Update: Being that my position as put forth below is but that of a lay scholar, I’d like to direct readers to the excellently written and technically superior Open Letter to Al-Baghdadi, composed by a group of Muslim scholars. It should be widely read and understood, and certainly serves to refute the nonsensical assertion that apostasy from Islam is the only valid platform on which critique of ISIS may stand, as put forth by Bernard Haykel in the article featured in The Atlantic and referenced below.
The Incompatibility of Islam with the Theological Claims of ISIS
I’ve made my position clear in previous posts. The so-called “Islamic State,” or ISIS, is nothing of the sort. Even solely on the basis of the limited arguments I have put forth, I don’t see how anyone could retain the position that these psychopathic goons are in any way, shape, or form, Muslim.
Now, my general rule for this blog is to avoid getting pulled into the moronic rip currents of the Internet, but I simply cannot let this horrendously foolish article go unchallenged. After I saw it being posted on social media and called “a good read,” I felt such anger swell up inside me that I had to actually get out of bed (ah, the consequence of my foolish mistake of reading social media outlets in bed), go downstairs, and author this response.
The author of that work makes outlandishly silly assertions, such as:
“There is a temptation to rehearse this observation—that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise—and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.”
First, I’d like to point out that I know of precisely no one who holds that straw man of a position. No one I know has claimed that so-called “jihadists” are really atheists who try to convince others that they are not. Second, is the author really claiming that the actions of ISIS appear obviously crazy unless you know that they think (with allegedly careful consideration, even!) that they are returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment and ultimately bringing about the apocalypse?
Does this author seriously think this makes sense of their position where it would otherwise be nonsense? Has the author ever read the Koran? Has he ever read the Tanakh? The Talmud? The Pseudepigrapha? The Gospel? The Apostolic Fathers? ANYTHING? Where in any of this literature do you find ground for this sort of interpretation without selectively emphasizing psychotic free-associative interpretations of disjointed passages? If I for one moment believed that any of the holy texts of the Abrahamic traditions in any way spelled out such an insane theology, I would certainly neither value nor endorse them.
The author repeatedly insists that ISIS is just strictly adhering to the founding principles of Islam. He claims “they insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers.” I am all ears for the governing precepts to which these infidels allegedly adhere. And what example does the author offer?
“To take one example: In September, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s chief spokesman, called on Muslims in Western countries such as France and Canada to find an infidel and ‘smash his head with a rock,’ poison him, run him over with a car, or ‘destroy his crops.’ To Western ears, the biblical-sounding punishments—the stoning and crop destruction—juxtaposed strangely with his more modern-sounding call to vehicular homicide.
But Adnani was not merely talking trash. His speech was laced with theological and legal discussion, and his exhortation to attack crops directly echoed orders from Muhammad to leave well water and crops alone—unless the armies of Islam were in a defensive position, in which case Muslims in the lands of kuffar, or infidels, should be unmerciful, and poison away.”
First, the method by which one slays one’s enemies is hardly a “governing precept.” One might consider the identification of those against whom violence is warranted to be more along those lines. In regards to that most relevant concern, the Koran repeatedly emphasizes that one must not be an aggressor, that one must only take up violent means in self-defense, grant mercy to one’s aggressors whenever possible, especially when requested, and that the proper response to one who denies the message of Islam is to inform him or her that you are each quit of one another’s acts, and that you will be with one another, waiting and watching to see what becomes of you. This is in line with the universal non-sectarian Judaic foundation on which the Koran depends and from which it extends.
But no, there is no mention of the plain and obvious fact that the acts of ISIS flagrantly violate the major precepts of the Koran. Instead, the author has joined the likes of ISIS in digging through texts to find some form of pseudo-justification for their behavior. The author seems to be referencing some passage of some hadith which I cannot locate wherein Mohammad is thought to have said that defensive positioning of an Islamic army (nonetheless placing them in the lands of the infidels?) warrants the poisoning of well water and destruction of crops – both of which are well known to have been disapproved of by classical Islamic military jurisprudence. I have no idea what the author is referencing here, and his lack of citation is telling. Hadith collections are varied and full of questionable and sometimes outrageous content, sometimes tailored to abrogate well-known prohibitions to feign justification for insanity, so it wouldn’t be entirely shocking to find such a passage, but to anyone who has honestly studied the Abrahamic faith, the author’s position that the speech of al-Adani is in line with anything close to reasonable is laughable.
Nonetheless, the author insists:
“The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”
I just cannot believe that this man has ever given the Koran more than a cursory glance. If it were true that the ideology of ISIS is derived from a coherent and learned interpretation of Islam, it would be true that Islam is a terrible, depraved religion of violence and oppression. That the Koran is explicitly against the atrocities committed by ISIS (just see my previous post for my list of direct contradictions between the Koran and the unholy practices of ISIS), and that it very clearly describes their activities as the result of the blinding sickness of sin is totally omitted from this article. That the principles on which are founded the Tanakh, the Talmud, and the Gospel are identical with those on which the Koran is founded, as evidenced by the Koran’s own assertions, is completely unmentioned here. It seems the author’s position must be that these sources too provide coherent support for the theology of ISIS. However, such an acknowledgment would surely fail to garner support from much of the audience which is presently so readily accepting and sharing this article.
The author goes on to make further absolutely absurd claims, such as:
“Following takfiri doctrine, the Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people. The lack of objective reporting from its territory makes the true extent of the slaughter unknowable, but social-media posts from the region suggest that individual executions happen more or less continually, and mass executions every few weeks. Muslim “apostates” are the most common victims. Exempted from automatic execution, it appears, are Christians who do not resist their new government. Baghdadi permits them to live, as long as they pay a special tax, known as the jizya, and acknowledge their subjugation. The Koranic authority for this practice is not in dispute.”
Here, the author’s theological dishonesty is clearly demonstrated. Though the passage above reads as though the Koran provides authority for the grotesque executions performed by ISIS, solely excepting Christians who pay the jizya (translated best as “tribute,” perhaps), the jizya is mentioned only once in the Koran and it is undefined beyond being something which is paid by any non-Muslim (not just Christians, as this article implies) living under the rule of Muslims who have conquered them after engaging in a defensive war. It is absolutely no part of any justification for disgusting, merciless, torturous executions.
The Rational Foundation of Religious Scholarship
As was initially observed, the author ignores the critique that ISIS is un-Islamic and argues instead against the position that they don’t actually believe themselves to be Islamic. He ignores the irrationality with which ISIS interprets the Koran and other texts and insists that their self-declaration as Muslim suffices to establish them as such with equal legitimacy to any other Muslim. Though their assertions are purported to be “laced with theological and legal discussion” in some attempt to elevate them above their outrageous insanity, there is no consideration of their merits in terms of understanding, wisdom, or reason. Rather, that they share words with theological and legal discussion seems to suffice for the author.
Given that the author and the Princeton scholar seem to agree that anyone who claims to be Muslim is Muslim, I guess that’s not too surprising.
And of course, no sane critic of the ideology of ISIS believes they know they’re not Muslim (at least, not on a large scale; it is possible that the higher-ups are aware of their deception). In fact, that they believe themselves to be Muslim is likely central to their depravity. I don’t know who this “Haykel” is, but he seems to me to be dangerously absurd. The type of absurdity at work here is sadly commonplace in the modern field of religious studies, and it has evolved to survive through intentional obfuscation and insidious presupposition. Haykel is quoted as saying:
“People want to absolve Islam…It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.’ Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. ‘And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.’”
This should give any reader of this article cause for alarm. What is Haykel saying about the nature of Islam and, by extension, religion in general?
When critics of ISIS say that Islam is a “religion of peace,” they likely mean to point out that the Koran (and I would certainly include the preceding texts from which it rises) actually demands adherence to principles of peaceful religious freedom and tolerance contrary to the violent, oppressive, intolerant aggression of ISIS. Haykel here appears to be countering this assessment not merely with a competing understanding of the authentic message of the Koran and its associated texts (because such an attempt at rationally defending ISIS would stand no chance of success), but rather with a far more radical claim, asserting that there is no “Islam,” as he puts it, but rather Islam is whatever is said and done by anyone who calls himself Muslim, with all such people having equal legitimacy.
This passage seems to thwart the earlier assertion that the ISIS interpretation of Islam is coherent and learned, for if there is no authentic message of Islam, based in a rationally justified interpretation of the Koran and its preceding texts, then to what standard is ISIS being held for its coherence and learning?
How would Christians respond if the predatory child abusers led by Warren Jeffs were asserted to have “just as much legitimacy as anyone else”? Those who led the Inquisition? White supremacists? They all assert basis for their idiotic beliefs in Abrahamic scripture, but we understand that the interpretation of scripture depends on rational, educated insight, and hold such interpretation above the psychotic whims of violent criminals. Haykel’s position allows him to ignore the rational failures in ISIS’ interpretations, disputes between Sunni Muslims regarding their texts, disputes between Sunni and Shia, or even disputes between the Koranists and both of the aforementioned groups.
To Haykel, it’s all just “what Muslims do and how they interpret their texts.” It seems being a Muslim is no more than declaring it, since all subsequent behavior is apparently held to be equally legitimate, without consideration for its merits. I expect this position should ring obviously untrue to any human being who is yet unafflicted by the scourge of postmodernism.
Haykel’s position allows him to proclaim the centuries of wonderful, rational interpretation of the Koran as equal in quality with the depraved nonsense spewn forth by the likes of ISIS. Having experienced such buffoonery plainly and unambiguously during my time in a prominent American academy of religious studies, I am perhaps less surprised than (hopefully most) others would be at such a position. As should be plain to anyone who has lived in the world, the meaning of a text is not simply whatever a group of people “interpret” it to be and do as a result. If someone proclaims an instruction manual for his toilet to be a guide to breathing underwater, the manual’s author cannot be held accountable for his inevitable drowning.
That a text is religious does not grant it exception to this understanding. The significance of a text, rather, is that which an adequately educated, rational mind would reasonably interpret it to be, and it takes an extreme combination of ignorance and irrationality to determine that the Koran, with its reverence for the Gospel and the Tanakh, its prohibition of violent aggression, and its flat assertion that there is no compulsion in religion, could ever be used by a coherent and learned person in support of the insanity promulgated by ISIS.
Haykel goes on to say:
“What’s striking about them is not just the literalism, but also the seriousness with which they read these texts…There is an assiduous, obsessive seriousness that Muslims don’t normally have.”
I could think of no more condescending and insidious remark; the man is quite obviously insinuating that all Muslims would reach the same conclusions as ISIS if only they were as serious as ISIS.
Well I may not have the scholarly credentials of Mr. Haykel, but I have read the Tanakh, the Pseudepigrapha, the Gospel, and the Koran, and I consider myself quite serious. My conclusion is that there is absolutely no way that any sane, rational reader who traversed the same path could ever arrive at a position even remotely close to that of ISIS.
Demonstrative of the utility value of holding a nonsensical position, the author goes on to attempt to evade critique by adding to his piece the remark:
“It would be facile, even exculpatory, to call the problem of the Islamic State ‘a problem with Islam.'”
Sure, he said it was a totally coherent and learned interpretation of Islam on which ISIS rests its theology, but somehow he thinks that doesn’t mean there’s any problem with Islam.
This sort of confusion regarding interpretation and meaning is rampant throughout the field of religious studies, and while I know little of Haykel, it seems both he and the author of this article are caught up in that confusion. The point is simple: an honest reading of the main texts of the Abrahamic tradition – the Tanakh, the Gospel, and the Koran – does not in any way lead a reasonable person to the position of ISIS. In fact, it leads a reasonable person to wholly and unwaveringly condemn their position as utter insanity without any support whatsoever in Abrahamic faith. Throughout history, there have been millions of wrong people who have done horrible things, but that does not make wrong the texts about which they were wrong.
And with one last streak of meteoric idiocy, Haykel says:
“‘The only principled ground that the Islamic State’s opponents could take is to say that certain core texts and traditional teachings of Islam are no longer valid,’ Bernard Haykel says. That really would be an act of apostasy.”
I can hardly emphasize enough the absurdly outlandish nature of this final claim whose validity the article has completely failed to demonstrate. That the Koran or the scripture which preceded it serves the purpose of ISIS is a falsehood which should be immediately obvious to anyone who has simply read the texts, and much more to one of the Abrahamic faith who has studied them for years. At the very least, is this assertion not completely contrary to the equal legitimacy previously bestowed upon any interpretation of the Koran? Haykel has not only failed to prove in any way that no one can maintain fidelity to the Abrahamic faith while rationally opposing the abject, morbid insanity of ISIS, but he has also undercut the force of any such position with his previous insistence of equal legitimacy among all Muslim interpretations.
To any even moderately learned historian of religion, Haykel’s assertion can only be seen as an utter embarrassment to the speaker, but I fear that a frightened audience will be falsely confident about a man with what are often thought to be rightly prestigious credentials. And this brings me to the second major point of this article, the first being that ISIS is in no way rightly basing its actions on anything close to a reasonable understanding of the Abrahamic faith.
Symptoms of a Languishing Academy
When I entered the academy, seeking to find truth in the religious systems of the world and lend my hand to the development of the philosophy of religion, I was warned by the wisest philosophers I know that religious studies has become a sickened wing of the academy. It has become rife with postmodernist nonsense and filled to the brim with academic title-seekers lacking any real intellectual excellence. Nonetheless, I could not turn down the opportunity to pursue and potentially live the life of my dreams, so I accepted my offer and excitedly dove into my studies.
Unfortunately, I left the academy after only two short years of graduate-level study. I discovered the validity of the position of my cherished teachers, and having a family and a life to lead, I was simply forced to find another path for myself in the face of unbelievably obstinate philosophical bankruptcy and entrenched careerists. I have had doctors of religious studies assert and “defend” (it’s hard to classify total incoherence as defense) such ridiculous nonsense that it would make any sensible person’s jaw drop. I’ve been told by both professors and students in the study of religion that the term “religion” cannot be defined, the obviously silly consequences of such a theory utterly ignored in the process. Even after pointing out the absurdity of such a claim (what, then is religious studies!?), it was insisted upon as fact. I’ve been told by professors that Chinese people have no concept of past, present, and future because the Chinese language does not involve the conjugation of verbs. I’ve taken graduate-level courses in the philosophy of religion from professors and with students who have never read Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Kant, or virtually any other prominent contributor to the field, opting instead for modern commentaries on commentaries which present increasingly ludicrous positions as their authors churn out senseless books in the pursuit of academic prestige. Arguments that reality is “socially constructed” or that “interpretation is meaning” run rampant through the academy, their continued support gladly given by intellectual lightweights seeking a playground of incoherence in which everyone’s a winner and none assailable. Careers are furthered, pay is provided for nothing in return, and the corrupt make their gains.
I encourage readers to take a moment to reflect upon the corruption which must be present in the wings of religious studies in American academia if a scholar at Princeton can maintain such an obviously absurd position, for while this surprises me little (as this is why I left the academy, myself), it should surprise and concern any heretofore unacquainted person who cares for religion and its study. Haykel’s assertions reek of the same philosophical bankruptcy whose hermeneutical confusions prompted my academic interlocutors to offer to me strange hypotheses explaining their apparent incoherence. Rather than acknowledging simple counter-arguments to their absurd positions, they sought to devise explanations for their apparent incoherence. I was told that I wanted to “do philosophy” (code for “think critically,” I believe) when they were attempting to “do religious studies” (despite the fact that “religion” was held to be an undefinable term and any act of interpretation was seen to constitute the meaning of any phrase anyway, making error impossible and truth completely relative to persons or cultures, or perhaps non-existent entirely, as the conversation demanded).
It is from within this confused mess of nonsense that such an obviously silly assessment of Islam finds the ground it needs to germinate. As one of my professors once remarked, religious studies in America has become a sort of Galapagos in the academy; with no intellectual predation to speak of, ideas are left to grow wildly out of control in outrageous displays of nonsense. I personally find the thought of relating incompetent drivel and the natural beauty of the Galapagos somewhat inappropriate, but the point is a good one nonetheless.
In spite of the tremendously rich philosophical and religious contributions of Islam to the culture of humanity, the virtues of which are known to any student of history who cares to look, here’s someone who considers himself learned in this area claiming that there can be no valid Muslim opposition to violent, corrupt depravity short of apostasy. It appears this “scholar” has elected to endorse the interpretations of psychopaths by, in part, leveraging a laughably and obviously flawed hermeneutical theory in order to proclaim the actions of anyone calling himself Muslim as rightly definitive of the correct interpretation of the Koran (if he even believes there can be such a thing as a correct interpretation). To reach the outrageous conclusion that no Muslim could rationally oppose the ideology of ISIS, he must believe that rationality plays no authoritative role in the interpretation of scripture, or he himself must agree that ISIS has reached the rationally correct interpretation of scripture.
I’m not sure which would be the more frightening indicator of his incompetence.
The Role of Academic Religious Study
American academia should be in the forefront of the theological fight against ISIS. We live in a land of freedom, where one can follow one’s conscience in study. We are free to pursue the truth openly, in a manner denied to those subjected to the oppression of the likes of ISIS. We must use our invaluable advantage to reach out and support those who are in need, for such freedom grants us access to an objectivity not easily reached by those in horrible distress. We should fight for rational comprehension of the religious works of mankind and in doing so give back what has been stolen from so many lives. That religion must be subject to rational scrutiny should be obvious to every human being, though it is an oft-avoided conclusion on behalf of the religious, perhaps out of fear that the faiths of their particular choosing won’t stand up to scrutiny.
But this is a reality which must be faced. It should be clear to every servant of God that one must seek not just whatever religious text falls into one’s lap, but the principles embodied in those texts which support and cohere most greatly with the Law of reason and the autonomous force of Mind imbued in humanity by the Creator. To briefly sketch my position as an example:
One can (and should, I believe) hold that the object of religion transcends reason, and therefore expect no text to fully fathom the nature of God, but this position is not incompatible with reason. Indeed, religion cannot run contrary to reason, for reason is the Law which governs creation and makes possible the pursuit of God within. One might consider the Law to be the vehicle of wisdom, though the ultimate source of wisdom transcends its bounds. Without the Law, there is left only chaos and incoherence, but without Mind, there can be only an unknown world of cold, dead machinery. The principal matter of faith is in the goodness of Mind and its capacity for the worship of a loving and benevolent Creator; in this belief surely one cannot avoid reverence for the Law. As Rabbi Hillel once spoke, “What is distasteful to yourself, do not do to your neighbor; that is the whole law, the rest is but deduction.” Immanuel Kant later demonstrates the root of this inference in the simple Injunction of Autonomy, and further refines it into the Categorical Imperative. Finding purchase in the freedom of Mind, religion grows from a rationally justified faith in its goodness.
Therefore, if the Holy Koran were genuinely promoting a false religion of violent terror and intolerance, then I would be first to stand up and decry it as such. I would hope that American academics would determine and demonstrate this with clear rational force, for it ought to be the responsibility of scholars of religion to do just that. We shall not fear such conclusions, for it is a great service to God to dispel words masquerading as God’s own. I am writing, however, to say that I have for years subjected the Abrahamic tradition to much scrutiny, and my conclusion is that it is a beautiful series of texts which call for nothing if not the love of God and the love of one’s neighbor as oneself. These great commandments on which hang all the Law are among humankind’s greatest conclusions.
There is a real cost to bad hermeneutical theory, and though its relative obscurity tends to keep it out of sight and out of mind for most of the public, here we see its destructive force, jutting into public dialogue regarding issues of extreme import, threatening to cause terrible harm. We cannot allow philosophical failures in the comprehension of religion to divide us, for there are more than enough horrific words spoken in the name of God. We must not come to endorse the many permutations of relativism rampaging through modern religious studies. Cultural relativism and related theories seek to eschew rightful critique of abhorrent human practices and establish boundaries of understanding which cannot be crossed, subjugating the human spirit entirely to social forces. Nothing could be more diametrically opposed to religion, science, and the greatest philosophical, religious, and intellectual achievements of human history whose power is on account of their equal, objective relation to every person.
For a final point, I would like to point out that not only is it utterly false that apostasy from the Abrahamic faith is the only principled ground on which the opponents of ISIS could stand, but it is also not the case that Abrahamic scripture should be taken to be set in stone for all eternity. Jesus himself reinforces this very perception of scripture. “It was because you were so hard-hearted,” he spoke, “that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” There are indeed passages throughout nearly any religious scripture which seem repulsive and in need of correction, and this highlights the need to depend upon reason for one’s theory of interpretation, as Jesus validates with his word.
“It is He who sent down upon thee the Book, wherein are verses clear that are the Essence
of the Book, and others ambiguous. As for those in whose hearts is swerving, they follow the ambiguous part, desiring dissension, and desiring its interpretation; and none knows its interpretation, save only God. And those firmly rooted in knowledge say, ‘We believe in it; all is from our Lord’; yet none remembers, but men possessed of minds.” – The Holy Koran