangers' is a fantastic book with disturbing stories and extensive historical and theological information. The author's encounters with ISIS members, ISIS supporters, family members, Muslim opposition leaders, etc., give the reader a wide view of ISIS and the lives in has affected. The background information, and the amount of it, is what sets this book apart, as not many book on Islam analyze the origins of Jihad.

I also had the opportunity to interview the author Graeme Wood,
Apr 26, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Deducting a star for organization and the occasional feeling of being dropped in different place with little context. (Book jumps around the globe and from macro to micro level randomly) Otherwise a chilling and comprehensive primer on the subject that assumes a certain base knowledge, but also is really informative without being overwhelming.
Ahmad Abugosh
Jan 09, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed this peek behind the curtain on the philosophy of extreme ideologies. The author is engaging and I thoroughly enjoyed the horrific stories. It's scary to think how brainwashed people can get if they're in the right mindset.
Mizrob A.
Jun 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: religion
Fantastic book by Graeme Wood (journalist; teaches at Yale University, Department of Political Science). If you want to learn a lot of interesting stuff about Islam’s history or just plain theology (Sunni-Shia split, the role of Jesus in Islam, relationship between Islam and politics, various interpretation of political Islam, etc.), you can’t do better than this book. Also, most academics and commentators on Islam can’t comprehend that some people might actually believe in scripture as anything ...more
Leslie Ann
Feb 03, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
This book is fascinating, but not an easy read. I now truly appreciate how the supporters of the Islamic State do not represent the majority of Muslims, but Wood makes an equally valid point that their minority status does not make them illegitimate. Indeed, their very literal approach to the Koran - disregarding centuries of Islamic scholarship - is not different from the way certain Christians read the Bible, and it was interesting to see how difficult it is for respected Islamic scholars to c ...more
Apr 25, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This is a very interesting text that is a compilation of interviews with different jihadist Muslims that argues that the Islamic State raison d'etre is based in their deeply religious apocalyptic beliefs that they are approaching the end of days.
While "Christian messianism has been historically a more deadly disease than Muslim messianism", the author states: this new iteration has the potential to be equally as violent. Graeme Wood also points out that secular historians have a way of projecti
David Rush
Nov 12, 2017 rated it liked it
At the simplest level this is a an expansion of Wood’s article What ISIS Really Wants ( ) . But at a deeper level he is asking “What is religion” , and he is pushing the point that ISIS is in truth only explainable as Islam and is a "valid" religion as any. I think his contention that if you think the idea of Religion is acceptable then you have to acknowledge when those principles that lead one person to a just peace can lead another to justifiable (in th ...more
Sep 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Solid overview of IS from the perspectives of multiple strains of Islamic Jihadist thought by a former logistics contractor in Iraq who later became a journalist. Makes a compelling case that Islamic State is Islamic, if maybe not a State.

Since it was largely interviews with fairly idiosyncratic guys, someone without a reasonable degree of familiarity with the sects and movements within Islam might find it a bit hard to follow; a more structured overview of the topic would be a better introducti
Jonathan Brown
Jul 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"Jihadists can make good tour guides" (120). That one quote encapsulates the spirit of The Way of the Strangers. This here is an invaluable book that goes where few books do, because author Graeme Wood went where few authors do. He personally entered into correspondence, and carried out face-to-face interviews, with numerous Islamist figures, some of whom were ISIS recruiters.

A large portion of the book is in relaying these encounters, and doing research to peel back the pseudonyms (e.g., ident
Sep 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
Excepting a couple of structural/organizational gripes, this book is an excellent and incisive case study of the reasons people may be drawn to the Islamic State. It stands counter to the dangerously oversimplified assumptions many make regarding the motivating forces creating and fueling Islamic extremists, including the deep religious conviction and eschatological fetishism that is often brushed off in favor of strictly social or political readings. According to Wood, understanding their belie ...more
Mar 19, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It's honestly just shocking how not only do many of the people Wood interviews, disagrees with not only, any non-follower/believer of Islam but the vast majority of followers it seems also disagree with each other, they all simply contradict one another and it's actually quite laughable. I do share the opinion of one of the quotes on the back of the book, stating that we can bomb ISIS in Raqqa and Mosul into oblivion but it doesn't matter if we do not understand and wipe-out the ideology first w ...more
Sep 10, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wood provides a deeper look inside the groups that are attributed to the Islamic State. He attempts to unpack misunderstandings about the politics, religion, behaviors, history, traditions, motivations and interpretations of the beliefs of a wide spectrum of individuals through the conversations with diverse members of the group. His conclusions are as contentious and diverse as the people he interviews.
Nenad Jaksic
Aug 16, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating and very spooky book... Graeme Wood's Atlantic article pretty much summarized the points and facts presented in this book as a sort od TL:DR version, but still, it was worth reading all the way through. You'll get a pretty good idea of what makes those ISIS killers tick.

As for all the people who continue to delude themselves with "religion of peace", "not true Islam" and "the West is to blame for ISIS" narrative, I would also suggest as an additional reading to go straight to the IS
Sami Eerola
Maybe the best book about the ideology if IS and its supporters. Nothing new for me, but for a layman this is a good, fun and easy read about the most evil terrorist group in history. For my part i will take a brake on books about jihadism.
Phil James
Mar 06, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was given a copy of this book. It intimidated me with a heavy subject but was a lot lighter to read than expected. Think Jon Ronson's Psychopath Test written from someone with a track record of serious journalism. It didn't exactly make me laugh but as the author gets deeper and deeper into the bizarre beliefs of ISIS recruiters and their teachers, the experience becomes intensely surreal.

He also is stubborn enough to ask awkward questions to Islamic scholars and listens carefully to the answe
Jun 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) has been continuously losing territory in Iraq and Syria, and there seems to be no doubt among experts that it will be comprehensively defeated in just a matter of time. There is even an unverified claim by the Russian Government that the chief of ISIS, the Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been killed. Will we soon, thankfully, see the end of the Islamic State (IS)? Or will we have another version of th ...more
Feb 19, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A good overview of ISIL but heavy on the theological aspect

Not bad, by any means, but the last hundred or so pages were a bit of a chore to get through.
Jonna Higgins-Freese
I knew almost nothing about Salafi/jihadi thought or the philosophy/theology of the caliphate. Wood's narrative was useful in understanding what drives various followers, and he is direct and honest in his portrayals while trying to be complete and sympathetic to the extent possible. For example, an Egyptian Salafi who had long advocated caliphate-like policies but chooses not to render obedience to ISIS. He says he is too old to travel and doesn't know who they are and what they stand for. Wood ...more
I figured this would be pretty good, and mostly just informative; for some reason I didn’t expect it to be so smart, brilliantly written, info-rich, and at times, utterly hilarious. Almost a Jon Ronson-esque vibe. 5/5, perfect.
Joseph Stieb
Oct 04, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: terrorism
As much as I enjoyed this book, let me start by saying the title is a little misleading. It should really be called "Encounters on the Edge of the Islamic State" because he doesn't actually go to Syria or even interview a lot of ex-IS personnel. However, that caveat does not make this book any less interesting. What this book actually is is a journey through the theological minds of IS and its supporters. Some of these, like Turki al-Binali (now dead) or Yahya Abu Hassan (an American from Texas) ...more
Andrei Khrapavitski
Finally finished reading Graeme Wood's book "The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State." It took a while to finish it because frankly it is not the topic you want to spend much of your precious time on. The world of ISIS is a truly fucked up place. It is hard to fathom how come someone in the XXI century would believe in ancient prophecies and act as if they were true. These bastards clearly must have some other reasons. Well, of course, there are many reasons why a person can ...more
Philip Girvan
Nov 28, 2017 rated it liked it
The Way Of The Strangers argues that, while Islamic State (IS) lies outside mainstream Islamic tradition, “[t]he notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to those who have traveled to fight" (73).

The book emphasizes that IS "could never have achieved so much, so fast, if there had not been millions of people already hungry for what the Islamic State promised” (5). Graeme Wood interviews
Julian Dunn
Nov 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Wood's book is an extremely well-researched investigation of the underlying motives and theology of the Islamic State (IS). He has spent years embedding himself with IS proponents in Australia, England, America and elsewhere, undoubtedly at personal risk to himself, since he would be seen by IS as an apostate and therefore liable for being a target of murder. He is fair and factual while describing their beliefs, while at the same time making clear to the reader (and even to his interview subjec ...more
Feb 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
You've probably heard this story: ISIS militia stops a Christian family travelling in their car, asking them if they are Muslim. The man says that yes, they are. "Prove it!", demands an ISIS soldier. In response the man recites a passage from the Bible, and the soldier lets them go. The man's wife, scared to death, asks her husband how he could do such a thing and put them at such a risk. "I didn't", responds the man. "If they knew Koran, they wouldn't be doing what they are doing". The tale is ...more
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“One of the photos Yaken posted on social media after he made it to Syria showed a bucket filled with severed heads, hashtagged “#headmeat.”36 Irrespective of whether his adventure to the land of the caliphate was spiritually fulfilling, the imagery it produced was a kind of pornography. And like all pornography, it aroused strong reactions, ranging from titillation to revulsion, and sometimes both at once. These reactions share an intellectually disarming effect. As in the case of porn, they resist detached analysis. The scholar of religion Jonathan Z. Smith noted a similar tendency in the failure to understand the mass suicide at Jonestown in 1978. The problem, he said, was an unwillingness to undertake the difficult task of “looking, rather than staring or looking away.”37” 1 likes
“In my conversations with scholars of Islam, few of the people who dismissed the Islamic State as a product of false Islamism— Jacobinism with an Islamic veneer—were able to name a single cleric or scholar associated with the Islamic State, or a fatwa or other statement by that scholar. The level of ignorance is as appalling as if a scholar of Marxism declared the Soviet Union “not Marxist” and turned out to be unfamiliar with the name Trotsky or Lenin, or the title of anything either of them wrote. Since 2012, tens of thousands of men, women, and children have migrated to a theocratic state, under the belief that migration is a sacred obligation and that the state’s leader is the worldly successor of the last and greatest of prophets. If religious” 0 likes
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