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Is the Islamic State Islamic? The Yes and No of the matter

[ by Charles Cameron — both answers are true in different contexts — IMO a significant point that previous discussion has tended to overlook ]

Were (are) the Khawarij Muslim? That’s the question I keep thinking of when discussion of whether IS (or AQ) is Islamic comes up. From a Muslim perspective, they were heretics. Joas Wagemakers identified the central distinctive opinion of the Khawarij thus:

The first of these is the Khawarij’s belief that revolt against Muslim rulers was allowed if they were deemed insufficiently pious. When ‘Ali accepted arbitration with Mu‘awiya, the people later known as Khawarij reportedly shouted ‘judgement is God’s alone’ (la hukm illa li-llah). In the context of that event, this referred to their belief that only God had the authority to arbitrate, not human beings, and that ‘Ali should not have accepted Mu‘awiya’s offer. The slogan later came to represent their broader view that all judgements and rulings should be left to God, thus applying Qur’anic rulings so strictly that they expelled Muslims guilty of major sins from their community and fought them. Because they believed sinful Muslims to be unbelievers (kuffar, singular: kafir), they directly applied passages from the Qur’an pertaining to jihad against non-Muslims to those of their co-religionists who were less than perfectly pious.

From the perspective of what I’m going to call “ongoing Islam” they were heretics — the very name Khawarij indicates those who have gone out, ie left the religion of Islam — and yet their heresy was that of “fundamentalizing” Islam, being, if you like, excessively Islamic.

Consider: according to a hadith reported in Abu Dawud:

The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “There will be dissension and division in my nation and a people will come with beautiful words but evil deeds. They recite the Quran but it will not pass beyond their throats. They will leave the religion as an arrow leaves its target and they will not return until the arrow returns to its notch. They are the worst of the creation. Blessed are those who fight them and are killed by them. They call to the Book of Allah but they have nothing to do with it. Whoever fights them is better to Allah than them.”

As a student of religions might say, their use of the Qur’an marks them as clearly Islamic, and as a Muslim theologian might say, they have clearly departed the religion, in truth “they have nothing to do with it.”

Many contemporary Muslims would say of IS, its leader and members, that they “call to the Book of Allah but they have nothing to do with it” — and they have every right to say that. Those, however, who wish to understand what drives IS do well to understand the theology and eschatology involved, as well as the psychology of the passions they invoke — and also the Islamic context in which IS may well be viewed as having by the very nature of their excesses left the religion..


This post is copied wholesale from a fascinating conversation among friends (Mark Safranski, J Scott Shipman, Michael J. Lotus, Dan Tdaxp, Joshua Treviño, Lynn Rees and others) in response to Tanner Greer’s post Vox Will Never Understand Islam… Or Any Religion, Really, which is itself a response to a Vox piece by Max Fisher, The perfect response to people who blame Islam for ISIS.

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3 Responses to “Is the Islamic State Islamic? The Yes and No of the matter”

  1. omar Says:

    About the hadith, it does make one think that someone made it up AFTER the Khwarij had already appeared on the scene. A lot of Hadiths make good sense if they were invented after events had given rise to their need, but seem suspiciously overly-prescient if one imagines them as actually dating from the days of the nascent state of Medinah 🙂
    ALL of Islamic history can be seen as the struggle between three camps that all appeared fairly early in the rise of the Arabs:
    1. SUnnis. Those who thought the rising empire was best led by the consensus of the elite, with a tendency to rally around whoever had managed to fight his way to the top, provided he paid lip service to religion, partronized the rising ulama class and (most important) kept his eyes on the ball as far as managing and growing the empire was concerned. Details to follow.
    2. Shias. Those who felt there was something special about the family of the prophet and in particular, the family of Ali and developed theologies that included varying combinations of the charismatic Imamate and its heritage of revolt against Sunni authority.
    3 Khwarij. True believers who took it all so literally it hurts.
    Everything since then can fit into one of these streams, with wahabism and ISIS etc combining the waters of 1 and 3, usually with more 3 than 1.

  2. omar Says:

    What about Sufism?
    Mostly just Sunnis with nice instincts?
    With some of them being sensitive people trying to get the most good out of religion while leaving out most of the imperial and legalistic baggage.
    And sometimes a secret society, influencing much behind the scenes, but by definition, not really easy to disentangle myth (and self-promotion) from shadowy reality.
    Not really a sect or a theology.
    Something like that.

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    Cole Bunzel responded:

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