Aqsa Mahmood, the ISIS bride

Published: September 21, 2014

Aqsa Mahmood, a 20-year-old British woman of Pakistani origin, left her home to go to Syria last year where she joined Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), married an ISIS fighter and moved on to Iraq.

I might be wrong but I believe I can almost imagine her. I can imagine her thoughts, her anguish, her pain and her emotions. I can imagine her heart nagging her as she would watch those numbers, those scenes of brutality, death and destruction on television, newspapers and social media; feeding on the truth and on Western propaganda against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

I can imagine as she would study extremist religious content and wake up every day feeling that everything she has done, everything she is doing, this whole world, is so pointless. She should rather be doing something for her real life – her afterlife. She should do something for her brothers and sisters being killed, raped and wounded in Syria.

So Aqsa Mahmood, a 20-year-old British woman of Pakistani origin, left her home to go to Syria last year where she joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), married an ISIS fighter and moved on to Iraq.

I am not apologising for her, I am not even justifying her actions or showing sympathy for her. She does not deserve it.

I am just trying to understand her.

It is painful and unfortunate because she was someone who, apparently, had the opportunity to achieve so many other things. Yet, her emotional depth, will and strength of character to feel the pain of others and to work for them in the way she deemed right, made her take the path that she did. In the process, however, she has been wasted and destroyed, because she went off in the wrong direction.

And she wasn’t the only one either. There are many others like her with similar sentiments, who have ended up where she did. Another 26-year-old Malaysian doctor, calling herself ‘Shams’ on social media, also travelled to help in Syria, joined ISIS and married an ISIS fighter because she believed it was her ‘duty’ to help her brothers and sisters.

If Aqsa Mahmood’s parents are to be believed, and I admit they are not the best source since they must be scared for themselves and her siblings, there was no other fundamentalist involved; no one egging her on to the path she took. She was an integrated member of the society and attended college as a successful student. She only studied religion on her own, as highlighted by the phrase the media has been using for her – she was a ‘bedroom radical’.

This puts question marks on a lot of things. While it is true that we only see what we want to see, no one is born knowing what he/she wants to see. While of course our disposition plays a part, it is the society and our experiences which shape our paradigm. So before anything else, her radicalisation puts a question mark on the British society. In the larger context, it also puts a question mark on the actions of several governments, for example the USA, Saudi Arabia, Britain itself among others. But more than anything else, it puts a question mark on Muslims and their interpretation of Islam.

I know the popular argument; the one presented by people of all religions whenever they tend to disagree with interpretations of religion: this isn’t what our religion really is, this isn’t real Islam.

One might question, what is then? For some, Islam is, apart from some basic injunctions and boundaries, exactly what the believer understands it be, at least for those of us who bother to think. For others, unfortunately the majority, real Islam is the Islam that the clerics present, the radical Islam. This Islam is the one that drives ISIS, Taliban, al Qaeda and their cohorts; the Islam that is based on the literal interpretation of some of the Quranic text and the Islam that was indeed practised centuries ago. It is the Islam that is out-dated for the realms of the contemporary world.

What religions need today is the adoption of the spirit behind the religious texts and the practice of prophets; what Muslims need is Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) political sagacity and pragmatism, his kindness and perseverance; we need the rationalism of Mu’tazilites and the open-mindedness of Sufis. We need to learn to care about this world and its people; we need to understand that the way forward for any religion in the contemporary world is through its ability to instil compassion and humility in humans and to work for the economic wellbeing and scientific progress of the world at large and not fighting or conquering others.

Perhaps learn a bit from the people who, according to us, control the world through economic means and whom we claim to understand and know. And above all what we need is to live in 21st century – not in seventh century like we have been living for the past 1400 years.

We need all this and more. On one hand, I imagine Aqsa Mahmood, ‘Dr Shams’ and many others like them could have led a different life had they not set out on the path of violence and militancy. On the other hand, however, I imagine their wasted life and imminent deaths for fake words and false promises. The life that is leading them to nothing but what they set out to cure: death and destruction.

And this comparison, this imagination is so heart rending that I don’t want to imagine anyone else like that again, ever.

Farhad Hassan Hashmi

Farhad Hassan Hashmi

He is a 25 year student of law, who loves reading and writing. He tweets as @farhad_hashmi (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • BlackJack

    Finally sanity – this is exactly what is required. I would probably go a step further and say that adopting by someone else’s interpretation of religion is the root cause of the current clash of civilizations – with the internet compounding this by giving intellectually-challenged people unimpeded access to selective information that fosters and fuels hate founded on a bedrock of colossal ignorance. You will also find that most of the radical converts also know close to nothing about their own (previous) religion and thus easily buying into a warped and twisted narrative of future world domination by a bunch of misogynistic zealots. Religions that have shifted away from the strength in numbers fallacy have still thrived and contributed to making society more humane, but the first step is to drop the misguided sense of superiority and to acknowledge the rot within, instead of disowning it.Recommend

  • Abdullah Afridi

    I’m sorry but from what I’ve just read, you seem to be suggesting that Islam needs to evolve. That we need to practice a “different” form of Islam, not the one that was preached 1400 years ago. I disagree. You either follow the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) or you don’t because ultimately that’ll determine whether you’re a true Muslim or not. The problem is not with Islam, it’s with the uneducated clerics who preach it. Recommend

  • Surya

    A moderate view, and finally one that does not consist of conspiracy theories. Great to read this article. Your views are echoed across the border. You tackle the issue headlong and highlight the crux if the matter – that being the literal interpretation of a text which should be read in spirit in order to preserve it’s true authenticity and to hold the testimony of time. Applicability of all religions in th modern socioeconomic setup today is cornerstone for secularism, peace, and democracy. This article needs to be published in urdu and circulated widely – It’s a fantastic piece Mr. Hashmi. Recommend

  • sarah

    I think what she did was really brave and commendableRecommend

  • Ahsan Raza

    When society fails to provide you institutes outside your homes to fulfill your thirst to give your life a meaningful reason. Only institutes are you left with are violent fanatic organizations.Recommend

  • isisladyfan

    She is so beautiful….Recommend

  • Eddied

    This is really a very sad tale about a foolish deluded girl who was brainwashed by a barbarian ideology…the problem is the ideology itself and the active promoters of this great lie…all Islamic leaders should be condemning the IS…if they don’t they are also guilty of promoting this falsehood…Recommend

  • Hammad Sabri

    She is the same women & member of ISIS’s women brigade that runs brothels of sex slaves of women from Yazidi community & offer them to their terrorist brothers to fulfil their lust.

    British female jihadis running ISIS ‘brothels’ allowing killers to rape kidnapped Yazidi women

  • vaqas

    As i have said earlier, taliban is not a group of thugs, they are a sickness of the mind. A sickness that is widespread in our country, in our people. It is a sickness that is clogging up all the cracks crevices and pours of this land. It is a sickness that is breeding very robustly and is going to consume this country. And if it left to its own means, we will all be taliban or no more. And surely there will be no more pakistan.Recommend

  • gul

    dear Farhad what will you say about the tousand of NA PAK army soldiers killed in Pakistan and thousand of American soldiers killed in AFG and Iraq and Somalia why thy have wasted their lives? and can you justify the thousnad of kashmiries women raped by INdians and thousands of Iaqi Afghan and Palestanian and Bosnian Muslims ?Recommend

  • Lex

    good article you wroteRecommend

  • siesmann

    Anything goes in this life for “afterlife” -is a perversion. One can’t spread death and destruction in the name of “God”,and expect “God” to give them “heaven”.How can a person with a will and strength of character-as the author put it for her- be so misled?And when will Muslims of faith start confronting the hate-mongering clerics?Recommend

  • Working woman

    Absurd!!! totally absurd…. the piece you have writtenRecommend

  • Shah (Berlin9

    so answer to killing is to kill more or….!!!! ISIS is brutal UnIslamic and they are not spreading Islam. If you want to spread Islam, than work peacefully the way Prophet SAW did in Makkah going through all the atrocities. ISIS is a terrorist organization declared by many Islamic Scholars and also by the grand Kaaba. So please dont justify their acts…or blame some one else…!!!Recommend

  • mimi sur

    @Mr.hashmi ,

    In stead of pointing out actions of different gov , you should point out at the interpretation of Islam. I am telling you why ? Because such radicalisation happens in massive scale in islamic society as well like pakistan . Otherwise a cricketer wouldn’t have dragged religion into field . And such radicalization happens to muslims in every country , I repeat every country .Recommend

  • mimi sur

    Another gem of Pakistani origin .Recommend

  • Parvez

    It looks like a text book case of the misuse of religion……..and sadly there is so much of it going on. It does seem strange that those who are supposed to counter this are ineffective….and this raises many questions.Recommend

  • The Author is right

    Uneducated clerics ? Ok…the Isis chief isn’t uneducated- al bagdadi has a Ph.D in islamic studies.
    So,his interpretation of islam would be highly superior to yours,as he has spent years studying it- thus proving that the Author is right in his very evolved opinion.Recommend

  • Lol…

    Haha…Aqsa Mahmood would agree with you 100%Recommend

  • Lol…

    Wonderful !! If people have opinions like yourself,I despair for the future of Pakistan.Recommend

  • Lol …

    The Mirror isn’t a Pakistani paper.Commenting without reading the link..Recommend

  • cloud9

    Soon calling someone British Pakistani would constitute a personal insult.Recommend

  • Moiz Omar

    Something needs to be done to prevent recruitment by ISIS.Recommend

  • Abid

    I see little difference between the Taliban and ISIS. ISIS makes professional videos of beheadings otherwise they are the same. This is not new we have been living with this for a long time.Recommend

  • Umm Sarah

    This is truly a first:’rationalism of Mutazilites and open minded ness of Sufiism should take precedent over the teachings of Quran and Sunnah.
    Do you even know the Mutazilites are a deviant sect,they deny hereafter,angels ,life in grave ,call Quran a creation .I request you to read about them,not everything is based on rationale .If humans with their limited intelligence and knowledge can’t get some aspects of religion ,does not mean that they have to be changed.
    Other than that ,nice blogRecommend

  • Farhad Hassan Hashmi

    Pakistan army soldiers have not wasted their lives when they fought Islamic militants. Whereas on one hand, Aqsa Mahmood is spending time helping ISIS murder people with no laws to guide them except their mistaken view of Sharia. Pakistan army soldiers are spending time and energy protecting people. Don’t you see the difference? That said, if it were up to me, I would have wished that all armies were disbanded and we lived peacefully.Recommend

  • sana

    The author hasn’t said that Islam needs change, Islam is perfect, he says means of preaching Islam needs change. For example, we must not leave our kids to the Molvi & Qari, we must learn & teach Islam as parents or elder siblings. Another example, about 500 girls are killed for “honor” in Pakistan every year. I feel for the issue being an independent woman. I have 2 choices, either declare Jihad against this zulm or I can preach what I learn from Quran and try to make a better muslim society for the next generation. Both of these things are correct in eyes of Allah. By declaring Jihad, I will become harsh and maybe become “zalim” myself at one point but taking 2nd option I feel I shall have sadqa e jaria going for me. May Allah protect us allRecommend

  • Farhad Hassan Hashmi

    Thank you :)Recommend

  • BlackJack

    Uh…. what?Recommend

  • Ammad

    Farhad you are 25 years old. I am 67 years old and living here in the UK since the age of 18 when I came to study here. I remember the first generations of Pakistani Punjabis and Kashmiris. In outlook and culture you would have found them quite similar to the Hindu and Sikh Punjabis. Then came the 70’s and with Arab money everyone became religious. This women is the end result of a generation of indoctrination. You would not seen a Pakistani immigrant dressing like her 40 years ago or with her radical worldview.Recommend

  • Teja

    Dear Mr.Hashmi, nice article. But I have few points to make. Intolerance is taught from the childhood to their children. Children are groomed thinking they are the best from the unbelievers. Recommend

  • Hmm ..

    Very interesting and informative comment.
    All hail Zia & his policies Arabizing Pakistan.Recommend

  • Hmm..

    So,it’s society’s failure that a youth may be aimless in life & finds validation & belonging in a jihadi group ? How fanciful ..
    Every one in this world has to struggle to find motivation,overcome hurdles,achieve goals,do good & be good.
    Don’t glorify waywardness & having no ambition in a person to educate him/herself,become a tax-payer & be a positive contributor to society & humanity.Recommend

  • Hmm..

    Agreed. The root of all evil in this world is the very wrong belief that some lives are of lesser value than others.

  • Abdullah Afridi

    There are several other Islamic scholars who are more educated than AL Baghdadi and they would disagree with his actions, so it’s not just my interpretation. Recommend

  • Abdullah Afridi

    Sana just one correction, when you preach what you learn from the Qur’an, it is also a form of Jihad. Jihad doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to fight. Recommend

  • The Author is right

    Agreed.So other scholars who read the very same text will do the exact opposite of al bagdadi-

  • The Author is right

    Sure,but the most contemporary meaning of the word is ‘holy war’-that’s what most people know globally,esp. from the actions of jihadis in the last 13 years.Recommend

  • Abdullah Afridi

    Regardless of what other people think it means, it’s literal meaning, which is to struggle, cannot be ignored. Recommend

  • Abdullah Afridi

    And your point is? Recommend

  • Nobody

    Brave and commendable? She fooled herself into thinking she was joining a fight for a worthy cause when in reality she was joining a group of misogynistic violent hateful zealots only to become a sex slave to one or many. There is no grey area; it’s all quite black and white.

  • sattar rind

    very true. that’s why i sued say that in this century are bound to remain blind and irrational and illogical. in such situation no one has time to think that why and how she in just 20 years of age has chosen or went on the wrong side of the life. yet we have just passed 14 years of this century. we have to see many many terrible thinks yet. due to petro-dolor ………Recommend

  • suchit

    am from india. hats off bro. it applies to all holy books and religions as well. world need people like you.Recommend

  • GuttaSchnapper

    We don’t want any of you in the UK. You should be aware that jews are behind the open borders movement in every white nation:

    We are oppressed by jews. Once that oppression is lifted you will see what happens to any of you who remain in our nations.Recommend

  • T.R.

    All Pakistanis should leave…Recommend