Sunday, November 15, 2015

Is the Islamic State Islamic? by Charles Cameron

[ by Charles Cameron , original at zenpundit— both answers are true in different contexts — IMO a significant point that previous discussion has tended to overlook ]

Were (are) the Khawarij Muslim? That’s the question I keep thinking of when discussion of whether IS (or AQ) is Islamic comes up. From a Muslim perspective, they were heretics. Joas Wagemakers identified the central distinctive opinion of the Khawarij thus:

The first of these is the Khawarij’s belief that revolt against Muslim rulers was allowed if they were deemed insufficiently pious. When ‘Ali accepted arbitration with Mu‘awiya, the people later known as Khawarij reportedly shouted ‘judgement is God’s alone’ (la hukm illa li-llah). In the context of that event, this referred to their belief that only God had the authority to arbitrate, not human beings, and that ‘Ali should not have accepted Mu‘awiya’s offer. The slogan later came to represent their broader view that all judgements and rulings should be left to God, thus applying Qur’anic rulings so strictly that they expelled Muslims guilty of major sins from their community and fought them. Because they believed sinful Muslims to be unbelievers (kuffar, singular: kafir), they directly applied passages from the Qur’an pertaining to jihad against non-Muslims to those of their co-religionists who were less than perfectly pious.

From the perspective of what I’m going to call “ongoing Islam” they were heretics — the very name Khawarij indicates those who have gone out, ie left the religion of Islam — and yet their heresy was that of “fundamentalizing” Islam, being, if you like, excessively Islamic.

Consider: according to a hadith reported in Abu Dawud:

The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “There will be dissension and division in my nation and a people will come with beautiful words but evil deeds. They recite the Quran but it will not pass beyond their throats. They will leave the religion as an arrow leaves its target and they will not return until the arrow returns to its notch. They are the worst of the creation. Blessed are those who fight them and are killed by them. They call to the Book of Allah but they have nothing to do with it. Whoever fights them is better to Allah than them.”

As a student of religions might say, their use of the Qur’an marks them as clearly Islamic, and as a Muslim theologian might say, they have clearly departed the religion, in truth “they have nothing to do with it.”

Many contemporary Muslims would say of IS, its leader and members, that they “call to the Book of Allah but they have nothing to do with it” — and they have every right to say that. Those, however, who wish to understand what drives IS do well to understand the theology and eschatology involved, as well as the psychology of the passions they invoke — and also the Islamic context in which IS may well be viewed as having by the very nature of their excesses left the religion..


This post is copied wholesale from a fascinating conversation among friends (Mark Safranski, J Scott Shipman, Michael J. Lotus, Dan Tdaxp, Joshua Treviño, Lynn Rees and others) in response to Tanner Greer’s post Vox Will Never Understand Islam… Or Any Religion, Really, which is itself a response to a Vox piece by Max Fisher, The perfect response to people who blame Islam for ISIS.

Please share this post if you find it helpful.

My own (i.e. Omar's) off-the-cuff comment on this post:

About the hadith, it does make one think that someone made it up AFTER the Khwarij had already appeared on the scene. A lot of Hadiths make good sense if they were invented after events had given rise to their need, but seem suspiciously overly-prescient if one imagines them as actually dating from the days of the nascent state of Medinah :)
ALL of Islamic history can be seen as the struggle between three camps that all appeared fairly early in the rise of the Arabs:
1. Sunnis. Those who thought the rising empire was best led by the consensus of the elite, with a tendency to rally around whoever had managed to fight his way to the top, provided he paid lip service to religion, partronized the rising ulama class and (most important) kept his eyes on the ball as far as managing and growing the empire was concerned. Details to follow.
2. Shias. Those who felt there was something special about the family of the prophet and in particular, the family of Ali and developed theologies that included varying combinations of the charismatic Imamate and its heritage of revolt against Sunni authority.
3 Khwarij. True believers who took it all so literally it hurts.
Everything since then can fit into one of these streams, with wahabism and ISIS etc combining the waters of 1 and 3, usually with more 3 than 1.

What about Sufism?
Mostly just Sunnis with nice instincts?
With some of them being sensitive people trying to get the most good out of religion while leaving out most of the imperial and legalistic baggage.
And sometimes a secret society, influencing much behind the scenes, but by definition, not really easy to disentangle myth (and self-promotion) from shadowy reality.
Not really a sect or a theology.
Something like that.
Of course, this post does not touch upon the whole issue of what religion may mean (and may do) to true believers and those struck by epiphanies on the road to Damascus. That whole issue is alluded to here by the always erudite Tanner Greer. Hopefully, more to come in a longer post soon.

See this from Razib Khan for another angle.
The power of the Islamic State derives in part from the fact that it inverts the moral order of the world. Some of its soldiers are clear psychopaths, as the most violent and brutal of international jihadis have been drawn to the Islamic State (as opposed to Al Qaeda, which is more pragmatic!). But a substantial number believe in its utopian vision of an Islamic society constructed upon narrow lines. A positive vision of a few evil goals, rather than a grand quantity of small evil pleasures. The Islamic State ushers in an evil new order, it does not unleash unbridled chaos. Though its self-conception that it is resurrecting the first decades of Islam is self-delusion in my opinion, it is still a vision which can entice some in the Islamic international.

I do not think that the Islamic State is here to stay. I believe it will be gone within the next five years, torn apart by its own contradictions and its rebellion against normal human conventions, traditions, and instincts. But that does not mean it is not going to cause misery for many on its way down. The irony is that the iconoclastic Islamic State may as well be worshiping the idols conjured in the most fervid of Christian evangelical apocalyptic literature, because they shall tear the land end to end and leave it in a thousand pieces, a material sacrifice to their god. They live under the illusion that they are building utopia, but they are coming to destroy an imperfect world and leave hell in its wake.

* The modern Salafis are just the latest in a particular extreme of Sunni belief, which goes back to individuals such as Ibn Taymiyyah.

And of course, Shadi Hamid's excellent post from 2014: The roots of the Islamic State's appeal.  

Islam is distinctive in how it relates to politics. This isn’t necessarily bad or good. It just is. Comparing it with other religions helps illuminate what makes it so. For example, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling BJP may be Hindu nationalists, but the ideological distance between them and the secular Congress Party isn’t as great as it may seem. In part, this is because traditional Hindu kingship—with its fiercely inegalitarian vision of a caste-based social order—is simply less relevant to modern, mass politics and largely incompatible with democratic decision-making. As Cook writes in his new book Ancient Religions, Modern Politics, “Christians have no law to restore while Hindus do have one but show little interest in restoring it.” Muslims, on the other hand, not only have a law but also one that is taken seriously by large majorities throughout the Middle East.


..If ISIS and what will surely be a growing number of imitators are to be defeated, then statehood—and, more importantly, states that are inclusive and accountable to their own people—are essential. The state-centric order in the Arab world, for all its artificiality and arbitrariness, is preferable to ungoverned chaos and permanently contested borders. But for the Westphalian system to survive in the region, Islam, or even Islamism, may be needed to legitimate it. To drive even the more pragmatic, participatory variants of Islamism out of the state system would be to doom weak, failing states and strong, brittle ones alike to a long, destructive cycle of civil conflict and political violence.