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Judging “Authentic” Islam

February 20th, 2015 · 37 Comments

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.

Tags: Religion · Sociology



37 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anderson // Feb 20, 2015 at 7:32 pm

    such a silly controversy. Arguing ISIS isn’t Muslim is like arguing the Habsburg or Swedish army in the 30 Years War wasn’t Christian. Wood wrote a strong, detailed article & some people want to pontificate about What Islam Means to Me. JS is right to try & set em straight.

  • 2 Nicholas Weininger // Feb 20, 2015 at 8:46 pm

    The natural analogy for me is the Haredim. Thankfully they’re not so militant, but they are committed to a sophisticated literalist doctrinal purity and disparage other self-identified Jews as not really Jewish for not being so doctrinally pure. And most Jews think they’re crazy extremists, and it would be silly to claim that any self-identified Jew must have some sympathy with them or else isn’t really taking Jewish teachings seriously. But are the Haredim “authentically” and “very” Jewish? Of course they are.

  • 3 Elliott Schwartz // Feb 21, 2015 at 1:09 am

    I think you’ve made some good points, but your analogy with Doctor Who actually seems to contradict your conclusion: “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.”

    I think there is definitely a criterion by which we can say ISIS is a distortion of Islam. Or rather, a criterion by which we may judge it, and find out one way or the other. This criterion is simply how well the theology of ISIS matches up with some minimal set of features that determine Islam. We don’t have to believe that the Koran is true to read it and derive conclusions about what is central to it. So to start off, a Muslim must be monotheistic, must believe Muhammed was a true prophet of God, and so on. Assuming we can read the Koran and complete that list, determining whether ISIS is a truly Islamic organization seems fairly trivial, and requires no belief in the Koran.

    The potential hole I see in this rebuttal is that determining what is central to Islam is easier said than done. Do we really need to accept the premises of Islam to successfully determine what is central to Islam and evaluate ISIS in this way? I can’t prove it, but I think not.

  • 4 Adrian Ratnapala // Feb 21, 2015 at 1:51 am

    Whoa! Those two linked commentaries were both unprincipled hatchet jobs attacking Wood for saying something he didn’t say. Fareed Zakaria did the same. It’s bizarre that I need to defend a journalist I had never before heard of. Why are people so worked up about a mere article?

    Anyway JS is right about the distinction between internal and external definitions of Islam (or any belief system). But I think Wood was making both claims — and is right to do so.

    It would be presumptuous for outsider to make the “internal” claim that ISIS or any sect are correct interpreters of Islam. But Wood is not saying that, he is just saying that they really are Muslims, and that their ideas are well within the Muslim tradition.

    That is certainly JS’ “external” claim, but it is also an “internal” claim because Islam, like most religions, accepts that people can be in error without being apostate. Nicholas’ analogy to the Haredim is correct. Another is how the RC church holds that Calvinism is wrong, but it still accepts that it is a form of Christianity.

  • 5 nerdbound // Feb 21, 2015 at 1:56 pm

    The distinction between internal and external is valuable, but I think you need much more argument before you can get to the claim that there is “no fact of the matter about whether the beliefs ‘really’ follow from the traditions.” That would take some additional theorizing about how sociology / the social sciences work.

    In particular, there’s room for a view that there is a fact of the matter about the issue, but we have poor epistemic access to that fact. That’s certainly the view I’d default to in this case: (Non-Islamic, external) proponents and opponents of the view that ISIS is Islamic seem to believe they’re debating something that could actually be a fact, and they cite evidence from history and from texts in doing so. But now we with our clear eyes can see through to the fact that they’re actually arguing about nothing? I mean, it’s possible (phlogiston and all that), but I think it’s a much more natural view that their argument is really about something, and that, for example, the reason why different uses of evidence have different persuasive force is precisely that they give us more or less access to the fact that’s out there. There won’t be a simple criterion that everyone agrees to for when we’ve deduced that fact (the counterfactual majority vote of now-deceased caliphs, the logical deduction from premises in prominent well-known sections of the Koran, etc.) but each of those criteria gives us limited access to the thing that we want to know, and they might have an ‘overlapping consensus’ (to abuse philosophy terms) that ISIS is / is not Islamic.

    Or there might be no fact of the matter. But I’d need to see the argument.

  • 6 LarryM // Feb 24, 2015 at 5:33 pm

    Not sure I’ve read anything as hilariously stupid as Anderson’s comment in a long while. Hey idiot, JS isn’t aiming his comments at Wood’s critics, he’s aiming his comments AT WOOD. It’s not the critics that JS finds incoherent, but WOOD. (Now, to the extent that many of the critics attempt to answer Wood on his own terms, they, too, run afoul of JS’s critique. But that seems incidental to JS’s point.)

    Learn to read.

  • 7 Skepticlawyer » The Nazism of our time // Feb 25, 2015 at 3:33 am

    […] Regarding the nonsense about ISIS et al being “not Islamic”, a comment on a typically sensible piece by Julian Sanchez is on point: […]

  • 8 Jumper // Nov 26, 2015 at 10:26 am

    No true Scotsman is Muslim?

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  • 13 Brad Dillman // Jul 20, 2016 at 7:59 pm

    The basis of Graeme Wood’s claim is likely the example provided by Muhammad–the guy who, uhm, founded the religion. Just guessing here…

  • 14 Bad Horse // Sep 8, 2016 at 11:51 am

    Your conclusion merely assumes the sociological perspective, which pretends that cultures never make sense, and that their members never try to make sense of them.

    But members of cultures do sometimes try to make sense of them. That means that you can predict what members of a culture will do by what their culture says they ought to do.

    In the case of Islam, a good way to predict what Muslims are likely to do is to figure out what the book they regard as the commandments of God orders them to do. Figuring that out does not require believing in Islam, but it does require believing in logic (which contemporary sociologists don’t). You examine the book and figure out its implications.

    If ISIS’ behavior matches those implications, it is Islamic, if we take “Islam” to be the culture defined by the Quran. /This is a useful thing to do/, because the Quran is a fixed text that does not fluctuate the way culture does.

    Knowing whether ISIS is truly Islamic or not is a good predictor of what other Muslims around the world are likely to do over the next century, /regardless of whether you believe in Islam./

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