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The Phony Islam of ISIS: A Response to The Atlantic's ISIS Story - The Atlantic

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The Phony Islam of ISIS


The group's interpretation of the religion is not literal. It is not serious. And saying otherwise
puts Muslims in an impossible situation.

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Following the publication of his Atlantic cover story, What ISIS Really Wants,
Graeme Wood has challenged critics who claim that he misrepresented Islamic
belief, noting, Its instructive to see how responses to my piece reckon with or
ignore this line: Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But Woods
entire essay implies that such a rejection of ISIS by other Muslims can only be
hypocritical or naive, and that ISIS members and supporters follow the texts of
Islam as faithfully and seriously as anyone.
The main expert in Woods article is Princeton University professor Bernard
Haykel, who regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of
Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. In Haykels

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The Phony Islam of ISIS: A Response to The Atlantic's ISIS Story - The Atlantic

2/27/15, 2:28 PM

estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early
Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war.


Put another way: Not only are Muslims wrong that ISIS is distorting Islamic
texts, but the very idea is preposterous. ISIS is faithfully following Islamic
norms of war. All of this might lead a thoughtful reader to wonder what all the
other Muslims are doing.

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Wood quotes Haykels invocation of an axiom, common in academic discourse,

that there is no such thing as Islam, rather, Its what Muslims do, and how
they interpret their texts. Presumably Wood does this in order to emphasize
that he is not personally offering a criterion to judge who is a good or bad
Muslim. But he introduces just such a criterion: namely, that a Muslim is
evaluated according to his or her interpretation of these texts. His article
evaluates ISIS against other Muslims on this basis.
Whats striking about [ISIS] is not just the literalism, but also the
seriousness with which they read these texts, Haykel said. There is an
assiduous, obsessive seriousness that Muslims dont normally have.


But who decides who takes the texts seriously? On what grounds do non-Muslim
journalists and academics tell Muslims that their judgment that ISIS does not
take a full and fair view of the Quran and Sunnah (the example and teachings of
the Prophet Muhammad) amounts to a cotton-candy view of Islam, while
these non-Muslims retain the right to judge how serious ISIS is in its
understanding of core Islamic texts?
If we take the Its what Muslims do, and how they
interpret their texts axiom seriously, then there
would be no grounds to declare that a Muslim who
believes in a pantheon of gods is unfaithful to the
teachings of Islam. After all, the Quran, speaking
with the Divine Voice, often uses the royal "We"
when addressing Muslims. Would this belief in
multiple gods also be Islam? Would these
What ISIS Really Wants
polytheistic Muslims have just as much legitimacy
as anyone else because they are drawing on the same texts as other Muslims?

Related Story

Can we extend the axiom of There is no X, there is only what followers of X do

and how they interpret their texts beyond Islam? If a scientist claims, Eugenics
is not a valid application of the principles of science, and is unscientific, should
he expect to be told that the eugenicists were just as legitimate as anyone else
because they are following the same body of texts? Were not the eugenicists
serious and assiduous in their science, at least in their own eyes? Did they
not speak the language of science, and base themselves on Darwin?


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In fact, no one acknowledges that all interpretations of their own system of

ultimate meaning are equally authentic or faithful, whether this system is
scientism, communism, post-modernism, or any other metaphysical
commitment including religion. It is arbitrary to present the Islamic
interpretative tradition as an unrestricted free-for-all where nothing is assessed

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The Phony Islam of ISIS: A Response to The Atlantic's ISIS Story - The Atlantic

on objective rational or moral criteria, in which every last impulse or assertion is

equal to all other responses and can never be subjected to judgment or ranking.

2/27/15, 2:28 PM

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What other Muslims have been arguing from the start is that ISIS does not take
the texts seriously.
The Quran is a single volume, roughly the length of the New Testament. It is a
complex and nuanced text that deals with legal, moral, and metaphysical
questions in a subtle and multifaceted way. Then there are the hadth, or records
of sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad, which run into dozens of
volumes spanning literally hundreds of thousands of texts, each on average a few
sentences long. Then there is the juridical and theological literature about the
Quran and the hadth, which consists of thousands of works written throughout
Islamic history.
Does ISIS cite texts? Yes, though its main method is to cite individual adth
that support its positions. But remember: The adth consist of hundreds of
thousands of discrete items that range from faithfully transmitted teachings to
outright fabrications attributed to the Prophet, and every gradation in between.
Over the centuries, jurists and theologians of every stripe, Sunni and Shiite, have
devised rational, systematic methods for sifting through adth, which are often
difficult to understand or seem to say contrary things about the same questions.
They have ranked and classified these texts according to how reliable they are,
and have used them accordingly in law and theology. But ISIS does not do this.
Its members search for text snippets that support their argument, claim that
these fragments are reliable even if they are not, and disregard all contrary
evidencenot to mention Islams vast and varied intellectual and legal tradition.
Their so-called prophetic methodology is nothing more than cherry-picking
what they like and ignoring what they do not.
Furthermore, it is past time to dispense with the
idea that organizations like ISIS are literalist in
Lacing one's
their reading of texts. Do the members of ISIS
conversation with
believe, literally, Wheresoever you turn, there is
religious imagery is
the face of God? Of course not. Nor would they
easy. Mastering a vast
interpret literally, God is the light of the heavens
and the earth, or any number of other passages
textual tradition is hard.
from the Quran that the so-called literalists are
compelled to either ignore or read as some kind of
metaphor or allegory. Id like to see ISIS offer a literal interpretation of the
adth that says that when God loves a person, He becomes the ear with which
he hears, the eye with which he sees, the hand with which he grasps, and the foot
with which he walks.

1 What ISIS Really Wants
2 A Partial Accounting of the Damage
Netanyahu Is Doing to Israel

3 The Limits of Talking About Privilege to


4 #TheDress and the Rise of Attention-Policing

5 The End of the Big Mac
6 The Phony Islam of ISIS
7 White Privilege, Quantified
8 Vitamin B.S.
9 Jeb Bush Hasn't Learned Enough From His
Brother's Failures

10 The Clooney Effect

What distinguishes the interpretive approach of groups like ISIS from others is
not its literalism (Sufis are indeed the most literal of all such interpreters of
the Quran) but its narrowness and rigidity; for the adherents of ISIS, the Quran
means exactly one thing, and other levels of meaning or alternate interpretations
are ruled out a priori. This is not literalism. It is exclusivism.
Wood expands on his impression of the religious seriousness of ISIS fighters by

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The Phony Islam of ISIS: A Response to The Atlantic's ISIS Story - The Atlantic

2/27/15, 2:28 PM

pointing out that they speak in coded language, which in reality consists of
specific traditions and texts of early Islam. Speeches are laced with
theological and legal discussion. But there is a wide chasm between someone
who laces his conversations with religious imagery (very easy) and someone
who has actually studied and understood the difficulties and nuances of an
immense textual tradition (very hard). I personally know enough Shakespeare to
lace my conversations with quotations from Hamlet and the sonnets. Does that
make me a serious Shakespeare scholar? I can code my language with the
slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but is that proof of my assiduousness in
relation to the Bard?
The first thing I teach my undergraduates is that the English word Islam has
two distinct but related meanings: the Islam that corresponds to Christendom
(the civilization) and the Islam that corresponds to Christianity (the religion).
The result is that the term Islamic has two separate but related uses, as does
In his article and elsewhere, Wood has challenged the claim by Muslims that
ISIS is un-Islamic by pointing out that ISIS members are self-identified
Muslims. But Muslims who say ISIS is un-Islamic are not saying that ISIS
fighters are not Muslims at all. They are calling ISIS un-Islamic the way a
politician might call bigotry un-American. In fact, a prominent expert on ISIS
has noted, I would be curious to know how many Muslims are willing to declare
the members of [ISIS] non-Muslim, adding, I bet you there are very, very few
people. That expert is Bernard Haykel.
In other words, Haykel knows that few Muslims are prepared to describe ISIS as
non-Muslim. And yet:
Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically embarrassed
and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion that
neglects what their religion has historically and legally required.
Haykel recognizes that Muslims are not accusing ISIS members of being nonMuslims. Instead, he seems to be objecting to the Muslim claim that ISISs
adherents are bad Muslims.
Throughout Woods article, this basic nuance between Islamic as a normative
label and Islamic as a factual or historical label is absent, notably from such
unqualified declarations as, The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very
Islamic. Can such statements be interpreted as anything but a judgment of
ISISs fidelity to Islamic religion? If Wood was simply identifying the tradition or
civilization out of which ISIS has emerged, then what would the word very
mean? Wood also argues:
[S]imply denouncing the Islamic State as un-Islamic can be
counterproductive, especially if those who hear the message have read the
holy texts and seen the endorsement of many of the caliphates practices
written plainly within them.

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The Phony Islam of ISIS: A Response to The Atlantic's ISIS Story - The Atlantic

2/27/15, 2:28 PM

Un-Islamic in which of the two senses? And again, on what authority does Wood
assert that such practices are plainly within these texts? Determining what
texts plainly say is not as easy as spotting some words on a page. Islams
interpretative tradition exists because the differences between plain and hidden,
elliptical and direct, absolute and qualified, are not always obvious. The Quran
speaks of itself as a book containing passages that are mukam, or clear in
meaning, and mutashbih, or symbolic, allegorical, or ambiguous (even the
significance of this word is debated among Muslims). To make such a casual
remark about what is plainly within the Quran or other texts is to fail to take
them or the Islamic intellectual tradition seriously.
Wood further asserts with confidence, The religion preached by [ISISs] most
ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of
Islam. It's just one more example of how his essay, ostensibly a descriptive
account of a group of Muslims and its interpretations of texts, is in reality an
account of the fidelity of ISIS to Islamic teaching and a critique of the claim by
other Muslims that ISIS is wrong.
The only principled ground that the Islamic States opponents could take is
to say that certain core texts and traditional teachings of Islam are no longer
valid, Bernard Haykel says. That really would be an act of apostasy.
In my experience, many Muslims are upset by articles like this not because their
feelings are hurt, but because such arguments fill them with dread. They worry
about what might happen to a religious or ethnic group that policymakers or the
public believe to be intrinsically and uniquely dangerous.
When extremist groups like ISIS commit an atrocity or make the news,
politicians and commentators inevitably lament how Muslims are not doing
enough to speak out against the crimes carried out in their name. But when
Muslims do speak out and condemn, as they always have, this seems to only
reinforce the tendency to blame Muslims collectively. And if one relies on Wood
and Haykel, and believes that the horrors perpetrated by ISIS are plainly in
Islams sacred texts and that it is preposterous to argue that these texts are
being distorted, then the notion that a faithful Muslim could be critiquing ISIS
in a moral and rational fashion is discarded. He can only be a sympathizer, a
hypocrite, or a dupe who is ignorant of the requirements of his own faith.
Woods essay leaves readers with a gnawing fear that the majority of Muslims
might wake up tomorrow and start taking their texts seriously.
All of this puts Muslims in a double bind: If they just go about their lives, they
stand condemned by those who demand that Muslims speak out. But if they do
speak out, they can expect to be told that short of declaring their sacred texts
invalid, they are fooling themselves or deceiving the rest of us. Muslims are
presented with a brutal logic in which the only way to truly disassociate from
ISIS and escape suspicion is to renounce Islam altogether.

Jump to Comments (36)

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The Phony Islam of ISIS: A Response to The Atlantic's ISIS Story - The Atlantic

2/27/15, 2:28 PM

CANER K. DAGLI is an associate professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross.

Follow @CKDagli



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