This stupidity needs to end: Why the Atlantic & NY Post are clueless about Islam

Pundits claiming that ISIS is emblematic of Islam ignore the intellectual traditions at the heart of the religion

Published February 20, 2015 4:30PM (EST)

This week, President Obama hosted a summit on countering "violent extremism," where he received criticism from some on the rightwing over his refusal to call such violence "Islamic." American media outlets, particularly the Atlantic and the New York Post, have struck a similar chord of late. All of this happens against a rather poignant backdrop: Only a few days ago, ISIS released a video showing the killing of 21 Coptic Egyptians in Libya. The group expressed what it considered to be Islamic justification for its actions. Long after the summit, specialists in the field of counter-extremism will continue to ask the question: Is ISIS actually representative in some way of Islam? And what, really, is the relationship between the group that calls itself the "Islamic State" and the world's second largest religion?

There will be those that will insist that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam or religion in general -- that ISIS is primarily a social and political phenomenon, bereft of ideology entirely, or simply using Islam as a superficial justification. Counterterrorism studies indicate that for very many people in the broader radical Islamist universe, non-ideological factors certainly play magnificently important roles. At the same time, it is also the case that for radical Islamists, an ideological component not only exists, but is crucial in understanding their world views. In some shape or form, for ISIS supporters, religion certainly plays a role. But what religion, precisely?

The easy answer is to say "Islam" – but it is also a rather lazy answer. There are around 1.5 billion Muslims around the world. The vast, overwhelming majority of them, needless to say, are not members of ISIS — and, in fact, Muslims actually make up the majority of ISIS’s victims, its most active enemies on the battlefield, and its most prominent detractors.

Surely ISIS would have far more recruits than a tiny minority of Muslims worldwide if "Islam" were the crucial factor. Moreover, if the Islamic credentials of ISIS were so widely considered as valid, even if most chose not to actually follow them, surely there would be a large numbers of Muslim jurists and theologians that would vouch for as much. In reality, the vast majority declares in no uncertain terms that, indeed, those credentials are void and invalid -- a long, condemnatory open letter last year to the head of ISIS included more than a hundred well known religious authorities.

When assessing the role of religion in ISIS, there is also another option, which some posit: Islam lacks an ecclesiastical, hierarchical authority structure. There is no equivalent to a papal authority, such as in Catholicism, to define religious authority -- so, essentially, everyone is entitled to define religion as they see fit within the Islamic faith. Essentializing "Islam" as "good" or "bad" thus misses the point; there is no way to essentialize Islam. ISIS is as "Islamic" as its detractors -- the only difference is popularity (which heavily favors the latter).

While this is a more nuanced argument – certainly more than the one that claims ISIS represents mainstream Islam – it is rather problematic when put up against the background of Muslim history. On the one hand, it is very correct that for Sunni Muslims there is no hierarchical ecclesiastical structure. But a community with more than 1,400 years of history does not survive as a recognizable community without some edifice of religious authority -- even if it is one that we as Westerners are unfamiliar with.

At the same time, there has indeed been a breakdown of religious authority, and understanding that brings us that much closer to understanding how ISIS exists.

A broken chain

Throughout my academic career, I’ve engaged with contemporary participants of Sunni Islam’s system of intellectual inheritance of religious authority. Among scholars at the Azhar University in Cairo, graduates of the Qarawiyyeen in Morocco, and students of seminaries in the Malay Archipelago – indeed, among fledging seminary institutions in the West itself, I was struck by the broad variety of viewpoints they had on a plethora of topics within the domain of religion. Their positions are not ones that we as modern Westerners might always find palatable -- but they are not chaotically come to, either. There are sophisticated systems of interpretations at play.

Islam clearly admits a great diversity in spirituality, jurisprudence and theology. But religious authorities – jurists, theologians, spiritualists – have also traditionally been careful about uniting that pluralism within a harmonious prism. That prism has systems of interpretation -- systems that ISIS and its cohorts reject -- and therein lies an important part of the puzzle.

At the root of such systems is the sanad, or the "chain." Contemporary exemplars of this tradition take great pride in being able to say that any text they teach in the religious sciences is a text that they have read with someone, who read it with someone, who read it with the author of the text, who would have read previous texts with someone who read… and so on and so forth, back to the Prophet himself in the 7th century. That basic ability to show a certain historical pedigree was vital in networks of Muslim religious authority, at least until quite recently. For adherents to those systems, even a degree in a university — let alone self-study — would by itself be insufficient to establish the qualification to interpret even secondary texts, let alone the primary one, the Qur’an.

These are rather complex systems of establishing religious authority via processes akin to academic peer review. Indeed, parts of these systems of transmission, especially with relation to jurisprudence, have become crystalized in various curricula and schools of law (madhahib) – even inspiring the modern Western university, according to historians such as George Makdisi. These systems do not simply establish the transmission of texts between successive generations, but also the understanding of those texts, and a methodology — or minhaj — for understanding the primary and secondary texts.

Modern radical tendencies within the Muslim community do away with such systems. For them, the Muslim community has gone awfully wrong – and they’re going to put it right. In short, they create a do-it-yourself kit of interpretation.

A history of reformations

In the past few years, many have talked of the need for Muslims to engage in a "reformation" in order to address burgeoning extremism. In fact, however, Muslim communities often engage in "renewal" (tajdid), although it is typically done through the existing structures. As for a more fundamental reformation, it wouldn’t be the first time there had been one -- but such changes haven't worked out especially well in the past.

Over the past couple of centuries, Muslims have seen two types of reformation processes take place: One version, in what would later become Saudi Arabia, gave rise to purist Salafism, which many now call “Wahhabism." The other version, in Egypt, became "revivalist modernism," which later was politicized in the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood. In both cases, from the outset, the more established religious authorities of the day chastised the proponents of reforms as either disavowing major parts of the traditional methodology in their understandings and interpretations of the wide and vast corpuses of religious texts – or they accuse such "reformers" of cutting corners, intellectually.

As we've already seen, however, religious authority is defined through established, peer-reviewed approaches to the texts -- not in spite of those approaches. Thus, for reform movements, to jettison that methodology isn't just a matter of corner-cutting, but a calculated objection to such authority. In these historical movements laid the seeds radical Islamism; thus, there will be those critics who move on from the simplistic "ISIS is Islam" theory to an "ISIS is Islamism" one.

It is pertinent to note that "Islamism" is not "Islam." Rather, Islamism comes about, in its various forms, as a reaction to, or even as an attack, in some cases, on normative religious thought as taught by mainstream authorities. One might make the argument that without Islamism, one cannot trace the full genealogy of ISIS. But that isn’t quite the point.

There have been, long before Islamism, other extreme movements that rose among Muslims, such as the "Assassins," the Qarmatians, and, at their outset, the followers of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahab. These movements were, like Islamism, defined as heterodox — precisely because on the root methodological level, they rejected all prevailing sets of textual approaches to religious materials.

When scores of religious authorities in the Sunni and Shi’a Muslim worlds disparage ISIS as being "un-Islamic," they’re not being facetious. They can see, plainly, that ISIS is citing religious texts – the Qur’an itself, the sayings of the Prophet, and pre-modern religious authorities. These citations, however, don’t establish authenticity. Rather, the ability to interpret the primary texts as the Prophet did, and secondary texts as their authors did, is what establishes authenticity. As far as religious authorities are concerned, such discernment can only come via these systems of training through chains of transmission. After all, there is a vast and massive corpus that has been added upon for more than a millennium. Context thus could be seen as imperative.

Years ago, as I researched classical Islamic law in Cairo, I discussed the work of a modern Muslim academic with a traditional scholastic authority in Egypt. The latter had painstakingly studied for more than a decade, according to a curriculum that had itself been the result of successive generations of traditional authorities essentially "duking it out" in a long peer-review process. The academic, by contrast, who was brilliant in many ways by my estimation, had spent about a year in private study of some traditional texts, based on a curriculum he’d constructed himself. The religious scholar was reluctant to offer criticism, but said of the academic: "He dipped his toe in the ocean. He doesn’t know how to swim.” For the scholar, interpretative credibility came about through connecting yourself to that system of authority.

No Kung-Fu master becomes as such without a master, or sifu of his own, it seems. For the likes of ISIS, the very system of producing a sifu is null and void. That’s part of the point.

The extinction of ISIS

Some argue that Muslim religious authorities ought to excommunicate ISIS, and that would solve the problem. Though rather rare, excommunication has taken place in Muslim history -- but not on the grounds of sinful actions, grotesque though they might be. Criminals can be punished or fought against, even killed; but traditional religious authorities insist such criminals must still be recognized as Muslim, unless they repudiate core Islamic theological beliefs, like the unity of God, for example. Ironically, it is heterodox movements that regularly resort to excommunication for non-theological reasons – indeed, ISIS appears to do that regularly. In any case, this wouldn’t solve the problem: ISIS would ignore such declarations, and continue to exist.

But there is something unique about ISIS, historically speaking, beyond its obvious brutality – and that is the time in which it managed to emerge. In pre-modern Muslim communities, heterodox movements might get somewhere -- but not for very long, and not with very many. But the last 200 years has created a conflation of some very awkward realities.

The first is the breaking down of religious authority through different types of Salafism, as mentioned above. Purist Salafism manages to survive and thrive through a political alliance in Saudi Arabia, eventually with the help of massive financial resources. The effect of that on Muslims writ large is significant – it not only breaks down normative notions of religious authority, but replaces them with something deeply antithetical to those notions.

Additionally, the systematic degradation of educational standards in traditional Muslim institutions of religious authority, which begins prior to colonialism, is intensified through that experience, and then is worsened by post-colonialist and nationalist educational paradigms. As a typical example: Most Arab countries’ educational systems operate on an upside-down pyramid structure, where the higher your high-school-diploma grade, the more subjects you are able to study at university level. Lower academic achievers get subjects knocked off their options. Religion finds itself at the very bottom of that inverted pyramid -- and thus is the first subject to go. After several generations, this shows not only in the students of religious establishments, but in many of the faculty, who are often drawn from graduates. Those are the same graduates that will minister to Muslims at large, as well as be invested with the responsibility to educate them and inoculate them against radical Islamism.

Finally, such institutions of religious authority often suffer from a credibility deficit with the grassroots in their own countries and beyond. A lack of independence from the state, and an unwillingness to criticize abuses carried out by those in power, is more the rule than the exception today. Against that backdrop, the credibility of critiques against ISIS and others is less than it might otherwise be.

But beyond addressing institutions of religious authorities, there is also the issue of the lay Muslim. The human race at large becomes basically more literate via the advent of modernity -- and religious establishments have typically been unprepared for that. For centuries, all religious establishments have expected that the lay among their flock would rely on specialists to interpret religious texts -- because most of the laity never had the option to even read those texts. With widespread literacy, and the mass proliferation of religious texts, hitherto only accessible to seminarians, that has changed dramatically.

When ISIS claims book "A" written by author "B" says "C," any Muslim can find that book, and see if it does. If this new interpretation appears credible, then readers are often stumped -- because they, like ISIS, have generally not been through a seminary education that would put such books into context, according to the systems of transmission mentioned above. While it is welcome for all sorts of reasons that religious authorities stand up and say "ISIS is not Islamic and these actions are forbidden" and the like, that doesn’t address the basic issue. The question is: Why is ISIS not Islamic? And that comes back to credibility and pedigree in interpretation.

It’s entirely likely that just as pre-modern heterodox movements disappeared, so too will ISIS – but only after a lot of damage has been done in the meantime. Moreover, due to these structural issues above, it’s also possible other such movements will arise again, and again. Breaking that cycle is not the prerogative of Western governments. If Muslim communities and societies themselves wish to tackle the issue, there are several things to be addressed in the short and long term.

In researching the philosophical interplay between Islam and modernity, I found that Muslim scholars were often quick to note that traditional systems of religious authority do have the ability to "revive" themselves, and update from within. That requires, nonetheless, for religious authorities to be of a decent academic caliber, and have credibility with the Muslim laity at large. That in turn demands a massive improvement within seminary institutions, giving them more independence to critique not only abuses by the likes of ISIS, but authoritarianism in Muslim heartlands.

Secondly, in the short term, religious authorities need to do far more than simply say "this is un-Islamic" when faced with a crime ISIS or others carry out. Fully comprehensive refutations of why these things are un-Islamic need to be forthcoming – and put into terms that are comprehensible to the layman. At the same time, in the medium to long term, religious authorities, and elite religious institutions may need to get to grips with the new realities that modernity has in recent generations placed upon them. In pre-modernity, only specialists would have the religious literacy needed to understand the methodology for interpreting primary and secondary texts. Maintaining that sort of educational elitism is partly responsible for the production of vulnerable Muslims to recruitment of radical groups. The answer isn’t to try to turn lay Muslims into religious authorities en masse. But more widely diffusing a basic literacy in normative methodologies that are traditionally used to interpret religious texts may indeed be in order. Adjusting their relationship with the laity, and making the systems of authoritative interpretation more widely understood, are contemporary tasks for religious authorities -- but important ones.

As noted before, many heterodox movements among Muslims have erupted in the past – and then become extinct. They’re essentially footnotes in history books. There’s no reason to think ISIS won’t face precisely the same fate – but it would certainly be preferable to help along the wheels of history so that it happens faster — and nothing else takes its place.

Dr. H.A. Hellyer is a non-resident fellow at the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, and at the Royal United Services Institute in London. A research associate at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, he tweets at @hahellyer.

By H.A. Hellyer

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