Graeme Wood’s Atlantic cover story “What ISIS Really Wants” has attracted plenty of attention and controversy, spurring several interesting responses as well as quite a few less illuminating ones. Here’s the core claim many readers want to contest, or even condemn as a kind of smear against Islam:
The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.
It may be useful here to make explicit a distinction I haven’t seen directly acknowledged between two ways of understanding this claim—let’s call them “Internal” or “Theological” and “External” or “Sociological.” From an internal perspective—that of a Muslim believer or someone willing to adopt their premises as a kind of epistemic courtesy—Islamic texts and doctrine reflect the will of Allah. Interpretations of those texts and doctrines that accurately correspond to that divine will are “true” Islam; those lacking such correspondence are un-Islamic error or heresy. To deem a person, group, or doctrine Islamic is, from this perspective, implicitly a judgment of theological correctness, and any particular belief either does or does not follow from Islamic principles, as a straightforward factual matter.
From an external or sociological perspective, Islam is just a cluster of human cultural practices with no set of underlying supernatural truths for varying interpretations to correspond to (or fail to correspond to) . A secular observer might find some interpretations more morally palatable than others, but can’t coherently regard any of them as “truer” or more “authentically” Islamic in the same sense a believer would. To adopt the internal perspective is to evaluate interpretations as something akin to proofs in logic or mathematics: If two purported proofs yield contradictory inferences, then at least one of them is simply false and not an authentic instance of a “proof” at all. From an external perspective, conflicting interpretations are just different fictional narratives: Two pieces of Doctor Who fanfic describing mutually contradictory versions of events are still equally instances of Doctor Who fanfic, provided they have some minimal features —an alien Time Lord called “The Doctor” flying round time and space in blue box—even if one contradicts what the majority of the fan community regards as “canon.”
For a mainstream believer—or for someone who wants to accept and endorse that believer’s perspective for secular reasons—Wood’s thesis is objectionable because there is a fact of the matter about whether the ideology espoused by ISIS is “really” grounded in Islamic doctrines and principles: Either it is—implying that Islam as a whole is tainted by their brutality, in something like the way a set of logical premises are invalidated if they yield a contradiction—or it is not, in which case ISIS cannot accurately be described as “Islamic,” but only, at most, as a corruption or perversion of “true” Islam. But Wood is making a sociological claim, not a theological one: To call ISIS “Islamic” is just to say they have a belief system which members of that community take to be based on Islamic texts and traditions. There simply is no fact of the matter about whether their beliefs “really” follow from those traditions; there’s just one consensus reached by the majority of Muslim authorities (no!) and a different consensus reached by a different subgroup. Believers, of course, think there is a fact of the matter whether they answer the question in the affirmative or the negative. But the rest of us are under no obligation to share that premise—and at least arguably can’t share that premise. We can regard the narrative ISIS tells as morally worse than other narratives based on the same source material, but there’s no criterion by which we can coherently deem it less authentically Islamic. The flipside is that recognizing ISIS as Islamic, as a descriptive or sociological matter, doesn’t entail a whole lot about Islam as such, or about the great majority of Muslims who reject their narrative.