ISIS, the Qur’an and the Bible: Fundamentalists versus Modernists
“ISIS is No. 1 enemy of Islam” -- Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh
As of this writing every notable Islamic organization in the world has condemned ISIS, not only for the attacks in Paris, but also the ISIS inspired San Bernardino mass killing by husband and wife, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik. The letters and statements of condemnation just didn’t start with the Paris attacks. A quick Google search reveals countless statements by Islamic organizations on ISIS going way back to 2014, even before the initial beheadings that gave ISIS its notoriety. They vary in content, and a popular theme is that ISIS is in “no way representative of what Islam actually teaches”. Some state that it “violates Sharia law and humanitarian law”. Others say ISIS is “both un-Islamic and morally repugnant”, or similar to that of the Saudi Grand Mufti, a “threat to Islam”.
ISIS ideology: a war within Islam?
Beheadings of westerners and mass murders have captured the attention of the world, and the media cover them 24/7 until some other event takes its place. What has been less prominent in the news is the attacks and suicide bombers at sites predominantly visited by Muslims, mainly in Iraq and Syria, but more recently in Turkey and Lebanon. Dean Obeidallah, a Palestinian-American writing in the Daily Beast, drives home this point about ISIS: “the number one victim of this barbaric terror group is Muslims. That’s undisputed. ISIS has killed thousands of Muslims across the Middle East, including beheading Sunni Muslims in Iraq for failing to pledge loyalty to them, executing Imams for not submitting to them, and even killing an Imam in Iraq for simply denouncing them.”
On that same note, Haroon Moghul writing in Salon states, “The only Muslims who think ISIS represents Islam, or even Muslims, are ISIS themselves…If you want to know why ISIS exists, don’t bother searching Islamic texts, or examining Islamic traditions. The real reason ISIS happens is because of what keeps happening to Muslims.”
Indeed some journalists and scholars have labeled the conflict with ISIS a “war within Islam” as Muslims are primarily being targeted for murder, particularly Shia Muslims, but also moderate peaceful Sunnis known as Sufis. However, ISIS has also been targeting Christians (the infidels) and the ethno-religious Kurdish minority Yazidi, some 6,000 of whom have been brutally killed by ISIS.
Beyond the Middle East, their ideology has inspired acts of terrorism against western targets, which have some scholars postulating that those attacks are designed to provoke “infidels” to retaliate, especially the “Great Satin”, America. Islamic scriptures are full of promises of rewards in paradise for those jihadists who are martyred fighting in the name of Islam.
Taking a broader historical perspective, one could also theorize that the current crisis of ISIS and al Qaeda extremism is really an extension of the millennials old struggle, turned maniacal, of fundamentalism versus modernism that is being contested within Islam today, but has also been a part of Christianity’s evolution over the past several centuries. The difficulty confronting modernists for both Islam and Christianity is that their respective scriptures are couched as “God’s word”, and extremists in both religions are all too eager to quote, often out of context, various verses in their scriptures to justify their political, social and military actions, which too often are driven by underlying hate and bigotry, as well as ignorance.
Closely examining statements by ISIS and Al Qaeda leaders suggest that jihad is more than just a war within Islam. Many of their grievances are also being couched as a rejection of Christian and Jewish subjugation of Muslims in Middle Eastern countries. Furthermore, they cite the economic, social and religious inequality and discrimination against Muslims worldwide that can only be fixed by going back to a fundamentalist interpretation of the Qur’an and Hadith and applying it globally.
ISIS is highly skilled in using social media to attract marginalized youth worldwide to join ISIS, but one wonders how many of them actually understand the underlying ISIS ideology. What is even more difficult to understand is how peaceful Muslims are said to have been “self-radicalized” into committing “acts of terror” in the communities in which they live. Is the radicalization a result of some kind of religious epiphany to cause them to transition from peaceful to militant? Or is it more a reaction to the often discriminatory and sometimes abusive western society culture in which the Muslim minority try to carve out meaning and happiness? Both ISIS and Al Qaeda leaders frequently use the word “humiliation” in their diatribes of how Muslims have been verbally and physically abused by western society for their beliefs, and thus have been marginalized, perhaps more socially than economically. When the leading Republican contender for the presidency threatens fellow Muslims with such hateful vitriol as “taking out their families”, or denying them entry into the United States, does not such hate speech serve to radicalize otherwise peaceful Muslims?
The resurrection of the Islamic Caliphate
In that regard, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s proclamation of an Islamic State Caliphate is significant. Al-Baghdadi’s biography is sketchy, but some describe his early years as a peaceful introvert but highly educated with a PhD from the Islamic University of Baghdad, with a focus on Islamic culture, history, sharia, and jurisprudence. Al-Baghdadi at some phase in his life became radicalized into molding his caliphate into a terrorist organization. Max Fisher provides a brief understanding of the Caliphate in his August 2015 article in Vox, 9 questions about the ISIS Caliphate you were too embarrassed to ask. To summarize a few of Fisher’s points:
The word “caliphate” still evokes the idea of a glorious and unified Islamic civilization, which existed some 1,300 years ago with the first four caliphates. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has declared himself a caliph to give himself legitimacy to Muslims worldwide that he is fighting on their behalf and that he alone is the representative of God on earth. However, unlike its predecessors, Fisher describes al-Baghdadi’s version of a caliphate as a fantasy… an oppressive, intolerant, anti-modern, ultra-conservative state that romanticizes an era very different than how they imagine it today. Al-Baghdadi’s caliphate has little in common with the original caliphates. His army of followers are fighting for a mythical memory that they’ve constructed in their own minds, and they have convinced enough people to believe in that myth to fight and kill for it.
The CIA in 2014 put the number of ISIS members at between 20,000 and 31,500 men while the Kurds put it as high as 200,000. It is difficult to say because many ISIS members have likely joined the ISIS ranks under the fear of execution (beheading) as ISIS has captured new territories and “assimilated” much of the local population. Martin Reardon, writing in Al Jazeera, ISIL and the management of savagery, explains: “But for ISIL there is a twisted yet deliberate purpose to their savagery - total domination of its subjects through fear and intimidation on the one hand, and outright hate and vengeance towards its enemies on the other… For those unfortunate Syrians and Iraqis subject to ISIL control, the aim of this savagery is to break them psychologically so as to ensure their absolute allegiance through fear and intimidation. Under ISIL rule there are no options. If you obey, you live. The alternative is unthinkable. For their enemy, there is no quarter.”
The hard core ISIS members probably number in CIA’s range with many of the other Sunni converts only loosely associated with their ideologies out of fear. Nevertheless, even if the number is as high as 200,000, their numbers would represent just 0.0125 percent of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world.
As many defenders of Islam argue, a relatively small number of Islamic militants have “hijacked the good name of Islam” and should not be recognized as having legitimacy under the banner of Islam. Well maybe. That prompts the next point of contention with regards to the “war within Islam”.
Wahhabism versus modernist Islamic ideals
The Saudi Grand Mufti with his statement at the beginning of this article, “ISIS is No.1 enemy of Islam” is not saying that the members of ISIS are not Muslims, nor is he denying that ISIS is grounded in fundamentalist Islam. Such a statement coming from the Saudi Grand Mufti, however, suggests some hypocrisy. As many Islamic scholars note, ISIS religious ideology has its roots in an extreme fundamentalist interpretation of selected verses in the Qur’an and Hadith. It could be characterized as an extremist form of Salafism (commonly termed Salafist Jihadism), which itself is an extremist form of Sunnism that is practiced under the banner of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia. If one wants to look for only the religious roots of ISIS, then one needs to examine the teaching of Salafism and how Saudi Arabia has sought to export its religious ideology by funding madrassas that teach Wahhabism within the greater Islamic and Arab community of nations. The discrimination against women in Saudi society, the beheadings, and the public lashings are all components of Salafism/Wahhabism… but also ISIS ideology. The difference between mainstream Salafism and ISIS ideology is the barbaric ruthless brutality of the executions and torture that ISIS indiscriminately administers and records to invoke fear amongst the populace. As Islamic scholars note, support for those kind of actions cannot be found in the Qur’an.
Nevertheless, despite these seemingly barbaric practices, Salafism has largely been regarded as peaceful over many centuries up until the last couple of decades. Jacob Olidort in his February 2015 Brookings Institute article, The Politics of Quietist Salafism, divides modern day Salafism into three categories: quietist, activists and jihadists. The most numerous are the quietists, which as the name suggests, are quiet and don’t get involved in politics. The Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia are largely characterized as quietist, but that may be due in part because of the harsh penalties for questioning (blasphemy) any aspect of their government imposed Wahhabi religious doctrine. Activist Salafists are those involved in politics. As Olidort notes: “Their number swelled in the aftermath of the Arab spring, when the boundaries between politics and religion blurred.” Finally, Olidort calls the third group, the Salafist jihadists, a “tiny minority”. These would include ISIS and al Qaeda members and sympathizers within their ranks.
The Rand Corporation, likewise uses the term, Salafist Jihadists, to describe not only ISIS and al Qaeda, but also many other terrorist groups with similar ideologies. However, before the term jihadist came into vogue, western media simply referred to these groups as militants…Saudi militants, Chechen militants, Egyptian militants, etc. Within Islam, the term Jihad has dual meanings: an inner spiritual effort sometimes referred to as “greater jihad” to live one’s faith and do religious duty, and an outer physical struggle or “lesser jihad” against the enemies of Islam. In the West, jihad is largely seen as the latter, and its common usage is synonymous with the actions of the radical Islamic militants.
Death penalty for apostasy, adultery, blasphemy, etc.
Many of the killings by ISIS against Muslims are justified by what the Sharia Law says about apostasy. It should be noted, however, that unlike the Bible (Deuteronomy 13:6-11), the Qur’an does not specify the death penalty for apostasy. Rather the death penalty is contained in the Hadith. As Mohamed Ghilan in his Al Jazeera article, Islam Saudi and Apostasy, explains:
“The death penalty for apostasy relies at the core of it on an authentically verified Hadith from Prophet Muhammad who said, "Whoever changes his religion kill him." This statement, however, would seem to contradict numerous verses in the Quran that guarantee freedom of belief, a few of which include "There is no compulsion in religion" [2:256], and "Whoever so wills may believe and whoever so wills may deny" [18:29].”
Ghilan’s discussion on apostasy brings up a very important point. Like the Bible, the Qur’an has numerous inconsistencies, and one can “pick and choose” which phrases to grab to support one’s worldviews. The website, Beyond the Cusp, addresses these inconsistencies in the article, Which Quran, Mecca or Medina? Much like the Bible (Old Testament versus New Testament), the Qur’an is in reality two quite different books: an older Qur’an written in Mecca during a period of peaceful tranquility and a later Qur’an written in Medina during a more violent period. Hence the scriptures for each period are largely in conflict. The Mecca Quran was all about tolerance, tranquility, spirituality, acceptance, and inner cleansing through submission to the word of Allah. The Medina Quran, on the other hand, incorporates much of the moral blessings of violence.
Religious scholars and clerics pushing moderation and modernity in both Islam and Christianity get around these inconsistencies by saying one needs to look at the entire text (meaning the whole Qur’an and Bible) for “alternative interpretations” which largely contradict the more explicit verses that call for death for apostasy, blasphemy, homosexual behavior, adultery, unruly children and other acts that are now otherwise considered permissive in our western society today.
In the developed western world, secular laws have prohibited many of the archaic forms of punishment of Sharia Law administered in Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent the other Middle Eastern countries. As such, the six million American Muslim faithful and their organizations and mosques in America have effectively been assimilated…that is, like Christianity, they have chosen alternative interpretations of “tolerance, tranquility, spirituality, and acceptance” in their scriptures to conform to the modernity of secular laws. However, progress towards modernity has been much slower in the Islamic controlled states of the Middle East and Africa because critical thinking, or ijtihad, is considered to be a punishable form of blasphemy, although the form and degree of punishment varies in the different schools of Islamic jurisprudence.
Ijtihad, the exercise of critical thinking and independent judgment, was an important aspect of Islamic thought and development in the first 400 years of its existence. Harold Rhode’s excellent 2012 article, “Can Muslims Reopen the Gates of Ijtihad?” published in the Gatestone Institute website is particularly revealing about how Islam stagnated from the 10th Century onwards. When the “leaders of the Sunni Muslim world closed the "Gates of Ijtihad" Muslims were no longer allowed use itjihad to solve problems.” With critical thinking and free expression squashed, the evolution of the religion and its ability to compete with Christianity in the modern world was severely constrained. Sunni Muslim leaders like the Saudi royal family reject the use of itjihad to this day as it constitutes a threat to their power over their citizens. As Rhode concludes, “Until Muslim countries and Muslim communities in the West allow their people to express themselves freely -- without fear of reprisal -- it is unlikely that the Muslim world will be able to think creatively and again become a center of science and knowledge, as it used to be in the early centuries of Islam.”
It is critical thinking and secular laws, such as the First Amendment to the Constitution, that have allowed the modernists in Christianity to evolve the religion from its days of terror of the Inquisitions and Crusades to a more tolerant religion, although certain denominations have yet to catch up to that modernity when it comes to the civil rights of the LGBT community. Likewise, many modernists in Islam are disregarding the “Gates of Ijtihad” constraints by continually emphasizing the peaceful and more tolerant side of Islam and rejecting violence and harsh forms of punishment.
Is ISIS Islam?
So getting back to my question in the title to this essay, "Is ISIS Islamic?" The answer would be “yes” if the criteria was only a religious test based on selected verses in the Qur'an. On the other hand, ISIS represents much more than an institution made up of Salafist jihadists. As a self-proclaimed state its survival is wholly dependent on fear and intimidation, not unlike what you might find in totalitarian non-sectarian states like North Korea. Therefore, if the criteria is modern day peaceful Islam as practiced by the vast majority of the 1.6 billion Muslims including the six million in the United States, then the answer is “no”.
President Obama does not use the term “Islamic” in condemning ISIS because it helps sanctify ISIS’s identity claim as representing true Islam. Furthermore, it puts the six million Muslim Americans at risk from attacks by Islamophobes who do not see the distinction between the moderates and extremists. They judge all Muslims by the actions of a few. In that regard, Christians need to be more supportive of those Muslim religious leaders who are seeking to modernize Islam in the 21st Century. Castigating them does not solve the problem. Good Muslims need the support and understanding of good Christians to deny ISIS any kind of legitimacy.
As an example of the push towards modernity, Imam Chenor Jalloh of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, the city’s largest mosque, said the doors are always open to gay Muslims and offers this advice to Muslim parents of gay children: “Love them. Care for them. Do not expel them. That is not the solution.”
Those words would likewise be good advice to Christians in judging our fellow American Muslims. Do not expel them. Do not marginalize them. We are all Americans.
A final point. This essay discusses the war within Islam, the modernists versus the fundamentalists. I appreciate that there are other more important issues such as the Iraq war, prison camps, and torture that have given rise to ISIS and its barbaric ideology. Those will be the subject of a separate essay.