The history writer Tom Holland has waded into the argument about how Islamic the Islamic State is, originally sparked by an article in the Atlantic. His argument is that their rhetoric is full of pious references to scripture and that they faithfully apply the rulings to be found in the classical jurisprudential (fiqh) texts. In other words, Da‘esh is very Islamic; in fact, Islamic in a way that is too embarrassing for Muslims to acknowledge. Instead, “apologists” apparently muddy the waters by denying that ISIS is authentically Islamic, an exercise that mirrors the futility of the Catholic Council of Trent trying Canute-like to hold back the tide of the Protestant Reformation.
There are at least four reasons why this line of argument is simply perverse and dangerous.
One argument is political. Holland simply takes ISIS’s claim to be Islamic at face value, and buys into their propaganda. In doing so, he thereby gives succour to the narrative that ultimately Islam is the problem, and that the West and Islam are irreconcilable and doomed to remain in conflict. He goes beyond the well-worn language of good Muslim versus bad Muslim of the “War on Terror” years, and is closer in spirit to neoconservative “clash of civilisations” rhetoric (and ironically to ISIS’s bipolar worldview).
Another argument is historical. Holland reanimates the tendentious notion that the history of Islam can be understood through the history of Christianity, almost in a deterministic way. Thus Salafis are Calvinists and Sunnis are Catholics, and neither can hold back the tide of reform, violent or otherwise. Of course this simply elides some important differences. To name two obvious ones, that Islam has no equivalent of the Magisterium, and notwithstanding the Ottomans that Reformation Europe was not subjected to such intense extra-continental foreign invasion and occupation as nearly all Islamdom was during the era of European colonialism. We can enable a more serious debate by recognizing the claim that Islam needs to replay the history of Christianity and of Europe is ideological, rather than dressing it up as serious history.
A further argument is hermeneutical, as Holland’s position does away with any notion of orthodoxy. All Muslims can read the sources and their interpretive literature and stand in equality to them: they can all interpret them and so we cannot privilege one reading over another. But this conflates mundane ability with authority. It ignores the fact that when Muslims read the text they do so as part of a socially-embodied community of believers that worries over its present condition. This community extends into the past by its attachment to authoritative readings, exemplars, institutions, sensibilities, aptitudes and symbols, and it looks forward in arguing over what might constitute the good in the future.
For Muslims, what constitutes the good lies somewhere in the dynamic interplay between Muslim scholarly opinions and Muslim public opinion in general. Each major grouping in Islam has a notion of regulative authority and possesses an orthodoxy that shapes but does not set in aspic the tone and terms of the debate over what constitutes tradition, authority, and the good. On the other hand Muslim publics challenge their respective religious authorities on the grounds of justice, relevance and adequacy, and in the final analysis it is the umma (the body-spiritual of the believers) that regulates what is orthodox through weight of opinion.
In other words, the umma cannot be dictated to from the fringes. And on this basis the fact that a murderous cult has captured territory in Iraq and Syria and claims the mantle of Islamic normalcy and even the caliphate is neither here nor there. Rather the point is that virtually everyone has rejected ISIS’s claim to be Islamic – even other deviant extremist groups such as al-Qaeda have done so. What Tom Holland is doing is denying the right of Muslims to police deviancy and extremism in the name of Islam and is misconstruing the regulative mechanism of orthodoxy itself – Muslim public opinion – as mere apologetics.
The more salient questions that Holland alludes to but obscures are how can Salafism regulate its extreme jihadist elements and how do Sunni Muslims regulate Salafism? This is really another kind of question, namely what kind of regulative health do Islamic orthodoxies currently enjoy? I don’t want to pretend that anything other than a long and detailed reply would do justice to such large questions, and I am only going to provide the briefest of answers here.
I would posit the argument that there is a very loose regulative hierarchy of orthodoxies in Islam (see the attached diagram from S.H. Nasr’s The Heart of Islam, p.111).
Despite their differences, their respective notions of the tradition, authority and the good bear enough of a family resemblance of overlapping congruities to recognize each other as bearers of the same living tradition. This is recognized in a de facto way, in notions like that of the ahl al-qibla or the issuance of Hajj visas in a non-sectarian way (for the most part). There are even convocations, such as the Amman Message in 2004, which provides an example of a relatively rare formal statement of this minimal reciprocal recognition. This particular initiative used the Sunni language of legitimate jurisprudential differing to recognize eight schools as orthodox: the four Sunni, two Shi‘i (Ja‘fari and Zaydi), the ‘Ibadi and the Zahiri (the latter a circumlocution for Salafi).
But it is global and mundane social processes of acclimatization and living together rather than official proclamations alone that would prove more potent. Sunnis could accommodate Salafis if there was greater mutual amity and recognition in everyday interactions along with some reduction in the militancy of Salafi thought and action. More formally, for Salafis the trade-off would be Sunni acknowledgement of them as a discrete school of law, probably to be construed as an outgrowth of late Hanabalism, under which Ibn Taymiyya and his students became primary referents. The prospects for this seem distant but less unrealistic currently than does rapprochement between Salafis and their militants, engaged as they are in a war of anathematization. This hot war of words extends to the Salafi jihadis themselves and the fallout between al-Qaeda and ISIS in 2014; it is always your former allies at the moment of betrayal who are more hated than anyone else.
Having said all this, it must be recognized that the regulative health of Islamic orthodoxy is under pressure from far more than Sheikh Google or Wahhabis, as Holland argues. In no particular order, the disruptive effects of colonialism, the intellectual challenges of European modernity, the rise of Muslim nationalism, the nationalisation of the endowments (awqaf) system that debilitated independent higher Islamic education, the shift to print from scribal culture, the change to promulgated law from law as responsa, the emergence of Islamic movements that challenged the ulema’s role, and general intellectual stagnation, have all been factors in weakening orthodoxy. Shi‘i orthodoxies being both more centralised and less historically tied to imperial state structures have tended to survive the transition to modernity more successfully than Sunni orthodoxy has. Today, both Muslim publics and their scholarly elites are under the continuous pressures of internecine national rivalries and new “Great Game” proxy wars in Islamdom that stoke sectarian conflict more so than it does encourage living together or reconciliation. To my mind, however, any right-thinking Muslim regards the weakening of orthodoxy as a serious challenge and she would regard the giving up any regulative moral role for the umma in policing its militant fringes as suicidal.
The fourth and final argument is contextual. There is a kind of pious thinking on the part of some atheists and believers alike that is wilfully blind to factors like the failure of politics, and the recourse to terrorism and invasion. In a recent interview with Vice, Obama has broken with normal “War on Terror” rhetoric to acknowledge the “unintended” causal connection between the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq and that of ISIS, its bastard child. Yet it’s all about decontextualized ideas with Holland. Years into the War on Terror that’s an unsustainable position for a history writer to take. Seemingly the invasion and occupation of Iraq has less bearing for Holland than it does for Obama. Sustained asymmetric warfare over time creates brutal outfits like ISIS, who have made the propaganda of the vile deed an essential element of their credo. But of equal concern is that we have normalized a continuous state of emergency, a normalization that reduces the Muslim enemy to a subhuman status. There are continuous attempts to make legitimate their rendition, detention without charge or trial, torture, bombing, hunting by drones, and so forth. The massive projection of Western military force requires continuous war propaganda, one strand of which argues that our foe’s enmity towards us lies essentially with his Muslim identity and in nothing else.
By asking Muslims to own up to ISIS being authentically Islamic, Tom Holland is asking us to surrender Islam to ISIS. And that is wrongheaded, dangerous and perverse and serves no good outcome that I can see.
Yahya Birt is a former director of the City Circle (www.yahyabirt.co.uk)