What is “Real Islam”?
In 2014 the BBC ran a report on a thirteen year-old Syrian boy (see here, it was also on the BBC1 news, news channel and BBC Radio 4) who called himself “abu Hattab” (which is rather silly since the name means “father of Hattab” and even allowing for Muslim proclivities he is unlikely to be anyone’s father at that age).
The reporter next notes that “At home, he and his mother, who wants to be known as Fatima, lead a devout life….”
Thus the reporter is saying that Fatima and Abu are good devout Muslims, so surely they must believe in the “true peaceful teachings of Islam” that all Western political leaders speak about right after the latest incident of Islamic terror against Western citizens or countries.
Not at all in fact.
Abu’s devout mother says that “she sent her son for training with Sham al-Islam” – an Islamic jihadist/terror organisation – the year before he contacted ISIL. Her next statement is chilling: “I would not be sad if he killed Westerners. I’m ashamed that my other sons are working peacefully for civil society groups – they must take up arms.”
When asked how she would feel if her son (Abu) was killed fighting for ISIL she says “I would be so happy,” before she bows her head as she blubbers into her burkha.
What is it that makes a mother proud to send her son off to train to kill and ashamed of those sons who work for peace?
What is it that makes a mother say she will be “happy” if her son is killed fighting for a murderous group like ISIL yet also cry about it?
What compels such an attitude?
Christians, Yazidis and other non-Muslims have suffered far worse on a per Capita basis than the Muslims in Syria, often finding themselves attacked by all sides in the conflict, yet there are no Christian or Yazidi terror groups. Ditto Somalia, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh etc.
“Brother Rachid”, an apostate from Islam, uploaded a video letter to President Obama on ISIL in which he pointed out: “ISIL’s 10,000 members are all Muslims. None of them are from any other religion. They come from different countries and have one common denominator: Islam.”
ISIL’s recruits come from all over the globe. They represent all major ethnicities and societies and as such they have only one common denominator – Islam.
In his interview ‘Abu Hattab’ stated that he has three main goals in life:
- Become an IS “Mujahid” – fighter,
Murder “infidels [i.e. non-Muslims], non-Sunnis and those who converted from Islam [because] we must behead them as Allah said in the Koran.”,
- die as a “shaheed” in the service of ISIL.
The BBC reporter described how “he was first radicalised last year, joining the jihadist group Sham al-Islam” and had attended a [terrorist] training camp where he was taught how to fire guns including the ubiquitous AK47.
I am not sure whether the BBC reporter meant the word “radical” correctly or not.
The word radical means “to the root”, thus a person who is “radicalised” has been taken to the root of something; thus if the BBC reporter was using the English language correctly, he was saying that “Abu hattab … was first taken to the root last year, joining the jihadist group Sham al-Islam.” To the root of what is then the question and the answer is implicit in the statement which refers to Islam: to the root of Islam itself.
I am probably misjudging the reporter however. I am nearly certain that he did not intend this (inadvertently correct) usage of English; rather he intended to imply that the boy’s “radicalisation” took him away from the (supposedly) “true teachings of Islam which are all about peace and love” and into the hands of un-Islamic (and evil) Muslim radicals.
In other words the reporter was using the word “radical” as a pejorative to set against “moderate” – the same trick can be done with “fundamentalist” of course because fundamentalist and radical are synonyms.
Abu Hattab adds “Allah ordered us to work and fight for the next life – for paradise. … and I’ve taken the righteous path.”
As can be seen Hattab’s view is closely coloured by his understanding of what Allah wants. He further opines that “Britain should be attacked because it’s in Nato and is against Islamic State,but we would kill only those who deserve it [non-Muslims, non-Sunnis, apostates don’t forget]. If they ask me to attack Turkey and give me a holy order, I would do it. Soon the West will be finished.“
Thus he even sees murder of Sunnis as a “holy” thing and seeks the destruction of the West.
Whilst much of this is, in practical terms, hyperbole, it is clear that abu Hattab at age thirteen sees himself as locked in an existential fight with the West.
Writer Mark Durie has pointed out that “the Islamic State ideologues do claim to speak for Islam, they justify their actions from the Koran and Muhammad’s example” and that, “the self-declared ‘caliph’ of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi has a PhD in Islamic studies: he is not ignorant of Islam [and] the very idea of a caliphate – a supra-national Islamic state – is a religious ideal widely shared by many Muslims” (see here).
Durie has also asserted, correctly, that ISIL ideology is coherent and logical and ‘fits’ within the framework of Islam.
He also acknowledges that “many Muslims vehemently reject the methods and goals of the Islamic state, and that the #NotInMyName hashtag campaign is genuine and heartfelt.”
Thus we seem to have the “radical” view as espoused by ISIL (and many other Islamic groups) on the one hand and the “moderate” view as espoused by Muslims supporting the #NotInMyName hashtag campaign on the other – as well as opinions lying between the two of course. (You will note that I’m not being cynical and labelling this as taqqiya – some may be, but many Muslims, including some British Wahhabis(!), genuinely don’t support IS.)
This apparently begs the question: “Which is the real Islam?”
In my view this not a binary decision-set, I do not see that there is one singular “real Islam”.
My reasons are manifold and involve considerations such as abrogation, “perpetual” versus “for-the time” verses, historical arguments, the inherent duality of the Islamic sources (Koran, hadith and Sirat) on various issues and the disagreements between the several schools of Sunni jurisprudence – to list but a few.
Thus there is no “right” answer to the question “which is the real Islam”, because the question itself is false.
It therefore follows that ISIL cannot honestly be called “un-Islamic”. It may be a version of Islam that this or that person/group do not like and even rejects, but that is beside the point; no person or group may define Islamic belief in toto because Islam is simply too “fuzzy” to permit it.
What makes this a problem within Islam is that according to Koran 5:3 Islam has been “perfected”.
“…This day, I have perfected your religion for you, completed My Favour upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion…”
This view is supported by the canonical Ahadith and Tafsir.
Islamic scholars have wrestled with this problem of an imperfect perfect Islam. This is why, if you read Fatwas and Tafsir for instance, you will see phrases such as “and Allah knows best” or “the more correct opinion is …”.
Here we see that the Islamic scholars themselves cannot be definitive as to what Islam means on many issues, not withstanding the fact that there are ‘rules’ on almost everything in the Ahadith and Sharia.
(To be sure “and Allah knows best” is often just a piety, but in some cases it actually does mean “I really don’t know and nor does anyone else”.)
The more interesting phrase is “the more correct opinion is ...”.
What this means is that the weight of evidence from the scholars (or at least those to whom the scholar giving his opinion refers!) is that “this means that”, but that there is some dissent within the opinions.
Thus the question to ask is “which is the more real Islam?”
To answer that we have to look at the weight of evidence for each side of the case.
If we look at Islam from a statistical point of view we find that sword-jihad against non-Muslims is a dominant theme within the Islamic Canon, making up – for example – 98% of hadith literature on the subject. The Ridda wars also show that killing apostates is fine as is killing those that don’t pay Zakat – lax Muslims?
On this sort of basis (and cutting a long argument short) ISIL-type ideology is more correct.
But I did mention duality didn’t I.
Another basis on which to view this is what might be termed “situational awareness”.
If Muslims are “weak” – i.e. not being in power as a group (as in the West) – it is “Islamic” to be peaceful and tolerant, as was Mohammed during his pre-Hijra period in Mecca when he was in a weak and powerless position.
If Muslims are in positions of power it is “Islamic” to be violent and intolerant, as was Mohammed during his later days of power in Medina and as was the expansion of Islam into the Eastern Christian lands immediately after his death.
Thus the “more real” or “more correct” Islam can depend on situation rather than statistics.
In this view it follows that both ISIL etc. and #NotInMyName campaigning Muslims (the campaign originated in the U.K.) are both equally “Islamic” since their versions of Islam are appropriate to the situations in which the various groups find themselves.
These situations are to be judged according to what will benefit Islam (and the Muslims) most. Again this is a matter of personal assessment. For example, the killers of Drummer Lee Rigby wrote a letter that they handed to a passer-by which shows that they believed they were acting in accord with Allah’s will and to ‘defend’ Muslims living in “our towns” (in Iraq/Afghanistan) from western attack. (In this view Jihad against the west would be an individual obligation on Muslims.)
In the case of Western living Muslims this view may change if they consider their situation in a global rather than a local perspective, if they move to an area where Islam is dominant or if their perspective of what is “best” for Islam or Muslims alters.
Hence we find “a loving boy with a good heart wishing to help Syrians” or a “loving, gentle and kind boy” going to fight for ISIL (and killing Syrians) and people seem to have no idea why these often well-educated “boys working in normal jobs would go” to join ISIL, or why “normal boys” who liked to watch films and went to school ended up as violent jihadists when they became “quite serious in their faith”. A typical response to the news is “I don’t ever think he could do something like that.”
There is the case of a mass-murdering “British-Muslim”, Kabir Ahmed. What is almost novel in his case is that he targeted his “brother” Muslims – only ‘allowable’ via the dubious notion of “Takfir” (declaring a fellow Muslim an apostate). A further point is that his desire to commit murder as well as his homophobia were already a matter of record in the U.K. He, too, was described as a “likeable person” whose desire to commit mass-murder was explained by his (Muslim) “friends [who] said he was ‘easily led’ and may have been ‘brainwashed’ into joining militants.” Once again, we see denial of one of Islam’s core paradigms.
Yet to me at least it is straightforward: the “Jihadists” have changed the paradigm of their Islamic beliefs from the “Meccan model” to the “Medinan model”.
In reality this is not a binary choice, rather the two paradigms as stated reflect the opposite ends of a continuum of attitudes which draw from both, often simultaneously, but it is true that “Jihadisation” draws a Muslim to practice the Medinan model in full.
Put in other words, it is quite possible for an orthodox Muslim to be “quietist”, that is whilst s/he believes in the Medinan model s/he will, as a matter of expediency, practice the Meccan model if the situation requires it.
Some might view it as misguided for a western Muslim “go Medinan”: after all, Jihadi violence on Western streets runs the risk of a (largely hypothetical) anti-Muslim backlash; but given the way that the “Muslim street” explodes into mob violence when a non-Muslim is deemed to have ‘insulted’ “Allah, his prophet, his religion or his book” in a Muslim majority Country (just ask the Christians of Pakistan or Egypt for example), one can understand the fear of reprisal in the minds of Muslims who might think that mob violence as a response to insult (or worse) is normative on the part of a majority population. Thus the western rejecters of ISIL-type ideology are also acting “Islamically” in seeking to avert harm to the western Muslim community by repudiating ISIL-type ideology (or at least its violent out-workings).
In short: ISIL is just as “Islamic” as it’s rejecters. Whether and where ISIL-type ideology (which is not unique to ISIL of course) is “the real Islam” depends on statistics or situation. Statistically, ISIL ideology is more Islamic in that more of the Islamic canon supports it than rejects it. Situationally; Muslims can, depending on their view of their situation as undertaken in the light of what they think will benefit Islam and/or the (local) Muslim community most, take either view and both are Islamic.
But however we regard the argument as to how to assess what is or is not “Islamic”, it is clear that those who call ISIL and similar groups or their ideology “un-Islamic” are either ignorant, deceived or deceptive.