If I am asked “Is there a problem with Islam?” My answer is an emphatic no.
If I am asked “Is there a problem with modern Islamic thought?” My answer is an emphatic yes.
I do not want to be pedantic, but I want to make what I believe to be a very important point. The purpose of the distinction is to avoid the appearance that I consider any reasonable interpretation of the Koran to yield any objective support whatsoever to the rampaging abusers of the faith. I think it’s obviously possible that a religion could demand of its adherents violent totalitarianism and that, should a religion such as that be identified, it must be decried as such. My studies, however, have revealed to me that Islam is not in any way such a religion, and I think it is of paramount import that this is made abundantly clear in today’s trying times.
So in fact, while I will grant that it is a technically acceptable use of the term “Islam” to refer to the religion and its adherents in toto,the problem, as I see it, is that there is a veritable deluge of public sentiment in America that goes something like:
ISIS is just the honest and rigorous portion of Muslims, taking Islam to its obvious conclusion and attempting to exert the totalitarian theocratic control over the world demanded of them by the Koran.
And it is this position which I am emphatically rejecting. To use a term such as “radical Islam” or “Islamic extremists” in reference to ISIS can be reasonably understood to imply that ISIS is simply taking Islam further to its rational ends than other, more moderate Muslims are willing to take it. I think this is demonstrably false, and that to concede such a position would be an extremely profound victory for ISIS which must not be granted.
That is why I am here going to lengths to demonstrate not only the important distinction highlighted by the statements I initially put forth above, but also to inform of the great amount of evidence against the public sentiment represented by the hypothetical quote I provide above.
So to thoroughly eliminate any illusion of mere sophistry here, I grant that it is potentially valid to say “Islamic terrorism” if these considerations are all well understood, the problem, as I see it, is that these considerations are not well understood, and we should speak with greater technical precision in situations where vagaries are conducive to the maintenance of positions which are likely incorrect.
If you already agree with my assessment of Islam as a valuable system of religious thought which bears no genuine support for the insanity of ISIS, well then by all means feel free to quit reading now, for that is the conclusion which I aim to establish below. If, on the other hand, you are of those who believe Islam to command such evil of Muslims, I ask that you give me some of your time and consider the article I write below.
An Overview of the Remaining Article
So in support of this position of mine, then, allow me to take you through a brief discussion in the following manner:
- Methodological principles involved in defining religious thought
- A brief investigation of the relationship between violent fanaticism and Islam
- Determining the appropriateness of the term “radical Islam”
First, I intend to argue that a reasonable method by which one defines religious thought will require that we scrutinize the rational merits of any set of positions characterized by proponents as being in line with any given religious system. In fact, I will argue, such merits are the only suitable basis on which any set of positions may be asserted to align in a significant way with a religious system.
Second, I intend to direct readers to my articles which have been written in an attempt to demonstrate the incompatibility of the behavior and theology of ISIS with the Koran. I will also gesture at the degree of historic variation in Islamic thought and contrast that with our present-day situation.
Finally, I will conclude that while the term “radical Islam” does denote something significant, it is misleading in an important way, and that perhaps a simple term such as this is fundamentally inadequate in referring to the problems we currently face in Islamic theology which are far too conducive to the kinds of decidedly un-Islamic positions we see in the likes of ISIS.
Defining Religious Thought
In defining and understanding religious thought, we must achieve a degree of hermeneutical sophistication which allows us to distinguish between degrees of intellectual accuracy and precision, for if there is any categorization to be imposed upon religious thought at all (e.g. what is Islamic and what is contrary to Islam), that limit must depend upon such sophistication. In religious study, as with philosophy, we are by its very nature confined to reaping the value sown by our own capacity for intellectual acuity and honesty.
Of course, we must be very careful when defining religious thought, for on one end of the spectrum, we run the risk of unreasonable authoritarianism. We cannot pretend that reasonable people cannot disagree, and we cannot pretend that every issue is so clear cut as to make unbelievers out of everyone who disagrees in any way (after all, such is the nature of the fanaticism which I intend to fight). On the other end, we run the risk of meaningless nomenclature where anything anyone wants to be Islamic shall be considered to be such.
Knowing this obvious range of possibilities, it should be clear to everyone that religious study demands of its practitioners a relentless focus on intellectual honesty and a solid understanding of sound hermeneutical theory (e.g. Charles Sanders Pierce’s Theory of Signs, in my opinion). It is only by studying the foundations of religious thought (e.g. the Tanakh and the Talmud for Judaism, adding the Gospel for Christianity, and adding the Koran to it all for Islam) and seeking to understand distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate interpretations of that thought that we might define meaningful categories in religious thought.
We cannot accept that a position be considered to be affiliated with a religion simply because a proclaimed member of that religion holds it. Yet, I also agree that we must not hold a totalitarian or draconian severity over the heads of those who seek to identify as such. We need to identify with the greatest leniency possible a broad spectrum within which religious thought can diversify and evolve, providing counterpoint to one another, and illuminating human understanding as fully as possible. At the same time, we need this identification to provide us with the capacity to reject certain positions as being outside of the spectrum of reasonable interpretation of that material on which a religious system is founded.
We must also distinguish between religious systems and religious followers. Perhaps it is reasonable to consider someone a Christian so long as that person simply intends to follow Christ. Perhaps, likewise, it is reasonable to consider someone Muslim so long as that person simply intends to submit to God. However, this is where we must understand that Christians can adopt un-Christian positions, and likewise, Muslims can adopt decidedly un-Islamic positions.
The only way to do this, I argue, is by measuring the rational validity of religious thought based on an agreed-upon starting point (with Islam, that would be the Koran).
For some additional reading on my position here, I wrote an article about incompetent implementations of postmodern hermeneutics and their adverse impact on modern religious scholarship in which I make the following related points:
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.
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.
To demonstrate the value of my proposed method here, consider that it would virtually paralyze us in advancing our understanding of religious thought if we were incapable of making distinctions between acceptable disagreement and outrageous mistakes. Allow me to refer the reader to an article about the term “Islamism,” in which I make the following point:
If someone were to slay his family, saying that Jesus said one had to hate one’s family in order to be his disciple, shall we really grant that this is Christianism? The mere fact that someone can find support among one’s own incomprehension woven into a self-fulfilling collage of scripture should surprise no one. It is unreasonable to defer to the lost among us matters regarding our conceptual cartography.
We would not grant the title. We would point out that this seemingly harsh phrase is a translation of a Hebrew idiom in which words translating into “love” and “hate” can be used to indicate preference in a softer manner. The person believing Jesus is commanding him to violently hate his family is misunderstanding the text, and therefore, he is not related to Christianity in any meaningful sense beyond his incomprehension. For a real-world example, we don’t call Warren Jeffs and his depraved followers “Christianists.” Rather, and despite his protestations to the contrary, we understand his insanity to be of a different source than the Gospel. I argue that this is the same condition which faces us among the vast majority of “Islamists.”
Here, I have come up with what I think is a good example of a position which must not be considered “Christian” in any meaningful way. To do so is to give the mistaken impression to anyone who hears such a categorization that there is some sort of good reason that one, having read the words of Jesus, would think that he ought to murder his family (or, God forbid, in the latter case, sexually abuse children).
We have to have the capacity, as free rational beings, to identify lenient rational limits on interpretive efforts so that we can have a meaningful intellectual environment within which we might make progress. Without the ability to rationally define such limits, we lose not only meaningful terminology, but also any ability to make sense at all in discussing religious thought. It is that simple.
A Brief Investigation of the Relationship Between the Fanaticism of ISIS and Islam
For evidence of the many, many contradictions between the insanity of ISIS and the message of the Koran, I have written a few articles of which perhaps this is the best.
The history of Islamic thought is long and complex. What began as a syncretic, liberal religious movement has become largely extremely exclusive and totalitarian. I cannot do the history of thought justice in any significant fashion in this brief component of a brief blog post (to supplement that, perhaps check out Alastair Crooke’s great two-part series on the recent history of Saudi Arabia and Wahhabi doctrine here and here), but suffice it to say that the theology conducted during Islam’s Golden Age is incredibly different from the theology conducted in modern times.
For a quick example of some dramatic differences between historic Islamic thought and that of modern times, consider an early dominant school of thought to arise in Islam: the Mu’tazila. I encourage you to read (skim, even) the Wikipedia page about that school to get a feel for just how incredibly different it sounds from modern Islamic thought. What’s even more telling about some of the problems faced by modern Islamic thought is that many of the seemingly-obviously-correct, at least prima facie, standpoints of the Mu’tazila (e.g. the Koran is created by God, and not “co-eternal” with God) are now considered not only wrong but utter blasphemy by the dominant modern schools of Islamic thought. You can’t even come close to their position regarding the requirement that religious beliefs be rationally justified without being decried as an unbeliever by the adherents of modern Wahhabism. In fact, you can hardly do anything at all without being decried as an unbeliever by Wahhabists.
And it is this, the Wahhabi movement, which is the primary problem with modern Islamic thought, in my estimation. Abd al-Wahhab founded an incredibly aggressive, totalitarian, irrational movement which sought (and seeks now) to oppress and exterminate any who disagree. Abd al-Wahhab went so far as to write that those who disagreed with his demand that every Muslim submit utterly to the reigning Caliph should be murdered, their wives and daughters raped, and their property confiscated. Forget all that stuff in the Koran about no man being given the Book and the prophecy that he should turn and say “be you servants unto me, apart from God.” Just listen and obey, and if not, face a torturous death at the hands of bloodthirsty maniacs.
Thanks to decades of intense and systematic Saudi proselytizing, this rampaging lunatic is the foundation of much of modern Islamic theology. It is not in any way obvious that Abd al-Wahhab is correctly understanding the Koran. In fact, I think it’s quite obvious that he is downright insanely deviant, and if you saw some of the outrageous methods by which Wahhabi theologians get their interpretive way (often by declaring their favorite passages of the Koran to supersede, or abrogate, all others), you might agree.
For example, Wahhabi theologians sometimes take the famous “Sword Verse” (9:5) not only completely out of its rather apparent context of reference to unbelievers who violate peace treaties with believers, but also as a verse which was allegedly revealed after (chronologically speaking, that is. Try to make sense of that alongside the idea that the Koran is co-eternal…) the myriad verses about peace and tolerance in the treatment of everyone, including non-Muslims. And this means, according to them, that it abrogates all verses commanding peace and tolerance and justifies violence against any and all non-Muslims. Combine that with a draconian severity with which disagreement is said to qualify as unbelief, and you’ve got yourself a quick and convenient recipe for absolute and outrageously violent insanity.
So how, you might wonder, did Islam possibly move in such a direction? Well, the Mu’tazila, for all their merits, became the first ruling school of Islamic thought to formally persecute in torturous fashion those who disagreed with them. Yup, those purportedly committed to reason became the first tyrants. They ended up making a hero out of Ibn Hanbal, who courageously (albeit incorrectly, in my opinion) disagreed with them and was imprisoned and tortured for his disagreement.
Among many disagreements, the particular matter over which the Mu’tazila and Ibn Hanbal disagreed, and which led to his Ibn Hanbal’s torture, was the eternality of the Koran. Not only did Ibn Hanbal think the Koran to be co-eternal with God (as opposed to created by God), but he began down a more narrow, exclusive path when it came to the definition of Islam and Muslims. For example, though the three other primary schools of Islamic jurisprudence viewed the Hanbali school as valid, the Hanbali school refused to return the favor.
Thus began a road which would later be walked by a man named Ibn Tamiyyah. He increasingly radicalized the Hanbali position, making it more literal in its interpretations, and demanding that others adhere to these literal interpretations or be considered unbelievers. Again, the authorities with whom he disagreed persecuted him, and he courageously stood against his oppressors, earning perhaps even more validity in the eyes of later Muslims seeking comfort in the surety of fanaticism.
Abd al-Wahhab would come a few hundred years later, claiming great inspiration from the two of them. And ISIS now is even more radical than any of those who preceded them, further developing this path of thought which has for hundreds of years headed down an ever more narrow path of definitions and considerations of what it is to be a Muslim and ever widening considerations of what is justified, and even obligatory, in violent dealings with non-Muslims.
In no small part because of Ibn Hanbal’s courageous rebellion against his oppressors, nowadays, the idea that the Koran was created is overwhelmingly considered to be blasphemy, and the likes of ISIS call people Mu’tazil as a derogatory way to label them as blasphemers. Modern Islamic thought recoils more greatly than ever before from things considered to be “extra-Islamic” and the Koran is often thought to be the source of literally all knowledge.
That’s just a taste of the drama that has preceded modern Islamic thought, and just a glimpse at the kinds of deep-seated, difficult issues facing us. It’s quite the ironic disaster that the first Muslim group devoted to reason became the first group to cast aside those principles and act tyrannically against Muslims.
Now, we suffer from an affliction that we risk creating all over again; In Islamic theology, reasonable and strong theological positions are now overwhelmingly considered anathema out of fear of their association with a group renowned for its errors. Similarly, the disease is spreading beyond Muslims and humanity at a broader scale risks the rejection of those reasonable and strong principles embodied in the Koran out of a desire to reject the errors of some, or even most, modern Muslims.
We have to stop this mindless death spiral wherever possible.
A Concluding Note
When I began my studies of the Abrahamic faiths years ago, I fully believed I would find texts full of insane crackpottery, obvious nonsense, and outrageous garbage that would nonetheless inexplicably be accepted as truth by billions of people on this planet. I believed this in large part because of the very trend against which I now fight – the public representation of Christianity in this country is very often absolutely nonsensical when compared with what’s actually in the Bible, and it is hard to believe (even after seeing the two juxtaposed by my own careful investigation) that there could really be that much distance between the two.
But there is, and that’s what we need to focus on, especially in a time when violent psychopaths are masquerading as men of God.
I’m here to tell you this, as I wrote in the previous article mentioned regarding hermeneutics:
…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.
I think it is very misleading to the vast majority of people here in the United States to call what ISIS is doing “Islamic”, just as it would be very misleading to call the Inquisition “Christian” (in fact, it is often referred to as “The Spanish Inquisition”, likely because our society understands the appropriate nature of the distinction between the Inquisition and Christianity as a religious system). I will admit that this issue is confused a bit because “Christian” can refer to either a follower or the thought, whereas the issue is more distinct with Islam, as a Muslim is a follower and “Islamic” refers to thought.
But here, I think we can do more justice to the situation and remind ourselves that neither of these heinous acts (those of the Inquisition or ISIS) is based on anything even remotely close to a reasonable interpretation of the faiths in question there; I know, for I have read the texts on which both are founded. I encourage you to know, as well, by reading those texts yourself.
So perhaps we can call them “Fanatic Muslims,” granting that they believe themselves to be submitting to God, and highlighting the dangers of fanaticism, even. It still sits wrongly with me, but it is superior to “radical Islam,” which utterly fails to capture the categorically un-Islamic nature of the depravity of ISIS. We need some term that doesn’t imply that Islam provides some genuine basis for their behavior (unless it can be shown that it does, in which case, by all means, use the term “radical Islam”). Again, I don’t want to descend into pedantry or useless word games, but I really do think this is very important. It is no trivial matter if Islam itself is found to provide basis for disgusting violence and oppression, and we should not use terminology that implies any such conclusion lest we be sure of its merits, and from what I know thus far in my life, I am very sure that Islam forbids very directly the behavior of these criminals.
My big life goal for the next ten years is to commit myself wholly to the study of Arabic and Islam so as to aid in the reversal of the horrible trends which have taken over modern Islamic theology. The vast majority of Muslims today, as with Christians, in my opinion, subscribe to schools of thought which are so unbelievably distant from the scriptures on which they are purportedly based, that the likes of ISIS are genuinely thought by many to be rationally related to Islam.
That is the battle we must win. Today’s theological climate is so toxic, so poisonous, that not only is a seemingly endless parade of rabid lunatic clerics given credibility by the masses, but a voice such as mine is seen as absolutely unacceptable. My beloved falsafa and those with whom I would have much in agreement from the long-gone Golden Age of Islam, they are now seen as unbelievers. I must take action and assist in the reversal of this horrible trend. The “textualists”, the “read and believe” segment of classical Islamic Theology has completely dominated modern Muslim thought and it must, in my opinion, be stopped.
However, if in the course of my studies I determine that the only rational judgment that can be made of Islam is that the theories which seem to me absolutely insane are the only plausible ones after all, I will report back, and then we can use the terms “Islamic Terrorism” or “Radical Islamic Terrorism”, for they will not be misleading. My position now, however, is that they are severely misleading, and we should not implement them.