Graeme Wood’s controversial article on ISIS in this month’s Atlantic elicited a flurry of responses, from hearty “amens” to clever and erudite rebuttals (along with some more colorful takes on the matter). Since much of the subsequent discussion hinged on interpretations and misinterpretations of a number of terms related to Islam, RD senior correspondent Haroon Moghul assembled the following primer.
Please note that it isn’t intended as a comprehensive guide either to Islam or even to the individual terms, but should be read in the context of recent debates. — eds.
The Messiah, the Word and Spirit of God, born to the Virgin Mary, Islam’s penultimate Prophet, who did not die on the cross but only appeared to; in the Muslim belief, he will return before the end of time to defeat the anti-Christ and rally the faithful. Jesus is not however perceived as divine: God is wholly One, indivisible and unique. Jesus is a sacred but fully human person.
In Arabic, Islam means ‘submission,’ and implicitly, ‘submission to God’s will.’ Arabic words usually descend from three-parent homes, in which each parent is a letter, and children inevitably have related meanings as well as similar sounds. The letters S-L-M, for example, produce not just ‘Islam’, and ‘Muslim’, but salam, as in ‘peace’—related to the Hebrew shalom. Which is to say, the religion is easy enough. But when it comes to ‘Islamic,’ things get a lot more confusing.
So far as I can tell, Islam is unique among religions (at least as far as the English language is concerned) in this respect: We can use ‘Muslim’ (as in an adherent of the religion) or ‘Islamic’ (as in adhering to the religion), though both also seem to mean ‘belonging to or conforming to Islam.’ When it comes to Christianity, however, we have only ‘Christian,’ and the same goes for Hinduism and Buddhism. (Perhaps Judaism is similar—one can be a ‘Jew,’ or describe someone, or something, as ‘Jewish.’)
Considering this multivalence, it’s not surprising there’s uncertainty.
As it’s conventionally used, ‘Islamic’ should describe ideas, principles, or systems—”that’s an Islamic behavior,” for example. However, we use ‘Muslim’ for persons, as in ‘she’s a Muslim.’ Contrarily, saying ‘she’s Islamic’ would be awkward at best, and incorrect in general (it would however mark you as likelier to vote for one party).
Unhelpfully, though, there appears to be yet another shade of gray. ‘Muslim’ is used to describe affiliation with Islam, while ‘Islamic’ appears to describe a higher order of conformity and congruity with the religion. If I say ‘Muslim scholarship,’ I just might mean Muslims who are scholarly. But ‘Islamic scholarship’ suggests the study of the religion, although not necessarily by Muslims.
The confusion continues: If I say ‘Albania is a Muslim country,’ that’s very different from saying ‘Albania is an Islamic country.’ It is, at least, until you begin to pay attention, at which point these words, like all words, begin to come apart in our hands. The first might just mean Muslim-majority, which is plainly true, whereas the second might mean that Albania somehow conforms to an alleged Islamic political ideal.
To make matters worse, calling things ‘Islamic’ is a peculiarity of the modern age. In fact, the Qur’an never once uses the word ‘Islamic’—and, so far as I know, it does not appear in any of the Prophet’s recorded statements (hadith) either. (I refer to the modern Arabic term, Islami/yyah, which translates to ‘Islamic’.)
What I mean is, ‘Islamic’ was born of the modern age, with its ideologies and ‘isms’—Islamism, jihadism, so on and so forth—and its need to describe totalizing movements and holistic mechanisms. That doesn’t mean use of the term is un-Islamic (sic), but it is worth pointing out that it would be unrecognizable to premodern Muslims—including the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, who allegedly the extremists are so faithful about following. (Not.)
In classical Islam, actions were classified through rulings, which afforded far more fluidity, nuance, and internal dissonance than the modern ideological proclivity permits or even imagines; by these rulings, behaviors could be: necessary, recommended, permissible, disliked, and forbidden. The idea of an ‘Islamic Republic’ or ‘Islamic State’ wouldn’t be unknown just because ‘republics’ are largely modern concepts, but because ‘Islamic’ is, too.
Hence the awkwardness inherent in the question, “is the Islamic State ‘Islamic’”? Not to mention the movement itself, calling itself ‘the Islamic State,’ as if it’s inherently Islamic, and—still more critical to my point here—the only such State. Such arrogance and brazenness are typical of those who claim the mantle ‘Islamic,’ in addition to being uncharacteristic of the Muslim religion, law, and tradition, which is comfortingly apt—their terminology, and methodology, are mutilations of Islam.
They might sound like Islam and refer to Islam, but their use of Islam is not dissimilar from the use of scientific fact by the creationist: She intends to undermine the scientific enterprise with scientific language, suggesting how wholly the discursive space has been dominated by a certain kind of language, but also how easy it is to fool the outsider into thinking he is encountering a serious, rigorous, and historically and textually faithful conversation. Far from it.
As a postscript, Iran and Pakistan are both Islamic Republics. The latter is a parliamentary democracy, whereas the former is, well, a constitutional… theocracy, for lack of a better term. So what then is an Islamic Republic?
4. Islamic law
Not Shariah. Confusion of the two is rampant and unfortunate.
Islamic law is an interpretation of Shariah; while various interpretations may be authoritative, and may find widespread acceptance, they are necessarily contingent and finally inconclusive. To argue that one’s interpretation of Shariah is final and solely binding would be considered anathema (hence, ISIS is profoundly contrary to the spirit of classical Islam, although its approach is not unknown in Muslim history—such approaches are especially common in recent decades.)
‘Islamic law’ is meant to be a learned interpretation of Shariah; in the Sunni tradition, Islamic laws—necessarily plural—are developed, refined and promoted through sophisticated argument and popular adaptation. In other words, it’s a two-way street: One must have force of text, and logic, behind one’s position, but one must also have followers, or one is reduced to a footnote in the historical textbook.
There were attempts to create institutional mechanisms to enforce conformity to a single interpretation of Shariah, but these failed. Thankfully.
And that failure may be the source of Islam’s resilience, while the reintroduction of such attempts at conformity—as, for example, represented by ISIS—indicate how modern Islam has forgotten itself, and might just lose its great strength, meaning its days will be clearly numbered.
Now, Shi’a Muslims give greater weight to key members of the family of the Prophet Muhammad in their interpretations of Islamic law, but—and here’s the rub—Shi’a and Sunni Muslims agree on most ritual behaviors as drawn out from Shariah. Islam, between the two major sects is astonishingly similar, with the greatest difference coming in relationship to power and authority.
Present conflicts elide the greatness of the overlap, yet another tragedy of contemporary politics.
The final Prophet of Islam, who preached the same faith as Moses and Jesus, among thousands of other Prophets. He is the reason there is no conclusive interpretation of Shari’ah, no one and enduring Islamic law, but always and necessarily many interpretations of Shariah, meaning plural Islamic laws. (See Shariah for why the necessary produces the contigent.)
As long as Muhammad was alive, one could just ask him, ‘Can I do X?’ or ‘What shall we do about Y?’ Now that he is gone, however, while we have the Qur’an, Muhammad’s life example, and our reason with which to interpret these, we can have no final arbiter. There is no Pope recognized by a majority or even plurality of Muslims, and certainly not among Sunni or most Shi’a.
To argue that one’s interpretation of Shari’ah, or as we should call it one’s Islamic law, is conclusive, is to argue that one knows conclusively what Shari’ah means—which is to say, one is pretending to be Muhammad. Since he is the last Prophet, and subsequent Prophets are vociferously condemned in the Qur’an, Muslims are extremely hesitant to opine on Shari’ah, for fear of even inadvertently elevating themselves to Prophetic status.
Thus, ISIS is not just not Islamic, it represents the most profoundly un-Islamic position one might take short of rejecting God—that is, rejecting Muhammad’s finality by claiming his authority (and worse, to do things he would have never done.) This doesn’t mean ISIS isn’t composed of Muslims, and doesn’t believe itself to be in conformity with Islam, but believing something doesn’t make you that. Here is a fine distinction that should be elaborated on.
I do not believe that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, or that extremists are not motivated by arguments they believe are religious, or found in religion, but I believe the dramatic violence of ISIS and gross manipulation of the tradition means that they are inverting Islam—in the name of Islam. While, yes, Islam is what Muslims do, it is not only nor finally that. I believe Islam has an existence beyond Muslims, which begins with the idea that we follow God and the Prophet, not fellow Muslims.
Adherent of Islam. In Arabic, ‘one who submits to God’s will’; the active participle. Although it is a small point, the reader is advised that Muslims generally find it hard to understand why the ‘s’ in their religion’s name, and this term we are talking about right here, is pronounced as a ‘z’.
Pro-tip #1: The ‘s’ is not a ‘z’ performing taqiyya.
Pro-tip #2: If you can say ‘slam dunk,’ you can say ‘Islam.’ If you can say slim-fast, you can say ‘Muslim.’
Not Islamic law. Literally, Shari’ah means ‘path to the water,’ as in the means to our earthly and final salvation. (Water, desert—get it?)
Shari’ah is revelation, the total communication of God to humanity through Muhammad, including the Qur’an and Muhammad’s life example. Sophisticated sciences of linguistics, logic, syntax, grammar, reasoning, and corresponding (and deeply cosmopolitan) institutions of learning and transmission, emerged in the first centuries of Islam, whose purpose was to produce, debate, analyze, and spread interpretations of Shari’ah.
Those interpretations which won the most favor, largely organically—and only rarely with state assistance—became ‘schools of thought,’ through which most Muslims practice Shariah. It is critical to note a distinction that is often lost in the larger conversation about Muslims and ‘Shariah law’ (sic); all Muslims believe they must follow Shariah. Religious Muslims believe they are. What they believe is Shariah however differs widely; all will claim to follow Shariah, though what they are really following are differing interpretations of Shariah.
Whether or not Shariah should be enforced by the state isn’t simply a settled question or a matter of opinion; that the practice of Shariah should be consensual and voluntary emerges from a learned and coherent interpretation of Shariah. The idea of forcing even permissible practices—recall, Islamic law as it evolved does not recognize ‘Islamic’ as a moral judgment on an action—is an unfortunate distortion of the Muslim tradition, and a moral tragedy.
Most extremist groups will take positions that are minority opinions, and use the full power of the modern state to enforce conformity to them. This is an innovation. (Ask a Salafi what happens to innovators.) Muslims believe Shariah is normative and perfect, whereas all interpretations of Shariah (a.k.a. Islamic law) are necessarily contingent and subjective—human reason cannot reduce Shariah to a single meaning, or pin it to a specific time and place.
This is because Shariah is divine, meant to be universal, and can only be authoritatively interpreted by the Prophet Muhammad. Confusion about the relationship of source to law, and referent to argument, has caused tremendous harm to modern Islam, and created fear and apprehension among persons who are not Muslim. And I understand why. Many Muslims are concerned as well, including religious Muslims.
Because there is widespread misunderstanding between that which is fixed in Islam—principles relating to what we believe (the Qur’an is God’s word) and what we cannot do (kill, steal, etc.)—and that which merely provides direction. Where, for example, do we spend our money? Giving charity is necessary in some instances and recommended in others, but to whom? In what ways? What is the best way to fight poverty? Is it by cutting checks, or investing in education, or making better nutrition available?
But why do people think Muslims are supposed to kill, when it’s clearly forbidden? They’ll point to the verse, ‘kill them where you find them,’ and say, there it is, plain as day, limpid, translucent, undeniable. Except, it’s wrong.
Sunni and Shi’a Islamic scholarship teaches that even if you find a command in the Qur’an—say, the Qur’anic verse, ‘kill them wherever you find them,’ which seems rather evident and altogether appalling—that command is not activated (did not receive any kind of ruling, as to permissibility or impermissibility) unless you can produce an argument 1) demonstrating the ruling, 2) where the ruling comes from, and 3) that there is no evidence to the contrary.
This requires of course that people choose to believe you—some very good arguments never see the light of day, because people don’t take to them—but it also demands a detailed examination of Shari’ah as a whole, to find countervailing or supporting evidence. Islam was meant to be read as a whole, and not in bits and pieces, as ISIS and al-Qaeda do. (Their Islam is not just outrageous, it is also embarrassing.)
To conclude that because an ISIS propagandist can quote text after text means absolutely nothing about his ‘Islamicity.’ In ignoring contrary evidence, he is being dishonest. In imposing his (grievously wrong) opinion, he is arrogating to himself the place only the Prophet can occupy. This is beyond questions of Islamicity, and veers into far more dangerous territory, not just morally and metaphysically.
After all, creationists can produce one scientific tidbit after another, but short of the correct approach, they are not doing science, but the opposite.
The Prophet Muhammad interacted with thousands of non-Muslims in his life, but only permitted violence in specific instances, such as on the battlefield, and under strict orders. This is why the Qur’anic verse ‘kill them wherever you find them’ is not inconsistent with the counsel of the first (and genuine) Caliph, Abu Bakr (r. 632-634), whose admonition to his army was: That they were not to kill the innocent, the elderly, women and children, people who were not on the battlefield, members of religious orders, attack houses of worship, or target crops or plants.
Inconsistent? Not at all.
Abu Bakr was a scholar of Shari’ah, and understood that the Qur’anic verse did not exist in isolation, as a standalone command, but as one piece of text in a much larger system of ethics and counsel, which to be fair did not forbid violence, but curtailed whom it could be used against, when, and for what reasons. Single verses of the Qur’an are no more proofs than a sentence of the Constitution is an argument before the Supreme Court—they are elements of a proof, but only if that argument is persuasive, if the underlying logic is persuasive, and there is no other evidence to the contrary.
And guess what: If that’s how Abu Bakr interpreted the Qur’anic verse, to mean very limiting rules of engagement, his opinion as the Prophet’s best friend, first successor, father-in-law, and companion on the exodus from Mecca to Medina, leaves the Sunni Muslim who wishes to argue to the contrary an uphill task, to be polite about the matter.
Islam, historically, has been far more plural and cosmopolitan than the extremists portray it as, and this generosity of spirit emerges from and reinforces interpretations of Shariah which have been tolerant. This is because there are clear moral outlines, and beyond that, pride of place to the Prophet, whose absence perhaps counterintuitively creates an indeterminate space—on matters that are not decided, there will be no decision.
Islam recognizes no final political system, for example, because the Prophet specified no clear political system. That means Islam and democracy can be fully consistent. But you won’t hear this kind of nuance out there, in the mainstream conversation we have about Islam, which remains disappointing. (Including many Muslim conversations.) Which is a loss for Muslims, too.
People rightly point in horror at ISIS’ attempted extermination of Yazidis, or Taliban violence against Buddhist antiquities, but wrongly see this as evidence of an historic and essential Muslim animosity towards the other. For nearly 14 centuries, huge communities of non-Muslims, and monuments of diverse faith, existed under Muslim rule; that is not to say these societies were secular democracies or egalitarian states, but they were historically far more pluralistic and tolerant than their modern Muslim counterparts.
For those who condemn the Taliban or ISIS as a throwback to the 7th century, mind you, this is normatively offensive to Muslims—it’s saying they are more representative of Muhammad than we are—and historically backwards. If Islam were so intolerant, how would there even be Yazidis left for ISIS to persecute? But we have to point out that history and theology again and again. The contemporary Muslim might not wish it so, but the task remains for us.
We must fight back against this seizure of our religion by those who do it the most harm. They know nothing about it, while claiming to be the sole representatives of it.