Is ISIS Islamic?

“We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam,” President Obama said today.[1] This is an “evolution,” as he likes to say, from his comments last fall [2] that “ISIL is not Islamic.” Unlike critics of the President, I am willing to penetrate the unartful phrasing and understand his point: we aren’t at war with Islam.

But we are at war with a group of Muslims, and failing to acknowledge that is not only disingenuous, it is setting a dangerous precedent with respect to the very kind of interference in religion that ISIS’s ideologues engage in.

Another example of this decision making occurred shortly after the shootings in Paris, when Christiane Grueber, a Professor of Islamic Art at Michigan State, appeared to argue that the shootings at the Charlie Hebdo office were an aberration because of the fact that there is no express ban on images in the Quran and that Islamic art has included a tradition of images of the prophet.[3]

There are numerous problems with that argument, such as the Protestant conceit that one can interpret scripture on one’s own, and the apparent failure to understand that exceptions prove the rule. Gruber’s mistake is assuming the Quran is the last word on what is allowed in Islam.

Both of Obama’s remarks and Grueber’s remarks are well intentioned with the purpose of trying to convince us that ISIS and the Paris murderers don’t represent all of Islam. But that’s tautological. Indeed, if every one of the 1.5 billion or more Muslims did think that way, all of us would be dead.

The problem with remarks like these is that they put not only non-muslims, but non-scholars—indeed, people who are not religious authorities of any kind, in the position of determining who is or who is not a member of a particular faith community.

As pointed out well by Graeme Wood [4], whose piece emphasizes the Islamic imagery used by ISIS, one of the extreme elements of ISIS ideology is that they go beyond calling people who disagree with them sinners, they call them infidels. This controversial practice, called takfir, justifies what would otherwise be intra-Muslim violence. It appears then that Obama is or was trying to combat the takfir of ISIS with more takfir.

In Jewish history, Moses Mendelssohn argued against the government ever having any authority of determining who was “in” or who was “out” of a particular religion in his work Jerusalem. In the United States, we have the First Amendment, which prohibits the state from establishing a religion or denying free exercise of it. Islam, if you simply pick and choose a Quranic verse out of the centuries’ old context of fiqh as Grueber did, also states that “[t]here is no compulsion in religion.”  (Quran, “The Cow” 2:256.) 

In a literal sense, it is impossible to be at war with a religion. Wars are fought between individuals. In this case, to deny that the individuals we are fighting against are Muslims for the purpose of ensuring other Muslims that they aren’t part of the conflict only confuses the public’s understanding of what ISIS is. They are not a Nasserite Pan-Arab movement; they are not seeking to “liberate” Palestine (yet); and they also, incidentally, are not trying to force political action by the United States in the way that Al Qaeda was. ISIS is, in fact, a group of Muslims drawing on a particular interpretation of that faith relying on 7th century imagery to attract followers and instill fear for the purposes of creating a cataclysm.

Perhaps Obama was relying on a lengthy fatwa [5], which ruled that ISIS’s actions made them infidels, trumpeted [6] by the Council of American Islamic Relations. Maybe; but, it’s hard to know from the outside whether this line is appropriately drawn. Are the Shi’a included? If so, are Alawites? Druze? From my point of view, there is a continuum between all of these groups and they share certain traits in common. That fatwa seems to agree with me—starting on page 13 it argues against the practice and states that “[q]uintessentially in Islam, anyone who says: ‘There is no god but God; Muhammad is the Messenger of God’ is a Muslim and cannot be declared a non-Muslim.” [7] Apparently, they can be declared a perverse Muslim.

A more precise question would be whether CAIR and Obama consider Salafism in general to be a “perversion” of Islam. Doing so would put them in the awkward position of calling a substantial portion of Saudis and Egyptians who we might otherwise call Muslim Fundamentalists non-muslims or perverse Muslims. It would seem from that document that they do. At least that fatwa comes from religious scholars who are Muslim. Yet it is far from convincing anyone that ISIS is not Islamic.

ISIS, in some ways, is simply drawing out the Salafi ideology to its logical conclusions. They are acting in an Islamic way; just in a 7th century Islamic way. Whether that is more or less pleasant than a 16th century Christian way or an Ancient Israelite way I will leave to the reader to decide, but I won’t deny that Torquemada was Christian or that Joshua was Jewish.

When Presidents and Professors start determining who is and who is not part of a religious group, especially from outside that religious group, there is peril for all believers of all creeds, even if the intention was good, and confusion for policy makers and citizens.



About the Author
Jon-Erik G. Storm is an educator, JAG, former politician, and former professor of religion and philosophy.
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