There are typically two responses to ISIS. ‘ISIS has nothing to do with Islam’ or ‘ISIS are the real Muslims’. It’s easy to understand why so many Muslims—especially in western contexts—dissociate themselves from ISIS. They are thoroughly embarrassed to think that non-Muslims around them might assume that because they are Muslims, they must have some sympathy with ISIS and all that it is doing. They therefore argue that many of the practices of ISIS are completely un-Islamic, even anti-Islamic and cannot be justified by the legal traditions that have been developed over many centuries.
A very thoughtful Muslim leader I know in Cambridge said to me a few weeks ago, ‘They’re just a bunch of Marxists.’ And a recent article in the Times by Ben Macintyre had the heading ‘ISIS owes more to the Kremlin than the Koran,’ and argued that ‘Stalin is the godfather of Islamic State.’ Many politicians have been naively repeating the mantra ‘Islam is a religion of peace.’ And I still remember hearing an Anglican bishop, a few days after 9/11, saying on Radio 4 ‘This has nothing to do with Islam.’
But when the ideologues of ISIS spell out in great detail where in their scriptures, tradition and history, they find the Islamic justification for what they are doing, it’s simply nonsense to go on claiming that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. It would be more accurate to say that ISIS has a lot to do with Islam, but is an extreme expression of one particular kind of Islamism. The rank and file of ISIS fighters from all over the world have joined the movement for a whole variety of motives—related to idealism and the search for identity, meaning and adventure—and probably have minimal understanding of Islam. But the leadership says so clearly that it is trying to imitate some of the practices of the first generation of Muslims during and immediately after the life of the Prophet. And in interpreting the Qur’an, they use the principle of abrogation, which enables them to say that later verses calling Muslims to wage war on unbelievers abrogate, or cancel out, earlier verses which call for patient endurance of opposition. A document by Abu Bakr Naji that comes out of ISIS called ‘The Management of Savagery’ explains in some detail how their strategies and tactics are modelled on some of the practices of the first Muslims. So instead of saying that the warriors of ISIS are not real or faithful Muslims, other Muslims need to explain why they believe ISIS is completely wrong in its interpretation and application of Islamic sources.
At the other extreme there are many Christians—and, dare I say, especially evangelical Christians—who believe that ISIS is much nearer to the spirit and practice of early Islam than moderate Muslims of today. They point to particular verses in the Qur’an (e.g. about beheading, crucifixion and slavery) and passages in Hadith literature, the biographies of Muhammad and legal texts to show the connections between the brutalities of ISIS and early Islamic texts.
I believe it’s absolutely right to draw attention to the precedents from the early years of Islam which are used to justify what ISIS is doing. But I suggest that there are two serious weaknesses in this general approach. Firstly, it hardly begins to engage with the arguments of mainstream Muslim scholars who believe they can demonstrate why ISIS is a clear departure from Islamic tradition. The main argument of scholars like Tim Winter of Cambridge is that Islamist interpretations generally ignore the consensus in the Islamic legal tradition which developed over many centuries and insist on going directly back to the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet. Winter believes that the legal traditions of the four main theological schools (the madhhabs) are like a telescope that enables us to see the stars clearly; and the Islamists, who ignore the tradition and make their own interpretations of the sources, are like people who refuse to use the telescope and insist on looking at the stars with the naked eye.
Secondly, it seems to assume that we as non-Muslims are in a better position than Muslim themselves to determine what is ‘true Islam’ or ‘real Islam.’ We must surely allow Muslims to speak for themselves and define themselves and their faith and not imagine that we understand what Islam is better than they do.
I suggest therefore that both these approaches are thoroughly unhelpful and need to be challenged.