What is Muslim versus what is Islamic concerns the question of normative Islam. Due to the difficulty of discerning Islam from its political developments, some have thrown in the towel and declared, “Islam is as Islam does.”
It is easy to see why some observers draw that conclusion: Islam – through its twin sources of Quran and Prophetic Practice – provides Muslims with comprehensive texts containing principles and guidelines.
While only these two sources are binding on Muslims, they can be difficult to understand without the interpretation of qualified scholars – which forms the “Islamic tradition.” Scholarly contextualization is necessary as the texts address situations pertaining to both times of war and peace. Using this framework, we can better determine what practices are Islamic rather than simply the actions of Muslims, even when committed in the name of Islam.
Let us take the most pressing case study at the top of the “Islamic: to be or not to be” list. The so-called “Islamic State” maintains the label in their name, so do they qualify? Although representing a diverse spectrum of interpretations, scholars have come to almost unanimous agreement that ISIS is by all measures un-Islamic. Scholars have unequivocally denounced ISIS members as deviant Muslims with misguided ideology. Overall, they have identified three main reasons why ISIS is un-Islamic.
Killing innocent people and non-combatants: Islam strictly prohibits killing innocent people and it has no concept of the ends justify the means or collateral damage.
Protection of all human life regardless of national or religious identity is a sacred duty for all Muslims, especially for Muslims ruling over non-Muslims. It is clear that no tyranny, Muslim or otherwise, can find justification in the name of Islam.
ISIS, on the other hand, promotes a culture of indiscriminate violence against anyone who refuses to support the group’s genocidal mission. More than two-thirds of Iraq’s population adhere to the Shi’a interpretation of Islam and are thus, according to ISIS, legitimate targets until they adopt the ISIS-brand of Islam (note, not even the mainstream Sunni interpretation of Islam). The Muslim Community (umma), on the other hand, considers both Sunnis and Shi’a as Muslims and their life and rights inviolable, along with those of the rest of non-combatant humanity.
Mass excommunication of Muslims: Declaring a Muslim a non-believer is a theologically contentious claim that few Muslims would venture to make.
Only the most intolerant groups make such a claim – known as takfir – en masse. Under what set of doctrines are they excommunicating Muslims and, by extension, waging war on them? They have no scholarly tradition other than a creed based on a patchwork of copy-and-paste legal opinions interpreted by individualist, self-taught “scholar-militants.” This ex-communication approach undoubtedly feeds the image of Islam as a Dark Ages monolith, an image sporadically reinforced by fringe movements that have cropped up in history though never having steered the Islamic tradition.
Unilateral declaration of a caliphate: Scholars are in unanimous agreement that any leader claiming to lead the entire Muslim community must have the backing of the entire community.
In the political standard enshrined in mainstream Islam, this has meant that a council representing diverse constituencies pledges allegiance to a leader appointed to govern their affairs through principles like mutual consultation. No such process took place in the emergence of “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Rather, al-Baghdadi seems to have appeared on camera one day declaring himself leader of the world’s Muslims. By whose standard of accreditation is he the leader of 1.6 billion people? Of course, ISIS circumvents this delegitimizing obstacle by excommunicating just about every Muslim outside of their ranks, rendering any meaningful allegiance to the caliphate unnecessary.
Therefore, the focus, contrary to ISIS’ distracting claims, should not be on how, if at all, Islamic they are but rather why the group emerged in the first place. ISIS, like the Taliban, emerged from a collapsed state with an opportunistic understanding that religion can be an effective tool in times of social unrest.
ISIS came as a direct result of the U.S.-led invasion and ensuing civil war in Iraq and an indirect result of the proxy war fought between the Gulf States and Iran. ISIS formed as an opportunistic amalgamation of
Saddam-era military officers and hardened fighters hailing from underserved regions persecuted after the 2003 invasion.
As Professor Ovamir Anjum observed, ISIS is “more a Saddam 2.0 than an Al-Qaida 2.0.” With the region’s economies as straightened as they are, members also found in ISIS an opportunity for security and livelihood.
The group can be best understood as a political response rather than an expression of the Islamic tradition.
We must also reiterate that the precedent of Muslim movements in direct conflict with traditional Islam is as old as the tradition itself. In fact, ISIS-style approaches appeared in the earliest generations of Islam. The khawaarij (literally, those who departed) were a seventh-century splinter group of Muslims that were the first to adopt such a severe approach, even assassinating the Caliph Ali. Anyone who was not with them was a legitimate target of violence and takfir.
By no stretch of the imagination would scholars consider them Islamic, neither then nor now. While having become a historical term, khaariji is still useful for describing the phenomenon that lives on today through groups like ISIS. Such nuances in terminology would benefit the discourse. This will not necessarily fix the problem but it will help to better isolate it.
We can – and we must – say that there is such thing as Muslim without being Islamic. By failing to make this distinction, we end up lending credence to an Islamophobia that paints all adherents with the colors of ISIS. When our gut reaction to a group like ISIS is to say, “That is not Islam”, then it is incumbent upon us to express, as thinking people, exactly why it is not.
-Kareem Rosshandler is a graduate student at the University of Chicago focusing on Near Eastern history. He also runs a tutoring business, Atlanta Scholars.