So The Islamic State Is Not Islamic?

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Qu'ran OpenedI’ve never really believed the conspiracy theories suggesting that President Obama is a closet Muslim. However, I’m starting to think that, when it comes to Islam, he is a secular takfiri. Now let me explain. Takfiri is a term used by scholars of Islam and analysts of terrorist ideology to describe Muslims who take it upon themselves to identify and declare other Muslims as kafirs or infidels. And, as the takfiri reasons, infidels are to be fought. The Qur’an even encourages Muslims to strike at their necks until they have been killed or wounded (47:4), for this is the means by which God strikes terror into the hearts of kafirs (8:12).

Interestingly, last evening the President took it upon himself to declare the Islamic State “is not Islamic.” After all, Muslims wouldn’t kill other Muslims, even those they deem apostate. They wouldn’t even kill non-Muslims. “No religion condones the killing of innocents,” says Obama. It’s the Islamic state that is infidel. So, in a sense, a non-Muslim just declared a particular group of Muslims to be non-Muslims.

This sort of rhetoric is nothing new. Ever since what was once called the war on terror began non-Muslims have been declaring what Islam is and thereby insinuating that Muslims who disagree with them are non-Muslims. When President Bush and Obama claim that Islam is a religion of peace or that al-Qaeda or ISIS/ISIL has perverted the nature of Islam they probably do so to affirm liberal Muslim communities and prevent alienating any Muslim allies.

Perhaps there is some wisdom to this. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but whatever it is I wonder if it’s worth the cost. It’s been thirteen years since that awful day of 9/11/2001. We’ve been at war for nearly thirteen years. Trillions of dollars have been spent pursuing it, and worst of all thousands of Americans have had their lives cut short fighting in it.

And yet we still hesitate to identify the root ideological cause behind terrorism. There’s probably a good reason for this. If you take even a cursory look at the worldview of groups like al-Qaeda and now ISIS/ISIL what you find is that they are basically Islamic.

That is not to say that the latter in particular doesn’t have its idiosyncrasies. It does. So much so that al-Qaeda regards their tactics as extreme and demeanor as “intractable.” But that is different than being outside the pale of Islam. The reality is that they are Islamic. Their vision of (and for) the world is classically Islamic. And their tactics—extreme as they are—can be legitimized by the Qur’an, were employed by Muhammad (e.g. when he beheaded hundreds of Jews in just one day), and have been displayed from time to time during the course of Islamic history.

This, however, doesn’t comport with a modern or, rather, secular understanding of religion. Religion is supposed to be divorced from politics, law, and every other aspect of public life. But historical and lots of contemporaneous manifestations of Islam treat Islam as concerned primarily with politics, law, and public life.

If that’s the case—and the weight of Muslim tradition supports this view of Islam—there are some serious implications associated with it. Perhaps the furthest reaching of them is that secular paradigms for understanding a religious worldview like Islam are ill-equipped and may be completely incapable of assessing and dealing with the challenges posed by groups like ISIS/ISIL. If Islam—or at least one particular exclusivist view of it is the primarily ideological motivation behind ISIS/ISIL, then it might be worth seriously understanding it on its own terms as an Islamic entity.

This is not to suggest that the vision of the Islamic State is the only vision of Islam, and it certainly does not mean that it is the view that all Muslims hold in common. What it does mean is simply this: we have got to get a grasp on the character of Islam and all its complexities if we are to avoid the naiveté on display last night but also the naiveté of thinking that we can understand Islam without doing a bit of homework.

My subsequent posts will wrestle with this and other topics related to the theme of Islam. So stay tuned for what’s to come.