Anyone who listened to the news media following the jihadist attacks in Paris would think that the Islamic State is either fundamentally un-Islamic or inextricably tied to mainstream Islam. But the issue is by no means so black and white, and reporting that draws a strict dichotomy between Islamic and un-Islamic is ultimately misinforming our politics. As with most complex issues, the truth lies somewhere in the middle: ISIS is unquestionably Muslim, but it is so divorced from mainstream Islam that it’s pointless to equate them.
ISIS practices a distinctive variety of Islam called Salafism, which, in a nutshell, believes that all sinners are apostates and, in accordance with the takfiri doctrine, must be put to death unless they pay a tax. Salafism is heavily based in Quranic Law, which makes it Muslim. The debate over whether or not ISIS is Islamic ends here. Their ideology comes from a selective and rigid reading of the hadith, the extensive records of the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad, and they conveniently ignore parts of the Quran that forbid destruction of houses of worship of other religions. But even still, their basic justification for the slaughter of apostates has concrete roots in the Quran.
But does this really matter? Outside the context of theological discussions, what does the Islamic legitimacy of ISIS tell us about contemporary political issues? Not much. ISIS’s interpretation of the Quran is so unique that it puts miles between their disciples and the disciples of mainstream Islam. ISIS is ideologically distinct from al-Qaeda, which believes that sin does not automatically qualify as apostasy. Therefore, attempts from the right to screen refugees based on their religion, halt construction of mosques or justify casual discrimination against Muslims are all dangerously misguided because the average Muslim has nothing in common with the average ISIS member. The differences in Qur’anic interpretation are so vast between the two groups that they might as well be reading two different books.
Understanding ISIS’s beliefs is important insofar as it allows us to predict and analyze their behavior, but it has no bearing whatsoever on how we treat mainstream Muslims. ISIS is Islamic, and we shouldn’t say otherwise. But ISIS can be Islamic without representing Islam, and it’s high time we recognized this.
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