Amidst all the uproar over the rise of the so-called “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), much Western derision has been aimed at the supposed failure of Islamic scholars to condemn the actions of this brutal organization. Pundits like Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity have repeatedly bemoaned Muslim “silence” over ISIS’s atrocities, and others have even gone so far as to state that Muslims as a whole are complicit in ISIS’s horrific acts. But even setting aside the demagogues of the right-wing media, many in the mainstream print press, usually a place of nuance, have approached examining ISIS in a less than fastidious fashion. Arguably, the most prominent among these has been Graeme Wood’s controversial piece in The Atlantic, titled “What ISIS Really Wants.”
Wood’s article purports to shed light on the actual beliefs shaping ISIS’s ideology, and indeed he touches on several important factors guiding the motivation of its adherents. Where his arguments fall fundamentally short, however, is in his predilection for linking ISIS’s actions to Islamic doctrine. “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic,” Wood proclaims. Remarkably, for all of his assertions about the Islamic nature of ISIS, Wood fails to quote even a single Islamic scholar, choosing instead to base his entire thesis on one professor from Princeton University with a background in oriental studies, and a few — wholly discredited — supporters of ISIS.
Hamza Yusuf, one such Islamic scholar trained in traditional Islamic theology and jurisprudence, finds both the arguments and the conclusions in Wood’s piece lacking in merit. Yusuf is the co-founder of the first Muslim liberal arts college in the United States, Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, and has studied the Islamic tradition for decades in many countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Mauritania. He has been described as “the Western world’s most influential Islamic scholar” and was ranked 35th on Jordan’s Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre’s list of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world.
“ISIS is very similar to the Kharijites, who were a toxic off-shoot of Islam,” Yusuf told us. “It’s not Islam; it’s a perversion of Islam, and to label these militant externalities as Islam is to legitimize their actions.” The Kharijites were the 7th century self-proclaimed Muslims who sowed discord in early Islamic history. They were known for their extremist doctrines and their penchant for declaring other Muslims as disbelievers — an act known as takfir — and engaging in murderous violence against them. Amongst their acts was the assassination of the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was the first Imam of Shia Muslims and regarded as the fourth and final “rightly guided” Caliph by Sunni Muslims.
Yusuf, who has been declared an apostate by ISIS, further states that Islamic scripture and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (known as hadith) foretold the coming of groups like ISIS. “The Prophet said there will be people who look like us and speak with our tongue, but they are preachers at the gates of hell.” He added, “We’re not denying the fact that these people are motivated by ‘religion,’ but it’s a perversion according to our own tradition.”
In The Atlantic article, Wood quotes Bernard Haykel of Princeton (who ThinkProgress later interviewed) as saying that “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.’” Yusuf begs to differ. For instance, he argues that those who kill or inflict harm upon innocents, no matter how just they may believe their cause is, are directly contradicting the teachings of the Qur’an and the Prophet. According to traditional or normative Islam, violence is permitted only as a response to aggression.
Yusuf adds that the continued presence of many religious minorities in the Middle East up to the modern age, whether they be Yazidis, Assyrian and other Christian denominations, Jews, Mandaeans, or Zoroastrians, is testimony to the tolerance that existed for centuries in Muslim-ruled lands and belies the claim that ISIS’s actions are consistent with Islam. While acts of persecution have occurred, at times at heightened levels, Yusuf states that unlike Europe, where non-Christian communities were actively wiped out over the centuries, the Muslim world was, for the most part, a place of religious acceptance and tolerance. Under the Ottomans, for instance, the rights of Jews, Christians and others were guaranteed by the state itself. “Historically Muslim societies have been multicultural environments, and Muslims have had far less abuse toward minority communities than other civilizations,” Yusuf explains.
Yusuf also takes issue with Wood’s rendering of radical hate preachers Anjem Choudary and Musa Cerantonio as authoritative voices on Islam. Wood says of the notorious ISIS supporters: “They lectured me garrulously and, if one accepts their premises, convincingly. To call them un-Islamic appears, to me, to invite them into an argument that they would win.” Yusuf stresses that Choudary and Cerantonio have no formal training from recognized authorities in Islamic law and are certainly not capable of making any immutable arguments about Islam. “Evidently what Islamic scholars such as Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah, Sheikh Muhammad Al-Yaqoubi, and other well-known authorities say means absolutely nothing,” Yusuf contends.
Yusuf questions the media’s decision to spotlight the views of extremists, adding that it only serves to elevate their status. “They relish the media attention, but why are we even giving these people voices?” he asks. “We don’t see the media, for instance, give platforms to KKK leaders as authorities on Christianity, or Jewish extremists to speak for Judaism, and certainly not the neo-Nazis to address race relations.”
In ISIS’s appointment of a caliph, Yusuf sees the group’s lack of knowledge and understanding of the prerequisites for such actions. “In the Sunni normative tradition, if someone claims to be a caliph, he is not given bay’ah (an oath of allegiance) until a widespread consultation of those affected by the matter occurs.” He quotes a widely noted hadith of the Prophet Muhammad: “My community shall never agree on an error.” Yusuf also emphasizes that those following ISIS’s so-called caliph are zealots doomed to failure. “The Prophet said, ‘The zealots will perish.’ It might take some time, but they will perish and, unfortunately, they will take a lot of people with them.”
Yusuf places much of the blame for ISIS’s rise on the years of repression and occupation in the Middle East, which led to weakened or collapsed states, creating a void that extremists have begun to fill. End-times belief also, he says, is a motivating factor for many ISIS recruits. He points out that eschatological hadiths state the apocalypse will occur when oppression is rampant and Muslims are dominated and persecuted by others — a narrative that ISIS has successfully exploited.
Yusuf also notes that the specific set of beliefs that binds together most so-called Islamic extremists is the most extreme version of Salafism — the starkly fundamentalist and exclusivist sect of Islam that originated in 18th century Arabia, and which groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda adhere to.
The Salafists “promote a self-righteous Islam that teaches contempt for others — the Prophet himself was not like that,” Yusuf says. “If you don’t have religious fallibilism, you have immense problems. This is what happens when you have these exclusivist, self-righteous monsters out there who are absolutely certain and who think their God given certainty enables them to act with impunity.”
Yusuf posits that the only way to prevent these ideologies from gaining further currency is to promote more effective and representative governance in the region. “Corruption is rife in the Muslim world, and when it is coupled with the marginalization of religion, it manifests itself as frustration and becomes a fertile recruiting ground for extremism.”
As the Obama administration moves to pass an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against ISIS, Yusuf says that any attempt to exterminate extremists with military strikes is foolish and doomed to failure. “You don’t fight ideas with bombs. Bad ideas are like weeds: unless a garden is cultivated in their place, they just grow back. That garden is a more tolerant and merciful and truer version of Islam.”